The world junior picture is beginning to clear up as the holiday classic nears. Sweden won’t get Andre Burakovsky from Washington and Canada won’t get Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but the biggest blow may be to the Russians. That’s because Nikita Zadorov has become too integral to the suddenly-hot Buffalo Sabres. The World Jr. A Challenge also has some great talent this year and it’s going on now, so let’s take a look at some of the young players we’re excited to see in the NHL one day.
Lawson Crouse, LW – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
It was heartening to hear Crouse get an invite to Canada’s world junior camp, but with only a few roster spots to cut, the big power forward from Kingston is still hanging on. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that he was thriving over the weekend, chipping in on the scoreboard and playing a variety of roles against a team of university players. Along with Connor McDavid, Crouse was the only 1997 birthday left on the roster once first cuts came and he’s still drinking it all in.
“Obviously it’s a big step up, but it felt good,” Crouse said. “It’s definitely a lot faster than what I’m used to, but that’s a jump I’ll have to make if I want to play on the team.”
Crouse turned heads at the CHL-Russia Super Series, impressing scouts with his physical play. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is still learning what he can do with his big frame on the ice, but that knowledge is getting unlocked day by day.
“Experience is a key factor,” he said. “I thought I had a strong rookie season and it all builds to this year. I’ve had a fairly strong year and I’m just happy everything is going well.”
Back in Kingston, Crouse and his compatriots have had to deal with the loss of Calgary lottery pick Sam Bennett to injury – and Bennett was no sure thing to return anyway thanks to his pedigree.
“It’s something we had to get used to,” he said. “He was a key player on our team last year and it gives different guys a chance to step up a little more and take on different roles.”
The Fronts are in a dogfight for points and with four goals in his past five games, Crouse is chipping in. Even if he doesn’t make Canada’s final world junior roster, the youngster has made a statement: This kid is on an upward trajectory. Draft eligible in 2015.
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
The Danes are warming up for the world juniors by playing at the World Jr. A Challenge and Ehlers has made Kindersley, Sask., his own playground. The incredibly dangerous offensive force has five goals in the first two games, using his speed and hands to dazzle. Drafted ninth overall by Winnipeg in 2014.
Jake Virtanen, RW – Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
As older wingers were jettisoned from Canada’s WJC camp roster, Virtanen hung on thanks to his prolific output in two exhibition games against a team of university players. The gritty and gifted Calgary standout had six points in those games, prompting teammates to tease him with the nickname ‘Showtime.’ Drafted sixth overall by Vancouver in 2014.
Tommy Novak, C – Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Novak is really fun to watch in the offensive zone thanks to his ability to hang onto the puck and create for his linemates. The University of Minnesota commit is playing for Team USA at the World Jr. A Challenge and rang up two points in the squad’s 7-0 demolition of Switzerland. Draft eligible in 2015.
Dylan Labbe, D – Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
First known as a shutdown defenseman who could square off against the other team’s top line, Labbe has really upped his offensive game this season, with 10 goals and 25 points through 30 games. The big D-man (who already has AHL experience) will easily surpass his career high of 28 points soon. Drafted 107th overall by Minnesota in 2013.
Will Borgen, D – Moorhead Spuds (Minn. HS)
Like the archetypal Minnesota high school prospect, Borgen is a great skater, but he doesn’t stop there. Scouts see him as a smart, efficient player who makes a simple first pass and plays a polished defensive game. The St. Cloud State commit also has seven points in his first eight games. Draft eligible in 2015.
Rasmus Andersson, D – Barrie Colts (OHL)
You can’t just replace Aaron Ekblad, but the Colts at least got some reinforcements when Andersson came over from Sweden as the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 left for Florida. Andersson has a great shot and uses his hockey sense and instincts to succeed. He’s hot lately, too, with seven points in his past six games. Draft eligible in 2015.
A.J. Greer, RW – Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
A true freshman on the No. 1 team in the country, Greer is a physical powerhouse who will nonetheless need time to develop as a prospect. He’s playing a small role with the Terriers, but scouts know the Quebec native from his prep school days at Kimball Union – and they like what they saw. Draft eligible in 2015.
Denis Guryanov, RW – Ladia Togliatti (Rus.)
A big player with nice quickness, Guryanov is willing to take his lumps in front of the net if it results in an offensive chance. The right winger can score and create as a playmaker, getting in on both of Russia’s goals in a loss to Denmark at the World Jr. A Challenge. Draft eligible in 2015.
Veini Vehvilainen, G – JYP-Akatemia (Fin.)
An athletic goaltender that likes to use his flexibility, Vehvilainen has actually has better numbers in Finland’s Mestis league, the second-highest circuit in the land, than he has against under-20 competition. With Akatemia, he’s rocking a 2.04 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Draft eligible in 2015.