The 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup is underway, signifying the beginning of the 2022 NHL Draft cycle. Many of the top prospects from the 2022 draft class – and a few from the 2023 class – are participating in the tournament with the hopes of increasing their early draft stock.
Canada has traditionally dominated at this tournament but opted to withdraw from this year’s event due to travel concerns during the pandemic, leaving the door wide open. Even without the top Canadian prospects competing this time around, there is plenty of exciting talent to keep an eye on this week.
Here are some names to watch at the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup:
Matvei Michkov | W | Russia
Zachary Szweras: The Russian wonder kid exploded onto the scene at the U18s where he was named the MVP of that tournament, scoring 12 goals and 16 points as a 16-year-old. A late 2004 born player, Michkov is a top prospect for the 2023 draft but is widely considered the best player in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. He has elite puck skills, a smooth skating stride, and determination with the puck which he uses to make defenders look silly before burying it in the back of the net with his nasty goal-scoring ability. He is so much fun to watch, regularly making your jaw drop at how easy he makes such difficult plays look.
Joakim Kemell | W | Finland
Eetu Siltanen: With Lambert in the WJSS and not taking part in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Kemell is definitely the star of Finland’s roster. He is a great goal scorer but he is actually much more versatile than that. He has outstanding puck skills and he is able to pull off mesmerizing moves to beat defenders. He is also a great skater who is agile on his blades with quick feet and a good top gear. His goal-scoring skills are much more than just a quick and accurate wrist shot as he can score in many different ways, making him Finland’s top power play threat. Kemell isn’t the most physical player but he isn’t afraid to go to tight spaces and can actually throw decent hits.
Juraj Slafkovsky | W | Slovakia
Eetu Siltanen: Slafkovsky is undoubtedly one of the top prospects of the 2022 NHL Draft. He is a great, versatile package who has pretty much everything you could hope for; skill, speed, physicality, and hockey sense. You could think that such a big and physically strong player at his age would have problems with his skating, but that isn’t the case with Slafkovsky. He has a stable skating posture with a strong and explosive stride, which gives him great top end speed. He is extremely skilled, can pull off amazing skill moves to beat players, and drives the play very well. He possesses a hard shot and can shoot one-timers well. It is still early, but Slafkovsky could be one of the next names called in the draft right behind Wright, Lambert, and Savoie.
Gavin Hayes | W | USA
Nick Richard: Hayes is an intelligent, crafty offensive player with a strong shot. He displays advanced habits in the offensive zone, supporting the play while working into open space to make himself available at the right time, and does well to come away with contested pucks along the boards. He can corral pucks in traffic and though he needs to work on getting his shot off a bit quicker, it is both heavy and accurate. Hayes needs to clean up his skating stride and become lighter on his edges, but his off-puck reads and willingness to battle should serve him well in this tournament.
Ivan Miroshnichenko | W | Russia
Zachary Szweras: Miroshnichenko, a top prospect eligible for the 2022 draft, first made a splash scoring eight points in the U18s this past May as an underaged player. He has NHL caliber skill and speed, which he combines to set teammates up in scoring areas. Miroshnichenko also has leadership qualities as demonstrated by his captaining team Russia. He has an explosive shot that he uses both from range and in close and he flashes his physicality, laying big hits to energize his team and to change possession. There are some consistency and effort concerns, but when Miroshnichenko is on a roll, there is no stopping him.
Julian Lutz | C/W | Germany
Eetu Siltanen: Lutz is an interesting player who is still something of an unknown in the prospect world. While he might not be a first or second-round consideration at this point, he is the top player for Germany in the tournament and is someone worth keeping an eye on. Lutz is an energetic player with good skating ability, thanks to his fast feet and strong stride. He finds scoring chances well and has a good shot, which he can also release from pretty difficult positions. He isn’t especially big, but certainly doesn’t avoid physical battles. Lutz is not the most skilled guy, but his puck control is also not bad. He should carry Germany’s offensive game in the tournament.
