2019 NHL Draft
Under-18 World Championship Preview
Steve Kournianos | 04/16/2019 | Nashville | [hupso]
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The annual under-18 world hockey championship begins on Thursday, April 18 from Sweden, with 10 countries participating. This year’s tournament will showcase a significant chunk of the top 2001-born prospects who will be eligible for the NHL draft, including consensus top pick Jack Hughes of the United States.
When: 18-28 April 28th, 2019
Where: Umea/Ornskoldsvik, Sweden
Stream: NHL Network (U.S.), TSN (Canada), SVT (Sweden). IIHF.com
|Group A||Group B|
Hughes, along with several of his teammates from the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), represent the core of a well-oiled machine that is favored to win gold this year. Depth down the middle for the NTDP is incredibly strong, starting with Hughes and continuing with Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte and John Beecher. Additionally, the squad features several natural goal scorers in Cole Caufield, Michael Gildon and Patrick Moynihan, plus a mobile defense corps spearheaded by puck movers Cam York, Domenick Fensore and Marshall Warren. The NTDP’s strongest position, however, may in goal, where Connecticut native Spencer Knight is expected to be the highest goalie taken in the first round in over a decade. The attitude for this group should be gold or bust, especially since they are considered the most talent-rich edition in NTDP history.
Although the Canadians never seem to fare at this tournament (no medals in 13 of 20 tries), this may be the deepest group it has sent since the 2013 crew led by Connor McDavid and the goaltending of Philippe Desrosiers took home the gold. The biggest strength for this version of Team Canada is center depth, where Dylan Cozens, Peyton Krebs and Alex Newhook — three players expected to be top-15 picks in the 2019 draft — will control the middle of the ice. Not adding an injured Kirby Dach to the already-formidable group stings a little, but the aforementioned trio, in addition to slick playmaker Ryan Suzuki, are more than capable of anchoring a top line and lead power-play unit. Canada also boasts a ridiculous amount of riches on the wings, led by a hard-working contingent from the QMJHL. Nathan Lagare, Samuel Poulin and Jakob Pelletier can wear down defenders with their nonstop motors, physicality and quick thinking, and the same can be said for WHL’er Brayden Tracey and Keean Washkurak of the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. As usual, the Canadian defense will be mobile, physical and fundamentally sound, and even the lack of a bonafide No. 1 in the mold of a Ty Smith of Bowen Byram shouldn’t prevent the group from sticking to their traditional quick-strike strategy. Kaeden Korczak is the most reliable of the group, while Thomas Harley should spearhead the attack on the power play. If you are going to single out one player to scout, try checking in on center Dylan Holloway, who also can play wing and could be a top-five pick in the 2020 draft. Between the pipes may be Canada’s Achille’s heel, and it remains to be seen if Nolan Maier’s struggles at the Hlinka will thrust Taylor Gauthier into the No. 1 role.
The defending champions arrived in Sweden without top-ranked draft prospect Kaapo Kakko, but they still will ice an incredibly formidable group. Led by swift defenseman Ville Heinola, the Finns present opponents with an up-tempo attack predicated on opportunistic plays and strong support on the puck. Top players such as center Antti Saarela, Leevi Aaltonen and Patrik Puistola have shown chemistry together in previous competitions, but Finland is far from a one-line team. Right wing Tuukka Tieksola, center Henri Nikkanen and 2020 draft prospect Kasper Simontival each have achieved success one of the top two lines and have proven to be dangerous when matched up against equal or inferior opponents. In goal, Roope Taponen looks to build off of surprising shutout performance of Team USA in a pre-tournament exhibition.
If the February Five Nations tournament was any sort of indicator, than the Russians should be taken very seriously as a gold medal contender at the U18 world championship. Not only did they thrash the Americans in a game where Knight was given the hook for one of the few times in his entire career, but they did it without star Vasily Podkolzin, who was serving a one-game suspension. Podkolzin, slated to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft, is looking to add this tournament to his growing list of dominant international showings that has helped him maintain a hold on the third overall spot in my rankings behind Hughes and Kakko. The Russians also boast two of the draft’s top two-way centers in Ilya Nikolayev and Yegor Spiridonov, and skilled wings like Dmitry Sheshin and Arseni Gritsyuk can bury the puck from just about anywhere. One addition who made waves this season in the USHL is explosive forward Daniil Guschin. He’ll likely play on one of the top two lines and see significant time on the power play. On defense, it won’t take long for you to notice Semyon Chistyakov, a pitbull of a rearguard who can skate, wallop opponents and blister the puck. And while Knight gets most of the attention as the top goaltender heading into round-robin play, 2002-born backstop Yaroslav Askarov may be just as good a draft prospect when he becomes eligible next year.
