The world junior championship is a prime opportunity to get a sneak peak at some of the top NHL draft prospects. This upcoming U20 tournament in Ufa, Russia is exceptional for how many of potential top-10 picks are wearing their country's colours.
Ten of the first 22 players who heard their names called at the last NHL draft had world junior experience under their belts. Beyond the first two selections, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Murray, the bulk of that group was taken 10th or later. This time around, Halifax Mooseheads star Nathan MacKinnon, Portland Winterhawks defensive anchor Seth Jones, and Finnish sensation Alexsander Barkov lead the way among 2013 draft prospects. These three young guns are regarded as the cream of the crop by every scouting service.
There are, however, draft prospects poised to be selected very high in New Jersey that aren’t taking part in the tourney. That is fairly typical with 17-year-old players.
Medicine Hat Tigers sniper Hunter Shinkaruk and Ottawa 67’s centre Sean Monahan were cut by Team Canada. Edmonton Oil Kings centre Curtis Lazar, Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Ryan Pulock and Prince Albert Raiders blueliner Josh Morrissey were not even handed an invite from Canada.
Russia cut 6-foot-5 London Knights defender Nikita Zadorov, who is ranked seventh among OHL skaters by NHL’s Central Scouting Service.
Without further ado, with the help of some scouts, here is a look at the top 10 NHL draft prospects playing in the IIHF U20 world championship.
1. Nathan MacKinnnon, centre, Canada (Halfiax Mooseheads, QMJHL) – MacKinnon is expected to follow Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and John Tavares as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
Jones and Barkov are hot on his trail, though. The Cole Harbour, N.S., has the opportunity to separate himself from the rest of the pack as the clear-cut top draft prospect with a strong performance for Canada.
Some have compared the 5-foot-11, 179-pounder to Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. For the most part, the comparison stems from them both being from Nova Scotia and playing in the QMJHL. Although the sky is the limit for MacKinnon, the Crosby comparison seems a bit lofty.
The 17-year-old centre won’t be the next 'insert name here,' rather he will be the first Nathan MacKinnon. His 22 goals and 52 points in 30 games with the Mooseheads this year make it clear he has the potential to be a future NHL superstar.
"Nathan is a great skater with overall exceptional skills (good playmaking ability and hands, good vision and a great shot)," says Michael Charron of the NHL's Central Scouting Service. "He is very competitive, can play physical when he needs to be, and will skate into traffic to jump on a loose puck or to find his way to the net for a scoring chance. He is a very talented player and once he gets even stronger and gets to utilize his teammates even more in his second season in Halifax. He is very hard player to play against."
2. Seth Jones, defence, USA (Portland Winterhawks, WHL) – Despite being one Top American draft prospect Seth Jones (Getty Images)of Team USA’s younger players, Jones will anchor their back end as he has for the Winterhawks. He will be on the ice in every crucial situation at both ends of the ice.
The Plano, Texas, native, who is the son of NBA assistant coach Popeye Jones, has lived up to his hype in his rookie season of major junior puck in Portland. He has turned heads left and right, flying past opponents on offensive rushes and stopping them from generating opportunities in his own end.
The 6-foot-4, 206-pounder is going into the tourney on a hot streak. He racked up two goals and 14 points in his last 10 games with the Winterhawks.
If Team USA falters, Jones will have some explaining to do after he said his country is the team to beat in Russia. His comments may have come off as slightly cocky, but his words are a testament to the confidence he carries himself with on and off the ice.
"Seth Jones is destined to be a solid professional player," says Dennis MacInnis, director of scouting for International Scouting Services. "Seth is a thoroughbred. He's a slick-skating, monster-sized defender who can do it all and can do it all better than almost everyone else. He moves so fluidly for his size you would think he was born on skates. His conditioning is excellent and his athletic ability is extremely impressive. His poise with puck is off the charts. He has great strength and can fight off anyone with the puck."
3. Alexsander Barkov, centre/wing, Finland (Tappara, SM-liiga) – Some scouts have went as far as saying Barkov has the hands of Detroit Red Wings sniper Pavel Datsyuk and the physical style and stature of Penguins power forward James Neal. So obviously, NHL general managers have the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder’s name near the top of their Christmas wish list.
Barkov, 17, has been dynamite in his second season in the Finish Elite League this year, notching 14 goals and 28 points in 32 games for Tappara. To put these stats into perspective, Chicago Blackhawks No. 18 overall pick, Teuvo Teravainen, has eight goals and 19 points in 24 games in the same league.
