|The All WJC Team - Cage Match Style|
Picking the best team from the pool of players in this year's WJC (Special Cage Match edition)
If you’re like me then you woke up bleary eyed at the absurd hour of 3:00 AM to watch Canada and Germany kick off the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships. It was a real good time (unless you were rooting for Germany then it was more like this) and not just because Canada won. This was the first time I’d watched a meaningful game of high level hockey since June. Now maybe that’s my fault for having mostly ignored the OHL, AHL and semi-legal streams of European pro-hockey this fall but that’s my prerogative.
(editor's note - all hyperlinks lead to that player's DobberProspects Fantasy Profile)
I’m holding out for the best and the order goes:
1. Olympic Hockey
2. NHL Playoffs
3. World Junior Hockey Championships
4. NHL Regular Season
5. My NHL13 BeAPro Season
And that’s it. There is no sixth option! This isn’t to say that I completely ignore the CHL (or other junior leagues) but I am much more likely to seek out highlights than to watch a complete game. Does that make me the best candidate to write an article about the World Junior Tournament? Maybe not but you can bet I’m all over it anyhow. The main reason: the annual World Junior Hockey Championships Fantasy Pool put on by a couple of DobberHockey forum members each year, which if you didn’t join, I’m sorry but please bookmark this article, make a mental note, leave yourself a sticky or whatever it takes to remember to sign up next year because unlike the NHL we can guarantee it will be back!
This tournament is great because of the unique set of rules it has:
Everyone gets to pick one Captain, 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies. You can select any player in the tournament to play on your team with the following exceptions:
This element of the pool is like a box pool and includes the biggest and most recognizable names in the tournament to prevent everyone from simply loading up on those specific players. You may only select one Captain and often times this decision can be the decision between winning and losing. There are six players eligible to be Captain this year: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk and Filip Forsberg.
2. You may only select up to five players from an individual country:
This element prevents you from simply loading up on players from powerhouse nations like Canada and Russia, etc. Much like the Captain rule, this forces you to look beyond the “name brand” players and look up some dark horses. Frankly, any pool that encourages the selection of “dark horses” is a good one in my books.
Scoring is as follows: One point for a goal, one point for an assist, one point for a goalie win, and one point for a goalie shutout. Points only count while the player’s team is still in contention for a medal, which eliminates the chance of racking up points in the somewhat meaningless fifth-place game.
And that’s it! Simple, yet elegant, like a great hockey sweater. (Confession: I absolutely adore Sweden’s Tre Kronor blues.)
Anyhow, that’s the tournament and I couldn’t be happier to be playing fantasy hockey again. I’m so excited that I’ve decided to use this space to outline my decision making processes and this being Cage Match I will do so as a series of battles.
Match One: Captain
This was really simple for me as there were only really two captains worth taking; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. It’s not that the other candidates weren’t worthy or that my Oilers’ bias was altering my judgement (if anything I’m more critical of Oilers players), it’s that these two are simply miles ahead of everyone else. Both are former first overall picks and boast terrifying resumes. The Nuge was an injury away from winning the Calder last season while Yakupov is tearing up the KHL this season.
Simple logic would dictate taking the Nuge because of his extensive NHL and professional experience as well as his being the older of the two. The problem is the Nuge doesn’t really offer any physical advantages over Yakupov at this point so the only other advantages would be the speed at which they process the game and linemates. You could certainly argue that the Nuge will be processing the game at a speed faster than anyone else at the tournament but Yakupov should be right up there given his own pro experience and he just might have an advantage playing on the larger European ice surface, which not only creates space (and therefore time) but also changes up the strategy. No doubt both will be successful but suffice it to say I don’t think the Nuge’s year of NHL experience will put him miles ahead of Yakupov.
So what about linemates then? The Nuge has arguably the best linemates in the tournament: Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Scheifele, both 19-year-olds with tournament experience and NHL Draft pedigree. But don’t count out Yakupov’s linemates: likely to be some combination of Mikhail Grigorenko, Alexander Khokhlachev and Yaroslav Kosov, all of whom also have tournament experience and NHL Draft pedigree.
There is a chance that Boone Jenner’s suspension, combined with Jonathan Drouin’s injury could leave Canada with just 11 forwards for the first three games of the tournament, which would be cause for the Canadians to double-shift their best forwards *cough*Nuge*cough* but there is no telling if that would be an advantage.
Either way, my gut tells me Yakupov at home makes for the more enticing option.
Match Two: The Canadian Forwards
With Huberdeau and the Nuge scratched because of the Captain position I had to move on to secondary Canadian forwards. In the running: Drouin, Strome, Scheifele, Ty Rattie, Brett Ritchie, and Nathan Mackinnon.
