By Jared Brown
The second last big hockey scouting event for the 2023 NHL Draft just concluded from Rauma, Finland in mid-February where teams from Sweden, Finland, Czechia, and the USA all competed against one another.
Finland, the United States, and Sweden finished tied in points, however, Finland took top spot due to the goal differential tie breaker. The next time many of these prospects will be on the ice against one another will be at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Switzerland later this April.
Here at DraftPro Hockey, we had multiple sets of eyes from our scouting team watching the games in Finland and our Director of Scouting Jared Brown offers this event review.
Prospects Who Impressed
#11 C, Felix Nilsson, Sweden (Rogle BK J20, J20 Nationell), 6’0”, 176, L, DOB 06.22.2005
Nilsson wasn’t one of the top names in this tournament, but I thought he was one of Sweden’s better forwards in this event. Very effective on the PP operating along the wall and using his vision and handling skills to make plays and shift the penalty killers around. His frequent scanning habits allow him to locate passing options at a fast rate. Those same scanning habits apply in the Dzone as well. He reads and anticipates what his opponents are going to do in the Dzone very well. Nilsson boosted his draft stock for me off this tournament performance.
#5 D, Tom Willander, Sweden (Rogle BK J20, J20 Nationell), 6’1”, 180, R, DOB 02.09.2005
Willander played an excellent two-way game on the backend and despite his lack of production, he displayed strong offensive instincts and looked to join and create chances off the rush. He routinely delivers an accurate first pass to get the puck moving up ice quickly. He utilizes his footwork to adjust to pressure accordingly and avoid costly Dzone turnovers through good escapability against the forecheck. Defensively could be more physical to play against, but he uses his body to close out attacks, stop the cycle, and pin his man along the boards. He showcases the awareness to be a reliable defensive player. Willander is a top 64 prospect, no doubt in my mind.
#4 D, Axel Sandin-Pellikka, Sweden (Skelleftea AIK, SHL), 5’11”, 176, R, DOB 03.11.2005
ASP continues to show me that he is the top-rated defense prospect in this upcoming class. His incredible poise with the puck and transition skillset are the best among draft eligible Dmen. Outstanding consistency with his puck movement on breakouts. Has the ability to utilize both his feet or hands to transport the puck up ice. Defensively is no slouch either. Despite his average size, he’s actually quite physical and is very effective at getting right into his opponents’ skating route and hitting them off stride. He defends the rush greatly through his controlled backwards mobility and forcing players to dump the puck around him. I believe ASP will go top 10.
#11 C, Oliver Moore, USA (USNTDP U18), 5’11”, 188, L, DOB 01.22.2005
Moore was quite possibly the most dangerous player in this tournament. It’s clear to me that he’s the quickest and most explosive skater in the draft. He can beat you in straight lines all while handling the puck at his elite top speed. He also possesses the edgework and strong balance to spin off pressure in small areas and beat his man out of the corners. What I also love is how he utilizes his speed to play a high-tempo off-puck game and play with amazing effort without the puck. Does he have the creativity and passing skills of Will Smith? No. Does he have the scoring ability and deft hands of Ryan Leonard? No. But he’s the hardest-working player on that NTDP squad and NHL coaches will be able to trust playing him in any situation.
#9 RW, Ryan Leonard, USA (USNTDP U18), 6’0”, 192, R, DOB 01.21.2005
Leonard had a goal in every game (shocking right) which included a hat trick in USA’s blowout win against Czechia. Outside of Bedard, Leonard’s shot is there with Colby Barlow for the strongest shot for the 2nd strongest shot in the class. His ability to change the angle by bringing the puck slightly inwards to him made it hard for goalies to track his release point. He also showed his skilled, deft hands in tight to put defenders on their heels or get them pivoting and dangling around goalies. Leonard’s high level of competitiveness can make him an annoying player to play against since he’ll finish his checks hard and play a physically abrasive game. He’s got the potential to be a top line winger who can also drive his teammates into the battle.
#6 D, Brady Cleveland, USA (USNTDP U18), 6’5”, 211, L, DOB 04.01.2005
He’s not flashy, skilled, or really going to do much from an offensive perspective. But he is a P.O.S. to play against! His physical tools and shutdown qualities make him extremely appealing. He plays an old-school game and uses his size to play the body in open ice and along the wall. He’s surprisingly a smooth skater for his height. He showcases good mobility when defending the rush and doesn’t let the opposing player into the middle of the ice. His puck movement in the Dzone was consistent and his passes rarely handcuffed his teammates. Cleveland can play on my team any day of the week and I would bet some NHL teams are looking at him as high as the 2nd round.
