Every year the World Junior Championships is used by top NHL prospects as a showcase to prove to scouts that they are either worthy of a 1st round pick, deserve that first pro contract, or maybe a first shot in the show. As we are now three days removed from Canada’s triumph in the gold medal game the final sprint to June 26 in Sunrise is now underway. As evidenced by ISS’s January Top 30, scouts place a premium on performance (or lack thereof) at the World Juniors.
Sabres fans enduring the three-way battle royale for 30th place this season can take solace in the results from this year’s tournament, as many of their current prospects helped their cause, while some names they may have interest in come June also performed well. Here’s a look at how current Sabres farmhands fared in Toronto and Montreal, as well as how some 2015 draft eligible players helped or hurt themselves.
Sam Reinhart- There was a lot made of Tim Murray’s decision to return Reinhart to Kootenay of the WHL after his nine game tryout with the Sabres in the fall, but Reinhart’s exploits may have validated Murray’s decision.
Reinhart led the team with 11 points (tied with Jets top prospect Nick Petan and some kid named Connor McDavid), and played key minutes in big games for the Canadians. In games against Finland, the US, and Russia, Reinhart was at his best, and was even tasked with holding off the final push from the Russians in the final minutes of the gold medal game. This isn’t to say that Reinhart will come to camp next year and be a point per game player, but he is on the right path to becoming the Sabres envisioned when they took him second overall
Hudson Fasching- For my money Fasching was one of the best, if not the best, player for the Americans. The University of Minnesota sophomore was a beast below the goal line; attempting to strip him of the puck or pin the 6’2” 207 pound winger against the end wall was an exercise in futility for opposing defensemen. Playing on a line with Dylan Larkin, he was a part of the more dangerous offensive line for the US. It’s a shame we couldn’t see him play with a medal on the line. It would not shock me if Fasching was handed a contract by the time camp opens up for next season.
JT Compher- While he wasn’t rewarded on the scoresheet, Compher played a solid two way game for the duration of the tournament. Compher was lauded by teammates and coaches for his leadership during the tournament, and was paired up with Fasching on the penalty kill.
Victor Olofsson- It was a disappointing tournament for the Swedes, and it was equally disappointing for Olofsson. The Sabres’ 7th round selection last year managed a single assist in seven games, as Sweden left the tournament without a medal.
Vaclav Karabacek- Karabacek was surprisingly cut from the Czech squad just days before the tournament for showing up late to a team video meeting. This was obviously disappointing for those of us hoping to see what the Sabres had in the 2014 2nd round draft pick.
Connor McDavid- Despite being on a roster full of older players, a handful of whom had already seen NHL action, it is fair to say that McDavid may have been under the most pressure of all the Canadian players.
Could he live up to the hype and deliver the gold for Canada? The answer was an emphatic yes. McDavid, coming off his much publicized broken hand, started the tournament slow but gained momentum as it went on. He played his two best games in the semis and the finals, with three assists against Slovakia, and a goal against Russia, while going 5-1 in the faceoff circle in the gold medal game. It is widely believed that the tournament is set up for 19 year olds to be successful due to their maturity compared to 17 and 18 year olds. McDavid put that theory to bed in leading the team in scoring and separating himself from Jack Eichel in the race for first overall pick in June.
Jack Eichel- Eichel showed glimpses of the player he can be early in the tournament, but his influence on games seemed to fade as the tournament went on. Eichel was the victim of a bad bounce or two, but ultimately couldn’t push the US into the semifinals as the Americans pushed for a tying goal against Russia; especially during a key 5 on 3 in the third period. By no means did Eichel do anything to hurt his stock, but he didn’t exactly make a case for himself as a top pick. That being said, whoever grabs him at second overall will still be thrilled.
Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski- These two defensemen are put together because they played together for the Americans in the tournament. The pair was on the ice with under two minutes to go against both Canada and Russia, a huge statement for a pair of 17 year olds.
Hanifin is the more well-known of the two, and is the consensus top defender available in the 2015 draft. The BC freshman has the size and skating ability to play in the NHL right out of the gate, and his play at the World Juniors did nothing to dispel that belief. Werenski was a little more of an unknown to some, despite being 5th in ISS’s December Top 30 and 6th in this month’s list. Werenski and Hanifin have virtually the same measurables, but in my humble opinion it was Werenski who did more for his draft stock over the last 2-3 weeks. That is not meant to slight Hanifin, who simply validated his spot as the top defenseman available, but rather a top of the cap to Werenski. The Michigan blue liner may have moved up a few spots on draft boards, as he was the more steady of the two at times. I’d still take Hanifin over Werenski if both are on the board, but Werenski may have shown that the gap between the two isn’t quite a big as first thought.
Lawson Crouse- Crouse leaped from 9th to 3rd in the span of a month in the ISS rankings on the strength of a solid performance at World Juniors. He is a big body in the prototypical power forward mold, but I’, not as high on him as others; I certainly wouldn’t take him 3rd overall. Given the Sabres current stable of prospects, most notably Hudson Fasching and Justin Bailey, I don’t see Crouse making sense for the Sabres unless he slips somewhere between 10-15 overall. While he is obviously talented, he registered three points in seven tournament games and has 43 points in 87 career OHL games. I’d prefer more production offensively from a forward I was taking in the top 5-7 range of the 1st round.
Mikko Rantanen- Rantanen notched four goals in five games while playing a very strong game for the Finns in this year’s tournament. Rantanen jumped from 13 to 6 in the ISS rankings as a result of his play. Rantanen and Crouse are very similar, although Rantanen is a hair taller and a touch heavier. Personally I am more of a fan of Rantanen for a few reasons. First is that Rantanen currently plies his trade for TPS in SM-Liiga and has 11 points in 31 games playing in a professional league against men. Second is Rantanen’s ability to center. It will be interesting to see which of the two goes off the board first, but I’d be surprised if either is still on the board after the top 10-12 picks.
Dylan Larkin- Larkin is not a Sabres prospect, nor is he draft eligible in 2015, but he gets a shout out due to his name being a part of the constant Tyler Myers to Detroit rumors. Larkin has been the prospect Tim Murray is requesting from Ken Holland for the last few months, and after his showing at the World Juniors you can see why. Larkin was one of the Americans’ best players throughout the tournament and also developed great chemistry with Sabres prospect Hudson Fasching. Count me among those who wouldn’t hate seeing his name added to the Sabres’ list of top prospects.
Auston Matthews and Jesse Puljujarvi- Both are not eligible for the NHL draft until 2016, but they certainly showed what to expect in 18 months.
Matthews is already being talked about as a potential #1 pick in ’16, and the 17 year old more than held his own in this year’s tournament with three points. Puljujarvi is a relative unknown to North American fans, but it’s a matter of time until he’s a household name. First of all, he’s just 16 years old and is already 6′ 3″ and 200 pounds. While he didn’t find the score sheet for the Finns this year he fired 26 shots on net in just five games, the most on the team, and he’s already played 13 games in SM-Liiga, where he has four points. If I’m a betting name Puljujarvi gets top billing in 2016.