Currently known as the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the international tournament has underwent a name change from the Quebec Esso Cup (in 2011) and most recently, Hockey Canada has decided to change the format of its own team entries into the tournament. For the first time in 2014, rather than sending five provincial teams (Ontario, Quebec, Pacific, Atlantic and Western) to compete, Hockey Canada has opted to combine players from across the nation into three competitive teams - Red, White and Black. Canadian players will now have the opportunity to play alongside talented competitors from other provinces. For example, Ontarian Jakob Chychrun will be taping Nova Scotian Mitchell Balmas with passes rather than laying him out in the corner. The Under-17 Hockey Challenge is the first step in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence that is used to help identify talent for the Under-18 and National Junior Team and it has seen over 1400 National Hockey League draft picks come through the tournament.
Tournament organizers have moved up the Challenge on the calendar to November to avoid conflict with the World Junior Championships that runs over the holiday season. For the first time since Windsor hosted in 2012, the tournament returns to Ontario and the world’s top hockey talents have arrived in Sarnia, Canada as the border-town city, in collaboration with nearby Lambton Shores, is ready to host the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Group A consists of two Canadian teams (Canada White and Canada Black), Finland and last year’s bronze medalists Russia while Group B will feature Canada Red, Slovakia, Sweden and the defending champions, Team USA. For more information on World Under-17 Hockey Challenge schedules and rosters, visit the tournament website.
The majority of participants are born in the 1998 age group and these players have spent months going through evaluations to reach their goal of donning their nation’s sweater. The following breakdown of teams will help to familiarize the general public with some of the names to watch. Here are just a few of the top talents skating in the #WU172014.
Team USA (Roster)
Knocking the four-time gold medalists off of the podium will prove to be a difficult feat as Team USA enters this tournament with a very talented roster, including 20 of 22 players who compete with the US National Under-17 Team. Non-National Under-17 skaters Spokane's Kailer Yamamoto and 6-foot-3 Riley Tufte (Blaine High School) will replace injured forwards Zach Walker and Graham McPhee. The Americans won’t have to fight through chemistry issues with such familiarity and with them icing five University of Michigan commits in Nick Pastujov, James Sanchez, William Lockwood, Griffin Luce and Luke Martin. In addition, Everett Silvertips draftee Patrick Khodorenko, London Knights first round selection Max Jones and Boston University commit and USNTDP leading scorer Clayton Keller are expected to help Pastujov and Sanchez with the offensive production. Towering netminders Joseph Woll and Minnesotan Jake Oettinger won’t surrender much net for the opposition and with Griffin Luce, Luke Martin, Plymouth Whalers’ hopeful James Greenway, Chad Krys (Moncton Wildcats prospect) and Harvard commit Adam Fox patrolling the blueline teams will be in tough against the champs.
Team SWEDEN (Roster)
Just like his older brother William Nylander (Maple Leafs draft pick), Alexander Nylander is an immensely skilled forward and has the ability to create space for him to showcase his elite puck skills, vision and shot. Playing alongside Nylander on the AIK U20 team, Jesper Bratt is a two-way forward with speed to burn and a blue-collar work ethic. Undersized and physically raw defenseman Alexander Andersson owns some slick hands, shrewd hockey sense and a poised approach that helps spark the offense and quarterback the powerplay. Committed to the University of Minnesota, William Fällström is a complete two-way competitor who offers a good level of physicality and the awareness to be trusted in critical game moments.
Sweden is a team that lacks a true individual standout but the squad is comprised of some solid depth full of smart and competitive players. Look for Oskar Steen, a shifty winger with a quick release and some untapped offensive upside, and Linus Weissbach to act as forwards who have an ability to create offense on their own. Jacob Cederholm, younger brother to Vancouver Canucks draftee Anton, has already suited up in the SHL and will help the Swedes defend their zone. Niklas Andersson, the son of current Los Angeles scout and former NHLer Niklas Andersson, is already off to a hot start with the HV71 U18 team picking up six goals and 14 points through 10 games. It could be a coming out party for 5-foot-6 defenseman Oliver Horrsell as this offensive blueliner certainly knows how to fill the score sheet. Lastly, pivot Tim Wahlgren should earn plenty of minutes as his great hockey intelligence and sense for the game is evident in all three zones. Both of Sweden’s goaltenders, Filip Gustavsson and Gusten Lundh have the size and big-game pedigree to provide Sweden with great stability between the pipes.
Team FINLAND (Roster)
Without forwards Jesse Puljujärvi, Patrik Laine, defensemen Olli Juolevi and Jusso Välimäki, the Finns will unfortunately be missing some of their top talents from the `98 age group. However, Finland is a nation that has been pumping out some great prospects and their entry isn’t without talent. Kristian Vesalainen and Urho Vaakanainen are two of Finland`s top underagers. Vesalainen is already skating at 6-foot-2 and offers up confident puck skills, suffocating physicality and an impact shooting arsenal. Emil Oksanen is a skilled right-shooting forward playing for Blues Espoo and his game features a deceptive shot that seems to find the net with regularity. The 6-foot-1 left shooting Tappara forward Otto Mäkinen is the former teammate of Patrik Laine and he`s got an advanced playmaking skill set, featuring soft hands and creative vision. Look for Finland to rely upon their depth and play some defensive hockey, much like they`re known for, to compete in Group A.
