The World Junior Championship got underway this morning in Malmo, Sweden. In case you’re not keeping up, the Tampa Bay Lightning have four of their best sub-twenty year-old prospects participating in the tournament: Jonathan Drouin (Canada), Adam Erne (USA), Henri Ikonen (Finland), and Andrei Vasilevski (Russia).
Three of the four took to the ice today for their respective teams, and all three were victorious.
If you’re an obsessed Lightning fan like me, perhaps you found yourself yawning your way to the coffee maker at 7:00 a.m. EST this morning, getting ready to watch kids so young they hope to find PS4s waiting for them at home play hockey in near-empty arenas halfway around the world.
The tournament kicked off with Team Canada playing Team Germany.
The Lightning’s consensus top prospect, Jonathan Drouin, played a toned down game from what we’re used to seeing from him, a game of solid decisions rather than flashy Michael-Jackson-on-ice-type moves. Even so, Drouin wound up assisting on each of linemate Anthony Mantha’s hat trick goals, the final of which assist being a seeing-eye puck that found Mantha through traffic for a tap-in.
After some early scares, Canada rolled to a 7-2 victory.
Drouin has been lighting up the QMJHL this year. Despite some motivational and/or injury issues in the season’s early going, and a concussion at the hands of fellow Lightning prospect Adam Erne, and now missing time for the WJC, Drouin remains ninth in QMJHL scoring with 50 points in just 23 games. He’s neck and neck with Mantha for the league lead in points-per-game average, trailing Mantha by about 0.1 points per game.
Drouin was particularly outstanding in November when he scored 31 points in only 10 games and earned player of the month honors.
Next up it was Andrei Vasilevski and his stacked Russian squad taking on Team Norway. Vasilevski, it might interest you to know, was named the tournament’s top prospect to watch by the much-respected Bob McKenzie of TSN.
Vasilevski turned out to be a non-factor in the game, as Team Russia buried the Norwegians under five goals by the end of the first period on their way to an eye-popping 11-0 victory. Vasilevski was pulled midway through the game, after making just six saves, to allow Ivan Nalimov some work.
In the KHL this year, Vasilevski has been great, which is why he’s now widely recognized as hockey’s best goaltending prospect. At just nineteen, he’s playing in the second best league in the world, against full grown men, and the numbers speak for themselves: 2.31 GAA, .923 S%.
Vasilevski, drafted 19th overall by the Lightning in 2012, is playing in his third WJC and by all indications he’s ready to dominate the tournament. If he does, there will likely be no stopping this powerhouse Russian team, considered by many to be second only to Sweden on paper, from rolling all the way to the gold medal.
Finally, it was Adam Erne and Team USA taking to the ice against the Czech Republic. Erne, who’s mostly valued for his physical presence with the team, failed to register more than a pair of shots, but did have a couple of bright moments in the offensive zone on the way to Team USA’s 5-1 victory.
For the most part, however, Erne was something of a non-factor. His line had trouble generating chemistry, and Erne’s physical game has yet to fully translate to international ice.
After an eye-opening training camp with the Lightning in the fall, in which many though Erne might do the impossible and actually make the team as an 18 year-old, Erne has returned to the Quebec Remparts and continued to develop into a physical force with solid offensive upside. Erne currently has 38 points in 30 games in the Q, giving him a far superior PPG to last year, when he finished with 72 in 68. He currently ranks second on the Remparts in scoring.
But Erne made headlines, and waves, a couple of weeks ago when he made a boneheaded illegal hit from behind on fellow Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin, resulting in a concussion to Drouin. The hit was not particularly vicious, but was eye-brow raising to say the least, considering how obviously illegal it was and how intentional it seemed. Making matters worse, Erne accused Drouin of diving on the play post-game, which didn’t exactly endear him to Lightning fans, and within a week he wound up tossed from another game for another hit from behind.
So while there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Erne, he’s not without red flags. The situation brought to mind how Erne, last season, found himself suspended by the Remparts and then, at the draft, was passed over by his own coach, Patrick Roy, whom you couldn’t miss at the Avalanche draft table. So let’s just say there might be some maturity issues that need to be worked out (which might also yet be true of Roy, but I digress).
The final Might-Be Lightning participating at this year’s WJC is Henri Ikonen, whose Finnish team is scheduled to take on the lowly Norwegians tomorrow morning.
Ikonen has been a pleasant surprise for the Lightning. For other teams, prospects selected in the later rounds with names that are hard to pronounce tend to be throwaways, filler, guys you never really expect to play for your team. Not so with the Lightning, whose scouting staff, led by Al Murray, have selected gem after gem deep in each year’s draft. Look no further than Ondrej Palat (you know, the guy currently playing on our top line) who was selected 208th overall, or fourth last, depending on how you look at it, for proof that Murray is owed Christmas cards by all of us.
By that standard, Ikonen, selected 154th overall, must be a lock to make the NHL. Right? Of course that’s not true — player development is about the furthest thing from death and taxes in the grand scheme of certainties. However, Ikonen, 19, currently playing with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, is certainly yet another example that there are no throwaway picks in the Lightning organization.
After scoring 51 points in 61 games in his draft year, Ikonen has scored at a torrid pace to start the 2013/2014 season. In 28 games he’s racked up 42 points and shows a lot of consistency by going on long point streaks. Also, keep in mind, that OHL scoring and QMJHL scoring are not created equal, and OHL points are generally weighted a little more heavily, making Ikonen’s season all the more impressive. He currently sits second on the team behind scoring dynamo Sam Bennett, who many believe will be a top-five selection in this year’s draft.
One notable omission from this year’s WJC is Lightning first-rounder, and tenth overall pick in 2012, defenseman Slater Koekkoek. And although Koekkoek was cut, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about his progression. Koekkoek is having a terrific season in the OHL, where in just 33 games he’s already topped his career best in goals (with eight) and currently sits tied with his career best in points (28).
Best of all, Koekkoek is leading the OHL in plus/minus with a whopping +36 rating. Koekkoek is a defenseman who will likely require some AHL time before he can make an impact at the NHL level, but projects to be a solid top-four D-man with good offensive upside.
To put it lightly, things are looking bright in Tampa Bay’s developmental system. (Thanks again, Al Murray. Oh, and that other guy, Steve what’s-his-name, Izzy or Izzeer-something, probably deserves some credit too.)