Future Watch: The top 10 players to watch at the World Junior A Challenge

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Among other things, the World Junior A Challenge is the perfect way to kick off an exciting month of hockey in December.

Created in 2006 and hosted each year by Hockey Canada, the tournament has played host to names such as Andrei Vasilevskiy, Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyson Jost, David Pastrnak, Dante Fabbro, Cale Makar, Andrei Svechnikov, Cayden Primeau and Vasili Podkolzin, among many others. It’s very common to see players go from the WJAC one year to the world juniors the next and become stars.

In theory, the tournament is used as a way to showcase the best tier-two players from around the world – most notably, the best players from the Canadian Jr. A League and its leagues such as the OJHL, BCHL, AJHL and CCHL, as well as the USHL in the United States, often seen as the leading springboard towards the NCAA. But not every country follows that hockey model, meaning Russia and the Czech Republic need to get more creative. Russia typically uses this as preparation for the U-18 World Hockey Championship in April, while the Czechs this year are a bit more depleted than usual with the World Junior Championship taking place later this month back home.

The favorites typically are Canada West, made up of mainly AJHL and BCHL players, the United States and Russia. That won’t change this year, with each team carrying high-profile draft talent. Canada East has a few solid players but are often much weaker than its western counterparts – with no star prospect to watch on the team this year, Canada East will need to be creative to score goals. The United States hold a 34-5-1 record all-time with eight gold medals, with Canada West (five golds) the only other team to take the top prize. Russia and Canada East have combined for eight silver medals between them.

With the tournament set to run in Dawson Creek, B.C. from Dec. 7-15, here are 10 players – with a big focus on the 2020 NHL draft – that you need to know:

Michael Benning, D (Canada West)
It looks like the AJHL has another star defenseman on their hands. As profiled by Ryan Kennedy last month, Benning – yes, from the same family tree that produced Matt and Jim, among others – is exactly what you want from a defenseman today: he’s a fluid skater, a tremendous passer and can play any role asked of him. He’s a leader on a strong Sherwood Park Crusaders team that sits third in the CJHL rankings, the same team that features Carter Savoie and Carter Gylander. Benning holds a five-point advantage of Jaxsen Wyatt for the league lead in defensemen scoring with 40 and his 1.48 points-per-game average through 27 games is the 11th-best all-time among single-season defensemen, three spots behind his uncle Jim.

Carter Savoie, LW (Canada West)
Savoie’s younger brother, Matt, may have all the hype given his status as an elite prospect for the 2022 NHL draft, but the older brother can’t simply be ignored. While he does play tier-two hockey, only Alexis Lafreniere (60) has more points than Savoie (51) among top 2020 draft prospects, and he’s the only player who has already scored 30 goals this season. One of the best pure goal-scorers in Jr. A, Savoie is a major reason why the Crusaders have been a top-five team in the CJHL, scoring nearly twice as many goals of anyone else on the team. Savoie is a small forward at 5-foot-9, but he can make plays at a high speed and his feet are always moving. He’ll be a steal for any team that takes him in the third or fourth round.

Ryan Alexander, C (Canada East)
The St. Michael’s Buzzers are a mid-pack club in the OJHL, but the quality of talent on the roster is matched by very few teams in the league. A small but puck-dominant forward, Alexander sits third in U-18 scoring in the OJHL with 37 points in 29 games (Cole O’Hara and Ayrton Martino, who have 41 and 40 points, respectively, are also on Canada East) while playing a prominent top-line role with the Buzzers. Alexander is dangerous in open ice, using his high-end speed and dangerous snapshot to create opportunities for himself, and his play away from the puck – either defensively or along the boards to regain possession – is far ahead of the capabilities of most OJHLers. He’ll be one of Canada East’s most important players on a team that will need to search deep for goals.

Cole O’Hara, RW (Canada East)
The North York Rangers are in a rebuilding year, but O’Hara has given the team something to cheer about on a nightly basis. Currently sitting fourth in OJHL scoring with 41 points in 29 games, O’Hara is the top-scoring U-18 player in the league and will be a big source of offense for Canada East. O’Hara is often the one creating plays for the Rangers thanks to his excellent vision and he rarely loses the puck during on-ice rushes due to his quick hands. O’Hara is a patient forward, using time and space to make plays happen and he won’t let others intimidate him. He isn’t a big kid at 5-foot-11, but his pure puck skills make up for it. This could be the event that really puts O’Hara on more draft boards around the NHL.

