Nail Yakupov, Russia
The World Juniors are almost upon us, or what Canadians refer to as the best time of the year. Even in a year with games being played every night, Canadians wait for the next generation of stars to don the maple leaf and represent the nation over the holidays.
But this year is a little different. Not only is the tournament being played in Ufa, Russia, but there's no concern about players being blocked by the parent club and not being able to play in the tournament. A half dozen players on Team Canada, and a handful from other nations would be playing in the NHL if not for the lockout.
Thanks in large part to the league-ready players suiting up for their respective nations, the level of competition should be at an all-time high in this tournament. With that, let's take a look at the Top 10 players to watch in the tournament set to begin on Dec. 26th.
10. Morgan Rielly – D – Canada
The man who Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said he would have taken first overall had he been given the opportunity will be asked to step in for an injured Ryan Murray and log major minutes for the Canadians.
He is playing well for the Moose Jaw Warriors this season, but matching up against every country's top line will be a test that he has not yet faced. Look for him to show flashes of brilliance in the offensive zone, especially playing on the big ice.
9. Filip Forsberg – F – Sweden
After taking a bit of a tumble out of the top five in last year's draft, Forsberg fell in the lap of the Washington Capitals and was happily scooped up and stashed when it came their turn to pick at No. 11. He has drawn comparisons to his namesake Peter, and while that may be lofty for now, he is developing himself as a power forward that could make noise in the league for years to come.
After the Senators decided to keep Mika Zibanejad in the AHL, rather than release him to his country, the pressure fell on Forsberg to captain the Swedish team. Sweden is reeling without its leaders, Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom, who will miss the tournament with injuries, so the pressure will fall on Forsberg and Co.
8. Mikhail Grigorenko – F – Russia
The man who was supposed to challenge Nail Yakupov for the first overall pick also took a bit of a tumble on draft day, but he fell into the waiting arms of the Sabres and is continuing his dominance of the Q this year. There were questions about his age and his two-way compete level, but he racks up points like it's going out of style so his approach seems effective at this point.
The Russian team will be under the microscope on home soil, and look for Grigorenko to center the top line. Other nations will surely hope to use some muscle to knock him off his game, but his creativity will be on full display on the big ice, so prepare yourself for some highlight reel tallies.
7. Aleksander Barkov – F – Finland
Never heard of him? Well, after this tournament is over that will likely no longer be the case. One of the younger players in the tournament this year, the draft eligible dynamo has been playing with the big boys in the SM-liiga and has been holding his own. He broke out at the tournament last year, and there is no reason to believe that he will slow up this time around.
While the hype for this year's draft class has been found on this side of the pond, word amongst those in the know is that Barkov is in the mix for the first overall pick as much as anyone. He has dynamic two-way abilities and should be able to find some space in Ufa on a Finnish team that will be looking for playmakers.
6. Jonathan Huberdeau – F – Canada
The Panthers' first round pick would almost certainly be playing on one of their top two lines if games were being played, but instead he is still hanging around in the Q and getting into trouble on the ice.
He is a dynamic two-way player that is able to play on the wing as well as down the middle. He will likely find himself on the top Canadian unit as well as hovering for goals on the man advantage. He may get lost in the mix of the talent that the Canadians will roll out, but he could be the consistent force that they badly need.
5. Seth Jones – D – USA
Is he the next Chris Pronger? Well, that is what the buzz is at this point. The towering blueliner has the size and the skill to be mentioned amongst the best draft-eligible players in the world, and he could hear his name called first in the draft. He was supposed to be on the team last year as well before suffering an injury in pre-tournament competition.
He will be tasked with shutting down every elite player on opposing teams, and that should be no issue for the Portland Winterhawk. He is the son of former NBA'er Popeye Jones, and has the perfect mix of professional work ethic and elite athleticism that makes him a dangerous player for Phil Housley's American team.
4. Nathan MacKinnon – F – Canada
Is he the next Sidney Crosby? Well, the questions will never cease considering his hometown and the path that he has taken in his hockey career thus far. While he is an exceptional player, there are few players in the history of the game who play at the level of Sid, so let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
He is one of the two underage players that Canada is taking to Ufa, but don't expect that to slow him. He has been playing over his head from a young age, and has the ability to play on the wing or down the middle, so expect Canadian coach Steve Spott to use his versatility in as many roles as possible.
3. Alex Galchenyuk – F – USA
Doesn't sound like an American name does it? He was born in the states, but his family does in fact hail from Russia. He is one of the most dangerous goal scorers that hasn't suited up in the league yet, and look for the Habs to use him to center their first line for years to come.
He will not have much help on an American team this year that is devoid of elite talent up front, but with his game-breaking ability, he shouldn't need much help or space to make an impact in the offensive zone.
2. Nail Yakupov – F – Russia
One of the gems of the Oilers system, Yakupov has been tearing up the KHL during the lockout, and should continue to do so on the familiar ice during this tournament. The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft has game-breaking speed which will be on full exposure with the extra space, so don't be surprised when you see some flashes of the Russian Rocket early and often.
Is he the next Kovalchuk? Bure? It is hard to say at this point, but he has a dangerous one-timer, explosive burst off the line and elite moves in tight. No matter the defender lining up against him, look for Yakupov to find the space when he needs it.
1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – F – Canada
It is rare that a player who has played an entire season in the NHL gets the opportunity to play in this tournament, but due to the lockout that is the situation with Nugent-Hopkins. After suiting up for as many games as his shoulder allowed him to for the Oilers last year, and after languishing down in Oklahoma City for the Barons, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft will be captaining and be the first line center for a Canadian team that is looking to get back to the top of the podium.
His stick handling and ability on the side boards is already at an elite level, with his stick work reminiscing a young Pavel Datsyuk. He has all the skills to be elite for years to come, and Canada needs him to be the leader of this both off and on the ice. That is of course as long as the lockout doesn't end mid-way through the tournament and throw a wrench into everything.