Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Look Back: World Junior Championships 2006

Besides being a world class tournament in terms of entertainment, I've always felt the World Junior Championships gives a nice peak into the future in terms of the type and usefulness of particular players. As someone who follows Junior hockey about as closely as I follow soap operas, most of the names in the tournament are new to me, besides of course the guys that have hype follow them around like a lost puppy. This year I think we can safely say that the hype is primarily following John Tavares, the phenom who was drafted into the OHL at age 14 after being granted 'exceptional player status,' allowing him to bypass the usual minimum age of 16. He was cut from last year's junior team, the first time in his life he had been cut by a team. Last March he bested Gretzky's record of goals by a 16 year old in the OHL, scoring 71 in a season. This December he was named to the team. Despite this, the scouting reports have been a little bit mixed about Tavares; most agree that his vision and playmaking is very good, but there are a few questions about his skating, ala Brad Richards or Jason Spezza. Despite this, Tavares would probably go number one in this year's NHL Entry Draft, if he were eligible.

In the 2006 edition of the World Juniors I would have to say the hype really surrounded a couple of American kids, Eric and Jack Johnson (no relation). On Team Canada though, there was a lot of hoopla around a kid named Steve Downie, but for all the wrong reasons.

Direct from Wikipedia:

Downie was suspended for 5 games early in the 2005-06 OHL season for on-ice altercations with a teammate during practice. Downie blindly cross-checked and then fought teammate Akim Aliu during practice on September 28, knocking out 3 of Aliu's teeth. [1] The incident stemmed from 16 year old Aliu's refusal to take part in a hazing incident, which involved rookies being forced to stand naked in a cramped bus bathroom. The team suspended Downie for five games and Aliu for one, and Downie was told to undergo professional counselling. (Wikipedia)

The part of the story that Wikipedia didn't mention was how Downie was in a car accident when he was 8. His dad, the driver, was killed driving Downie to a hockey practice. In addition, Downie lost a lot of his hearing in one ear due to an unrelated condition. He was my favorite story that year.

He was a real pest to the opposition, drawing many many penalties. In the Gold medal game against the Russians he simply dominated Evgeni Malkin, both in terms of production (scoring the opener, also the winner) and in terms of the mental game. No one would ever accuse Downie of having more talent than Malkin, but his will to win that day was unmatched by anyone on either team. It was a real beauty to watch.

The 2006 edition of team Canada also brought in a couple of revelations for the Alberta teams, Calgary and Edmonton.

The 2004/2005 teams had featured Calgary's great white hope, Dion Phaneuf, doing his best Al MacInnis/Scott Stevens impressions. In the middle of the 2004 season, before the Flames glorious run to the final, a friend asked me if Phaneuf would be better than Leopold - better, I told him. He had so many tools to work with it was hard to see how Dion wouldn't be a force. I think Dion has got a little ways to go before he's truly one of the greats, but he still shows something every night that is impressive.

The 2006 edition didn't have a heralded prospect like Phaneuf for the Flames or Oilers, but as the tournament progressed, a skilled, speedy center stood out for Team Canada. Dustin Boyd was a guy I was pretty unfamiliar with, but a guy that constantly suprised me with his skill and thinking ability. He was not the prototypical Calgary draft pick - he wasn't that big, and he wasn't that strong - (to give you an idea of who the Flames were looking for, Chris Chucko was picked first for the Flames, then Brandon Prust, then Dustin Boyd).

There were some question marks about Boyd early in this season, he didn't have much of a chance to make the team with the overload of centers in the Calgary lineup. He was eventually called up, probably to shake things up, and he has not looked out of place. He has 2G and 1A in 13 games, including a real beauty against Carolina the other night, a real goal scorers goal, composure and all. He's playing over 10 minutes a game, more than Nilson, Yelle, Primeau, Smith and Godard. Boyd has a ways to go before being a real difference maker or even a regular NHLer, but he's certainly showing small flashes of brilliance at the NHL similar to what he showed at the World Juniors.

The Oilers, for their part, haven't really had a key player for Team Canada for a while. JD Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk were invited to tryout camps but were non factors. Robbie Schremp never really made an impact with Team USA, except for causing some controversy. There was some reason to be optimistic about a speedy college player name Andrew Cogliano. Don Cherry lamented the fact the Leafs did not snatch Andrew Cogliano, choosing Tuukka Rask instead (then trading him away for Andrew Raycroft).

Cogliano was a guy I really liked as a player. Very hard working, very speedy - but one thing that he has shown in the NHL that he never showed in the World Juniors, was his finish. Cogliano in many ways reminded me of another speedy (ex) Edmonton Oiler - Todd Marchant. He was very defensively responsible, got a lot of breakaways, and rarely scored. He had 5 points in 6 games, scoring only 1 goal. Goals or not though, there was enough to like about Cogliano to think he could at least be a solid role player in the NHL.

As Edmonton fans now know, Cogliano is the real deal. He's a solid NHLer in many ways - 6G and 10A in 34 games, good enough for 4th on the team, despite being 18th in terms of icetime, playing only about 14 minutes a game. He's ranked 14th in terms of PP time, far behind the other three players ahead of him in points. He is however ranked about 14th in terms of quality of competition on the team, so the his points may be slightly inflated due to some softer minutes. The fact he has 2 SHG is extremely impressive.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Flames and Oilers fans have much to scout at this years World Junior Championships, however, if you want a head start in watching tommorow's stars, tune in, December 26th, as Canada takes on the Czech Republic noon MST.


MetroGnome said...

to give you an idea of who the Flames were looking for, Chris Chucko was picked first for the Flames, then Brandon Prust, then Dustin Boyd

In hindsight, it's stunning that this was the Flames draft order that year. In terms of long-term NHL viability, the list most certainly goes in reverse now.

Chucko can't even make a mark at the AHL level, let alone the NHL level, while Boyd is looking like a replacement level player in the bigs already (with the potential to be more).

therealdeal said...

To be fair I remember the original plan was to draft Chipchura, but he went just ahead of the Flames draft spot, so we traded down for an extra pick or something like that and then grabbed Chucko.

I still have hope for Prust but Chucko just doesn't look like a player.

MetroGnome said...

I agree...Prust looks like he could be a "Steve Begin" species of checker. Chucko looks terrible from every angle...he's never put up anything noteworthy at any level besides the "BCHL" and he's never, ever impressed me whenever I've seen him up close.