Held each August in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament marks the start of the international hockey season and the beginning of the exhaustive scouting process that culminates the following June with the Entry Draft. The 2011 edition of the tournament will run from Aug. 8-13 in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia.
Players born in 1994 and later are eligible for the 2011 Hlinka tourney. While the birthday cutoff eliminates some of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft -- such as Everett Silvertips defenseman Ryan Murray, who captained Canada to gold in last year's tournament -- there still will be a host of top 2012 (and 2013) draft candidates showcasing their talents.
The biggest featured attractions among European prospects likely will be Russian center Mikhail Grigorenko (CSKA Moscow/Quebec Remparts), Swedish winger Filip Forsberg (Leksands IF) and Swedish goaltender Oscar Dansk (Brynäs IF).
Grigorenko, who debuted for Russia at the 2009 Hlinka tournament, likely is too advanced in his development to find suitable competition among fellow 17-year-old players. Possessing tremendous ice vision and superior playmaking skills to go along with deceptive quickness, Grigorenko's name has been well known around scouting circles since his early teenage years.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound center had 4 goals and 14 assists in seven games for Russia at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship, and had 17 goals and 35 points in 43 games to help his team win a championship in the MHL (Russia's top under-20 junior league) last season. Grigorenko was taken by the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL with the second pick of the 2011 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
Russia's chances in the 2011 Hlinka tournament would have been improved immensely if two top other top prospects were to play for them -- Sarnia Sting forwards Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk. However, Yakupov (born Oct. 6, 1993) is not eligible to play because he’s too old. Galchenyuk (born Feb. 2, 1994) meets the age requirement, but his nationality for international hockey purposes remains in question. He was born in Milwaukee and has committed to playing for the U.S. at the upcoming USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Meanwhile, Filip Forsberg (no relation to Peter) is considered to be the top Swedish position player available for next June's draft. He won't turn 17 until the final day of the tournament, but was a pivotal performer in Sweden's silver medal showing at the 2011 World U-18 tournament, totaling 4 goals and 6 points in six games. He's already played 10 games for Leksand's senior team in Allsvenskan, Sweden's top minor league. At the J20 level last season, the 6-foot-1, 176-pound left wing had 21 goals and 40 points in just 36 games.
Forsberg excels at protecting the puck and accelerates quickly. A right-handed shooter, he boasts a heavy, accurate shot. Forsberg's abilities have been compared to fellow Swedish standouts ranging from Daniel Alfredsson to the recently retired Freddy Modin.
"I think my offensive game is my biggest strength," Forsberg said. "I like to shoot the puck, but I think I can play a complete game in terms of scoring, playmaking and defensive play."
Many consider Dansk to be the best goaltender -- European or North American -- available for the 2012 draft. Born in Stockholm, the youngster attended Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn., playing for its renowned hockey program for three years before returning to his homeland in 2010 to join the Brynäs IF Gavle system. The BIF goaltending factory recently has produced highly regarded Nashville Predators backup goalie Anders Lindback and top Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom (who started building his reputation as a high-end goaltender with dominant showings in two successive Hlinka tournaments).
Dansk possesses both the big frame (6-foot-2 1/2, 183 pounds) and natural athleticism that NHL scouts covet in goaltending prospects. In 2009 he won a championship and the Best Goaltender award at Sweden's famed TV-Pucken national tournament. Last season he graduated from the J18 level to play in 21 games for BIF's J20 squad as well as playing in two games for Sweden's national Under-18 squad.
Top Finnish prospect Olli Maatta is eligible to play for Finland at the tournament, but instead will attend Finland's junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, where the team will play exhibition games against the U.S. and Sweden.
For the host Czechs, there are five Hlinka-tournament eligible players who were chosen in the CHL Import Draft: Petr Sidlik, Radek Faksa, Patrik Machac, Dominik Volek and Michal Plutnar. While the Czechs have yet to announce their preliminary roster for the Hlinka tournament, all five of the CHL-drafted players were invited to a selection camp in Tremosna and most or all are expected to earn spots in the lineup.
Faksa, a high-scoring left wing from the HC Trinec junior system, played for the Czech Republic at the 2011 World U-18, as did Sidlik, a smooth-skating defenseman. Machac is a center from the HC Kladno development chain. Plutnar is a puck-moving defenseman originally from the Bili Tygri (White Tigers) Liberec system.
The U.S. takes a little different approach to the Hlinka tournament than many of the European countries. The Americans use the competition as an opportunity for players at the U-17 level of the National Team Development Program to gain experience. The U.S. won a silver medal last year despite the fact that defenseman Connor Murphy (the 20th pick of the 2011 Entry Draft) was the lone player with previous experience.
This year, 2012 draft-eligible forward Brendan Silk will be the only returning member from the 2010 team. Silk had 2 goals and 3 points in 11 USHL games with the USNTDP's under-17 team last season.
Canada has captured gold at the Hlinka tournament 15 times in the last 20 years, and this year's team once again should be in the hunt for the top spot. The roster features numerous potential 2012 Entry Draft first-round picks, and should have a formidable blue line with the likes of Griffin Reinhart, Slater Koekkoek, Matt Dumba and Morgan Rielly. The top Canada forwards expected to play in the event include center Brendan Gaunce and winger Matia Marcantuoni.
A strong performance at the Hlinka tournament is a great way to make a strong first impression on NHL scouts in a player's draft year. The leading scorer in last year’s tournament was Sweden forward, Joachim Nermark (5 goals, 6 assists), who went on to be drafted in the fourth round of this summer by the Colorado Avalanche.
The 2011 tournament starts Aug. 6 with Canada and the U.S. playing exhibition games against the host countries. The official games start two days later and continue through the gold-medal and bronze-medal games on Saturday, Aug. 13.