2017 IIHF U18 World Championship

Prospect Notes

U.S. sweeps competition to win seventh gold in nine years
Steve Kournianos | 04/23/2017 | New York |

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Photo courtesy of Steve Kingsman

New York (The Draft Analyst) — A season full of ups and downs that began in September came down to one game for the United States National Team Development Program, which completed a clean sweep of international competition following a 4-2 win over defending-champion Finland in the under-18 world hockey championship gold medal game. Team USA finished the competition with a perfect 7-0 record, winning gold for the third time in four years.

Finnish left wing and leading scorer Kristian Vesalainen (pictured) was named tournament MVP but was held in check by the Americans, who all tournament long used a lethal penalty kill to shift momemtum. Finland fell behind 2-0 on first-period goals by Josh Norris and 2018 NHL draft prospect Joel Farabee, who added a shorthanded tally in the second that made it 3-0. Team USA finished the tournament with more shorthanded goals scored (five) than power play goals allowed (four).

The Finns got on the board later in the second on a wrist shot from defensemen Eemeli Rasanem, but North Dakota recruit Grant Mismash’s power play tally made it 4-1 after forty minutes. Goalie Dylan St. Cyr was guilty of an own goal in the dying minutes of regulation when his attempt at Finland’s empty net deflected in behind him, but the Americans held off the late rally to avenge last year’s semifinal defeat to Finland.

You can find box scores and lineups from every game here.

Prospect Notes

United States

Center Sean Dhooghe: Dhooghe’s impressive pre-draft resume probably needs another page, as the tournament in Slovakia made him somewhat of a household name. Not only was the 5’3 speedster one of the competition’s top scorers (nine points in seven games), but it was his game winner in the dying seconds of overtime that propelled Team USA to a semifinal victory over Sweden. He was a dogged forechecker from wire to wire, creating turnovers and odd-man rushes while keeping opponents on their toes every time he climbed over the boards. Dhooghe, who is committed to Boston College, is a battler who doesn’t back away and is surprisingly strong enough to knock bigger players down. This impressive combination of skill and tenacity should offset concerns over his size, as he plays fearless with or without the puck.

Center Josh Norris: Like Dhooghe, Norris was a strong two-way presence for the Americans who centered the top line and saw significant time on special teams. While this version of the NTDP lacks the sort of generational talent seen in previous years, Norris is one of many on his team blessed with a solid build and excellent balance. You simply need a double team or more to knock him off the puck, and he stickhandles in and around traffic without incident. He always revealed a deadly shot — especially off the pass — but we view him as more of a team-first setup guy who can be used in any situation. The future Michigan Wolverine finished tied for third in team scoring with seven points in seven games.

Right wing Grant Mismash: Mismash is a dangerous player with the puck because you really don’t know whether he’s going to pass it through with accuracy or snipe it through the tiniest of openings. Team USA seemed to have multiple 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s every game, and Mismash proved how capable he was in executing these overlooked yet critical plays. Without the puck, he’s a menacing force who likes to throw his weight around and get in the face of opposing puck carriers.

Defenseman Max Gildon: No Team USA defender has the kind of upside that Gildon has and it was good to see it all come together for him in Slovakia. Blessed with size, speed and a heavy shot, the native Texan continued his strong second-half play by leading all defensemen in goal scoring with four — three coming in a 5-2 win over the Czechs during group play. His ability to move the puck while thinking at the same time has improved since some early-season hiccups, and his solid one-on-one play below the red line reveals a kid who identified shortcomings and worked hard addressing them. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he had more than a dozen scouts leaving Slovakia with the desire to draft him in the first round.

Defenseman David Farrance: We’ve reported on Farrance quite a bit this season, including a lengthy feature in Episode 04 of my draft prospect podcast. He’s a wonderful skater with a booming shot who thinks the game at a high level, and the tournament in Slovakia gave people a chance to see how good he is at managing the puck, beating back pressure and making proper reads. Not to be lost was his clutch goal in the quarterfinals against the Swiss that tied the game for Team USA late in the second period. He makes every play seem effortless, and his quick-strike mentality helped engineer countless odd-man rushes.

Goalie Dylan St. Cyr: I don’t blame the Canada-based TSN for focusing on St. Cyr’s mom as much as they did on his goaltending — I mean, Mamon Rheaume won a lot for Team Canada and even had her own hockey card when hockey cards mattered. But Dylan was the clear star in this tournament, making dozens upon dozens of critical saves when opposing goalies forced Team USA into tight games. I don’t care how tall or short a goalie is — if they can track a puck and have an absolute understanding of where the net is, they can play at any level. Team USA were pressing all over the place, and St. Cyr rarely cracked when they overcommitted themselves into dangerous chances against. He’s a very good puck handler — own-goal while gunning for an empty net notwithstanding — and has a quick glove. But to me, his positioning and technical skills are what makes him successful.

