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Neutral Zone Wrap: Juniors drop the puck

by | Fantasy Writer
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Happy folly-days! Yes, the NHL is officially a joke in your town -- provided your town has a sense of humor and even cares about hockey. But never fear, alternative options are here.

With the big kids fighting over who can stay in the sandbox, the young ones are itching to display their wares in the World Junior Hockey Championship. And thanks to the tournament being held in Russia, us Eastern time-zoners are subjected to 4 a.m. wake-up calls and the inevitable office naps that will follow. For those on the left coast, these games are merely an excuse to stay up late.

The next potential stars are ready and able. But can they carry their country to a medal? Here are the players to keep an eye on in Ufa (not to be confused with the acronym for an unrestricted free-agent). No obvious selections like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Nail Yakupov but also no obscure examples from Latvia's practice squad. And here we go:

Goalies

Andrei Makarov/Andrei Vasilevski, Russia

Hard to differentiate between these two netminders due to similar skill sets, although Vasilevski (at 6-foot-3) provides the bigger target. Some would place Makarov as the backup because he went undrafted in 2012 (while Vasilevski was taken 19th overall by Tampa). More likely than not, the two Andreis will continue to rotate unless one of them ends up stealing the show.

Malcolm Subban, Canada

Just like his older brother P.K. Subban, Malcolm plays an aggressive game. The knock on the Bruins first-rounder may be his inexperience and lack of confidence on the larger ice surface. The Canadian coaching staff might want to see more out of Subban before officially anointing him as their No. 1, but Jordan Binnington may end up earning the starting nod when they drop the puck on Boxing Day.

Also keep an eye on: Patrik Bartosak, Czech Republic; John Gibson, USA; Eetu Laurikainen, Finland

Defense

Seth Jones, USA

The son of former NBAer Popeye Jones has been mentioned as a possible #1 pick in next summer's draft. And when you watch him functioning in top gear, you will understand why. Jones captained the US under-18 side to a gold medal in April, shouldering the load from the back line (eight points and a plus-9 in six games). He'll be counted on heavily to make Americans forget about their seventh-place finish from a year ago.

Hampus Lindholm, Sweden

Want to see why the Ducks picked the slick Swede at the six-spot? While Lindholm's offensive resume isn't impressive (six in 19 in the AHL), his stellar work at both ends has turned a lot of heads. He could possibly bulk up a bit (from 195 pounds) to prepare himself for the day-to-day physicality that will hit him hard when he arrives in the NHL.

Olli Maatta, Finland

Pittsburgh may have gotten the blueline special when they selected Maatta at No. 22 a few months ago. Currently anchoring a dominating London Knights squad, where he has excelled as their power-play quarterback (24 in 32 this season after a combined 55 in 77 during 2011-12). He will undoubtedly continue the same role for the Finns.

Also keep an eye on: Tim Bender, Germany; Mirco Mueller, Switzerland; Morgan Rielly, Canada; Rasmus Ristolainen, Finland

Forwards

Aleksander Barkov, Finland

His heritage may be Russian but the kid's got plenty of Finnish. After all, Barkov saw meaningful minutes at last year's event as a 16-year old (four in seven). And it's not as if he is intimidated by older opponents by sitting in the top-10 in the Finnish Elite League scoring race (with 28 in 32). Expect Barkov to be grabbed in the first five picks this coming June -- and more realistically by No. 3.

Marko Dano, Slovakia

Another 2013 hopeful who is earning rave reviews from the scouts. Perhaps not the biggest or fastest skater you'll see but definitely a wizard when it comes to finding the net (14 goals in 15 total underage contests last year). Will Slovakia medal this time? Probably not. Think this youngster can help his country to a respectable finish? Book it, Dano.

Alex Galchenyuk, USA

Yes, you read that right: Galchenyuk is an American, thanks to Dad having played in Milwaukee during the early 90s. The center may actually be better off without former linemate Yakupov in Sarnia, as he can step out from the shadow and show his immense talent (61 in 33). Whether Galchenyuk can transfer this to the WJHC is yet to be seen, but chances are he'll be a star someday in Montreal.

Mikhail Grigorenko, Russia

Buffalo's first 2012 selection (#12) is arguably the purest offensive talent of the bunch (and no offense to teammate Yakupov) who also uses size and strength (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to his advantage. Clearly a defensive liability but he is bound to improve. And that hardly matters when you're posting gaudy numbers for Quebec of the QMJHL (50 in 30).

Jonathan Huberdeau, Canada

Nathan MacKinnon may be the talk of the Canuck crew but Huberdeau will be the one racking up the most points for the Red and White. Already having served Canada admirably in the last Under-20 (nine in six) and a killer junior contributor (257 in 195!), he's also not afraid to backcheck when necessary. If he can even hit half of his production when the pros come calling, then the Panthers will be happy.

Elias Lindholm, Sweden

No relation to Hampus; after all, Lindholm is like the Swedish version of Jones (no relation to Seth). Like Barkov, Lindholm is proving teenagers can hold their own with much older skaters (21 in 32 in the top Swedish league). With other more recognizable forwards in camp, he tends to get lost. But that hasn't hurt his draft stock, being projected to go somewhere in the first 10 selections.

Also keep an eye on: Filip Forsberg, Sweden; Martin Frk, Czech Republic; Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia; Rocco Grimaldi, USA; Artturi Lehkonen, Finland; Valeri Nichushkin, Russia; Mark Scheifele, Canada

So who do I like to win? Well, I could say Sweden to repeat but that's not very logical or even realistic. Or I might look at an exciting US lineup and tab them for success. Those Russians possess many dangerous skaters and should be front and center for the final. But I think I will stick to my homeland bias and go with Canada to reclaim its junior crown. Who's in your bracket?

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Player News
Marek Mazanec
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Andrew Ebbett
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Matt Ellis
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Matt Hackett
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Matt Hackett, G, BUF
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News: The Sabres have recalled Matt Hackett from AHL Rochester, the team's official site reports.
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Michal Neuvirth
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Kyle Okposo
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Nikita Jevpalovs
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Nikita Zadorov
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1/27/2015
News: The Sabres have suspended Nikita Zadorov for failing to report to the team on time following the NHL All-Star break, the team's official site reports.
Analysis: Nikita Zadorov, who has eight points in 34 games to date, shouldn't be out of commission too long, though. GM Tim Murray indicated that he expects the blueliner (who missed Monday's practice) to rejoin the team "at some point during this week's western road trip."

Blake Comeau
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