The World Junior Hockey Championships is always extremely interesting to watch. It’s fun to observe many of the players that will be tomorrow’s stars in the NHL before the big bucks change their love for the game. This year’s tournament has been a roller coaster ride with plenty of upsets and lots of sidebars that have made the action extremely entertaining. Team Canada has found itself in the thick of things and has found an old rivalry against the Russian bear boil over. The players have made this something to remember, in more ways that one.
There have been some excellent performances, and some that make you scratch your head. Some players make you sit straight up when they make a play, and others make you hide your eyes before they play the puck. Because many of these young men have been drafted, or scrutinized to death, certain expectations are placed on these players, sometimes unfairly. Consider that when reading the reviews. They are one person’s opinion of what has been observed in a short tournament, one that is really not long enough to properly gauge a player except to flag him for further scouting, against the best competition possible for the age group of the players in question.
Jay Bouwmeester – The un-drafted Bouwmeester has been in the public spotlight for several years now. He has been touted as the number one pick for the 2002 NHL Entry Draft for three years. If there was a player that had unfair expectations to live up to, it is Jay Bouwmeester. Funny thing is that this kid lives up to them, and then some. He’s big, fast, and smart. He plays a very sound game in his own end and doesn’t make many mistakes. He has been hesitant to jump into the play, until the quarter-final game versus Sweden, but when he did he made you sit up in your seat. He has an effortless stride and uses his long reach to his advantage. He has a very good shot and is a great passer. If there was one player in the lineup that you had to pick to be a superstar, Jay Bouwmeester would likely be that player. His skill level on the blueline is unbelievable. The fans that were hoping to see him anchor the Team Canada blueline in Halifax will be very disappointed this time next year. Bouwmeester will likely be in the NHL gaining rave reviews around the league.
Carlo Colaiacovo – The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Carlo in the first round of last year’s entry draft with the seventeenth pick. Like Bouwmeester, Colaiacovo has been a rock solid player on the Canadian blueline. He’s shown some offensive ability and has made things happen from the point for the team. He’s not overly large, but plays the game with enough of a physical edge to be extremely effective. This is the defenseman on the team that has surprised the most with his play. He has shown that he can do everything, and everything well. He will be a solid NHL player and find his way to the top two pairs on whatever club he plays for.
Dan Hamhuis – Hamhuis is the Canadian defenseman that made highlight packages by being driven into the boards head first by Russia’s Andrei Taratuhkin. Fortunately for Hamhuis he did not suffer a serious injury, and only came away with a bruised shoulder. Unfortunately for Hamhuis that may be the moment in the 2001 WJC tournament that people remember when his name comes up. That is indeed unfortunate because Hamhuis has been a great player for Team Canada. He has been one of their top three defenders and has provided some much needed offense from the blueline. He has been very solid in his own end and made many plays that raised my personal eyebrows. His decision-making ability is the one thing that really stands out when I watch him play. Very seldom did I see him make a play where I second-guessed him. He’s another defender that could use some more size, but that is just nitpicking at this point. Nashville definitely got a player when they used the 12th pick in last year’s draft to grab Hamhuis. It may take him a few more years, but Hamhuis looks like he will be an NHL player for a good long time.
Jay Harrison – Harrison was drafted in the third round by the Toronto Maple Leafs this past draft, so that should tell you something about the perception of the player by other hockey people. But after the draft a lot was made about what a steal this player was with the eighty-second pick. Maybe it’s the fact that Harrison has received a lot of favorable coverage from the Toronto based media that has changed the perception of him, but here is a player that has not lived up to expectations. He’s a big guy that has stood out for all the wrong reasons. He always appears to be a step behind the play. He loves to play physical but has displayed difficulty catching players clean along the boards. Too many players have found ways to fight through his checks and get back into the play quickly. He has made some bad decisions that have ended up in scoring opportunities and has been very weak in his zone coverage. Based on this performance I would say that Jay Harrison is going to be a project for the Leafs. He has definitely been one of the weakest links on this version of Team Canada and a player that could have seen a lot less ice time.
Nathan Paetsch – The Washington Capitals second rounder has found himself in the unenviable spot of being the extra defenseman. He has seen limited ice time and really only got an opportunity when Dan Hamhuis sat out a game with a shoulder injury. Nathan was selected to Team Canada because of his offensive ability, but during his appearance was unable to really show much. During the first period he looked rusty, or maybe nervous, and out of place. As the game wore on he looked more comfortable and made some decent plays. It’s unfortunate that he did not get more of a chance to display his wares because as he became more comfortable out there with playing time he started to show some really good things. He moved the puck effectively and was reasonably solid in his own zone. He didn’t make too many blunders and recovered well from the mistakes he did make. Team Canada could have benefited from platooning Paetsch and Harrison in alternating games.
