Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler Don't Emerge From WJC’s As Clear-Cut Top Pick

Sometimes you don't even need to look. Ask John Carlson.

Without even taking a glance toward the net, the Team USA defenseman ripped the game-winning overtime goal past Canadian goaltender Martin Jones to give the United States gold at the IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championships. The 6-5 victory snapped Canada's five-year run as the world's junior hockey mega-Goliath, with Carlson's no-look wrister serving as a slingshot projectile worthy of David.

You can bet the Carolina Hurricanes’ brass was looking — closely. Tuesday's gold medal game between Canada and the U.S. was a major event in the hockey world, but also offered Jim Rutherford & Co. a chance to watch top draft prospects Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler face off one last time before the June 25 NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles. From now until then, they resume being teammates for the powerhouse Windsor Spitfires of the OHL.

But for those who only look at the stat sheet from the instant classic (reairing at 6 p.m. tonight on the NHL Network), Hall’s three-point performance may affirm his status as the frontrunner to go first overall. But the Carlson no-look doesn't work in this instance.

Hall’s night included scoring the goal that tied the game at three apiece and two assists, while Fowler was without a point — though on the right side of the final score. But in watching the game, you didn't notice Hall any more than Fowler. Hall's second-period goal was the definition of soft and led Team USA coach Dean Blais to yank starter Mike Lee in favor of 17-year-old Jack Campbell (more on him later). Hall's assists — on Windsor teammate Greg Nemisz’ first-period goal and the first of Jordan Eberle’s two third-period markers — were secondary assists, neither of which showcased his considerable skill.

And there's no denying that skill — Hall is fast, shifty and slick with the puck. But he was far from dominant — not Tuesday and not in the New Year's Eve meeting between the same two teams. Were there flashes of brilliance? Not really, unless you're mesmerized by fancy stick work.

Fowler, on the other hand, has a Chris Pronger way about him. No, he's not out to decapitate his opponents, but there is a poise in both ends that is beyond his 18 years. Fowler, like Hall, was good but not great last night in Saskatoon, but his composure — as an underdog on a big stage against a hostile crowd — is worth filing away. He also seems bigger than his listed 6-2, 190-pound frame, whereas Hall seemed much smaller despite giving just an inch and five pounds to his OHL teammate.

If anyone thought Hall would be the physical force Eric Staal desperately needs on his wing, there was no evidence to that in his play — he more resembled Canes top prospect Zach Boychuk than any kind of power forward, not that that's a bad thing. Hall seemed content on the outside, dangling with the puck and looking for any kind of hole to pass or shoot through. Compare that to Team USA captain Derek Stepan, who was a physical force throughout the tournament without sacrificing his offensive production. You'd never guess Stepan is actually smaller than Hall.

Nitpicking? Perhaps. While neither Hall nor Fowler propelled themselves to the top of the heap during the tournament, both fared well against older, more experienced competition. But what you want — and hope — to see is an elite player seizing the moment and proving his dominance, much like John Tavares did last year and Eberle did each of the past two World Juniors. Look at Campbell, who helped his draft stock by stepping in for Mike Lee in the gold medal game and stabilized the U.S. in net. Or Las Vegas forward John Zucker, whose physical play and speed opened eyes throughout the event.

Hall and Fowler didn't hurt their chances at going first overall, but I don't know that they helped them either. 

But maybe Tyler Seguin deserves another look.

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