The NHL lockout has been looming over the 2013 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championship for months, and as we enter the final three weeks before the tournament kicks off in Ufa, Russia, things are more uncertain than ever.
Recent progress in discussions between the National Hockey League and its Players Association on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement could potentially mean the end of the lockout will be reached before Christmas. And what does that exactly mean? Training camps, involving several of the star players scheduled to play in the tournament, could make this year's one of the least talented tourneys in history instead of one of the most talented.
It's an odd situation, but the short version is this: players that may not make the NHL could be removed from their national teams on the off-chance they impress their NHL clubs enough to make the cut. Last year, eventual WJC stars like Ryan Strome, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele and Brandon Saad all broke camp with their NHL teams only to be sent home later. Jonathan Huberdeau was amongst the final cuts from the Florida Panthers as well. Devante Smith-Pelley and Brett Connolly both made their NHL teams only to be loaned out for the World Juniors.
This year, all of those types of players may not be made available. It's either that or everyone (minus Mika Zibanejad for lord knows what reason Senators GM Bryan Murray has) will be there, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who wasn't at last year's WJCs because he was busy racking up points for the Oilers.
So who is in danger of being plucked out of the WJCs if NHL training camps start up in the next month?
* Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Team Canada: It's no surprise that RNH's status is completely dependent on the NHL, as he's the only established NHL regular in the whole tournament. After a 52-point rookie season, the former 1st overall draft pick has put up 6 points in 8 games for the Canadian men's team at the 2012 World Championships, and 20 points in 19 AHL games this year. He's hoping to become the second Canadian to play in the men's World Championships before playing in the World Junior Championships, a feat that Patrice Bergeron accomplished thanks to the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
* Nail Yakupov, RW, Team Russia: The Oilers could continue to spoil the fun of this year's World Junior tournament, removing the likely captain of the host Russians. Yakupov is having a very good season in the KHL this year, with 10 goals and 14 points in 15 games, but is under contract to Edmonton and is expected to make their team without much of a battle.
* Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Team Canada: Huberdeau was a star at last year's WJCs in Alberta, and he's played a lot of high-end junior hockey with the Saint John Sea Dogs over the past three years. The former third overall draft pick is a virtual lock to make the Florida Panthers out of training camp this year.
* Ryan Strome, C, Team Canada: Strome is leading the OHL in scoring this year and broke camp with the New York Islanders last year, but was returned to juniors before he played a NHL game. He's slotted to be Canada's second-line centre behind RNH this year. He is currently putting up nearly two points a game in the OHL, and he had 9 points in 6 games at last year's WJCs.
* Mark Schiefele, C/RW, Team Canada: The first draft pick of the new Winnipeg Jets is considered a lock to skate on Canada's top line with Huberdeau and Nugent-Hopkins, moving from his natural centre position to the right wing. He played 7 games in the NHL last year, scoring his first professional goal, and he put up 6 points in last year's bronze medal effort for Canada.
* Dougie Hamilton, RD, Team Canada: Hamilton is considered the best defensemen in junior hockey in a lot of circles, and although making the Boston Bruins defence won't be easy, he is definitely in the conversation for their 2012-13 team. Hamilton is a high-end offensive blueliner with both size and speed, possessing the kind of tools for a defensemen to make the NHL at a young age and succeed.
* Boone Jenner, C, Team Canada: Yes, that's right. Canada's top three centres, all 19 years old, could be removed from the tournament (top four if you include Schiefele). Jenner is projected to be a two-way checking force for Canada, and this former second-round draft pick's skills could easily be projected onto the basement dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets' current roster. Jenner played a depth role for Canada in the 2012 tournament.
* Nikita Kucherov, RW, Team Russia: Kucherov is an interesting case. He was drafted by the Lightning in 2011 and came over to Quebec this year to play junior hockey. The Lightning had signed him, and could have placed him in the AHL, but chose not too. Still, the early returns on him in junior hockey may be enticing enough for the Lightning to bring him into camp.
* Alex Galchenyuk, C/LW, Team USA: The USA is generally immune from having too many NHL players lost because of their reliance on the NCAA for their development model, which does not allow players to have a professional contract in place while participating in their programs. Galchenyuk, however, is a rare star CHL player for the Americans that seems to have a spot in Montreal in his sights whenever the NHL resumes. Galchenyuk is the top scoring CHL player from the 2012 Draft, and would be a major loss to the American offence.
