Penguins 2006 WJC preview

By Adrian Barclay

With the 2006 World Junior Championships just around the corner, we take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins prospects who will be participating.

Undoubtedly the main focus for Penguins fans is the surprise arrival of the super-talented Evgeni Malkin for the tournament. Malkin’s star has been rising at a rapid rate over the last year as he grows into one of the finest Russian players at just 19 years of age.

Penguins fans will get another close look at Malkin as he arrives on North American soil for the second year in a row, after starring for the Russians in Grand Forks at the 2004-05 tournament. Malkin and current NHL rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin were dominant at the event, but eventually lost the gold medal to a Team Canada outfit containing names such as Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Dion Phaneuf.

This year Malkin, the second overall pick in 2004, returns an even better player than 12 months ago. His decision to spend another season in Russia instead of signing with the Penguins looks to be a great one for his development as he takes the reins of the league’s top team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Malkin has dominated in his home town, leading the league with 15 goals and 20 assists from 32 games.

Russian officials are thrilled to have Malkin available for the tournament, as it looked for a while like he would not play in the World Juniors so that he could concentrate on the Olympics. The talented center may be in for a very heavy workload as he will be also expected to participate in the annual World Championships during the NHL playoffs and has just finished competing in the Rosno Cup against Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Malkin’s top end skills will elevate Russia’s chances in Vancouver as they attempt to win the junior title that has eluded them for the last two years.

Malkin’s gold medal game opponents from 2005, Team Canada, have gone for a more youthful approach for this tournament. There is one Penguins draftee on the roster this year, as defenseman Kristopher Letang has earned his place on the blue line along with Val d’Or teammate Luc Bourdon. Letang is another gifted offensive defenseman in the Penguins stable, taken in the third round in the 2005 draft.

Letang is having a fine season and impressed mightily at Team Canada training camp to earn his place in his first WJC. Letang loves to shoot, and currently has more goals than assists so far this season. He ranks an amazing fourth on his team in goals with 12, which also puts him fourth overall amongst all QMJHL defensemen. He also has nine assists for 21 points to go with 77 penalty minutes.

Fans will not only be impressed with Letang’s offensive vision and big slap shot, but also his strong defensive game which will make life difficult of opposing forwards as he makes good use of his 6’0, 200-pound build.

Johannes Salmonsson won’t have to travel as far as last year when he suits up for the Swedish team for the third time. After spending his early career in the Swedish Elite League, Salmonsson has made the trek to North America and is playing in the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs.

He was expected to excel offensively in the WHL after leading Sweden with eight points (five goals, three assists) at last year’s WJC. Instead Salmonsson has struggled with the smaller rink sizes and more physical nature of hockey in Western Canada, scoring just the nine points (three goals, six assists) in 26 games.

The skillful Swede is starting to adjust and will likely take a lot of confidence out of playing for his country in this tournament for the third time. Salmonsson will be expected to be a leader on the ice and the score sheet.

The fourth and final member of the Penguins stable competing in this year’s tournament is Finnish defenseman Tommi Leinonen.

Leinonen has plenty of international tournament experience with the Finnish national team, and continues to be one of the premier blue liners of his age group in Finland. Leinonen is playing this season with Karpat’s Junior A team, where he currently has 13 points (six goals, seven assists) from 20 games. The 18-year-old was selected by the Penguins in the fourth round, 125th overall at the 2005 draft.

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