Your eyes and ears do not deceive you — Sweden’s heralded trio of 2001-born defensemen will actually play together on the same team for the first time since last summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament. Victor Soderstrom, who missed most of that tournament with an injury, has spent most of this season on Brynas’s top-four, while Philip Broberg performed well in the adult-age Allsvenskan. Tobias Bjornfot took advantage of both being absent at the February Five Nations by distinguishing himself as the best defenseman of the competition. All three can skate and control the flow of a game, but opinions on who the superior defender likely still vary even after the tournament. Up front, the Swedes will yet again rely on the dynamism and goal-scoring proclivity of 2020 draft prospects Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, and pesky two-way forwards Albin Grewe and Arvid Costmar can provide support in all three zones. One wild card is sniping winger Simon Holmstrom, a preseason candidate for the first round whose draft stock has taken a hit after injury issues and inconsistent play. In goal, Hugo Alnefelt has several spectacular performances under his belt on the international stage but is also known for some clunkers as well. If he can’t maintain consistency, look for the Swedes to turn to 2021 draft prize Jesper Wallstedt.
A promising showing at the December U18 Five Nations proved to be nothing more than a mirage, as the Czechs were trounced in Sochi in February against far stiffer competition. Compounding matters for them at this year’s worlds is the omission of star forward Jaromir Pytlik, who split his season between the Czech Extraliga and the OHL’s Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds. That puts the onus on providing offense on the likes of wingers Ondrej Psenicka and Michal Teply, centers Radek Muzik and Adam Najman, plus abrasive two-way winger Adam Raska, who like Pytlik could be a first-round pick in 2020. CHL import Marcel Barinka looked very good at the last Five Nations as a top-line center, plus they’ve added WHL’er Martin Lang and Filip Prikryl from the QMJHL. Martin Hugo Has is the anchor on the blue line, and the offense provided by CHL import Simon Kubicek of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds will be a welcomed addition. Even without Pytlik, the Czechs have a deep roster full of 200-foot types who play physical and responsible hockey. Underachieving may be too strong a word to describe Czech performances in previous competitions when you consider the rest of the field they were up against. On paper, however, the current U18 roster should be good enough to come away with at least one impressive victory over the perennial powerhouses, and may even contend for a bronze medal.
The Slovaks bring to Sweden a nice mix of home-grown and import talent, with 11 players being taken from outside the Slovakian and Czech junior leagues. All eyes will be on slick forward Maxim Cajkovic, a dangerous sniper from the QMJHL’s Saint John’s Sea Dogs who owns a deadly shot but had the misfortune of playing for one of the worst teams in Canadian major junior. Supporting Cajkovic will be a pair of Superelit standouts in winger Michal Mrazik and center Simon Jellus, but also look out for 2020 draft prospect Martin Chromiak, a speedy offensive catalyst.
The Swiss are known for being pesky and capable of pulling off an upset at least once a tournament, although this group may find that hard to accomplish in 2019. Last year, the Swiss were dumped to the relegation round, where they clubbed a clearly inferior French squad that played as if they were just happy to be there. Unlike previous years, the Swiss group headed to Sweden lacks a bonafide top-line threat in the mold of a Nico Hischier, Philipp Kurashev or Valentin Nussbaumer. The job to carry the offense likely falls upon the shoulders of center Mika Burkhalter and right wing Noah Fuss, plus the addition of left wing Gaetan Jobin may give this year’s under-18 group a formidable top line. The defense is led by swift-skating blueliner Noah Delemont, who is listed under 5-foot-10 but plays with passion, intensity and is not afraid to carry the puck the length of the ice. The biggest void in the Swiss lineup is the one in goal, where none of their 2001-born backstops proved to be capable of securing the No. 1 role to help the team avoid relegation. Neither Sascha Ruppelt nor Thibault Fatton — two goalies listed under six-feet tall — have done enough to intimidate opposing offenses.
Brutal officiating during last year’s group play may have cost the Belorussians a chance to upend Sweden, but the point still stood — they were a team to be reckoned with. Their furious rally in the closing minutes not only knocked off the Swiss, but exposed the quality of their players and resulted in several import picks being used on them later that summer. The defense is mobile, led by 2019 draft prospect Vladislav Kolyachonok of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds and Pavel Denisov, but the power play will take a hit as skilled forwards Aleksi Protas (Prince Albert) and Vladimir Alistrov (Edmonton) are still duking it out in the WHL playoffs. However, center Ilya Usov is a very good 200-foot player who is committed to the University of Connecticut, and right wing Yevgeni Oksentyuk can be a blur on the ice when he’s controlling the puck in the offensive zone.
Last April’s dominance by goaltender Janis Voris propelled the Latvians to the under-18 Division 1A title, with backup Arturs Silovs serving as the understudy. This year will be Silov’s opportunity to keep Latvia in the top division, and his size, quickness and clutch play make his squad a danger to any nation that takes them lightly. Up front, the offense is led by dynamic winger Janis Svanenbergs, who along with Patriks Zabusovs play an aggressive, in-your-face style and can create and finish quality scoring chances. Speedy left wing Patriks Marcinkevics, an undersized playmaker with elusiveness and sharp vision, and mobile puck movers Ernests Osenieks and Nauris Sejejs should run the power play. Teams should also look out for the physicality and open-ice hitting of Nikita Mateiko.