It is holiday time and that means the World Junior Championships are right around the corner and the next generation of NHL stars will be on display. Once again, the hopes and dreams of young players representing their countries will shine through, as glory and honour are the reward, not the bottom line. The top ten hockey nations on the planet will send their best players under the age of 20 to Ottawa for the 11-day tournament starting Boxing Day.
This is sneak peak of what the NHL fans have in store for the next decade, and the fact that some of the NHL teams release their young rookies to showcase their skills in this tournament makes it even more enticing. With the continuing development of hockey programs across the world, the talent is coming from everywhere, like the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian star.
Here is a list of the top ten NHL-drafted prospects to keep an eye on during this tournament:
Nikita Filatov - Team Russia - Left Wing, 18 - (Columbus Blue Jackets - 1st round, 6th overall 2008)
Reason to Watch: Arguably the most creative and dynamic prospect at the WJC who could dominate the tournament offensively.
He is the most dynamic forward to come out of Russia since, well, Evgeni Malkin. He has the ability to dominate and take over a game at will. His hockey sense and vision are exceptional and he reads the play like he is in a slow-moving game of chess. He makes smart, extremely fast decisions with the puck and he uses all his options and never seems to panic. To say he can stickhandle his way out a phone booth is an understatement and he can turn players inside out and weave magic. What truly sets him apart is his speed and ability to separate in two strides, which causes defenders to give him too much space and time. He can bob and weave like Barry Sanders on the football field at full speed with the puck and if you do not keep great gap control he will be all alone on the goaltender. Filatov is a patient shooter and knows when to wait or release the puck instantly depending on the situation. His wrist shot is deadly accurate, while his slap shot has surprising zip that can fool goaltenders. Filatov shows no fear going to the net. To his credit, he plays a reliable, responsible defensive game and he shows hustle coming back to support his defencemen. Also to his credit, despite his lack of strength, he competes hard and is not considered a perimeter player. Filatov is a clutch performer and is on the ice in all crucial situations. It is quite clear Filatov does not like to lose.
Jamie Benn - Team Canada - Left Wing, 19 - (Dallas Stars - 5th round, 129th overall, 2007)
Reason to Watch: The late round draft pick has excellent athletic ability with a knack for scoring clutch goals and could have a significant impact at the WJC.
Benn is an underappreciated forward in his draft year since he was playing in the BCHL, but showed his worth while dominating the WHL this season. A solid 6 foot 2 and 205 pound winger, he has shown the hockey sense to compete at the NHL level and thinks very quickly. Has very good puck skills as he can pass quickly and crisply, and can also stickhandle to create time and space. He seems to be at his best when he's driving to the net and lingering in the slot since he has a nose for the net and a knack for clutch goals. This season already he has four short-handed goals, three game winning tallies, two first goals and six insurance markers out of 24 goals. Now that is clutch goal scoring.
Benn has soft hands and can deflect pucks in close to go along with a strong wrist shot and slap shot. He is tough to get the puck from when down low or in the slot and shows core strength and power beyond his weight. He has been training in the off-season with CrossFit, which is the same program that all the actors on the Spartan movie 300 got their size and strength from. He is a good skater overall and can be a little sneaky with his quickness. Benn displays the agility in tight areas to be effective.
Mattias Tedenby - Team Sweden - Left Wing, 18 - (New Jersey Devils - 1st round, 24th overall 2008)
Reason to Watch: With all the hype around Victor Hedman and the LA Kings allowing Oscar Moller to play, this dynamo could electrify the crowd every time he touches the puck.
Tedenby is a whirling dervish that is comparable to his countryman Moller. He has the capability to be an offensive dynamo since his hockey sense is at an elite level. He can make highly skilled plays at full speed. His puck skills are excellent and he can make tape-to-tape cross-ice passes through traffic. Tedenby reads the ice so well that he makes great use of all his options. The kid can stickhandle through traffic like the puck is taped to his stick and he leaves defenders watching instead of defending him which opens up space for his linemates. He never seems to panic with the puck and shows some savvy veteran poise for his age. Remember the scene in "Rocky" where Rocky is chasing the chicken? Well that's what it is like trying to contain Tedenby. He is so elusive and has such fantastic agility with surprising quickness that he can draw penalties and create time and space for everyone else on the ice. To make him even more of a threat, he can shoot the puck with deadly accuracy while getting it off his stick quickly.
On the other side of the ice he is average defensively at this stage and will need to continue to improve in this area, but he does hustle - which shows work ethic. When the game is on the line and his team needs a goal he is always on the ice and is an absolute menace on the powerplay. He could also be a big factor in shoot-outs.
