NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) –– The upcoming 2021 under-20 world junior hockey championship, known colloquially as the World Juniors, will take on the added responsibility of reintroducing crazed fans to the kind of competitive, gripping hockey they’ve been missing for several months. The tournament which never fails to deliver intense and spirited play also provides premier draft prospects the opportunity to showcase their skills and give the scouting community a peak into their potential as future NHL stars.
This year’s competition will feature changes to the rules and format — mostly in response to the world-wide league shutdowns and travel restrictions. But one aspect of this year’s tournament that can be considered unrelated to the global pandemic is the decrease in notable first-year draft eligibles, to include any player considered a favorite to go first overall. Each of the last nine first overall picks at the NHL draft played in the previous winter’s world juniors, with 2011 No. 1 selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the last top choice to not participate in the event during his draft year.
Of course, the biggest explanation for that trend being bucked is that the consensus can’t seem to agree on a singular favorite to lead the Class of 2021. Finnish center Aatu Raty at one point was considered the lead horse, but a slow start to his season played a role in the young forward being left off his national junior team. Moving ahead of Raty in most rankings was University of Michigan defender Owen Power, a 6-foot-5 playmaker from Canada who wasn’t invited as well, thus meaning the mystery surrounding this year’s top selection will not be solved via the small sample size of the World Juniors.
Or will it?
Below is a list of the dozen or so first-year draft eligibles who will participate in this year’s World Juniors, which begins on Christmas Day. From this list, only a handful are considered locks for the first round, with two — American power center Matthew Beniers and Swedish goalie Jesper Wallstedt — having legitimate potential to challenge Power, Raty, and Co. to become the No. 1 pick at the 2021 NHL draft. How great of a challenge they pose remains to be seen, and it’s doubtful either Wallstedt or Beniers will play enough to separate themselves from the draft eligibles who are playing elsewhere or waiting for the league season to resume.
Matt Beniers, Center (U.S.) Data: Michigan, Big-10 | Nov. 5, 2002 | 6’2, 174 | Shoots Left | 8gp-3g-3a-6pts Expected draft range: 1st to 10th overall
A powerful 200-foot center, Beniers was one of the top player’s for last year’s NTDP under-18 program and thus far is of to a strong start for the Michigan Wolverines. You’d be hard pressed to find a draft eligible who works harder off the puck than Beniers, who shouldn’t take long to earn the good graces of Team USA coach Nate Leaman. But the Hingham, Mass. native is more than just a checker or a physical force — Beniers has excellent puck control and impressive shiftiness to not only avoid pressure but also tire them out. Although he needs to improve on his faceoffs, there aren’t any aspects of his game to nitpick, and Beniers is an expert penalty killer who is the perfect option to deploy in late-close situations. It may sound cliche, but he’s the type of player you need to win in the trenches and help swing momentum back in his team’s favor.
Wallstedt is no stranger to international competition — he has at least 20 appearances at the under-17 and under-18 level and stymied Canada-Red in all five shootout attempts to win bronze at the 2018 World U17 Hockey Challenge. He’s taken on a significant role for Lulea, splitting the netminding duties with veteran David Rautio and posting impressive numbers. Although many consider him to be the most heralded Swedish goalie prospect since Henrik Lundqvist, Wallstedt is a bit different stylistically in that he is more aggressive in the crease and will challenge shooters above the crease with regularity. There’s no guarantee Wallstedt will see significant action in either the preliminary or medal rounds — 19-year-old Tampa prospect Hugo Alnefelt has the WJC experience to maintain his job as the No. 1. If Alnefelt falters and Wallstedt excels as his replacement, the calls for the former to become a top-five draft pick should grow louder as the season progresses.
