Every year, like clockwork it happens. At least one player whose draft stock is down gives it a major shot in the arm with a strong perfomance at the World Under-18 Championship tournament.
This year, a pair of Finns have accomplished that trick, with top-end draft prospect Mikael Granlund and the lesser-known Teemu Pulkkinen putting on an offensive show at the U-18 tourney in Minsk.
I've written about Granlund here, here and here, and have a little bit on Pulkkinen here.
The duo has keyed Finland to a 4-0 record and Team Suomi is set to take on Team USA in the tournament semifinal (who is 4-1 after losing the opening game to Sweden, but blew out Canada 5-0 and crushed Czech Republic 6-0 in the quarterfinal playoff game).
Pulkkinen leads all players in scoring with an unreal seven goals and 12 points in four games. That's approaching Alexander Ovechkin territory when he played in the same tourney '03 (well, not quite but still praiseworthy), while Granlund is fifth with three goals and nine points. Like Edmonton prospect Toni Rajala last year, Pulkkinen is scoring at will and elevating his draft stock in the process.
His size and skating is still a concern, but like Jeff Skinner, he just knows how to put the puck in the net, and he's doing it against the best of his peers from around the world.
Team Sweden has been the class of the tourney, and faces Russia in the other semifinal. Johan Larsson is tied with Pulkkinen in points with 12 on 6 goals and 6 assists, while Russian Evgeni Kuznetsov picked up where he left off at the WJC (U-20) and the Six Nations in February. The explosive, uber-skilled forward has five goals and 11 points in five games, good for third in scoring overall.
USA's best player has been first-round goalie prospect Jack Campbell, who continues to shine on the international stage. Trying for his third gold medal in a year's time, he is 3-1, with a pair of shutouts, a .958 save percentage and a 1.00 GAA after being in net for the opening loss against Sweden. The kid is a stud, although he did only need to make 11 saves in USA's win over the Czechs...talk about a smothering defense!
I've also heard very good things about Austin Watson, who's making a strong case to go well inside the top-15 in June, and even Connor Brickley, who has played his checking role to a 'T' while adding three assists in five games. Jason Zucker has had a productive tourney as well; the Nevadan looks like he could be a solid second-rounder in the draft come June. Most of USA's best forwards are 2011 prospects: Rocco Grimaldi, Brandon Saad, Nick Shore, Matt Nieto and Bryan Rust.
USA's strength is in the D: Jarred Tinordi, Justin Faulk, Stephen Johns and even Jon Merrill have played well according to reports. Nobody's been better than Adam Clendening, however, a 2011 draft prospect, who leads the team with two goals and eight points in five contests (tied with Grimaldi).
The Americans will have their work cut out for them trying to stop the high-flying Finns, led by Granlund and Pulkkinen. If anyone can do it, Team USA can, but it won't be another 11-shot shutout for Campbell; he'll need to be on top of his game for his team to have a shot at a second consecutive gold medal in the World U-18s for the first time in U.S. history.
I'll have more on the tourney when I can talk to some scouts in detail who were there about what went on, but this should get the ball rolling for those of you who aren't following the proceedings as closely.
Also- Canada has had a disastrous tournament. More on them later.