Though it's the first step in procuring a spot on a world junior team, the National Junior Evaluation Camp being held by Team USA has already produced some hard-nosed hockey, proving that the teams from Sweden, Finland and Canada are taking things seriously, along with the hosts.
In the USA-Sweden tilt, Carolina prospect Erik Karlsson had a running battle with Tampa Bay pick Adam Erne, whose fire hydrant frame absorbed and deflected the assaults with ease. But the fact Karlsson kept at it was a telling sign: The Swedes weren't going to be pushed around, even in an exhibition game. It was a chippy affair, producing plenty of extra-curricular activity on both sides, with Buffalo pick JT Compher and Montreal prospect Jacob De La Rose particularly effective as agitators for their respective squads.
Skill and grit seems to have evened up lately when it comes to international squads and now teams are heading to the world juniors on virtually a level playing field.
“It's fun to play rough hockey,” said Swedish defenseman Linus Arnesson, Boston's first selection in 2013. “Maybe I'm bias, but it's fun to play like that right from the start of the season.”
And the Americans certainly didn't mind either. Even though they came out on the wrong end of a 4-0 final, a lot of that had to do with Swedish goalie Marcus Hogberg and some careless stick penalties. For a player such as Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Mike McCarron, fighting through traffic and battling for space and respect is no problem – especially when you're already 6-foot-5, 228 pounds.
“That's my game and I like the way we played, tough and rough,” he said. “That's the way USA Hockey plays; on our toes. The intensity out there was a lot of fun.”
In Wednesday's early game, Henri Ikonen proved to be one of Finland's most effective players in a 5-3 loss to Canada. The Tampa pick and member of the Ontario League's Kingston Frontenacs was quite active on the forecheck, throwing his weight around in a near constant attempt at disruption. The Finns have some highly skilled players (Teuvo Teravainen the most obvious), but will not have the murderer's row of 2013. That world junior squad featured top-end talents such as Joel Armia, Aleksander Barkov and Rasmus Ristolainen, but Armia has aged out while Barkov and Ristolainen are so close to NHL jobs that they weren't brought to Lake Placid. Of course, that great assembly of Finnish talent bombed out in Russia, settling for a romp through relegation instead of playing for a medal, so maybe a return to the gritty stylings of Suomi hockey will be an improvement when the tournament shifts to Malmo in Sweden this winter.
“There were quite a few hits thrown and a pretty good tempo,” said Columbus prospect Dillon Heatherington. “It's all about getting used to what kind of style they play, because they're not going to go lightly, whether it's here or during the real thing. We need to match that, if not one-up them in the physicality department.”
The key when it comes to Malmo will be to keep the grit consistent, but low-key. The big bomb-door hits tend to become penalties on the international stage, even if there's no head contact. But protecting the crease and keeping the other team honest will never go out of style – and all the top teams know it.