The 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship tournament (or U18 Worlds for short) will be played in Russia in the Chelyabinsk area which is near the Ural Mountains. The tournament starts on April 19th and ends on the 29th. There are a total of 10 teams in the tournament, and they’re divided into two groups in the preliminary round. One group plays their games in Chelyabinsk while the other group plays their games in Magnitogorsk.
Last year, we saw players like Kristian Vesalainen (13 points in seven games) and Miro Heiskanen (12 points) use the U18 Worlds tournament to show what they can do offensively after struggling to put up points in pro leagues, and both players have exploded offensively this season. That’s why this tournament is so important for prospects scouting purposes.
The main age group for this tournament is players born in the year 2000 but we’ll also see plenty of 2001-born players. Most 2000-born players are eligible for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, and if they are, I will include their number based on Cam Robinson’s latest draft rankings. However, players born after September 15th get their draft eligibility pushed back a year but they’re still considered to be in the same age group by IIHF rules, so all 2000-born players will be eligible to the U18 Worlds for the last time here in this tournament. This is why you won’t see some top draft eligible prospects like Filip Zadina (2018, #3), Quinn Hughes (2018, #4) and Brady Tkachuk (2018, #8) in this tournament – they’re too old with their late 1999 birthdate.
In this tournament preview, I’ll go through the most interesting players from Team Finland and Team Sweden, and then Cam Robinson will go through Canada, USA and Russia in his own article. These five teams are almost always the favourites going in to a junior tournament, so that’s why we’re focusing on them. Sweden will play in Group A along with Canada and USA whereas Finland gets to play in the easier Group B with Russia.
Before we start, I just want to clarify the national leagues which are similar in Sweden and Finland. You have the top league in the country which is called SHL in Sweden and Liiga in Finland. Then you have the second best league which is called Allsvenskan in Sweden and Mestis in Finland. And then you have the top U20 league which is called SuperElit in Sweden and Jr. A SM-liiga in Finland if you look at EliteProspects.com. So three leagues from each country which are comparable to their counterpart from the other country (although the Swedish leagues are a bit higher in player quality), and pretty much all top prospects are playing in these leagues.
Let’s start with Finland since that’s where I live!
Jesperi Kotkaniemi (2018, #14) is expected to be the top player for Team Finland after a great season in Liiga where he scored 29 points in 57 games which is good for seventh place on the U18 all-time list. Kotkaniemi is a natural center but spent the entire season playing wing. However, he is most likely going to be the top-line center for Team Finland at the U18 Worlds. There were concerns about his skating when the season began but his skating has improved throughout the season which has been pushing him further up the draft rankings. He’s a very talented offensive player.
Team Finland will most likely have to play without Rasmus Kupari (2018, #18) who would have been one of their top players in the tournament. Kupari plays for Kärpät team in Liiga, and they’re busy trying to win the Liiga championship in the final series.
Even though he isn’t draft eligible until next year, a lot of eyes will be on winger Kaapo Kakko (2019) who is one of the best players in the world from the 2001 age group, and early rankings have him second overall for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Kakko had a great season in Jr. A SM-liiga where he scored 55 points in 38 games which is good for third place on the U17 all-time list. Kakko also made his Liiga debut as a 16-year-old and even scored his first Liiga point.
Winger Niklas Nordgren (2018, #66) is a small but very talented playmaking winger. He scored 42 points in 28 games in Jr. A SM-liiga, and that 1.50 points-per-game average puts him ninth on the U18 all-time list – and a few of the players ahead of him played less than 20 games. Nordgren also played 15 games in Liiga where he scored three points but where he really made his name known was at the Champions Hockey League where he scored six points in just two games. In addition to his offensive talent, Nordgren is also a hard worker but the thing that keeps him out of the first round is his skating. If he can show improved skating at the U18 Worlds, he could climb up the draft rankings.
Winger Sampo Ranta (2018, #57) played in the USHL this season where he scored 37 points in 53 games. Ranta is very likely going to be a top-six forward for Team Finland and an important piece to their offense. He’s a very good skater with good size and some offensive talent.
The previously mentioned top players will need some offensive support, and one player capable of doing that is winger Lenni Killinen (2018, NR) who scored 41 points in 38 games in Jr. A SM-liiga, and he also got to play 10 games in Mestis where he scored four points. Killinen is ranked 36th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
The expected top defenseman for Team Finland is Anttoni Honka (2019). Anttoni plays a similar game as his older brother Julius, and he’s also a small right-handed shot defenseman like his brother. Honka is a late 2000 birthdate and missed the cutoff for the 2018 draft by less than three weeks. Early rankings have the younger Honka as a possible first-rounder next summer, so keep an eye on him. Honka scored 17 points in 28 games in Jr. A SM-liiga but more impressive was his play in Liiga where he scored nine points in 20 games.
