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What to expect from Montreal Canadiens prospects at the World Junior Hockey Championship

The tournament is a stage for Habs prospects to showcase their talent and the evolution in their game.

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The World Junior Hockey Championship is like a mini season of its own. It’s an occasion for the many Montreal Canadiens prospects participating to be part of a different hockey experience. To show what they can do surrounded by talent and be challenged by the strength of the opposition.

Some will be relied on for a lot of minutes by their respective national team, while others will learn the demands of a supporting role. No matter the position, the matchups, or the ice time, the young players will have to step up and deliver their best performances. The tournament is highly competitive and leaves little room for slip-ups. Mistakes are costly in the single-elimination format. In turn, it also means that any great plays in a team’s route to the gold will be remembered by the hockey community for a long time.

It’s a big stage that replicates the pressures of the NHL, making it a prime time to evaluate prospects and their progression.

Team USA

Ryan Poehling, C/LW

Poehling creates off the rush with a certain kind of ease. When all players are in movement, with opponents retreating back toward their zone, the centre — possibly converted to a winger for the tournament — shows vision, poise, and precision in his feeds. It’s the same on the power play. Poehling moves the defensive box and finds teammates through it for one-timers. He will be able to use those facets of his offensive game to help his line put up their fair share of points.

What will be interesting to look for, however, is how Poehling adapts to the reduced space. St. Cloud State plays on a bigger ice surface (200’ x 100’’), larger than NHL regulations. He sometimes finds himself on a traditionally-sized American hockey rink, but for at least half of his games he has more space to escape along the walls, and separating from defenders has not been one of his strengths despite it.

Poehling stands at 6’2”, but even considering his size, he is not the power forward some make him out to be. Issues of balance and explosiveness combine to make puck protection harder for him. When his team has established a cycle in the offensive zone, it’s rare when he can get off the wall to attack the slot and make use of his playmaking.

At the WJC, he will be matched against his own age group, not older opponents like in the NCAA. This is where he could potentially use his strength and talented teammates to better create space for himself low in the zone and up his point totals.

Plus — what has been said repetitively about him —Poehling has to shoot more. Pulling the trigger will contribute to making him a multi-threat offensive player, which is what he needs to be for Team USA.

Cayden Primeau, G

There are no obvious flaws in the goalie’s technical approach to his play between the pipes. His stature, explosive lateral movement, and ability to read the game can turn him into a force for Team USA. Also, rebound control has not been a big issue for some time for the netminder.

He has shown that he is able to stand on his head at key moments to preserve a lead or keep his team in the game, and he will be called upon to do just that for his formation. USA’s stars are young. The mental strength of Primeau will be tested and a key factor in how far they advance in the tournament.

As of now, it is unsure who the starter will be and a single bad performance could mean a switch in net. Spencer Knight is the goalie of the future for Team USA, and they might be tempted to rely upon him if Primeau doesn’t deliver.

This is an occasion for the Montreal goalie to cement his status as a top prospect after an exceptional 2017-18 season, and one he will certainly want to take.

Team Canada

Nick Suzuki, C/RW

Suzuki is part of a great forward corps on Team Canada. He will be compared to other team’s top prospects like Florida PanthersOwen Tippett and the Vegas Golden KnightsCody Glass. The Habs forward (sometimes centre, sometimes winger) is able to create highlight-reel plays, but overall he is less flashy. He plays a solid two-way game most of the time and relies on being in the right place at the right time.

He will, however, be called upon to make a difference with his line more than once before the tournament ends. And it is expected that he will bring the creativity and the goal-scoring abilities that he shows with Owen Sound to Team Canada. His offensive output will be needed if the team is to go all the way.

The main concern regarding Suzuki is his skating ability directly affecting his ability to play at a higher pace. From his games early this season, and the pre-tournament contest of Canada, it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore for the prospect. But competition grows as the tournament goes on, and the speed at which Suzuki plays will be a good indicator of his impact in the NHL next year.

