Prospect Ramblings: Each Country’s Prospects to Watch — Group A

Hadi Kalakeche

2021-12-14

Welcome to my ramblings, where I’ll be writing down my thoughts on NHL and draft-eligible prospects once a week. I’ll be using the ramblings to keep you posted on the week’s events, or let you in on some questions I ask myself often regarding prospects, amateur scouting and player development.

This week, as we’re approaching the most wonderful time of the year for draft analysts and scouts, I wanted to take a look at the World Junior Championship’s competing nations and which of their players you should keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks. I’ll be walking you through group A’s prospects to watch — Canada, Finland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic’s top players will be named below, and Mike Kosziecza will be introduce group B (USA, Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Switzerland) and their top prospects tomorrow.

Let’s start with the team to beat in this tournament:

Canada

Canada’s depth of talent was really hard to slim down to a shortlist of two players you should have your eye on, but I’m confident in this duo and how important it’ll be to follow their steps closely.

Connor Bedard, C/W — Regina Pats, WHL (2023 NHL Draft-eligible)

I’m not going to mince words: Bedard is a generational talent. I’ve written about it before, a long while ago, when I first got a chance to look at Bedard’s game under the microscope. He’s that good of a prospect. Mitch Brown recently released a video breakdown in which he perfectly explained what makes the forward so exceptional, and I wanted to share a quote from that video:

“The number of NHL players with Bedard’s pace, dual-threat scoring and inside play totals in the single digits. His path to superstardom is relatively straight-forward in the grand scheme of things.”

Despite “only” scoring a point per game through 24 WHL contests so far this year (I’ll remind you that he’s 16, and had 28 points in 15 GP last season), Bedard remains the most exciting prospect at this year’s World Junior Championship. His drop in production is mainly a matter of bad luck, as Brown also reports that Bedard leads his 1500-prospect sample, past and present, in expected goals per 60 minutes this season with the Pats.

If there’s any chance that Bedard under-performs at this tournament, it’ll be due to Team Canada’s historically strange roster and lineup decisions. We’ll see what role they have in place for him, especially given his recent chemistry with the next prospect on this list.

 

Shane Wright, C — Kingston Frontenacs, OHL (2022 NHL Draft-eligible)

Wright’s offensive production so far with the Frontenacs took a while to reach the level that was expected from this summer’s projected first-overall pick; his point-per-game pace through the team’s first eight contests of the season paled in comparison to other OHL prospects who aren’t even close to Wright’s level of skill.

However, Wright has clawed his way back up the scoring race and sits at 30 points in 22 matches, including eight in his last three games. He has dominated on both sides of the puck with poise and intelligence, and has maintained his ability to rifle shots past goaltenders with power and accuracy.

He and Bedard could make wonders happen for this World Juniors team, if they’re allowed to. The issue is the amount of talent on this roster; playing them more means playing Perfetti, Guenther, McTavish, etc. less. I strongly recommend keeping an eye on their game regardless; these two are the NHL’s future.

Dark horse pick: Olen Zellweger (ANA ’21)— love, love, love this kid’s game. Slight-framed and agile blueliner, great defensively and even better offensively. The type that could take over Canada’s first wave on the power-play and never look back. Hope he grabs his shot.

 

Finland

Moving onto the growing pipeline of Finnish prospects, which includes the first defenseman on this list:

Topi Niemelä, RHD — Kärpät, Liiga (Toronto Maple Leafs, 2020 round 3 #64)

Rarely does a third-round pick have a shot at earning the title of World Juniors Top Defenseman twice, but Niemelä has shown a level of talent and improvement that have blown me away in recent viewings, and solidified his shot of being that guy.

The blueliner has dominated for Kärpät with a league-leading 24 points in 31 games as a defenseman, most of which were earned in ways that are sustainable at any level. The amount of manipulation, deception and effectiveness that Niemelä shows when closing in on the slot from the point, or walking the blue line, makes his presence on Finland’s first power-play unit almost a given.

 

His defensive game was always poised and controlled, but the offense wasn’t consistently there. The main change has been the amount of times Niemelä has joined the rush, or darted to the high slot on the cycle. These offensive activations have put him in positions to leverage his shooting and awareness, while also drawing attention to himself and leveraging his reactivity and short-ice passing.

There isn’t much competition: Niemelä is Finland’s best defender. He was last year, and should be this time around.