Santeri Salmela (2018, NR) played most of the season in Liiga but only managed to score one point in 31 games. He also had just one point in 17 games in Jr. A SM-liiga. Salmela is a good skater and very good defensive player but doesn’t really offer anything offensively. But as a defensive defenseman, he could be a good partner for Honka. Salmela is ranked 57th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
Toni Utunen (2018, #82) spent most of the season in Mestis where he scored 12 points in 28 games. He also played 11 Liiga games but didn’t get any points. If Honka is not ready to be the top defenseman for Team Finland, Utunen probably needs to step up and take that role.
Another interesting defensemen on the team is Lassi Thomson (2019) who is a late birthdate like Honka, and actually missed the 2018 draft by less than two weeks. Thomson had 27 points in 49 games in Jr. A SM-liiga.
And then there’s Mikko Kokkonen (2019) who made history by being the youngest player ever in Liiga when he made his debut as a 15-year-old but it was more PR than anything else. Kokkonen, who recently turned 17, played 12 games in Liiga with no points, 29 games in Mestis with nine points, and 14 games in Jr. A SM-liiga with seven points.
Expected starting goalie for Team Finland is Justus Annunen (2018, NR) who is ranked fourth among European goalies by NHL Central Scouting. Annunen is a big goalie who made his Liiga debut this season but spent most of the season in Jr. A SM-liiga and had 90.7% save percentage in 26 games.
Center Jacob Olofsson (2018, #32) had a real good season in Allsvenskan where he scored 21 points in 43 games. His Timrå team won the Allsvenskan championship, and they also ended up winning Karlskrona in a seven-game series to earn a promotion to the SHL. Olofsson had four points in the series.
Jonatan Berggren (2018, #28) absolutely dominated the SuperElit league. His 57 points in 38 games led the league by a wide margin and was good for fourth place on the U18 all-time list. He also played 10 games in the SHL during regular season and two games during playoffs but only had one point.
Center David Gustafsson (2018, #50) spent the entire season in the SHL and scored 12 points in 45 games. Gustafsson played a defensive role which didn’t allow him to put up big numbers but he produced more offensively late in the season. He also played nine games in SuperElit and scored 10 points there, so he has some offensive talent.
Center Marcus Westfält (2018, NR) spent most of the season in the SHL but only put up four points in 31 games. Westfält is a good defensive player, and I was very impressed during the SHL playoffs when he was used on the top penalty-killing unit. He has also shown some offensive upside by scoring 27 points in 26 games in SuperElit. Westfält is ranked 37th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
Oscar Bäck (2018, #59) had 32 points in 38 games in SuperElit, Nils Höglander (2019) had 22 points in 22 games, Lukas Wernblom (2018, NR) had 18 points in 20 games, Samuel Fagemo (2018, NR) had 30 points in 37 games, and Albin Grewe (2019) had 27 points in 36 games,. Bäck also played 14 games in the SHL whereas Höglander and Wernblom played more than 20 games in Allsvenskan. Höglander is a late 2000 birthdate but Grewe is 2001-born, and he’s a very interesting prospect for next year.
Team Sweden may not have a superstar up front but Olofsson and Berggren are good enough to carry the offensive load, and there’s good offensive support behind them. Gustafsson and Westfält might be the best defensive forwards in this tournament but this is also a great opportunity for them to show what they can do offensively against their peers. Sweden has much better depth at forward compared to Finland which is why the loss of Hållander doesn’t hurt them as much as the loss of Kupari hurts Finland.
One big omission from Team Sweden is winger Albin Eriksson (2018, #60) who scored 40 points in 38 games in SuperElit, and also played 17 games in the SHL. It’s a complete mystery why he wasn’t selected in the first place, and he wasn’t even added to the team when Hållander was pulled from final camp due to injury.
When the season started, Team Sweden announced that Rasmus Dahlin (2018, #1) probably won’t play with the U18 team this season because basically he’s too good to play with them – and we clearly saw that at the U20 World Juniors where he dominated against players two years older than him. He was officially shut down for the season after his team was eliminated from the SHL playoffs, so now we know for sure that he won’t be playing at the U18 Worlds.
Without Dahlin, all eyes will be on Adam Boqvist (2018, #5) who is a projected top five selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Boqvist didn’t have the kind of season that was expected of him but he dominated the SuperElit with 24 points in 25 games, and he’s also one of the youngest players in the draft which partly explains why he didn’t play at the men’s level this season.
Nils Lundkvist (2018, #22) has been climbing up the draft rankings all season long and is now considered a possible first round selection. Even though both Boqvist and Lundkvist are right-handed shots, they were paired together at the Five Nations tournament and could be paired up again at the U18 Worlds. Lundkvist played most of the season in the SHL. Most 17-year-old defensemen don’t get to play at that level but not only did he play, he played good minutes and was able to show his offensive talents there as well, scoring five points in 28 games.
