Lightning Prospect WJC Preview

Five Tampa Bay Lightning prospects will proudly don their home country’s sweater this holiday season to compete in the Under-20 World Junior Championships. The WJCs are arguably the most exciting international hockey tournament outside of the Olympics and playing for one’s country during this event is a career builder.

Last year Carter Ashton, Brett Connolly, and Canada came up short in the finals, allowing five third period goals to Russia in the gold medal game to lose, 5-3. Host team USA beat Sweden for the bronze in Buffalo, New York.

The last Lightning prospect to win a gold medal was Dustin Tokarski for Canada in 2009 when “The Tik” was player of the game in the championship game – a win over Victor Hedman and Sweden. Dana Tyrell was also a part of that Canadian team, but was injured in pre-tournament action and missed the tournament.

Here’s a look at each Lightning prospect participating in this year’s event, to be held December 26 through January 5 in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. Check NHL Network listings for broadcasts.

Brett Connolly, RW, Canada
Club Team: Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL
2011 Stats: 28 GP, 4-4-8, 12 PIM
6’2”, 181 pounds
Age: 19
Birthplace: Prince George, British Columbia
Draft: 2010, 1st Round, 6th overall

Connolly surprised nearly everyone this year when he made the NHL’s Lightning in training camp. He had four goals and eight points in 28 games with Tampa Bay before Lightning general manager and former Canada GM Steve Yzerman loaned him to Canada for the tournament. Connolly made noise early in Canada’s camp for a perceived late hit on Florida Panthers prospect Quinton Howden, injuring him. Connolly dealt with the extra media attention and made the team. As a returning member and professional, he will be counted on to be one of Canada’s leaders.

Yzerman knew what he was doing when he allowed Connolly to return to the tournament and go under a giant microscope. It is not far-fetched to say that Connolly will be under as much or more pressure during this tournament than he will in his entire NHL career; this tournament is that big of a deal in Canada. How Connolly reacts on and off the ice will help shape his professional career for the better.

International experience

2010-11 Canada U20: 7 GP, 0-3-3, 12 PIM
2010 Canada U18: 4 GP, 1-0-1, 10 PIM (Connolly was just coming back from missing nearly the whole season with hip injuries)
2009 Canada U18: 6 GP, 3-3-6, 4 PIM
2009 Canada Pacific U17: 6 GP, 3-5-8, 2 PIM

Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Russia
Club Team: London Knights, OHL
2011 Stats: 33 GP, 17-23-40
6’0”, 175 pounds
Age: 19
Birthplace: Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Draft: 2011, 1st Round, 27th overall

Though raised in Michigan, Namestnikov is making his WJC debut for Russia this year and as of now is expected to center their top line. He is a dynamic playmaker who will be surrounded by high end skill players and scorers and Namestnikov should pile up a fair amount of points. Namestnikov’s ability to play a two-way game could be his most valuable ingredient added to the team. The Russian team is loaded with offensive talent, but it will be their defensive efforts that determine how they do against the tournament heavyweights like Canada, USA, and Sweden. He just joined the team when they arrived in North America as he has been playing in Ontario with London where he is among league leaders with 17 goals and 40 points in 33 games.

Update: Respected Russian reporter Dmitry Chesnokov, who is based in the U.S., reported December 23 that Namestnikov was cut from the team. He was told Namestnikov was viewed as a 1-2 line forward, but there were others better that were kept.

International experience

2010 Russia U18: 7 GP, 5-2-7, 4 PIM
2009 Russia U17: 5 GP, 8-2-10, 18 PIM

Nikita Kucherov, RW, Russia
Club Team: CSKA-Krasnaja Armija Moskva, MHL
2011 MHL Stats: 14 GP, 13-15-28
2011 KHL Stats: 11 GP, 0-1-1, 2 PIM
5’11”, 165 pounds
Age: 18
Birthplace: Maikop, Russia
Draft: 2011, 2nd Round, 58th overall

A lot of eyes will be on Kucherov (pictured) in this tournament based on his superstar-like performance at last year’s U18 championships when he set a new scoring record with a 3-points-per-game average (7 GP, 11-10-21). Russia won the gold medal over Canada when Kucherov had two goals and an assist in the championship game. Kucherov gained valuable experience earlier this season when he was part of Russia’s representation in the Canada-Russia Superseries matching Russian junior all-stars against Canadian Hockey League all-stars. An undersized scorer, Kucherov quickly learned to battle through tighter checking to get his points. He’ll have to do the same in Alberta next week. Kucherov hasn’t played since the Superseries, leading many to speculate Russia was trying to keep him healthy for this tournament. There were no reports of injury during the Superseries and the Lightning confirmed to us he left North America healthy after the series. While fans in Alberta will be watching Kucherov to see how much the star can score, Lightning scouts will be watching his two-way game.

International experience

2011 Russia U19: 4 GP, 2-5-7, 2 PIM
2011 Russia U18: 7 GP, 11-10-21, 6 PIM

Nikita Nesterov, D, Russia
Club Team: Traktor Chelyabinsk, KHL
2011 KHL Stats: 7 GP, 0-0-0, 4 PIM
2011 MHL Stats: 23 GP, 6-9-15, 20 PIM
6’0”, 185 pounds
Age: 18
Birthplace: Chelyabinsk, Russia
Draft: 2011, 5th Round, 148th overall

Nesterov was recently promoted from Russian juniors to the Kontinental Hockey League where despite not hitting the scoresheet, he is plus-9 playing in a men’s league. His play recently earned him the KHL Rookie of the Week award. A puck moving defenseman, Nesterov also has a mean streak and could garner some attention in Alberta depending who and how he hits. Nesterov and his defensive mates will likely be the key to Russia’s chances of repeating as gold medalists in the tournament. Like Kucherov, he was part of Russia’s U18 gold medal winning team in April.

International experience

2011 Russia U19: 4 GP, 1-0-1, 6 PIM
2011 Russia U18: 7 GP, 2-2-4, 29 PIM
2010 Russia U18: 7 GP, 2-0-2, 29 PIM

Adam Janosik, D, Slovakia
Club Team: Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL
2011 Stats: 28 GP, 2-16-18, 27 PIM
5’11”, 185 pounds
Age: 19
Birthplace: Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia
Draft: 2010, 3rd Round, 72nd overall

Like Connolly, Janosik is making a return visit to the WJCs as he played for Slovakia in Buffalo last year. Janosik will be one of Slovakia’s leaders on and off the ice, just as he was for last year’s team.
Incidentally, last year’s Slovakia team was captained by Lightning prospect Richard Panik. Janosik was having a ho-hum season in the QMJHL for Gatineau last year before the tournament when he exploded for five assists in six games for Slovakia. That sparked a strong second half for the 2010 third round draft pick. Janosik should put up points against the tournament’s weaker teams, but it will be his two-way performance against the heavies that will be of utmost importance.

International experience

2010-11 Slovakia U20: 6 GP, 0-5-5, 2 PIM
2009 Slovakia U18: 6 GP, 1-4-5, 2 PIM