Recap: 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship
Steve Kournianos | 05/11/2021 | Nashville | [hupso]
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The 2021 under-18 world hockey championship is officially complete, and thankfully so. Although this event was viewed as a welcomed change following its cancellation in 2020, the quality of play was several steps below the usually high standards of precision and execution we’ve come to see at this annual best-on-best competition.
It also did little to lift the fog of uncertainty surrounding the top of the oft-scrutinzed 2021 NHL draft class, whose prospects made up at least 90 percent of the tournament’s approximately 200 participants.
Compounding that issue has been the slew of junior league shutdowns and postponements, which when coupled with international travel restrictions added additional layers of pressure on the NHL’s North American scouts who were attending the event in droves. That meant more eyeballs were going to be fixated on these kids than at any other point in the season — kids who would be playing competitive hockey for the first time in months.
How serious was it? Serious enough to make one of the venues a “scouts only” event for the entirety of play in Group A.
And whether you chalk up to these irregularities to the pandemic or local health regulations is irrelevant — this unnatural setting visibly permeated down to the ice level, where players who usually played more reserved and fundamentally sound in league play were far too guilty of individualism and spotlighting rather than prioritizing team-centric play and selflessness.
Of course, there were exceptions, specifically with the collective hard-nosed efforts and individual sacrifices made by the gold-medal winning Canadians, who took home their first under-18 title since 2013.
Another bright spot was the show-stealing play of a pair of 2023 draft phenoms — Canada’s Connor Bedard and Russia’s Matvei Michkov, with Michkov winning tournament MVP and a scoring title with 12 goals and 16 points in seven games. Seeing these two future superstars go chest-to-chest in the tournament finale was well worth the $80 tickets, $30 for parking, and $10 bags of popcorn. But I digress.
Still, the question remains — is this tournament really that important when trying to assess a player’s potential at the NHL level? Some call it a piece to a puzzle, while others have used it (or other short tournaments for that matter) as the basis for selecting a player much higher than expected (e.g. Jesperi Kotkaniemi in 2018).
I’d lean more towards insignificance than anything else, but I also realize there is a demand for the information and that fans who track draft prospects throughout the year care for objective opinions on how they performed, even if the quality of play may have been hampered by the aforementioned restrictions caused by the pandemic.
And maybe the lack of structure or pervasive puck-hogging we saw from prospects can be attributed to a draft class devoid of a coherent consensus ranking. In other words, there are potentially two dozen prospects who can could justifiably be slotted in the top 10 of this particular draft, and all because of a significant dearth of elite talent.
Unfortunately, ambiguity placed its stranglehold over the 2021 draft class months before this two-week event, therefore increasing the likelihood that players (and their agents) saw this tournament as the final lunge for a high draft slot.
Hence, the slope becomes slippery, which is why it’s imperative to evaluate the prospects over far larger sample sizes of league play, even if that means going back a full season to 2019-20. Otherwise, you fall into the deep chasm of recency bias that props up short-tournament performances over larger, more indicative bodies of regular-season work. This report, as extensive as it may seem, is just to meet a demand for information and will have little to no impact on how I assess their potential for NHL stardom, but that’s my preference.
Nonetheless, I still have to call it like I see it, which is why I crafted over 30 reports from U18 participants whom I saw via video or live viewings. For the record, every prospect was viewed more than twice during league play before the tournament began. Those who hadn’t played were evaluated during the 2019-20 season.
Sasha Pastujov, RW
Before I get into the evaluation portion, it’s important to note that Pastujov scored a goal in each of team USA’s five games and averaged over six shots a game. But the more I watched the NTDP’s leading scorer, the more I realized that his on-ice contributions (beyond his hands, balance, and deadly one-timer) are quite limited. Whether my initial assessments about his quickness were dead wrong or exaggerated (or both), the reality is that Pastujov doesn’t play with a lot of intensity and his skating looks more on the average side than anything close to noteworthy or elite. Yes, he scored several critical goals during Team USA’s tough schedule in Group B, but Pastujov was by no means a line or possession driver and he rarely showed jump in his step when off the puck. Granted, his usual center Chaz Lucius missed the tournament with an injury, but it was during the regular season without Lucius when Pastujov showed more creativity and effort to get clean looks at the net. The other consideration should have been the fire-in-the-belly hustle shown by left wing Dylan Duke, Pastujov’s linemate who was trying to hit everything in sight and did most of the dirty work along the boards. Pastujov still remains a first-round quality prospect but a drop into the lower half of the top 32 has been in the works well before his one-dimensional play was noticed in Texas.
Dylan Duke, LW
I’ve already stated how I liked Duke’s efforts in the hit-and-hustle department, and his motor was running on high for the entirety of the tournament. Even when things looked bleak, Duke didn’t let impending defeat lower his work ethic and an obvious desire to impact every shift with either his stick, his body, or his wheels. If you kept track of how many hard hits Duke delivered, the total body count would be well over a dozen, including a several in the win over the Czechs that had the opponents hooting and hollering at him from the bench. He ended up with five assists in five games but zero goals on 21 shots, which could be explained by a mix of bad puck luck and the selflessness of passing up quality chances to feed the puck across the seam to linemate Sasha Pastujov. Although he played left wing most of the season, Duke can also play center in necessary and is a strong penalty killer.