Simon Nemec | RHD | Slovakia
Nick Richard: Nemec has already proven capable of handling more mature competition, having played at the men’s level in Slovakia last season, and he should be one of the stars of this tournament. He is a smooth-skating defender that can drive play from the back end with his feet and vision. He is elusive on the breakout, able to shake forecheckers before firing a pass to start the rush for his team, and doesn’t hesitate to activate if he sees the potential for an odd-man situation. Nemec’s mobility is evident in the offensive zone as he can walk the blueline to make himself available or to create lanes to get a shot or pass through. His defensive game is worth noting as well and his strong skating ability allows him to maintain good gaps in defensive transition, shutting down rushes before they turn into dangerous chances for the opposition. It is still a long way out but don’t be surprised if Simon Nemec is one of the first names off the board in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Elias Salomonsson | RHD | Sweden
Eetu Siltanen: Salomonsson is a right-handed, puck-moving, two-way defender who is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. Salomonsson is a pretty good skater, possessing really solid lateral and vertical mobility. He handles the puck well and moves it very efficiently, both on the breakout and in the offensive zone. His size and physical game definitely weren’t a problem at this level in April, even though he is only 6-0 and 172 pounds. After he already had a pretty good showing at the U18s in April as an underager, he should be the leading defender for Sweden in this tournament.
Noah Östlund | C | Sweden
Eetu Siltanen: Östlund is also one of the top prospects of the 2022 Draft and at this point, he projects as a first-rounder. He is an undersized but energetic player who has great puck skills and good vision. He is a fast skater with a good motor and he reads the game very well, which helps him to get to good scoring areas. While he doesn’t possess the most amazing shot, he can score in a variety of ways. Östlund’s biggest problem is his lack of size and physicality as he’s only 5-9 and 143 pounds. He will be one of Sweden’s leading forwards in the tournament.
Matyas Sapovaliv | C | Czech Republic
Marek Novotny: Matyas Sapovaliv is definitely a player to keep your eyes on. He is a big mobile forward with a strong first couple of steps. He likes competing on both sides of the rink and his speed allows him to be effective doing so. His net-front presence is annoying for opponents as they just can’t push him away easily. He is fine defensively and can be a useful weapon on the forecheck. The 6-4, 190 pound center is also strong along the boards and he can protect the puck to create high danger chances. He knows how to use his long stick to break up a lot of plays, constantly disrupting possession for the opposition. The 2004-born Sapovaliv is eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft.
Ryan Abraham | C/W | USA
Nick Richard: Abraham is an offensively skilled but undersized forward with a great shot. He hunts space well and doesn’t need a lot of time or space to get his shot off, always ready to pounce on a scoring chance. He distributes the puck well and can play the give-and-go game to put himself in better shooting positions. At just 5-8, his size could become a concern as he progresses up the ranks, and his skating still requires improvement for a player of his stature, but his offensive tools are undeniable and this tournament could be the beginning of a big season for Abraham.
Sergei Ivanov | G | Russia
Danny Tiffany: Ivanov has already dipped his toe into the water at the U18 level, in fact, he has done more than that. After not dressing in the first game of the U18s, Ivanov stopped 52 shots in his debut against Finland and never looked backed as he helped guide the Russians to a silver medal. The 5-11 Ivanov has made a name for himself with his crisp side-to-side movement and quick hands. Arguably the most impressive part of Ivanov’s game is the way he battles when the play breaks down. He can make crazy second and third saves, making him an entertaining goaltender to watch.
Hugo Hävelid | G | Sweden
Danny Tiffany: Hävelid played one game at last year’s U18 tournament, earning a shutout win over Latvia. Another undersized goaltender, Havelid is very quick in his crease and displays elite footwork. His recoveries are smooth and he does a great job of not getting caught out of position. He also does a great job controlling rebounds, whether it’s absorbing shots or steering pucks to low danger areas.
Niklas Kokko | G | Finland
Danny Tiffany: The Kärpät organization has been quite the goaltending hotbed over the past few seasons and Kokko has the potential to be the next elite prospect from their system. At 6-2, Kokko has the size and athleticism NHL scouts are looking for. He has already played in the U18 Finnish league for two seasons and has excelled doing so and it will be worth monitoring his progress as his level of competition increases.
Rastislav Elias | G | Slovakia
Danny Tiffany: At 6-2, Elias checks the size box. It is rare you will see him beaten by a clean shot above the hash marks. He tracks the puck well from range and has active hands. The most notable part of Elias’ game is the way he challenges shooters and gives them little net to shoot at. As a 16-year-old, he played against men in the Slovak second tier and posted a .906 save percentage. He looked much more comfortable, however, playing against players his own age.
Honorable mentions: Jiri Kulich, Lian Bischel, Alexander Perevalov, Filip Mesar, Topi Rönni, Ryan Healey, Adam Jecho, Emil Järventie, Hunter Brzustewicz