Josh Brook, D

Brook will not be on Team Canada’s power play for the tournament and probably won’t be asked to drive as much offence as he does with the Moose Jaw Warriors. It is a change in role for the defenceman who is used to being the main weapon for his team from the back end. Now, the coaching staff will look to him to be a defensive presence, anchor the team’s penalty kill, and break out the puck efficiently from low in the zone.

We might not see him jump from the offensive blue line to challenge the opposing defence, but the tournament will be a great test of his puck-moving ability, a complementary skill for any offensive defenceman. Better, more fluid transitions often turn into more time on the attack for a team — where Brook truly shines.

It will also be interesting to see how the Habs prospect manages his defensive responsibilities. Despite showing he can be good away from the puck in Moose Jaw, he was never really praised as a shutdown presence on the blue line. Something that might change as his play evolves during the tournament.

Team Russia

Alexander Romanov, D

Having taken a big step forward and cementing his position with CSKA this fall, along with a Cup win in the Canada-Russia Series, focus for many Habs fans will be on the defender who will most likely have an integral role on the Russian defence.

Romanov will not be a flashy player. He will do all the simple things well and try not to be seen in some ways. He has been a defence-first kind of player with CSKA, careful to not step out of line or do something that will reflect bad on his resume. While he reads the game well, he has a tendency to use his stick and push or crosscheck his opponent. This might be due to the fact that he usually plays bigger and stronger players. It will be interesting to see if he can stay away from these actions against a speedier and smaller opposition.

Hopefully this tournament will let Romanov use his offensive skill set and heavy shot. Most likely the Russian coaches will use the defender in much the same way as he has been used in CSKA, but with a higher workload.

Romanov might be defence first, but do look out for the big hit that he will deliver at least once in the tournament.

Team Sweden

Jacob Olofsson, C

The centre has had a relatively good start to his SHL career, even if the points haven’t been coming. Olofsson has logged heavy minutes for Timrå and, most noticeably, he has improved throughout the season. His defensive assignments are getting better and he is not being drawn out of position. He has learned to play the defensive game to a higher standard, but has lost a bit of what made him stand out in Timrå last year: his offensive game.

It would not be surprising to see Olofsson play around 20 minutes a night in the WJC. His stick-handling is better than many will give him credit for and it will be a revelation to many casual fans that haven’t seen Olofsson much.

He was very close to making the team last year. This year, Coach Montén plans on using his Swedish Army knife in any way possible. His vision will be relied on during the power play as well as on the penalty kill. The improved stamina and defensive game is what fans will notice, but a lot of focus will be on Olofsson to see if he can rediscover his offensive game and help Sweden with the secondary scoring that the team will need for a successful tournament.

Team Finland

Jesse Ylönen, RW

The Finnish winger will be using speed, agility, and quick hand movements to set up plays for his linemates while also being used in a more offensive role than the previouslyly mentioned European prospects. Ylönen’s speed will make him stand out either because he is passing defenders, or dragging one out of position to create space for others to use. Ylönen can use his hands to create separation for himself, or for others, to gain entry to the zone in a controlled way.

However, he needs to drive toward the net much harder. This tournament, where the players aren’t as experienced and tough as the players in Liiga, will be a perfect place to showcase what has been considered a weakness in his game.

If — and this is a big if — Finland doesn’t get off to a good start or falls behind in a close and important game, I want to see a controlled player in Ylönen. He has taken a few bad penalties due to his temper and this will be a focus to look for, especially considering the team they have brought to the tournament and the pressure that Finland is under to deliver a better performance than last year.

Ylönen will most likely be on the second power-play unit, hopefully in a different position than the one he has been on in Liiga, used between the top of the faceoff circles right in the middle of the box. He has scored more from situations in close to the net rather than from a distance. His shot is something that he should use more prominently, as it hasn’t been used much in the Finnish league.