By Steve Kournianos
The under-20 world junior hockey championships, which take place in Buffalo next month, is one of the premier prospect events in all of sports. The scope and scale of the tournament certainly has grown in recent years, and the magnitude of fan interest forced organizers to vaulted the WJC's to a place its never been before — this year's match between Canada and the United States for the first time will be played outdoors at New Era Field on December 29.
The games are less than a month away. And while rosters tend to get stacked with as many maximum-age players as possible (this year's cut-off is players born on or after January 1, 1998), participating nations in 2018 will be able to dip into deep pool of first-year draft eligible prospects, most of whom have yet to turn 18.
Last season's event — won by the United States in Montreal — featured a little over a dozen players in their first year of NHL draft eligibility. Canada and Russia, for example, both opted to leave their all their top draft prospects at home, with the Canadians doing so for the second straight year. The Americans won their third title in eight years, but it was on the strength of a roster loaded with top NHL picks. The only draft-eligible player they brought to Canada last December was backup goalie Jake Oettinger — a first-round pick of Dallas in 2017.
The number of draft-eligible participation at the WJC is steadily declining. The 10-team competition generally carries eight perennial nations, with the final two spots rotating every year between several European countries. Those eight nations — Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the United States — combined in 2015 to send 22 draft prospects in their first year of eligibility. That number took a slight dip in 2016 to 16, and last year spiraled downward to 12. Keep in mind that of the 12 who played in last year's tournament, five came from Finland alone — all went on to become first-round picks at the 2017 draft in Chicago.
And speaking of first-round picks, nine of the first 11 picks from the "McEichel" draft of 2015 played in their draft-year WJC. The two who didn't make the cut — Canadians Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner — finished that season as the top two scorers in the Ontario Hockey League. Conversely, the 2017 draft featured only four WJC-experienced prospects among the first 11 selected — and none were from North America. Canada’s Nolan Patrick — last year's second-overall pick — missed the tournament because of injury, making him the first No. 2 overall selection to miss his draft-year WJC since Tyler Seguin didn’t participate in the 2010 event.
This year, however, should buck the trend, as announced or speculative preliminary camp rosters likely will reveal a high number of first-year eligibles close to what we saw in 2015. For starters, it's almost a forgone conclusion that each of the first three players I ranked for the 2018 draft ( see my rankings here) will be on display in Buffalo. Not only will the Russians borrow star sniper Andre Svechnikov (Ranked No. 1) from the OHL's Barrie Colts, but there's a strong chance he’ll be playing on their top line. Sweden will rely heavily on gifted two-way defenseman Rasmus Dahlin (Ranked No. 2), who participated at the event last year and will undoubtedly log well over 20 minutes as a first-pairing, all-situation defender. And Halifax Mooseheads left wing Filip Zadina (Ranked No. 3) — the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's leading scorer — will join Carolina Hurricanes first rounder Martin Necas to spearhead the attack for the Czech Republic.
There are additional prospects that we should all expect to see at the world juniors. Some are locks, while others are on the bubble. Official rosters haven’t been announced yet, as tryout camps will take place early to mid-December. Nonetheless, below is a summary of 2018 draft prospects who at worst should given a chance to make their respective country’s squad.
The Americans may have a title to defend, but they'll have to do it without the likes of current NHLers Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), defenseman Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and forward Luke Kunin (Minnesota Wild). Speedy defenseman Quinn Hughes (Ranked No. 10) is having a fine freshman season for the Michigan Wolverines, and his puck skills and ability to orchestrate a breakout should ease the loss of McAvoy. Up front, forwards Brady Tkachuk (Ranked No. 6), Joel Farabee (Ranked No. 7) and Oliver Wahlstrom (Ranked No. 12) will get long looks to not only make the team, but possibly play on a line together. All three have size, skill, smarts and play an in-your-face game. Candidates to join Hughes on the blueline are current NTDP’ers Bode Wilde (Ranked No. 14) and Matias Samuelsson (Ranked No. 36), but the likelihood is you’ll see them both at the U18’s in April rather than at the world juniors.
It's doubtful the Canadians bring any first-year eligibles to Buffalo, although the smallish defense they are expected to feature could be given a significant boost if it included the likes of all-around rearguards Ty Smith (Ranked No. 4), Noah Dobson (Ranked No. 14) and Jared McIsaac (Ranked No. 17). Center Joe Veleno (Ranked No. 5) was pivotal in leading Canada to gold at the Ivan Hlinka, and his speed and lethality on both the power play and penalty kill might be enough to earn him a camp invite. If none of these players make the club, it’ll mark the second straight year that Canada iced a WJC squad without a prized draft prospect.
Finland won the 2016 tournament on the backs of three first-year eligibles — defenseman Olli Juolevi and forwards Patrik laine and Jesse Puljujarvi. All three were drafted in the top five of the 2016 draft, which somewhat played a role in the Finns getting demoted in 2017 to the relegation round. This year, they'll rely on a pair of dynamic forwards in left wing Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Ranked No. 9) and playmaking center Rasmus Kupari (Ranked No. 11) plus lean on speedy playmaker Jesse Ylonen (Ranked No. 38), whose dad Juha played in over 300 NHL games in he 1990s. On defense, swift but undersized rearguard Toni Utunen (Ranked No. 61) is an excellent power play quarterback who has a ton of international experience, but his inclusion depends on the health and availability of Finland’s vaunted 2017 draft class.
