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5 Thoughts for Friday

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Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, the NHL Entry Draft and more!

Canada v Czech Republic: Semifinals - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Thoughts. Five of them. Now.

Drake Batherson

A net-front presence to gawk at. Hands in tight that look NHL ready. Impressive hockey IQ. A skating stride that could use some work. An enormous offensive season in the CHL. A goal-scoring tear in the World Junior Championship.

Remind you of anyone?

It’s hard not to make the comparison each and every game Drake Batherson is on display for the entire hockey world - he’s so Mark Stone it’s scary.

Batherson is an Everything Man. He’ll make skilled plays, go for big body checks, play all sides of the special teams coin, fight, cart points; you name it. Six games into the tournament, he’s also showed he can score goals every different way.

Canada’s 7-2 drubbing of the Czech Republic last night was the perfect example of the all-around ability Batherson has with regards to simply putting pucks in the net. First, a couple of how-did-he-get-a-stick-on-that tips on the power play to get the ball rolling for the Canadians in the semi-final, and then a talented finish down low for the hat trick.

The 19-year-old has, without a doubt, blown away the cautious optimism Senators fans felt for him coming into the tournament, and replaced it with hype.

Alex Formenton

The gap that was seemingly quite small between Batherson and Formenton at the beginning of the tournament, has now significantly widened. Not only from Batherson’s stellar performances, but Formenton’s lack thereof.

The London Knights left winger hasn’t showcased his alarming speed nearly enough, has a lukewarm three points in six games, and has taken several undisciplined penalties in key matchups. He’s shown fantastic chemistry with consistent linemates during the preliminary games, but that’s desperately reaching for a compliment.

It’s clear Formenton’s awareness without the puck and ability with it needs to improve in order to catch up to his already elite foot speed, but it doesn’t look like there’s been a notable improvement in that area since he was sent back to the OHL in mid-October.

Still, the guy’s got a tool that basically no one else has. So maybe the cautious optimism Batherson carried into Boxing Day has been passed off to Formenton.

Having said all that, he’s a year and a half younger. So there’s plenty of time.

Ottawa’s First-Round Pick

It doesn’t exactly boast the depth of 2015, but this year’s NHL Entry Draft is slowly starting to inch closer and closer to that of the summer we saw Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel don professional hockey jerseys for the first time in their career.

No, the star power of the top two might not be there, but it’s hard not to bet that a great deal of players set to be taken in the top 15 will be more than NHL ready by the time training camp is all said and done in early October.

Brady Tkachuk is extremely easy to hate, but for all the right reasons. Just ask Boston Bruins fans how much they adore Brad Marchand, and you’ll find out why. Aside from being a wonderfully controlled nuisance, he’s mature physically and has largely improved his offensive game in a year’s time.

Filip Zadina is a force on the power play. It’s frightening. What would make it not so frightening is if he wore a Senators uniform. And that might seriously happen.

Andrei Svechnikov is beast of a hockey player, but the Senators haven’t picked a Russian since Nixon resigned, so maybe get excited about the other options.

Rasmus Dahlin is Rasmus Dahlin. There’s likely nothing I can say about him that you haven’t heard or seen with your own eyes on a Twitter or Youtube video. He’s a human highlight reel that has been aggressively compared to Erik Karlsson the past year or so.

Adam Boqvist is a Swedish defender, just like Dahlin, but isn’t quite as dynamic as his fellow countryman. But he’s being held in relatively the same conversation as Dahlin, so that’s noteworthy.

It’s certainly looking like Ottawa’s fate is to announce a top-five draft pick in Dallas come late June. And looking back, it is remarkable how the best part of the trade that brought Matt Duchene to the nation’s capital in early November is likely going to be the top-10 protection Dorion made sure the 2018 first-round pick going Colorado’s way had on it.

The WJC: A Dying Tradition

It’s eerie, to me especially, how quick of a decline the World Juniors has seen the past five years or so with regards to overall interest from the country that has singlehandedly kept it alive and somewhat important all this time.

I grew up during the best possible era to watch the once - maybe still? - classic tournament. There’s no doubt that the championship is a favourite of so many youngsters because of the timing. With the seven-game competition taking place almost always within the two-week break from classes that elementary and high school students get during the winter holidays, it’s the perfect entertainment in between tobogganing and playing on the outdoor rink.

