The most intriguing players to watch at the world juniors
Like every sporting event this year, the upcoming Junior World Championship will be different from any other edition in tournament history.
Germany and Sweden both face multiple COVID-19 cases among their players and staff, respectively, while the idea of hosting a tournament with the best U19 talents in the world in dangerous conditions does not seem easy for everyone.
However, this is not why you came here. If you ignore the off-ice terms for a second, it's a tournament full of high-profile, multi-player talent who would normally have battled for an NHL squad spot in normal times.
Without further ado, here are the nine most intriguing players of this year's tournament - which isn't always the best per se, but this is an invited group - along with some honorable mentions.
Rodion Amirov, W, Russia
When the Maple Leafs picked Rodion Amirov with 15th overall victory this summer, it was widely considered a smart move, although some fans desperately wanted Toronto to take on a defender regardless of the talent available. General Manager Kyle Dubas and his staff may know a thing or two more than the Expert class (myself included!) And so far, Amirov has shown flashes of future celebrity all summer.
Amirov has scored five goals and eight points in 23 KHL games, numbers that might not fall sideways, but in the world's second-best league, Toronto's first-round pick is a trail apart. As an elite skater, Amirov's ability to use the transition must keep Maple Leafs fans excited about the future.
During this summer's Karjala Cup - an international four-team tournament - Amirov scored three goals in three games and was named the tournament's best striker. The video below is just a shining example of what he can do on international ice. If this summer is any indication of his potential against players his age, Amirov could very well become one of the stars of the tournament.
? Rodion Amirov #LeafsForever
1-0 RUS pic.twitter.com/sANT6AWfvS
- Here's your replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 5, 2020
Cole Caufield, W, United States
Cole Caufield's game often makes him a human highlight, and Montreal's 2019 first round selection usually dominated international tournaments. In line with Jack Hughes in particular, Caufield scored 18 points in the World Under-18s in 2019, which is why it was extremely disappointing when he only scored a goal and an assist in the world's juniors last year. This year he is counted himself in a stacked U.S. forward core to drive the offense forward.
Caufield can be switched across the US line-up, but in a short tournament his penchant for group shooting can pay off. The tiny sniper, who currently averages over a point per game in Wisconsin, could be the tournament's top scorer.
Brad Lambert, C / W, Finland
It's rare for a 16-year-old to create a team line-up, but Brad Lambert provides a glimpse into the future of the 2022 NHL Draft class. I have Lambert in second place behind Shane Wright, a top scorer of the generation, though that is a lot too early rankings can change and Lambert could very well go on with a strong performance.
Lambert has scored four goals and seven points in the top Finnish league, and work experience could show through early on from a young age. It may be too early to ponder Lambert's draft brochure, but the race between him, Wright (of Team Canada), and Matthew Savoie of the Alberta Junior Hockey League has already begun, and it will be a first glimpse into the potential of a North American audience his first choice.
Jamie Drysdale, D, Canada
Jamie Drysdale got better over the course of the tournament last year and will play an important role as Canada defends its gold medal in the upcoming World Junior Championship. (AP Photo / Petr David Josek, File)
Jamie Drysdale is one of my favorite prospects in this year's tournament. Last year, I compared him positively to Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis for his skating skills and power play quarterbacking. Last year Drysdale started the tournament as Canada's seventh defender and rose quickly through the ranks, logging difficult minutes in the medal round and playing his best game of the tournament in a Canadian gold medal win against Russia.
Drysdale, one of six Canadian returnees, is paired with the top Colorado Avalanche prospect and his returnees colleague Bowen Byram in the team's top pair. Voted sixth overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2020 NHL Draft, this could very well be Drysdale's last tournament with Canada before he completes the NHL. He will be greatly relied on to defend the gold medal.
Yaroslav Askarow, G, Russia
Yaroslav Askarov was named the best goalkeeper of the last decade and was voted 11th overall by the Nashville Predators last summer. Before the world's juniors last year, Askarov had got used to dominating international tournaments and set a 5-0 record at the 2018 U17 tournament with savings of 0.948 percent. Askarov achieved a 4-0 record at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup 2019 and a saving of 0.960 percent and won gold both times.
However, during his design year, Askarov could not have had much influence on the world's juniors. He wasn't able to snatch the starting job from Amir Miftakhov. He achieved a saving of 0.877 percent with a 2-1 record and 2.71 goals against the average and did not see the ice in the medal round.
Askarov has recovered well from the KHL in seven games with SKA Saint Petersburg this season with a brilliant saving of 0.962 percent. Traditionally, goalkeepers have not been able to steal tournaments themselves, but since last year's disappointing performance among scouts and observers was still fresh, Askarov was able to bolster his team and win another international gold medal.
Lucas Raymond, W, Sweden
Lucas Raymond scored two goals and four points when Sweden won the bronze medal last year. This year, as one of the team's two returnees, he will carry a significant burden. Named fourth overall by the Detroit Red Wings, Raymond has the chance to improve his own game and show why he's one of the building blocks in the long-term development of his franchise.
The Swedish warehouse is already at risk due to COVID-19. We hope Raymond stays healthy because if so he is easily one of the most dangerous playmakers in the tournament. The NHL beckons shortly.
Trevor Zegras, C, United States
Trevor Zegras is a top-notch playmaker and was one of the only bright spots for the US last year with nine assists in five games. Although the lines have not yet been cemented, Zegras stands ready to lead the US in the scoring and can fluctuate throughout the lineup if necessary.
In a pre-tournament match against Finland, Zegras was the best player on the ice, even after shaking off a potentially serious injury after being stepped on by Anton Lundell. Check out this pass! Zegras will try to thread the needle like this several times per game and is possibly the funniest player in the dance with a real shot at MVP.
? Trevor Zegras pic.twitter.com/DcyPFfYcq8
- Here's your replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 23, 2020
Ville Heinola, D, Finland
Ville Heinola didn't look out of place often during his eight games with the Winnipeg Jets last year, scoring five points before being reassigned. This is Heinola's Junior from the Third World and he is arguably the most defensive player of the tournament.
For the past few years we've been expecting Finnish crews with high-end firepower across all four lines, but this year Heinola's rock-solid presence in the backend will be required for a team that is not expected to beat the top medal contenders. While goal is not a primary function of Heinola's game, don't be surprised if his work experience and rapid maturation allow him to create more opportunities than expected.
Quinton Byfield, C, Canada
Quinton Byfield didn't have the best tournament last winter. Alexis Lafreniere continued to distance himself from Byfield for number 1 overall, even though Byfield was rightly voted number 2 overall by the Los Angeles Kings, and we should expect him next year in the NHL.
Byfield, who is currently working with Connor Zary and Phil Tomasino, should be able to shake off his nerves from last year and just play his game. His combination of speed, size, shot power, and accuracy, combined with his innate hockey sense, should translate into a dominant tournament if he lets the game come to him and doesn't try to do too much. Byfield could move up through Canada's line-up and we would be shocked if he was Canada's 13th striker this year.
Honorable mentions: Tim Stützle (Germany), Anton Lundell (Finland), Mikko Kokkonen (Finland), Wassili Podkolzin (Russia), Jegor Chinakhov (Russia), Philip Broberg (Sweden), Cameron York (USA), Arthur Kaliyev (United States) ) States), Cole Perfetti (Canada), Ryan Suzuki (Canada)
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