The World Junior Championships have long passed, and while the NHL and AHL are in the middle of their seasons, European and Junior teams are now focused and gearing up for stretch runs and playoffs. It is crunch time for many of these young players as we head down the final stretch of the season. Let’s take a look at who has been building momentum, and who has been stumbling as we glide down the stretch here.
The 26-year old’s month of January was simply stunning. In 14 January games, he posted 7 goals and 10 assists for 17 points. He also took a whopping 49 shots on goal, which was something the center wanted to improve upon. For reference, Dowd has 119 shots on the season, so almost half have come in one month.
On top of the production bump, Dowd has also been a key cog on special teams and in the face-off circle. He currently has one of the best face-off percentages on the team, a number that is in the 55-60% range. He has been a major catalyst, and if he continues this run he may get a cup of coffee in the NHL before the season is out.
From the time he was recalled on January 10, Joseph Blandisi has been exciting to watch. He has earned enough of the coach’s respect to get on New Jersey’s top line and power play, due to his ability to generate chances out of nowhere. Need proof? He has scored 12 points in 15 games.
Against the Rangers on February 2nd, he beat defenseman Dan Girardi one-on-one then snuck a shot past Henrik Lundqvist short side. He also had a three-point night against Ottawa and a goal and assist against Washington. What makes the former Barrie Colt standout special is his relentless effort to chase down pucks and his quick legs. He is also quite skilled with the puck as a distributor and finisher. Furthermore, Blandisi represents the kind of player Devils management wants to develop: someone who will compete for 60 minutes at both ends of the ice.
The diminutive Russian forward followed up a strong December with an equally good January for Chicoutimi. He has 46 points in 49 games in his rookie season in the Q, and 26 of those points have come in the 20 games from December to February. He has also remained a positive face-off man, and an excellent facilitator for leading goal scorer Jonathan Bourcier. The young center has scored a whopping 27 points in the 24 games Chicoutimi has won. He has been a key cog for them this year.
A long time ago, a younger Andrew Nielsen was not confident about how he would fit into the competitive world of hockey. After a few lumps and disappointments, the 19-year-old is playing a pivotal role in Lethbridge’s stellar season. The team has eclipsed 40 wins and is well situated for a high seed when the playoffs begin. As for Nielsen, he provides a strong performance each night on the first pairing. The rangy, bruising defenseman has a well-rounded set of skills that have clicked throughout the year. After 56 games Nielsen has 57 points, 17 of which have come in 2016. Toronto fans should keep an eye on Nielsen moving forward.
There has clearly been no sophomore slump for Dylan Sikura. He has upped his production from 7 points in 25 games last season to 20 points in 28 games in 2015-16. A big jump in his production happened in January, where he scored goals in all but one game during the month. The game he failed to score in was a non-conference game against Quinnipiac to boot. In the other four games against conference opponents, Sikura potted six goals. He joins five other forwards who have hit the 20-point mark for the Northeastern offense this year.
The moment the puck dropped to start Harvard’s season, Alexander Kerfoot has been on another level. Centering arguably the best line in college hockey with Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo, the trio is a formidable group to slow down. Vesey and Criscuolo earn the recognition as finishers, but Kerfoot is the engine that creates many of their chances. He can put a soft touch on his passes and thread the needle in tight areas to make sure the puck finds its intended target.
It also helps that the West Vancouver native is elusive and can move around the ice rather quickly. In 2016, the junior has already handed out 14 helpers with two goals and has altogether 29 points this season. With this potent threat, Harvard will pose a serious challenge in their quest for the Frozen Four.
Often the concern with young players in Russia is playing time. The KHL is a competitive professional league and not a developmental league. Ergo, coaches are fielding the best possible roster, and that can phase out young guys or give them limited roles. However, 21-year-old Andrei Mironov has played a big role in the Dynamo Moscow back end. He has earned plenty of ice time, as he racked up over an average of 20 minutes a night in the month of January. Essentially the big Russian has been playing top three minutes on a team currently sitting in the top five in the KHL standings. That is definitely a statement as to the quality of his play.
Columbus has done a good job in recent years strengthening their blue line corps. Yet it might be one of their late round picks that could have a big role to play in the future. The defensive-minded Vladislav Gavrikov has been a consistent performer for Lokomotiv of the KHL. Averaging 16:21 and 21 shifts a night, the Russian native has passed every challenge presented to him and is still learning from his veteran teammates on the blue line. Gavrikov is also a positive possession player—a plus-16 this season—as he makes defensive plays that turn into scoring chances for his side. His contract with Lokomotiv will expire in April 2017, at which point he can join the Blue Jackets organization.