2020 NHL Draft

U18 Five Nations (Feb.)

Finns bust out brooms in sweep of elites
Steve Kournianos  |  2/15/2020 |  Nashville  |  

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NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — One of the most competitive in-season tournaments for the draft year is the under-18 Five Nations that takes place every February. This year’s version was played in the Czech Republic, with Finland coming away with a clean sweep over most of the top hockey nations in the world. What makes this event special beyond the high level of competition is the sheer volume of elite first-year eligible draft prospects, many of whom are earmarked for the first or second round of the NHL draft. Last year’s event in Russia featured 12 prospects who eventually were drafted within the first 31 picks. This year’s tournament also showcased talent with first-round potential, to include Russian top goalie Yaroslav Askarov, Team USA defenseman Jake Sanderson, and Swedish blueliner Emil Andrae.

In the end, however, it was Finland which captured the championship thanks to a clean four-game sweep of competing nations that culminated with a 3-1 win over the Americans in the winner-take-all finale. Finland’s Kasper Simontaival (4 goals, 3 assists), and Sanderson (3 goals, 4 assists) tied for the lead in scoring.

Below are several reports on some of the more noticeable prospects:

Prospect Notes

Finland

LHD Eemil Viro (Ranked No. 65): Viro had a solid tournament outside of a few down moments where he either overcommitted or was out of position. Such is the case when you’re a defenseman who can skate as well as Viro can, as he seemed to use his quickness as a contingency for all the risks taken up high near the blue line. Viro was used on the top pairing, lead power-play unit and anchored the penalty kill – three critical responsibilities that only a few draft-age defenders can tackle in a best-on-best tournament. Of all Finland’s defenders, Viro was on the ice for most of the scoring from either side, but only a few were clearly his fault – namely the highlight-reel goal scored by Teddy Niederbach in the win over Sweden.


RHD Topi Niemela (Ranked No. 46): Niemela was Finland’s defensive star for the tournament, not only for his shutdown ability and consistency in pushing the puck up ice, but also for logging major minutes. He averaged nearly 22 minutes a game, including a team-high 25:26 in the win over Sweden on Feb. 7. The Finns seemed to rotate power-play quarterbacks on the first unit, but Niemela saw plenty of time during the man advantage, where his keen instincts and quick feet helped keep plays alive inside the opposing end. The stats may indicate that he recorded only one assist in four games, but the more important takeaway from Niemela’s tournament (besides helping his team to victory) was that he was on the ice for eight goals scored, of which seven were scored by Finland.


C Roni Hirvonen (Ranked No. 59): Hirvonen was one of Finland’s top players, which was expected considering his usage and production with Assat in the SM-Liiga. He spent most of the tournament with sniper Roby Jarventie and Samu Tuomaala on his wings, but it was clear from the onset that it was he who would be the possession driver and create the bulk of the high-danger chances. Hirvonen can put up points, but his hockey sense and hard work on the ice makes him a contributor beyond goals and assists. On multiple occasions, Hirvonen properly identified weak-side threats during opposing odd-man entries and guessed right on which player represented the biggest danger. He’s one of the few first-year eligibles who is able to make plays that are both reflected in the box score in addition to covering up for his teammates’ mistakes or risks that present opponents with a chance to strike. Hirvonen finished with two goals and four assists in four games, and he led all Finnish forwards in ice time at nearly 17 minutes per game.


RW Kasper Simontaival (Ranked No. 25): One of the more heralded Finnish prospects coming into the season, Simontaival has nothing left to prove in the Nuorten SM-Liiga after laying waste to opponents for two years straight. As already mentioned, the diminutive winger led the tournament in scoring while playing on a line with a couple of big boys in 2021 forwards Samuel Helenius and Eetu Liukas. Measurements aside, Simontaival’s pure puck skills, vision, and hockey sense are what made him distinguishable while playing alongside a couple of trees. He is incredibly agile and shifty but I also counted multiple occasions where he anticipated the location of the puck, beat an opponent to the spot, and then motored up the ice for a clean entry and chance at the net.



C Samuel Helenius (2021 Draft) – A big two-way center who is more of a depth player on a stacked Jokerit U20 team, Helenius gave you flashes in the Czech Republic that helped validate any assessment labeling him a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft. Not only did he reveal soft hands and a nice scoring tough, but Helenius was Finland’s best penalty killer, and in several instances would be engaged for the duration of the disadvantage in manpower. He scored only one goal in four games, but good things seemed to happen with him on the ice.

