The World Junior Championships is always a big deal, especially if you are a player looking to make the Canadian team.
Although it means being away from family and friends over the holiday season, it is a sacrifice all players would be willing to make in order to represent their country in a national tradition.
The 2013 edition of this event is going to take on an even bigger meaning, not just to Canadians but also to any hockey fan throughout the world.
Of course there have been European leagues, the AHL, NCAA and other leagues to follow but there is still no NHL hockey being played. Many fans of the game have been talking about the World Junior’s since the beginning of the hockey season.
After all, with the ongoing lockout we are experiencing, this tournament has been the one constant fans could look forward to. It also helps that many NHL-caliber players will be suiting up for their countries.
Even though these talented players will make the hockey better, it also makes it tougher on players who are on the fringe of making their respective teams.
In Canada for example, the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers) joining the roster means players such as Phillip Danualt and Mark McNeill will have to battle hard to find a spot on the team.
Both of those players are Chicago Blackhawks prospects that are currently in the middle of excellent seasons within their respective leagues.
Phillip Danault was drafted by the Blackhawks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He was a first-round (26th overall) selection.
Although he did manage to play in seven games last season with the Rockford Icehogs, Danault has been a constant on the Victoriaville Tigres roster in the QMJHL.
He has shown an offensive side to his game ever since coming into the league in 2009-10. In the past three seasons he has been able to put up point totals of 26, 67 and 71.
This season, through 29 games, Danault has 14 goals and 30 assists for an amazing point total of 44. However, being able to contribute on the offensive end of things is not all that makes Danault an attractive piece to the coaching staff of Canada's junior team.
Junior hockey expert, Bob McKenzie of TSN, recently shared this about Danault and his chance of making the team.
"Blackhawks prospect Phillip Danault of Victoriaville is the logical fourth-line center," Bob McKenzie said.
A fourth-line position on a team full of excellent players does not mean Danault is at the bottom of the barrel. What it means, is they recognize he can be an effective player who can play in all situations.
Danault becomes much more of an asset to the team if he can contribute in both ends of the ice. Maybe even more effective then top-line guys who are expected to just score.
Danault is a smart player who can play well in both ends of the ice. If he makes the junior team it will be expected of him to kill penalties for Team Canada. Something he is also more than capable of doing sound.
As for the other Blackhawks prospect who was invited to the teams training camp, Mark McNeill may have to battle a little harder to earn his spot on the team.
McNeill was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round (18th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Like Danault, he has spent most of his short career in junior hockey. Last season, he took part in seven games with the Icehogs in the AHL. In those games McNeill did not put up any points.
But, that does not mean McNeill cannot put the puck in the back of the net. He is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the WHL and the offensive leader of his Prince Albert Raiders.
This season, the 19-year-old McNeill has been able to score 13 goals and 26 assists, in 33 games. Those stats are good enough to place him top 10 in the league in scoring.
The difficulty that exists for McNeill to make the Canadian junior team however, will be if he can prove to be a dominate defensive player.
His offense is good, but not near good enough to place him on the top two lines. What that means is McNeill will have to beat out other players by showing he can be a strong two-way forward.
Being rock-hard in his own end will be his ticket to Russia.
McNeill has the talent to play both ends of the rink but the only thing holding him back is his toughness. If he expects to make this team then he will have to use his body a lot more and do some banging on the ice and in the corners.
Any added grit to the bottom lines is a bonus, especially when those gritty players can also score.
McNeill, like Danault, needs to prove that his defense is as good as his offensive talents. If both players can do that then they each have a legitimate shot at making the Canadian team.
If the lockout continues, competition will be stiff at the camp. However, if the NHL and the NHLPA can come to terms with one another and return to playing, the camp will become a lot more wide open. Which, currently, seems to not be the case.
No matter what happens, the Blackhawks should expect at least one of their prospects to be wearing the maple leaf once this tournament begins on Boxing Day in Russia.
A strong possibility still remains however, that both Danault and McNeill will be representing the Canadians after Christmas.
The selection camp begins today (Monday) in Calgary. The team’s final selections will be made on Thursday, December 13th.
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