Today is a good day if you’re a huge sports nerd. In Britain it is Boxing Day, where all government entities basically shut down, people do lots of shopping, and everyone watches soccer. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving and Black Friday combined into one. I know I can count on all of you to join me in cheering on Everton as they face Leicester, right? RIGHT???
Today is also the beginning of the World Junior Hockey Championships. A joyous occasion in which entire countries place an insane burden on a bunch of teenagers playing a game filled with random chance and then evaluate their existential worths as human beings based on the results. Exciting!
I won’t sugarcoat things. The Rangers are not exactly the most active participants in the tournament, with just two prospects participating. This was an inevitable consequence of trading so many draft picks over the last few years. But the two who are participating are noteworthy and will be worth watching.
Sergey Zborovskiy, 19, will represent Russia on defense after being a late cut last season. At first look, the 2015 third-round pick would appear to be having a phenomenal season with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. He has six goals and 26 assists in 28 games and an absurd +51 plus/minus. The problem here is that these numbers lack context. Regina is the best team in all of Canadian juniors, and Zborovskiy is relatively unchallenged on defense and is thus almost guaranteed cushy minutes with Adam Brooks and Sam Steel in front of him; the two most dominant forwards in the WHL this season. It would be hard to find many defensemen who wouldn’t rack up the points just by merely coexisting with those two.
A similar lack of context led to former Rangers’ prospect Evgeny Grachev becoming a fool’s gold of sorts. Grachev put up gaudy numbers in juniors, but did so while playing on a line with elite prospects Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson. Once he turned pro, the playing field leveled, and suddenly the emperor had no clothes.
Thus, this will be a really good test of Zborovskiy’s professional merit. Mikhail Sergachev, Montreal’s 2016 ninth-overall pick, will be Russia’s top defenseman. Beyond that it’s a wide-open competition for spots. Zborovskiy will be battling with a slew of defensemen who have made their marks in the mature and competitive KHL. And while he’ll be surrounded by plenty of talent, he’ll be facing just as much, if not more, against Canada, the USA, Sweden, and so on. I’m going to be focusing on what I perceive as the two weakest areas of his game, which are his skating and his (lack of) ability to move the puck under pressure. It would be naive to think everything good and bad about a prospect will be revealed in a single, compact tournament, but we’ll certainly get some answers on how legitimate Zborovskiy is.
The Rangers’ other participant in the tournament is Slovakian goaltender Adam Huska. The 2015 seventh-round pick has absolutely nothing to prove. But also, everything. At virtually every stage Huska has played, he has performed well. He was dominant at the U18 World Championships in 2015, which is how the Rangers discovered him. He was the best goaltender in the USHL last season. He was Slovakia’s best player at the World Juniors last year. As a freshman at UConn this season, he has posted a .926 save percentage in 10 games and has played very well in most of his starts. Only Boston University goaltender (and USA representative) Jake Oettinger has a higher save percentage in the NCAA among U20 goaltenders. Huska has built up a solid resume so far. This tournament will be more information to learn from but it’s not going to define his long-term outlook. Barring some kind of extreme disaster, not much will or should change in how the Rangers view Huska, which is very favorably.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Huska is criminally underrated in mainstream channels. Going from Slovakia, to a seventh-round pick, to the USHL, to an average, non-traditional hockey school is a good way to fly under the radar. In terms of actual ability, he can match up with almost any U20 goaltender in the world right now. A good showing from Huska would be good for his development, but it might also serve as a boost in profile that he deserves and that the Rangers deserve for finding him.
Plus, they both will want to represent their countries to the best of their abilities and win a medal. There is a decent chance that a future Ranger or two are playing in this tournament as well. A number of intriguing players are participating who are eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, and the Rangers (at least for now) own their first-round pick. If nothing else, this is possibly the purest form of high-level hockey that exists. The most talented teenagers in the world are playing the most important games of their lives with pride as their only real immediate motivator. As long as you remember to keep perspective and not take it too seriously, it is a lot of fun.