Each year, many of the world's best under-20 hockey prospects come together to partake in the prestigious World Junior Championships.
While the annual tournament features some of the best players selected in the last two NHL entry drafts, it also provides an early showcase for younger hockey talents that have yet to reach the age of draft eligibility.
Dallas Stars fans that watched the world juniors last year were able to catch an early glimpse of rookie phenom Valeri Nichushkin, who looked fantastic for the bronze-winning Russian team. His performance was certainly not lost on Stars general manager Jim Nill, who selected Nichushkin 10th overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
This year at the WJCs there will be no shortage of draft-eligible talent, spread out across a few different teams. Here now is a quick list of the top players to keep an eye on in anticipation of the 2014 draft.
Sam Reinhart - Canada: Already considered by many as the #1 prospect for 2014, Reinhart possesses an impressive, balanced range of skills. His skating, puck control, passing, shooting and on-ice awareness are all great, making him a very dangerous player in most offensive situations. Team Canada boasts a deep forward group, so Reinhart will have to compete hard for ice time, but will still be given multiple opportunities to show what he can do.
Aaron Ekblad - Canada: Another prospect that is getting a lot of attention as a possible 1st overall pick in 2014, Ekblad will hands-down be the best defenseman in the draft. The first defenseman to ever be granted "exceptional" status by Hockey Canada, Ekblad has been dominating in the OHL since he was 15 years old. Standing 6'4", the big blueliner is a complete package, capable of both shutting down top opposing forwards as well as producing points. Could easily play on the top defensive pairing for Canada this tournament.
Leon Draisaitl - Germany: Draisaitl's case is indeed an interesting one. Considered either a Top 10, or even Top 5, pick in 2014, he will be by far and away the best player on a very outmatched, underdog German team. He posted 6 points in 6 games at last year's tournament, helping the Germans barely avoid relegation. Opposing teams will match their best defenders against Draisaitl, so if he can use his size and skill to still look good, and maybe even steal the Germans a win, it could improve his draft stock considerably.
Ivan Barbashev - Russia: Playing for the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats, Barbashev will enter the tournament with the advantage of having plenty of familiarity against players from North America. The 6'3" winger leads the Wildcats with 37 points in 29 games, and is likely to be a 1st round pick in 2014. He'll be a 2nd or 3rd line player for the Russians, but could still see a lot of time on special teams.
Julius Honka - Finland: Another European player developing in Canada, Honka is a pure offensive-defenceman, with 36 points in 35 games so far this year with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. Despite his small size, at 5"11" and 175 pounds, he's handled the physical style of the "Dub" very well, and is likely to be even more dangerous on the bigger ice surface of this tournament.
Anton Karlsson - Sweden: Playing well in Sweden's top junior league, Karlsson is a polarizing prospect: some scouts consider him a Top 10 pick, while others see him falling out of the 1st round altogether. Has a nice mix of size, skill and two-way play. Sweden is ridiculously deep at forward this year, with top prospects like Elias Lindholm, Filip Forsberg and Sebastian Collberg, so scouting Karlsson based on this tournament alone could be tricky.
Jakub Vrana - Czech Republic: The Czech team is going young for the WJCs this year, and will be relying heavily on players like the 17 year-old winger Vrana. Not the biggest of players, but plays with plenty of speed and smarts. He's been held pointless in 13 games this year in Sweden's top league, the SHL, but could really produce against competition closer to his age.
David Pastrnak - Czech Republic: Much like Vrana, Pastrnak is another small-ish 17 year-old Czech winger that headed to Sweden to enrich his development. He has 15 points in 25 games so far this season for Sodertalje in the HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden's second-highest league. Flashy and highly-skilled, Pastrnak could cement himself as a 1st round pick with a good showing at the tournament.