By Dan Stewart & Jared Brown
The annual IIHF U20 World Junior Championship just wrapped a few nights ago, and man was it a much-needed spectacle during this time of lockdowns and quarantines. While it was not live viewing, which if you ask any scout they are craving, but to see those high energy, super talented, young men giving everything they have, shift after shift, for their countries was a great break to the new normalcy of this pandemic. To have highly competitive hockey night after night over a two-week stretch was just what we needed. Sure, we have been overdosing on what available junior leagues are playing via video since the fall, but that does not compare to what we just witnessed.
The 2021 World Juniors also had some intriguing talent to watch yet to be claimed by NHL teams via the entry draft and report on. While any one tournament is just a blip on the resume of a prospect before they even dream of being drafted, it is still data. And sometimes a little bit of data, like an outstanding performance on a big stage, is all that is needed to have a team utilize a later round draft pick on said prospect.
THE TOP PERFORMING DRAFT ELIGIBLES
The American’s peaked at just the right time with an absolutely swarming team defensive effort in the Gold medal final keep Canada to the outside and closing down every lane. Chief in this effort, and in most critical moments of the games leading up to the finale, was American center and current Michigan Wolverine Matthew Beniers. His buzzing, hardworking, always skating hard style made him a coach favorite and Mr. Dependable. There has been talk of his draft status boosting all the way to #1 overall but most teams saw him as a very strong future second line two-way center at the NHL level well before he suited up in Edmonton.
“Beniers had a terrific tournament and was incredibly efficient with his play in transition. Utilizes darting straight-line speed with high-end top speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone. Also, displaying impressive footwork throwing in incredibly quick cuts to change directions in a millisecond, evading defenders. All throughout this tournament, Beniers was been a zone entry or zone exit machine. Smooth and poised puck carrier. As the puck carrier he looks to attack coverage which then allows space to open up to dish the puck off to his teammates. In the offensive zone he showed terrific vision. Excellent on faceoffs. Busts his butt at both ends of the rink. He is the definition of a bulldog like style of player. Never gives up on the puck. Always in attack mode. Gives that second and third effort in the dirty areas to come away with the puck. Sneakily sneaks behind players to perform a quick stick lift at the most opportune times to steal the puck.” said Jared Brown, Draft Prospects Hockey’s Head North American Scout.
Finland’s Bronze medal finish was an exciting outcome especially for towering center Samuel Helenius, son of former NHLer Sami Helenius. The 2021 eligible played a significant role winning draws, defending with his massive reach on 5 on 5 and on the PK. For an NHL team that is looking for a hardworking, two-way, defensively aware center he showed what he could do in Edmonton.
“Helenius was a giant down the middle for this strong Finnish team. I was impressed from his first game of the pre tournament. He was playing frequent minutes especially by the end of the games. He was making an impact with his skating and size all event long. I love his ability to use his size whether that means throwing the body around or using his long reach to disrupt plays. For a big player he is a solid skater and has an efficient long stride. Helenius is good defensively, but he shows flashes of offense too. For a kid his size to understand his strengths and use them to his advantage shows me he understands what it takes to translate to a pro game. His IQ offensively allows him to create offense as he plays in all the tough areas of the ice and has soft enough hands too stick handle in traffic. He played on the top penalty killing unit and was effective. Not only is he effective in the faceoff circle but he excels at blocking shots and reading where the dangerous lanes are” – said Brown.
The Finns competition in the Bronze medal game was Russia who brought along two draft age defenders. While both had peaks and valleys in Edmonton in regard to their play it was Kirill Kirsanov who stood out most positively for his calm, puck transporting, and partner supporting play.
“Kirsanov logged heavy minutes for Russia and was given added responsibilities. He was put on the top PP unit. He doesn’t play overly aggressive rather electing to keep himself in proper position and use his body and stick to take away passing lanes. Kirsanov plays a risk-free game and does all the little things right. Easy to like as a coach. Composed and intelligent controlling the puck under immense pressure and with his size, he’s incredibly hard to knock off the puck. Excellent vision breaking out of his zone. Can deliver a smooth first pass or use his feet to skate it out, despite not being a high-end skater. He’s so good at aiding in transition and starting the breakout because he constantly has his head up with the puck. Always surveying the ice. He won’t wow you with an elite skillset but instead works with what he is given.” – said Brown
The Swedes had the ability to be a really deep team, in regard to draft eligible prospects, but two potential top ten NHL draft prospects, center William Eklund who was dropped due to a COVID-19 positive test and puck rushing defender Simon Edvinsson was one of the teams last preliminary roster cuts, did not make the trip to Edmonton. Instead the Swedes went to battle with two top prospects with both showing well. Winger Oskar Olausson was given a depth role for the Swedes and he showed well during his limited ice playing his hard driving, yet finesse style power game well. But the top draft eligible Swede in Edmonton was goaltender Jesper Wallstedt who was the backup. Despite only seeing limited minutes and starting just one game, Wallstedt showed well and put questions in many minds as to why he was not the teams starter all along with timely saves and his relaxed, calm demeanor exuding out to his whole team. Sure, he lost that game to Russia in OT but it was more about how well he played and how he elevated his team’s play.
