Juniors will see plenty of Wild action

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2011 - 7:20 AM

Six of the team's prospects are all but locks to play for their countries in the world junior championships, which highlight the best under-20 hockey players in the world.

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Denver sophomore Jason Zucker, left, picked 59th overall in 2010, should be a mainstay on the U.S. team in the world juniors. “Jason Zucker doesn’t have a real weakness to his game,” U.S. coach Dean Blais said. The championship game will be played Jan. 5 in Calgary.

Photo: Mark Reis, Associated Press

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The world junior championships is a cultural phenomenon in Canada -- like March Madness in the United States -- but something that hasn't caught on even in the hockey-loving U.S. mainstream yet.

This, despite the fact that two years ago, the United States, with coach Dean Blais at the helm, ended the Canadians' five-year championship run on their home turf of Saskatoon and Regina. On that team were Minnesotans Jake Gardiner, Derek Stepan, Danny Kristo, Jordan Schroeder and Mike Lee.

This month, when the tournament of what's considered the most elite under-20 hockey players in the world begins Dec. 26 and runs until Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Calgary, Wild fans will have plenty of reasons to watch.

"We have a possibility of eight guys in the tournament, which is exceptional," assistant GM Brent Flahr said. "It'll be exciting for all of us."

Six Wild prospects are all but locks -- Jason Zucker (59th overall in 2010) and Charlie Coyle (28th in 2010, acquired from San Jose) for the United States; Mikael Granlund (ninth in 2010) for Finland; and Johan Larsson (56th in 2010), Jonas Brodin (10th in 2011) and Johan Gustafsson (159th in 2010) for Sweden.

Brett Bulmer (39th in 2010) and Zack Phillips (28th in 2011) are at Canada's ultracompetitive selection camp, which began in Calgary on Sunday.

That means five of the Wild's six draft picks in 2010 and the top two in 2011 have a chance to take part in this year's tournament. Not bad for a franchise that ranked 29th in the Hockey News' "Future Watch" issues in 2010 and 2011.

"It shows a lot about this organization and the way they're drafting guys and the way those players step up when it counts," said Aeros forward Jeff Taffe, a former Gophers player from Hastings who represented the United States in the 2000 and 2001 world junior championships in Sweden and Russia.

"I know us down here, we don't take it as serious as the Canadians do. It's like a holiday up there for them. But it's a very special tournament."

In 2010, Wild defenseman Marco Scandella represented Canada and won a silver medal, losing to Zucker and the U.S. in the finals. That tournament took place in Canada, too, so he knows how much pressure will be on Canada again this year.

"Zuck and I are still buddies, but I'm jealous of him," Scandella said, laughing. "There's always pressure in hockey, and playing in such a hockey hotbed is a great situation for young players to deal with pressure. When you have the crowd behind you, you play better and you're pumped up, but it's stressful, too."

It's this experience of playing in enemy territory that makes Blais think Zucker will be valuable to this year's squad. The U.S. camp begins Saturday in Camrose, Alberta.

"Jason Zucker doesn't have a real weakness to his game," Blais said. "When he was in Saskatoon, he was just a role player, didn't get much ice time, but he gave us everything he could. ... He's a leader and he's going to rub off in a real positive way on the whole team."

Two years ago, U.S. General Manager Jim Johannson made a video to display how he wanted USA Hockey to play -- speed, transition, finishing checks.

"I could have put Jason Zucker in every single clip because he does all those things well," Johannson said.

Johannson also looks forward to seeing what Coyle can do for the Americans

"He played well for us last year in Buffalo, and we probably put him in a little bit higher role than you'd like to for a guy with the level of experience he had coming into the tournament, but he flat out earned the ice time," Johannson said. "With Charlie, the size and strength and the below-the-circle game he has can lead to being a real dominant force at this championship."

Most neat for the Wild, the team will spend the night in Banff, Alberta, on Jan. 5 -- the night of the championship in nearby Calgary.

"So you know the boys will have fun," Flahr said. "Mikko [Koivu] will be rooting for Finland, the Canada boys for Canada, the U.S. guys cheering for the U.S."

  • WILD • Up next: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Winnipeg • TV: FSN (100.3-FM)

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