Mark Popovic – Thankfully for Popovic, Jay Harrison is on Team Canada. Otherwise Popovic would be the Team Canada whipping boy on defense. The Anaheim Mighty Duck second rounder from last year’s draft has looked really out of place on the big ice surface. Too many times Popovic has been caught out of position and has been running around trying to make a play. He’s got decent skills and size, he just has made some bad decisions and compounded them with even worse ones while trying to recover. He still shows flashes of play that make you understand why he was drafted so high, but until he learns the game a little better he won’t be making an appearance in an NHL uniform any time soon.
Nick Schultz – This is the guy on Team Canada’s defense that you compare to white bread. He’s not overly exciting and really doesn’t do a lot until you compliment him with some mustard and meat. He’s the perfect complimentary player, which is probably why the Minnesota Wild kept the nineteen year old around. A second rounder from the 2000 entry draft, Schultz has all the right skills and does everything well. Unfortunately he does nothing really great and doesn’t stand out while he’s on the ice. The only time you really notice him is when he makes a mistake. The good thing about Schultz is that he does not make many mistakes, and when he does he has the smarts and ability to get back into the play and help save the day. He put those skills on display and was one of Canada’s most consistent, albeit not flashy, players in the tournament.
Jared Aulin – How happy do you think the Los Angeles Kings were when they traded away Rob Blake? Probably not very thrilled at the time. But after convincing Pierre Lacroix to give up Jared Aulin in the deal, and seeing him play in this year’s WJC, they have to feel a whole lot better. Aulin has been one of Team Canada’s best performers on the ice, game-in-game-out. On a line with Mike Cammalleri and Brad Boyes, Aulin has found success. He’s developed some amazing chemistry with Cammaleri which has lead to the two players being a top the WJC scoring board. Aulin has great instincts, fantastic hands and is a great passer. The only question is his strength. But his ability to slide by players may make that a moot point. The combination of Cammalleri and Aulin could become a dynamite addition to the Kings roster in the next year or two.
Brad Boyes – The center on Canada’s top line has been extremely proficient in the face-off circle. He has also been the recipient of several fortunate bounces that have ended up in open net scoring opportunities. Those have been the highlights for Boyes in this tournament. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ first round pick from the 2000 entry draft has been blessed with the opportunity to center two dynamos like Aulin and Cammalleri. His point totals have been padded and he’s been set up to score some goals that really didn’t matter. Three of Boyes’ five goals came at the tail end of blow-out victories over France and Switzerland. The major knock against Boyes that I have observed from the tournament is that he is always behind the play. It’s understandable when you consider the players he is trying to keep up with, but a player of his reputed ability should not be trailing as badly as he does. Boyes is a talented player, but he is really benefited by playing with the caliber of line mates that he has. Pair him with two lesser players and people would be looking at Boyes with the same puzzled look they have for Stephen Weiss. When looking at the little things that go on and win you a hockey game, Boyes has done very few of them.
Mike Cammalleri – It isn’t very often that a player who is only 5’9″ gets drafted in the second round, but diminutive Mike Cammalleri was called by the Los Angeles Kings during the second round at the last draft. And why not? The kid has great wheels, amazing hockey sense and can finish with the best of them. If you were looking for a player who was going to score a clutch goal for Team Canada this was the guy to look for. Cammalleri found himself in the right place at the right time on more than just one occasion, and very seldom did he fail to connect. The aforementioned chemistry displayed between himself and Jared Aulin was something to behold. Not many small guys make the NHL, but Cammalleri might just find himself labeled as the next Theo Fleury and suiting up as a regular with the Los Angeles Kings.
Chuck Kobasew – The Calgary Flames first rounder from the 2001 draft displayed a couple of significant things during the WJC tournament this year. First, he can score goals. He has the ability to find the net with the puck, a skill that you just can’t teach. Second, he’s one lazy player. When he wants to play, Chuck is fun to watch. He’s got a great nose for the net, anticipates the play well, and is willing to pay the price to score a goal. Too bad his work ethic is not on the same level as his other talents. He just doesn’t work hard enough to play at both ends of the ice. If he expects to be a player with the Flames he better drop the piano that’s tied to his ass and start playing both ways, or he may not get the shot he so badly desires. The club that drafted him showed that they don’t like guys that don’t play hard at both ends. If Kobasew thinks he is not going to have to follow those same rules he should be advised to call Oleg Saprykin and get his opinion on the subject. Saprykin, like Kowbasew displayed great hands but was dispatched to the minors because of his refusal to work at both ends of the ice. Looking for a limiting factor in Kowbasew’s game, this may be his Achilles heel and hold him back.
