The 2016 World Junior (Under-20) Championship showcase is underway from Finland, as the tradition kicks off annually on the day after Christmas, better known in Canada and other parts of the world as Boxing Day.
In a rare twist, USA took on Canada, normally a match in the 2-week tourney’s round robin round reserved for New Year’s Eve, scoring a solid 4-2 victory thanks in large part to the stellar goaltending of Carolina Hurricanes prospect Alex Nedeljkovic (2nd round- 37th overall in 2014) and some opportunistic scoring by USA after falling behind 1-0 in the second period. The Americans overcame an Alex DeBrincat spearing match penalty late in the opening frame that could have put them behind the 8-ball, killing the 5-minute period between the first and second periods. After Islanders 1st-rounder Mathew Barzal scored on a jailbreak play to give Canada the first lead, Senators prospect Colin White (Hanover, Massachusetts) answered for USA. Questionable power play chances yielded goals by both sides (Zach Werenski– Blue Jackets and Dylan Strome– Coyotes). With time winding down in a 2-2 game, a Louis Belpedio (Wild- third round in 2014) shot from the point was inadvertently deflected into the Canada net by Red Wings prospect (and undrafted free agent) D Joey Hicketts past his own netminder, Mason McDonald (Calgary- 2nd round 34th overall in 2014). 2016 NHL draft top candidate Auston Matthews got an insurance goal after a puck squeaked through McDonald and lay near the goal line for the easy tap-in to close out the scoring.
In other games, Finland hammered Belarus (6-0), Russia beat the Czech Republic in a 2-1 shootout in a game where defense and the goaltending shined, while Sweden took vengeance against the Swiss by an 8-3 score but lost key players William Nylander (Leafs- 1st round, 8th overall in 2014) and Adrian Kempe (Kings- 1st round, 29th overall) to injuries. Swiss forward Chris Egli was suspended three games for his vicious blindside check to Nylander, knocking him out of the game with what is believed to be a concussion. The latest report has Sweden keeping him off skates for a ‘few days’ but hopeful the high-end forward can be back by the quarter final round.
The Boston Bruins have seven players at the tournament, with GM Don Sweeney announcing Saturday between the first intermission of the team’s 6-3 loss to Buffalo at home that David Pastrnak is being released to play for the Czech Republic and will be available when the 28 December NHL holiday roster freeze is lifted.
The Bruins have the following players at the WJC, which ties Arizona for the most players league-wide:
Anders Bjork, F (5th round, 146th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility
Brandon Carlo, D (2nd round, 37th overall- 2015) late ’96 – last year of eligibility
Ryan Donato, F (2nd round, 56th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility
David Pastrnak, F (1st round, 25th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility
Daniel Vladar, G (3rd round, 75th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible
Jakub Zboril, D (1st round, 13th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible
Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F (2nd round, 45th overall- 2015) late ’96- last year of eligibility
Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon was one of two final cuts for Team Canada. Watch for him, Zach Senyshyn, Jesse Gabrielle all to be staple players on Canada in 2017, when both are still eligible for the tournament.
On Pastrnak being released to the WJC
You may have seen me commenting on this on Twitter, so I want to clarify my position on a forum that allows me more than 140 characters:
While good news for the Czech Republic and Pastrnak, this is a risky move for the Bruins in that they stand the most to lose should something happen to him over there to affect his availability for his NHL going forward.
Too often, I think the WJC has gained an almost mythical status in the minds of hockey fans in this day and age- it’s a symbol of status that often drives opinions and perceptions of players both positively and negatively. Like some kind of video game, it seems that the more players a team has at the WJC, the bigger the bragging rights fans can claim, even though merely being a part of the carnival atmosphere is no guarantor of future NHL success. I get it- because of the prestige factor associated with the U20 WJC as the premier global showcase for the best hockey talent, many of whom have either already tasted the NHL or will be there soon, there is an expectation that if a player isn’t there, then that means something is wrong with them. Conversely, if a player is named to his country’s WJC roster, their status tends to get elevated, rightly or wrongly, and in turn, a player’s performance is often scrutinized and magnified in a way that either over-hypes them or leads to negative perceptions of their future NHL chances.
What bothers me about Pastrnak going to the WJC is that he is coming off an injury that caused him to miss 24 NHL games after he took a hard shot off the skate and received a fractured foot (or “bone bruise” as reported). On the one hand- the B’s want to rehab him and the WJC provides a way to do that. It also exposes him to risk of either aggravation of the foot or possibly another injury. To those who have tweeted at me about the “safer” aspects of the larger ice surface and more skill/finesse at the WJC, go look at film on the Egli hit on Nylander yesterday in the Sweden-Swiss match and take note. Boston accepts all the risk here- Pastrnak is now playing games that won’t help the Bruins in the standings (nor would Providence, but the similar system would be beneficial to working him back into mental shape for the big club) but he’s also playing for coaches with different priorities/agendas than Claude Julien and Bruce Cassidy over in North America.