Roman Schmidt, RHD
I remember being a bit non-plussed early in the season when Central Scouting gave Schmidt an “A” grade in their preliminary 2021 draft watch list, but this tournament was yet another example of the big fella showcasing translatable puck skills and quick thinking while operating under intense pressure. Schmidt initially pegged me as Sean Behrens’ safety net earlier in the season, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. After hours of watching this kid, it’s become evident that Schmidt is just as critical a piece to the NTDP back line as Behrens or Aidan Hreschuk, and that he is more than capable of carrying a top pairing like he did for Team USA in Texas. Disappointing team effort and lack of individual production notwithstanding, I though Schmidt had a strong performance and did an excellent job using his quick feet to gap up on some of the fastest under-18 players around. Additionally, Schmidt threw in some nifty stickhandling under pressure to boot. Would I spend a first-round pick on him come July? Probably not, but the future Boston University Terrier still posted an impressive wire-to-wire draft resume and remains the perfect addition for a team looking for size, physicality, and mobility on the right side of the blue line.
Sean Behrens, LHD
I’m going to be critical of Behrens’ performance, but please keep in mind that it’s limited to a small sample size and will not impact his standing (at least in my view) as a likely second-round pick, as he had an excellent season heading into the tournament. It’s also important to note the loss of No. 1 defenseman Luke Hughes and how it had an adverse effect on the entire squad, specifically with the spike in responsibility placed squarely on Behrens (a lefty puck rusher himself) to compensate for such a massive loss. This isn’t to say that the Chicago native isn’t capable of attacking with speed and playmaking while logging big minutes himself, because Behrens has been doing that for years. Rather, Behrens found himself without much support from a forward attack that seemed to stagnate with nearly half the NTDP roster composed of injury replacements. Throw in the demanding nature of a best-on-best tournament that the U.S. usually medals in, and the results were somewhat predictable — Behrens ended up pressing too much, was caught up ice far more times than usual, and went for big hits when it would have been smarter to simply hold the line and retreat if necessary. If there is one silver lining, it’s that Behrens showed once again that his size (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) should be a nonissue come draft day.
Ryan St. Louis, RW
Unlike several of his teammates, St. Louis looked like he was playing in a short elimination tournament where every shift really mattered, and it looked like it came naturally. We all get that he’s Marty’s kid, but one must consider that the younger St. Louis came into the tournament at a slight disadvantage since his usual center Andre Gasseau (among several other NTDP regulars) was out with an injury. St. Louis was held off the scoresheet the entire tournament and limited to only three shots in five games, but his efforts off the puck must be recognized. He killed penalties, handled the puck cleanly during breakouts, and made good use of his quick feet and anticipation to extend possessions in the offensive end. St. Louis is committed to Northeastern and he’ll likely stay there at least three years to bulk up and improve his balance, but it’s also where he should flourish thanks to his smarts, soft hands, and playmaking ability. Much like his father, Ryan is a kid who is easy to root for.
Brandt Clarke, RHD
A quick look at the names on Canada’s defense corps before the tournament is all that was necessary to identify Clarke as both the No. 1 and the primary power-play quarterback, and he delivered strong performances in both roles. After piecing together a worthy half-season in Slovakia in the physical Tipos Extraliga, Clarke proved yet again that he’s comfortable in a minute-eating role and will deliver the puck on the tape while moving in any direction. Canada’s entire lineup boasted puck-hungry forwards who loved to shoot, and I thought Clarke did a great job managing all the different on-ice personalities and delivering the puck to the player with the cleanest look at the net. Even more impressive was that he was able to do this from anywhere on the ice, to include from deep within his own end, as Clarke is a master at using the boards to his advantage while rapidly alternating body positioning to shield the puck. He’s clearly a smart cat, and his awkward stride never once reduced the effectiveness of his agility or escapability. He was among the leaders in defense scoring with two goals and five assists, and his 21 shots were second only to Finland’s Aleksi Heimosalmi.
Dylan Guenther, RW
Guenther, like Clarke, was the preeminent 2021 draft prospect on Team Canada’s roster, albeit from within the forward ranks, and he too entered the tournament riding the high of successful league play. After averaging a WHL-best two points per game with the Edmonton Oil Kings, Guenther was expected to not only anchor the top line within Canada’s elite group of attackers, but also pace the offense. Although he finished among the leaders with 34 shots in seven games and a respectable four goals (two game winners) and three assists, Guenther wasn’t necessarily that “go-to” guy, as he was one of nine Canadians to register at least seven points. But the numbers aren’t the whole story, as Guenther from start to finish did in fact play on Canada’s nominal top line with 2022 draft phenom Shane Wright and rugged winger Brennan Othmann as his most common linemates. Maybe it was Wright’s dominating possession game or Othmann’s unforgettable physicality, but Guenther was less active in the cycle game and on zone entries than you’d normally see with Edmonton. Still, it’s hard to blame him if the directive from the bench was simply to get open and let the others do the leg work, and Guenther off the puck was still quick and relentless in pursuit, and he proved once against how aggressive (and successful) a penalty killer he can be. Saying his tournament was “disappointing” is overdoing it — there was only so much puck to go around and never once did Guenther look like he was indecisive.
