Canadiens 2008 WJC preview

By Jason Menard

Last year was a tournament for the ages for Montreal Canadiens prospects. With netminder Carey Price stealing the show, and coming home with gold, as well as superlative performances by prospects such as Pavel Valentenko – whose Russian squad faced Price’s Canadian club in the final – and Belarus’ Sergei Kostitsyn, there was plenty to watch for supporters of the bleu, blanc, et rouge.

This year, the pickings appear to be slightly slimmer, but the potential is there for one of the three Habs’ prospects to have a breakthrough performance in the Czech Republic during the post-Christmas tournament.

And with both Price and Kostitsyn currently cracking the Habs’ NHL roster, the precedent has been set and perhaps one of these three will be watching next year’s tournament from an NHL dressing room.

United States – Max Pacioretty (1st round, 2007)

If you had to lay your money down on one player to be a sleeper amongst the trio of Habs’ prospects heading to the Czech Republic, your safest wager would be Pacioretty.

The New Canaan, CT native has the combination of skill, speed, and opportunity that could serve as the foundation for a tournament performance that people will be looking back at for years to come.

Pacioretty has already made an impact on his collegiate team, recently being named CCHA Rookie of the Month award. To date this season he’s been a point-per-game player with 18 points in 18 games. Add to that his plus-18 rating and you’ve got a few examples of why the Canadiens’ brass thought so highly of this 6’2 winger.

At the 2008 WJC, Pacioretty will be looked upon to provide secondary scoring behind players like Kyle Okposo (NYI) and James vanRiemsdyk (PHI), and could see plenty of time on the power play. His skill-based game will also mesh well with the opportunities presented on the wider European ice surface.

If there’s anything that holds Pacioretty back is the fact that the WJCs is an old man’s game – relatively speaking, of course. Pacioretty is the eighth-oldest player amongst the forward unit (and a player like the aforementioned vanRiemsdyk is one of the few younger than him). In fact, Pacioretty is a young 19, having just celebrated his birthday in late November.

As one of the larger forwards, Pacioretty needs to be willing to be physical while displaying his prodigious talents. The opportunity could be there for the young winger – now the world will be watching to see if he grabs it.

SwitzerlandYannick Weber, D (3rd round, 2007)

There’s no doubt that Weber will have the opportunity to play a lot in the World Junior Championships – it’s the supporting cast that may negatively impact Weber’s fortunes in the Czech Republic.

While the Canadian and American World Junior teams are riddled with NHL-drafted players, or those who are expected to be taken highly in the 2008 entry draft, the Swiss club features one – and only one – NHL-drafted player: Weber.

The Swiss blueliner has been an integral part of an immensely successful Kitchener Rangers club in the OHL. He’s been operating at a greater than point-per-game pace this season, with 36 points in 31 games, of which 15 of those points have been goals. And with 49 penalty minutes so far, he’s shown a willingness to get his nose dirty.

However, for the Swiss team to have any success, Weber will have to stay out of the box and log copious amounts of ice time.

In the end, team success may be fleeting, but from an experience perspective, Weber should have ample opportunity to compete against the best and brightest from the world and lead his team into competition.

Canada – P.K. Subban, D (2nd round, 2007)

On a deep Canadian club, Subban’s going to have to battle long and hard for playing time. In fact, in many ways the defense could be considered the strength of Team Canada as it attempts to defend its World Junior crown.

And while his 28 points in 30 games look good on the old resumé, this is a blueline with plenty of offensive prowess, considering the presence of team captain Karl Alzner, Josh Godfrey, and Thomas Hickey. Compounding the challenge is that, at 18 years old, Subban’s the third-youngest blueliner on the squad – and one of those younger than him is the potential first-overall pick in 2008, Drew Doughty.

That being said, a lack of confidence is never a question when one talks about Subban. He’s already contributed to the Canadian cause with an assist in the team’s second exhibition game (both wins). Of course, he’s also contributed a delay of game penalty.

One thing that Subban has going for him is that he’s proven his ability to perform when the stage lights get brighter. In fact, it was his post-season performance last year that helped to seal the deal when it came to the Canadiens drafting him. On a stacked Canadian team that is the prohibitive favorites going into this tournament, Subban should have plenty of big-game opportunities. And as long as he continues to play within himself and not freelance – which was the knock against him last year in the early season – he should enjoy a successful tournament.

Key players not selected

For the second consecutive year, Canada cut Calgary Hitmen forward Ryan White (3rd round, 2006) from its roster. And while that’s not overly surprising considering the pool of forwards from which the club can choose, the decision by the U.S. squad to waive a pair of Habs’ prospect blueliners — 19-year-old David Fischer (1st round, 2006) and Ryan McDonagh (1st round, 2007) — caused some eyebrows to be raised by those around the organization.