Friday December 26th, 2008

You want pressure? Tavares not only is being asked to spearhead the offense of the defending champs, he needs this stage to re-establish himself as this summer's premier prospect. His years under the microscope have scouts focusing more on his faults than his assets, and his declining production with Oshawa of the OHL raises questions about his upside. Tavares responded to the challenge in Canada's exhibition slate, but he needs to step it up when the games count.

The second overall pick in 2007 (Philadelphia), van Riemsdyk may be the best player not currently skating in the NHL. A classic power forward, he's lighting up the NCAA with 26 points in just 17 games with the New Hampshire Wildcats. After topping the charts with 11 points at last year's tournament, he's expected to be the dominant offensive force in Ottawa.

The massive defender could establish himself as the clear-cut favorite to go first overall in the 2009 draft with a strong performance. His size (6-6, 220) and experience at last year's tournament set him up to dominate, but it's his long-term potential that has scouts drooling. He's generating Chris Pronger comparisons as a rookie in the Swedish Elite League, scoring 10 points and posting an impressive plus-14 rating.

A hot goaltender can dictate the course of a short tournament, and Markstrom comes in ranked as perhaps the best underager in the world. The Florida Panthers pick has a big body (6-3, 178) and his mental toughness and command of the butterfly have him starring in the SEL at 18.

The sixth pick last summer made a smooth transition to the AHL, scoring 17 points in just 23 games with Syracuse. He's slick, swift and reads the play as well as anyone at this event. If there are five highlight reel goals in Ottawa, chances are he'll be in on three of them.

The Kings likely won a few new fans in Sweden when they made the surprising decision to release the right winger for the tournament. His up-and-down play in Los Angeles has reflected his inexperience, but Moller should have no problem asserting himself against his own age group.

No team in Group A, including the Canadians and Americans, can afford to take the Germans lightly with Pielmeier in the net. The Sharks prospect was named the top stopper at last year's Division 1 championship, and has solidified his game-stealing rep this season with Shawinigan of the QMJHL.

He scarcely dented the score sheet at last year's tournament, but made his mark alongside Luke Schenn on the team's shutdown pairing. The fourth overall pick in 2007 (Los Angeles) plays in all situations, and will be counted on to play upwards of 25 minutes a night against the tournament's top forwards. Expect the Canadian captain to contribute more offense this time around.

The dynamic 17-year-old defender is such a force on the power play that the Canadians took the unprecedented step of naming eight blueliners and just 12 forwards to their roster. Despite his size (5-9, 175), Ellis' passing skills and uncanny reads have him pegged as a mid-first rounder next June. He could emerge as Canada's top scorer.

The American captain might be the most dominant player in the Canadian Hockey League this season. Blum's transition skills from the back end will be critical to the success of the American power play, but he's also ruthlessly efficient at even strength. The Nashville prospect boasts a plus-41 rating in 28 games with the Vancouver Giants.

The undersized right winger made an immediate impact as a freshman with the Minnesota Gophers, scoring 21 points in 16 games. He counted seven assists as a 16-year-old in the Czech Republic playing alongside van Riemsdyk and Nashville prospect Colin Wilson, but the trio was criticized for its inability to impact the big games. That won't be a problem this time around.

As the youngest player ever to suit up for Sweden, he was a bit player on last year's silver medal squad, but the speedy Svensson-Paajarvi is expected to player a larger role in the offense this time around. A solid outing could seal a spot in the top five in next summer's draft for the left winger.

The creative center is just 16 but is already being touted as one of the greatest offensive talents to emerge from his country. His undressing of Blues first- rounder Alex Pietrangelo in Finland's exhibition loss to Canada has scouts buzzing. He's draft-eligible in 2010.

For the Americans to spoil Canada's party, McCollum has to offer up the best hockey of his career. His play with Guelph of the OHL (2.13 GAA, .928 save percentage) suggests the Red Wings' first-rounder is up to the challenge.

There are bigger names on the Canadian squad (Jordan Eberle and Cody Hodgson come to mind), but keep an eye on this Dallas prospect. Benn is Canada's biggest forward at just 6-1, 202, but his goal-scoring prowess (24 in 27 games with Kelowna) suggests he might emerge as a key contributor.

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