The 2010 World U18 Championship is set to begin a week from today in the Belorussian cities of Minsk and Bobruisk and as usual, Canada will ice a team full of players under the watch of NHL scouts.
Some have been on the radar all season while others have gained steam as the year has gone on. All will have the chance to raise their stock in the last big international event before the 2010 NHL Draft and this tournament is considered as important, if not more, than the U20 World Juniors played over the New Year's holiday season.
Here are the top 5 Canadians who are on the 'Must Watch' list for scouts headed to Belarus next week.
By no means am I suggesting that the 5 names below are the top 5 players for Canada - you'll notice Erik Gudbranson's name is not to be found. I'm simply nominating five guys that I think scouts still have some questions on that need answering before the draft.
5. Greg McKegg - Erie Otters (OHL)
Question: Is he for real?
The OHL's Player of the Month for February, McKegg saw his point production skyrocket this year, his second in the league. The 6'0, 191 lb center totaled 18 points in his first year in Erie but dwarfed that this season as he ended the regular schedule with 37 goals and 85 points. He had a bit of a slow start earning just 10 points through his first 16 games but he turned it on in November and didn't look back.
The 17-year-old finished 3rd in team scoring and was ranked 94th in North America by NHL Central Scouting at the mid-season point. I suspect he'll be higher on the final list that is set to be released tomorrow (April 7th). He was an OHL All-Star this year and ends the regular season as one of the highest scoring players from the league who is available in the 2010 draft. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
4. Jordan Weal - Regina Pats (WHL)
Question: Can he do it without the other Jordan?
The last time a 17-year-old scored over 100 points in the WHL was in 1998-99 when Russian Pavel Brendl accomplished the feat with the Calgary Hitmen. Brendl went 4th overall to the New York Rangers and went on to appear in 78 career NHL games before migrating back to Europe a few years ago.
Jordan Weal finished the 2009-10 campaign with 102 points in 72 games, third highest point total in the WHL this year and yet no one is talking about him as being a sure-fire 1st rounder. The prevailing opinion appears to be that Weal benefited greatly from playing alongside Jordan Eberle for 57 games this year and that his stats may be a bit inflated.
I've spoken with guys who have played with Weal and I've asked them what kind of a teammate he is. One fellow Ivan Hlinka tournament teammate described him as "a bit selfish".
Scouts will be watching to see how Weal produces in Belarus and to see if he can generate chemistry with players he's not familiar with. (Photo: WHL.ca)
3. John McFarland - Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
Question: What the heck happened?
The opposite to Greg McKegg is this Richmond Hill, ON native. While McKegg's stock is rising like mercury in July, McFarland's has been steadily dropping all season long. McFarland was 10th in N.A. for Central Scouting at the mid-term point but TSN's Bob McKenzie had him pegged at 17th overall by the end of January. Everyone that I have spoken with considers McFarland's performance this year to be pretty disappointing. He played in the U18s last year as an underage player and was outstanding so expectations were high coming into the 2009-10 schedule.
McFarland ended the season with 20 goals and 50 points, both less than he earned last year as a rookie even though he played 6 more games this time around. The 6'1, 195 lbs center managed just a single point through 10 games in November and ended the year with 2 points in 7 regular season contests in April.
In my opinion, he's going to need to shine at the U18s if he wants to be a top-20 pick and if not, he'll be this year's Angelo Esposito. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
2. Calvin Pickard - Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Question: What can he do on a good team?
There will be an outstanding opportunity for scouts to compare the top-2 rated 2010 goalies in Belarus as USA will have Jack Campbell in net while Canada answers back with Seattle pipeman Calvin Pickard. Despite playing on one of the worst teams in the WHL this year, Pickard is considered one of the league's best goalies. The Winnipeg product posted a .914 save percentage even though he only won 16 of his 62 games played - he did his part playing behind a struggling team.
Pickard's older brother Chet was a 1st round (18th overall) pick of the Nashville Predators in 2008 and some I have consulted have suggested that Calvin will be the better NHL keeper in the long run. This will be a great chance for the younger Pickard to show what he can do wearing the Maple Leaf and backstopping a top-caliber team, something he hasn't been able to do during 2009-10.
1. Brett Connolly - Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Question: Is he worthy of a top-5 pick?
There is no question about it, all eyes will be on Prince George native Brett Connolly who has been touted as a top-5 prospect all year despite being limited to only 16 regular season games. The 2008-09 CHL Rookie of the Year scored 30 times last year and had scouts dying to see what he'd do for an encore this season. However, a recurring hip flexor problem nagged him from August right through the first half of the year keeping him out of the line up from early December until the very end of the regular season.
His hip injuries appear to be fully healed and I'm told that a change in training style will address any concerns moving forward. Scouts who have managed to see him this season came away liking what they saw; he scored 5 points in the final two games of the year. Connolly had 6 points in Grand Forks last April as an underage player, there is no reason to expect he couldn't lead Canada and potentially the tournament in scoring this time around in Belarus. (Photo: Marissa Baecker/CHL)