Czech Republic

Center Martin Necas: Necas was expected to carry the Czechs, who brokered a deal with Kometa Brno to allow his release for the tournament while his parent club was playing for the Czech Extraliga title. In my mind, Necas would have been better off avoiding the U18s altogether, as neither he nor his team delivered. Necas was their top line center with top 2018 draft prospect Filip Zadina and two-way skilled forward Filip Chytil, and the trio had serious chemistry issues before being broken up. Necas displayed varying levels of hockey sense and wasn’t as dynamic as he’s been known to be. There even was a point where Czech head coach Vaclav Varada kept Necas on the bench for several critical situations, including a power play against the U.S. It’s no exaggeration to say that Necas was nothing more than a passenger this tournament.

Defenseman David Kvasnicka: Kvasnicka is a quick offensive defenseman with a solid grasp of what to do without the puck. Initiating breakouts and managing the puck under pressure, however, are two areas he should work on, specifically while running the point on the power play. His passes were telegraphed and several of his zone entries turned into opposing odd-man rushes rather quickly. The good news is that his vision and hard, accurate shot were on display, and he tied for second in defensemen scoring with a goal and four assists in five games.

Right wing Ostap Safin: One of the better Czech performers, Safin showed yet again why he’s one of the top power forward prospects for the upcoming draft. Thick and powerful, Safin looked a step or two quicker in Slovakia than in previous tournaments. He is a good skater for his size and possesses an soft set of hands, and he made neat little lead passes while absorbing hits. One thing I’ve noticed is that he’s not an easy guy to steal the puck from, especially when he’s got his legs moving and controlling the puck with his massive reach. There were times where he looked disinterested, but I got the sense that he was one of the few Czech youngsters who didn’t buckle under the pressure of expectations.

Right wing Filip Chytil: Chytil is one of the few first-year eligibles getting a regular shift in a men’s league, so like Necas, I was looking to see whether or not his game would elevate against his teenage peers. He did not disappoint, and there were several examples of Chytil carrying the top line while Necas struggled and forced things. Chytil is a responsible player who plays the 200-foot game and is used on both the top power play and penalty killing units. He reminds me a little of former Chicago Blackhawk great Steve Larmer in that he can literally do everything at a high level but without dazzling and mystifying the crowd into a frenzy. He’s got a thick frame and can be next to impossible to move off the puck, especially when separating himself from opponents in pursuit. Chytil also whips the puck around with accuracy and can complete difficult plays off the rush.

Finland

Center Kristian Vesalainen: The idea that this Finnish power forward “needed” this tournament isn’t all that far fetched, especially when you consider how lethargic he looked at the last major international tournament he particiapted in. Producing next to nothing at last winter’s WJC is now a distant memory, as Vesalainen not only led the U18s in scoring but was named the competition’s top performer. Playing on Finland’s top line with flashy pivot Joni Ikonen — his center with Frolunda’s junior squad — and Kingston Frontenac winger Linus Nyman allowed Vesalainen to do his thing, which was making use of his long reach and keen vision, plus slipping away from radar detection right into prime scoring areas. He was somewhat of a no-show in the gold medal game against the Americans, but even his biggest detractors should acknowledge that he’s been playing the best hockey of his draft season. Vesalainen did exactly what you want your top-six power winger to do, and that is use his reach and strength to win puck battles, transition up ice and finish plays.

Center Joni Ikonen: If Vesalainen does in fact get picked in the first round of the NHL draft, he should put this dynamo at the top of his Christmas list. Ikonen is an all-world skill player who simply makes his linemates better. And while that cliche gets thrown around quite often, it is nevertheless an accurate assessment of the way he incorporates his linemates into the attack. Ikonen is as good a shooter as he is a playmaker, and even the worlds’d best under-18 goalies had difficulty corrling and controlling his heavy, accurate shot. He played in all key situations, pumped home a team-high 29 shots, did well on faceoffs (52%) and tied for fourth with four goals and four assists in eight games.

Defenseman Urho Vaakanainen: Vaakanainen was late to the U18 WC party as he had to wait for JyP to get eliminated from the Liiga playoffs, but his impact was immediate. He was paired with top draft prospect Miro Heiskanen for most of the competition — both at even strength and on special teams. Vaakananen’s an excellent skater with lateral mobility and quick feet to smother onrushing puck carriers, and staying tight to his man allows him to use a quick stick to swipe the puck away and turn it up ice. He’s been criticized (not by me) for lacking offense, but his regualr-season numbers were skewed by being a depth defenseman on a very good Liiga team. In Slovakia, Vaakanainen was allowed to skate and make plays off the rush in addition to manning one of the points on the power play. He’s always owned a very good shot and will fire it quickly and accurately, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he finished third with six points in five games.

