Recruiting Grounds: World Junior A Challenge

Trying to be timely with the start of this year's tournament, I thought I'd hold off on the NAHL and move right into another special event league like the UMEL. This time we'll focus on the World Junior A Challenge. This annual tournament features six teams, including two from Canada (East and West), and has existed since 2006. A Canadian city has hosted each tournament and a United States team has participated since 2007. Interestingly enough, only Canada West and the United States have ever won gold in this tournament's short existence.

The rest of the tournament is filled out by European teams, most commonly Russia, Switzerland, Belarus, Sweden, Germany and Czech Republic. Unlike the World Juniors that includes many college players, this tournament is to showcase the college-eligible talent in both USA and Canada, excluding both college and major junior players, focusing on the Junior A leagues in North America so all of the players we discuss here will likely be featured in another article, and some, like Mike Reilly and Jack Connolly, also overlap with the two leagues already featured.

The Canadian teams are made of players from specific leagues. Canada West features players from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Superior International Junior Hockey Leagues (SIJHL is a small league with teams in northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota). Canada East features players from the Northern Ontario, Ontario, Central (Greater Ottawa), Quebec and Maritime Junior Hockey Leagues.

Talent Throughout College Hockey

Some very special players have featured in the WJAC over the years including current NHL players, former NCAA All-Americans, Hobey Baker Award Finalists and even multiple Hobey Baker Award winners.

Current NHL Players (only listing former NCAA players):

  • Kyle Turris (Ottawa Senators, A)
  • Brendan Smith (Detroit Red Wings)
  • Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers)
  • Derek Grant (Buffalo Sabres)
  • Brandon Pirri (New York Rangers)
  • Reilly Smith (Florida Panthers)
  • Zach Hyman (Toronto Maple Leafs)
  • Scott Wilson (Pittsburgh Penguins)
  • Drake Caggiula (Edmonton Oilers)
  • Ben Hutton (Vancouver Canucks)
  • Devin Shore (Dallas Stars)
  • Riley Nash (Boston Bruins)
  • Joe Colborne (Colorado Avalanche)
  • Zac Dalpe (Minnesota Wild)
  • Curtis McKenzie (Dallas Stars)
  • Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh Penguins)
  • Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues)
  • Daniel Carr (Montreal Canadiens)
  • Colton Parayko (St. Louis Blues)
  • Kyle Connor (Winnipeg Jets)
  • Jimmy Hayes (Boston Bruins)
  • Craig Smith (Nashville Predators)
  • John Moore (New Jersey Devils)
  • Beau Bennett (New Jersey Devils)
  • Austin Czarnik (Boston Bruins)
  • Ryan Dzingel (Ottawa Senators)
  • Mike Reilly (Minnesota Wild)
  • Vinnie Hinostroza (Chicago Blackhawks)
  • Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks)

While only former college players are listed above, its important to note the caliber of competition in the league. Russia has really pushed sending their best for that age group to this tournament over the last handful of years including two current NHL successes: Vladimir Tarasenko and David Pastrnak. They're just two of the 19 former WJAC participants on the list of European players currently in the NHL. 

Former American Hockey Coaches Association NCAA All-Americans since 2005 (first and second team):

  • Maury Edwards (UMass Lowell-2009)
  • Zac Dalpe (Ohio State-2010)
  • Blake Kessel (New Hampshire-2010/2011)
  • Aaron Dell (North Dakota-2011)
  • Mike Connolly (Minnesota-Duluth-2011)
  • Barry Almeida (Boston College-2012)
  • Jaden Schwartz (Colorado College-2012)
  • Brady Hjelle (Ohio State-2013)
  • Nick Jensen (St. Cloud State-2013)
  • Cody Kunyk (Alaska-2014)
  • Daniel Carr (Union-2014)
  • Ben Hutton (Maine-2014)
  • Devin Shore (Maine-2014)
  • Colton Parayko (Alaska-2014/2015)
  • Matt Leitner (Minnesota State-2015)
  • Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College-2016)
  • Troy Stecher (North Dakota-2016)
  • Brock Boeser (North Dakota-2016)
  • Drake Caggiula (North Dakota-2016)
  • Jake Walman (Providence-2016)

