It shouldn't come as any surprise that Edmonton Oilers top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has impressed with his play at the World Junior Championships, currently being held in Ufa, Russia. But for me he is clearly the best player in the tournament.
But there are a lot of other top performers to talk about as well. In a tournament like the WJC, a prospect's value is often measured by your last game, and with the playoff round still to come (starts Jan. 2), there's still plenty of time for the players to make a good (or bad) impression. While I am not in Ufa attending the event in person, I've tracked the tournament via broadcast and have watched these prospects live for the past 3-4 years. Here is a look at each country's top performers.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers): Nugent-Hopkins deserves a great deal of credit for coming into this event after showing last season in the NHL why he was the clear first overall selection for the Oilers in 2011. Many think he would have been the league's rookie of the year had he not injured himself. His evasive slippery style of play with and without the puck makes him an offensive threat every time he steps onto the ice. He has been great for Team Canada through the pool play round.
Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets): Scheifele powers his way around the ice and has displayed offensive prowess while moving from the center position to the wing, allowing Canada to create what is being called the all-NHL line (along with Nugent-Hopkins and the prospect below). Many believe he would be on the roster in Winnipeg if the NHL was playing, but for now Canada is very pleased the former first-rounder is on its roster.
Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers): The third member of Canada's elite line, Huberdeau's playmaking skills have been on display throughout the round robin. With the ability to find the open man even when seemingly nothing is available, the former third overall pick has been slick and dangerous with still more to give.
Jonathan Drouin (2013 Draft Eligible): Drouin is showing why he could work his way all the way to the top of the draft in June. He has displayed excellent puck skills, vision and passing, and it's all manifested in some big plays. He has done everything asked of him and in turn has been rewarded with more and more ice time, which is rare for a 17-year-old on Team Canada.
Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins): One of Canada's returning players, he has been a horse on the back end as a shutdown, shot-blocking machine. He is playing with poise and composure while leading the troops through the ebbs and flows of the tournament.
Xavier Ouelett (Detroit Red Wings): Ouelett has been arguably Canada's overall best performer on the back end. He is playing at another level when it comes to decision making and overall defending. It's surprising to me how much skill he is showing in high pressure situations and during critical times of the game.
Malcolm Subban (Boston Bruins): After what many believed to be a sub-par selection camp and even after allowing some questionable goals against Slovakia and Germany, he has stepped up big and has the confidence of his coaching staff. Not only is he technically sound, but he has the ability to make the dramatic, athletic save, which he has done more than once thus far. And it's a safe bet he may be called upon to do so again before the tournament is over.
Nathan MacKinnon (2013 Draft Eligible): MacKinnon has played fine for me, but for most has not lived up to the hype of being the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Adding fuel to the fire is Hockey Canada's decision to play Halifax teammate Drouin on one of the top two lines while MacKinnon is either an extra or -- at best -- bottom-two line forward for this team. It's a tough situation for this high profile kid and he is handling it like a professional.
John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks): Gibson has been outstanding in the net for the USA, but his team has not performed as well in front of him. He uses his size to challenge the shooters and is clearly improved in the area of post-save recovery. When all is said and done, he could come out smelling like a rose at tournament's end.
Seth Jones (2013 Draft Eligible): Another player in the conversation to be the No. 1 draft pick in June, Jones has been given all the big minutes of a veteran and has handled his role just okay to this point. I do not think any less of this elite NHL player-to-be, but his turnovers and his tendency to try to do too much has gotten him into trouble thus far.
Jacob Trouba (Jets): I was hard on Trouba during his draft year, but he has made some very good adjustments to his puck game. While I knocked him for his offensive upside last year, I never questioned his ability to play in the NHL or to be a top performer among his age group. That said, in the past he has been guilty of poor decisions with the puck. That has not been the case in the WJC, as he leads the team with four goals and has been a punishing force for the Americans.
Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens): Last year there was a solid argument that Galchenyuk was the most skilled player in the draft, and that same argument could apply to the WJC. He is dangerous every time he steps on the ice and has put up points, but many expected him to dominate every shift and that has not happened. Nevertheless, for me, he has been one of the tourney's best.