Mason McTavish, C/LW
McTavish is a throwback who manages to look like he cares less about what opponents think of him while showcasing impressive skills in the process. There’s simply no quit to his game, and the best teenagers Europe had to offer didn’t need to wait long to get aquainted with McTavish on his terms and his terms only. I lost track of how many momentum-changing plays he was involved in when Canada needed it, and although his team won all seven games, I got the sense that McTavish was one of the bigger reasons why. Simply put, the young man had a phenomenal tournament; one that shouldn’t be compared stats-wise to the likes of a super-phenom like Shane Wright or Connor Bedard. Still, McTavish was among the team leaders with five goals, 11 points, and 27 shots, and won a whopping 61 percent of his 92 draws. It was McTavish (among others) who also played a strong 200-foot game by disrupting shots on the backcheck, delivering nasty hits on the forecheck, and usually made heady opposing defensemen look rushed and frightened when he pursued them. And these are not overstatements — if I had the time to go back and quantify the possession changes in Canada’s favor that McTavish spearheaded, I would. But for now, you’re just going to have to trust me.
CANADA TAKES THE LEAD! 🇨🇦🚨
Brennan Othmann makes it a 🇨🇦 3-2 🇷🇺 game! #U18Worlds pic.twitter.com/5PNNmPc7j0
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) May 7, 2021
Brennan Othmann, LW
The race between McTavish and Othmann for the title of”my favorite Canadian player in the tournament” was neck and neck until the final game, when the latter blew up two or three Russians, scored the go-ahead marker with a sharp-angle snipe, and nearly tallied a second time via a through-the-legs trick shot. Othmann’s toughness and big-hit proclivity were prevalent throughout the tournament (ask Simon Edvinsson), but he also showcased his smarts under pressure and soft hands, as well as a plus-plus shot in transition after corralling long stretch passes. His skating was never a concern of mine but I never pegged it as elite. In Texas, however, Othmann was super quick in all directions and on multiple occasions raced back for a stick lift and swipe, followed by an immediate directional change for a counterattack the other way. The intimidation factor was very real with him on the ice and it allowed linemates Shane Wright and Dylan Guenther to exploit the forced errors made by the puck carriers Othmann targeted. It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to see him with a resurgent Flint squad this past season, but his draft pedigree (second overall behind Brandt Clarke in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection), along with strong play in the Swiss League and an outstanding U18 tournament, should make him a shoo-in for the top-32 of the upcoming NHL draft.
Ethan Del Mastro, LHD
Del Mastro is one of dozens of noteworthy OHL draft prospects who got screwed out of a season, so this recent tournament was his first chunk of meaningful hockey in over a year. He eventually became the nominal middle-pairing guy for Team Canada after shuffling around the first few games, but only because he was partnered with an aggressive puck mover like Corson Ceulemans; presumably to be his security blanket. In any event, I had a couple of draft junkies texting me praises for Del Mastro, but quite frankly, the positives I saw were limited to physicality and the occasional clean first pass up to his own line. Mind you, I noticed his struggles during Del Mastro’s rookie year as a 16-year-old defenseman with Mississauga (understandably so), so I already knew his upside was somewhat limited and leaned heavily towards a stay-at-home defenseman. In Texas, Del Mastro didn’t play as “safe” as I was expecting and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. He ultimately saved his worst game for the final against Russia, where two major errors in decision making directly resulted in Russia’s first two goals. The biggest issue? Not once did Del Mastro shoulder check to notice the weak-side threat, and he had plenty of time to do so. Nonetheless, Del Mastro’s mobility, size, and physicality are all in the plus categories, which probably explains why he’s highly regarded within North American scouting circles. In terms of the draft, I say he should go in the fourth round or lower, and that’s only because we never got another full OHL season out of him.
Benjamin Gaudreau, G
In terms of giving credit where credit’s due, Canadian goalies in best-on-best tournaments rarely get lionized because the ice is generally tilted away from them for nearly a full 60 minutes. Before assessing Gaudreau’s body of work, one must acknowledge Canada’s relentless pressure that helped keep his workload light in more than half his appearances. Still, Gaudreau successfully weathered minor storms against Belarus and Latvia in group play, and handled an even bigger threat from Russia in the gold-medal game. Stylistically, Gaudreau is a big kid who stays inside the crease and remains upright unless he’s being challenged, which then triggers a low crouch with near-perfect angle play and a hard splash into his butterfly.
In all honesty, however, I thought Gaudreau gambled a ton throughout the tournament by guessing low and leaving the top corner on the long side exposed, and it looked as though the Russians prepped accordingly for the final match when he was beat upstairs for all three of their goals (and nearly four or five more times had it not been for deflections or blocks). I hate to nitpick a gold-medal-winning goalie, but from the constant dropping down before shot release, to the inefficient crease movements, to his relaxed post lean that took a Matvei Michkov sharp-angle laser to finally wake him up, the total body of Gaudreau’s work seemed par for the course for a Canadian goalie in a best-on-best. I also think it’s premature to compare him to the likes of top-rated goalie prospects like Jesper Wallstedt or Sebastian Cossa, who unlike Gaudreau have dominated their age groups in league play.
