Previewing the Wild Junior Championships

NHL Prospect rankings are hard. Maybe harder than any other sport.

Obviously that’s might not be entirely true, there is a lot of trial and error when it comes to evaluating minor league talent, a lot of hits and misses with any sport, except maybe top two picks in the NBA. The difficulty in hockey talent evaluations is that you’re dealing with 17 year old kids when they’re drafted- the youngest of any sport. But even the NFL, which waits until the age of 20 to draft prospects, has a lot of trouble evaluating talent.

A huge reason for this is because you’re dealing with human beings, and with the slight exception of hockey experts calling the Wild boring, you can never really predict what human beings are going to do.

But that’s just drafting. At least baseball prospects are in the same minor leagues as everyone else, and football and basketball players make the leap to the highest levels right away. Hockey prospects are all over the world, playing all kinds of different talent levels. We can all figure out that Mikael Granlund’s 38 points in 32 SM-Liiga games are pretty damn valuable. But what’s more impressive? Zack Phillips’ 54 points in 32 games playing against kids his own age in Juniors, or Johan Larsson’s 23 points in 31 games in the Sweedish Elite League? It’s kind of hard to say.

And therein lies the beauty of the World Junior Championships. For a magical two weeks, all the top prospects are on a level playing field. Even in a small sample size, we can still glean quite a bit of information from this tournament. With the Wild sending six prospects to the WJCs next week, let’s break down the prospects participating, and what to expect from them.

Finland

Mikael Granlund- Mikael Granlund does not need this tournament. Mikael Granlund has nothing to prove. Seriously. Nothing. He’s excelled in the WJC-U18s (12 G, 26 P), he’s been a PPG+ player in the WJC (6 G, 7 P in 2010), succeeded in the World Championships (9 G, 9 P, insane lacrosse goal), and has been dominant in his three years in the SM-Liiga (114 G, 114 P). A dominant performance would be a feather in his cap, and there’s no reason not to believe he won’t be one of, if not the, best players at the WJC.

Sweeden

Jonas Brodin- This will be the first time Wild fans will really be able to catch the Jonas Brodin experience, and I am really anxious to see him. Scouts are raving about his ability, despite the five points. He’s plays top minutes, and he plays good defense in the SEL for a bad team. What I want to see is how his offensive game translates to players his own age. He’s Sweeden’s best defenseman, and we’ll be seeing quite a bit of him, and he’ll be the most compelling person to watch in this tournament.

Johan Gustafsson- Gustafsson will be Finland’s #1 goalie. He’s owned the SM-Liiga this year, and is in the top ten of every category that you’d want a goalie to be in the top ten of. I guess we’ll see how he handles top Junior competition. Playing that well against men can’t hurt. (You totally can’t tell that I don’t know a lot about Gustafsson, right?)

Johan Larsson- Sweeden’s the Wild’s new Finland, it seems. Larsson is an interesting prospect, because the dude just keeps getting better and better. In his draft year, he was thought as a solid two-way prospect with a lot of questions about his upside. Then, BAM! 14 points in five games at the U-18 WJC in 2010. The next year, he had 8 points in 43 games in the SEL, a fine total for an 18 year old, and had a fine, but unimpressive 4 points in 6 games in the WJC, but neither of those dispelled the questions about his ultimate offensive upside. Now this year? BAM! Fringes of the Top 10 in scoring, against men.  A breakout performance in Alberta cements his place as a top prospect, and the way he keeps constantly improving, it’s hard to think he won’t have that performance.

United States

Charlie Coyle- Tough year for Coyle. In a year where Larsson and Phillips have broken out, Coyle’s been stuck in neutral on a slight incline. His PPG rate improved at BU, but he still seemed underwhelming, especially when you compare him to Jason Zucker, who doesn’t have the dominating power forward frame that Coyle has. I don’t know what to expect from Coyle. Will he advance past his 1.00 PPG  pace that he put up in the WJC last year, or will his off-ice issues continue to weigh him down?  

Jason Zucker- Could we have the next Captain America on our hands? Zucker’s impressive college stats have yet to translate to scoring success at the WJCs (3 goals, no assists in 11 games), but he has been a more than valuable player with not only his scoring, but his checking at the NCAA level. Can Zucker finally break out in the WJCs and become the speedy, physical sniper he is at Denver? Or will he continue to be underwhelming on the score sheet against his top peers? Much like Larsson, Zucker could elevate his stock with an impressive outing. (NOTE: Johan Larsson should be Sweeden’s captain, and if Mikael Granlund doesn’t wear the “C” for Finland, it’ll only because the Finnish word for “Captain” starts with a “K”, which is why I didn’t mention their captaincies earlier. Also, I’m racist concerning Finns and Swedes.)

Canada

Zack Phillips- Yeah, he was cut from Team Canada, one of the first cuts, actually. However, every time someone says Zack Phillips can’t do something, he proves his critics wrong. He fell in the draft because of his skating, and this year, his skating has improved to the point where those concerns have been hushed. People said he was only putting up points because of Jonathan Huberdeau. This year, Phillips has put up better numbers than last year playing without Huberdeau. When you see a player respond to his naysayers like that, it makes certain writers (like yours truly) feel like a major idiot (but in a good way) and you don’t get quite as angry when he’s slighted. I’m looking to see if he takes his play to an even higher level after another snub.

Enjoy the World Juniors, people. My dad (who gets NHL Network) will be seeing a lot more of me, as the opportunity to see six of your team’s best prospects competing is quite a treat, and yet another reason why the Wild will be a must-watch team in 2013-2014.

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