The group play phase at the U18 Worlds is now over. I’ve spent six days in Sweden, and during that time I’ve met a lot of great people and interviewed some future NHL stars – not to mention watched a ton of high-quality hockey in the process. Here are my thoughts on the games from the past two days. In case you missed my earlier update, here’s a link to it: Prospect Ramblings: Second Update from the U18 Worlds (Apr 22).
Switzerland vs Belarus
The biggest name on Team Belarus is their captain, defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok (2019) who spent this season with Flint Firebirds in the OHL and is ranked somewhere in the second to third round range for the upcoming draft. He plays on Belarus’ second pair and second power play unit but he is their top defenseman in this tournament. He doesn’t seem to have any standout qualities but he plays a smart and reliable two-way game at a high level. He had a great game, scoring two assists and firing 11 shots on goal. Those points brought him up to five points in four games.
I interviewed Kolyachonok after the game and asked him to describe himself as a player. He said he’s a two-way defenseman, and he wants to improve all parts of his game to be an all-around player. He’s trying to be a leader in the locker room as well as on the ice. He was happy about the direction Flint was going to and said he hopes to play there next season but wasn’t yet sure about it.
One player who has been raising a lot of eyebrows in this tournament has been Belarus’ winger Yevgeni Oxentyuk (2019) who now has three goals and six points in four games after adding another goal in this game. He’s tiny (5-7, 154) but very talented offensively. He has a great wrist shot and he can dangle in tight spaces very well. His puck-skills are excellent, and he’s not afraid to get into the dirty areas. His ability to cut to the middle is very good and important. I noticed some issues in his defensive game, and his skating is definitely concerning, especially for someone his size.
When I asked about Oxentyuk from Kolyachonok, he didn’t seem to be surprised by his strong tournament. He felt like Oxentyuk has been overlooked because he’s been playing in Belarus but wanted to highlight he’s playing at the top level against professionals which is no easy thing to do.
The most interesting prospect from Switzerland’s side is also their captain, winger Simon Knak (2020). He’s born in 2002 which means he’s still eligible for the tournament next year. It’s pretty rare to see an underager carry the ‘C’ in this event. Knak had a great game against Belarus, and he was especially noticeable in overtime. He had a two-on-one opportunity where he slid the puck past Kolyachonok, and his teammate was very close to scoring from there. Then they got another two-on-one opportunity, and this time Knak decided to shoot, and his teammate put the rebound in. Knak got his second assist in the game from that overtime winner, and Switzerland won the game 5-4.
I interviewed Knak after the game as well. He said he can play both wings but prefers his off-wing, the right side. As a Captain, he’s trying to help his team both on and off the ice. He described himself as a hard-working player who can both make offensive plays and be a good backchecker. He said he doesn’t have a preference between passing and shooting, and said it depends on what play he thinks is the best in each situation. He also said he will be staying in Switzerland for next season and hopes to get some games in the men’s league.
Finland vs Switzerland
Avoiding the relegation round was the name of the game here. One of these teams were going to be there. Switzerland needed just one point to avoid it. Finland had to get the full three points to avoid national embarrassment.
Finland came into the game steaming after losing the last three games, and no one player more so than winger Kasper Simontaival (2020) who was used as the 13th forward in the previous game after starting the tournament on the top line. Even though Simontaival played on the fourth line, he was flying on the ice and generating offense all the time. He had a goal and two assists in the first period, and all of those points were great performances from him.
After the game, I asked Simontaival if there was extra motivation after not being given ice time in the previous game.
“Of course it always adds to the desire to show what you’re capable of when you’ve been sidelined for a bit. I was eager to play in the Czech game already but I didn’t get the chance to. I waited patiently and got rewarded for it.”
Simontaival had an injury before the tournament and just barely returned to ice before the tournament started. I asked if the injury affected his play.
“In the first two games, it showed subconsciously, I didn’t go hard into situations. So it’s understandable what happened (being the 13th forward). It takes a few games to get back to full speed. Today it didn’t bother me at all, like it never even happened.”
After the game, Finland’s head coach gave a lot of credit to the fourth line. “It was effective and most importantly scored the first few goals which then started the snowball effect, so big thanks to them.”
And that snowball effect ended with Finland scoring 12 goals while giving up zero goals for Switzerland. It was a dominant performance from the team, and they finally started to play the way everyone expected them to play throughout the tournament.
A big part of Finland’s strong game was their new top line. They moved Anton Lundell (2020) to center that line, with Patrik Puistola (2019) and Antti Saarela (2019) at wings. Lundell had two assists and a nice shorthanded goal in the game. Saarela had one assist. And Puistola was the best player in the game while scoring a hat trick.
After the game, I asked Puistola about that new top line.
“It worked well. Lundell is a really good player, and Saarela is also. There’s a lot of skating power, strength in puck-battles, and skill on that line. It’s good to start building from that after a game like this.”
I also asked him about that beautiful shorthanded goal he scored. He was modest about his performance there but couldn’t stop smiling the whole time he talked about the goal.
“I saw that there was a one-on-one situation and decided to challenge. I got past the defender, and then managed to fool the goalie as well.”
That goal was one of the best performances we’ve seen in this tournament. I’ve watched all four Team Finland games in this tournament (two live, two from a recording), and I think Puistola has been their best player all tournament long. He was a potential first-rounder before this tournament but his performance here could solidify his spot in the first round.
Finland’s power play is another aspect that seemed to start working in this game. Their top unit consists of the top line forwards of Lundell, Puistola and Saarela who are joined by defenseman Ville Heinola (2019) and forward Aatu Räty (2021). After the game, I asked from Lundell what he thought about their power play.