Kevin Shattenkirk - Team USA - Defence, 19 (Colorado Avalanche - 1st round, 14th overall 2007)
Reason to Watch: This relatively unknown defenceman is a package of skill and intangibles who is expected to lead Team USA's defence offensively.
Not the biggest blueliner at 5 foot 11 and 193 pounds, Shattenkirk is nonetheless strong and can handle forwards down low with a lower centrr of gravity and body position. He has a physical edge to his game and will make some big hits in open ice and along the boards. An intelligent defenceman that makes consistent smart decisions with the puck and adapts to situations on the ice quickly, Shattenkirk is also a great passer who can start the rush from his own end with a nice pass that does not expose the forwards and hits them while at full speed. His speed and agility are his biggest assets and they allow him to jump into the offensive rush or recover defensively and thwart speed rushers. He possesses a good low accurate shot from the point that can be tipped and can cause scoring chances. He has the potential to be a factor on the powerplay for team USA and will be asked to contain the other team's top forwards. If Team USA takes home a medal it may because of Shattenkirk's ability to log big minutes and anchor the defence.
Jyri Niemi - Team Finland - Defence, 18 - (New York Islanders - 3rd round, 72nd overall 2008)
Reason to Watch: A hard working Finn with a nasty edge and a slap shot that consistently hovers around 100 mph and scares the life out of goalies.
Niemi is a solid, consistent puck-moving defenceman who shows decent decision making and poise with the puck under duress at the WHL level. Coming out of the zone, Niemi reads the developing play fairly quickly and uses his options well enough, and usually does not put the puck in dangerous areas. He shows soft hands at times and can handle bad passes and stickhandle well enough to keep the opposition honest. Niemi is a very good overall skater for a defenceman, and he has the ability to beat the forecheck with his quickness and agility. The one thing that makes the hockey world stand up and take notice is his thunderous slap shot that has been clocked at over 100 mph, but it is the accuracy of that shot that makes it special. He does not telegraph his shot very often, but forwards are starting to figure him out so he needs to mix it up. He moves pretty well along the blueline to find the seams to get it through to the net. This alone will make him a regular on any powerplay unit.
Niemi is tough to play against because he works hard and will physically battles forwards along the boards and in front of the net. He shows moxie, will take hits to make plays and is not afraid to get his nose dirty and roll up his sleeves. He does take too many bad penalties but can log a lot of ice time in special teams and five-on-five situations.
Colten Teubert - Team Canada - Defence, 18 - (Los Angeles Kings - 1st round, 13th overall 2008)
Reason to Watch: Teubert is simply fun to watch since he hovers on the edge and just goes out and plays old fashioned defence, which is a formula of body-checking and intimidation followed by more body-checking.
If you are looking for a throwback defensive defenceman that plays a mean tough defensive style who will intimidate and scare forwards, then Teubert is your guy. Overall he is a good skater who can recover defensively, and his quickness and agility are improving, which will help him keep pace with the speedy forwards. He has great strength and balance on his skates and is hard to move once planted in front of the net or shielding the puck. Being away from the puck is his bread and butter as he hustles and works hard to break to the right position and maintain gap control. He uses his wingspan and stick well to disrupt passing lanes and communicates really well with his defensive partner. On occasion he can get caught out of position being a little over zealous trying to make a thunderous hit, but he is learning to pick his spots better and maintain control. He is a one of, if not the most, mean and tough players in the entire draft, he intimidates with his body checks and is unrelenting in his punishment of opposing forwards. He could be a menace and a serious danger to forwards and they better keep their heads up or it's lights out.
Teubert is very tough to play against and hard to beat down low, and he can move and push players out of the slot and wear down forwards along the boards. He shields the puck extremely well and can handle hits from the forecheck without losing puck possession. At times Teubert will take some bad penalties but his teammates appreciate his toughness and sacrifice for the team since he blocks shots and gets his nose dirty.
Ryan McDonagh - Team USA - Defence, 19 - (Montreal Canadiens - 1st round, 12th overall 2007)
Reason to Watch: The other half of the top defence pairing for Team USA (along with Kevin Shattenkirk), McDonagh has the job of shutting down the best forwards at the tournament.
A steady two-way defenceman that does not do anything great, McDonagh still rarely makes a mistake and his hockey sense and decision-making are very good. He has solid size at 6 foot 1 and 203 pounds, which he uses frequently and makes opposing forwards pay for every inch of real estate near the net. McDonagh keeps opponents honest and generally keeps them to the outside with his strong overall skating ability, while displaying enough quickness and agility to handle speed rushers. He has pretty decent puck skills for a defenceman and can stickhandle well enough to make some time and space for himself. McDonagh has a good, powerful accurate shot from the point that can find holes and is easier to tip for forwards. He can play with a nasty edge at times and likes to be overtly physical when in front of the net or along the boards, although he has to learn to keep his emotions in check.
