With less than a month to go, news is heating up around the World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Calgary. Many countries have already released preliminary rosters, while the Swedes have gone a step further and finalized their 23-man squad. So much to cover, so let’s jump into a look at some of the players we’re excited to see in the NHL one day.
Alexander Ruuttu, C – Jokerit (Fin.)
The moons might be aligning for Finland at this year’s world junior tournament. The team got off to a fast start last time, but cooled in the medal round. With both Granlund brothers, Joel Armia and Teemu Pulkkinen, offense won’t be an issue. Ruuttu gives the team a conscience, too.
“I think I’m a good two-way center,” he said. “I can score and I can play defense. Anything to help the team win.”
The son of former NHLer Christian Ruuttu (who now scouts in Europe), Alexander was born in Chicago, where he lived until he was three. That means his memories of North American life don’t extend much past his Windy City house, but one thing that isn’t hazy is the fact he’s got a pretty good mentor in his dad.
“Obviously I asked him to help me with my game,” Ruuttu said. “But I didn’t even have to ask. He has helped me with a lot of stuff.”
Using a breakout season with Jokerit’s junior team to propel him into a draft spot last year, Ruuttu’s goal this time out was to play more for the big club and he’s already gotten in 10 games there.
“I want to get a lot stronger, that’s my weakness,” he said. “Once I get stronger my game will become much better.”
And then we may see another Ruuttu skating in an NHL jersey. Drafted 51st overall by Phoenix in 2011.
Austin Czarnik, C – Miami University RedHawks (CCHA)
If you asked most people which RedHawk was going to be in the mix for Team USA, they would have said Toronto first-rounder Tyler Biggs. But the pint-sized Czarnik has proven size doesn’t matter, with six goals and 15 points in his first 17 NCAA games. A speedster and pickpocket who forces defenders into tough decisions, the 5-foot-8 Czarnik is one of several small kids on USA’s radar, along with Kyle Rau and John Gaudreau. Draft eligible in 2012 (undrafted in 2011).
Nathan MacKinnon, C – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
True, he didn’t make Canada’s early roster and no, it’s not an outrage he was left off because of his age. MacKinnon will be a star on the team next year when he’s got a little more experience under his belt. For now, he’ll just have to settle for putting up five goals in a game against Quebec and the Remparts’ big prospect, Mikhail Grigorenko. Draft eligible in 2013.
Adam Clendening, D – Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
A Kevin Shattenkirk clone who can work the power play, Clendening is also up for a spot on Team USA and his skill set will be highly coveted. America’s got the size and brawn in blueliners such as Derek Forbort and Jarred Tinordi, but Clendening would be a great addition to Michigan’s Jon Merrill on the man advantage. Drafted 36th overall by Chicago in 2011.
Johan Gustafsson, G – Lulea (Swe.)
A big netminder at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, Gustafsson has put up impressive stats in Sweden’s top league this season, with his 1.99 goals-against average ranking third overall. Smart and agile, the young keeper is also tied for the league lead with four shutouts in 17 appearances. Needless to say, he made Sweden’s final WJC cut. Drafted 159th overall by Minnesota in 2010.
Rickard Rakell, RW – Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
Willing to play a grimy, digging game in order to spark offense, Rakell will be a key returnee for Team Sweden this year. He’s on fire with the Whalers, posting 16 goals and 36 points in his first 29 games. That puts him already within striking distance of his 43 points from last year’s injury-shortened campaign. Drafted 30th overall by Anaheim in 2011.
Teddy Blueger, C – Shattuck-St. Mary’s Sabres (prep)
It’s going to be tough sledding for the Latvians, once again playing at the top tier of the world juniors, but at least the team will have some firepower this time. Along with Zemgus Girgensons (USHL Dubuque) and Kristians Pelss (WHL Edmonton), the squad has called on Blueger, the leading scorer at Shattuck with 25 assists and 33 points in 20 games. The skilled pivot boasts great vision and a deft touch around the net. Draft eligible in 2012.
Brendan Gallagher, RW – Vancouver Giants (WHL)
Canada always seems to have at least one smaller player who does nothing but plaster the scoresheet in ink and Gallagher looks like a pretty good candidate to fill that role this time. With 23 goals and 44 points in 27 games for the Giants, it’s not hard to see why the 5-foot-8 wiz qualifies. Drafted 147th overall by Montreal in 2010.
Andrei Vasilevski, G – Tolpar Ufa (Rus.)
A dearth of goaltending talent right now means Russia may go with the younger Vasilevski at the world juniors, instead of a 19-year-old. His stats in Russia’s junior circuit are decent (2.41 GAA, .924 save percentage), but his 6-foot-3 frame is the real selling point – the national team’s other two options don’t eclipse the six-foot mark. Draft eligible in 2012.
Martin Gernat, D – Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
The Slovaks will be in tough again this year at the tourney, but their blueline is the best hope for a berth in the medal round. Gernat is a tower at 6-foot-5 and his adjustment to the ‘Dub’ has been easy to say the least. With six goals and 24 points in 28 games, he ranks among the best defenders in the league and he’ll also have CHLers Martin Marincin and Peter Ceresnak with him at the WJC. Drafted 122nd overall by Edmonton in 2011.
The Hot List, a 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 thehockeynews.com. A player is eligible for The Hot List until they play in their first NHL game.
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