The United States closed out the World U18 Championship by winning the gold medal with an easy 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic. That makes it five gold medals in the last six tournaments for the United States, with a silver medal last year as well. The US is usually the favorite in this tournament by function of having so many key members of the team playing together all year, but that kind of success is still incredibly impressive.
This is always one of the biggest scouting events in the world--I'd argue even more important than the World Juniors from a scouting standpoint since none of the players have been drafted--and while the tournament was overseas again this year, I was able to see a few games thanks to FastHockey broadcasting all the US games, and some heroic internet pirates making the TSN stream of the Canada games available here in the US. Watching on a computer screen is a poor substitute for being in the rink, but at least it's something. Here's a few thoughts I had while watching this tournament.
-The story of this tournament for the United States was all about the 2015(and 2016) NHL Draft. Obviously everyone expected Jack Eichel to dominate the tournament after his impressive World Juniors. Eichel had a good, but not great tournament. He had some rough moments at times, but came up with goals at important times for the US, which is what you need a star player to do.
But the real stars on this US team were the duo of Michigan commit Kyle Connor and the uncommitted Auston Matthews.
We'll start with Connor. With an incredible year in the USHL for Youngstown, Connor put himself at least into the conversation to be in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Playing in this tournament against high-end talent was going to be a big one for him, and Connor responded, to say the least. He scored a point in every game of the tournament, and was consistently the most dangerous forward on the US team.
That's the good news. The bad news is that because of his late birthday, Connor is still an 11th grader, which raises the question of where he plays next year. Connor reportedly likes playing in Youngstown, despite their lack of success in his two years there, but after finishing second in league scoring this past year, there's really no direction for him to go but down in terms of his draft stock by playing there another year.
Saginaw holds Connor's OHL rights, and if they can't convince him to report, I'm sure they could get a king's ransom of draft picks by trading him to a more persuasive OHL team.
-And then there's Auston Matthews. He's definitely been the breakout player from the U17 team this year, made all the more impressive by the fact that he missed a good chunk of the early part of the season due to injury. He averaged a point per game this year. By comparison, at roughly the same age, Jack Eichel only scored two points in this tournament last year for the US. Matthews, at times, was the best player on the ice for the US.
I haven't heard much about what the future holds for Matthews, but it's likely to become a popular topic. Because he was born on September 17th, Matthews misses the 2015 NHL Draft by two days, meaning he'll be selected in 2016. Like Eichel, I'm sure there will be a push to make sure he graduates high school by next summer to potentially play college hockey in his draft year. Everett of the WHL holds his CHL rights.
-All those words about NHL draft picks and we haven't even gotten to BC commit Noah Hanifin, who is looking like a top-5 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. He certainly didn't hurt himself here, scoring five points in seven games, and playing consistent top-six minutes. Hanifin really reminds me of Jack Johnson, in that it's obvious he has worlds of talent, but his over-aggressiveness is going to drive some people nuts. Hanifin largely gets away with it because his is so talented--and that's saying something when he's playing in a tournament for the best in the world a year older than him--but at a certain level, players are going to be good enough to punishment those mistakes when he gets caught on the wrong side of the puck.
-The defense for this US team is an interesting one. Jack Dougherty is still likely the top prospect back there, but I also continue to be very impressed with the development of Ryan Collins. Even if teammates like Dougherty and Jack Glove may be a slight bit better right now, Collins looks better and better every time I see him, compared to the other two that has been relatively stagnant. That upwards trajectory might be enough to make me consider drafting Collins over any of his teammates on the blue line.
Meanwhile, some guys that haven't drawn much NHL Draft attention due to their size like Brandon Fortunato and Louis Belpedio had great tournaments for the US, and had to have helped their stock.
-Alex Nedeljkovic went the entire way for the US in goal. I don't think he had a great tournament, despite the fact that the US cruised through the tournament. Too many games felt closer than they needed to be because of some soft goals that the US gave up. He especially struggled controlling rebounds. Nedeljkovic is already fighting concerns about his size at the next level; I could see him slipping quite a bit on draft day.
-Ryan Hitchcock didn't do much for me earlier this year when I saw the NTDP play, but I thought he had a great tournament. He played with great poise and patience in the offensive zone, and did an excellent job finding passing lanes to set up teammates. That whole line with Hitchcock, Larkin, and Anders Bjork acquitted themselves quite well at the tournament.
-It's a little disappointing that the US never got the opportunity to play Canada. Obviously the Canadian roster was a little watered down, but still had a lot of talent on it, and just with the rivalry between the two countries, I'd have to think they would have given the US a better game in the final.
Canadian D Travis Sanheim had a solid tournament. He finished tied for the team lead in scoring with six assists including a beauty to set up the game-winner against Switzerland. He's a 6'4" defenseman that played midget hockey in Manitoba last year. Looks like a relative late-bloomer that could make a big move up at the draft.
Other than that, most of the best talent from Canada's team came from the 2015 Draft-eligible group with players like Travis Konecny and Matt Barzal, who look like first round picks in next year's draft.
-Though they bowed out in the quarterfinals, Switzerland put together an impressive tournament, defeating the United States in preliminary play, and stretching Canada to the limit before giving up a game-winning goal with 31 seconds remaining in their quarterfinal match-up(and had a goal waved off on a *very* questionable call in the process)
The Swiss skated pretty evenly with Canada, led by their top three of Kevin Fiala('96), Denis Malgin('97), and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler('97). Fiala skated for the Swiss at the World Juniors, and while you could kind of see the talent, it wasn't a great situation as an underage player on an over-matched team. But at this tournament, against his peer group, he shined. Fiala seemed to be hanging around the late-first round/early second in most of the draft projections I've seen, but I think this tournament puts him safely in the first round.
Malgin is a smaller forward, which might hurt him in the draft, but he's absolutely electric. Great hands and scoring touch. Siegenthaler is a big kid that logged a lot of minutes for the Swiss. I really liked his game. He played a few games in Switzerland's top pro league at the end of this year, and it's already being reported that he's headed back there rather than jumping to the CHL in their import draft.