Oskar Olausson, Left Wing (Sweden) Data: HV71 J20, Nationell | Nov. 10, 2002 | 6’1, 177 | Shoots Left | 16gp-14g-13a-27pts Expected draft range: 5th to 15th overall
A prolific scorer who can score from just about anywhere, Olausson ranks among the J20 Nationell’s leaders in points and goals while delivering a ridiculous six shots per game. He was expected to team with fellow first-year eligible William Eklund to provide the Swede’s with another lethal 1-2 punch from the wing, but Eklund’s positive COVID test now allows Olausson to stand out on his own. A fantastic skater with breakaway speed, Olausson can be used in any situation and is one of the top shorthanded scoring threats in the tournament.
Samuel Helenius, Center (Finland) Data: JyP, SM-Liiga | Nov. 26, 2002 | 6’6, 201 | Shoots Left | 18gp-5g-3a-8pts Expected draft range: 15th to 25th overall
A powerful two-way center who wasted little time establishing himself as a regular for JyP in Finland’s elite SM-Liiga, Helenius is the son of former NHL defenseman Sami Helenius, a ruffian who appeared in 155 games between 1997 and 2003. Samuel plays a similar abrasive style, albeit one that is both disciplined and effective. Much like Olausson, Helenius is a real danger for opponents when they’re on the power play, and he was used as the top penalty killer for Finland’s under-17 and -18 squads at several high-profile international tournaments. You’d think that a 6-foot-6 pivot would have issues with mobility but Helenius is quick in open ice and can deliver precision passes or a nasty wrist shot labeled for inside the post.
Daniil Chaika, Defenseman (Russia) Data: CSKA, KHL | Oct. 22, 2002 | 6’3, 187 | Shoots Left | 7gp-0g-0a-0pts Expected draft range: 15th to 25th overall
Chaika is an interesting case study because he’s as Russian as they come but he’s already played several seasons in Canada, specifically in the OHL with the Guelph Storm. The lanky defenseman currently is on loan to one of the stingier defensive teams in the KHL in CSKA after tracking to be one of the better blueliners in the entire OHL, which is where he should be expected to play in the second half. Chaika oozes top-pairing potential and proved to carry the load on defense during 5-on-5 and special teams. He is a strong skater with excellent anticipation and a crisp first pass, and Chaika’s howitzer from the point is incorporated into Russia’s set plays during the man advantage. But it’s his play in the defensive zone that really stands out; mostly for his ridiculous wingspan and active stick. Granted, Chaika tends to float away from the slot, but being quick and having a long reach helps him break up plays even when being beaten to a spot near the goal.
Stanislav Svozil, Defenseman (Czech Rep.) Data: Kometa Brno, Extraliga | Jan. 17, 2003 | 6’1, 172 | Shoots Left | 14gp-0g-0a-0pts Expected draft range: Late 1st to 2nd Round
Every world junior tournament seems to have at least one notable Czech prospect who’s been on the draft radar for several years. Last season, it was center Jan Mysak, and Martin Necas and Filip Zadina before him. In Svozil, the Czechs aren’t necessarily parading him around as the national junior team’s go-to guy or savior — the Czech defense is very deep and an area of strength. Still, Svozil is a critical component to the defense corps thanks to his poised play under pressure and quick strike mentality. He’s a bit of a hunched skater but the gliding and grace come to the forefront once he’s hit his third or fourth stride. And although he can stickhandle his way into the middle of the ice and an improved shooting angle, Svozil is not just a puck mover. He owns an acute grasp of defensive-zone coverage, especially the low slot and the circles. He can be physical enough to hard-shove an opponent off the puck and his retreat speed back to the slot is a strength. Of all the things Svozil can do, however, it’s his use of the backhand that is the most impressive — he will deliver hard first passes right on the tape via the backhand and does so over long distances.
