The holiday season is a busy time for everyone, but perhaps no one is working more than an NHL scout during the two weeks around Christmas through New Year's. The reason? The IIHF World Under-20 Championships. The very best teenage hockey players from around the world meet with national pride on the line. For some, their NHL future also hangs in the balance. A good performance against the best competition on the planet can solidify or propel a player's draft status. Failing to make your country's squad or struggling in the tournament can lead to a tumbling ranking.
When the 2009-10 season began, the Carolina Hurricanes expected to be competing for a Stanley Cup instead of the worst record in the NHL. Instead, they are taking a hard look at the best of the best: specifically Canada's Taylor Hall and the USA's Cam Fowler.
Last year, John Tavares and Victor Hedman were the two top prospects at the WJC's. Tavares' dominant performance at the tournament — specifically the way he took over the New Year's Eve matchup against the U.S., then outplayed Hedman in the gold medal game between Canada and Sweden — solidified his place as the No. 1 overall pick, eventually leading to his selection by the New York Islanders.
In this year's U.S.-Canada game, neither Hall nor Fowler took over the way Tavares had a year before. In fact, neither has proven to be their country's best player over the course of the tournament. U.S captain Derek Stepan — a 2008 second-round pick of the Rangers — and Canada's Jordan Eberle — taken 22nd overall by Edmonton in 2008 — have been the difference-makers for their respective teams.
While Hall's numbers are impressive — five goals and four assists in five games — they are not mind-blowing for a team averaging more than eight goals a game in the tournament. He's shown flashes of brilliance. His skating and puck handling are on par, if not better than, most anyone else in the tournament, and his elevated hockey sense is evident. But much of the damage he's done has come against inferior opponents: two games vs. Switzerland, one against Slovakia and the other vs. Latvia. In his one game against tough competition — Team USA — Hall was held to just two shots and kept off the scoresheet, plus was a minus-2 in a game Canada won in a shootout. He was not chosen as one of Canada's four shooters..
Like Hall, Fowler's skills have been on display, but not in dominant fashion. The hulking defenseman has shown he can punish the opposition and has a pro-level first pass out of his own zone. He also plays with poise and confidence on special teams, and has not been hesitant to unleash his powerful slapshot on the power play. Through six games, Fowler has just two assists with 13 shots on net, but has been plus-8. He was quietly efficient against Canada on New Year's Eve, going pointless but helping to hold the Canadian offensive juggernaut in check. But there have been moments of indecision and even struggles for Fowler, who at times has lacked some hustle and desperation in his own end.
The good news for Carolina and the other teams angling for a top pick? The U.S. and Canada will do it once more Tuesday when they meet for the gold medal (8 p.m., NHL Network in U.S.), meaning Hall and Fowler — teammates in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires — will get one final chance to make their case on junior hockey's biggest stage. A standout performance from either could mean being the No. 1 overall pick — perhaps to Carolina. If nothing is resolved Tuesday, Plymouth's Tyler Seguin, the third wheel in this race to the top spot, could benefit despite not being chosen to Canada's team.