“Wallstedt played a great game and the loss wasn’t his fault. He likes to stay down in the butterfly for extender amount of time but his hulking size makes him always look big in the net regardless of if he’s down or not. There’s no extra movement in his crease. Always looks cool, calm, composed in the net. Side-to-side movements are incredibly smooth. When moving laterally he takes away all angles and smart with his positioning. Aggressively comes out to challenge shooters getting to the top of his crease. Russia in the 2nd had a brief breakaway, Wallstedt didn’t panic and made sure to stay aggressive and not collapse back into his net. Excellent down low coverage. Pads stay flushed down to the ice and positions his blocker properly closer to his pads when facing low shots. Although the OT game winning goal was off of a poorly managed shot that he didn’t swallow up, his rebound control was excellent all game. Directed pucks away to safe areas consistently. Made sure to swallow up shots when he could. First two goals against were cross-crease goals that he had no chance on and the 3rd he lost track of the puck through a screen. I love how Wallstedt always came out to stop dump ins and his ability to set-up pucks for his defenders that easily started the breakout. It’s such a small detail but defenders love when they have a goalie that can do this.” said Brown.
The Czechs had some excellent talent on their roster and two-way defender Stanislav Svozil stood out for his even-keel, poised, smart game that showed strong decision making and even an ability to rush the puck when the opportunity presented itself.
“Svozil had a terrific World Juniors. Even while being 1-2 years younger than most, he showed to be one of the more mature and composed players on a consistent basis. He’s an extremely mobile defender looking to always jump up in the rush when he can. Thought he picked his moments to assist in the rush well while making sure to be back in support if a turnover occurred. Efficient skater in all four directions. So smooth in how he navigates the ice starting the breakout from his own end either making a crisp first pass or activating his feet to exit the zone himself. Precise and accurate passes through the neutral zone. Defensively he was rock solid. Beautifully defends 1-on-1 against the rush not opening himself up staying with his man the entire way. Terrific situational recognition that really highlights his impressive hockey IQ.” said Brown.
While you might have expected to see Florian Elias name reported on as one of our top five, the high scoring Germany center who played sidekick to offensive powerhouse and Ottawa first rounder Tim Stuetzle, we just don’t see the NHL upside of a possible top six scorer instead maybe a future high-energy bottom six forward, albeit with limited size, but more likely a career DEL player. That is not to say a late round NHL draft selection is out of the question as he was the energetic puck hound of his talented line in Edmonton and NHL teams do see value in those types of players.
Other previously passed over but still draft eligible prospects that looked good in include winger Martin Lang and defenseman Simon Kubicek of the Czechs, winger Simon Knak of Switzerland, goaltenders Simon Latkoczy of Slovakia and goaltender Kari Piiroinen of Finland.
It seems that each year there is a young man that just plays his heart out for an underdog team, usually a country that is at the bottom of the expected standings and gets everyone rooting for him. This year that was Austrian goaltender Sebastian Wraneschitz. He played the games against the top counties and battles with every ounce of effort he could muster to keep the puck out of his net earning the respect of many observers in the process. It would not be a complete shock to hear his names was added to an NHL teams draft list due to his efforts in Edmonton.
THE 2022 ELIGIBLES
The top future draft eligible in Edmonton was Finland’s center Brad Lambert who looked like he was on the verge of a breakout. He was able to use his speed, smarts and shot to be a dangerous offensive threat. Lambert has the look of a future top NHL scorer.
Marco Kasper the young center for Austria also looked solid as a skilled puck handler who was not afraid to go to the net for a scoring opportunity. Our guys like him as a top two round prospect for 2022.
The Slovaks had a trio of high end 2022 eligible performers in potential top ten prospects Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec.
Slafkovsky was impressive as a big power winger driving into battles for pucks and wining his fair share of them, driving the net and looking for second and third opportunities. He as a bit snake bit as he ended up with nothing on the stats sheet but he is just bidding his time before a breakout offensively on the world stage.
Defenseman Nemec was unbelievable, playing solid defense while moving the puck, driving the attack, and leading the team in scoring. His strong hockey sense and ability to read the play were on full display. He is seen as a can’t miss top four NHL two-way defenseman.
The Slovaks also brought winger Filip Mesar who only made it into two contests but looked skilled enough to be a top line contributor for this team next December.
The Czechs brought big, two-way defenseman David Jiricek along and he showed that he belonged as he played very well in Edmonton. He will need to continue to improve his skating but held the line well, played physical when he saw the ability to do so, and looking to jump into the offensive attack whenever the opportunity was there. Some of our guys like him as a first rounder for next season while others see him as a second or third round option for the 2022 draft. Regardless he is a talent that caught our eye.