Canadiens 2007 WJC preview

By Jason Menard

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and for Montreal Canadiens fans their holiday season is going to be filled with gifts with a bevy of prospects dotting the rosters of various squads throughout the World Junior Championship tournament.

In fact, Habs fans should warm up the ol’ PVRs (or TiVos for those in the US) as – barring injury — Canadiens’ prospects will be in action on each and every day of the tournament beginning Dec. 26 in Sweden. With four players spread evenly over four teams – and two in each tournament group – it could be a holiday season to remember for the franchise.

And for those looking for the most bang for your buck, tune in to the Dec. 29 contest between Belarus and Russia, or the Dec. 31 contest pitting Team Canada against the Slovakian squad to catch potential future Habs pitted against each other.

Belarus: Sergei Kostistyn (7th round, 2005)

The London Knights forward is a big part of the reason that Belarus is even making an appearance in the A pool of this tournament. His performance at last year’s B-pool tournament, which led to him being named that tournament’s MVP, served as the then 18-year-old’s coming out party.

This year, he will be leaned upon heavily to repeat that performance and help the squad avoid relegation from whence it came. Kostitsyn’s offensive talents, willingness to get his nose dirty, and burgeoning leadership will be put to the test as the club is expected to be in tough against the Finns, the Russians, and the Czechs.

The 19-year-old from Novopolotsk has been on fire lately with the OHL’s London Knights. After a slower-than-expected start for him, Kostitsyn has accounted for 17 goals and 50 points in 31 games, all the while adapting to the role of assistant captain for a Knights squad that finds itself in the OHL title hunt again.

The problem that Kostitsyn will have to overcome is the lack of support offensively that he’ll find, as he may find himself in the rare situation where his junior club has more talent top to bottom than his national club — at the very least he won’t have marquee talents like Pat Kane or Sam Gagner riding shotgun with him on the power play.

Canada: Carey Price (1st round, 2005)

Turn on the spotlight. Carey Price looks to have earned arguably the marquee position in the entire tournament – Canada’s starting goaltender. With the Williams Lake, BC native appearing to have the inside track on the starting position over the younger Leland Irving (CAL), Price looks to continue his impressive final junior season.

Of course, earning the No. 1 spot is one thing. Dealing with all the pressure and attention that comes with this position is yet another. “I don’t know if there’s a tougher position to play in this tournament, with all the attention that the Canadian team gets,” explained Trevor Timmins, the Montreal Canadiens’ director of player recruitment and development. “It’s great for his development because he’s going to have to handle pressure at the next level.”

Although long-touted as an elite prospect, this year has seen a first for Price in his junior career – winning. No longer league doormats, the Tri-City Americans are enjoying a successful WHL campaign and the 19-year-old netminder has been a big part of that with his 12-7 record behind a 2.75 GAA and .904 save percentage.

For many netminders, backstopping Team Canada at the World Junior Championship makes them a household name, such as Justin Pogge (TOR) last season. Price also hopes to carry on the fine tradition established by, amongst others, Marc-André Fleury (2003), Roberto Luongo (1999), Marc Denis (1997), and former Habs José Théodore (1996) and Stéphane Fiset (1990) as Canadians who claimed the title of the tournament’s top netminder.

Of course, if he wants to look closer to home for inspiration, current Habs goaltender David Aebischer was the tourney’s top netminder in 1998.

Slovakia: Juraj Mikus (4th round, 2005)

The Slovakian winger can only hope that, as the adage states, the third time is the charm. After a 2005 U-18 tournament to remember that saw him emerge as one of Slovakia’s top offensive players, earning seven assists in just six games, Mikus’ 2006 U-20 tournament was the stuff of nightmares.

One would expect bigger things from the forward, after finishing the 2005 tournament tied for first overall in assists, and eighth overall in scoring. But for whatever reason, Mikus didn’t see much ice time in the tournament – and was not used effectively when he finally came off the bench.

This season, Mikus finally made the jump from the Slovakian league to the cooler confines of Chicoutimi of the QMJHL. The intent was for Mikus to learn the North American game, and the Slovakian squad can only hope that this new perspective – along with two years of international junior experience under his belt – can help Mikus play a key offensive role for the squad at this year’s tourney.

After a bit of a slow start, Mikus has found the North American game to his liking. In 35 games with the Saugeneens, the 19-year-old is averaging better than a point per game, scoring 14 goals and 23 assists. The Slovakians need Mikus to play a significant offensive role if they want to remain competitive in a tough group A that contains the Canadian, U.S., and Swedish squads.

Russia: Pavel Valentenko (5th round, 2006)

Don’t expect Valentenko to light up the lights and be the offensive spark plug from the blue line, but the Russian squad is counting on the hulking 19-year-old to play a steadying role on defense. He will likely be matched against the opposition’s top line and will be expected to bring his robust style of game play to the tournament.

This season, in his first full year in the Russian Super League, Valentenko has only one assist in 33 games with Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik. However, he’s amongst the team leaders in penalty minutes.

A positive for Valentenko is that participation in this tournament increases his exposure to the organization on this side of the Atlantic. “We love these tournaments because it gives us a chance to see more of some of the players – like Valentenko — that we don’t normally have an opportunity to watch first-hand,” Timmins explained. “We also get to see how they perform against this elite level of competition.”

It will also be an exciting opportunity for Habs’ fans on this side of the Atlantic to see a player who has been a bit of an enigma. Some talk around the draft is that Valentenko had early-round talent, but he fell to the fifth round, prompting Habs’ brass to declare they felt they stole this player with him falling so far down the draft board.

Notes

One player who won’t be suiting up for the Canadian squad is the junior-aged Guillaume Latendresse (2nd round, 2005). While playing in this tournament is a dream for all Canadian hockey players, it’s safe to say most would gladly sacrifice the experience to be playing in the NHL – which is where Latendresse finds himself having earned a roster spot with the Canadiens coming out of training camp. General Manager Bob Gainey earlier confirmed that Latendresse would not be made available for the tournament.

Other potential players who failed to crack the rosters are: Ben Maxwell (2nd round, 2006), who was amongst the first cuts for the Canadian club; and Ryan White (3rd round, 2006), who earned an invite to camp last year, eventually getting cut. But despite a resurgent season this year, he failed to even crack the training camp roster. South of the border, this year’s first-round draft pick, David Fischer (1st round, 2006), was a player on the bubble for the U.S. squad. Unfortunately for the young rearguard, that bubble burst and he wasn’t named to the final roster.


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