While traditionally seen as a “19-year-old's tournament,” the World Junior Hockey Championship has proven a prime stage for 17- and 18-year-old prospects to boost their stock well in advance of the NHL Draft in June.
This year's tournament promises a little bit of everything in terms of prospect showcasing.
Canadian fans may be distracted by watching the evolution of NHL prospects like Jonathan Drouin and Bo Horvat, or even the play of 16-year-old 2015 Draft prospect Connor McDavid, but the best players available this June may also be playing for Canada.
If you look at the latest 2014 prospect rankings – be it TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie, the International Scouting Service or TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button's rankings – the top two names are consistent, and Canadian.
Sam Reinhart and Aaron Ekblad.
Both players are currently taking part in the selection camp for the Canadian World Junior team in Copenhagen, hoping to earn a spot on the final roster for the tournament in Malmo, Sweden.
So what can Canadian fans expect from the pair?
Button calls Reinhart – a six-foot-one centre for the Kootenay Ice – “A high end player with exceptional hockey sense.”
“He makes others around him better and is able to play multiple positions and situations without any decline in his game,” Button told TSN.ca. “He's a leader who ‘just plays' and does so when it matters and on a consistent basis.”
Ekblad, meanwhile, is a player that's had high pedigree from the age of 15. He became just the second player in the history of the Ontario Hockey League (after current New York Islanders captain John Tavares) to be granted ‘exceptional player' status and early entry into the league via the OHL Priority Selection.
Ekblad was six-foot-three and 205 pounds at 15. The Barrie Colts list him an inch taller and 12 pounds heavier now on their web site, making him a physical force against junior opposition.
“He's a highly dependable, very consistent player who is able to play not only lots of minutes in the game but the important ones,” said Button. “He has a big time intensity to his game that is surrounded by rare calm and poise.”
But Canada is not the only team that will be looking to Draft-eligible skill in hopes of bringing home gold from Malmo.
The first among those is the team that would have the least distance to go for their victory celebration: the host Swedes.
Sweden has some top NHL prospects on their selection roster including Montreal Canadiens prospect Sebastian Collberg, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Alexander Wennberg and the expected addition of Carolina Hurricanes forward Elias Lindholm.
But the hidden weapon in their arsenal could be 17-year-old Frolunda winger Anton Karlsson, ranked sixth in the latest draft rankings by both Button and the ISS.
Button calls Karlsson “a leader in his age group. That leadership is from an on-ice presence that gives him a way to contribute to winning in many different forms.”
Another Draft-eligible name to watch in Malmo might be familiar to hockey fans over a certain age: Kasperi Kapanen - son of former Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers winger Sami Kapanen – is a good bet to make the Finnish team.
Does he compare to his 25-plus-goal-scoring father?
“He's very skilled yet can impact the game in many ways,” Button said. “His approach to playing could be compared to Patrick Sharp.”
So, maybe Kapanen's not his 25-plus-goal father … but possibly the 30-plus-goal Sharp.
There's one final player to watch and, hey, here's something new: He's on the German team.
Germany has traditionally taken a beating at the World Juniors. They avoided relegation in 2013, finishing ninth out of 10 teams, marking the first time since 1997 that the team went to the tournament and was not relegated.
This year, though, the team boasts a player ranked fourth in McKenzie's pre-season draft rankings: Prince Albert Raiders winger Leon Draisaitl.
The six-foot-one, 209-pounder has put up 51 points in 33 games in the WHL this season.
Button had high praise for his skill and physicality.
“Good luck pushing him out of the game,” Button told TSN.ca. “He wants to impact the game in some form and he usually does. Without a real strong supporting cast around on the National Team level, it is left to him, and he always delivers.”
Keep an eye out for him as Germany opens the 2014 tournament against Canada on Dec. 26. Watch it live on TSN at 7am et/4am pt.