A year ago, Drouin was lingering in midget hockey, unsure if he wasphysically ready to jump to the QMJHL. Today, he is the most dominant offensive force in the CHL, using his Joe Sakic-like vision and soft hands to average two points per game for Halifax. His age -- just 17 -- made him a dark horse coming into camp, but his strong showing earned him a spot on Canada's second line beside Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie. He could be this year's Jordan Eberle.
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"Polished" might be the most flattering term a scout can use in describing an underage prospect, so it speaks volumes about Jones that it is applied to him so often. A smooth skating, physical defender whose style of play evokes memories of a young Chris Pronger, Jones has shown a knack for stepping up when it counts. He led Team USA to gold at the U-18 and racked up 11 points in six games since Portland was rocked by its player-benefits scandal.
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The man of many countries (Belarus, Russia, US) made USA Hockey very happy when he chose to represent the land of his birth for the WJC. Montreal's first selection (third overall in the 2012 NHL Draft will be the engine that powers the American offense. He comes to the tournament hot with 40 points in his last 17 games, including eight in his final two -- a feat that earned him Player of the Week honors in the CHL.
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A season spent honing his skills in Edmonton puts Nugent-Hopkins in the nearly unique position -- Patrice Bergeron did it first in 2005 -- of making a WJC debut after establishing himself as an NHL regular. With Canada returning just six players from last year's bronze medal squad, they'll rely heavily on their captain both as a steadying presence and as an offensive catalyst on a dynamic first line that includes Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Scheifele.
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The first overall selection in last summer's NHL draft underwhelmed with a lackadaisical performance in the Subway Super Series, and he hasn't lit the lamp in KHL action since returning to Russia. Cause for concern? Nope. Motivated by last year's loss in the final and the chance to play at home, Yakupov will rediscover what makes him special: dominating with his game-breaking speed and physical play away from the puck.
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It wasn't that long ago that Grigorenko bashers were easier to find than Twilight haters. The big center had all the tools -- size, speed, vision and a wicked shot -- but there were too many nights when he couldn't seem to find the on button. That hasn't been an issue this season as Buffalo's 2012 first-rounder has counted 29 goals in just 30 games for the Quebec Remparts. Those soft hands will make him a threat to score on every shift.
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If you're looking for a dark horse choice as the tournament's top player, Koko is your man. Boston's 2011 second-rounder was Russia's most consistent threat during the Subway Super Series, showcasing his speed, vision and willingness to drive the net. He also showed plenty of moxie, blocking a Cody Ceci slap shot with his face to help preserve a Russian lead against the OHL. That's the kind of player that teams win with.
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Aleksander Barkov, Jr.
Barkov enters the tournament as Europe's top prospect and the triggerman for Finland's offense. He could leave it as a legitimate contender for the No. 1 spot in the 2013 NHL draft. The 6-2, 205-pound center has been spectacular in his second season in the SM-Liiga, leading Tappara with 14 goals in 32 games. Not bad for a player who is more highly regarded for his passing than his finishing touch. His skating, which may be an issue on the big ice in Ufa, won't hurt him as much in the NHL.
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The Russians return their outstanding 2012 tandem, but Makarov could have the edge over Andrei Vasilevski. The Sabres' free-agent signee turned the tide in relief against Canada in the semifinals, then was sensational in the gold-medal game, making 57 saves against Sweden in a heartbreaking 1-0 OT loss. He heads home hot, with three shutouts in his last five starts for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades.
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When Ottawa refused to release Mika Zibanejad for the tournament, Forsberg graduated from the chorus to a starring role with the defending champs. Washington's 2012 first-rounder has battled inconsistency this season but the Swedes named him captain, banking as much on his drive and willingness to sacrifice his body as his offensive creativity to set the tone for a team that may be hard-pressed to medal.
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There's a lot on the line over the next 10 days for MacKinnon. It's hard to imagine him playing any better than he has with the Halifax Mooseheads (22 goals and 52 points in 30 games), but his status as the 2013 draft's top prospect is clearly at risk. He enters the tournament as Canada's 13th forward while rivals Jones, Drouin and Barkov Jr. have feature roles. He needs to earn more than spot duty to make a statement.
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