2019 NHL Draft
U18 Five Nations (Feb.)
Russia overcomes adversity to capture tournament
Steve Kournianos | 2/12/2019 | Nashville |
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — Turns out the Russians didn’t need their best player after all. With suspended team captain Vasily Podkolzin relegated to cheerleading duty, the Russians scored early and in bunches in an 8-4 rout over the favored United States on Saturday to win the under-18 Five Nations Tournament. Both Podkolzin and Finnish center Antti Saarela were handed one-game suspensions after they received match penalties late in Friday’s contest following Podkolzin post-whistle response to Saarela’s knee-on-knee hit on top Russian center Ilya Nikolayev. Nikolayev returned to play against the Americans.
Although this edition from the family of Five Nations tournaments can at times be viewed as nothing more than a pre-draft formality, the sheer volume of quality prospects involved gives you the chance to confirm or deny early-season assessments for a sizable chunk of the draft’s pool of notable prospects. Sadly, a significant number of blue-chip, 2001-born eligibles decided to dip out of the competition altogether, thus making those who did not participate — Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Victor Soderstrom, Philip Broberg and Daniil Gutik — as much a part of the story as those who were there. The optimist in me, however, viewed the aforementioned omissions as opportunity for lesser-known types to stand out, and stand out they did.
There were several storylines to pay attention to, beginning with whether or not Team USA would be able to mop up the competition without the help of consensus top draft pick Jack Hughes, who decided to skip the tournament to deal with an apparent lower-body injury. With as many as four potential top-10 picks in this year’s draft, the NTDP proved it didn’t need Hughes to mop up USHL or NCAA competition when Jack was away at the December under-20 world juniors. Would they be able to do the same without their best player? Finland also was without its best 2001-born player in winger Kaapo Kakko, who decided to stick around his club team in Turku rather than play at either the U18 or U19 Five Nations. Still, the group Finland sent to Russia had just swept the December Five Nations in Switzerland, including a thrilling 4-3 win over the Czechs in the title game. In Sochi, the Czechs returned the favor with a convincing 6-3 win in the opener, only to lose each of its next three games to finish last. After a somewhat quiet first game, Finland’s top line of Leevi Aaltonen, Antti Saarela and Patrik Puisotla each showed consistency in their efforts to create plays while repeatedly pressing hard on the forecheck button. The Swedes weren’t expected to do much with a relatively thin group of 2001-born prospects that are driven by a mobile defense corps. Both Victor Soderstrom and Philip Broberg — two likely first-round picks in June — initially were penciled in as roster players, but they decided to stay with their respective club teams in Brynas and AIK. That put the onus on talented two-way defender Tobias Bjornfot to shoulder the load, which he did with aplomb.
LW Vasily Podkolzin (Ranked No. 3): Podkolzin has been hard to track from a scouting standpoint because he’s been bouncing around from team to team, tournament to tournament. This marked his fourth international event since August (Hlinka, World Juniors, World Jr. A Challenge and the February Five Nations), with the IIHF under-18’s in April. Additionally, the two-way winger is being shuffled from SKA’s junior team in the MHL, the second-division team in the VHL, and even several appearances with the big club itself. He wasn’t as dominant in Sochi as he was in previous tournaments, and his lack of self-control cost him the chance to play in the biggest game up to this point in his draft year. Nonetheless, Podkolzin, barring injury, should get another shot at Team USA at the U18’s on April 21st.
LHD Semyon Chistyakov (Ranked No. 67): Tolpar’s bull of a defenseman was an alternate captain and the primary minute-eating option for the Russians. Bigger in heart and effort than in stature, Chistyakov is an effortless skater who owns a booming shot and can quarterback the power play. He’s an energetic defender who plays with his head on a swivel and looks to deliver big open-ice hits.
C Yegor Spiridonov (Ranked No. 21): One of the draft’s best two-way centers, Spiridonov anchored the second line and top penalty killing unit. I’ve written and tweeted about him extensively since the summer, and to no surprise, he produced a consistent, 200-foot effort in every game while showing off his hard, accurate shot and strong finishing abilities. Spiridonov definitely helped his draft stock with his performance in Sochi.
RW Arseni Gritsyuk (Ranked No. 196): A creative forward with a deadly shot who plays a well-rounded game, Gritsyuk was able to distinguish himself in all four games, including scoring pivotal opening goal and adding two assists in the win over the Americans. Although he isn’t the biggest forward on the ice, Gritsyuk takes direct routes to the net and can fend off harassing backcheckers.
LHD Roman Bychkov (Ranked No. 152): One of Russia’s fastest-skating rearguards also plays a physical game, but Bychkov’s at his best when he takes command of the puck and uses his wheels to dart and weave through the neutral zone. You’d like to see a defender with his strength and leg drive to not back in as much as he does during opposing entry attempts, but he makes up for it by finishing his checks with authority and using a quick stick to free the puck from either corner.
