In the small cities of Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia, the top U18 players from the top 8 international nations will compete in the first high level hockey games in the northern hemisphere since the Hershey Bears won the Calder Cup on June 14. We've been hearing of exhibition games for the U20 teams in recent weeks, and while those are nice breaks, this tournament actually carries a level of importance. Unlike the IIHF U18s, the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament takes place at a time when all of the top players from Canada available, as it is not in conflict with the CHL playoffs. To give you an example as to the quality of this tournament, check out last year's champions, Team Canada, and their roster. Names that stick out are ones hockey fans are just starting to get used to: Tyler Seguin, Erik Gudbranson, Brett Connolly, Brandon Gormley, Jaden Schwartz, Quinton Howden, John McFarland, Alexander Petrovic, Bradley Ross, Tyler Toffoli, and Calvin Pickard were all drafted in the first two rounds of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They also stand to form part of the core for Canada's U20 teams over the next two years. To give you an idea of the discrepancy between the Hlinka and the IIHF U18s, only five of those players were able to play in the U18s for Canada (Gudbranson, Connolly, Howden, McFarland and Pickard). Canada went from winning the Hlinka to a shocking 7th place showing at the IIHF U18s, so the Canadian major junior schedule is probably the prime reason that Canada finished behind the USA in my world junior rankings system.
Not all the countries view the Hlinka in the same light as Canada does, however. Some players don't view it as a priority tournament, as it is not an official IIHF event. For example, we won't be seeing Czech phenom Martin Frk here, despite ripping up the U18s as a soon to be 17 year old. Frk is making the trip to Halifax to join the QMJHL's Mooseheads, and has seemingly opted out of this one, though he is listed as an alternate for the co-host Czechs. Shane McColgan, one of the top ranked American players, has opted out of this tournament with an injury. I don't know how severe the injury is, but it gives you an idea of the cautious nature some nations place with this tournament. For Canada, this is their best shot to put together their best U18s at a single tournament. For others, they still have the IIHF U18s to do that. It should also be noted that any players that were invited to Canada's U20 camp will not be part of this team, as failure to go to U20 camp excludes you from making the team. All players born late in 1992 are not included, so there are several potential top draft choices (like Sweden's Adam Larsson and Canada's Sean Couturier) that aren't eligible.
For me, this is also my introduction to these players. I have only seen three of the players on Team Canada before, plus one of team USA's players. Full disclosure: they're all from the WHL's Eastern Conference, and two of them play for my hometown team. Canadian defenseman Duncan Siemens has been a favourite of mine for a while now, as he was a first round bantam choice of the Saskatoon Blades in 2008. He got a point in his first WHL game the following year in Edmonton, and has steadily improved to the point where he could fill in on Saskatoon's top 4 D during injuries to more experienced defenseman like Tiegan Zahn (who has been drafted twice, by Chicago in 2008 and Tampa Bay in 2010). He's a projected first round draft choice, and could be quite a high one as he possess good size and strong two way ability. Another Saskatoon Blade, Lukas Sutter, will suit up for Team USA. Yes, you read that right, a Sutter (son of Rich) will be playing for the red, white and blue, as he was born in St. Louis when his father played there. I've only seen him play sparingly as a late season callup. I have seen projected top 5 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins play a couple of games as well, and he definitely impressed. Hopkins had 65 points in 67 games as a WHL rookie, and while he only had two points in four playoff games, the Rebels were heavily outmatched and to be honest, he was still one of their best players. The last player is one I've seen play but wasn't paying a lot of attention to, and that would be Regina Pats defenseman Myles Bell.
Beyond that, it's just a list of names I've heard a little about, and some I've heard nothing about. The most prominent 2011 draft prospects in this tournament are Sweden's Vicktor Rask and Mika Zibanejad, USA's Seth Ambrozd and Vincent Trocheck, and Russia's Maxim Shalunov. Another prominent injury is to Czech defenseman David Musil, who plays for the Vancouver Giants of the CHL. Musil is currently ranked 4th overall by the International Scouting Services, and his loss is a huge blow to the tournament co-hosts. For more detailed looks on the teams themselves, Dan Sallows has a nice breakdown of each team.
Despite all the notable absences, we should expect some top play. The tournament is not televised to my knowledge, so we'll be basing our coverage off of the printed word. Feel free to contribute something about players you feel are ones to look out for in the coming year, and hopefully we can use this as a launching pad to build up profiles on players for SB Nation's 2011 NHL Draft coverage. Here's the schedule for the tournament (games in Breclav will be held in Alcaplast Arena, games in Piestany will be held in Zimny Stadion):