Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czechs got together in Sweden this weekend to play a friendly U20 tournament against each other. These teams often play against each other throughout the season to prepare for the World Juniors. None of the teams brought their top squad into the tournament as this one is meant more to see how certain players can handle certain roles and to give some bubble players a chance to impress the coaching staff.
All teams played against each other once which means there was a total of six games played. I watched all six games, so I’ll go through each team and let you know how some of the more interesting names played. These European tournaments don’t get the kind of media coverage North American tournaments do, so I figured this might interest you readers. Let me know if I was wrong!
The best player in the tournament was Vitali Kravtsov. The Rangers shocked some people when they drafted him ninth overall but Kravtsov is a great prospect. I know a lot of people haven’t seen much of him but he was pretty good in the KHL already last season. I think he’ll have a big season in the KHL and then make the jump to the NHL after that. In this tournament, Kravtsov was the team Captain, and he dominated every game. Whenever he was on the ice, his team had the puck in the offensive zone, and he was constantly creating something offensively. He’s always moving and looking for openings. He finished the tournament with one goal and three assists – but he could have had more points if he played with better linemates. Honestly saying, he was too good for this tournament, and he’ll be one of the top players at the World Juniors. Kravtsov’s tournament highlights courtesy of @aj_ranger:
Bulat Shafigullin, who was drafted in the third round by the Kings, had a glorious chance to play on the same line with Kravtsov but he didn’t really manage to do much with that opportunity. He has a good nose for the net and he’s capable of powering through to get there but he doesn’t seem to be very dynamic or multi-dimensional. He’s a 1999-born player which means this will be his last opportunity to play at the World Juniors. He has a good chance to play there but it remains to be seen what type of role is available for him.
Kirill Marchenko, who was drafted in the second round by the Blue Jackets, played in the first two games but wasn’t all that good. He was scratched from the final game, and although I’m not sure what the reason was, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just based on his performance. He was never given a great chance to begin with, though, as he played on the fourth line. He had a few scoring chances but just couldn’t convert. Perhaps it was just a lack of confidence type of thing but this tournament wasn’t very good for him. He may not make the World Juniors team but since he’s a 2000-born player, he’s eligible to play next year as well.
One player who caught my eye in this tournament was 19-year-old undrafted forward Yegor Filin. He’s really small (5-8, 152) but a great skater with great puck-skills and creativity – especially on the power play. Looks like someone worth watching this season and at the World Juniors, assuming he makes the team.
Goaltender Daniil Tarasov, who was drafted in the third round by the Blue Jackets in 2017, played two games and was arguably the second-best goalie in the tournament. He really kept his team in the games and looked really sharp in both games. Kirill Ustimenko, who was drafted a few spots ahead of Tarasov by the Flyers, played the other game. Even though he was good as well, he didn’t look as good as Tarasov. But obviously we’re dealing with a very small sample size here.
Besides Kravtsov, the other star players in this tournament were playing for Finland. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was drafted third overall by the Canadiens, played the first two games for the Finns. Kotkaniemi was a dominant player in the first game against the Czechs. He was the top-line center for them and the only really good forward on the team, so there was a lot of pressure on him. He scored a power play goal, created a bunch of scoring chances, and was great at faceoffs. He wasn’t as great in the second game, though, but he wasn’t bad by any means. These were Kotkaniemi’s final games in Europe for now as he’s now joining the Canadiens for their training camp.
Otto Kivenmäki, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Red Wings, played on Kotkaniemi’s wing for the first two games, and then took Kotkaniemi’s spot down the middle for the third game. Both Kotkaniemi and Kivenmäki came through the Ässät system and it looked like they had some chemistry playing together. Kivenmäki is really small (5-8, 137) but he’s a good skater and makes flashy plays with the puck. In this tournament, he turned the puck over way too often, so clearly there are some adjustments to be made when he’s facing tougher competition. But he finished the tournament with one goal and four points, so you have to take the bad with the good.
Lenni Killinen, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Hurricanes, was the only other interesting forward for the Finns but he didn’t really manage to get much of anything done. He scored one goal but that was more about being in the right place at the right time. Killinen grew up playing for a different system but will join the Ässät team in the Finnish Liiga this season, so he could potentially play with Kotkaniemi and/or Kivenmäki, depending on where those two actually end up playing.
Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted 29th overall by the Blackhawks in 2017, was the team Captain but missed the first game of the tournament for some reason. He was steady in his first game but didn’t really impress the way I was expecting him to. But in the final game, he was getting a ton of ice time and he started to take over the game. He was by far the best defenseman for the Finns, and he should play a big role for them at the World Juniors as well.
Santtu Kinnunen, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Panthers, had a good tournament. He showed his offensive skills and played on the power play. He didn’t play a huge role but looked good with the responsibilities he had. He’s a long-term project and probably doesn’t get to play at the World Juniors, though.
Lassi Thomson, who was ranked 43rd overall in Cam Robinson’s first 2019 NHL Draft Rankings, didn’t do anything special but played a steady positional game which he’s known for. He didn’t get any power play time but was used on the penalty kill. Thomson will play in the WHL this season after being drafted 53rd overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Kelowna Rockets.
