Even though most people spend December thinking about the World Junior Hockey Championships, the World Junior A Challenge kicks off the month each year with the best players playing Tier 2 hockey in North America, and junior/European pro elsewhere. The tournament typically doesn’t feature the top prospects around the world, but it does feature a lot of players ready to hear their name called at the NHL draft the following summer.
The tournament was dominated by Russia and the United States, with both team losing just a single game throughout the tournament. The only difference: USA lost their first game against Canada West, while Russia’s lone loss came against the Americans in the final game. Canada West, featuring the top players from the AJHL and BCHL, came third place after beating the Czech Republic (containing many players who didn’t get the call for the World Juniors), while Canada East, containing players from Ontario and Quebec, failed to win a single game in the five-team, week-long event.
The tournament acts as a great avenue for some NHL prospects from the USHL, CJHL and Europe to show off what they can do. 30 players that had previously played at the World Junior A Challenge were drafted in 2018, while stars such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Brock Boeser, Dante Fabbro, Tyson Jost and Andrei Svechnikov have all played in recent years. This year, Russia’s Vasily Podkolzin was the star of the tournament and he never disappointed, but more was expected out of the likes of Michal Teply of the Czech Republic and Alex Newhook from Canada West.
Who were the top players from the tournament in Bonnyville, Alberta earlier this month? Let’s take a look.
Vasily Podkolzin, RW (Russia): Who? Yeah, this guy came out of nowhere. All kidding aside, everyone expected Podkolzin to be a major factor at the World Junior A Challenge and he definitely didn’t disappoint. Podkolzin tied Bobby Brink for the tournament lead with eight points in six games, partly due to the fact that he never seemed to leave the ice. The Russians had no issue throwing him in any situation and he never seemed to slow down. Not only was he the most lethal playmaker in the tournament, with every play that he set up seemingly resulting in a goal, Podkolzin had a couple of nice hits and played as well defensively as you’d hope from a top draft prospect. Projected to go in the top five in June, Podkolzin showed a lot of chemistry with Ilya Nikolayev, who finished tied for third in scoring with six points, with the two finding each other with ease throughout the tourney. Podkolzin was instantly invited to Russia’s World Junior team after the completion of the event in Alberta and will surely creep into the top six at points in Vancouver.
VIDEO CLIP OF PODKOLZIN
Bobby Brink, RAW (USA): NHL draft ranking lists can’t seem to agree on what Brink’s true potential is heading into next June’s selection process, but the 17-year-old did everything right in his first tournament for his country. Currently dominating the USHL with 33 points in 19 games (he’s currently second in scoring despite missing time to play for USA), Brink scored the game-winning goal early in the first period of the gold medal game to earn his spot with Podkolzin at the top of the scoring race. It’s very likely that Brink gets serious World Junior consideration next season, especially after Tyler Madden made the jump to the 2019 team after his great performance in Eastern Canada last year. Brink is very quick on his feet and doesn’t waste much time trying to distribute the puck, with his wrist shot also serving as one of the most dangerous in Junior A hockey. The USHL star plays a lot like Jonathan Marchessault or even Johnny Gaudreau and has enough offensive talent to be as serious first-round contender. And yes, the rumors are true: Bobby’s middle name actually is Orr.
Matěj Blümel, LW (Czech Republic): Blümel’s month will continue to get better as he’ll represent the Czechs at the World Juniors, a team that looks like a serious contender for bronze. Blümel has impressed at every international level in his career, starting a scoring star with the U16 team in 2015-16 and adding to his resume with a four-point effort at the World Under-18 Hockey Championships this past April. Blümel generated a lot of offence for the team, putting up six points to finish third in tournament scoring after being involved in many of the team’s chances. While his role at the World Juniors won’t be as pronounced, the Waterloo Black Hawks forward and University of Connecticut commit made it very hard NHL teams to ignore him during his second crack at the NHL draft coming up in June, especially he can make quick decisions with the puck while skating at a high pace.