"After a line of undersized and overskilled Finnish forwards, Barkov bucks the trend," says ISS head scout Ross MacLean, alluding to recent Finnish NHL first-round picks such as Teravainen and the Minnesota Wild's Mikael Granlund. "He's still got a ton of skill, but he also has the size that eases scouts' minds. He is extremely strong on the puck, handles the puck effectively in tight spaces, and understands where to be to make things happen on either side of the puck. He has a great shot, protects the puck well, and creates offense off the rush and during zone play. Projects best as a possession playmaker, but has also showed well in special teams and defensive situations."
4. Jonathan Drouin, centre/wing, Canada (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL) –Halifax Mooseheads left wing Jonathan Drouin (Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images) Playing on the same junior team as MacKinnon, Drouin has had to fight with his teammate for the draft spotlight.
MacKinnon significantly overshadowed the 5-foot-11, 176-pound forward last year. But after blossoming into a superstar in his second season with the Mooseheads, scoring 19 goals and 48 points in 24 games, Drouin’s draft stock has spiked to the point where some consider him in the same talent realm as his heavily hyped teammate. At this point, Drouin is considered a shoo-in to be selected with a top-10 pick.
If Drouin outperforms MacKinnon in the tournament, who knows, maybe a Nathan-Jonathan argument will start up among scouts.
5. Rasmus Ristolainen, defence, Finland (TPS, SM-liiga) – Standing 6-foot-3, 207-pounds, it is tough to overlook Ristolainen on the ice for more reasons than his outstanding poise and mobility.
Ristolainen plays with Barkov in the Finnish Elite League. The 18-year-old, however, has made a name for himself as a shutdown blueliner rather than a sniper.
Ristolainen, who has scored two goals and eight points in 29 games, is praised as the top Finish draft prospect since Joni Pitkanen, who was selected fourth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002. The writing is on the wall for him to be chosen very early in June.
6. Elias Lindholm, centre, Sweden (Brynäs, Elitserien) – Lindholm is Sweden’s poster-boy forward prospect this year, following Ottawa Senators No. 6 overall pick Mika Zibanejad in 2011 and Washington Capitals No. 11 overall pick Filip Forsberg in 2012.
As the No. 1 ranked Swedish skater by Central Scouting and the sixth-overall ranked player by International Scouting Services, Lindholm should go very high in the draft like his fellow countrymen before him.
Lindholm made the jump from Sweden’s junior ranks to Elitserien, a men’s league, this year. He has already outscored Forsberg’s 17-point rookie season in the Elitserien league last year, notching six goals and 21 points in 32 games.
7. Valeri Nichushkin, wing, Russia (Chelyabinsk, VHL) – Standing 6-foot-3, Valeri Nichushkin is up for the 2013 NHL draft (Derek Leung, Getty Images)176-pounds, a fluent, smooth skater, and possessing soft hands and strong vision – there’s a lot to like about Nichushkin.
Nichushkin planned to come over to the North America this year to join the CHL; however, he backed out of the idea right before the CHL import draft, signing a three-year contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk.
The 17-year-old winger, who is ranked the No. 1 Russian skater by Central Scouting and ninth overall by ISS, has impressed with Chelyabinsk of the VHL this year, scoring eight goals and 10 points in 15 games. Nichushkin is poised to move on to their KHL club next year.
8. Artturi Lehkonen, wing, Finland (KalPa, SM-liiga) – Finland hockey fans refer to Lehkonen as the little engine that could. Despite his small 5-foot-10, 163-pound frame, Lehkonen has thrived in the Finish Elite League with KalPa, scoring nine goals and 22 points in 32 games.
Lehkonen’s competitive nature and willingness to go to battle against opponents in tight areas has scouts believing he has a chance at making it in The Show. The 17-year-old winger is pegged as a future first rounder, ranked third among Finnish skaters by Central Scouting and 21st overall by ISS.
9. Jacob De La Rose, wing, Sweden (Leksand, Elitserien) – Scouts take notice whenever a player has size and is a strong skater.
De La Rose has exactly that with his 6-foot-2, 183-pound frame and his smooth, fluent, and balanced skating technique. He is ranked third among Swedish skaters by Central Scouting and 20th overall by ISS.
The 17-year-old forward has, however, had some trials vs. men in his first season with Leksand. He has only been able to muster four goals and six points in 27 games.
10. Ryan Hartman, centre, USA (Plymouth Whalers, OHL) – Hartman’s decision to join the Whalers rather than go down the NCAA route has turned out to be a great move for his development. The West Dundee, Ill., native’s development curve has spiked. He is ranked ninth among OHL skaters by Central Scouting and only one of three undrafted players to make Team USA.
Hartman has made a reputation for himself as a super pest in Plymouth, racking up 87 penalty minutes in just 32 games. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound winger has regularly irritated opponents’ star players, causing them to struggle to put their names on the scoreboard. The 18-year-old winger can also light the lamp as he has potted 12 goals and 29 points.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.