The 2013 World Junior Championship is about to get underway and with the NHL still locked out, this year's addition is jammed-packed full of top-tier talent. During the 2004-05 lockout, the WJC featured future superstars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Suter. Of the top eight scorers in that tournament, Rostislav Olesz has been the least successful and he still has 355 NHL games under his belt.
With that in mind, I'm going to highlight some of the very best players in the upcoming tournament. Because Team Canada alone is brimming with so much NHL-worthy talent, we're going to start by highlighting some of the top-tier talent from that squad before moving on to their competitors:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C – EDM) – Nugent-Hopkins almost doesn't count as a prospect anymore. Even after being selected with the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, there were serious doubts about his ability to stay with the Edmonton Oilers as an 18-year-old. He not only managed to do just that, but he had one of the most explosive rookie seasons in recent memory with 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games. Expectations will be high on him going into this tournament, but he doesn't have anything to prove here. Although he won't see it this way, the 2013 World Junior Championship is more of a tune-up series for him to keep him sharp while the lockout drags on.
Jonathan Huberdeau (C – FLA) – Huberdeau seemed primed to make the Florida Panthers’ opening night roster and maybe even compete for the Calder Trophy in 2012-13. He might still do that if the season is saved, but first he'll take part in the 2013 World Junior Championship. Unlike Nugent-Hopkins, Huberdeau has no AHL or NHL experience, so tournaments like this will give an indication of how he'll stack up when the pressure is on and the competition is fierce.
Griffin Reinhart (D – NYI) – Reinhart won't stand out in this tournament if all you're looking at is the scoresheet, but there's a reason the New York Islanders grabbed him with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He's a big defensive defenseman who has been serving as the captain of the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings.
Morgan Rielly (D – TOR) – Rielly has bounced back after being limited to 18 games last season with an ACL injury. He has seven goals and 28 points in 33 WHL games with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Toronto took him with the fifth overall selection in 2012, but Leafs GM Brian Burke he would have grabbed Rielly even if he had the top pick. He's an offensive defenseman who has been compared to Kris Letang and should play a big role for Canada.
Malcolm Subban (G – BOS) – Subban is dominating with the OHL Belleville Bulls, posting a 2.17 GAA and .932 save percentage in 26 games. At the same time, he hasn't looked as great in the lead-up to the tournament. Subban had a sub-.900 save percentage at the selection camp and he took heat from analysts for his performance in Canada's 3-2 loss to Finland in a tune-up game. The entirety of Team Canada will be under a lot of pressure, but that's especially true for the man put between the pipes and it'll be interesting to see how Subban responds to that.
Mark Scheifele (C – WPG) – Scheifele had a goal in seven games with the Winnipeg Jets, which gives him more experience than most players in this tournament. With the lockout dragging on, he's back in the OHL with the Barrie Colts and has 21 goals and 48 points in 29 OHL games. Scheifele should get an opportunity to play on the same line as Nugent-Hopkins and Huberdeau during parts of this tournament.
Ryan Strome (C – NYI) – Strome was expected to compete for a spot on the New York Islanders' opening day roster before the lockout ended that dream. Instead, he's been exceling in the OHL with 22 goals and a league-leading 62 points in just 32 games. When this lockout ends and he finally gets his shot in the NHL, he wouldn't be a bad player to pick up late in drafts in single-season leagues. He'll obviously be an unknown element, but he has enough offensive upside to make him worth the relatively low-risk gamble.
Dougie Hamilton (D – BOS) – Put Hamilton on the list of players who likely would not have been available if the lockout was not in play. He has eight goals and 41 points in 32 games with the OHL Niagara IceDogs. Another key piece of the Phil Kessel trade, Hamilton should be in the very next game the Boston Bruins play – whenever that may be. He impressed Bruins coach Claude Julien with how much stronger he's gotten and his current coach, Marty Williamson, doesn't think there are many holes in Hamilton's game.
Nathan MacKinnon (RW – 2013) – MacKinnon seems to be unable to escape Sidney Crosby's shadow. They were both born in the same town of Cole Harbour, played at the same prep school, and are former first overall selections in the QMJHL draft. If the lockout wipes out the 2012-13 campaign then MacKinnon, like Crosby, will be the probable top prize of a lottery draw for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. MacKinnon might not be the next Crosby, but he is an elite prospect whose been thrust into a similar position for the 2013 World Junior Championship. Don't expect him to lead Team Canada in points, but then again, neither did Crosby in 2005. Instead, this will be more of a learning experience for him, especially given that there's a former first overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, on the team.
Jonathan Drouin (LW – 2013) – Although he's not quite as highly regarded of a prospect as his QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads teammate MacKinnon, Drouin should be scooped up very early in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He's enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past couple of years and has an impressive 22 goals and 52 points in just 30 QMJHL games this season. Team Canada has no shortage of skilled forwards, but Drouin might still end up getting regular minutes on the Canadian's second line although a charley horse suffered on Tuesday during practice could hurt his performance early on.
If you're looking for the team that has the most star power then Canada would probably win hands down, but that doesn't mean that they're guaranteed to win the gold medal this year. The competition will be fierce and it wouldn't be in the least bit shocking if the host country, Russia, captured gold or Sweden repeats after winning it all last year. Then of course there’s Finland and Team USA, squads that shouldn't be overlooked.
On top of that, while Canada might dominate this list more than any other nation in terms of the sheer quantities of players worth keeping an eye on, there are plenty of players on representing other countries that are as good or better.
With that in mind, let's take a look at what the rest of the countries have to offer.
Seth Jones (USA – D – 2013) – Nathan MacKinnon might be the current favorite to be selected with the first pick in 2013, but Seth Jones is another viable option. It's not hard to envision a scenario where the team with the first pick is hurting for defense and consequently decides to take Jones. The same question came up last summer when Nail Yakupov was generally regarded as the top prospect, but the Edmonton Oilers had a greater need for defense. Ultimately the Oilers went with Yakupov, but another team might have taken Ryan Murray. NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said back in September that had Jones been available for the 2012 draft, he might have been selected ahead of even Murray and that was even before Seth Jones’ smooth transition from the US National Development Team to the WHL Portland Winterhawks. A side note, he is the son of former NBAer Popeye Jones.
Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia – C – BUF) – Latvia doesn't have a particularly strong team in the 2013 World Junior Championship, but Girgensons shouldn't be overlooked. Girgensons became the highest ever Latvian-born player selected when the Buffalo Sabres snatched him with the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Girgensons could develop into a power forward and he made the jump straight from the USHL to the AHL this season. He has five points and 12 penalty minutes in 22 AHL games, which might not sound that impressive, but it's worth emphasizing that he's one of the youngest players in a league that’s been enhanced due to the lockout. That experience, combined with his stint playing for the underdog Latvian team against giants like Sweden, should serve him well when he eventually gets his shot with the Sabres.