Friday, 19 December 2008

Exhibition Hockey

TSN featured an exhibition game tonight between the finalists of the 2008 World Junior Championships as Sweden met Canada in Toronto. This game featured the two men who could be the first overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft as well as a few guys who have seen NHL action this season. Sweden, however, started their back-up goaltender in Mark Owuya rather than starter Jacob Markström, but Owuya looked very impressive in this game. At the final buzzer, Canada had won the game 4-2, but there were some great hits, a few goals, and some definite stand-outs in this game.

First off, I am very impressed with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and, specifically, general manager Dean Lombardi. Lombardi asked Kings' forward Oscar Moller if he was interested in going to the World Junior Championships this year, and Moller said yes. Moller was the captain of the Swedish team tonight, and scored a gorgeous backhanded goal against the Canadians. Moller looked very good all night, and he is going to be a very good NHL player for the Kings as he matures.

It takes some real moxie for an NHL GM to ask one of his young players - and a solid contributor - if he would like to play in the World Junior Championships. It takes even more moxie to tell that young player that his job is safe with the NHL club while he's gone, and that his development is far more important than scoring a few NHL points. Kudos to Dean Lombardi for his decision on this one.

While it would be nice to see Drew Doughty there on the Canadian blueline, I completely understand Lombardi's decision in keeping him in Los Angeles. As for other guys, Luke Schenn could be there, but his contributions in Toronto can't be overlooked.

Why isn't Steven Stamkos there? I understand that the Lightning might want to see his development against NHL stars, but he would absolutely dominate at the World Junior Championships if he were there. That confidence could really help him in the second half of the NHL season, and that's something the Lightning should really have considered before telling Hockey Canada "no".

Vancouver draft pick, Cody Hodgson, looked very good out there. Hodgson, who is currently starring with the Brampton Battalion in the OHL, certainly played extremely well, and it is evident why he was given the captaincy of the Under-18 team that Pat Quinn coached. If I'm Mike Gillis, I'd be drooling at the potential of having this kid in my lineup next season. He was calm and composed all night, and really did a great job of setting plays up. His three-point night shows he might be a force to be reckoned with in this tournament.

If you're a Carolina Hurricanes fan, you've already seen flashes of brilliance from Zach Boychuk. The Lethbridge Hurricane forward played a gritty night all night, similar to how he plays in the WHL, and was strong in front of the net. TSN's Pierre McGuire seems to think that his stick blade is the cause for him missing some glorious chances tonight, but Boychuk really did a good job aside from a few misses.

Ryan Ellis is an absolute pleasure to watch for this Canadian team. The 17 year-old defenceman from the OHL's Windsor Spitfires was impressive on the point for the Canadian powerplay, and also made a fantastic defensive play to break up a 3-on-1 in the game during his limited time. Ellis is draft-eligible this season, and he has the look of a very young Paul Coffey in his game. He moves on the blueline well, he's got very good speed and agility, and his shot finds the net.

John Tavares played a very low-key game, but did score a goal. One of the most talked-about juniors in the tournament, he showed some speed and skill on the night, but didn't really elevate his game and take over like he was expected to. Yes, it's only exhibition, but Tavares will be counted on for goals during this tournament so he needs to get going sooner than later.

The Swedes looked a little jetlagged, but they played a very solid game. As stated above, Oscar Moller looked very good in this game, and the Kings have to be happy with what he showed in this game. He was solid at both ends of the ice, and that will make Dean Lombardi smile.

Victor Hedman played a decent game, but he made a costly mistake that resulted in Jamie Benn's breakaway goal. The big defenceman looks very composed on the blueline, and he never seems to panic in any situation. He did score a late shorthanded goal to help his cause, and I don't think he did anything to lower his draft ranking. Hedman is ranked as the #1 prospect according to International Scouting Services, and he played well enough tonight to maintain that spot.

In keeping with a recent tradition, Sweden appears to have a very good goaltending situation again. Jhonas Enroth was superb in the nets last year, and Jacob Markström should be impressive this year. It was Mark Owuya who stole the show tonight, though. Canada outshot Sweden 32-16, and most of those saves came from the shots just outside the blue ice. Owuya provides Sweden a very good option if Markström falters or is injured in some way during the tournament.

As much as this was an exhibition game, both teams look like they're gearing up for the tournament on December 26. There were some monstrous hits tonight, and the pushing and shoving made it clear that both of these teams want a shot at the gold medal.

Canada plays Finland on Sunday, so I'll have some more preliminary chatter about those two teams as they prepare for their runs at the WJC gold medal. If this game was a preview of the tournament, it looks like it's going to be a great time in Ottawa this holiday season!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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