United States

G Drew Commesso (Ranked No. 156) – If you were going to base the NHL upside of a draft-eligible prospect off of just one tournament or small stretch of games, then watching Commesso play at the Five Nations would lead you to believe he’s a lock for the first or second round. Much like 2019 first-round pick Spencer Knight, Commesso plays like he has ice water in his veins. You rarely see him out of position or make a movement that isn’t fluid and doctrinally sound. Most followers of this year’s NTDP 18’s will tell you that this group has played a ton of close games against the best competition in three circuits – the USHL, the NCAA, and international tournaments, and Commesso has pooled together several stellar performances in each of them. One thing is certain – the future Boston University Terrier significantly outplayed Yaroslav Askarov in this tournament, which was something Knight couldn’t do last February. I think I’ve seen enough of Commesso the last two months to give him a significant boost in my next rankings.


LHD Jake Sanderson (Ranked No. 32) – Sanderson always was first-round quality in my eyes as far back as last year, but he’s putting together one of the more impressive draft-year runs by any defenseman in recent memory. If you thought Sanderson couldn’t top his dominance of USHL competition in league play or the January All-American Prospects Game, guess again, as his performance in the Czech Republic against most of the Europe’s top under-18 prospects was nothing short of spectacular. Sanderson tied for the tournament scoring lead with three goals and four assists, but it was the manner in which he amassed those stats that made the experience noteworthy. Sanderson was blistering shots with either the slapper or wrister; he was dangling forwards and defensemen; using quickness and agility to exit and enter zones cleanly; and most importantly, the timeliness of his scoring. Not only did Sanderson notch a point each time Team USA tallied its first goal in each of the four games, but four of his points either gave the U.S. the lead or tied the score, including a late snipe in the third period to force overtime in a 4-3 shootout win over the Czechs on Feb. 6.  Sanderson averaged over 20 minutes a game in each match and was the best player in the entire tournament.



LW Luke Tuch (Ranked No. 60) – Tuch is one of my favorite draft-eligible players to watch for a variety of reasons. Yes, he has those NHL bloodlines from big-brother Alex, who was a first-round pick in 2014 and a regular with the Vegas Golden Knights. Luke, unsurprisingly, is a hard-charging power winger who uses his speed and puck control to frequently attack the inside, even against top-rated defenders with the fleetest of feet. Tuch is a hunter on the prowl in the neutral zone; one who looks for telegraphed passes to pick off or an unassuming puck carrier to nail into the boards. Although it’s nearly impossible to not notice Tuch on a given shift, his best performance was in a 3-2 win over Russia in which he scored an insurance goal after setting up Jake Sanderson’s wrister that opened the scoring. His physicality, quick stick and strong puck protection are critical to the success of the NTDP’s top line with center Thomas Bordeleau and Landon Slaggert.


C/RW Dylan Peterson (Ranked No. 142) – It’s starting to become very clear that I was a bit harsh for really dropping the hammer on Peterson for having a slow start to his draft season. Before I did so, however, I consulted with a couple of trustworthy people who confirmed that he wasn’t playing well but reiterated that Peterson’s potential for greater things still remained. Nonetheless, the California native has put together a nice second-half run, and his play at the Five Nations should be considered another feather in his cap. For what it’s worth, I ranked Peterson 45th in my August rakings that were based off his mean, dominant play with the 17’s last year. In the Czech Republic, and several weeks leading up to the tournament, Peterson has been an absolute pain to play against. It’s at the point where it goes without saying that he will treat the opening seconds of every shift as a violent seek-and-destroy mission to separate opponents from the puck and turn or keep the momentum in his favor. From then on, however, you get to see Peterson make sausage the old-fashioned way – winning board battles, protecting the puck, outmuscling defensemen for low-slot positioning, and stickhandling under control in the face of pressure. He can skate like the wind when you consider how big and thick he is — a key aspect of the allure his game exudes. Still, Peterson playing unbridled can have its drawbacks, specifically in the form of low-percentage (and inaccurate) shots and undisciplined penalties at inopportune times. In any event, you once again saw why scouts are in love with this kid.

