Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Sunday, December 25, 2005
Updated: December 27, 12:14 PM ET
Rivalry to watch: Kessel vs. Toews

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

It will be a tasty appetizer for 2006, the final game of 2005 played on New Year's Eve at the World Junior Hockey Championships at Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

Canada versus the United States, it's fair to say, has become one of the marquee matchups at this and other international tournaments, and this year's collision will have a little something extra.

Phil Kessel
Many consider Phil Kessel to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft.

It will include an individual matchup between the two players who many believe will go 1-2 in the NHL draft next summer, a talented pair who have already locked horns in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association this month.

Phil Kessel of Verona, Wisc., is the prized freshman forward of the University of Minnesota, while Manitoba-born center Jonathan Toews has been impressing scouts this season while playing for the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota. Already this season, they faced off in a highly anticipated contest, with host UND dropping a 4-3 verdict to the Golden Gophers.

On one side is Kessel, a flamboyant winger who is Pavel Bure-like with his dynamic speed and nose for the net.

Toews, by contrast, is a solid, multi-dimensional center, a youthful Ron Francis in his cerebral approach to all aspects of the game and described as having the presence of a 30-year-old veteran.

They are completely different players, sharing only in their appeal to NHL scouts. Kessel, 18, has long been regarded as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, which will also be held in Vancouver. But Toews, 17, has made many believe he will not only compete with Kessel for that honor, but he also may overtake his collegiate rival.

Kessel and his U.S. teammates are already favored by many to win this year's world title for the second time in three years.

Teenager versus teenager is a familiar plot line for this event, which more than once has served as the stage for the world's most talented teenagers to preen and perform before an international audience.

Just last year at this same tourney in Grand Forks, N.D., Canada's Sidney Crosby went head-to-head with Alexander Ovechkin of Russia in the gold-medal game, with Crosby and his teammates walking away with a resounding 6-0 victory.

Ovechkin, however, had already been taken first overall in the 2004 NHL draft, and it was just this past summer in the wake of the messy NHL lockout that Crosby was selected with the No. 1 pick.

Toews and Kessel, however, are at exactly the same stage, both driven teenagers anxious to prove they are the best of their age group on the planet.

Kessel made himself known at last year's tourney, bursting on to the scene with a flashy hat trick against Sweden and playing a surprisingly extensive role on an American team that featured a variety of older, more experienced players.

Toews, meanwhile, was finishing off a year at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn., the same school that Crosby had attended for a year. A classmate of Toews was Angelo Esposito of Montreal, a youngster who is currently playing with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is already being projected as the top pick of the 2007 NHL draft.

Kessel gave Team USA fans a taste of what may be to come on Wednesday, when he scored the winning goal in the third period to help the Americans capture a 3-2 pre-tournament victory over Sweden.

Toews also scored for Team Canada in its first exhibition game. But what may determine the success both players have is the amount of ice time each receives as the tourney wears on.

Kessel, most believe, will get all the ice he needs and lots of power-play time. For Toews, the lone undrafted player on the Canadian team, getting opportunities in offensive situations may not be as easy, for there are other more experienced and older centers ahead of him.

The Americans will carry the pressure of being a favorite for gold going into the event, and Kessel, as a returning player, will shoulder a great deal of that weight.

Canada, while although the defending champion, is not expected to be as powerful as the squad that roared through the tournament last year unbeaten and untied. Still, expectations are high, the GM Place crowds will be enormous every time Team Canada plays and the Canadian team has failed to win this event the last two times the country played host to the competition.

Toews, then, will have to be able to perform under all that national scrutiny to demonstrate his talents.

Different players dealing with different sets of expectations and pressures.

Let's see which teenager soars the highest.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.