Sean Farrell, LW (USA)
The Chicago Steel is the team to watch in the USHL if you’re a fan of prospects, and Farrell leads the way with 30 points in 20 games. A projected second-round pick in 2020, Farrell is tough to knock off the puck and plays at a high tempo, forcing those around him to get better to keep up. A graduate of the U.S. NTDP, Farrell didn’t have a lot of hype as a bottom-six forward, but his time with the program has truly helped him succeed as a full-time USHLer. He isn’t big at 5-foot-9 but he plays a physical game and doesn’t shy away from challenging bigger opponents, often using his speed to complete a play. He’ll be lethal in Dawson Creek.

Ryder Rolston, C (USA)
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Ryder is the son of Stanley Cup champion Brian Rolston. The younger Rolston graduated from the U.S NTDP but was often overlooked on a team full of stars. As a late 2001-born forward, Rolston was allowed to return to the USHL, going No. 2 to Waterloo in the entry draft last spring. Since then, Rolston has been the Black Hawks’ best forward, leading the team with 10 goals and 19 points in 20 games – no surprise given his experience with the national-team program. Rolston is a hardworking player who could bring value to an NHL team as a utility forward capable of killing penalties and bringing energy. He didn’t play at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge or U-18 World Championship over the past two years despite being a member of the development program, so this is his first big opportunity to represent his country.

Sam Colangelo, RW (USA)
Colangelo was a late addition to the team, but he’s one of the biggest risers in the USHL this season. A member of the Chicago Steel, Colangelo enters the tournament after scoring 24 points in 20 games as a USHL rookie while playing alongside Farrell and Brendan Brisson, among others. Colangelo, a Northeastern University commit, previously represented the U.S. at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018, scoring twice in five games. Since then, Colangelo has further improved his defensive play and somehow added more top-end speed to an already quick set of legs. He doesn’t have the hype of some of the more high-profile names on the roster, but Colangelo can hang with the best of them.

Daniil Gushchin, RW (Russia)
With over 50 games played with the Russian junior program over the past three seasons, it’s clear Gushchin loves to represent his country. Gushchin has performed at a point-per-game pace with 17 points to make him one of the better imports in the USHL, and Muskegon will miss his services as they toil near the bottom of the Western Conference. Gushchin, a small speedster at 5-foot-8, has quick hands and is always searching for an opportunity to make a pass – and not just easy, obvious ones, either. Rated as a ‘B’ prospect by the NHL Central Scouting Service, Gushchin has the potential to take his draft stock to a whole new level with a strong showing in Dawson Creek.

Vasili Ponomaryov, C (Russia)
One thing you’ll notice about the World Junior A Challenge is that a good slice of the tournament is filled with players who aren’t actually in Jr. A. Case in point: Ponomaryov is a point-per-game player in the QMJHL with Shawinigan. Ponomaryov has been Russia’s best player at every tournament he has played in, highlighted by an impressive six-point run in five Hlinka Gretzky Cup games last year and 20 points in 23 U-17 games last season. A good skater who likes to spend significant time around the net, Ponomaryov has a quick release on his shot and often puts points up in bunches once he finds his groove. His experience against better competition will allow him to handle his opponents without many issues.

Zack Malik, D (Czech Republic)
Malik joined the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks this season after two seasons in the OHL, often playing a lesser role for Sudbury and North Bay. But through nine games this year, Malik has been a solid offensive contributor with five assists. Malik has played over 60 games with the Czech junior team with limited offensive production, but what he misses in two-way play he makes up with physicality and shutdown tendencies. He comes from good hockey pedigree, too: his dad, Marek Malik, will forever be known as the shootout superstar for the New York Rangers in 2005 and his brother, Nick Malik, is vying for a spot in net for the Czechs at the World Junior Championship back home.

Other notables: Ayrton Martino, LW (Canada East), Brendan Brisson, LW (USA), Matthew Davis, G (Canada West), Daniil Chayka, D (Russia), Alexander Pashin, RW (Russia).