Hobey Baker Award Finalists since 2005 (all were also All-Americans):

  • Louie Caporusso (Michigan-2009)
  • Brendan Smith (Wisconsin-2010)
  • Paul Zanette (Niagara-2011)
  • Justin Schultz (Wisconsin-2011/2012)
  • Reilly Smith (Miami-2012)
  • Danny Kristo (North Dakota-2013)
  • Greg Carey (St. Lawrence-2013/2014)
  • Austin Czarnik (Miami-2013)
  • Nic Dowd (St. Cloud State-2014)
  • Ryan Dzingel (The Ohio State-2014)
  • Joey LaLeggia (Denver-2015)
  • Mike Reilly (Minnesota-2015)
  • Zane McIntyre (North Dakota-2015)
  • Zach Hyman (Michigan-2015)
  • Kyle Connor (Michigan-2016)
  • Ethan Prow (St. Cloud State-2016)

We previously mentioned Jack Connolly, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 2012. As we broke down in the Elite League feature, he truly excelled at college hockey as a three-time all-American and two-time Hobey Baker Award Finalist, plus he helped lead the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs to their first national championship.

The other Hobey Baker Award winner to participate in the WJAC was Drew LeBlanc. He was a teammate of Connolly's in 2007 for Team USA, but because of a medical redshirt, he was able to play college hockey in 2012-2013 and made the most of it, winning the Hobey Baker Award and leading the St. Cloud State Huskies to a share of the McNaughton Cup in their final season in the WCHA. The Huskies also reached their first Frozen Four thanks to LeBlanc and the rest of the Huskies' senior class.

Current College Players

One of the major points of this tournament is to feature the best that Canada has to offer to NCAA scouts and its obvious that its been working. Over the last three years, around a third of the all-American recipients have played in this tournament at least once. A random look at about 40 Canadian players (this year's United States team has one uncommitted player, Isaac Johnson) makes it appear that more than 75% of all the Canadians who played in the WJAC eventually ended up on a college roster including the top ten scorers from last season (half of the top ten have moved on from college, marked with *):

  • Kyle Connor (Michigan 35-36-71)*
  • Brock Boeser (North Dakota 27-33-60)
  • Drake Caggiula (North Dakota 25-26-51)*
  • Nick Schmaltz (North Dakota 11-35-46)*
  • Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College 24-23-47)
  • Justin Kloos (Minnesota 16-27-43)
  • Dylan Gambrell (Denver 17-30-47)
  • Travis St. Denis (Quinnipiac 22-27-49)*
  • Justin Danforth (Sacred Heart 20-21-41)
  • David Friedmann (Robert Morris 12-30-42)*

Previous Recruits

Michigan Tech has a long history of recruiting players who participated in this league, although most of the players recruited out of this tournament were already committed before they played in the WJAC. MTU had two players* participate for Canada West in the first year of the tournament, Deron Cousens and Casey Pierro-Zabotel* (Pierro-Zabotel never made it to MTU because of off-ice issues). The following year, they had 3 new participants in Josh Robinson, Tommy Brown and Steven Siego. Since 2008, the Huskies have only had three future Huskies play in the tournament: Jujhar Khaira (2011), Mike Neville (2011/2012), Mitch Reinke (2014/2015).

Alex Petan's younger cousin, Demico Hannoun also participated twice after committing to Michigan Tech but Hannoun and MTU parted ways on the commitment and he is now expected to head to Marquette and join Northern Michigan for the 2017 portion of this season. Keegan Ford played in the league once for Team USA but no one is certain he will ever suit up for the Huskies despite currently being enrolled in classes at Michigan Tech.

Senior Mike Neville played for Canada East twice in the WJAC, including a silver medal in 2011 (Photo credit Ryan Johnson).

Senior Mike Neville played for Canada East twice in the WJAC, including a silver medal in 2011 (Photo credit Ryan Johnson).

Jujhar Khaira was a flash in the pan, scoring 6 goals and 25 points in his only season with Michigan Tech before signing with the Edmonton Oilers. Josh Robinson and Mike Neville have both done well over their careers. Robinson had a slow start but came on strong his final year to help the Huskies to a respectable season in Mel Pearson's first year while Neville has been a key contributor on faceoffs through all four years and his offense has been picking up this season (already his best for goals, including Saturday's game winner over Bemidji State). His teammates obviously respect him as he has worn the "A" during the last two seasons.