* Griffin Reinhart, LD, Team Canada: Drafted fourth overall by the Islanders last June, Reinhart is a towering defenseman who picked up a lot of experience with the WHL Champion Edmonton Oil Kings last spring. He's no shoe-in to compete for a spot with the Islanders, but they tend to give their recent first-round draft picks long looks in camp. There's no reason to think Reinhart wouldn't get a training camp invite.
* Morgan Reilly, LD, Team Canada: Reilly is expected to skate with Hamilton on Canada's top defensive pairing, but a lot of people expect him to get a long look at the next Toronto Maple Leafs training camp as well. The offensive blueliner is already a junior star with his near point per game performance for Moose Jaw, and he was considered the strongest of the 2012 defensive draft class at the Canada-Russia Summer Series.
* Hampus Lindholm, LD, Team Sweden: Sweden is already without their top forward in Zibanejad (withheld by Ottawa) and their two top defensemen in Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom (injuries), so Lindholm is considered an enormous part of the defending gold medalists' chances this year. Trouble is, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick is having a very nice debut in the AHL and would definitely have to be considered in the mix for one of the final spots on the Ducks' blueline.
* Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Team Russia: Grigorenko slid down the draft rankings last year for inexplicable reasons, and his response this year in the QMJHL has been quite simply breathtakingly dominant. He's scoring at nearly a goal a game pace and is looking to continue his tour of redemption with a big World Juniors after an injury against Latvia tempered his abilities. However, the Buffalo Sabres seem to realize what a talent they acquired at the 12th spot last year, and would be eager to have him join their NHL team at training camp.
There could be even more talent plucked from the tournament, as you never know how any organization might be looking at their own roster situation. But the obvious impact would be a complete decimation of Canada's projected final roster, with a couple of top stars removed from competitors. Canada would likely be down half of its projected skaters, and Russia would be without its dynamic top two forwards at the very least, maybe even an entire line. The USA might very well lose out on a couple of more players like J.T. Miller or Stefan Noesen, depending on how their parent NHL teams view their NHL chances.
Canada right now has to be seen as the favourites if best-on-best rosters are allowed. Sweden would've been a formidable challenge, but minus those three-star returning players, they look relatively weak on paper. Russia, as their team stands now, has a legitimate chance to beat out Canada on home ice, and the Americans might be able to find a path to gold, especially if they don't have to beat both Russia and Canada to do so. If the NHL were to start up, however, the field would open up considerably. Nathan MacKinnon, the Nova Scotian star who will be drafted first overall in 2013, would potentially become the focus of the Canadian attack, which would be exciting for fans.
Finland, meanwhile, is sitting fairly pretty, with only one possible player who could be sent to a NHL camp in Olli Määttä of the Penguins, and even that seems a bit unlikely. Finland is sending a very talented lineup and has to be considered the tournament's dark horse as a result, and if the NHL would return, their chances of medalling would jump considerably. It would become even plausible that they could end up winning the tournament for the first time in the 21st century, led by the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Aleksander Barkov, Joel Armia, Ville Pokka and Rasmus Ristolainen.
For American fans, their prospects of winning probably go up a little with the NHL returning. They would remain one of the tournament's best teams, and due to Canada and Russia likely losing more players, probably gain as a result. Russia, on home ice, could still have the firepower to contend as well, but it would be more difficult and it would place more stress on their defence, which was not a strength at last year's World Juniors at all. Sweden would likely benefit a bit as well, but they seem to be in a tough situation to repeat as champions in either scenario.
The potential of the NHL returning just in time to wipe out Team Canada's roster puts the Canadian fans in a weird situation. Their rooting interests in the NHL would be satisfied, but it could come at the cost of the nation's first gold medal in four years at the World Juniors, the tournament so over-the-top loved by Canadians. Canada would still have a decent chance of winning -- their junior talent runs very deep -- but it would involve a somewhat unlikely cast of heroes in order to accomplish the goal, probably placing a lot of pressure on likely starting goaltender Malcolm Subban.