Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
The Winter Olympics start late next month in Turin, Italy. Once again the hockey event will be played by professionals, which has happened since Nagano in 1998, and inevitably after the tournament begins, someone you know will complain. Perhaps even you will complain. People will complain about how they miss the “good old days” of the Olympics when they used to be for amateurs (except, you know, those countries that always used pros).
For all those pining for this brand of international hockey – it’s not gone. And in fact it happens every single year in a tournament lauded by those who watch it, attended in record numbers in certain hockey hotbeds, and is utterly and completely ignored in the United States. It’s the World Junior Championships, and is held every winter for two weeks after Christmas. It matches the very best players in the world under the age of 20 against each other in a short and exciting tournament for the considerable honor of national hockey pride. This year the tournament is being held in British Columbia, Canada, and was completely sold out eight months in advance.
Of course if you’re living in the good old USA, you have a better chance of seeing the world championship of mud-wrestling superstars playing poker than merely a tournament pitting the next crop of NHL superstars against each other. Even the usually great Center Ice package deigns to show merely a handful of games (USA games only, of course), which is better than nothing, but it’s not enough - this tournament gets a horrible treatment from the American sporting world. Go ahead and ask the next 20 people you talk to about the World Juniors and I’d be surprised if any of them have even heard of it.
Many times in history the World Juniors have been a platform for teenagers to shine on the world stage for the first time. The 1978 tournament in Montreal welcomed a young Wayne Gretzky for the first time, and it took him a total of one game to register his first hat trick. He ended up leading the entire tournament in scoring that year with 17 points in six games (Canada took the Bronze that year as the Soviet Union won their fifth consecutive tournament, on the way to seven straight). The 1988 tournament first all-star team consisted of forwards Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov, and Theoren Fleury. In 1993, Peter Forsberg gave the world a glimpse of what the Quebec Nordiques were soon to see when he obliterated the previous record and scored 31 points in seven games. Last year’s first all star team at the World Juniors included two players we have profiled here: Dion Phaneuf and Jeff Carter, as well as rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin and Bruins regular Patrice Bergeron. Carter and Phaneuf made the first all star team two years in a row. And, in 2004, Sidney Crosby became the youngest player in World Juniors history to score a goal. At age 16. I once scored a killer goal against my friend Brian at age 16. In a parking lot. Using a tennis ball. The World Junior Championships are the equivalent of taking the very best college football players playing in this week’s bowl games, and forming an elite group of eight teams, then letting them play an elimination tournament. You think that wouldn’t interest a few people in this country?
This week’s spotlight shines on a few players who have used a successful World Junior Championships to put them on the hockey map, and are seeing some success in this NHL season…
Brian Campbell, Defense, Buffalo Sabres
I’ve held off on Campbell for a few weeks, as I had seen a lot of inconsistency in his play, but his continued production is now warranting a profile. Brian Campbell came out of the Ontario Hockey League known as an outstanding offensive threat from the blue line. Even though in his final season playing with the Ottawa 67s he won the “most outstanding defenseman” trophy for the league, there was never a doubt that his game was generating points – in 1999 he led his team with 87 points in 62 games, with 12 more in nine playoff games. His elite play earned him a spot on the Canadian World Junior team and in helping the Canadians to a silver medal finish in Winnipeg he earned first-team all star honors. Campbell’s final award that year was being named Canadian Hockey League player of the year.
Upon completion of his junior eligibility he joined the Sabres’ farm team in Rochester and rode the I-90 shuffle between Rochester and Buffalo for the better part of three years before becoming somewhat of a regular in the 2002-2003 season. Campbell’s two previous full seasons in Buffalo could hardly be considered successes, both with the team failing to make the playoffs and Campbell scoring a total of 30 points in 118 games.
This year started off as more of the same, with only two points in his first eight games. The turning point seems to be when coach Lindy Ruff revamped the Sabres’ power play and installed Campbell as a key component. They caught fire and since late November the Buffalo power play has consistently been in the top five in the league. Since the beginning of November, Campbell has notched 15 points on the power play and 21 overall in just 29 games. If you are in a points-only league, Brian Campbell is a worthy addition and one that may have slipped below the radar in many leagues due to his slow start. If you’re in a combination league, take this into consideration – Campbell will get the majority of his points on the power play and at this point is below-average at even strength. One major caveat with Campbell is his horrible -12 efficiency rating. Campbell is a relatively small defenseman – listed at less than six feet and 190 pounds – and often is caught in his own zone when faced with an aggressive forechecking team.
Nils Ekman, Winger, San Jose Sharks
Ekman was a key component of the 1996 silver medal Swedish team at the World Juniors in Boston. He was a decent scorer in the Finnish league, leading his team his first season with 24 goals in 50 games. Since coming to North America, however, Ekman has been notable in that he’s been the property of four different organizations in total, first being drafted by Calgary and finally two years ago being dealt to San Jose after two partial seasons with the Lightning. In 2003-2004 Ekman put together a surprisingly tremendous season – finally getting the chance to play a full slate of games, he potted 22 goals (including four shorthanded) and 55 points while adding a fantastic +30 rating, good for fifth in the league. Expectations were fairly high heading into this season for Ekman.
Yet from a statistical point of view, after two and a half months his season was a disaster: in 29 games he was a -2 with only 9 points; only once getting points in consecutive games and that being in early October. So after starting off the season so poorly, what’s given ol’ Nils the kick in the knickers to put him in the scoring column in four consecutive games? Playing with Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo on the top line – it may be as simple as that.
I wouldn’t expect huge total numbers from Ekman no matter what – he’ll be 30 this year which makes it not extremely likely for him to suddenly transform into an elite scorer. However, as we’ve pointed out many times in this column, your production is often tied dramatically to your linemates. If he continues to play with the Sharks’ two best players, he will get points, as he’s shown a scoring touch in the past. Ekman’s low season totals thus far will keep him off most teams’ radars so if he’s available he’d be worth grabbing now in hopes that he remains on that top line.
Mike Cammalleri, Center, Los Angeles Kings
Mike Cammalleri has shown a scoring touch at every level – a suburban Toronto native, he starred at the University of Michigan, scoring 52 goals in his final 70 games there. He missed time his final year to star in the World Juniors in Pardubice, Czech Republic where he became a(nother) silver medal winner. Cammalleri led the entire tournament in scoring in 2002 with 11 points in seven games for the snake-bitten Canadian program.
Cammalleri is suddenly emerging as a potential force in the NHL, and is likely another example of how last year’s lockout actually helped the development of a number of young players (see also Jason Spezza, Thomas Vanek, and Eric Staal among others). After parts of two seasons with the Kings, Cammalleri spent all of last year with the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, where he led the league in goals with 46 and was second in points with 109.
This year – which will doubtless end up being his first full year in the NHL – he has already surpassed his previous career NHL point totals. As of Wednesday he has 15 goals and 29 points in 40 games, and has been extremely productive in the past few weeks with nine points in the past seven games; only once in that span has he failed to register a point. The Kings have shaken up their lines a bit and Cammalleri has found himself playing with a host of linemates, but most notably he’s had time with Pavol Demitra which immediately makes him more valuable. In his last game against Dallas he registered a season-high of just under 23 minutes of ice time, including starting the overtime period, proving that the coaching staff has great faith in him. Mike Cammalleri has a great future in the NHL and by season’s end may be considered one of the better young centers in the league.
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