Russia

LHD Shakir Mukhamadullin (Ranked No. 21) – One of the top-rated defensemen for this draft, Mukhamadullin at the Five Nations neither dominated nor underachieved. He anchored Russia’s first defense pairing alongside 2021 draft prospect Dmitri Kostenko, and there were several instances where I came away with the impression that it was Kostenko carrying his partner. Nonetheless, Mukhamadullin still contributes in so many areas, and the law of averages clearly states that any defenseman with Mukhamadullin’s extensive shift-to-shift requirements leaves room for error. If I could point to one game that was quintessential Mukhamadullin, it was in Russia’s blowout loss to Finland on Feb. 6. Blowing a tire in open ice aside, he had an excellent game in one-on-one and slot coverage; was poised under pressure and delivered crisp first passes during breakouts; and also delivered some timely hits in open ice. I wouldn’t say there’s a rawness to his game, as Mukhamadullin has proven he can be calculated and decisive while playing big minutes and tackling all situations regardless of the score. Overall, I’d say his performance in the Czech Republic was neither inspiring nor worrisome.


G Yaroslav Askarov (Ranked No. 10) — The life of a teenage goalie prospect in his draft year has to be difficult. Especially for one who has been touted as borderline generational for several years. For whatever reasons, Askarov has not been a busy boy since his subpar performance at the under-20 world junior championship. Although he is the youngest goalie in Russia’s adult-age VHL, his club team SKA-Neva has had no issues giving him the lion’s share of netminding duties that led up to the aforementioned WJC. Since then, however, Askarov appeared in only one league game between leaving for the Russian U20 camp on Dec. 9 and attending last weekend’s tournament. In other words, the kid just hasn’t played and no reports indicate a possible injury. In talking to several Russian hockey types, they were all in agreement that Askarov is a serious student of the game and analyzes his performances down to the smallest detail. Some feel he spent the last month going over technical issues, while others felt the situation was fragile and he needed a break.


In any event, Askarov’s performance at the Five Nations didn’t move the needle in any direction and he was somewhat inconsistent even within the context of a short sample size. After beating the Swedes with a 20-save performance in the opener on Feb. 5, Askarov, who was rested for the Americans on Feb.7, was responsible for the game-winner when he misplayed the puck behind his net and allowed Dylan Peterson to score in front. In the finale against the Czechs, a locked-in Askarov had a 3-1 lead but allowed to two late goals in the third period – one from a loose puck slam dunk by Josef Kolacek on the power play, the other a brutal bad-angle goal from the left circle. I guess you can say Askarov made up for it by stopping all five shots in the shootout in what became a 4-3 win, but yet again he was beaten in the upper half on both blocker and glove side in each of his three matches.


C Dmitri Zlodeyev (Ranked No. 91) – Zlodeyev is one of my fast risers, one who went from being Watch Listed in August to a top-93 slot in January. And I’ll have no problem vaulting him into the second round if he keeps delivering performances like the one he gave in the Czech Republic. Zlodeyev is as complete a two-way center as you’ll find. He’s a quick, upright skater with timely bursts into open ice, but there’s a significant level of violence to the way he moves; almost like a tiger increasing its rate of speed as it locks in on its prey. Zlodeyev is a big hitter and puts opposing defensemen on notice once they collect the puck with him bearing down on them. In this tournament, Zlodeyev was an absolute shark in the neutral zone and was picking off passes left and right. He made selfless plays in the defensive end but also created chances while being checked aggressively.


RW Nikita Buruyanov (2021 Draft) – Another hard-working Russian forward with skill, Buruyanov played in his fourth U18 tournament since August, but last weekend’s Five Nations may have been his best to date. He’s a hard worker who competes to the last seconds of every shift and will backcheck, forecheck, and pressure an opponent all the way up the ice. Buruyanov is a strong individual who can knock a puck carrier off balance with a one-armed shove or finish him off by plastering him to the boards. He definitely knows where he needs to be and can sniff out a threat before the scoring chance materializes, especially on the power play. When he’s on the puck, Buruyanov displays excellent balance as he powers through checks or when accelerating down the wing. He’s an above-average skater speed-wise but he always keeps his feet moving and is capable of dropping a rapid gear change to take the puck inside. Buruyanov showed his versatility by playing on both the power play and on the penalty kill in late/close moments, but he also showcased his stickhandling and decision making by dangling defenders in tight spaces rather than senselessly dumping puck down low. He scored a clutch goal against the U.S. off a defensive zone draw by motoring up the ice and beating Drew Commesso for a tying score.