Another argument I’ve heard is about how important the “experience” at the WJC will be for Pastrnak. Okay. Assuming that is the case, how is playing in his third WJC going to give him any more experience than he got when he appeared at the same tourney at age 17 and then again a year ago when Boston released him at 18? He played only about half a season in the AHL a year ago before going up to the NHL, so the argument that the talent and overall experience he’d get in the WJC vs. being in Providence at this stage of his career is certainly debatable. You can make good cases for each scenario, but the whole “He *needs* to be at the WJC to develop properly” is hogwash. Nor is it a matter of this being his only chance to skate for his country there- he’s already done it. Twice. And you can bet he’ll do it again, perhaps as soon as the Men’s World Championship, or at the next World Cup of Hockey.
In the end- what I think doesn’t matter, because the Bruins made the decision to send him. I suspect they are acceding to his own wishes, and I get Pastrnak’s desire to play in the WJC versus going to the AHL with the chance to play for his country providing him with a compelling alternative. They might see the WJC as a better opportunity for him to get himself back on track after missing considerable time than riding the buses in Providence will. Perhaps the B’s feel that by doing this- they are acting in good faith and will only solidify their relationship with the player who by most accounts, is probably being groomed to one day replace Patrice Bergeron as the face of the franchise. It’s completely understandable. However, what do the Bruins get if something happens to Pastrnak in his 10-day stint overseas? The answer is- absolutely nothing…aside from blistering questions and second-guesses that will swiftly follow if the team suffers a setback with their prized asset in a game he didn’t really need to be playing, some 3,000 miles away from Boston.
It’s all about risk management here, and the Bruins obviously feel it’s the right thing to do. So, we’ll cross our fingers and hope they are proven right.
B’s WJC prospect notes and updates
Anders Bjork, USA- One of the last cuts a year ago, Bjork is a top two-way forward at Notre Dame, known for his speed, hockey IQ and playmaking skills from the wing position. He played a typically solid game yesterday, showing off his effectiveness on the forecheck to deny Canada puck carriers time and space. He uses his speed to close quickly and has a quick stick to force turnovers or clog passing lanes with. He’s a highly confident, effective penalty killer- he leveraged his vision and instincts to be in the right place and prevent Canada from collapsing USA’s formations and exploiting the extended power play time on the DeBrincat major. You won’t see a great deal of offense from Bjork in the pros, but he’s the kind of player NHL clubs win with.
Brandon Carlo, USA- He was beast yesterday defensively, using his 6-5 frame and long reach to repeatedly deny lanes to the American net all game long. Guys as big and mobile as the WHL veteran from Colorado is don’t grow on trees, and he played an effective game; making good decisions, maintaining his gaps effectively and electing the right times to play the body and puck. What I like about Carlo is that he doesn’t think he’s something he isn’t- he plays a refined, disciplined game positionally- not taking himself out of the play to score a big hit, nor pinching up in the offensive zone if a play isn’t there. He’s smooth and effective- he has all the tools to evolve into a very good shutdown defender at the NHL level in the not-too-distant future. Now for the bad news… While I recognize and respect his defensive acumen, I don’t see much in the way of consistent offense from Carlo that would lead me to believe he’s going to be a legitimate two-way threat at the NHL level. He’ll chip in with points on occasion, but his repeated missed shots from the point yesterday illustrate the kind of work he has yet to do on his game. I don’t see the vision or creativity once he’s in the offensive zone to be a real No. 1 defender at the highest level, but he’s only 19, so maybe that comes out in time. As far as the game against Canada goes- he played about as well defensively as you can ask, and that’s what matters most, as it translated into a key aspect of USA’s tone-setting win.
I would only caution folks to slow the roll on the hype train and understand that he has the look of an NHL player for sure- but how much of an impact (I’m studiously avoiding the use of the term ‘upside’ in case you hadn’t noticed) he’ll have is still very much a question mark at this point. I’m not down on Carlo at all- he’s a great kid with a bright future. But for those who don’t see him but hear all these glowing reports about him- just trying to keep things in perspective. In Carlo’s case- I would be thrilled to have him wrong on this score, but when my 2016 Boston Bruins prospect ranking comes out in the New England Hockey Journal next week, you’ll understand why Carlo is not in my top-6.