Jimmy Vesey (Nashville Predators): Vesey was one of the last players to make the American roster, but he has been a catalyst. Whenever the U.S. needed a boost of intensity or a big play, he has been the one to provide it.
Yaroslav Kosov (Panthers): Kosov is a big, strong, power forward who has bulled his way around the ice in Ufa. He scored a natural hat trick in one game, but it is more his size, skating and strength on the puck that has made him stand out.
Nail Yakupov (Oilers): Yakupov is now under the microscope and if he is not producing, then everyone is saying he is playing poorly. After an average beginning to the event -- where he played far too much as individual -- he has had moments where he is electric. While the Russians did not get the free ride to the semifinal like they wanted, Yakupov will now just have more opportunities to shine.
Nikita Kucharov (Tampa Bay Lightning): Smaller in size, but not in heart -- and certainly not in offensive talent -- Kucharov is reunited with his old linemate from the Q, Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres) and the two of them have been dynamic offensively. Their creativity has been fun to watch. Soft hands, high-end puck skills and the ability to area-pass the puck in anticipation of where their teammates will be makes them very dangerous for opponents.
Andrey Makarov (Sabres): Makarov has been nothing short of brilliant in the net and in the two big games against the USA and Canada he was a star. He suffered the loss against Canada, but kept his team in it with remarkable save after remarkable save.
Albert Yarullin (2013 Draft Eligible): He has scored three times in the round robin and his shot is the big weapon, especially on the PP. He is such a threat on the man-advantage that Canada decided to overplay the 19-year-old D-man when killing penalties to try and neutralize him.
Valeri Nichushkin (2013 Draft Eligible): In my mind, he has solidified his place in the top 10 for this coming draft. His size, skating and overall physical ability has been on display for the Russians, a country who very seldom will use underaged players in this event.
Marko Dano (2013 Draft Eligible): Dano was one of a few bright spots for Slovakia, showing off his offensive ability. The undersized forward is creative and produced in the round robin. He plays in the KHL, so he is used to playing an elite level of hockey and it showed.
Leon Draisaitl (2014 Draft Eligible): Draisaitl plays in the WHL and was great in his four games with Team Germany, and looks like a sure fire first-round pick two drafts from now. His passing ability, skating and desire were all evident.
Rasmus Ristolainen (2013 Draft Eligible): He has played like he usually does -- a quiet, simple, smart, physical defensive game. Already playing in the SM Liiga with men, he was clearly ready for the challenge of this high-end event. The team as a whole did not perform, but his draft status remains very good for June.
Aleksander Barkov (2013 Draft Eligible): Barkov was good for Finland, but as mentioned above, the team was not and as the round robin went on he seemed to fall into a lull like his teammates. His skating appears improved and he is a horse down low with the puck on his stick, but the pace of the games at this WJC showed he needs to continue to work on his feet.
Elias Lindholm (2013 Draft Eligible): Lindholm has been one of the best forwards for the defending champs, proving why he is a potential top-five pick. His skills and skating have stood out, along with his offensive hockey sense.
Rickard Rakell (Ducks): A year ago Rakell was added to the team after an injury, but this go around is one of Sweden's top performers. What a difference a year makes in a player and in the eyes of the team. He has shown a very good combination of skill and work ethic.
Rasmus Bengtsson (Panthers): Bengtsson was part of a defensive corps that had a much different look due to injury, and he showed why he was selected in the second round in 2011 with steady, solid defending. He has been using his size and making simple decisions with the puck, which has helped Sweden get out of the round robin with the No. 1 seed.
Team Czech Republic
Dmitri Jaskin (St. Louis Blues): Jaskin has been a physical force, as well as an offensive threat. If the name looks Russian, that is because his father was born in Russia and then played pro hockey in the Czech republic. I'm sure the event being hosted in Ufa, Russia has provided some extra motivation.
Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks): A year later, Hertl looks to be on the right development path. We spoke of this player last year and his great hands and use of his big body. Skating was the issue a year ago and now it looks improved. He is a dominating type of player who could make some noise in the playoff round.
Mirco Mueller (2013 Draft Eligible): He stands 6-foot-4 and skates like he is 5-10. As an underaged player in this event he has impressed me with his composure and desire. Playing in the WHL has no doubt helped get him ready for the event and the Swiss skater has helped his team advance to the playoff round.