RW Maxim Groshev (2020 Draft): Not having Daniil Gutik flanking Nikolayev on the top line and first power-play unit opened the door for Groshev to showcase his puck handling and scoring abilities. Groshev is incredibly strong on the puck and has quick feet to change direction in an instant. On several occasions, Groshev was able to not only enter the zone cleanly, but also drive to the net for chances despite an opponent draped all over him. He’s distinguished himself at several tournaments and makes the most out of his limited role with Reaktor in the MHL.
#U18: The silky-smooth skill of C Trevor Zegras (Ranked No. 5) on full display in this set up to RW Ryder Rolston (2020 Draft). Team USA with an early 1-0 lead on Sweden. LW Matt Boldy (Ranked No. 7) picks up the other assist. pic.twitter.com/AdDLMEp4X7
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) February 6, 2019
C Trevor Zegras (Ranked No. 5): Not having Jack Hughes around allowed Zegras to slide back to his natural position of center, where he excels as a playmaker and on-ice general. He led the tournament in scoring with three goals and seven points in four games, but we all know stats only tell a portion of the story. In Zegras’s case, he’s simply a joy to watch every shift, and his upright skating style and rapid directional changes can at times make him a dead ringer for Hughes. His agility and edgework are superior, so when you combine his skating with his elite vision and creativity, you get one of the draft’s most tantalizing options.
C Alex Turcotte (Ranked No. 4): Turcotte may still be a good month away from being in midseason form, but he again, albeit in spurts, showed why he is so revered as a prospect. Of course, it would have helped his case had he produced on a more consistent basis. But he contributes in a variety of ways both on and off the puck, which is part of the reasoning behind ranking him as high as I have him. His elite speed, anticipation and hustle helped him win a lot of foot races that culminated into set-ups near the net, and Turcotte’s playmaking and shooting proclivity were front and center in a tough 3-2 win over Finland. His overall performance was neither awe-inspiring nor disappointing, but sometimes the status quo can be just as comforting or reassuring as a collection of multi-point efforts.
LW Matthew Boldy (Ranked No. 7): Much like Turcotte, Boldy’s puck wizardry and high-end skill came in bunches rather than wire-to-wire dominance. In other words, what you saw from Boldy versus international competitors in Sochi was no different than the things he does on a nightly basis against either USHL or NCAA opponents. This kid is one cerebral winger, and he looks so darn smooth and graceful with the puck on his backhand as much as he does with it on his forehand.
RW Cole Caufield (Ranked No. 20): I’ve seen Caufield enough to know he is far from a one-dimensional scorer who relies on someone else’s hard work to get him chances. Quite the opposite, to be honest. Nevertheless, I was interested in how Caufield would handle tough international competition without having Hughes as the puck magnet. Yes, the goal scorer has done just fine with or without Hughes in the lineup, and such was the case in Sochi. Caufield was a threat throughout the tournament, where he maintained his reputation as a dual-threat scorer. His quick first step and balance allowed him to fight through checks in the neutral zone and enter the zone with time and space — a deadly combination for a player with Caufield’s elite puck skills. Sometimes you have to just pay attention to him away from the puck to get an idea of how smart he is. The opponents certainly know his name and grasp the inherent danger he presents to them. Yet there he was, time after countless time, getting or skating the puck right into the prime scoring areas in the slot.
C John Beecher (Ranked No. 25): Beecher plays a powerful and physical two-way game, and he is one of the few two-way centers available in 2019 who look extremely comfortable handling the puck and weaving inside the offensive zone for the entirety of a shift. He loves to hit and walks a fine line between clean and dirty, but Beecher is a throwback power center who also has the necessary puck skills to possibly develop into a top-six pivot at the highest level. You need a weapon to gain the advantage in trench warfare, and Beecher proved to be just that in Sochi.
#U18: LW Patrik Puistola (Ranked No. 48) making something out of nothing. This is a 1-on-5 that he turned into a scoring chance and goal for Aatu Raty (2020 Draft). Granted, what the hell were the Swedes doing, but credit Puistola for taking advantage of what they gave him. pic.twitter.com/C4ZtmQPW2a
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) February 9, 2019
LW Leevi Aaltonen (Ranked No. 78): One of the fastest skaters in the draft, Aaltonen quickly became a favorite of mine before Sochi, and he did nothing egregious to make me think twice about how promising a prospect he is. His speed-shot combination off the rush is deadly — few wingers eligible for 2019 are able to get off the kind of velocity and accuracy with their wristers while traveling at top speed. You get the sense that goalies begin to doubt themselves when they see Aaltonen flying towards them, and even his bad-angle shots force them into making tough saves that result in juicy rebounds. His efforts on the penalty kill and on the forecheck confirmed the significant change in his game from a perimeter finesse player to a 200-foot shark. The image of Aaltonen five years older with 20 added pounds of muscle may be enough to even get him into the first round.
