By Samuel Dummer

The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is a best-on-best U18 hockey tournament that runs every year in August. The Hlinka Gretzky Cup, although known by various other names over the years, has been a medium for young developing players since 1991. Most times, scouts already have plenty of information or past views to go off regarding the players in the tournament. This year has been a little different than most. With the Covid-19 pandemic still strong in some areas, it was difficult to get eyes on international or even local, players. Because of this, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup of 2021 was the very first time many evaluators and media personnel had a chance to really see what the current generation of players can bring.

The draft class of 2022 appears to be shaping up nicely. Even with the altered development of players during the unknown days of the pandemic, early returns suggest it is going to be a deep draft. After the showings at the Hlinka, it is proving that it should be just that.

A few players came out of the woodwork or the relative unknown and showcased what they could do. A few players that most scouts had not seen in action before, and even others that were completely unheard of. Most of these players are young enough to still worry about a fresh pimple, or who they are going to ask to this year’s Spring sock-hop. “Underager” is the term commonly coined for a player younger than most and not yet eligible for the upcoming draft. As the Hlinka is a U18 tournament, the majority of the players are 17 and just entering their NHL draft.

While there are still plenty of 2022 fish to fry, the 2023 class is looking even tastier at the top.

Russia, being the dominating force with Canada staying home and sitting this one due to Covid-19, easily won the 2021 tournament. With what seemed to be a blow-out score almost every game, Russia showed the world that they used their pandemic time effectively. Unsurprisingly, Russia came into the tournament with only one thing in mind, winning. The Russian team is almost always a competitive one, dating back as far as I know. They have regularly been a force to be reckoned with in the hockey world. For the tournament, their training was effective, and their finish was off-the-charts. The same could be said of the play of a player who would barely be old enough to drive a car in Canada.

At 16 years of age, Matvei Michkov stands at only 5’10 and weighs 159lbs. He wouldn’t appear to be the kind of body you would expect to be breaking records in a full-contact sport, but here we are. Michkov came to the tournament to play and did so. “He does not let his size bring him down, as he uses his intelligence to quickly adapt and attack,” spoken by DraftPro scout Joseph Peters, is just one of the many things that can be said about this young player.

Watching him play in the tournament was like watching a pro fill in for your Sunday night beer league team; you were often left wondering if it could even be fun for him. Scoring 13pts in only 5 games, Michkov has unseated Canadian Cole Perfetti’s 12pts and taken the thrown for most points in the tournament’s history.

“He sees everything miles ahead of when they happen. But the height of his game lies in his professional-level shot…” Kai Farenholtz, another DraftPro scout, could hardly contain his excitement for the player.

“There’s no other player I can name that can put away the puck like he does, he literally can score from anywhere on the ice, any angle, any situation.” Accolades not given to just any player, especially not one playing in an older age bracket.

2023 eligible defender Mikhail Gulyayev and 2024 eligible forward Ivan Demidov also had impressive showing for the eventual tournament Champs.

The Slovakians shocked the Hockey world with a second-place finish and gained a whole lot of attention in the process. Largely due to the play of some upcoming draft-eligible, but when they needed the push to go over the top, it was another underager stepping up to the plate.

Dalibor Dvorsky, 6’0 and 187lbs, “He can play in all situations. A powerful, smooth skater, with an accurate shooting selection in his arsenal…” states Peters in a quick email exchange, “He is a competitive battler for the puck.”

When speaking about the player around scouts, his projectable frame and defensive play are quickly pointed out to go along with his ability to fill the net. Farenholtz had this to say when asked about the player, “What makes Dvorsky so dangerous is his elite IQ and spontaneous edge work. His heads-up vision and accurate wrister make him a threat from nearly anywhere in the offensive end.”

When drawing the attention of scouts like that, it is fair to say that Dvorsky has a strong eye on the bright lights of his future hockey career.

The Slovakian team not only shocked the hockey world this week but did so with multiple young pups running in the pack. While Dvorsky was the biggest standout, names like Ondrej Molnar and Maxim Strbak cannot be left out. Both played very impressive tournaments, even more so when considering their young ages in comparison to the competition.

Molnar was a firecracker all tournament. “The way he picks up speed in the neutral zone with his long powerful stride makes him an immediate threat the moment he crosses the blue line. His creative stick handling and lateral movement and lateral movement and you got a prospect that screams top-6 scoring potential” says Farenholt.

Throw in the big, young defensive body of Maxim Strbak and it became disappointing to see the team falter to the mighty Russians. Fans always love the underdog.

“His large frame still has room to grow, and his skating is only a fraction of what it could be, showcasing promising edgework and agility in tight situations” Farenholtz responds when asked about the player. “His offensive IQ is there, but as of now has some trouble executing his plays.”

While the Slovakians fell short in their quest for the full Cinderella finish, they can look back at the tournament with pride. Their young team gained invaluable experience and they did nothing but show the world that they will be a force to be reckoned with. The next few years should be an interesting resurgence of interest in Eastern Europe.

Others such as Czechia winger Dominik Petr and Finnish winger Emil Jarventie, both eligible in 2023, also looked solid but did not have the impact of some of their other underage peers.

Looking to next summer, Russia will be looking to go back-to-back, and Slovakia could have a handful of experienced returning players. The 2022 tournament is already garnering interest and we’re barely a day out of this one. As a fellow colleague said while chatting European teams, and after witnessing this event I am starting to agree with his sentiments, “I think this may potentially shape up to be the deepest European draft in NHL history.”

Photo: Hockey Slovakia

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