If you were keeping up with Wild news at all before last night's boring game, you'd have heard that Team USA announced the roster that they'll be bringing to this year's World Junior Championships. Alex Tuch wasn't on that list, which was a surprise to many, considering that Tuch had played on Team USA's WJC squad last season. While Team USA was deep along the Right Wing, could Tuch's exclusion really have been warranted?
I think the first big question to ask is whether something's wrong with Alex Tuch. Unfortunately, we don't have much more to go on than stats, and his points-per-game has seemed to stagnated from his freshman season at Boston College. Since we don't know why he hasn't taken his production to another level, we spoke to someone who would know, Joshua Kummins of SBN College Hockey. Here are his thoughts on Tuch's play so far this season:
He had points in the first couple games on a line with Jeremy Bracco, but slowed up a bit as far as point production at the point Bracco departed the team.... To me, it just took him a few games to get back in rhythm with Adam Gilmour and Zach Sanford, who he played with quite a bit last year. Certainly nothing wrong with him at any point this year, but he's definitely looked like his old self over the last few weeks. He scored for a third straight game with a beautiful wraparound move yesterday at Northeastern.
[He's been] more like himself -- comfortable and productive -- lately. It's been really fun to watch im over the ast season and a half. To say the least, I'm very surprised he won't be at [Team USA] camp here in Boston next week.
So, while it's disappointing that Tuch won't be showcased by Team USA later this month, it's not necessarily a red flag concerning Tuch's development. It must also be noted that other top prospects in Bracco and Kyle Connor (who is destroying the Big 10 as a freshman this season) were also left off the roster, so Tuch isn't the only weird exclusion.
While Tuch appears to be out of America's plans for the WJC, Wild fans still have more reason to watch the World Junior tournament than they have in the past three years. As Minnesota's Under-20 talent pool has dwindled since 2012, they've had less and less representation at the tournament. In 2012, they sent a whopping 6 players. The Wild had two of their players selected in 2013 and 2014, and last year Tuch was the only Wild player who touched the ice.
Even without Tuch, that's going to change. Barring injury, the Wild are going to send at least three people to the WJC this year. Louis Belpedio is one of them. Belpedio is a sophomore defenseman at the University of Miami-Ohio, and he's as lauded for his leadership as he is for his playing ability. Belpedio fell to the 3rd round in 2013- likely attributable to size concerns. But Belpedio is stout for a 5'10" kid (190 lbs), and he's building on a successful freshman campaign. Unless you watch a lot of college hockey, this will be your first look at what is perhaps the next Jared Spurgeon.
The first impression Wild fans got of 2014 fourth-round goalie Kaapo Kähkönen was him getting lit up for 6 goals in a Wild Development Camp scrimmage. It's too bad, because Kähkönen is looking very solid in Finland, posting a .921 Sv% in the SM-Liiga as a 19-year old. Kähkönen actually made Finland's roster last season, but didn't play a minute. Given that he's now the oldest goalie on Finland's roster, that should change, and Kähkönen will get a rare second chance to make a first impression.
No Tuch means that this year's big draw for Wild fans will be Joel Eriksson Ek. Erkisson Ek's performance has been very good for an 18-year-old in the Swedish Elite League (3G, 5A in 21 GP), but it's hard to get a sense of how Eriksson Ek stacks up against other prospects when he plays almost exclusively against older competition. Now we'll finally get a sense of how his game- which features a great shot and good two-way play- stacks up against elite players in his age group.
While Russia hasn't yet announced their roster yet, it's going to be a shock if Kirill Kaprizov isn't included on Team Russia. Kaprizov was just a 5th-rounder in this year's draft, but he's having one of the best seasons an 18-year-old has ever had in the KHL. A fun comparison- as an 18-year-old, Vladimir Tarasenko had 19 points (9G-10A) in 42 games. Kaprizov has 21 points (8G-13A) in 38 games thus far. Kaprizov is trusted with a lot of minutes, and has delivered in clutch situations in the K, making him not only a shoo-in for Russia, but a potential break-out star of the tournament. If nothing else, you should watch the World Junior Championships to see if Kaprizov is for real.
So don't despair about Tuch, Wild fans. If nothing else, Tuch's absence will give you a chance to focus on some great Wild prospects that you may otherwise have glanced over.