It’s the most wonderful time of the year. While the NHL takes a short holiday break at Christmas, it serves as a short respite before two of the best weeks of hockey of the year.
The yearly IIHF World Junior Championships, an exciting tournament of good hockey that has become a referendum on whether or not Canada is a failure as a nation, begin today. By the time the gold medal is awarded January 5th, we’ll have a look at some of the best young hockey players in the world.
With the Sabres in a precarious rebuilding phase, this tournament takes on a greater importance. Not only is there a desire to see your players succeed, like Rasmus Ristolainen did last year, scoring the overtime game-winner in the final as he was named the best defenseman in the tournament, but it’s a glimpse at some of the best draft-eligible players. Unless you’re living under a rock with no access to the internet, you can guess that would mean Canada’s Connor McDavid and American Jack Eichel.
But with Buffalo’s draft position being nothing beyond speculation and hope at the moment, we can look at the top young players who already are in the Sabres’ system.
Unfortunately, despite the depth in the Buffalo prospect pool, the team will have a small number of players participating in this year’s tournament. Russia’s Nikita Zadorov is stuck with the Sabres, not getting released for the World Juniors because he’s pretty much the second best defenseman on the NHL roster. Czech forward Vaclav Karabacek was cut after he overslept and was late to a team meeting. Swedish goaltender Jonas Johansson had to drop out due to injury, and Canada’s Nick Baptiste didn’t survive the first round of cuts in their camp.
That leaves us with four guys to keep an eye on, so here’s what to look for:
Hudson Fasching, RW, #22, United States
Who is this guy? Fasching wasn’t drafted by the Sabres, but thanks to Tim Murray’s dealings at last year’s trade deadline, he’s in the pipeline now. Acquired from Los Angeles with Nick Deslauriers in exchange for Brayden McNabb and two second round picks, hopes are high for Fasching. The Minnesota Golden Gopher is a big kid (6’2″, 207) who plays a big game and projects as a powerful forward. He’s got an incredible back story and could find himself in Rochester next season developing as a pro.
Fasching should get top minutes in all situations for the Americans, which will put him in a position to be a game-breaker. Hudson had two goals and two assists in five games in last year’s tournament, and should be counted on as a veteran on the team.
Best case scenario: Fasching dominates physically and emotionally while coming up with some clutch goals and assists. He finishes with 7-9 points in the tournament and has a strong performance in the final as the Americans claim the gold they deserve.
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Victor Olofsson, LW, #12, Sweden
Who is this guy? Buffalo’s seventh round pick (181st overall) in the 2014 draft, Olofsson could be a late round gem, but he’s still a ways off from being a top prospect. Currently playing in Sweden, he’s known for his shooting and scoring. Offensively, the tools are there, but word seems to be that he needs to develop the rest of his game as well.
Olofsson has been seeing time on the Swedish team’s third line, so he’ll get solid minutes and an opportunity to make a difference for a team that’s looking to avenge their defeat in last year’s final.
Best case scenario: Olofsson chips in 4-5 goals throughout the tournament, enough to get noticed and leaned on a bit as the games get bigger.
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J.T. Compher, C, #7, United States
Who is this guy? Compher is one of the more exciting prospects in the Sabres’ stable. A fantastic two-way forward out of the University of Michigan, he was pegged to be a part of last year’s team before he injured his foot blocking a shot in practice. Drafted by the Sabres with a second round pick acquired from Carolina in the trade that sent Andrej Sekera to the Canes, he’s been having a solid sophomore year with the Wolverines.
Compher should play in all situations for the Americans, and his speed and all-around game should make him a valuable part of the squad.
Best case scenario: Compher chips in a point or so each game while being reliable against top players on opposing teams. He goes off in the final, racking up three points and helping the United States sneak out a 9-2 win in the gold medal game.
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Sam Reinhart, C, #23, Canada
Who is this guy? Buffalo’s second overall pick in this past draft, he’s got both NHL experience from the start of this season and World Junior experience from last year’s tournament, where he picked up two goals and three assists in seven games as the Canadians lost hilariously in the bronze medal game. Sam’s already been named an assistant captain for the Canadian squad, and he’ll get top-6 minutes and be leaned on in key situations.
Reinhart will be considered one of the top players in the tournament, and he’ll be expected to stand out and perform. He struggled offensively in his stint with the Sabres (like the rest of the team), but his 27 points in 15 games with Kootenay since being returned to junior shows he’s still a force at the junior level.
Best case scenario: Reinhart dominates, leading the tournament in scoring with 14-16 points while developing an intense on-ice and personal chemistry with Connor McDavid, to the point that McDavid expresses his desire to go full-Lindros on whatever team drafts him and demands a trade to Buffalo. They become best bros and a reality television series is developed and they win Cups on Cups for years. Meanwhile, despite the All-Tournament Team performance of Reinhart, Canada loses their battle for Canadian Gold (bronze) and in their medal-less devastation, the nation to the north realizes that winning this tournament is pretty much meaningless, so they relax and learn to enjoy good hockey.
You know, you figure since they decided to end the lockout, I figured it was time Chris Ostrander of Two In the Box and myself did another podcast.
In a brand new season premiere of the Instigator (new intro and everything!) we talk about the end of the lockout, where we go from here, the superpower that is USA Hockey, Canada being Canada, and we play Plus/Minus.