Jay McClement – The St. Louis Blues must be pretty happy right now. After dealing away Michal Handzus and Craig Conroy this past season the Blues put themselves in a situation where they had no defensive centers to call upon, and no one in the system that had the size or skill set to be that type of player. McClement might just develop into that Joel Otto type player for them. Jay has shown that he can play the game in a skillful manner, but for the NHL game, he may not have the tools be a big time scorer. Fortunately, as displayed in this tournament as the Team Canada swing man playing on a line with Nash and Upshall after Wiess was hurt, he can play a solid two way game, even when he is not contributing on the scoreboard. Because of his smarts, his skill and his size he may have the right make-up to become a dominating checker in the future. There is not going to be a team that Canada played in this WJC tournament that will not attest to the job that McClement and his fourth line mates accomplished while they were on the ice. There were no off shifts for Murray and consistency is key to his game. That consistency would definitely work for the Blues, and help McClement find his way to the NHL sooner than later.
Garth Murray – Here is a kid with the right mix of skills and size to be a prototypical Northeastern Conference player. The big question is whether Murray will be a big physical grinder or whether he will continue to develop his scoring prowess and become a power forward in the NHL. Drafted in the third round by the New York Rangers there is room for both on the NHL club. Based on his play in this tournament he will likely become the former and wind up as a solid third or fourth liner. Murray wasn’t a guy that Team Canada grabbed to score a ton of goals, but they hoped that his blend of skill, size and toughness would help make a difference. Murray showed that he was very capable of playing a role and being responsible in his own end of the ice. He played very smart and didn’t take many chances. If there was a safe play to make, Garth Murray would make it. Guys like him don’t show up in the summaries much, but they are extremely valuable to championship teams.
Rick Nash – Like Bouwmeester, Nash is undrafted and looks to be a lock for the top two draft picks come June. This tournament definitely did nothing to hurt his chances, that is for certain. Every shift Rick was on the ice he did something that made you check your tear sheets for his birth date. He handles the puck exceptionally well, displays an awareness beyond his experience, is very strong on his skates and doesn’t back down from any challenge. He has the size and the skill to be a dominant player. It would have been very interesting to see how a line of Nash-Spezza-Kobasew would have performed together. Rick Nash definitely had the skills to play up on a scoring line and may have made a difference on the second line. Who ever gets him in June will be getting an awesome young player that may possibly step right into the lineup.
Steve Ott – If you’re looking for a literary character to describe Steve Ott, look no further than Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde. That was the way the tournament went for young Mr. Ott. There were times you sat there shaking your head wondering if he had an idea what he was doing on the ice. His three penalty performance against the Russians was one where you were cursing his name. But his two goal outburst against the Swiss was one where you were thankful he was on the team. Combined with line mates Jarret Stoll and Brian Sutherby, Ott contributed greatly to the success of the team with some stellar checking and penalty killing. As the tournament wore on, the two-some of Ott and Stoll because extremely dangerous on the penalty kill and registered a couple of short handed goals. The Dallas Stars, who took Ott in the first round of the 2000 entry draft, are going to be getting an antagonistic player who will provide many moments of anguish as he takes stupid penalties, but those will fade away as he becomes a large contributor when the game is on the line.
Jason Spezza – It has been a very disappointing year for the big center. He watched as Ilya Kovalchuk was drafted first overall. Then he was one of the last cuts from the Ottawa Senators’ camp and returned to junior. Now Spezza is struggling to find the net. Maybe the bitterness of the whole year will be washed away with a WJC medal? While Spezza has not found the net with regularity, he has performed admirably and stood out on his own. He has shown the speed and moves that had many teams split on who should go number one. The only complaint about Spezza that I can see is that he does not use his line mates enough and does not pass off at the most opportune time. Kobasew was in scoring position plenty of times, but Spezza was a little slow to find his winger. Familiarity could be the culprit in this situation, so a little latitude will be given in judging his performance. With time Spezza and Kobasew should develop the chemistry to be a scoring machine. Spezza can look forward to having Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat finish off his passes in the future. Maybe that is something else that he can use to console himself until he makes the jump to the NHL.
