Wednesday December 26th, 2007

Here are four things you can count on happening at the 2008 World Under-20 Championship at Pardubice, Czech Republic:

Canada will win the gold medal.

Russia will be far stronger than they appeared last summer when they were getting trounced by the Canadians at the Super Series.

The Americans will gut their way into the semi-finals.

Some lightly-regarded prospect will rocket his way into first-round draft pick contention thanks to an unexpected performance on scouting's biggest stage.

That's the beauty of this annual, 10-team tournament that features the best young talent outside the NHL. It's a star-maker. Reputations have been built -- and destroyed -- over the course of two weeks each December/January. This year's event is particularly compelling because of the sheer number of high-end prospects who have already been drafted, along with a large number of players who are being scouted for both the 2008 and 2009 drafts.

Here's a baker's dozen who'll make headlines before the tournament ends:

John Tavares, forward, Canada

With more than a year to go before he's draft eligible, Tavares is in an awkward position. Scouted relentlessly for more than three years, everyone has a pretty good idea of what this 17-year-old can do. From here on out, the talent hounds will focus on his warts, and in a tournament ruled by 19-year-olds, those warts are likely to be glaringly exposed. Tavares will start the event as Canada's 13th forward, but that's not as big a knock as it might appear. He'll likely have a role similar to what Sidney Crosby had in his first WJC: earning some power play time and getting a chance to jumpstart any line that struggles to click.

Steven Stamkos, center, Canada

The top-rated prospect for the 2008 draft, Stamkos is a poor man's Crosby. Scouts believe he's capable of becoming a superstar in the NHL thanks to his remarkably well-rounded game based on speed, amazing hands, and a defensive awareness that belies his age. If you haven't yet seen him at work, you might want to check out his highlights on YouTube. Prepare to be amazed.

Jonathan Bernier, goalie, Canada

It's not depth of talent or top-flight coaching that has led Team Canada to three straight gold medals at this event. It was goaltending. Bernier, who started the season with the Kings and beat the Stanley Cup Champion Ducks in the opener, is cut from the same cloth as previous championship stoppers like Carey Price. He's technically sound and can't be rattled. Columbus prospect Steve Mason will get a turn in the net, but with his experience, the starting job is Bernier's to lose.

Kyle Okposo, forward, United States

The seventh overall pick of 2006 created a minor controversy last week when he defected from the Minnesota Gophers with the intention of signing a pro deal with the New York Islanders. That shouldn't cause too much of a distraction for the American side, but all eyes will be on the big power forward. He's expected to carry a significant portion of the team's offensive load, and the pressure will be squarely on his shoulders -- right or wrong -- to show he's ready to step into an NHL lineup. We'll see what he's made of.

Tyler Ruegsegger, forward, United States

The University of Denver star might not be the first name to pop out from a lineup dotted with top picks like Okposo and James Van Reimsdyk. But there's a reason why the Americans slapped an A on the sweater of the 2006 sixth-rounder (Toronto Maple Leafs): character. In a short tournament like this, the value of that quality is highlighted. Although goaltending will be the main difference-maker for Team USA, Ruegsegger could emerge as their most important skater.

Jordan Schroeder, forward, United States

His slow start with the U.S. National Development Team Program made him something of a surprise choice for this tournament, but there's a chance the 2009 draft-eligible could make as much of an impact on this team as Phil Kessel did as a 16-year-old. Schroeder, who has committed to the University of Minnesota, is a natural sniper who could see significant time on the power play.

Jakub Voracek, forward, Czech Republic

As the biggest name for the host club, Voracek will be out to prove that he can make a greater impact than he did at last year's event. The Columbus Blue Jackets' 2007 first-rounder (seventh overall) had just two points for a disappointing Czech squad and seemed overmatched by the pressure of the event. This year, he comes in a more confident player. With 16 goals and 50 points in just 25 games this season, he's been the most dangerous offensive weapon in the QMJHL.

Victor Hedman, defenseman, Sweden

With a strong showing over the next two weeks, this Pronger-esque defender could make it a two-man race for the honor of being the first overall pick in 2009. Hype aside, Tavares is no safe bet. Currently playing for MoDo in the Swedish Elite League, Hedman is making a name for himself with his offensive skills and inclination for nasty physical play.

Oscar Moller, forward, Sweden

Last summer, 29 teams passed on Moller because they believed he was destined to be no more than a checking line winger. With 25 goals and 50 points in just 34 games for Chilliwack of the WHL, he's forcing scouts to reassess his potential, and making the Kings look awfully smart for nabbing him in the second round. One scout went so far as to call him a bargain basement version of Daniel Alfredsson. The Swedes, perennial underachievers at this event, are counting on Moller to spearhead their offense and get them back into the medals.

Nikita Filatov, forward, Russia

The top-ranked European prospect according to the latest Central Scouting report, Filatov is a likely top-10 pick this summer. He's a classic Russian winger -- crafty, creative and patient with the puck. Filatov is driven to score goals. The only question mark is his size. He's noodle thin and his ability to handle the physical challenges he'll face will impact his final standing this summer.

Viacheslav Voinov, defenseman, Russia

Another possible top-10 pick after an impressive performance at the Super Series, Voinov is a solid two-way defender in the mold of Brian Rafalski. Although undersized by the old standard, Voinov brings a complete game based around his puckhandling ability and exceptional decision making. His ability to key their transition game will be crucial to Russia's medal hopes.

Lars Eller, forward, Denmark

The Danes aren't likely to make any noise as a team -- a single win would be a major accomplishment -- but Denmark is set to emerge as a legitimate hothouse of NHL-caliber talent. Eller was selected 13th overall by St. Louis last June, becoming the first Danish player to be taken in the first round. He caught everyone's attention at last year's B Tournament with his speed and creativity. The Blues see him as a top-six scoring winger. Also of note: 17-year-old forward Mikkel Boedker, currently starring with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, could follow in Eller's footsteps as a first-rounder this summer.

Riku Helenius, goalie, Finland

Anyone who's kept tabs on Tampa Bay's netminding woes is closely watching Helenius, the Lightning's first-round pick in 2006. Since coming over to North America to play for Seattle of the WHL, Helenius has been good, but hardly dazzling. That has some scouts questioning his long-term potential. Playing behind a Finnish squad that will work hard to overcome a lack a star power, he's clearly their main man.

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