WJC puts focus back on Tavares
The annual World Junior Championship began today in Ottawa. The team to watch is Canada, who has won the last four gold medals. The expectation is they'll make it five in a row, as Hockey Canada has cobbled together no less than 10 first round NHL draft picks plus future first rounders John Tavares, Evander Kane, and Ryan Ellis. And that's without Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn being released from their NHL gigs.
Tavares was the star of the night for Team Canada, potting two goals and an assist in an 8-1 trouncing of Czech Republic. More importantly, his points came early in the game before Canada was rolling full steam and the Czechs still had some air in their sails. His goals weren't quite as pretty as his hand-eye test in exhibition play, but Tavares kicked off the scoring and shook Canada out of its opening night jitters.
It's been a rough year for Tavares by his standards. He's out grown major junior, and many pundits say his game has stagnated in the OHL. He failed to increase his point totals from 2006-07 (the year he broke Wayne Gretzky's goal-scoring record) to 2007-08. And his points-per-game is down from 2.0 last season to 1.7 this season-to-date. Worse yet, after being the undisputed top draft prospect for the 2009 class since his OHL debut as a 14 year-old, a pre-season TSN scouting poll had Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman displacing Tavares from the top of the draft ranking.
That may all be behind him starting tonight. Well, actually starting a few days ago, when the TSN scouts reversed their pre-season picks. A strong WJC showing will vault Tavares back to undisputed status and have NHL teams tanking the season to "earn" his rights.
Regardless as to what happens in Ottawa over the next few days, Tavares won't return to the OHL next season thanks to the 'Jason Spezza' rule, which allows a player who has played four years of major junior to be assigned to an AHL team. Somehow I think his days riding a bus will be coming to an end after this season.