From Russia with skill

Trade rumors have quieted down a bit and the race for the Ontario League scoring title is no longer limited to the Windsor Spitfires, so it’s time to give some love to your potential No. 1 draft pick this summer, John Tavares.

But J.T.’s not the only one doing big things in junior, so The Hot List (our weekly countdown of players we’re looking forward to seeing in the NHL someday) spotlight will shine in a few directions this week.

1. Nicola Riopel, G – Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL): The 19-year-old undrafted goalkeeper has been playing out of his mind this year, garnering three defensive player of the week honors already to go with 21 wins in 24 games. The Quebec native has a 1.76 goals-against average and .939 save percentage to boot. Draft eligible in 2009 (undrafted in 2008).

2. Evgeny Grachev, LW – Brampton Battalion (OHL): Think of Grachev’s first North American season as a freight train. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound left winger may have started a little slowly, but now that he has found his game, he’s unstoppable.

“I’ve gotten used to the league,” Grachev said. “It’s more physical and more competitive every night.”

With his frame, however, fighting off checks has not been a problem for Grachev, who is now up to 33 points in 27 games for a loaded Brampton squad. The Russian, who certainly looks like a dangerous power forward already, has especially clicked with center and 2009 draft prospect Matt Duchene, whose speed and skills mesh well with Grachev.

“We have good line speed,” Grachev said. “He can feed me with pucks and I can shoot them on net.”

And how. The Battalion sit first place in the OHL’s Central Division and will likely have at least three players at the upcoming world juniors in Grachev, Duchene and Cody Hodgson.

Naturally, Russia-Canada will have some extra spice to it.

“It’s a special battle, it’s going to be exciting,” Grachev said, while cautioning the real prize comes on the podium. “Our goal is to win the gold medal, it doesn’t matter who we beat on the way to it.” Drafted 75th overall by the New York Rangers in 2008.

3. John Tavares, C – Oshawa Generals (OHL):
With 52 points in 31 games, Tavares is nipping at the heels of league leader Taylor Hall, but more importantly, J.T. has been the Ontario League’s player of the week for two straight. The world juniors could be a coronation for the prospective No. 1 pick. Draft eligible in 2009.

4. Brett Sonne, C – Calgary Hitmen  (WHL): Sonne is clearing a path at the top of the Dub’s scoring leaderboard with 51 points in 33 games. The veteran junior is also a very impressive plus-21 and the league’s reigning player of the week. He has already surpassed his best points total for a season. Drafted 85th overall by St. Louis in 2007.

5. Jamie Benn, LW – Kelowna Rockets (WHL): How good is Benn? Rumor has it the struggling Dallas Stars would call up the winger now if he didn’t have a chance to suit up for Canada at the world juniors. In the meantime, Benn leads the Rockets with 45 points in 27 games. Drafted 129th overall by Dallas in 2007.

6. Richard Panik, LW – HC Ocelari Trinec (Cze.):
One of the few buzz-worthy talents to emerge from the Eastern Bloc lately, the Slovakian has bounced between junior and the Czech Extraliga this season, scoring once in seven games with the men and dominating in junior with 16 points in 13 games. Draft eligible in 2009.

7. Joe Colborne, C – Denver Pioneers (WCHA): After a slow start to his college career, Colborne is starting to take off and now has 15 points in 17 games for the Pios. Power forwards always take a while to develop, so maybe there was a little too much hand-wringing over Colborne after all. Drafted 16th overall by Boston in 2008.

8. Simeon Varlamov, G – Hershey Bears (AHL): The Russian keeper is making the most of his first season in North America, posting a 10-2-0 record for the Bears on the strength of a 2.29 GAA and .908 save percentage. Drafted 23rd overall by Washington in 2006.

9. Andrej Nestrasil, LW – Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL): One of the top prospects in the ‘Q’ this season, Nestrasil has an NHL frame at 6-foot-2, 194 pounds and is well on his way to a smart campaign with 30 points in 34 games. Draft eligible in 2009.

10. Scott Darling, G – University of Maine Black Bears (Hockey East): There must be something about Maine that attracts super-tall goalies. First it was 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop, now the 6-foot-6 Darling, who is killing it with the Bears. The freshman leads the conference with a sparkling 1.49 GAA and .941 save percentage. Drafted 153rd overall by Phoenix in 2007.

The Hot List, a weekly roundup of minor league, junior, college and high school players we’re excited to one day see in the NHL, appears every Tuesday only on

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