Away from the puck his hockey sense allows him to break to the proper position without hesitation while maintaining solid gap control and taking the right angles to the puck carrier. Once in the defensive zone McDonagh does a very good job of keeping his feet moving while keeping his head on a swivel and using an active stick to plug up the passing lanes.
Dustin Tokarski - Team Canada - Goalie, 19 - (Tampa Bay Lightning - 5th round, 122nd overall 2008)
Reason to Watch: Tokarski is not the prototypical netminder that NHL teams are looking for, but he competes and finds a way to stop the puck and win in the big games.
Considering everything he has done this season, it is safe to say Tokarski has silenced most of his critics. Perhaps it can be argued that his size at 5 foot 11 and 185 pounds might be a detriment if the NHL decides to reduce the size of the goalie equipment again, but all he does is stop the puck. Toakrski is a good skating goaltender with the lateral movement to go from post to post quickly, and the agility to make a safe when forced to scramble if things break down in front of him. He has good balance on his skates but it would not hurt if he improved his core strength to help him remain upright once he goes down in the butterfly. His positional play and mechanics are consistent and he does not give up any holes once he is in his stance. He does not get beaten on the first shot very often. He must be aware of the need to play aggressively and cut down angles of the shooters. He can't sit back in his net and rely on his reflexes.
The one thing he does exceptionally well is absorb rebounds and he is also good at directing the puck away from the slot. He shows good vision when it comes to tracking pucks in traffic and can anticipate the play, which helps give him an extra half-second to move to the right position. Tokarski is a very good puck-handling goaltender and he consistently forces the forecheckers to dump the puck softly in the zone to keep it away from him. He makes good passes to his defencemen and communicates well to set up the puck for them when a heavy forecheck is on, and he also shows a quick poke check. He can flash a quick glove hand and is getting better at controlling the direction of the puck once it comes off his blocker. What has set him apart is his poise and composure and his ability to take his game to another level and carry his team on his back far into the playoffs or in short tournaments.
Mikael Backlund - Team Sweden - Centre, 19 - (Calgary Flames - 1st round, 24th overall 2007)
Reason to Watch: The glue of Team Sweden at the forward ranks who is equally skilled offensively and is shadowing the other teams' top lines.
Playing in a defensive, slow-paced league against men as an 18 year-old does not lend itself to lofty statistics but Backlund showed his skills against his peers both in junior and on the world stage.
He has the hockey sense and puck skills to be a solid effective two-way centre with potential on the second line. He has shown good passing skills and can set up wingers in good scoring positions and is patient with the puck. He is responsible defensively and can play on both special teams effectively. Despite knee injury he retained, he has quick skating and agility and should be at full speed in the fall. This is the one player in the WJC that may change opinions quickly and all the NHL scouts will appreciate his well rounded two-way game.
Jim O'Brien - Team USA - Centre, 19 (Ottawa Senators - 1st round, 29th overall 2007)
Reason to Watch: The big shutdown centre that will be matched up against the oppositions' top centres and will produce offence in clutch situations.
Although his point production does not show it, O'Brien has greater offensive potential then his numbers indicate because he plays like a pro. His puck skills are good but not elite and he has enough stickhandling and passing abilities to play at a high level. He has an accurate wrist shot in close and a slap shot with power. He also has soft hands to bury chances in close and under duress, though he is not considered a goal scorer. He has very good speed, especially for a big player, and has shown himself to be effective on the forecheck with his quickness and ability to be disruptive. His good hockey sense makes him responsible in all areas of the ice and he is developing into a solid defensive player that logs penalty-killing time. He does a good job blocking shots and clogging up passing lanes with his stick and his wing span and he can shadow opponents. He is solid and a big prospect in this tournament at 6 foot 3 and 200 pounds, and he has the responsibility to shut down players like Cody Hodgson, John Tavares and Evgeny Gratchev and Mikael Backlund down the middle.
Shane Malloy provides hockey prospect insight and analysis on his Prospect Insider feature on TSN.ca, Canada's leading sports website. Many sports networks, hockey magazines and major newspapers have drawn upon his expertise and knowledge. His passion for the game and involvement in grass roots hockey, from the junior hockey level to the National Hockey League, is evident. He is currently a host and hockey event reporter on XM Sirius Satellite Radio (Home Ice 204) where he co-hosts a hockey radio show on Hockey Prospects and the Business of Hockey.
Prior to joining TSN, Malloy was a columnist for NHL.com, covering prospects for two years. He was also a prospect columnist Fox Sports.com for six years.