Sweden

LHD Emil Andrae (Ranked No. 23): It’s not easy to stand out within a defense corps with several others earmarked for the early rounds of the draft, but the 5-foot-9 Andrae was Sweden’s clear-cut leader from start to finish. Much like his play for HV71 in the J20 Superelit, Andrae was Sweden’s conductor during breakouts and he also quarterbacked the power play. During both even strength and on special teams, Andrae often was paired with Helge Grans, who himself is quite capable and skilled with the puck. The difference was the Andrae used his speed and quick wits to cover up for Grans’s miscalculations and late reads. One thing I love about Andrae is the way he seems to always communicate with his teammates on the bench or before faceoffs, and also yells out instruction while defending against an odd-man rush. He made a beautiful move to the middle of the ice and blister a shot over Askarov’s glove in the loss to Russia.



LHD William Wallinder (Ranked No. 47): Wallinder was the top defenseman for MODO J20 that has since moved on to the adult-age Allsvenskan, where he’s been on a middle pairing and playing decent minutes in most situations. Considering how dominant he was against his draft-age peers in previous competitions, I was expecting Wallinder to control shifts consistently and over an extended period of time. We all know this kid is a graceful skater with a long, clean stride, so any area of skating will never be a concern. Wallinder also hammers the puck and can run a power play and is entrusted with crease-clearing duties on the penalty kill. Although we saw some of that in the Czech Republic last weekend, his overall performance was more of a mixed bag with the biggest highlight coming off a perfect home-run pass that sprung Theodor Niederbach for a goal against Finland. Wallinder averaged nearly 20 minutes a game the first two matches while paired with fellow MODO teammate Hugo Styf, but he left the game against the Americans midway through the match and sat out the finale against the Czechs. Wallinder also did not play in MODO’s first game since the tournament ended. The absence likely is injury related, but no formal announcement has been made yet.


RHD Helge Grans (Ranked No. 88): Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but Grans is the perfect example of a prospect with gaudy stats in junior league play who in my view has yet to distinguish himself in a single international event. He played a significant amount on the top pairing with Malmo J20 before his SHL promotion, and in this tournament he was used mostly with Emil Andrae. On paper the duo looked like a super pairing, but it didn’t take long to once again realize that Grans was letting his superior partner do most of the work. Now, there are several things to like about Grans. He has ideal size and is a fluid, graceful skater with sure hands and can deliver a clean first pass. Additionally, Grans can run the point on the power play and puts the perfect touch on most of his deliveries. There is, however, a significant tinge of indecisiveness, which when coupled with a lack of physical play or killer instinct makes Grans out to seem rather pedestrian and not as big difference maker. I’m also surprised to see him used on the penalty kill with regularity, as Grans may boast a long reach but he seems to question when or when not to release from the slot. He was on the ice for only one goal scored at even strength and four goals against.


RW Zion Nybeck (Ranked No. 38): There’s a lot of talk surrounding the likes of Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond when it comes to Sweden’s top draft-eligible forwards, but Nybeck is a kid that deserves attention simply because he rarely lets you down. He’s been one of the top scorers in the J20 Superelit in each of the last two seasons; and performing at a high level at international tournaments. Last weekend was no different, as he notched a pair of assists in four games and was one of the few Swedish forwards who wasn’t scoreboard watching despite suboptimal situations on the ice. He checks a lot of blocks despite being listed at 5-foot-7, and I don’t think I have ever walked away from one of his performances with a need for more effort, defensive play, or playmaking. Nybeck is one of the surest wingers when it comes to making decisions from the wall on either side. He also is strong in the chip-and-chase game for his willingness to challenge bigger, stronger opponents.


LW Daniel Torgersson (Ranked No. 117) – Torgersson is an aggressive, two-way power winger who is noticeable on practically every shift he takes. Not only does he stand out because of his size, but he also is quick to the puck and reveals a tireless compete level. You rarely see Torgersson try to overhandle the puck or attempt to become something he isn’t, and although his dump-and-chase game is as blue collar as you can get, Torgersson has very good puck skills in addition to being a quick skater with strong balance and controlled edgework. The thing is, Torgersson has always played on one of Frolunda’s top two lines with either Karl Henriksson or Theodor Niederbach as his center. In the Czech Republic last weekend, Torgersson and Niederbach showed their typical chemistry while operating the cycle and the timing of their weaves or give-and-go passes was accurate. Torgersson was on the top penalty-killing unit, where he pressured the points and was able to simultaneously block passing lanes while slightly committing to likely danger areas. A lot of high-end draft prospects kill penalties but count Torgersson as one of the few who seems to understand why he’s out on the ice to begin with.


