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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
Paul Gaustad
Preds' Gaustad Takes Hit To Upper-Body Area
Paul Gaustad, C, NSH
12:59 AM
News: Paul Gaustad left Tuesday's game against the Canucks after he took a high hit from Alexandre Burrows. The Predators didn't have an update on Gaustad's condition Wednesday, Adam Vingan of The Tennessean reports.
Analysis: Burrows was ejected for the hit, but isn't expected to face any supplementary punishment from the league office. It's possible that Paul Gaustad, who picked up an assist earlier in the contest, suffered a concussion from the impact, but nothing on that front will be known officially until the team provides more information.

Matt Beleskey
Ducks' Beleskey To Remain Out Wednesday
Matt Beleskey, LW, ANA
12:51 AM
News: Matt Beleskey (lower body) will not play Wednesday against the Oilers, Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times reports.
Analysis: Matt Beleskey wasn't able to return to the ice during the Ducks' morning skate, which will prevent him for suiting up for a second straight game. Jiri Sekac is slated to skate on the top line in Beleskey's absence.

Jonas Hiller
Flames Stick With Hiller On Thursday
Jonas Hiller, G, CGY
12:43 AM
News: Jonas Hiller is slated to start Thursday's game against the Blues.
Analysis: Jonas Hiller will thus make his third straight start for the Flames, who compiled a 9-3-3 record in March, a month that was capped by back-to-back triumphs by a combined tally of 10-5, both backstopped by Hiller.

Boyd Gordon
Oilers' Gordon Remains Out Wednesday
Boyd Gordon, C, EDM
12:42 AM
News: Boyd Gordon (back) will not return to the Oilers' lineup Wednesday against the Ducks, Jack Michaels of the Oilers Radio Network reports.
Analysis: Boyd Gordon is traveling with the Oilers on their road trip and was able to skate with the team Wednesday morning, but he'll still need a little more practice time before reentering the lineup. Though he could be ready to play Thursday against the Kings, Gordon will be forced to sit out a fourth consecutive game.

Matt Hendricks
Oilers' Hendricks Out Third Straight
Matt Hendricks, C, EDM
12:40 AM
News: Matt Hendricks (back) will not play Wednesday against the Ducks, Jack Michaels of the Oilers Radio Network reports.
Analysis: Matt Hendricks is traveling with the Oilers on their road trip and was able to skate with the team Wednesday morning, but he'll still need a little more practice time before re-entering the lineup. He'll head to the press box for a third consecutive game and could be a candidate to play Thursday against the Kings.

Clayton Stoner
Ducks' Stoner Likely To Sit Out Another
Clayton Stoner, D, ANA
12:35 AM
News: Clayton Stoner (lower body) isn't expected to play Wednesday against the Oilers, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register reports.
Analysis: Clayton Stoner resumed skating with the Ducks on Wednesday, but his absence from a regular defensive pairing suggests he'll sit out a second straight game. With only eight points in 67 games this season, Stoner will struggle to provide fantasy players with value once he does return to the lineup.

Frederik Andersen
Ducks' Andersen Confirmed For Thursday
Frederik Andersen, G, ANA
12:33 AM
News: Frederik Andersen is confirmed as the starter in goal for Thursday's game against the Oilers, Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register reports.
Analysis: After receiving the Ducks' previous game off in favor of John Gibson, Frederik Andersen will get back in the net Wednesday looking to extend his winning streak to three games. Andersen has won his previous three career starts against the Oilers, producing a 1.67 GAA and .935 save percentage.

Martin St. Louis
Rangers' St. Louis Set To Return
Martin St. Louis, RW, NYR
12:32 AM
News: Martin St. Louis (knee) is slated to play Thursday against the Wild.
Analysis: Martin St. Louis, who is bouncing back from a sprained right MCL, last suited up for the Rangers on March 15. Based on Wednesday's practice, look for St. Louis to work on a line with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin upon his return to the Rangers' lineup on Thursday. Prior to his injury, St. Louis had recorded 20 goals and 47 points in 68 games.

Ryan Kesler
Ducks' Kesler A Game-Time Decision
Ryan Kesler, C, ANA
12:27 AM
News: Ryan Kesler (elbow) will be a game-time decision for Wednesday's tilt with the Oilers.
Analysis: Ryan Kesler was on the ice for Wednesday's morning skate, but coach Bruce Boudreau was tight-lipped about the center's status for the evening. Given that the Oilers are one of the NHL's weakest teams, it might make sense for the Ducks to give Kesler the night off to preserve his body for the playoffs. An official decision on his status should come down based on how the Ducks line up during pregame warmups.

Tanner Pearson
Kings' Pearson Not Healing As Quickly As Hoped
Tanner Pearson, LW, LA
12:24 AM
News: Tanner Pearson (leg) underwent an X-ray Tuesday, which didn't show as much healing as he had hoped, Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider reports.
Analysis: Tanner Pearson appeared to be making a bid for returning to the lineup before the end of the regular season, but those plans may have hit some friction with the news he received following his X-ray. While it doesn't sound like the winger is dealing with a major setback, the Kings haven't wavered from the three-month timetable Pearson was issued after suffering the injury Jan. 10. If his subsequent skates with the team continue to go well, Pearson could put himself on track to return for the first round of the playoffs.

 
 
 
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