Ryan Donato, F- I’ll be brief. It was not a good look for the Dexter School prep star and Harvard freshman. He seemed to struggle with the pace and might have been a victim of nerves in his first-ever WJC game against an opponent like Canada. His ice time reflected that, as he didn’t get the regular shifts to work himself into a groove and when he was out there, he made some noticeable mistakes.
Donato is an excellent prospect who often times pays a price for the perception of prep hockey and where it ranks in the developmental pecking order. A sensational season in 2013-14, and one in which I would have been fine with taking him at the end of the first round, saw him slip down to the end of the second. Even with that, I saw grumblings about him being drafted there, which I completely did not agree with. Conversely, getting Donato at 56 overall was a fine value pick for Boston if not one that will take time to develop and see the payoff for.
Ted’s eldest son is a hockey savant- his offensive hockey sense and scoring instincts are second to none. He’s not a burner like his dad was, but he’s bigger and more physically gifted to skate in the modern NHL. He’s off to a fine start in Cambridge, a year after a down season at Dexter was then punctuated by a superb finish in the USHL with the Omaha Lancers.
In other words- just as a lot of folks were eager to jump on Twitter yesterday to sing Carlo’s praises, there is absolutely no reason to pile on Donato for his subpar showing. It’s one game in one tournament. The thing to watch going forward with Donato is to see how coach Ron Wilson and the USA coaches use him and if he can settle in and find a way to do what he does best- bring offense. Given the role he had yesterday, however, that’s a tall order for any player.
Daniel Vladar, G- Was a non-dress yesterday as Capitals prospect Vitek Vanecek (2nd round, 39th in 2014) got the start with Ales Stezka backing up. Vanecek played very well in a 2-1 shootout loss to Russia, so Vladar will likely have to wait for his chance to play if he even sees a sniff of action. His role will likely be to carry the mail in 2017 if he continues to progress in his development this season.
Jakub Zboril, D- Boston’s top pick in June last just 10:17 into the contest when he was assessed a match penalty and ejected for boarding on a questionable hit that looked worse in real time than it was. He was given 25 minutes in penalties on the play, but no suspension is forthcoming.
Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F- The second-rounder scored Sweden’s sixth goal in an 8-3 rout at 12:50 of the second period. No scouting report notes as I did not see the game, but it’s a good sign for the BU center, who tends to be more of a passer/playmaker than a finisher.
I will follow this blog post up later with some observations on some of the 2016 NHL draft hopefuls I saw in action yesterday.
Kirk – You’re awesome. Thanks so much and keep it up. Quick question – am I wrong to be worried about Zboril. I thought we’d be seeing him make strides, but instead he seems to be resting on his laurels and his numbers have regressed. Your thoughts?
Thank you for the kind words and feedback. As for your question- I’ll leave it to you to decide how much or little concern you want to place on a guy who is less than a year into being drafted and still a few months away from turning 19. In a perfect world, Jakub Zboril would be a defense version of his countryman, David Pastrnak, but Boston’s top pick in 2014 is very much the exception, not the rule. Not every player develops on a standard, linear timeline that goes upward- some players get it right away (see: Bergeron, Patrice), while others might see some regression before they progress (Jonathan Huberdeau comes to mind as one example of this). Some simply regress and don’t ever become the players NHL teams that drafted them early hoped for at all (hello Zach Hamill my old friend).
Zboril had the pure talent to be in the conversation with the other top tier of D for the 2015 draft (Hanifin, Provorov, Werenski), but based on my viewings/knowledge of him going into last June’s big event, he lacked drive and personal discipline, which led to inconsistent performances and accounted for him being further down in the pecking order. Having said that…On the one hand- I like the fact that he’s rugged and plays with a physicality atypical from many of his European counterparts. On the other- he’s been rumored to have a bit of a diva attitude after returning from Boston and was hit with a suspension and ejection in Quebec League games prior to getting the boot in the Saturday WJC contest against Russia. I saw the replay of the hit and I don’t think it was a malicious foul, but IIHF rules are pretty strict and by the letter of their law, he got tossed. I guess with Zboril, we’ll have to see how the rest of the season goes and beyond. There’s obvious disappointment that his numbers are down and his overall play is off this year compared to last. But- I submit to you that he’s not any less talented than he was a year ago, and so it might be a matter of Saint John and Boston coaches/player development folks working with him to re-focus and try and restore some balance to his play.
But- not everyone lives up to expectations and it is entirely possible that Zboril won’t justify what Boston saw in him and will either flame out or barely make an impact. Perhaps he’ll be every bit as good if not better than what they hoped. It isn’t an accident that they were trying to trade up to land one of those three top defenders inside the top-10, either. Fwiw.