Rasmus Sandin (2018, #37) is also a possibility for Team Sweden but only if the Soo Greyhounds get eliminated from the OHL playoffs. If they advance to the next round, he won’t be joining the team. Sandin is a left-handed shot defenseman who would likely play a big role for the Swedes.
Another right-handed shot defenseman on Team Sweden’s roster is Axel Andersson (2018, #45) who had an amazing offensive season in SuperElit - his 31 points in 42 games put him eighth on the U18 all-time list among defensemen. He’s likely playing behind Boqvist and Lundkvist, though, so it remains to be seen if he’s given enough offensive opportunities to really shine in this tournament.
And yet another highly regarded right-handed shot defenseman on Team Sweden is Filip Johansson (2018, #75). Johansson is more of a two-way defenseman, and he played half a season in SuperElit and half a season in Allsvenskan. Johansson’s Leksand team in Allsvenskan earned the right to play for promotion to the SHL but ultimately couldn’t quite get through Mora. Johansson played more than 15 minutes per game in the five-game series and had two points. A strong finish to his season has helped him climb up the draft rankings, and a strong tournament could help him jump even further.
As if that wasn’t enough, Team Sweden will also have Adam Ginning (2018, #48) who played most of the season in the SHL, although it could be argued that he wasn’t truly ready to play at that level. Ginning is a defensive defenseman, so he might be paired with offense-minded partner. He’s a left-handed shot which is actually an advantage on this team.
Any other year, Tobias Björnfot (2019) might play a big role at the U18 Worlds after scoring 22 points in 42 games in SuperElit but this year he’s likely to play a limited role on this team. But he’s another 2001-born player and one to watch for next year.
In case you weren’t counting, Sweden has a total of seven defensemen projected to go in the top 75 this summer which is absolutely ridiculous. And Björnfot is another potential top 10 draft choice next year. Even without Dahlin and Sandin, this team will have one of the best group of defensemen in the tournament, and having that strong group of defensemen helps not only the goalies but their forwards as well because these players definitely know how to move the puck, and they’re more than happy to join the rush when given the chance.
Olof Lindbom (2018, NR) is ranked fifth among European goalies by NHL Central Scouting. He played 20 games in SuperElit and stopped 89.7% of the shots he faced. It would be very easy to label him as Team Sweden’s starting goalie.
However, the most interesting goaltender on their roster is 15-year-old Jesper Wallstedt (2021) who already played a full season in SuperElit where he stopped 92.1% of the shots he faced in 25 games. His numbers are among the best in the league, and as a late 2002-born he isn’t draft eligible until 2021. He might be the most interesting goalie prospect we’ve seen in a long time. Hopefully they let him play but 15-year-old goaltenders don’t usually get to play at the U18 Worlds, so the odds are against him.
Team Sweden will be one of the biggest favourites in this tournament – maybe even the biggest one. They have a good balance of offensive stars and defensive specialists, and they have a lot of depth. They have no real weaknesses, and winning the U18 World Championship can be their only goal.
Team Finland is probably the fourth or fifth best team in the tournament but obviously anything can happen in a short tournament. I’m not counting them out, just trying to set realistic expectations. They have a few high-end forwards but not having Kupari on the team is a big loss for them because a small country like Finland doesn’t have the luxury of having a lot of high-end players in the same age group, and having two strong centers like Kotkaniemi and Kupari would have been a real strength for them.
And lastly, even though this article was just about Finland and Sweden, I wanted to highlight a few names from other European countries. For Czech Republic, their most interesting player and expected offensive leader is forward Jakub Lauko (2018, #43) who is a potential first-rounder. He spent the entire season at the top level in Czech Republic and produced nine points in 42 games. Another interesting forward on their team is Jan Jeník (2018, #77) who also spent most of the season playing against men, although he did it at the second highest level in Czech Republic. Goaltender Lukas Dostal (2018, NR) also spent most of the season at the second highest level in Czech Republic where he had good numbers, and he’s ranked first among European goalies by NHL Central Scouting.
For Team Switzerland, their most interesting player is forward Valentin Nussbaumer (2019) who already represented Switzerland at the U20 World Juniors earlier this year. He’s another late 2000-born player which means he isn’t draft eligible until next year. Switzerland also has an interesting defenseman in Nico Gross (2018, NR) who played in the OHL this season and is ranked 56th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Gross also represented Switzerland at the U20 World Juniors where he wore a letter, and it was already his second tournament because he also played in 2017 when he was just 16 years old.
And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below – all kind of feedback is welcomed. You can also find me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main photo courtesy of u18worlds2018.iihf.hockey