 

Joakim Kemell, RW — JYP, Liiga (2022 NHL Draft-eligible)

Kemell’s last five games haven’t been up to par: his production has run fully dry, and he was on the ice for six goals against. Before then, however, the winger was earning points at a never-before-seen pace, with 18 points in 16 men’s league games for JYP. That rate of production was the highest a draft-year prospect had ever achieved. For instance, Patrik Laine had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games the season he was drafted. Kemell already has 12 goals, and has 25 games to catch Laine’s goal-scoring tally. He also needs 10 goals to become the highest-scoring draft-eligible in Liiga history.

A tremendous shooter of the puck, Kemell uses fluid edgework and powerful strides to make his way around opponents almost effortlessly, settling in dangerous areas to maximize his ability to score. There’s a great amount of elusiveness and trickery in his game, as he can pull off some astounding moves in tight quarters. He can also dish the puck with accuracy and efficiency, which is why he currently sits fourth on my personal 2022 NHL Draft board, and should have your eye in this tourney.

 

Germany

The nation’s newest wave of great talent — Tim Stützle, JJ Peterka and Lukas Reichel — have refrained from returning this year for various reasons, but there are still a couple of names to keep your eye on:

Florian Elias, C — Adler Mannheim, DEL (2022 re-entry)

Elias made quite a splash next to the German stars from last year, but didn’t manage to earn himself a draft pick, despite even earning the title of DEL rookie of the year, shared previously by Moritz Seider and the aforementioned Stützle. The prospect earned nine points in five games at last year’s tournament, and heads into it this time around looking to build upwards from there as the team’s captain.

Luca Münzenberger, LD — Univ. of Vermont, NCAA (Edmonton Oilers, 2021 round 3 #90)

One of the only draftees on this roster, Münzenberger returns to the tournament this year after his defensive prowess last time around in Edmonton earned him a third-round pick. The prospect’s defensive game is truly suffocating, as he’ll identify threats and stifle them very quickly. His strong legs can carry him across gaps in one stride, but he can also get caught flat-footed in his own zone.

His puck skills aren’t that good — he bobbles pucks on receptions regularly, and doesn’t use his long reach as much as he should — but he boasts a heavy wrist shot and slap shot, which he isn’t afraid to employ, and can use his skating to carry pucks in on occasions. Last time around, Münzenberger was on both special team units for Germany. Expect no different in this tourney.

 

Czech Republic

David Jiříček, RHD — HC Plzeň, Extraliga

Jiříček is having the most productive Extraliga season that any defenseman his age has ever had since the 1990s. His five goals and six assists in 26 Extraliga games have mostly come from his tendency to jump into dangerous space in order to make offense happen. Although he sometimes struggles to create lanes to shoot from, his shot itself is lethal, and he utilizes his shooting threat to surprise defenders and goaltenders with the occasional slap pass to an open teammate.

He evades pressure wonderfully, and his defending is above-average. Even against men, he seems to have the experience required to tie up sticks at the right moments, and box out the opposition. Playing a full year in that same league last season as a 16-year-old most definitely helped in that regard.

The 6-foot-3 blueliner earned two points in five games at last year’s tournament, and is in an excellent position to further raise his draft stock as one of the best defensemen on this Czech roster.

 

Jan Mysak, C/W — Hamilton Bulldogs, OHL (Montreal Canadiens, 2020 round 2 #48)

Mysak’s third year on the Czech World Juniors roster will be a fun one, as he’ll likely captain the team and hope that he and the other key elements of the roster will be able to carry them to a first medal since 2004-2005. His off-puck awareness and his skills when carrying the disc make him an outstanding all-around forward, with both a great shot and above-average passing. His 17 goals in 25 games for the Bulldogs attest to his ability to fire pucks at the net, and he’ll likely be the top goal-scorer on this Czech team.

Expect Mysak to forecheck the opposition relentlessly game after game, and to put his one-on-one faceoff training with Tomas Plekanec to work as the Czech Republic’s 1C.

 

Austria

Marco Kasper, C — Rögle BK, SHL (2022 NHL Draft-eligible)

I can’t tell you how excited I am to see Kasper play the role of Austria’s top forward, at 17 years of age. The prospect has been struggling to earn minutes in the SHL with Rögle, but still leads the league’s draft-eligibles in games (24), goals (4), assists (2), and points per game (0.25).

In the Champions Hockey League, a season-long tournament featuring Europe’s top teams outside of Russia, Kasper has earned an astounding six points in eight games for the club, making him the only draft-eligible prospect with more than one point in that league.