Fyodor Svechkov, C
What’s puzzling about the recency bias surrounding Svechkov after his strong performance in Texas is that he was just as creative and dominant at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge or this past season for Ladya in the MHL. So the narrative that Svechkov’s play was sort of eye-opening needs some major adjusting — he’s always been this good, so stop insulting our intelligence. Nonetheless, Svechkov centered Russia’s powerful top line alongside 2022 draft-eligible wingers Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko, and one can make the argument that it was not only one of the best lines in the entire tournament but also the most fun to watch.
Svechkov played a big part in that, as the trio used their high collective IQ’s and quick sticks to make the neutral zone a minefield for defensemen, including those with a reputation for sure-handedness. Therefore, the rapidity and precision of these counterattacks were hard to overlook, especially with the manner in which Svechkov was effortlessly dishing the puck through legs and sticks while moving laterally. He finished with 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in seven games and was used in all situations, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to those who have analyzed his game for over a year. One of the biggest statistical oddities for any prospect in the tournament, however, involved Svechkov at the faceoff dot, where he was winning at a 69 percent clip (49-for-71, including 10-for-10 against Canada) in one block of games but only 28 percent (19-for-68) in the rest. In Svechkov’s defense, it usually was top line against top line no matter the opponent, and there’s no shame in getting smoked at the dot by the likes of Finland’s Samu Salminen or Team USA’s Red Savage.
Nikita Chibrikov, RW
Chibrikov is one of my personal favorites for the upcoming draft for a variety of reasons. Pegging him as a top-20 pick came rather easily in the beginning of the season after watching him quickly assert himself as a skilled and physical winger in Russia’s adult-age VHL, and that’s exactly how he played in Texas while serving as team captain. Although piling up points usually comes easy for any top forward prospect, I’m more intrigued by Chibrikov’s unruly demeanor and how he’s involved in at least one violent collision per game. I wouldn’t go as far as calling Chibrikov a glutton for punishment, but he’s in the mix or on the receiving end quite frequently. Chibrikov from a production standpoint was one of the top scorers at the tournament, recording 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists) in seven games, and he made countless plays in the neutral zone that sprung linemates for clean zone entries or break-ins.
Prokhor Poltapov, LW
Add Poltapov to the list of the undervalued who for whatever reason gets lost in the shuffle when discussing Russia’s premier draft prospects. This kid is a multi-faceted weapon on the puck, so it was far from surprising to see him dangle or posterize opponents on multiple occasions. In my book, it’s all about the draft resume, and I’ve spoken ad nauseum about Poltapov’s smooth glide and ridiculous hands, in addition to being the top scorer on CSKA’s under-20 squad in the MHL. The deep Russians didn’t really need him to score in this tournament but he still chipped in seven points (2 goals, 5 assists), and Poltapov would have ranked among the leaders in takeaways had the IIHF kept track of the stat. Poltapov has a strong build and usually deals with bigger defensemen with ease, but he was blown up a few times in this highly-physical competition. It’s also not easy to stand out in highlight reels when you’re sharing the same ice and 2023 draft phenom Matvei Michkov, but Poltapov had several eye-popping displays of puck handling that either allowed him to dance into open ice or toe-drag his way into a better shooting angle. Although he’s listed at 5-foot-11, Poltapov can draw stylistic comparisons Jaromir Jagr, but there’s probably more Pavel Datsyuk in his game than anyone else.
Ilya Ivantsov, C
Ivantsov is a classic pass-first setup man who before the tournament was slotted as Russia’s No. 2 center behind Fyodor Svechkov. Things changed once play got underway and he soon found his role and usage reduced at even strength, mostly due to the play of Daniil Lazutin. Although he wasn’t as noticeable on offense as he’s known to be, Ivantsov hustled off the puck and did good work on the bottom six with occasional power-play time, presumably because of his familiarity with Matvei Michkov on SKA-1946. Examples of Ivantsov’s high-level vision and playmaking, however, were more spread out than consistent, although the usual soft touch he puts on passes was pretty consistent. The numbers say Ivantsov finished with a respectable five assists in seven games, but none were all that fancy or came at a critical moment beyond his simple behind-the-net handoff on Nikita Chibrikov’s coast-to-coast OT winner against the Americans. It was hard for him to generate any type of sustained pressure and his ice time ended up fluctuating, especially in the medal round when he barely played in the semifinal win over Finland but was saw more ice time in the goal-medal match against Canada. Pound for pound, it was a rather nondescript tournament for a usually crafty and productive center.
Daniil Lazutin, C
I said in my Team Russia preview that Lazutin’s draft year had been mostly disappointing, and that he would be one of a few exceptions who could use the tournament to revive his stock. In the end, the strong 200-foot center delivered a solid overall performance and hustled his way into Russia’s No. 2 center position thanks to big plays at key times both on and off the puck. Lazutin’s skating is a major strength and it’s a good indicator of his confidence and decisiveness; both of which were on display against the world’s top under-18 prospects. He registered six shots in seven games and scored only one goal, but it was a big one — a power entry and backhand finish that opened the scoring in Russia’s semifinal victory over Finland. Lazutin’s additional contributions came on faceoffs (55 percent), during penalty killing, and his physicality during board battles, but keep in mind that this was a deep Russian team with firepower up and down the forward ranks. It definitely wasn’t a carbon copy of his dominant 2019 World U17 Hockey Challenge, but his effort in Texas definitely had teeth.
