Monday, December 24, 2012

2013 World Juniors - Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov to play major roles for Canada and Russia

The two biggest names heading into the 2013 World Junior Championship belong to a pair of Edmonton Oilers forwards in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov.

While the two nineteen year old former first overall selections appear ready to leave their respective mark on the yearly event, they could ultimately be headed for a collision course in the Gold Medal match-up...before ever playing a single second as teammates for the Oil.

After being passed on by Hockey Canada back in December 2010, Nugent-Hopkins will finally be given his shot at junior glory, courtesy of the NHL Lockout. With the National Hockey League and NHLPA nowhere near reaching any sort of agreement in the immediate future, it looks as though Canada might be able to right the wrong they made just two short years ago.

In hindsight, cutting RNH proved to be a rather costly decision, as outside of an all-world performance from Brayden Schenn, Canada's scoring upfront was almost non-existent in 2011. Obviously, something that the former Red Deer Rebels standout could have helped with...had he been selected as part of their roster out of camp.

While the Canadians could have easily made the same mistake for the second time in three years, by cutting seventeen year old Nathan MacKinnon, they decided to go the other route and brought the youngster to Russia, as part of their twenty-three man roster. A wise move on their part and one that should prove very beneficial to MacKinnon, especially having Nugent-Hopkins around in a leadership role.

Canada's success will greatly depend on both their goaltending and ability to stay out of the penalty box but at the end of the day, it will come down to the Nuge. While he has managed to put together a pretty good season down in Oklahoma City, with his other Oiler running mates, the focus now turns to finding chemistry with the likes of a Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele or Ryan Strome.

Does Nugent-Hopkins need to score a ton of points and be the tournament's leading scorer? Not necessarily but when it comes down to crunch time, he will need to produce for Canada to have any chance of bringing home gold. While he didn't have the opportunity to be" the guy" in 2011, he will definitely have that opportunity in 2013.

As far as Yakupov goes, with the championship being held in Russia, the heat will be on the home side to produce a Gold Medal winning performance and no one will feel that pressure more than their captain. While the talented Russian has had an up and down year in the KHL, which was sandwiched by a so-so performance during the 2012 SUBWAY Series, look for charismatic nineteen year old to take centre stage starting December 26th.

In his defence, the last six months have been a bit of a whirlwind. After being selected by the Oilers with the first overall selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the former Sarina Sting standout has represented his country during two separate tournaments, had a bit of a falling out with the Sting hierarchy about his eligibility to play over in the Kontinental Hockey League and found himself in and out of Edmonton, during, before and after Oilers rookie camp.

While he failed to light the lamp during the 2012 event, which was jointly held in Calgary and Edmonton, Yakupov chipped in with nine assists and was more often than not, the best player on the ice in nearly every game. The kid appears to like the big stage and for a Russian teenager, what could be bigger than playing on home ice during the IIHF World Junior Championship?

Would anyone be that surprised to see Yakupov seize the moment and take his play to another level? On the flip-side, should we be expect anything but the very best from Nugent-Hopkins?

At the end of the day, neither Ryan Nugent-Hopkins nor Nail Yakupov were planning on taking part in 2013 World Junior Championship but with circumstances being what they are, the two future teammates find themselves in the scenario they currently sit.

Not great for the NHL but a nice break for hockey fans everywhere, who have grown tired of all the mindless non-sense surrounding labour negotiations between owners and players. Is it the Christmas present hockey fans were hoping for? No but this could turn out to be one special tournament and at this stage of the game, hockey fans will gladly take it.

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