Danish centre, Phillip Schultz warming up for a WJC appearance
With less than a month until the World Juniors, the top under-20 talent across the globe have made their presence known as the season nears the halfway mark. Many of the top players are looking to have their name called during their first year of NHL draft eligibility, while others have had multiple chances to be selected, but haven’t done enough to warrant it just yet.
It’s always tough for kids from some of the smaller nations to find their way onto an NHL team. Sure, you can find scouts all over the world, but there are surely more hanging out in Russia than there are in Kazakhstan, even if the two nations aren’t that far away from one another. That’s what makes the World Juniors so interesting: you’ve got the best youngsters from a variety of age groups, and stars can be made out of players participating for countries that don’t get as much attention from NHL clubs.
That’s why we wanted to look at some of the better players on smaller teams at the World Juniors. There will be a ton of attention on guys like Kaapo Kakko, Nils Höglander and the like, but countries like Denmark and Slovakia don’t have as much to cheer for. They know winning a medal is far from an easy task, so cheering on their top prospects in hopes of seeing them in the NHL can make a whole nation come together.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best prospects participating for some of the smaller nations at the World Juniors, including a few that could get selected at the NHL draft in Vancouver next June.
Phillip Schultz, C (Denmark): Denmark will have a tough time making it to the quarterfinals once again at the World Juniors, but the team is known to surprise (don’t talk to the Finns about Denmark). If that is to happen, they’ll need Phillip Schultz to be on the top of his game throughout the two-week event. Off to a rather slow start in his first campaign with only five points in his first 18 games with the WHL’s Victoria Royals, Schultz had 10 points in 11 games with Denmark’s U18 team last year, including six points in five games at the Division IA tournament. Schultz may not be that strong of an offensive contributor at all times, but he is very aggressive on the attack and is terrific at faceoffs. The 2000-born Schultz looks a lot like he’ll be a second liner for the Danes on a team that features the top 1999-born players in the country, an age group that many fans are excited about (11 players are eligible to return, after all). Schultz will be one of the more important players on the team next year, but this could be a chance for him to put himself back into the NHL draft conversation as he enters for the second time.
Maxim Musorov, RW (Kazakhstan): Kazakhstan doesn’t have a long history when it comes to NHLers — of the nine that have ever played in the NHL, five of them aren’t even from there. But Maxim Musorov has been on the radar of some NHL scouts, especially after recording four points in five games at the Division IA World Under-18 Hockey Championships last year. A smaller forward with great speed, Musorov has 16 points in 36 games on the third line of Snezhnye Barsy Astana in the Russian MHL league this year. Just 17, Kazakhstan doesn’t have much firepower up front, so they’ll be counting on one of their youngest forwards to be a leader against the world’s top prospects. No pressure or anything, but Kazakhstan hasn’t stayed in the top division in back-to-back years in a decade (and let’s not forget how their infamous 15-0 loss to Canada in 2008). Musorov has always been a shoot-first guy in junior hockey and has produced nice offensive numbers over the past few years, so it will be interesting to see how they use one of the best prospects the team has had in many years.
Kyen Sopa, RW (Switzerland): Sopa isn’t a sure-bet to make the Swiss roster, but the Niagara IceDogs rookie has had an excellent start to the season in his first year away from home. Back in Switzerland, Sopa had moved around through different organizations, including Davos, Rapperswil and Bern, with Niagara serving as the fourth franchise the youngster has played for since 2014. Sopa has been a strong second-liner for the IceDogs this year, a team that has been battling for the Sudbury Wolves for the Central Division lead all season. Sopa doesn’t have a great top-speed and his wrist shot could use some work power-wise, but if he proved anything at the Under-18 World Championships in April, it’s that he likes to get in your face and make his opponents create their own mistakes. Sopa is a strong back-checker and makes simple passes, but nothing about his game screams “future impact NHLer” just yet. If he plays for the Swiss, he’ll be a bottom six scoring winger who will be elevated to a bigger role in 2020.
Milos Fafrak, C (Slovakia): Fafrak’s WHL major junior career in Canada lasted just one season, but the former Spokane Chief has been one of the only bright spots for the Slovak U20 team that competes in the top two domestic leagues all season long. Fafrak has gone undrafted over the past two years but as a 19-year-old, he’s becoming a decent winger while skating with the HK Orange group this year. Fafrak had a good Under-18 tournament two years ago, playing rather aggressive and winning almost every one-on-one puck battle he was involved in. In 30 games with Slovakia at various levels, Fafrak has 19 points in his career, including an assist in four games with Slovakia in exhibition contests. Will he be an important contributor? Maybe not, but given that Slovakia’s head coach, Ernest Bokroš, has always given preference to players from the HK Orange program, you have to think that the development team’s best player will be given chances in British Columbia.
Michal Teplý, LW (Czech Republic): Sure, the Czechs are coming off of a fourth-place finish a year ago, but nobody seems to give the nation any credit — to be fair, the team always seems to finish fifth or sixth. But the Czechs are expected to bring quite a strong offensive group to B.C., especially if Filip Zadina and Martin Necas don’t get called back up to the NHL before training camp. The team has solid scoring depth, and left winger Michal Teplý fits that description. While his first season in the Czech league hasn’t resulted in much offence, but it seems like he always to turn up his game when he plays internationally. He was one of the top players on the Under-16 team back in 2016-17 and followed that up by nearly recording a point-per-game with the U17 team the following year. As an underaged forward, Teplý looked great at the World Under-18 Hockey Challenge in April, with his three points not showing the full extent of what he can accomplish when given the right opportunities. Teplý is one of the best 2001-born prospects in the country due to his big frame and his powerful shot that make him tough to contain, and if he does indeed make the World Junior team, it will cap off what will be a busy month and a half for him — he’ll be counted on to be a major leader for the Czechs at the World Junior A Challenge in Bonnyville, Alberta in early December.
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