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World Jrs tuneups; Will Huberdeau's deal impact J.T. Miller's situation?

August 5, 2022, 3:20 PM ET [140 Comments]
Carol Schram
Vancouver Canucks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
International hockey remains the focal point as we head into another sunny summer weekend.

The Hlinka Gretzky Cup will be awarded for 2022 on Saturday, with the gold-medal game scheduled for 3 p.m. PT.

Friday's schedule features all eight teams. As I type this, Switzerland is up 2-0 on Germany in the battle for seventh place. Later, the United States will square off against Slovakia for fifth. Then, at 4 p.m. PT, it's the first semifinal, between Canada and Finland, followed by Sweden and Czechia at 7:30 p.m. PT. The semifinal games will be televised on TSN3.

Canada rolled through the round-robin in commanding fashion as the only squad to go 3-0-0 and with a stunning plus-25 goal differential: 26 goals scored, and just one allowed.

Their first playoff opponent, Finland, went 2-0-1 in Group B, with their only loss coming in the shootout against Czechia in the tournament opener. And the Czechs have also looked very strong: they finished with eight points thanks to regulation wins in their other two games.

Not surprisingly, Canadian players hold down the top spots in most of the scoring races. One player to watch out for in Friday's semifinal is Finnish defenseman Aron Kiviharju — a 16-year-old who isn't draft eligible until 2024, but who sits second in the tournament with five assists and has been a demon on the power play.

In the other semifinal, keep an eye on Czech sniper Eduard Sale and Sweden's Otto Stenberg. Both will be draft-eligible in 2023.

Of course, projected 2023 No. 1 Connor Bedard and some other top prospects are suiting up at the U20 level, at the World Junior Championship.

Pre-tournament games are now underway but Canada is playing just one — closing out the schedule next Monday against Sweden. The warmup got started with three games on Thursday, including a 2-1 overtime win for Finland over the Swedes, with Vancouver's 2020 third-rounder Joni Jurmo getting early bragging rights over 2022 first-round pick Jonathan Lekkerimaki in their first head-to-head meeting as Canucks prospects.

Lekkerimaki, of course, is expected to be front and center on Team Sweden after his standout performance at the World U18 tournament in Germany last April. And Canucks fans have had some fun watching Swedes excel at this tournament in recent years.

In 2018, Elias Pettersson had seven points in seven games as Sweden skated to silver. Nils Hoglander eclipsed that with 11 points in seven games in 2020, including a lacrosse goal, as the Swedes won bronze.

Pre-tournament games are not televised, but you can find the schedule and results here.

Jurmo's Finnish team will go up against Jacob Truscott and the Americans on Friday at 4 p.m. PT. Then, USA clashes with Sweden on Saturday at 4 p.m. PT before preliminary-round action wraps up on Monday at 4 p.m. PT with the Canada/Sweden matchup.

On the NHL side, I'll admit that I was surprised when the Flames did another late-night news drop on Thursday, announcing that they'd signed Jonathan Huberdeau to a massive $84 million contract extension.

I laid out my initial thoughts in this article for Forbes on Thursday night:

It always makes me nervous when clubs sign newly acquired players to extensions before they've played a single game for their new squad. What if the chemistry doesn't work? What if the player isn't who the team thought he'd be when viewing him from afar?

But in the Flames' case, I can understand why Brad Treliving was so intent on making this happen. First off, he locks up one of the league's best players from last season, solidifying the return he received in the Matthew Tkachuk trade. And perhaps even more importantly, he mutes the rhetoric that players don't want to sign in Calgary for the long term. It was awkward when Johnny Gaudreau left. Tkachuk's decision made it look like a trend was beginning.

For $10.5 million a year through age 38, I can understand how Huberdeau was okay with signing on the dotted line. For Canucks fans, we've got another very good player making his home in the Pacific Division for the foreseeable future. And Huberdeau also comes out of the same draft class as J.T. Miller, which gives Miller's camp another comparable to work with that's even richer than Mike Zibanejad's $8.5 million per season.

Huberdeau was drafted third overall in 2011. He won the 2013 Calder Trophy, finished fifth in Hart Trophy balloting last season, and has put up 198-415-613 in 671 career games. And he's exclusively a winger.

Zibanejad was drafted three spots later, sixth overall. He's a right-shot centre, and his best awards performance to date was his fifth-place finish in Lady Byng voting last season. He has 229-286-515 in 685 NHL games.

Miller went 15th in 2011 — two spots after Sven Baertschi (!). His path to the NHL took a little longer. Huberdeau never played a game in the AHL, jumping straight to the Panthers after his draft-plus-one year with the Saint John Sea Dogs. Zibanejad was with the Ottawa Senators by the end of his draft-plus-one year, but did play a total of 29 games in Binghamton over the following two years. All but six of those were during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.

Miller jumped from the USHL to the OHL in the year after he was drafted, then played 42 games with the Connecticut Whale and 24 with the Rangers in 2012-13. Over the two subsequent seasons, he played another 59 games in the minors — and now admits that his maturity wasn't where it could have been when he clashed with New York coach Alain Vigneault during that time.

And even when Miller became a full-time NHL player, it really wasn't until he got to Vancouver that things really started to click. Miller has 168-285-454 in 637 career NHL games. He's a lefty, but can play any forward position. And his best finish in trophy voting so far was 14th place on the Hart ballot last year.

All told, Huberdeau ranks second in points by players from the 2011 draft class. Nikita Kucherov, chosen 58th overall, is slightly ahead with 616 points, and 104th pick Gaudreau is third at 609. Zibanejad sits seventh on the list, and Miller is ninth.

The player just ahead of him in eighth is also a solid comparable: Sean Couturier. He's also a center and has a Selke Trophy to his name to go along with 460 points in 721 games. He missed a big chunk of last season after back surgery but will start the first year of his eight-year contract extension this fall. His cap hit is $7.75 million.

If I'm Miller's camp, I'm pretty happy about what Huberdeau's deal does for the market. His commitment also takes another big-name forward out of the 2023 free-agent market, making Miller an even more valuable commodity.

That being said, some huge names are still not locked down beyond this season. Among the under-30 set, let's start with Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak and Dylan Larkin. The over-30s are headlined by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko.

The cap crunch isn't going away anytime soon. In the end, Huberdeau's deal may turn out to be more of a unicorn than a trend-setter.
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