#8 D, Aron Kiviharju, Finland (TPS U20, U20 SM-sarja), 5’10”, 165, R, DOB 01.25.2006
It doesn’t come as a huge surprise seeing Kiviharju stand out and impress. But there’s no denying he was Finland’s #1 Dman and his coaches had him out almost every other shift and utilized in all situations. His deception and body feints are what make him such a slippery skater in the Dzone or while he walks the line in the Ozone. His creativity and play-creating skills give him high upside to be a #1 PP QB. Improving the power on his shot would round out his offensive skills. Though he’s small, Kiviharju is able to quickly gather and control pucks in the corners and along the boards, and is quickly aware of where his passing options are. Size concerns are obvious, but his deceptiveness, skill on the puck, and puck moving skill are what makes him a potential top 5 candidate for 2024.
#13 D, Niilopekka Muhonen, Finland (KalPa U20, U20 SM-sarja), 6’4”, 194, L, DOB 02.28.2006
I was impressed when I watch Muhonen at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and he once again stood out in a positive way at this event. He plays a confident game with the puck, showing to have a high-panic threshold. He’s not an explosive skater but has long strong strides and the puck control to carry pucks out of his end. Impressed by his zone exit passes and ability to draw in pressure. Displays strong understanding on proper body positioning to protect pucks along the boards and uses his big frame to bounce players off him in the grimy areas. Muhonen’s strong skating and composure with the puck give him solid puck moving potential and with more development in his angling and use of body play will make him a better shutdown Dman.
#31 G, Noa Vali, Finland (TPS U20, U20 SM-sarja), 6’0”, 159, L, DOB 04.19.2005
Vali only appeared in one game but it was a massive one against the powerhouse USNTDP. It was an outstanding game for him where he made numerous high-danger saves in the first two periods to maintain his teams lead. He’s a quick, hybrid style goalie who doesn’t overplay his crease positioning and displays impressively fast reaction speed. He routinely gets himself square to shooters and has a strong glove hand. Vali has the quick speed and quickness in his play to nullify his size concerns and a strong performance against a tough team bumps him up for me.
#4 D, Adam Jiricek, Czechia (HC Plzen U20, Czechia U20), 6’1”, 152, R, DOB 06.28.2006
Jiricek, another 2006 born, like Kiviharju for Finland, I thought was Czechia’s best and most consistent defender in this tournament. As a 16 year old, he showcases zero fear and amazing confidence in his ability to move the puck, make plays in the Ozone, and defend with his body. He’s got tricky body language that is hard to read for defenders due to him selling fakes like he’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He handles and controls the puck well while moving laterally along the blueline. Jiricek is a defender who can man the PP, be first out there to start the PK, and make a great first pass to break the puck out with good consistency. He’s on my radar as a potential top 20 first rounder for 2024.
Prospects who Disappointed
#26 LW/RW, Noel Nordh, Sweden (Brynas IF J20, J20 Nationell), 6’2”, 196, L, DOB 01.25.2005
I was hoping for a bit more production and offensive creation from Nordh. But I was left disappointed with some of his poor decisions on the puck and bad turnovers. He showed a tendency to overhandle the puck and has to remember to make quicker decisions at times. He wasn’t able to get himself into spots to utilize his shot and could’ve shown me better off-puck instincts. I also was not impressed by his defensive play. He fished for the puck a lot instead of establishing body positioning on the puck first along the wall in the Dzone. At times he could’ve applied harder back pressure if he took a few more hard strides to put himself in a good defensive position. Nordh’s tournament performance was not one that showed a potential 2nd round pick selection.
#10 RW, Kasper Halttunen, Finland (HIFK, Liiga), 6’3”, 207, R, DOB 06.07.2005
Halttunen was my most disappointing player in the entire tournament. For a prospect who is projected to be a first round candidate, he doesn’t show me the qualities to have success at the next level. His sluggish first 2-3 stride acceleration prevents him from being able to counterattack off the rush. His agility is also poor and he struggles to make quick directional changes through weight shifts or use his edges to peel away from pressure in tight spaces. He’s only an average playmaker and distributor and I don’t see him at all as a play driver. He played a committed defensive game and was fearless in throwing his body into the shooting lanes to block shots, but that’s about the only positives I found from his game. Halttunen’s development has stalled and I currently question if he is even a top 64 prospect now.
#12 LW, Eduard Sale, Czechia (HC Kometa Brno, Czechia), 6’2”, 174, L, DOB 03.10.2005
Although it’s clear that Sale didn’t have much talent to work with amongst teammates, I was particularly disappointed in his lack of compete or pushback when the going got tough for Czechia. Displayed sulking body language as he headed to the bench for a change in their blowout 9-1 loss against USA. With the game going how it was, I would’ve liked to see Sale play with more aggression on his man and the puck. When his A-game isn’t going, I’d like to a more competitive B-game that other top prospects have shown this year. I also found that his releases were slow which attributed to his shots getting blocked and not getting through to the net. He’s an excellent north-south transition player, but he struggled to cut to the inside off the cycle. Sale hasn’t impressed me in tough international games that I’ve seen from him this year.
If you are looking for a mid-season rundown on the 2023 draft class as a whole be sure to pick up your copy of the Draft Prospects Hockey 2023 Preview Magazine available for instant download or print through Amazon.