Simon Edvinsson, LHD
Will the real Simon Edvinsson please stand up? Pretty please? With sugar on top? Anyway, Edvinsson did exactly what I expected him to do at this tournament — dominate half the games; play inconsistent the rest. Whether you want to split the difference or not is irrelevant because there are teams with scouting directors who don’t need to see much in order to fall in love with a prospect, which probably explains why he’s still considered a candidate for No. 1 overall. In Edvinsson’s case, he was brilliant in two of his tougher games (the medal-round wins over the Americans and Finns) and forgettable in both blowout losses to Canada. Again, the criticisms I have for Edvinsson center more on the fact that he is unjustly being propped up as a potential first-overall pick, because I would be absolutely thrilled if my team drafted him at No. 11 or No. 16. I already outlined my misgivings following a rather unimpressive effort in a 5-1 win over Belarus, and that assessment was before the embarrassing 12-1 loss to Canada in group play.
In the end, however, the kid was a critical piece on a bronze medalist, logging major minutes and clearly outperforming any defender on Sweden’s blue line (Anton Olsson included). What I love the most about Edvinsson beyond his confidence are his pass deliveries — he can make any feed look effortless and do so while moving in any direction. Never one to back down from a challenge or look timid, Edvinsson handled the heavy forecheck as well as anyone could have within Sweden’s haphazard game plan, and attempts to hammer him didn’t limit his breakout prowess. He also dangled a handful of sound defensive forwards during individual rushes up the ice, and finished the tournament with a respectable 13 shots and four points (1 goal, 3 assists) in the seven games.
Fabian Lysell, RW
Lysell is one of the fastest skaters in the draft and he showed it in Texas, highlighted by a coast-to-coast beauty in a 5-1 win over Belarus. He was on the top line with Liam Dower-Nilsson as his center and sniper Simon Robertsson on the opposite flank for the entire tournament, as head coach Anders Eriksen didn’t seem keen on changing any of his units. The stats say that Lysell was one of Sweden’s top players, as he tied Isak Rosen with a team-best nine points (3 goals, 6 assists, and 18 shots). Yet his overall performance at the tournament was inconsistent, especially at 5-on-5. In his defense, the Swedes in the preliminary round didn’t play like they were going off of a coherent game plan and there was little to no structure either during breakouts or once inside the offensive end. Because of this, Lysell constantly tried to use his wheels to break through the neutral zone, and more than half the time looked completely out of control and without much of a plan outside of simply being faster than everyone else. I would have liked to see him try more chips and use his speed to get the defenders to turn their backs, but he seemed married to frontal assaults at the line that mostly resulted in a poke check or turnover. One time when it didn’t fail him was his critical tiebreaker against the Americans when he danced around an overzealous Sean Behrens for a wraparound, but forced plays and rushed decisions were still commonplace. I never had an issue with Lysell’s hockey sense until this tournament, so I guess I’ll just chalk it up to a mix of spotlighting and trying to do everything himself. One thing that can never be questioned, however, is Lysell’s compete level, which remained high from start to finish..
Anton Olsson, LHD
Olsson had a subpar tournament, and there’s really no way to sugarcoat it. He certainly wasn’t alone in the “trying too hard” department, but there were moments where you wondered if the real Anton Olsson — the one who was so poised and clean against adult-age competition during Malmo’s late-season surge in Sweden’s SHL — was abducted by aliens and mind tricked into mimicking the decision making of a turnover machine. Olsson is a powerful skater, powerful hitter, and powerful shooter, but he rarely dialed it down to focus more on simply killing opposing possessions with positioning and stick work. From low-percentage shot attempts high at the line to needless bodycheck attempts that trapped his unit, Olsson and his partner Victor Sjoholm probably were the worst defensive pairing from any of the six competing hockey powers, and the duo had obvious chemistry issues. Again, it’s a short tournament and these hazards are inherent with teenagers, but part of the blame has to go to head coach Anders Eriksen for not breaking up the tandem after the early loss to Canada. Some might call this assessment harsh since the Swedes ended up winning bronze, but Olsson still had high-wire moments in medal-round wins against the American and Finns. Hopefully Olsson uses this blip as a tool to make the necessary adjustments as he continues on an upward development trajectory.
Simon Robertsson, LW
Robertsson is an easy kid to root for because he’s a hard worker with ideal size and a world-class shot, giving him all the makings of a productive NHL winger. Although his tournament was quiet, Robertsson was used exclusively on the top line and first power-play unit, which is the same role he had with Skelleftea J20 in Sweden’s Nationell (en route to a scoring title). I’m a huge fan of his, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for a dominant performance in Texas. Unfortunately, Robertsson wasn’t all that involved at 5-on-5 and went through long stretches of not being effective or noticed (like most power wingers). There’s a good bet Robertsson realized his scoring opportunities were limited, because I watched him work hard on sharp-angle shots during warmups and he was the last player off the ice before the bronze medal match with Finland. Whether it was the hard work or just plain coincidence, Robertsson ended up sniping a key insurance marker from the left circle that make it 2-0 in what became an 8-0 laugher. You could tell by his celebration that he was relieved, and scoring that goal probably saved his tournament performance from being filed as nondescript.