C Theodor Niederbach (Ranked No. 99) – Niederbach is another highly-skilled Swedish forward who has the potential for making some serious noise as the NHL draft nears. After dealing with injuries last year, Niederbach has been able to distinguish himself amongst a strong group of Frolunda forwards. He’s taken his point production to a higher level after top-line center Karl Henriksson was promoted, and in the Czech Republic Niederbach showed flashes of his puck handling, vision, pass accuracy and finish near the net. He and Frolunda linemate Daniel Torgersson were highly active off the puck and were consistent in applying pressure on the forecheck. He’s a clean, upright skater with quick first step who anticipates extremely well and always seems to make the right reads that allow him to collect the puck while moving at top speed. His goal scored with Eemil Viro defending him was a thing of beauty.



LW Oskar Magnusson (Ranked No. 106) — Malmo’s resident pepper pot was up to his usual tricks at the Five Nations, where he was applying pressure in all three zones and using his quickness and acceleration to stay step for step with the fastest skaters opposing nations had to offer. Once he’s on the puck, you have to wake up early in the morning to try and slow him down, and in the chance that Magnusson isn’t motoring into open ice with confidence, he can still beat you with elusiveness in the offensive zone and split-second decisions close to the net. Magnusson wears a variety of hats while playing for Malmo – top-line winger; plays the point on the first power-play unit; kills penalties; and on the ice for most late/close situations. He and Andrae tied for Sweden’s scoring lead with a goal and three assists in four games, with the one goal coming against the Czechs off a beautiful feed from Nybeck that allowed Magnusson to break in alone for the eventual game winner. This kid has a lot of skill and seems to earn every point. Magnusson not only plays with enthusiasm but also has the skill and production to warrant the significant amount of ice time he receives at the club level.

Czech Republic

C Jakub Kolacek (9/6/02) – Kolacek is a slippery center who’s looked solid for Chomutov in the adult-age Chance Liga and was the Czechs’ most consistent scoring threat at the Five Nations. Although he’s no stranger to playing international tournaments, his play last weekend was the best performance he produced thus far. Kolacek scored a team-high three goals in this tournament for the host Czechs, who were a major disappointment in losing all four games. Kolacek is a strong skater with very good speed and a long stride. He saw a lot of power-play time and was a prime target for one-timers from the right circle, but he also was able to skate the puck into the zone with either patience or speed. Kolacek has an excellent shot that is accurate both off the pass and while moving at top speed. He’s also a capable playmaker from behind the net or in the corners, and his quick feet and strong balance helps him during board battles against bigger players. You can say that he’s been Chomutov’s replacement for Michal Gut, who left to play for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips and has not played for the Czechs internationally since the Ivan Hlinka tournament in August. Kolacek’s impressive performance at the Five Nations strengthens his case for a chance to play for his country at the under-18 world championship in April.


C Tobias Handl (7/2/02) – A big two-way center who has spent a good chunk of the season with Olomouc in the elite Extraliga, Handl was counted on to be one of the key contributors for the Czechs, and he scored a power-play goal off a deflection in a loss to Finland on Feb. 5.  Things went south the next game, however, as he took a massive crunch from Tyler Kleven in the loss to the Americans. Handl’s got size and strength for days, but there’s a short list of forwards who can take the full weight of a Kleven hit and return immediately to action. The injury from the hit is what likely forced him to sit out the match against Russia, but he returned for the finale versus the Swedes with a solid showing and no visible aftereffects. Handl is reliable in draws and can be counted on as a checker or net-front presence. He’s got very good mobility and deceptive quickness for a center who stands 6-foot-5 and nearly 200 pounds, and a lot of his game reminds me of Detroit Red Wings’ 2017 first rounder Mike Rasmussen. Olomouc isn’t that strong of a team so they’ve lengthened Handl’s leash this season and it’s likely he stays with them until they are eliminated.

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