This was actually a really easy decision. Strome and Scheifele were no-brainers given their prodigious skills, tournament experience and 19-year-old age. The decision to make those my only two Canadian forwards was somewhat difficult though because the options were enticing. Ultimately the injury uncertainty surrounding Drouin and Ritchie made everyone else untenable. I couldn’t possibly pick a guy with an already nagging injury for fear he’d be kept out but I also couldn’t pick a guy like Rattie or Mackinnon who could benefit from any injuries for fear those injuries simply weren’t that important.
There’s also the fact that I need room to select a Canadian defenseman or two and possibly a Canadian goalie as well. Whatever the case 10 forward slots remain.
Match Three: The Russian Forwards
Grigorenko is out due to captaincy and so is Yakupov even though he is my captain so that leaves me with two or three open slots for the four remaining big guns: Khokhlachev, Kosov, Daniil Zharkov and Nikita Kucherov.
Kucherov is a must keep because of his play at last year’s tournament and I’m inclined to favour the experience and talent of Khokhlachev and Kosov as well. Zharkov finishes a distant fourth and out of my lineup because of his age and his disappointing numbers in Belleville this year.
I ultimately take the aforementioned three forwards but more on that later.
Match Four: No Swedish All Finish?
I have to admit, the Swedes look like a real hurting unit this year with 2012 World Junior hero Mika Zibanejad being held out of the tournament by the Ottawa Senators as well as the injuries to top defensemen Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom. There is obviously a lot of talent still there but I am somewhat sceptical and with Filip Forsberg eliminated because of the Captain position there are few options to consider at forward: Sebastian Collberg, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, Rickard Rakell and William Karlsson.
Most of these guys are just a shade too dark to make dark horse material. Rask has questionable offensive upside, so does Karlsson despite his likely presence on Sweden’s top line. Lindholm is a top prospect for the 2013 draft but his youth concerns me. Collberg and Rackell both appear to be good options because of their age and experience at this tournament.
The Finnish forwards look much more intriguing. First off, none of their forwards were included as Captains so everyone is fair game. Secondly, this looks like a very strong squad leaving me with plenty of options. I actually love the Finns and want to take four of their forwards: Alexander Barkov, Markus Granlund, Joel Armia and Miikka Salomaki.
I ultimately settle on three Finns with Armia and Granlund being no-brainer selections given their age and tournament experience and Barkov representing my wild card selection. Salomaki was screaming to be taken given his vast tournament experience and perhaps taking him would have been the “dark horse” decision vs. the well-known Barkov but I couldn’t resist Barkov’s game breaking ability. He’s got the most talent of any Finn and I couldn’t keep him off my roster. Should I have taken four Finns? Maybe but that would have meant just one Swede, which was simply not possible.
The Swedes I kept were Collberg and Rackell for the reasons noted above.
Match Five: The Dark Horse (continued next page...)
After picking 10 forwards from just four nations I have clearly designated my favourite nations to win the tournament and have just two forward slots remaining for a dark horse nation. In my mind, there are only two real options: the United States and Czech Republic.
The US have earned the right to be considered favourites every year given their recent success and the strength of the US National Team Development Program but last year the US bombed finishing seventh at the tournament. This year they are fielding a squad with just three returning players from last year and a ton of question marks. They do have blue chip talent in goal (John Gibson) at forward (Alex Galchenyuk) and particularly on defense (Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones) but the team has a ton of maybes after that.
It’s possible that I simply do not have a good enough feel for what role the players on team USA will be playing (particularly with the forwards where they appear to be carrying a few too many small players) or perhaps the US team itself doesn’t have entirely a good enough feel. Whatever the case, I don’t feel confident taking any player to dominate ahead of some of his peers at forward, especially not after Galchenyuk was eliminated with the captain position.
JT Miller should be a shoe-in given his tournament experience but he’s not exactly a top flight offensive player. I also like what Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi, Riley Barber and John Gaudreau offer as scorers but I just don’t know where they will shake out in the pecking order. It’s entirely possible the US is the team to beat just as Seth Jones boasted but their forward situation is too murky for me.
On the other hand, the Czech Republic team offers a very clear hierarchy based on age, tournament experience and NHL Draft pedigree. The Czechs boast six players who played at last year’s tournament and were also drafted by NHL teams: Lukas Sedlak, Dmitrij Jaskin, Tomas Hertl, Radek Faksa, Tomas Hyka and Martin Frk.
Sedlak and Hyka didn’t provide much offense for the Czechs last year and both have low draft pedigrees so they were written off fairly easily given there are but two slots open. I really like Faksa but as an 18-year-old he doesn’t have the same age advantage as some of the others. Ultimately, it looks like a three-way tie between Jaskin, Hertl and Frk, who all boast the criteria I’m looking for but with just two spots I have to take Hertl and Frk who were the two most productive players for the Czechs last year.