Isak Rosen, RW
Of all the top-rated Swedish prospects who participated in this tournament, Rosen was their premier dual-threat who was the clear-cut top performer. After looking physically overmatched in his brief SHL stint with Leksands, the wiry winger while pitted against his international contemporaries played like a young man possessed, slicing and weaving his way into the opposing zone with elite speed and agility, and simply dominating the puck during both special teams play and at even strength. The fact that he was used extensively on the penalty kill (Sweden ranked second in the tournament with a 82 percent kill rate) not only shows Rosen’s versatility, but also the trust the staff had in a player once considered to be nothing more than a finesse type. Rosen lists at 159 pounds, and even that seems generous. But the kid is going to fill out eventually, and one should not expect him to lose any speed or elusiveness because of it. Now onto the fun stuff; specifically the hammer blows he was delivering from the right circle on the power play. Rosen not only brings the heat with his clapper, but it’s accurate to the point where he’ll snipe the short side well before the goalies outstretched glove can cover the post. He’s an excitable player but probably needs a full year in the SHL to adapt to the schedule, travel, and physicality.
Aleksi Heimosalmi, RHD
A strong performance in the shootout win over Russia on April 27 set the tone for Heimosalmi to not only validate his reputation as Finland’s top defense prospect for the upcoming draft, but also raised the bar incredibly high for the rest of the top rearguards who were playing in Texas. When all was said and done, however, none — and that includes Canada’s Brandt Clarke — could measure up to Heimosalmi’s expansive skill set that includes a stopper’s mentality (Clarke did not kill penalties during the tournament). But unlike most teenage rearguards who took part in this best-on-best competition, Heimosalmi doesn’t present his detractors with a discernible weakness unless they’re into the whole height thing. But even at 5-foot-11, Heimosalmi still packs a punch, from violent shoves into the wall to solid bodychecks in open ice. And you’ll also be hard pressed to find a net-front forward who hasn’t felt the sting of a legal yet sobering crosscheck to the lower back. Yes, he was danced around a few times and was uncharacteristically chasing in slot coverage, but Heimosalmi’s “wow” moments far outnumbered the gaffes, and it came as no surprise that he was named the top defenseman in a tournament that featured at least four of Central Scouting’s A-rated blue line prospects. And if you’re in the dark about his offensive capabilities, check out the end-to-end tally he scored against the Czechs or his faking of Russia’s Prokhor Poltapov into next week.
Here’s the RHD Aleksi Heimosalmi end-to-end goal from earlier in the U18 world championship.#2021NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/UkowCzxuLA
— Steve Kournianos (@KingsHwyStation) May 13, 2021
Samu Tuomaala, RW
Maybe the high quality of the SM-Sarja’s streams has something to do with it, but Finland’s 2003-year group is one I’ve become intimately familiar with over last two seasons. And one of several reasons why I will always find time to take in one of their games is the excitability displayed by prospects like Tuomaala, who along with Karpat linemate Ville Koivunen formed two thirds of Finland’s top line at the under-18 worlds. The duo usually stays in concert with one another during zone time, with Tuomaala’s speed, shot, and physicality serving as the counterweight to Koivunen’s expansive vision and strong puck protection. Tuomaala was ranked 14th in my initial 2021 draft list that was released last September, so I want to thank the young man and his consistent draft year for not only making my job easier, but also keeping us fans entertained with a high-flying and emotive style. He led the Finns with a whopping 34 shots and 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in seven games, but a review of all my game notes revealed that Tuomaala was just as impactful off the puck; he threw his weight around on the forecheck and also used his speed to double back and disrupt opposing entry attempts. Keep in mind that this young man owns one of the best shot-release combinations that makes him a deadly one-timer option on the power play, and three of his five goals either tied the score in the third period or proved to be the game-winner.
Ville Koivunen, LW
Koivunen’s another European prospect who has accomplished too much over an extended period to be considered a “sleeper”, but I was happy to see him add a strong U18 worlds to his already impressive pre-draft resume. Slots as a winger but acts and plays like a center, Koivunen as a left shot looked comfortable controlling the puck under pressure, either when his back was to the boards or if he was operating behind the net. Processing and stickhandling simultaneously come easy for him, which is why the Koivunen-Tuomaala tandem must be considered a viable package deal for a team with multiple picks in any of the first two rounds of the draft. Their Karpat U20 squad is known for indoctrinating free-wheeling forwards with rigid defensive strategies, which in turn helps develop the attack-first types into more well-rounded 200-foot forwards. Therefore, Koivunen is one of the best you’ll find available in the 2021 draft, and he was able to transfer his effective three-zone play with Karpat into the U18 tournament, where he finished second to Tuomaala in team scoring with 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists).