Team RUSSIA (Roster)
The Under-17 tournament provides an opportunity for the North American hockey world to be introduced to the up-and-coming talent from overseas. As a result, there isn’t much familiarity with these players coming into the World U17 Hockey Challenge. Headlining the Russian team are forwards Dmitri Sokolov and Vitali Abramov. Undersized but extremely skilled, Vitali Abramov is considered a potential first round talent for the 2016 NHL Draft and he`s off to a great start with Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk (MHL) scoring six goals and eight points (12 games). As good as Abramov is, it`s Dmitri Sokolov who projects as a potential Top 10 selection for the 2016 draft. The 6-foot-2 forward has racked up nine goals and 10 points through 13 games with Omskiye Yastreby Omsk (MHL). Russia will lean heavily on Sokolov and Abramov to provide the bulk of scoring but 6-foot-4 forward Nikita Popugaev (not to be confused with 5-foot-8 teammate Nikita O. Popugaev), Vladimir Kuznetsov and Vyacheslav Shevchenko should offer good secondary support.
Team SLOVAKIA (Roster)
Much like the Russian squad, Slovakia`s entry is a bit of a mystery. Forward Samuel Solensky is a pint-sized offensive making noise with HC Liberec`s U20 team with six goals and 16 points through the club's first 20 games. Viliam Cacho is a 5-foot-9 forward who has noteworthy playmaking skills and the offensive prowess to be considered a prospect for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Cacho racked up eight goals and 44 points in 37 games playing up with Dukla Trencin's U20 club. Keep an eye on underagers Milos Roman, Patrik Hrehorcak and Adam Ruzicka to see how they handle the competition against older opponents.
Team CANADA WHITE (Roster)
The first of Canada’s three tournament entries may just be the most popular, at least among local fans. With Sarnia hosting the event, local fans can come out to cheer on their 2014 1st-overall selection in Jakob Chychrun and 2nd-round forward Jordan Kyrou as key members of Canada White. Chychrun and Kyrou have already stepped up in their rookie seasons and are playing top minutes. In addition to the familiar Sting faces, fans can expect to get excited about Ottawa 67`s two-way threat Travis Barron, Erie`s Taylor Raddysh, Moose Jaw's Brett Howden and high scoring BCHLer Tyson Jost.
Charlottetown winger Mitchell Balmas (who replaces the injured Hunter Moreau), Saginaw Spirit defender Keaton Middleton (who replaces Josh Mahura) and Soo Greyhounds top 2014 pick Anthony Salinitri (who replaces Dillon Dube) are excited about their renewed opportunity.
The strength of Canada White comes from their outstanding defensive core which starts with Jakob Chychrun, Medicine Hat's David Quenneville (brother of New Jersey Devils 2014 1st rounder John), Luke Green of Saint John, Gabriel Bilodeau of Val d'Or and ends with the outstanding Samuel Harvey in net.
Team CANADA BLACK (Roster)
Donning the black threads for Canada is potential Top 10 2016 NHL Draft prospect and 2013 1st-overall WHL pick Tyler Benson (Vancouver Giants), 2013 2nd-overall WHL selection Sam Steel (Regina Pats) and a slew of OHL 1st-rounders in Brandon Saigeon (Belleville Bulls), Matthew Hotchkiss (Guelph Storm), Chris Paquette (Niagara IceDogs), Zach Poirier (North Bay Battalion), Cliff Pu (Oshawa Generals) and Reagan O'Grady (Kingston Frontenacs). Canada Black features some underrated scoring depth with the likes of Nolan Volcan (Seattle Thunderbirds), Pascal Laberge (Gatineau Olympiques) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles) who are all off to strong starts in their respective junior leagues.
On the blueline, look for Brandon Wheat Kings Kale Clague, Shawinigan's Samuel Girard, London Knights' Tyler Nother to help solidify the defensive zone in front of 6-foot-4 goaltender Stuart Skinner (Lethbridge Hurricanes) and Reilly Pickard (Baie-Comeau Drakker) who will share crease duties.
Team CANADA RED (Roster)
A quick glance down the roster for Canada Red will certainly appear as if Hockey Canada formed an All-Ontarian team as 11 players are from the Ontario Hockey League including exceptional defender Sean Day (Mississauga Steelheads), a potential 2016 Top 3 draft prospect. Joining Day on the blueline from the OHL is the intelligent Matthew Timms (Peterborough Petes), big tough Windsor Spitfire Logan Stanley and slick skating Knight Victor Mete. On the front lines, dazzling puck rusher Michael McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads), dangler Tye Felhaber (Saginaw Spirit), sniper Adam Mascherin (Kitchener Rangers), clutch forward William Bitten (Plymouth Whalers), power forward Givani Smith (Barrie Colts) and top 2016 prospect Logan Brown (Windsor Spitfires) will all represent the OHL. In total, eight of the OHL's Top 20 selections from the 2014 draft are competing for Canada Red.
Beyond the tremendous "potential" firepower from the Ontario top picks (McLeod, Mascherin, Felhaber and Brown), Canada Red may have three of the most productive 98s in the nation in Wheat Kings forward Nolan Patrick (15-4-8-12), William Bitten (13-3-6-9) and Kamloops Blazer Jake Kryski (16-5-6-11).
Blueline soldiers outside of Ontario will consist of BCHL stud Dante Fabbro, Sherbrooke's Thomas Gregoire and Victoriaville's Guillaume Beck - all fantastic defensive prospects. With goaltenders Dylan Wells (Peterborough Petes) and 6-foot-4 Phoenix puckstopper Evan Fitzpatrick in net, goals against should be held to a minimum.
On paper, Canada Red may have the best opportunity to end the red and white's three year drought of a World Under-17 Hockey Challenge gold medal. If I were a betting man (and I am), I would look towards Canada Red as the best chance to unseat the Americans.
With exhibition play slated to kick off Halloween night and the tournament commencing on Sunday, the shores of Lake Huron will be home to some outstanding world-class talent looking to make their country proud in hopes of taking home the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge gold medal.
Follow @RossyYoungblood on Twitter as he covers the entirety of the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.