C Antti Saarela (Ranked No. 69): Much his brother Aleksi, Antti is a physical 200-foot center who contributes at a high level in several areas. The aforementioned hit on Nikolayev may have seemed like incidental contact to the casual observer. But if you’ve watched Saarela play long enough, you’d know that this is what he does — he is capable of hyper-physcial play and he can send an unsuspecting forward into next week. Speed, power, smarts and finesse are things every scouting director should want in his prospects, so remember Saarela’s name as we move closer towards the U18 worlds and then the scouting combine.
RW Patrik Puistola (Ranked No. 48): A crafty housewife makes cool things out of yarn and bottle caps. A crafty hockey player makes scoring chances out of nothing. One shops at Michael’s and loves Pinterest. The other carves up opposing defenses from the red line inward. At this point, it’s pretty obvious which category Puistola falls under, so you’ll just have to pardon my attempts to be cute. Anyway, Puistola is a smart player who surveys the ice like a quarterback under center trying to identify multiple options. His stickhandling and agility consistently buys him time and space, and I tend to gravitate towards low-maintenance set-up men whose skills turn any linemate into a scoring threat.
RHD Antti Tuomisto (Ranked No. 214): Tuomisto is a big, lanky puck mover whom I needed to see more of before giving him the rankings bump so many were telling me to execute. I like his top-four upside because he handles every role with the same kind of attitude and on-ice demeanor — he’s a battler who doesn’t like to give in, but also plays aggressive and likes to venture deep into the offensive zone. Tuomisto runs the top power play unit, where he displays soft hands to handle tough passes and can unleash a booming shot. His skating is gangly and awkward but he generates a significant amount of power and speed after his third or fourth step. What I liked the most was how he did not back down from any physical challenges and made opponents pay for heading his way.
LHD Santeri Hatakka (Ranked No. 213): Another big riser for my next rankings, and it’s been in the works for the last month. Hatakka is an extremely confident puck carrier with excellent speed and a crisp first pass who can cover a lot of ground. Hatakka wins the significant majority of his foot races and he’s not afraid to take a hit to move the puck safely. A glance at his stats with Jokerit or Team Finland do anything but jump out at you, but his speed, aggressiveness and sound decision making make me think he is a diamond in the rough
LHD Tobias Bjornfot (Ranked No. 33): I’m starting to think that Bjornfot is the superior defense prospect with higher upside than fellow countryman Philip Broberg, who did not play in the tournament. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Bjornfot distinguished himself as the clear-cut No. 1 on Sweden’s blueline while overseeing breakouts and the power play for a roster that up front was led by a bunch of 2020 draft eligibles. The come-from-behind win over the U.S. was due in part to Bjornfot’s puck-carrying skills and decision making with the puck. He scored a beautiful end-to-end goal that he finished with a snipe.
LHD Albert Johansson (Ranked No. 104): I’ve been a big fan of his game for several months, and he didn’t disappoint in Sochi. Johansson is a gifted skater who plays with a lot of swagger and aggressiveness. There are multiple subcultures within the defenseman community, and Johansson belongs to that select group who basically look NHL caliber any time they are gliding through the neutral zone. The thing is, Johansson isn’t some one-trick finesse player. He will engage in physical battles, get down to block shots and relentless hound opposing puck carriers. Of course, the intent always is to gain possession and scoot up ice, which he does rather effortlessly. He normally runs Farjestad J20’s power play, but he was kept off Sweden’s top unit at the Five Nations because they ran four forwards with Bjornfot as the lone defender on the top power-play unit. Take my word for it — this kid is a stud with top-pairing potential.
RHD Albert Lyckasen (Ranked No. 232): A undersized yet heady puck mover with sound instincts, Lyckasen was decisive throughout the tournament as he moved with speed and agility through the neutral zone, turning tightly to avoid pressure. Lyckasen uses a variety of head fakes, jukes and stutter steps to catch an opponent flat footed and move laterally into the opening. What I liked most about his game with the puck was his ability to regroup and recalculate if his initial option proved too risky. This kind of poise is critical in today’s possession game, so in that regard I can see Lyckasen develop into a coach’s trusted breakout option. Defensively, you’re not going to get the second coming of Rod Langway, as he relies heavily on a quick stick and Sweden’s two-way forwards to help him win battles along the wall or behind the net, and cover gaps in the slot. Still, he likes to activate himself off of faceoffs and sneak into weak side openings for one-time chances.