Samu Salminen, C
Salminen, who fell into the No. 1 center role after Oliver Kapanen’s injury in the opener, is one of those players that can go through an entire game without being noticed but still ends up with three or four points. Some might call that concerning for a highly-regarded center, and there is some force to the argument that Salminen on an individual level isn’t much of a line driver or possession fiend. Unsurprisingly, however, he ended up leading Finland with seven goals — including five on the power play — in seven games, using his big frame, plus shot and net-front determination to compliment the constant weaving and cross-seam passing used by wingers Samu Tuomaala and Ville Koivunen.
Topias Vilen, LHD
One of the better positional defenders in his draft class, Vilen’s tournament got off to a rough start, as he and jittery partner Jimi Suomi were victimized for a pair of early goals in each of Finland’s first two games. The fact that it was Suomi who was taken off the top pairing (replaced by Aleksi Heimosalmi) for the final five matches says more about the trust Vilen’s staff had in him, and in turn he was on the ice for only one power-play goal of the 16 tallies Finland surrendered in their three medal-round games. Vilen’s strengths are his stick use and breakout passes, with the latter being so critical in Finland’s ability to quickly transition from defense to offense. He seems a lot taller on the ice than his 6-foot-long measurement indicates, but Vilen remained physical throughout the competition and used his powerful leg drive and upper-body strength to angle quick forwards into the boards. He finished with four assists and 11 shots in seven games but it’s crazy to think how much worse it could of been for Finland had Vilen not been there.
Jakub Brabanec, C
Brabanec is a stud with an athletic build and multi-purpose puck skills, and I’m happy that I finally got a chance to see his impressive skating and high hockey sense up close and personal (albeit in a blowout loss to Canada in the quarterfinal). The Czechs throughout their lineup had several play-driving forwards with size, and Brabenec centered one of their beefier units alongside wingers Jakub Kos (a top-sixer with Ilves U20 in Finland) and Simon Marha. Even without glossing over the final two games in which the Czechs were humiliated by a combined 21-4 margin, Brabanec, who was taken 35th overall by Charlottetown (QMJHL) in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, was a force at even strength. He also and served as a central figure on the power play, where he was used as a point man before dropping down into the right circle to either split the seam with accurate passes or hammer a one-timer himself. It’s easy to get excited over a 6-foot-2 center with agility and smarts, as Brabanec delivers impact shifts both on and off the puck and in all three zones. His passing and vision are both excellent, but he also shoulder-checked before retrieving pucks to help increase his options. Although being quick-witted helps Brabanec handle pressure and create breathing room for himself, he wouldn’t be as effective (and fun to watch) if he didn’t have the hands, skating, and shot to compliment it. It was obvious from the opening game that his teammates and staff leaned on him for critical plays, and Brabanec delivered with a team-best four assists in five games.
Stanislav Svozil, LHD
The results were mixed for this cerebral puck mover, whose performance last January at the under-20 world junior hockey championship helped Svozil stay in the conversation as a potential first-round pick. Prior to arriving in Texas, Svozil was battling through an up-and-down sophomore season with Brno in the elite Extraliga, where he actually saw a major reduction in role and usage compared to his 16-year-old campaign of 2019-20. If there ever was an opportunity for Svozil to get his game on the right track, it should have been at the U18’s, where he easily was one of the more seasoned neophytes after playing against men in a physical circuit. After solid showings in the first two games with partner Matej Pinkas, Svozil struggled with his decision making and overall puck management, and it felt like he was attempting more low-percentage shots than usual. He was used in all situations and frequently played the point on the primary power-play unit, but Svozil was more of a sporadic difference maker than looking like a true No. 1 defender who was able to dictate the tempo on his terms. All that said, I still think he’s one of the best teenage defensemen I’ve seen at patrolling the neutral zone and using his smarts to read plays or eliminate threats before they get closer to his line. It wouldn’t be surprising if Svozil was spotlighting to help revive his season, but he’s a mature kid who’ll likely learn from this and treat the short tournament as a minor obstacle as he closes in on an NHL career.
Lukas Pajer, RW
Pajer is a quick and energetic winger who carried over his strong play with Litomerice of the adult-age Chance Liga into the U18 tournament, where he was listed as a depth forward but was far more involved throughout the competition. He doesn’t have a boat load of skill or creativity, but Pajer used his speed and high motor to consistently apply pressure both on or off the puck. The one aspect of Pajer’s game that should be respected beyond his speed or effort is his shot, which he showcased for two power-play goals off the pass — one from the right circle against Germany and another from the left side in the quarterfinal loss to Canada. Pajer’s the kind of player who will hustle to beat out an icing, use both physicality and lateral quickness on the forecheck, and head to the net-front area to establish a screen.
Martin Rysavy, LW
This Czech roster didn’t boast any premier draft-eligible forwards, but Rysavy may have been the closest they had. After filling the net at a handful of international events and showcases, and also being selected sixth overall by Moose Jaw (WHL) in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, Rysavy was able to hold up his end of the bargain by scoring twice and leading the Czechs with 18 shots — eight more than the next forward. Rysavy can score from just about anywhere, and he’s a strong, sturdy winger with smarts who uses his size and frame to his advantage. The one thing that appears to have hampered him in both league play and at the U18’s was his skating, which is average for a kid his size in terms of pullaway speed and straight-line quickness. You rarely see him in open ice and Rysavy wasn’t using sharp cutbacks or agility when pressured near the wall, which of course works out fine against teenagers when you’re already at 209 pounds. With his shot and accurate passing, however, there’s always the chance that his shortcomings in mobility become less of a factor in smaller North American rinks.