Deron Cousens, Tommy Brown, Steven Seigo and Mitch Reinke were all highly-regarded defensemen when they headed to Houghton. That group has had mixed results with Cousens ending his college career as the Huskies' captain and Brown struggling to make the lineup. Steven Seigo was a diamond in the rough during some lean years, scoring 19 goals and 75 points over four years. He's still playing pro hockey in Finland.

Mitch Reinke looks like he could be the best of all of the Huskies to participate in the WJAC. In only his first season he has found a way into the lineup every night after given a chance in the team's second game, his 7 points are tied for 9th on the team with two seniors, Tyler Heinonen and Mike Neville. His play has allowed Coach Pearson to keep Chris Leibinger up top at forward, where scoring has come surprisingly easy to the versatile defensman. With Reinke seeing regular time on the power play already, it's expected that he'll only get better over time and be someone the Huskies really count on over the next 4 seasons.

The Future

Michigan Tech has one future recruit currently invited to the tournament. Marcus Mitchell, who committed to MTU earlier this year, was invited to the Canada West camp with a decent shot at making the team. Beyond that, Team USA only has one uncommitted player, Isaac Johnson. He currently plays for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL and is from Andover, Minn. While he might be someone the Huskies are interested in, it seems like a reach to expect the feeling to be mutual. There are also a handful on players invited to compete with Mitchell for Canada West that Michigan Tech could be interested in:

Players Ht Wt Birthdate Team (League) GP G-A-P
Ethan de Jong 5’10” 165 7/12/1999 Prince George (BCHL) 28 2-20-22
Kyler Kupka 6’0” 170 5/11/1999 Camrose (AJHL) 29 12-13-25
Desi Burgart 6’1” 180 9/28/1998 Surrey (BCHL) 31 12-18-30
Carter Turnbull 5’8” 169 9/8/1998 Powell River (BCHL) 31 12-13-25
Ryan Cox 5’10” 185 7/23/1998 Fort McMurray (AJHL) 29 11-19-30
Jack Hamly 6’0” 176 3/1/1998 Fort McMurray (AJHL) 27 7-17-24

Kupka and de Jong seem the most promising based on their age and ability thus far. It will be interesting to see how many of these players, along with Mitchell, actually make the team. It would not be surprising at all if someone on the Huskies' staff spent some time in Bonnyville, Alberta for this tournament which is scheduled to start this Sunday and end before the GLI. 

EDIT 12/16/2016: Marcus Mitchell did not make the cut and of all the players mentioned, only Ryan Cox, Carter Turnbull and Desi Burgart made the final roster for Canada West.

Summary

While this tournament is young, Michigan Tech has had some success with its participants and some of the best Canadian and American players interested in the college participate in this tournament each year. Many of the players have already committed to colleges before they get to this tournament but there are still many opportunities to find great players that can help a program and see how these prospects stack up against better competition, much like the Upper Midwest Elite League. Michigan Tech will likely continue to take notice of anyone who is uncommitted that makes one of their two teams.

Recruit of the Fortnight

Tommy Parrottino seems like the obvious choice this week. He plays forward for the Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) and is currently on a 5-game point streak. In the middle of the streak, Parrottino was recognized as the game's first star with two goals in a 5-2 win over former Huskies Assistant Coach Billy Muckalt's Tri-City Storm. His 2-4-6 in 5 games was the best of any recruit currently playing junior hockey.

Parrottino now has 6 goals on the year on only 25 shots, scoring on an amazing 24% of his shots thus far. One scout called him a pure scorer, but that means that sometimes when he's not scoring, he can get a bit lost in the game. With only 25 shots in 17 games, he doesn't shoot nearly as much as you'd like for someone with his scoring touch. Parrottino can make some nice passes but for whatever reason he is rarely the setup guy. He can make the breakout pass and cycle but when it comes time to try and find that goal, he gets himself setup to finish it off. It appears that this has improved quite a bit over the last two weeks.

Feature Image courtesy of Tim Bates / OJHL Images