Match Six: The Canadian Defense
Having taken just two Canadian forwards I’ve left open the possibility of taking two Canadian defensemen and given the makeup of the Canadian team it doesn’t look like a terrible decision. The Canadians appear to have three strong point producers on the blue line and four fairly obvious stay-at-home types. The three offensive options are Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Murphy and Morgan Rielly and I’ve got to pick two (or at least one).
Hamilton struck me as a must have. Perhaps he isn’t as adventurous as Murphy or Rielly but he is hands down Canada’s best defenseman bringing everything you could want to this tournament. I wouldn’t be shocked if he skated over 30 minutes per game for Canada, which means he can’t help but produce.
That leaves me in a battle between Rielly and Murphy and I like Rielly more. From what I saw at the pre-tournament games he has the trust of the coaching staff more so than Murphy, which was somewhat surprising given Canada head coach Steve Spott’s experience with Murphy as his club team coach. I suspect it might be something as simple as Murphy’s right-handed shot not meshing well with Hamilton’s right-handed shot. Both Murphy and Rielly are dynamos but Rielly does appear to have the upper hand.
Match Seven: The Finnish Line
Get it! There isn’t much contest here. As much as I like Rasmus Ristolainen and Ville Pokka, Olli Maatta has the same seal of approval that I gave Dougie Hamilton. He has been groomed by Finland to be their everything on the blue line and I suspect they’ll find every way to get him onto the ice.
Match Eight: What Could Have Been?
I suspect we will hear a lot of this coming from Sweden with respect to the aforementioned injuries to Klefbom and Brodin. This also took a very intriguing matchup and reduced it to smithereens. My choice, Rasmus Bengtsson based on his pre-tournament showing. This is certainly the pick I liked the least and was an opportunity for me to possibly take an American like Seth Jones just for kicks.
Match Nine: Rounding out the Defense
For my last two picks there were only two options: Tomas Pavelka and Nikita Nesterov who were the best options for the Czech Republic and Russia respectively. Nesterov was a no-brainer because he returns as Russia’s top scoring defenseman from last year. There were other enticing options but Nesterov could not be ignored.
Pavelka on the other hand was a bit of an unknown but given the offense he has shown for the PEI Rocket this season I am inclined to believe he has the best pedigree. I did consider David Musil for the same reason as Dougie Hamilton and Olli Maata but didn’t feel he had the same guarantee of points. I also considered the diminutive Petr Sidlic who is having a nice year for the Victoriaville Tigers but I favoured Pavelka given his age.
Match Ten: Goaltending
I rarely give the Blue Jackets much credit but I have to say I like what they’ve done drafting goaltenders recently. I wound up selecting Joonas Korpisalo and Oscar Dansk, both Columbus prospects and goaltenders for Finland and Sweden respectively.
One thing you have to respect is the ability of Finland and Sweden to produce goaltenders in recent years and both of these goaltenders are examples of that. They are both risky picks given they are both just 18 years old with 19-year-olds waiting for an opportunity to unseat them but I think they are undisputed top guys in a tournament where those are few and far between.
The best example of a bona fide #1 is Gibson for the Americans a team I kind of already wrote off with my previous picks. I could have selected a Canadian goalie but the whole Malcolm Subban is No.1 even though he has struggled recently was a real turnoff. Perhaps it’s over-exposure for me as a Canadian but I really wonder if Jordan Binnington will take over in a big hurry.
I suppose I could have also taken a Russian goalie but I already selected five other Russians to my roster and their situation is an even bigger crapshoot given the way both Andrei Makarov and Andrei Vasilevski split starts at last year’s tournament. I suppose Vasilevski is #1 but both guys were lights out last year and bring a load of experience for this year. Your guess is as good as mine, which is why the Russian goalies aren’t present on my roster.
This does leave me with two goalies from the same group but with any luck Finland and Sweden will finish 1-2 in Group A and then go on to face each other in the Gold Medal Game. Or maybe one of them has to settle for silver. Either way that would still nearly maximize my wins while also avoiding the conundrum of the goaltending duos for both Canada and Russia.
So this is my roster:
Nail Yakupov – Russia
Nikita Kucherov, Alexander Khokhlachev, Yaroslav Kosov – Russia
Joel Armia, Alexander Barkov, Markus Granlund – Finland
Tomas Hertl, Martin Frk – Czech Republic
Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele – Canada
Rickard Rackell, Sebastian Collberg – Sweden
Dougie Hamilton, Morgan Rielly – Canada
Tomas Pavelka – Czech Republic
Olli Maatta – Finland
Rasmus Bengtsson – Sweden
Nikita Nesterov – Russia
Oscar Dansk – Sweden
Joonas Korpisalo – Finland
Wish me luck and merry New Year, everyone!