Another first-time draft eligible player on the Finnish roster was defenseman Kim Nousiainen who wasn’t ranked by Cam Robinson. Nousiainen is a small (5-9, 170) puck-moving defenseman. He may get to play in the Finnish Liiga this season which would be good for his draft stock. Nousiainen was the third defenseman who saw power play time for the Finns in this tournament. Nousiainen, just like Thomson, is a late 2000-born player which means they’re too old to play at the U18 Worlds, and it’s unlikely either one would play at the World Juniors either.
Justus Annunen, who was drafted in the third round by the Avalanche, played two games in net. He was great in the first game against the Czechs. The only goal that was scored against him was done on a penalty shot. He made some really tough saves and was possibly the best player in the game. He played a decent game against the Russians as well but wasn’t as good there. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who was drafted in the second round by the Sabres in 2017, played the other game. He was decent in that game but not great. Luukkonen will likely be the starter for Finland at the World Juniors but I wouldn’t be shocked if Annunen stole the show from him.
The player who impressed me the most from the Swedes was winger Nils Höglander. He was ranked 34th overall by Cam Robinson. Höglander is a small (5-9, 185) winger with non-stop motor. He can make plays at top speed. His puck-skills are great. He’s always moving and looking for offensive opportunities. And when his team doesn’t have the puck, he’s working hard trying to get it back to his team. Höglander was Sweden’s best player, and perhaps the second-best player in the entire tournament. He led the tournament with three goals and six points in three games. He should play at the SHL level this season after signing a contract with Rögle BK. I’m not yet familiar with the 2019 draft class but right now, Höglander looks like a first-rounder to me – but then again, so did Jonatan Berggren, and he fell to the second round as well.
Albin Eriksson, who was drafted in the second round by the Stars, was expected to be an offensive leader for the Swedes. His combination of size, skating and skill is really intriguing. There’s a lot to like but he hasn’t been able to put it all together so far. He needs to play with more pace and make more of an effort. He showed nice flashes but the tournament was disappointing. He started on the top line but was demoted to the fourth line for the final game. But he did score this really nice goal in the shootout.
Simon Johansson, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Wild, was the best defenseman in the tournament. He led all defensemen in the tournament with two goals and four points in three games. He creates a lot of offense with his shot. He has a big slap shot, and his wrist shot looks pretty good as well. He also made some really nice moves with the puck. Johansson has a good 6-foot-2 frame and all the necessary talent offensively. His defensive game needs some improving but you can’t find perfect players that late in the draft. Here he scores a goal with that big bomb he has.
Jesper Eliasson, who was drafted in the third round by the Red Wings, was the best goalie in the tournament. He played two games and was rock-solid in both of them. Eliasson played at a lower level last season and didn’t get to play more than one game at the U18 World either which is why I was surprised when the Red Wings drafted him so early. But he has a great 6-foot-3 frame and he looked great in this tournament, so he could have a big season coming.
Team Czech Republic
Ostap Safin, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Oilers in 2017, was expected to be the big name for the Czechs in this tournament but he was injured midway through the first game and didn’t play in the final two games.
The big breakout player in this tournament was definitely Michal Teplý. He’s a first-time draft eligible winger who is actually pretty young for this draft class with his May 2001 birthdate. Even though I had never heard of him before and he started the tournament playing on the fourth line, I noticed him doing some nice things in the first game. By the third game, he was already playing on their top line. He also played the Ovechkin spot on the power play, he was on the ice late in the game when his team was chasing the lead, and he was even used on the penalty kill. He was the best player on his team in the final game. All this after being a late addition to the team because of injuries to other players who were supposed to be there.
Teplý was not ranked by Cam Robinson in his first 2019 draft ranking. I asked Cam about it, and he said he hadn’t seen enough of Teplý to feel comfortable ranking him but he promised to take a closer look. I feel comfortable saying Teplý is worth watching this season. He’s big (6-3, 176) and has some nice skills. He skates well with the puck and moves well when his teammates have the puck but he’s too passive when the opposing team has possession. This goal he scored in the third game is just one of the nice things he did in this tournament.
On defense, the top player for the Czechs was Jakub Galvas who was drafted in the fifth round by the Blackhawks in 2017. Galvas is not really a naturally talented power play quarterback but he was the only defenseman they used on their top unit – Radim Salda and Ondrej Buchtela were used on the second unit. If you’re one of those people who like to acquire prospects before the World Juniors and flip them afterwards when their value is high, Galvas could be a good option for that. His situation reminds me of Libor Hájek from a year ago.
Tomas Vomacka, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Predators in 2017, was in net for two games but didn’t look very strong in either one. Not all the goals were his fault as the Czechs were outplayed but he didn’t impress me here. Lukas Dostal, who was drafted in the third round by the Ducks, played the other game. He looked decent but wasn’t great either.
And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below. Follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Images used on the main collage courtesy of NHL.com and Sportsnet.ca