Jarret Stoll – Team Canada’s captain is one sharp player. The Calgary Flames, who drafted Jarret in the second round in 2000, are hoping to keep sharp items out of his hands. Stoll almost killed his chances of playing for Team Canada in October when he opened a large gash in his wrist, doing ligament and tendon damage, while attempting to separate two steaks frozen together using a butcher’s knife. Stoll was lucky he didn’t do major damage, and Team Canada was lucky that Jarret could participate in the tournament. Stoll has been everything a team could look for in a captain. Even though he is one of the top scorers in the WHL over the past three seasons, he has accepted his role as a checker, playing on the wing out of his usual center ice position, and excelled with line mates Steve Ott and Brian Sutherby. Stoll has also proven to be a clutch scorer, finding the goal when it mattered most against the Russians in the preliminary round and against Team Sweden in the quarterfinals. Both goals shifted the momentum in Canada’s favor and they didn’t look back in either game. He has also shown great play making ability setting up Steve Ott for a couple of crucial goals in his own right. He has accomplished all of this while being the heart and soul of the team and leading the checking line to success.
Brian Sutherby – The final component of Team Canada’s checking line, Sutherby is big strapping kid who played seven games for the Washington Capitals earlier this year. He’s been the most conspicuous of the checking line members and plays a very quiet game. He’s one of those guys that you don’t notice until the do something wrong, or if they score a goal. For the most part, Sutherby has gone unnoticed this tournament. His best game was definitely against the Swiss in the semi-finals when the checking line accounted for three of Canada’s four goals, Sutherby getting one and setting one up himself.
Scottie Upshall – Scott Upshall is the forgotten man on Team Canada. At least forgotten in the fact that he, like Bouwmeester and Nash, is also draft eligible. No one really talks much about young Scott, but that is in no way an insult to him. He was not a kid that was brought along just for experience. He earned his way onto the team and has played very well, with the limited ice time he has received. He played with Rick Nash and Stephen Weiss to form a very solid line that could contribute their fair share, and actually managed to score a pair of goals in the blowout over France himself. Upshall definitely has the talent to play the game in a big way, so it will be interesting to see where he goes in the upcoming draft. He should go in the middle of the first round.
Stephen Weiss – Every team has a few players that disappoint in one way or the other. Stephen Weiss may be the one player on the offensive side of the puck was the biggest disappointment. Drafted in the first round, fourth overall, by the Florida Panthers, Weiss was expected to be a point producing force in the WJC tournament for Team Canada. Put on a line with talent youngsters Nash and Upshall, Weiss never found his stride. He managed a pair of goals and an assist before getting injured, but both were early in the tournament and neither were big goals. Maybe unfair expectations are placed on certain players, and maybe Weiss is one of those players, but a player drafted that high should have put up better numbers than he did in this tournament.
Pascal Leclaire – Canada’s starter after the preliminary round, Leclaire showed his “A” game while shutting out the Swiss in the semi-finals. He displayed great reflexes on numerous occasions and an uncanny ability to stay sharp when the play was in the opposition’s end for lengthy periods of time. Many goaltenders would have been lulled to sleep during some of these stretches, but Leclaire deserves credit for his ability to stay awake. The only complaint one could level toward Leclaire was his ability to get lost in his crease. There were a couple of goals scored on him where he gave up an angle because he lost where he was in his net. Beyond that he was extremely solid in his play and very likely the goaltender of the future for the Columbus Bluejackets.
Olivier Michaud – This kid is living a dream right now. Undrafted, the Montreal Canadiens took a flyer on Michaud and invited him to their rookie camp. They were so impressed by him that they signed him to a pro contract. If that was not enough, he got called up on an emergency basis, when both Jeff Hackett and Jose Theodore went down with injuries, and saw action against the Oilers, stopping all 14 shots he faced. From there Michaud was invited to Canada’s training camp and surprised many by making the team. He played in two games, allowing a single goal to the Swiss on 23 shots, and then allowed four goals on 28 shots in Canada’s loss to Finland. Michaud is a small goaltender with outstanding reflexes. Where he ends up is anyone’s guess, but based on this past year, don’t rule anything out.
With Canada advancing to the WJC Gold Medal game against Russia, the tournament can be considered a success win or lose. Canada wisely took the best 22 players available, rather than following the same tired formula plan they had in the past, and it has paid off. The team has displayed excellent chemistry and, for the most part, very strong performances from all members of the squad. It will be interesting to see how they do in the final game, but at this point, most of the players have been a joy to watch. It’s been difficult to gauge some of these youngsters and I can honestly say that when it comes to evaluating their talent for the long term, the Worlds is not enough!