Defenseman Miro Heiskanen: Heiskanen was the best defender in the tournament, posting an impressive 2-10-12 stat line and playing upwards of 25 minutes a game. Though the Finns were unable to defend their gold medal, the play they received from Heiskanen as he ran their defense corps should help them finish better at the next under-20 world junior championship. He too is a very good skater who loves to join the rush and attack openings, and it was his OT winner against the Czechs that allowed Finland to not only overcome a blown 5-1 lead, but also advance to the next round. He worked well with Vaakanainen and never once did I get the impression he was some sort of puck hog who forced the issue in order to impress scouts. Playing a significant role on a competitive men’s league team is probably why he comes across as so calm and mature, and there is a legitimate chance he becomes the first defenseman chosen at the 2017 NHL draft.

Sweden

Defenseman Tim Liljegren: Liljegren, like Vesalainen, entered the U18s as a preseason blue chipper who saw his draft stock take a bit of a tumble after failing to live up to lofty expectations — expectations that grew out of an exceptional performance at last year’s tournament. He was far from dominant in Slovakia, but there were flashes in the form of skating and shooting that assured me he still has what it takes to be a top-pairing defender at the highest level. He’ll never be a shutdown option, but he won several key puck battles against bigger players — notably a violent one with Chytil — and his reads and routes during puck retrieval seemed to have improved since his early-season struggles. Liljegren was attacking quite often, using his strong edges and shiftiness to escape a trap and find open ice for a clean entry. Another thing I noticed is that he rarely forced passes in the middle, nor did he opt for the easy dump-in when his partner was open. Liljegren is a good facilitator of line changes and won’t panic if he’s being pressed while controlling the puck, and I thought his vision was quite good for a kid who loves to unload the puck on goal at a moment’s notice. Did he dominate the competition? Far from it. But again, the name of the game is potential, and very few draft prospects have the kind of upside he offers.

Defenseman Erik Brannstrom: Brannstrom once again was Sweden’s top defenseman, both in responsibility and productivity. He tied for third in tournament defenseman scoring with five points in seven games, but his defensive zone play was inconsistent, especially with slot coverage and puck management. Brannstrom is usually as sure as they come, but the Swedes had to deal with a tough preliminary round group that had teams unleashing relentless forecheckers onto them. He is still fun to watch and is one of the better draft-eligible defenders at spinning away from or powering through pressure. Brannstrom also has a cannon of a shot and continues to find the open man on the power play. Like Dhooghe, he doesn’t let height limitations stop him from giving an opponent the business, and he has a strong upper body to literally shove players off the puck.

Right wing Fabian Zetterlund: The Swedes didn’t bring a lot of firepower to Slovakia, but Zetterlund was one of their most consistent performers. He’s got an excellent shot/release combo, possibly one of best among his draft class, and I always viewed him as a danger off the rush rather than a static winger who waits for the perfect opening. Zetterlund can be an elusive cat, and the Czechs found that out when he sniped home a wrister after winning a footrace to a loose puck at the left point. He won’t offer much in terms of defensive zone play, but his ability to hammer pucks with accuracy makes him a goal-scoring winger to keep an eye on.

Canada

Center/Right wing Mackenzie Entwhistle: Entwhistle was one of Canada’s better forwards in what turned out to be a disappointing team performance. He played on the top line, killed penalties and hustled all over the place. Entwhistle is a physical player who likes to get involved in puck battles, but he too can fill the net and make plays — his seven points led the squad. He’s got good size, can play either center or wing, and is a strong enough skater to gain separation and make plays off the rush. I’d say he’s back to his old self considering he had a bought of mononucleosis earlier in the his season.

Right wing Stelio Mattheos: Mattheos was physical and engaged for Team Canada, using his speed and strength to create problems on the forecheck. He scored four goals in five games, including the OT winner against the Slovaks, and led the Canadians with 22 shots. He’s always been a bit of a gambler with the puck and tries to force things, but the right tutelage could turn this kid into a premier power forward.

Center Jack Studnicka: Studnicka paid immediate dividends after being added following Oshawa’s elimination in the OHL playoffs. He scored two goals in a rout of Switzerland, then added another marker in a blowout loss to Finland. I like his hard-working style and that he can be entrusted with killing penalties, but there’s more to his game than intangibles. Quick on his feet and good vision to find the open man through traffic, Studnicka showed off some flashy moves by spinning away from pressure and head-faking defenders out of position.