When I was off for the aforementioned breaks from math, science, and history, I watched Canada’s “All-Star” team of Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Patrice Bergeron and company dismantle the Russians 6-1 in the gold medal game in 2005. I watched Jonathan Toews score, like, eight times in a row against the Americans during one of the most famous shootouts of all-time in 2007. I watched, in 2008, as a crowd of thousands of screaming, crying, exuberant Canadians celebrated in the Czech Republic after Matt Halischuk scored the overtime winner to win gold against the Swedes. And yes, I watched as Jordan Eberle scored with mere seconds left on the clock in the third period to tie the game against the Russians in the semi-final in 2009.

When the World Juniors came to Ottawa the year that Eberle became a household name, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to one of Team Canada’s round robin matchups.

It wasn’t the New Year’s Classic where John Tavares’ hat trick helped the Canadians comeback against the Americans in one of the craziest games in tournament history - that one, I was watching in the basement of a New Year’s Eve get together.

It was Canada vs. Germany. And it is one of my fondest live game memories.

The place was packed, as it was for nearly every single game during the tournament, and the atmosphere was electric start to finish. Which, is quite incredible when you remember that Canada was coming off a 15-0 victory over Kazakhstan.

After every goal I remember turning to my mother, jaw unhinged, wondering how the building could be that loud.

The arenas aren’t noisy anymore. They’re far from sold out - even Montreal and Toronto struggled mightily (Montreal more so) in 2015 and 2017. Gord Miller doesn’t have to fight to keep his voice at par with pandemonium between himself and the ice surface. The mood surrounding the tournament as a whole is now less often affiliated with anxious anticipation and more with hope. A hope that the top five of Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland and Russia will be somewhat evenly talented and produce close games. A hope that Team Canada’s path to the gold medal is filled with lively battles, and not boring thumpings of the Swiss and Czechs. A hope that maybe the spirit of the tournament we once dearly loved will return.

If anything, the two-week competition now serves simply as a showcase for prospects probable to be chosen in six months’ time to be a part of an NHL organization. A showcase for fans to do their own scouting of young guns in their favourite team’s pool.

The evidence is being perfectly displayed this year in Buffalo. And not that it’s the American fanbase that should be shunned for not showing up. Maybe they need to garner some of the blame, but it was never like that.

Seven years ago, Canada poured into the state of New York, overwhelming border guards and boosting the local donut shop industry tenfold. Yes, Team Canada ended up losing in heart-wrenching fashion to the Russians in the gold medal game, but boy, that tournament was one for the ages.

In 2018, the tournament is in the same location and Team Canada is just as good, if not better, as they were in 2011. But the crowds are a sliver of what they used to be.

In my eyes, the hockey we’re treated to has fundamentally changed. The game at the junior level has always been skilled, but now it’s so much more focused around that characteristic that the other aspects suffer. Don’t get me wrong, the NHL has benefited greatly, in my opinion, from the prevalence of talent and speed that continues to grow at what sometimes feels like an exponential rate.

But the World Juniors has lost its perception of urgency. Seven years ago, you’d truly get a rush from watching every player treat each 45-second shift as if it was their last, going through the motions like they were constantly being chased by the fear of failure. It’s a calmer, more calculated game now, and maybe that’s better for the longevity of these players’ careers, seeing as the equipment is so strong and the pace is so quick that one misjudged manoeuvre can land someone in serious danger.

But watching the past few years, that barbaric, obnoxious remark you usually hear from the drunk guy high up in the 300s has never rang so true in my head: SOMEBODY HIT SOMEONE.

Maybe the problem is the current state of international hockey. Think about the substantial decline the Olympics has seen in just three terms. From Crosby’s golden goal that no hockey fan living at the time will ever forget, to a tournament that left us wanting so much more in Sochi, to a competition in which college kids, retired NHLers and current KHLers will duke it out in Pyeongchang for the (second?) highest prize in hockey.

How much did you care when Canada won the World Cup of Hockey in 2016? Do you even know who won gold at the World Championships last summer? When was the last time you watched the Ivan Hlinka U-18 tourna-- okay, that one’s a stretch.

To be honest (not really), I think the only thing that can save the World Juniors is if you move it to the prairies and leave it there for a while. God, do they ever love junior hockey. Let Alberta and Saskatchewan have their fun for a decade or so and maybe the rest of the hockey world will want another go.

And yes, that was only four thoughts, but the last one took a lot out of me.