Can you sense it, folks? It's almost world juniors time. Sure, the tournament is a month and a half away, but players need to be making impressions on national team brass all the time and for Canadian hopefuls, the CHL-Russia Super Series can be a big boost - just as Lawson Crouse, who caught eyes last year and turned his efforts into gold.
So far, Russia has been blanked, losing all four games to the WHL and OHL. Now it's the QMJHL's turn to defend home turf. One player honored with that duty is in our spotlight today. Let's take a whirl around the world of prospects.
Julien Gauthier, RW – Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL): When Gauthier was nine years old, his father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. The youngster said he wanted to be a hockey player, so his dad enacted a plan that may sound extreme, but clearly paid dividends already.
"When you're young, you don't know what it takes," Gauthier said. "From that day on, I have gone to the gym. I wasn't doing heavy squats or anything, but I was building a good base."
That's right, Gauthier was pumping himself up as a nine-year-old. And apparently that old saying about weightlifting stunting a kid's growth isn't always true; the 17-year-old is already 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds. And his dad wasn't grasping at straws - he was a bodybuilder himself, winning the coveted Mr. Canada title at 18. Gauthier's grandfather was a wrestler and bodybuilder who was once Mr. Canada and also placed second at the Mr. Universe competition. Oh, and Julien's uncle is former NHLer Denis Gauthier. So there are some genes there.
Needless to say, Julien is a load to handle on the ice thanks to his frame and strength. Those attributes have led him to 20 goals in his first 23 games this season, good for third overall in the 'Q.' But the right winger only has four assists, earning him an early 'Cy Young' designation for his 20-4 line - something his teammates are happy to chirp him about.
"All the guys are laughing," he said. "But it's not something I can control. Maybe in a month it will be the opposite."
Gauthier prides himself on his offense, his ability to find teammates when he's in traffic and his skating. He wants to make sure his defensive play is up to snuff too and he has made some nice early impressions in his junior career. Gauthier was one of the youngest players at Canada's world junior camp over the summer and the 2016 draft prospect relished the experience.
"The caliber was really strong," he said. "It was the hardest practice I ever had because of the players there. I need to take my chance this year."
Canada's coaches advised Gauthier to play like he did last season with the Foreurs, which means driving the net, finishing checks and playing a two-way game. If he does make the roster for Helsinki, he could be a different kind of 'Mr. Canada' in his family.
In the Pipeline
Spencer Watson, RW (Los Angeles): The slippery sniper from the Kingston Frontenacs has been making a huge statement this year, scoring three goals in two games for Team OHL against the Russians in two wins. He's also one of the top producers in the OHL after nearly slipping out of the draft two years ago (size and skating were concerns) before the Kings nabbed him with the second-last pick overall. Now, the world juniors is on the radar.
Thomas Chabot, D (Ottawa): The smooth-skating blueliner for the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs will be another player to watch against Russia and he's been hot lately. The Senators first-rounder has two game-winning goals in a row, plus a shorthanded marker to help his nearly point-per-game stats.
William Nylander, C (Toronto): Nylander has been devastating for the AHL's Toronto Marlies, vaulting himself near the top of the league scoring charts thanks to nine points in his past four games. The dynamic and creative offensive force will also be key to Sweden's attack at the world juniors.
Caleb Jones, D (Edmonton): The WHL's Portland Winterhawks are turning things around after a slow start and Jones has been a big factor. Seth's younger bro is aggressive and has some nice offensive chops, which has led to 16 points through 19 games. That makes the 2015 Oilers pick one of the Dub's top-scoring blueliners.
Jimmy Vesey, LW (Nashville): The Preds thought Vesey might sign with them after last season, but the incredibly gifted sniper opted to return for one more year at Harvard. So far, the left winger's choice has paid off, as he is on fire with 11 points through six games with the Crimson.
Dylan Strome, C (Arizona): Strome is making magic in Erie once again, posting more than two points a game for the OHL's Otters on a line with 2016 prospect Alex DeBrincat. The Coyotes first-rounder will also be one to watch for Canada's world junior squad, as his size and smarts could be valuable.
2016 Draft Stars
Tyson Jost, C – Penticton Vees (BCHL): I just talked to a scout about Jost, who called the kid "the real deal." The University of North Dakota commit has been destroying the B.C. League by averaging two points a game for a Vees squad that has won 22 games in a row. Skating, hands and a great shot are Jost's calling cards.
David Bernhardt, D – Djurgarden (Swe.): A big, mobile defenseman who gets very involved with the play, Bernhardt is the top-scoring blueliner in Sweden's under-20 North League with 18 points through 20 games. Consistency is on scouts' radars, but when he's on, he's on.
German Rubtsov, C – Russia U18 (Rus.): One of the top scorers on Russia's new NTDP-style hot house squad, Rubtsov is an extremely intelligent player who creates a lot of offense. So far, he has 19 points in 15 games, which is the best points-per-game clip on the squad.
2017 Draft Star
Jake Oettinger, G – U.S. NTDP (USHL): A late 1998 birthday, Oettinger may have what it takes to be a first-rounder next year. The 6-foot-4 netminder has great quickness in his legs and hasn't lost in his past six appearances. A Boston University commit, Oettinger's last performance was a shutout against Youngstown.