One of the things that the annual World Junior Hockey Championships offers, aside from a dose of pure adrenaline, is a hypothetical barometer for measuring the development of the prospects involved.
There’s a saying that goes “to be the best, you have to beat the best,” and there’s a lot of truth in that. There are undoubtedly some limitations with the World Juniors as a tool when it comes to adopting that mentality (elite teenagers like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were eligible to participate but did not, while a number of players that actually did will never come close to making the NHL), but nevertheless, it presents an undeniably impressive collection of talent each year representing the under-20 age group.
One of the more intriguing examples of such a player this year was forward Denis Guryanov.
Guryanov’s name first gained significant prominence in the hockey world on the evening of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, when the Dallas Stars unexpectedly drafted him 12th overall. With a number of more well-known and talked-about prospects still available on the draft board (such as Mathew Barzal, Thomas Chabot and Joel Eriksson Ek, all of whom also played in this year’s World Juniors), Stars general manager Jim Nill surprised everyone watching and instead selected the Russian power forward, who was generally predicted to be a late 1st rounder or early 2nd rounder.
According to the Stars, Guryanov was “their guy” going all the way back to November 2014.
“We like pretty much everything - his talent level, skating ability and compete level for a Russian player,” said Stars Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell at the time. “We met with him and his family this morning. The parents are outstanding. The kid we knew was outstanding from the combine when we met him there. He’s like Val in a lot of ways. The compete level is off the charts; the skill level is off the charts. We are just excited.”
The following season was a challenging one, both for Guryanov and for the fans of the Dallas Stars, who have dealt with plenty of draft disappointment in recent years and were anxious to learn more about their team’s newest top prospect. Guryanov spent most of the season with Tolyatti Lada in the KHL, but barely received any ice time in the top Russian league, making it hard to assess his performance. He was also one of Russia’s finals cuts for their 2016 World Juniors team, taking away another good opportunity to do so.
Things took a positive step over the summer of 2016, when Guryanov decided to make the trip across the pond over to North America. After appearing in events like the Stars’ prospect development camp and the Traverse City NHL Prospect Tournament, he then took part in Dallas’ official training camp and preseason (even scoring a game-winning shootout goal against the Florida Panthers) before being assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars, where he played all of his hockey before leaving for the World Juniors. He has four goals and nine assists in 25 games for the Stars, but has been playing primarily on the team’s bottom two lines, a rare teenager in a men’s league.
Guryanov made this year’s Russian World Juniors team right before Christmas, and after finally getting a chance to play an increased role against some of the best competition that his peer group has to offer, put forth a performance that exemplified exactly why Nill and the Stars have such high hopes for him.
The 6’3”, 200-pound right winger was a considerable force in the tournament, getting better and better as the event went along before finishing as one of the top players. He was regularly noticeable offensively, both by winning puck battles along the boards and by creating scoring chance with his impressive skating ability. He picked up four goals and three assists in seven games for his efforts.
The most impressive thing was just when he did the brunt of that scoring. He picked up two of his four goals in Wednesday’s semifinal game against the United States, and if that wasn’t enough, scored two more times in the shootout. Russia needed to win that game to advance to the championship, but would ultimately fall 4-3.
Guryanov arguably saved his best for last, however, capping off his tournament on a high note. Tied 1-1 in overtime of the bronze medal game against Sweden, Guryanov would force a turnover just inside the Swedish end, burst ahead of the defenders and slipped a backhand goal past netminder Felix Sandstrom to win the game.
While any and all performances in such a short tournament, regardless of the level of competition and how high the stakes are, should be taken with a grain of salt, the Stars should still be quite pleased with what they saw out of one of their organization’s best prospects. With a prime opportunity to make a name for himself and prove that he was worthy of his lofty draft placement, Guryanov rose to the occasion and did exactly that.