Photo credit: imago/Geisser/ All Over Press. Kuva: imago/Geisser.
Hockey has no one league that everyone watches to develop first opinions of who is going to be its next great star. The fact of the matter is that it is far easier to follow the top-rated high school running back who goes to Notre Dame, than it is to follow the goalie taken 3rd overall in the import draft selected by Moose Jaw (which is very much a real place). I truly believe that the much more linear path to the NFL and NBA make it easier for the average sports fan to become invested in players, and then follow those players as they go on to to their respective professional franchises.
Sure hockey has the Frozen Four and you may even be one of the few people who watch the Memorial Cup, but neither of these can even begin to fathom the popularity of the 10.5 million people (on average) who watched each game of the NCAA Basketball tournament. It would be lunacy to put the viewership of the Providence College victory over Boston University in the same conversation with the 33.4 million people who tuned-in to watch Ohio State win the National Championship.
Hockey does, however, have the World Junior Classic (WJC). It may not be as grand as the other sport’s amateur spectacles but it is just about the only place Americans formulate first impressions of the future stars of the NHL. As a Flyers fan in 2003, it was the first place I got watch Red Deer Rebel defenseman/”future cornerstone of the Flyers’ blueline,” Jeff Woywitka. Of course back then, I was only 17 and watching the WJC for the first time and naive as hell because I was really excited to watch Woywitka who’s name I had only seen in the paper, play for the first time!
Fast forward to present day, and the WJC is going to be particularly exciting for Flyers fans as we get to watch highly touted prospects Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Oscar Lindblom, Felix Sandstrom, David Kase, and Radel Fazleev. We all get to put on our pretend “scouting hats” on and dissect these prospects’ games and make first judgments about them so we can proudly say that ‘I’ve watched player X since the WJC and I knew he would be great/terrible/overrated/underrated, etc.’
The “WJC scouting game” is a lot of fun and a game that I love to play every year because you have a pretty good idea what the Flyers draft position will be come December 26th. Currently, the Flyers are 17th overall in the standings which pretty much projects them to be picking the dubious 10th-20th overall region. So, I will certainly be watching the crap out of Austen Mathews, Mathew Tkachuck, Alex Nylander and Jesse Puljujarvi but these guys are probably going to be 4 of the top 10 names called off the draft board. While it mightily exciting to see the Flyers make come defeat the Blues after being down by 3-0 , you almost want them to start playing worse because this year’s draft isn’t nearly as deep as last year’s. There will definitely not be a Travis Konecny available at 24th overall this year.
So, how should the Flyers be assembling their wish list at the WJC? The Flyers need more goal scoring wingers. Here are two draft eligible snipers that I will be watching:
The first thing I notice about Laine is his release – which says a lot because at 6’4″ 204 lbs., most people would say his size his the first thing you see. If you compare this video and then immediately watch Vladimir Tarasenko rip pucks, it’s pretty much the same shot. Laine’s shot is particularly difficult to stop because his release is generated almost entirely with his hands. Most shooters will really lean on their inside leg to generate more power in their wrist shot, however, Laine stays relatively upright when he shoots. He doesn’t telegraph as much when he is shooting which is why you see the goalies in these highlights be in good position, but are not able to catch up to the shot.
The other aspect of Laine’s game that I like is that just about all of his shots are taken from in-between the hash marks. Most teams have point men that can shoot from distance, and every team has guys they can stick in front of the goalie to collect garbage goals. Few teams have a mid-range shooter that score from the top of the circle to the hash mark. Other than the aforementioned Tarasenko, Tampa has Steven Stamos, L.A. has Jeff Carter, Anaheim (used to have) Corey Perry, and that’s about it as far as guys that can consistanly snipe from 15 feet out. Laine almost appears to be over coached in exclusively shooting in this mid-range area.
The cons to Laine’s game are he is not a strong skater. Part of the reason his shot is so sneaky is because he’s pretty much standing still when he shoots. Additionally Laine’s hands are not exactly “magical.” His size and strength are strong enough for him to protect the puck down low and be able to power move to the net if need be but no one is going to confuse him for Johnny Gaudreau.
The reason why a shooter of this caliber would fall to the Flyers at 15th overall (give or take) is because teams will concerned that NHL defensemen will get in his grill before he can get that shot off.
Gauthier plays in Val-d’ Or with Flyers’ 2nd round pick, Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Guithier has 29 goals in 30 games with only 8 assists. Basically, this kid has zero interest in passing. In fact, a couple of his few assists are the result of rebounds from his shooting attempts.
Gauthier’s hands are decent and wheels are good but not great. His shot is above average but it’s not going to light the world on fire. But the kid just finds a way to pump the net with as many shots as possible. His game really reminds me of the way that Dylan Larkin looked during last year’s WJC in that his only interest is driving the puck towards the net no matter what.
At 6’4″ 220 lbs, Gauthier is the son of a Canadian body builder and it shows when he annihilates the victims he hits. If he doesn’t make an NHL squad opening night, it will be because of rookie defensive deficiencies. In terms of “NHL size and strength,” he’s probably in better shape than most NHLers.
The common theme with both of these guys is that they are goal scorers. Sure, the argument of taking the best player available can be made and if Mikhail Sergachyov (D) or Sam Steel (C) is available when the Flyers make their selection, they wouldn’t be wrong in selecting either. However, the Flyers have NEVER had a dearth of centers, and for the first EVER, we have more than enough defensive and goaltending prospects.
Regardless of what round it comes in, we need scoring wingers. Konecny is set-up man and there’s no guarantee that Fazleev and Kase can develop into NHL trigger men.
With all of this being said, we all know that an 11 day tournament isn’t nearly a large enough sample size to actually determine who is a legit prospect and who isn’t. Too many times has the WJC seduced me into thinking that players like Jordan Schroeder, Magnus Pajarrvi-Svenson (his name was longer before he was drafted), Peter Mueller, or Nigel Dawes were going to be great NHLers. And too many times have I not paid proper attention to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or Teuvo Teravainen.
We do this to ourselves because we LOOOOVVVVVVEEEEE it when we are “right.” We love it when we can say that, “I knew that Zach Parise was going to be great ever since the 2004 WJC.” And I think we (or at least, I) love it even more when we can think we’re smarter than everyone else with statements like, “I’m not surprised that Angelo Esposito was rated first overall in the 2006 Hockey News Future Watch and then got selected 2oth overall after that showing.”
So, is the WJC the BCS National Title Game?
But regardless of what happens or whoever the Flyers take, I know that there is going to be at least one player that I am going to watch for the first time that I will be following for the next 20 years.