A steady defensive defenseman who is rarely caught out of position, Kirsanov has been a regular for Russian junior programs since he was an early teenager. Although his lack of creativity and average footspeed likely sends him to the later rounds of the draft, it’s quite common to see Kirsanov go through long stretches of mistake-free hockey; specifically in coverage and when dealing with a forecheck. He has a sturdy frame and can stickhandle his way out of a hole, but most of his contributions on the puck revolve around quick outlet passes or delaying to beat back a pesky forward. Kirsanov usually is the last man up the ice when his team is in attack mode, but it seems to be by design and also quite effective — Kirsanov is one of the better teenage blueliners I’ve seen at defending against an odd-man rush. Kirsanov seems to have limited his rush and entry attempts as he’s progressed into a more defensive role, but he can still take the puck for a skate while revealing nifty moves in open ice. For now, count on him to drop down on occasion once his team begins their cycle game and make timely reads to keep plays alive.
Lorenzo Canonica, Center (Switzerland) Data: Lugano, U20-Elit | Sep. 3rd, 2003 | 5’11, 175 | Shoots Left | 20gp-11g-8a-19pts Expected draft range: Middle rounds
Canonica is a high-octane center who can dazzle you with his puck skills but also play with some bite and effort. He made 2021 draft eligibility by only a few weeks, so expect him to continue growing and filling out. Thing is, he’s not weak on the puck and can tire out helpless defenders with his multi-directional quickness, and starting and stopping in the middle of the ice seems to force opponents to remain static before losing him. Canonica is your atypical playmaker who “makes everyone around him better”, but he also has a nasty wrister and sick hands to finish near the goal. He’ll likely center one of Switzerland’s top two lines at the world juniors and also man the half wall on the power play. Keep in mind that he was selected by the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes in the CHL Import Draft but chose to remain in Europe; although there’s a good chance he’ll cross the pond once the QMJHL season resumes.
Oleksiy Myklukha, Center (Slovakia) Data: Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL | Nov. 25, 2002 | 5’11, 156 | Shoots Right Expected draft range: Late Rounds
The top Slovakian draft prospect for the 2021 draft, Myklukha’s upside is a notch below previous Slovak forwards such as Martin Chromiak in 2020 and Maxim Cajkovic the year prior. He’s a natural center who can play the wing, which he did on occasion for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies last season. Swift and skilled with a soft set of hands, Myklukha is a wiry pass-first playmaker who slips and dances around traffic before exploiting open ice, but keep an eye out for his wrist shot which he can label short-side high. Although the Slovak roster has yet to be finalized, the removal of Cajkovic could open up a spot on the top-six and power play for Myklukha, who likes to operate and create from the half wall.
Chanton is a stead three-zone defender who spent last season on a depth pairing with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. For the Swiss, expect Chanton to be their No. 1 and all-situations fireman who can handle the tough assignments and use his cleverness and anticipation to help tilt the ice back in their favor. He has good length and uses a highly-active stick while maintaining his gap, but his anticipation and timely step-ups in the grey zone keep clean opposing zone entries to a minimum during even-strength play. Chanton is a hard passer — sometimes too hard — but the timing and accuracy of his leads catch his forwards in stride. It was surprising to see a young defender who excels on his side of the red line left off of Central Scouting’s initial watch list, but part of that can be attributed to playing for the defensive dumpster fire for Niagara in last year’s run-and-gun OHL. His mobility and quickness are above average, and although Chanton is more of a pin-and-holder than a masher, he can use his upper-body strength to separate opponents from the puck.
Meier is a power-play quarterback and puck rusher who has impressive speed and quickness. Charged with running the Swiss power play at several under-18 and under-18 events, his creativity and playmaking ability has often overshadowed the like of fellow blueliner Noah Delemont, who once was considered the best 2002-born Swiss defense prospect. He’s held his own playing in the adult-age Swiss League and a physical forecheck doesn’t seem to intimidate him. He’s definitely more of a one-way rearguard than one to be counted on to put out fires in the defensive zone, but Meier’s skating ability and passing do not go unnoticed once the puck settles onto his blade. It will be interesting to see if the Swiss pair him with Delemont on the same power-play unit or simply hands the responsibilities solely to Meier.