Much like their Czech neighbors, the Slovaks should arrive in Buffalo with a deep, talented roster. Forward Milos Roman (Ranked No. 21) has always been invited to play against older competition for Slovakian teams, and the skilled two-way forward from the WHL's Vancouver Giants is expected to team up with Calgary Flames 2017 draftee Adam Ruzicka and Kitchener Rangers playmaking winger Adam Liska (Ranked No. 79) to form a dangerous top line. The defense will feature an excellent two-way puck rusher in Martin Fehervary (Ranked No. 57), who was one of the top blueliners earlier in the month at the U20 Four Nations Tournament in Switzerland.
For a small hockey nation, Denmark usually has a decent presence at both the WJC and the NHL draft. This year's crop of first-year eligibles, however, is a bit on the thin side, so expect the Danes to arrive in Buffalo with a roster loaded with 1998 and early 1999-born players. That being said, they do have a few draft prospects as options, beginning with Ottawa 67's power forward Oliver True (Ranked No. 301), who is big and has soft hands but at this point in his development is not much more than a role player. True and fellow 2018 draft prospect Lucas Back Nielsen (2000) both play right wing, and Nielsen had a solid Four Nations Tournament for the Danes. They also have a feisty center in Philip Schultz (2000) who played well for Denmark in a support role at the 2017 U18 Division 1A championship. On defense, look for steady, stay-at-home rearguard Lasse Holm Mortensen (2000) to land a depth spot.
All eyes will be on Sweden's Dahlin, but he won't be the only player in yellow and blue with a monopoly on the attention of NHL scouts. Speedy center Isac Lundestrom (Ranked No. 47) took part in the U20 Summer Showcase and is having a strong season as rookie in Sweden's top league. He has an outside chance of making it as a depth player, as do big centers Jacob Olofsson (Ranked No. 31) and David Gustafsson (Ranked No. 50) — two players who led Sweden at the Ivan Hlinka and are currently holding their own in their respective adult league.
Russia's strong performance at the recent U20 Super Series against Canadian Hockey League all stars may incline head coach Valeri Bragin to bring back the same squad for the WJCs. Nevertheless, he received strong play on the back end from first-year draft prospect Alexander Alexeyev (Ranked No. 25), a late 1999-born defenseman with size, smarts and mobility who stars for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels and is expected to be drafted in either the first or second round. There's a small chance talented wingers Grigori Denisenko (Ranked No. 30) or Vitali Kravtsov (Ranked No. 20) will get a look, but the Russians outside of Svechnikov appear to be content with mostly 1998-born forwards.
The Czechs can go in a variety of directions with their WJC roster, as they have loads of talent in both their 2000 and 1999-born contingents — two year groups that combined to help them win the 2016 Ivan Hlinka tournament. The aforementioned Zadina and Necas had a big role in that, as did 2018 first-year eligible Martin Kaut (Ranked No. 55), who at times plays key minutes for Pardubice in the Extraliga. There also are two quality players from that 2016 Hlinka squad playing in North America — Muskegon Lumberjack's (USHL) strapping two-way center Jachym Kondalik (Ranked No. 87) and two-way defenseman Filip Kral (Ranked No. 111), who is a strong presence on the blueline for the WHL's Spokane Chiefs. You could throw into the mix swift-skating puck mover Ondrej Buchtela (Ranked No. 47). Additionally, their 2000-born group that won silver at last summer's Hlinka have a pair of quality forwards currently playing in the elite Extraliga — speedy center Jakub Lauko (Ranked No. 35) and versatile two-way forward Jan Jenik (Ranked No. 55). And last but certainly not least is stud goaltending prospect Jakub Skarek (Ranked No. 22), a teenager who is one of the better goalies in the Extraliga and at this stage is expected to be the first goalie chose in the 2018 draft.
Switzerland's strong showing at the most recent U18 Five Nations Tournament, highlighted by a win over the United States, could impact the number of first-year eligibles it adds to its U20 roster. Three of their top draft prospects — Davos power forward Nando Eggenberger (Ranked No. 23), Quebec Remparts finesse forward Philip Kurashev (Ranked No. 38) and Oshawa Generals defenseman Nico Gross (Ranked No. 51) — are close to cementing pivotal roles at the WJC, while defenseman Davyd Barandun (Ranked No. 200), Tim Berni (Ranked No. 304) and Lucas Matewa (Ranked No. 351) are candidates to receive a bottom-pairing assignment. In goal, Akira Schmid (Ranked No. 144) has been stellar on the international stage and won't turn 18 until a month before the draft. It's unlikely he is awarded the lion's share of minutes against the powerhouse offenses within the group.
The Belorussian's will need a miracle or two to avoid relegation for the umpteenth time, but that doesn't mean they won't look exciting and entertaining while heading there. There shouldn't be any first-year eligibles guaranteed a spot for the WJC, as Belarus runs a U20 team that plays in its elite league and is expected to draw most of its players from there. One name that should draw a ton of consideration is playmaking defender Sergei Sapego (Ranked No. 142), who plays for the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL. Another player who could make the cut (based on participation in a recent Four Nations Tournament in Ventspilī, Latvia) is speedy set-up man Alexandr Skorenov (1999). Lastly, punishing defenseman Dmitri Deryabin (1999) is the top-pairing blueliner for the Belarus U20 league team and would be a smart add if the Belorussians want to handle some of the group's bigger, stronger forwards.
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