“Of course it’s nice to score a couple of goals, it helps with confidence. Of course there’s always room for improvement but I thought it worked well today. We have to play together as a group. We have to move the puck well and get shots from there.”
Finland’s next challenge will be going against the tournament favorites, Team USA. I asked Lundell if they know what kind of a team they’ll be facing.
“This group played an exhibition game against them before I arrived, so we know what kind of a group they have. And I’ve also played against USA a couple of times over the past year, including a couple of finals, and they’re always tough games. We have to be completely ready to play, can’t let go even one bit. It will be a tough competition and lots of speed.”
Other players with impressive performances in the game were winger Leevi Aaltonen (2019) who had one goal and two assists, winger Veeti Miettinen (2020) who had one goal and three assists, and goalie Roope Taponen (2019) who had a 21-save shutout.
Defenseman Antti Tuomisto (2019) was ejected from the game because of kneeing but Team Finland’s head coach didn’t expect there to be any suspension for it. Mikko Kokkonen (2019) took Tuomisto’s spot on the second power play unit while seventh defensemen Kalle Loponen (2019) took most of Tuomisto’s even strength ice time.
Czech Republic vs Canada
The Czechs had a chance to win the group if they got three points against Canada. Canada needed just one point to secure first place. The Czechs got off to a great start, scoring two goals in the first six minutes of the game. Canadian defenseman Thomas Harley (2019) made a bad mistake on the second goal, and Czech winger Jan Mysak (2020) made an amazing play for an assist on that goal.
But it was all Canada after that, and they scored the next six goals for a 6-2 win. Canada’s third line of Jakob Pelletier (2019), Dylan Holloway (2020) and Philip Tomasino (2019) was excellent in the game, and Tomasino was voted as Canada’s best player in the game. It was an impressive offensive performance from him.
Canada’s top line of Alex Newhook (2019), Peyton Krebs (2019) and Dylan Cozens (2019) was also as good as expected. All three players on that line are expected to be top-20 picks in the summer, so expectations are obviously high. I thought Newhook was the one who shone the most from that line. He has amazing speed, and his ability to run the power play from the half-wall is excellent. After the game, I asked Newhook to talk about that super line they have.
“I’m playing with two guys who are very good players, so we use our speed and skill to create offense, and we did that well tonight and we’ll keep doing that throughout the tournament.”
I asked Newhook to talk a bit about Krebs and Cozens and what kind of players they are.
“Two guys that really know how to play the game. They’re fast, they’re smart, and they play with that compete. I’m really lucky playing with those guys. Great players. Hopefully I can keep adding to that and keep producing with them. Playing in the BCHL, I’ve played with good players but these guys are top class. To be able to have that line together and generate some chemistry with them, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been working so far.”
Because he has been playing in the BCHL and hasn’t played in any major tournaments before this one, I asked Newhook to provide a quick scouting report of himself.
“I’m a 200-foot player. I like to play both areas of the ice. I’m a quick forward that likes to generate offense. That’s definitely my biggest strength – using my skill and speed to create offense and try to catch defenders off guard.”
Despite being a strong 200-foot player, Newhook is not used on the penalty kill at the U18 Worlds while his linemates Krebs and Cozens are. I asked Newhook if he thought he could kill penalties at this level.
“Yeah, for sure. We have a lot of guys on this team that can penalty-kill. Everyone has their own role when you come to a different team. I’m not being used on the penalty kill, doesn’t really mean much to me. But I’ve killed penalties all year, and it’s just another part of the game.”
At the U18 Worlds, Newhook is playing left wing. I asked him which position he prefers.
“I think I prefer center. I’ve played center all year. Played center most of last year as well. Kind of played center growing up my whole life. But being able to play the wing, I think it’s a good thing to be able to have that adaptability. I’m having a lot of fun here playing the wing. It’s definitely a bit of a transition but once you get used to it, it’s fine either way.”
Winger Nathan Légaré (2019) may play on Canada’s fourth line but he carries an ‘A’ on his jersey, plays on their penalty kill, and was occasionally used on the top power play unit as well. He got that opportunity at a 5-on-3 power play and scored a goal while showing that great shot he has.
Center Ryan Suzuki (2019) returned to the lineup after an injury but he was the 13th forward and didn’t play in the game.
From the Czechs side, winger Michal Teplý (2019) was put back on the power play after being removed from there in the previous game. He was also used on the penalty kill which was a big surprise to me. He didn’t do a ton in this game but was voted as the best player on the team nevertheless.
Another interesting player from the Czechs is defenseman Martin Hugo Haš (2019). I talked to him after the game to get clarification on a few things. He confirmed his official name is Martin Haš but everyone calls him by his nickname Hugo, so he’s getting that name added and he’ll go by Martin Hugo Haš moving forward.
Haš also said he used to be a forward but was moved to defense about six or seven years ago because of injuries on the team, and he’s stayed there ever since. And he confirmed he’s staying in Finland for next season, and he hopes to get some Liiga games. “Yeah, that would be amazing but just have to work hard for it.”
I asked Haš to describe the differences between Finnish junior and the U18 Worlds.
“I think that the guys here, all the teams, it’s the best guys that they can get from this age. But in Finland juniors, it’s older guys, bigger guys, stronger, so I think that’s the difference a little bit. This is like really speed hockey and skill, and in Finland it’s a lot about strength as well.”
My time in Sweden is over but I’ll be keeping a close eye on the rest of the tournament from TV. The quarterfinals are played on Thursday, semifinals are played on Saturday, and the final games on Sunday. I’ll do a tournament review after the tournament but I’ll try to post one more article before that. Here are the quarterfinal match-ups.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main picture courtesy of IIHF.com