Welcome to the January 2016 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various levels of competition who are either exceeding expectations or falling behind.
This month we will mostly focus on the prospects that participated in the World Junior Championships. Once again, the tournament lived up to its billing as one of the most exciting hockey events on the calendar as the home nation Finland defeated Russia for the gold medal, marking the seventh-straight year there has been a new champion.
Within this feature are prospects who stepped up for their countries—including a pair of Toronto and Winnipeg prospects, as well as a surprising Switzerland forward—and a few high-end talents from Team Canada who had poor showings in the tournament.
It is not often that we choose former first-round selections in On the Rush, but given the circumstances, the LA Kings 2014 first-rounder Adrian Kempe seems reasonable. On a Sweden team with many high-profile players, highly volatile scorers like William and Alex Nylander, Rasmus Asplund, Dmytro Timashov, and Oskar Lindblom, Kempe was perhaps a less likely source of a breakout tournament. He co-led Team Sweden in points with eight in seven games, and led in game winning goals (two) and shots (28). He was voted one of the team’s three best players. To put the cherry on it, the 19-year-old had a two-point night in his first game back with the Ontario Reign. He has come into his own this year playing pro hockey at a young age and had a great World Juniors to announce it on the world stage.
Kasperi Kapanen was heavily scrutinized after the team’s offensive struggles at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships, where he scored just one goal. This year, he struggled in the round robin games as the team was carried by their top line of Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine. When Finland reached the medal rounds however, Kapanen picked his game up. On a line with Julius Nättinen and Aleksi Saarela, the trio came together at the right time to give the Finns a secondary option behind the “Kid Line.”
On the biggest stage of the tournament—tied 3-3 in overtime against team Russia in the finals—Kapanen became a national hero by scoring the game-winning goal to give Finland the victory and the gold medal. He finished the tournament with five points in seven games, most of them coming in the elimination rounds. Kapanen now has a building block of confidence to leap from as he continues his path to a successful NHL career.
Michael Spacek, C/W, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
4th round (108th overall), 2015
The Czechs had a fairly average tournament, all things considered. They had a team that was looking at a pretty decent downturn in quality prospects and goal scorers, but were in a wide-open group that they could have done damage in. Be that as it may, they did not quite have the offensive oomph and finished third in the group stages with a 2-1-1 record. They scored only 12 goals, and top-line forward Michael Spacek had two of them. He also had three assists to go along with it to lead the Czechs for the tournament. He was named one of the team’s three best players along with David Pastrnak and Dominik Masin. He and Pastrnak formed a nasty duo on the top line.
Dmytro Timashov, LW/RW, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs
5th round (125th overall), 2015
Before the World Junior Championships began, Toronto’s director of player personnel marked Dmytro Timashov as a breakout player. He was not wrong in his assessment, as the Maple Leafs prospect was productive during Team Sweden’s deep run in the tournament. What set him apart was his playmaking which benefited his linemates Alexander Nylander and Asplund. The Swedish native showed consistency with his elite passing to set up scoring chances and posed a threat in all seven games. He finished with five assists, seven points and a plus-4 rating.
Tyler Motte, C/LW, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks
4th round (121st overall), 2013
The 20-year-old Motte, who had played in the World Juniors last season, continues to kill it with Michigan this season. He had seven goals and five assists in eight games from December 1st to January 9th. He can sometimes be overlooked playing with JT Compher and Kyle Connor, but the diminutive Motte has had himself an excellent mid-season thus far. He is third in the Big Ten Conference in scoring as of January 13.
The selection of Bjork to the Team USA roster drew criticism. While Bjork was a good two-way forward in all three zones, he was chosen over talented forwards like Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Jeremy Bracco. Nevertheless, the Wisconsin native stepped up in the World Juniors, providing Team USA with defensive awareness and surprising offensive contribution. Auston Matthews’ line was arguably the best trio of the tournament, but Bjork’s line with Sonny Milano and Christian Dvorak was quite good for Team USA, particularly in the playoff rounds. Bjork finished with three goals in seven contests and earned Team USA’s Player of the Game honor in the bronze medal game.
Pavel Kraskovsky, C, Lokomotiv Yaroslaval (KHL)
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
6th round (164th overall), 2014
Russia surprised everyone in the tournament. They were a wild card team that people were not sure what to think of. They put together a roster, not dominated by skill, but dominated by big, strong, hard-working players. Amongst those blue collar guys who had a good tournament was Pavel Kraskovsky. Named as one of the three best players in the tournament for Russia, Kraskovsky had two goals and two assists in the tournament, one of those being a big game tying goal against the Americans in the semifinals. He was also strong defensively, and did not take a single penalty the entire tournament.
Team Switzerland did not have a great showing at the tournament. Their lackluster performance in the preliminary games dropped them to the relegation round against Belarus. Fortunately for the Swiss, they were able to win the best-of-three series two games to none and remain in the upper division. The sparkplug for the Swiss was Denis Malgin, who scored a goal and eight assists in six games, good enough to be the seventh-best scorer in the tournament. He also produced two three-point efforts, including the series clincher against Belarus. Malgin’s hockey sense and playmaking skills were impressive and should help raise his stock within the Panthers organization.