C Karl Henriksson (Ranked No. 89): Henriksson again centered Sweden’s top line while being flanked by the 2020 draft standouts Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond. While the neophytes proved to be self-reliant when trying to create chances, Henriksson’s speed and stickhandling through traffic forced defenders to back and give him more room than was necessary. He was more than capable running the power play from the half wall, and his passes to the points or from circle to circle were clean, crisp and calculated, meaning he wasn’t just throwing the puck around to avoid making a mistake.
LHD Ludvig Hedstrom (Ranked No. 250): A graceful, fluid skater whose performance at the Five Nations came close to equal Bjornfot’s efforts. Hedstrom is considered by some to be a worthy option to joined Sweden’s other top draft-eligible defensemen for the 2019 NHL Draft. But for reasons centered on a lack of risk taking with the puck, I didn’t think he was close to cracking the top 200 for the draft. If his performance in Sochi was the true indicator of his upside, then I clearly am selling him short. Hedstrom was precise with his step-ups, delivered jarring hits, blocked shots old-school style and was quick to transition from defense to offense. His speed, when coupled with sharp read-and-react decisions at his own line, led to multiple counterattacks. He doesn’t offer much in terms of creativity, but he was one of the best defenders in Sochi in terms of flicking the switch from defense to offense.
G Hugo Alnefelt (Ranked No. 92): For whatever reason, this Swedish netminder saves his best play for the international stage. It started with his dominant performance with HV71’s junior team at the Junior Club World Cup, plus strong performances at the Ivan Hlinka and during last week in Sochi. He likes to stay on his knees like most present-day butterfly goalies, but he didn’t present shooters with much to aim for. This is the hallmark of a goalie who has net awareness, and although he has moments of fighting it with low-danger shots, Alnefelt still shows a ton of promise as one of the top goalies for the 2019 draft.
#U18: LW Michal Teply (Ranked No. 29) scores his second of the game to give the Czechs a 4-2 lead over Finland in the 2nd. RW Adam Raska (2020) & C Radek Muzik (Ranked No. 193) also scored for the Czechs. Top 2020 draft prospect RW Kasper Simontaival with both goals for Finland. pic.twitter.com/z373PkPVUG
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) February 5, 2019
LW Michal Teply (Ranked No. 29): Teply was one of the Czech Republic’s better forwards in Sochi, which shouldn’t surprise anybody. I like kids who draw attention towards themselves via hard work, smart positioning and quick thinking, and Teply does all three in spades. Additionally, he owns an excellent wrist shot and doesn’t require much room or space to unleash it towards the net. He was tremendous in the convincing win over Finland, but much like his teammates, he slowed down as the tournament progressed. One thing that Teply does that continues to amaze me is how well he manages the puck without panicking while he’s controlling play from along the wall or near his own line.
C Marcel Barinka (Ranked No. 61): It’s been an up-and-down year for Barinka, who was allowed by Halifax in the QMJHL to suit up for the tournament. That decision shouldn’t have been all that surprising, as he had been a healthy scratch several times and has had trouble finding his scoring touch in a league known for being friendlier to goal scoring. The good news is that he looked great as the Czechs’ top-line center, and his chemistry with Teply was evident from the early going. Two blowout losses led to a lot of garbage time, but Barinka maintained a high compete level and worked hard to create plays off the cycle. He has very good speed and is an excellent passer while attacking across center ice.
LHD Jakub Zurek (Ranked No. 322): A surprisingly strong tournament for this big two-way defender, who used physicality and sound slot positioning to compliment his mobility and puck-rushing attributes. Zurek has a long reach and quick feet, but he seems to give too much room on entries and will overly respect his opponent’s speed entering the zone. His gap is far tighter during one-on-one situations near the wall, and his will time his checks appropriately.
C Adam Najman (Ranked No. 199): One of the more relentless two-way forwards I’ve seen this year, Najman is an excellent stickhandler in traffic who by himself can address a variety of needs for his coaches. He plays on both the power play and penalty kill, plus he can be counted on to take (and win) late-game draws in the defensive zone. He always is lending support to his defenders below the goal line and will cover for them in the slot.
LW Martin Beranek (Ranked No. 277): A speedy winger with a heavy wrister who contributes on special teams, Beranek will be rising up the draft rankings thanks to a string of successful international tournaments and solid play in the Chance Liga. He is an excellent penalty killer who keeps his feet and stick active while pressing the points, but he also makes money on the power play via his deadly one-timer that he unleashes quickly. Beranek has a very quick first step and can leave defenders in the dust by the time he gets to the blue line.
LHD Jan Klodner (Ranked No. 201): Klodner is a hard-hitting defender who skates very well and joins the rush with decisiveness and proper positioning. He can play either side and is a reliable option to use for defensive-zone draws since he outmuscles opponents with relative ease. Klodner is very smart with or without the puck, and he takes the right routes during retrievals. You rarely see him chasing opponents in the low-danger areas, and if he does, it’s done with the security of knowing one of his teammates will have the slot covered.