Jakub Altrichter, C/W
Altrichter is an interesting prospect because he was overlooked by Central Scouting on all three of their in-season watch lists in spite of playing for the Czechs at the World U17 Hockey Challenge and his critical role with Mora IK in the tougher Norra Division of Sweden’s J20 Nationell. Unfortunately for Altrichter, the J20 season was cancelled early in January and he had to head back to the Czech Republic, where he appeared in a handful of Chance Liga games before gearing up for the U18 world championship. In Texas, Altichter was used in his natural center position between sniper Martin Rysavy and fellow speedster Peter Moravec, and it was in these five games where you saw Altrichter’s quickness and motor help create turnovers on the forecheck. He’s only listed at 148 pounds, but Altrichter plays fearless and will take the puck in a straight line to the net or cut into traffic when attempting to enter the zone. He’s also a pretty good playmaker and puck distributor who puts the right touch on his passes, but that was more prevalent in league play than at the recent tournament.
Dario Sidler, RHD (Switzerland)
Sidler, who was Switzerland’s captain during the tournament, is a swift puck rusher on the smallish side who has a strong reputation within his national hockey circles. Although it was a bit surprising that Central Scouting put him on their annual watch list and not Zug U20 teammate Tiziano Pauchard, Sidler is the flashier playmaker who can wow you with his impressive skating ability. He had already received a stint with Zug’s A-Team (a roster with a bunch of ex-NHL’ers) but he spent most of the season split between junior hockey and the adult-age Swiss League, serving in an expanded, minute-eating role with the former rather than the latter.
In Texas, Sidler showcased his multi-directional quickness, soft hands, and clean first pass, and he was used as the primary power-play quarterback and penalty killer. Although the stats won’t indicate it, Sidler’s best game in my view was the blowout loss against Canada, and for several reasons. Any study of his game with Zug U20 in terms of the physicality and intensity of the forecheck will reveal mostly optimal or standard in-game conditions, with only occasional in-your-face pursuits from opposing forwards. That clearly wasn’t the case in the preliminary round against Canada, which from the onset unleashed its customary violent forecheck without relenting. Sidler, however, was not only able to maintain his cool and use his wheels to his advantage, but also showed a physical edge and made his presence felt while defending the low slot. The key thing to remember when assessing kids in best-on-best tournaments is that they aren’t going to play a rotating schedule of all-star teams for a full six months, but within this context I thought Sidler handled himself with poise and maturity.
If there is one knock to Sidler’s game, it’s the inconsistency with his decision making. Although his long-view decisions usually make sense, he sometimes gets caught up in the moment and expects the rest of his five-man unit to understand his intent. This can lead to errant drop passes into no-man’s land or advances into the thick of strong-side traffic. This doesn’t mean he isn’t smart — Sidler is very crafty and capable of executing precision breakouts. He simply needs to slow the game down more often and either delay or keep the puck for that extra second or two to catch his forwards in stride, among other things.
Danila Klimovich, RW
Without sounding like too much of a hypocrite, the hot-dogging shown by Klimovich at this particular tournament was actually enjoyable, because watching him play in Belarus has also been a trip (his games for Minskie Zubry are free on YouTube). He’s definitely a character, and although all six of his goals were scored on the power play from a static position, from either the circle or near the net, Klimovich deserves credit for having the hands and timing for smacking pucks through openings beyond the goalie’s outstretched glove or blocker. His skating is a bit confusing because he can go from looking clunky and short-strided in one moment, to explosive and quick the next. But Klimovich also was quite sure-handed controlling the puck and wasn’t as addicted to the 1-on-4 entries he constantly attempted for his club team. Two more things I like about Klimovich are his energy and physicality, and throwing his weight around on the forecheck is a habit you’d love to see from all your top scorers. On top of all that, the kid plays with passion and shows personality on the ice, so calling Klimovich demonstrative would be a major understatement. He was drafted 24th overall by the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, so one can only hope he brings his talents to North America as early as next season.
Dmitri Kuzmin, LHD
The King of the Michigan Goal delivered the goods once again, only this time he victimized the Swiss on the international stage. Yes, Kuzmin strengthened his reputation as a slick-handed puck magician by pulling yet another lacrosse-style goal during the heat of battle. Although the move is no longer patented, Kuzmin deserved credit not only for its high degree of difficulty, but also for the fact that he’s pulling them off as a defenseman. But scoring in general has never been a problem for the young rearguard, who earlier in the season broke Dmitry Deryabin’s under-18 scoring mark for blueliners in the Belorussian Extraleague; and did so against the top division. He was the No. 1 blueliner for Belarus in this tournament and should keep that role as he advances to the U19 and U20 levels. Kuzmin is a brilliant puck distributor and playmaker, but he also makes up for his lack of size with a bit of an edge and strong compete level. I don’t watch the NBA anymore, but he’s got that flashy point-guard mentality in the mold of an Isaiah Thomas or Allen Iverson where even a simple advance out the zone can look like a smooth highlight-reel play.