Lots of Red Wings intrigue, prospects highlight world junior tournament

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — For hockey fans, nothing completes the holidays like the world junior tournament.

Sure, you can open all the presents you want, eat every treat on the plate, and listen to carols until your ears pop.

But not until that puck drops for that United States-Canada game on Thursday are the holidays complete for the avid hockey fan.

This year’s tournament — a tournament Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill has been involved in as an assistant for Team USA in 2009 — is being held in the Czech Republic and wraps up on Jan. 5.

“I’m looking forward to the tournament, I love the tournament,” Blashill said. “You certainly want to see some of the prospects, but I also love watching the U.S. win.”

From a Red Wings’ perspective, this year’s tournament certainly has plenty of interesting angles.

Joe Veleno will be one of five Red Wings prospects playing in the IIHF World Junior Championship.

The Wings are almost surely going to have a high draft pick, likely one of the first four picks after the lottery is done, so there will be plenty of attention focused on possible future Red Wings.

Forwards Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield (both on Team Canada) and Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov are considered to be the three top prospects currently in the draft, and all would help strengthen the Red Wings.

But there’s also the current Wings prospects who will be competing in the tournament.

Forward Joe Veleno (Canada) and defenseman Moritz Seider (Germany), both of who are playing for the minor league affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins, will be competing for their country.

Also, defenseman Jared McIsaac (Canada), and forward Jonatan Berggren and goalie Jesper Eliasson (both Team Sweden) are other Wings prospects who will be participating.

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More: OctoPulse podcast: World juniors preview with Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras

“I’ve been a part of it, it’s a really unique experience,” Blashill said. “(There’s) probably as much pressure as they (the players) will face until they get to the National Hockey League. The pressure in that tournament is unfair for the age of the players to be honest with you.

“But it makes for a really neat environment. It’s probably a little different when it’s in Canada as opposed to Europe. When I was with the U.S. team in Ottawa, that was like nothing I’d seen to that point.”

For Red Wings fans, the progress of a player like Veleno will be closely watched.

Veleno, 19, has 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 29 games, with a team-worst minus-22 plus-minus rating.

Similar to Filip Zadina the year before — a fellow first-round pick of the Wings — the adjustment to pro hockey hasn’t been all smooth.

“The American League is a real hard league,” said Blashill, who coached four seasons in Grand Rapids. “Moving into pro hockey from junior hockey, or from college to pro, is the biggest jump you make as a player. It’s way harder than moving from the American League to the NHL.

“It doesn’t surprise me, and nobody should be necessarily concerned. It’s just part of the development process.”

The Wings enabled Zadina to play for the Czech Republic in last year’s junior tournament, and Zadina was held to one point (an assist) in five games.

Zadina returned to Grand Rapids after the tournament, and played well enough to earn a nine-game stint in the NHL with the Wings.

“It was pretty tough. It’s way different hockey because you’re playing against juniors there,” Zadina said. “I was used to playing against men. But it was still good, I liked it a lot.

“It’s always fun to wear the national logo on the chest.”

Blashill feels how a player performs in the world junior tournament isn’t going to dictate how successful he’ll be going forward in the short term.

“It’s going to be a learning process, playing in the American League is going to be a process,” Blashill said. “It just is. So whether he (Veleno) comes back and tears it up or grinds his way through the rest of the season, we’ll see.

“For me, it won’t dictate how good a player he is going to be in the future. To me, it’ll dictate how he reacts to all the these challenges he’s facing.”

IIHF World Junior Championship

When: Thursday-Jan. 5

Where: Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic

Red Wings prospects: Joe Veleno (Canada), Jared McIsaac (Canada), Moritz Seider (Germany), Jonatan Berggren (Sweden), Jesper Eliasson (Sweden)

TV coverage:  NHL Network will broadcast 20 games live, including Team USA playing Canada on Thursday (1 p.m.) and Team USA’s round-robin games against Germany on Friday (1 p.m.), Russia on Sunday (1 p.m.) and Czech Republic on Monday (1 p.m.).

NHL Network will also televise Canada's round-robin games against Russia on Saturday (1 p.m.), Germany on Monday (9 a.m.) and Czech Republic on Dec. 31 (1 p.m.).


Twitter: @tkulfan