You only had to look at the shaking young kids who stood at their blueline as they listened to their anthem being played to see that the World Junior Championship is one of, if not the biggest stages on earth for a young, developing hockey prospect. The whole hockey world was watching.
In most circumstances it’s the first look the mass hockey market gets of the young rising stars of tomorrow. In this day and age though, fans are savvy and well informed. The average hockey fan is familiar with the Connor McDavid’s and Jack Eichel’s–heck even 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews has become widely known within shrewd hockey circles. It’s the prospects that come out of obscurity and rocket up the favorite lists of fans everywhere that make this tournament a real holiday treat. So for this week’s Hockey’s Future Top Five, we look passed the obvious, and look at the biggest surprises at this year’s tournament.
An undrafted prospect signed as a free agent by the Detroit Red Wings in 2014, Joe Hicketts was one of the least known prospects heading into Team Canada’s camp. Through improbable odds he deservedly survived the last round of cuts and was one of the key pieces on Canada’s defense, registering three points in the tournament.
Having beat out top level (and first round) talent like Travis Sanheim and Haydn Fleury, Hicketts took his game beyond his draft status. The 5’8’’ Hicketts struggled with injuries last season (a big reason why he was never selected), but this year he leads the WHL in defensive scoring, and has instantly rocketed himself up the list of good, young defensive prospects.
4. Mads Eller – Undrafted (Denmark)
A lot of tournament hype and kudos was given to the Danish duo of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand. And rightly so, since the pair looked very good throughout the tournament, especially on the power play. It was easily Denmark’s best line. But an important part of that line was 19-year-old Mads Eller. The 6’1’’ forward only scored two points but was an absolute force on both sides of the ice. Eller packs an NHL frame (just like his brother Lars, who plays for the Montreal Canadiens) and is one of the strongest puck possession players in the WHL, and he showed how strong he was on the puck during the round robin. Eller has a terrific work ethic and was easily one of the hardest working players in this tournament. Not known for his offense, he has displayed some flashes of brilliance, especially when he created offense off of turnovers. The undrafted forward might have played well enough to have earned a professional contract later this year.
Rod made a name for himself early in the tournament in a game against Canada when he got under the skin of his opposition with his chippy play and annoying antics. As the tournament progressed, though, he became much more than an agitator. In fact, he was arguably Team Switzerland’s MVP because of his ability to get the opposition’s best players off their game, and because of his timely offense. Despite coming into the tournament in an offensive slump, and the fact that there were considerably better offensive talents on the team (like first rounder Kevin Fiala), Rod finished second in goals with three, and tied for second in points with six. The role Rod played in this tournament showed he’s willing to do anything to help his team win. While Sharks fans were familiar with his game, this tournament was an eye opener for many.
2. Timo Meier – 2015 NHL Draft-Eligible (Switzerland)
Like his fellow countryman and potential linemate, Kevin Fiala, Timo Meier is a fantastic talent that was floating a little bit under the radar (for most hockey fans) in the first few months of his draft year. But his six points and solid offensive play might have drastically changed his future and propelled him up draft boards around the league. Outside of Connor McDavid, Meier might have had the best tournament out of all 2015 draft-eligible players. After his great individual performance he might have joined Fiala and Nino Niederreiter as young Swiss forwards that have used the World Junior Championship as a launching pad. The Swiss native has excelled in his second year in the QMJHL, registering 46 points in 33 games for the Halifax Mooseheads.
1. European Goalies
This one is a bit of a cheat, but there is no denying that the big surprises at the tournament were the young European goalies from Denmark, Slovakia, and Russia. The undersized George Sorensen of Denmark played himself into the hearts of hockey fans everywhere with his acrobatic saves and was a big reason why the Danes made it to the quarterfinals. Outside of his games against Canada, Slovakian netminder Denis Godla played very well and flashed a very quick glove hand; in fact, despite giving up 10 goals to the Canadians, he still had a 92.52 save percentage. Igor Shestyorkin, a New York Rangers prospect, came out of nowhere to usurp the starting job for the Russians and was a big factor for the Russians in their run to the silver medal.
Do you put much stock into the World Juniors? Who do you think was a breakout star in this year’s tournament? Are we missing anyone in our top 5? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Follow Craig Fischer on Twitter via @fgiarc