Yaroslav Askarov, G (Russia): Considering how wicked strong the 2020 NHL draft looks to be, it’s crazy to think that Yaroslav Askarov could be a top-15 pick as a goalie. At just 16 years old, Askarov was the youngest goalie in the tournament, but after winning gold with Russia at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge back in November (making it to the tournament all-star team and finishing with the best stats of any goalie), it was fitting that he also was the top goaltender in Bonnyville. Askarov’s most impressive performance was a 31-save shutout against a high-scoring Canada West team on December 12, making a couple of big stops on the likes of Alex Campbell and Alex Newhook. Askarov is 6’2, but moves at the speed of a smaller netminder and is very positionally sound. Askarov’s head always seems to be in the game and doesn’t let a bad bounce ruin his game, usually following a goal against with a big glove stop, one of his specialties. Askarov had the best numbers of any goalie at the World Junior A Challenge, the U17s and the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and is already looking like a favourite to play at the World Under-18 Hockey Championships in August before potentially acting as a backup at the World Juniors next year.
VIDEO CLIP OF ASKAROV:
David Aubrecht, D (Czech Republic): Aubrecht likely didn’t gather much draft consideration last June, but the 2000-born prospect definitely had to catch some attention in Alberta. Sure, Aubrecht didn’t record a single point at the event and is still without a digit on the scoresheet in 14 games with the Czechs internationally, but the 6’1, 174-pound defender was a standout at the tournament, no doubt. For a Czech team that had some inconsistencies in net and just didn’t have the overall talent teams like the United States or Russia had, Aubrecht was very solid in his own zone and throw more than his fair share of big hits during the tournament. While blocking shots gets a bad reputation because it means you don’t have the puck, Aubrecht was perhaps the best player in that department and brought enough speed to the backend to win races to the pucks and clear it out. The Czechs used him on the penalty kill and was an effective shutdown player, especially late in the game against Canada West during the round robin when they were trying to avoid Canada getting a late goal (the Czechs would come from behind to win in the shootout). It’s unlikely who’ll get selected in Vancouver, but watch for Aubrecht to be considered for a depth spot on the World Junior team next year.
Luke Johnson, D (USA): Zachary Jones looked like the standout defender for the Americans early in the tournament, but Luke Johnson was the team’s most reliable defenceman as the tournament wore on. The captain of the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers may have had four points in six games (including a terrific goal against the Russians in the final round-robin game), but Johnson was able to run the power play and was very aggressive when playing against some talented forwards to make him one of USA’s best all-around forwards. The 19-year-old was the oldest players at the tournament, which may have played a part in his strong performance, but there was a lot to like out of the Providence College commit.
VIDEO CLIP OF JOHNSON
Harrison Blaisdell, C (Canada West): This wasn’t Blaisdell’s first rodeo for Canada at an international event, but it was surely his coming out party after scoring four goals and five points in six games for the team that won bronze. A 2019 NHL draft prospect, Blaisdell is having a breakout offensive season with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCHL, a team with very solid depth throughout the lineup. Blaisdell’s wheelhouse is right in front of the net, scoring most of his goals for Canada from close range while also giving defencemen headaches by his constantly moving around the front of the net. Blaisdell, a University of North Dakota, is a pure goal scorer and was one of Canada’s most impressive skaters, which is saying something with Newhook on the roster.
Spencer Kersten, C (Canada East): Compared to the rest of the list, you likely don’t know much about Kersten, a star with the third-ranked club in the CJHL, the Oakville Blades. Kersten was leading the Blades in scoring before leaving for Bonnyville, but when he returned to Oakville, he was trailing Thomas Maia by just one point despite missing six games. Kersten finished in a four-way tie among all Canadians in scoring, but was the only Canada East player in that group. Canada East struggled to score and failed to grab even a single victory, but Kersten had four assists while moving around the lineup as Canada’s top centreman. Kersten is effective at winning faceoffs and killing penalties and is one of the more dangerous playmakers in the OJHL. He was consistently Canada East’s two-way forward and the 2019 Princeton University commit for has entered himself into the conversation to get drafted next June after his performance with his country.
VIDEO CLIP OF KERSTEN
T.J. Lloyd, D (Canada West): Lloyd only had two points, but it seemed like Canada could always rely on him to keep pucks out of the way. A solid playmaker, Lloyd has been fantastic for Spruce Grove Saints this year while also playing a bigger role as Canada West’s captain in his second adventure with the team. Lloyd stood out right away by making a great play where he sent a pass down to Ethan Leyh in Canada West’s opener against the United States to tie the game in the third period. In fact, he seemed very comfortable making long-range passes, even while under pressure from opponents. Lloyd is undersized and doesn’t play a physical game, but he’s very creative with the puck and brings a lot of speed to the table. He likely won’t factor into the NHL draft conversation, but Lloyd is set to embark on an NCAA career with Bowling Green State University starting in 2019.