It's the time of year for junior players to make their case as future stars on an international stage. And while it doesn't always work out, these 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds will have at least given fans, the media, and NHL scouts something to get excited about over a two-week stretch at the turn of the year.
At this year's World Junior Hockey Championship, the cupboard is stocked with even more junior-aged stars, thanks to the NHL Lockout. Beginning Boxing Day, several youngsters worth keeping an eye on will vie for World Junior gold.
For Team Canada, the list of course includes the big names likely only available because of the NHL lockout; players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mark Scheifele.
But another player everybody will be keeping their eyes on is Nate MacKinnon, who is arguably the top draft eligible prospect at this year's tournament. After racking up 52 points in 30 games in the QMJHL, scouts and fans alike are eager to see how he fares against top competition.
On defence, fans will get their first extended look at two high draft picks in Griffin Reinhart (4th overall, Islanders) and Morgan Rielly (5th overall, Maple Leafs). Rielly is expected to get top-four minutes and could play alongside one of two returning defencemen in Dougie Hamilton or Scott Harrington.
The United States have some players to watch as well, starting with Seth Jones. The draft-eligible defenceman has been neck-and-neck with MacKinnon all season long as top prospects. Jones missed last year's tournament with an upper-body injury, so this will be the first look many fans get at the big defencemen.
Alex Galchenyuk, last year's third-overall draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens is another to keep an eye on. The young forward was on a roll entering the States' selection camp with 61 points in 33 games for the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
The first-overall pick from last year's draft, Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers, will be a leader for the host Russians. Yakupov finished with nine assists in seven games at last year's tournament and will be leaned on to do more for this year's squad.
Mikhail Grigorenko is another top prospect for the Russians that will be relied upon. Grigorenko dropped to 12th overall in last year's draft before being selected by the Buffalo Sabres but has been solid so far this year in the QMJHL, tallying 50 points in 30 games with the Quebec Remparts.
Filip Forsberg will captain Team Sweden in his second World Juniors. Drafted 11th overall by the Washing Capitals, Forsberg recorded an assist in six games in last year's tournament and has 17 points in 43 games this year with Leksand of the Swedish Elite League.
And while all this year's draft buzz has surrounded MacKinnon and Jones, Finland has a top prospect that could challenge the two on NHL draft boards. Aleksander Barkov, who plays for Tappara Tampere of the top Finnish league, was ranked third in TSN Scout Craig Button's December draft rankings list.
TSN's coverage of the World Junior Hockey Championship begins with Canada's game against Germany, Wednesday at 4am et/1am pt.