The World Junior Championships is without a doubt the most closely scouted event in the world by NHL teams. Since it is a tournament for 18 and 19 year olds, the majority of that scouting is assessing already draft players, but it is also valuable for assessing some of the top prospects available for upcoming drafts.
It's tough for a draft-eligible prospect to crack a World Juniors roster, and expectations are usually lower since they're not usually expected to be key players. But it can be a great opportunity to prove just how strong of a player they are on a huge stage.
Here's a look at some of the top first-time draft eligible players in this year's tournament, and what might be expected out of them in this tournament.
The entire top forward line for the United States in this tournament will be made up of draft eligible players. Leading the way is Auston Matthews, who is expected to be the top overall draft pick in this June's NHL Draft. Matthews missed the age cutoff for last summer's NHL Draft by two days, otherwise he would be playing in the NHL right now. As it is, the 6'2" 194 lbs. centerman is playing professional hockey in Switzerland, where he has averaged over a point-per-game playing against men. Matthews is the complete package of size, skill, skating, and puckhandling ability. The US will need a huge tournament out of him, and he should be one of the tournament's best players.
On Matthews' left wing will be a familiar face in London Knights forward Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk spent last season with the NTDP U18 team playing on a line with Matthews where their incredible chemistry helped them put up some amazing scoring statistics. Tkachuk isn't huge, nor is he the fastest skater, but he possesses incredible hockey sense that allows him to allows be in the right position, and he uses the size he does have effectively, allowing him to play much bigger than he is. He's had a big year in the OHL so far this season, and comes into the tournament projected as a potential top-five draft pick next summer.
The third player on that line will be Erie Otter forward Alex DeBrincat. DeBrincat is tiny, listed at 5'7" 161 lbs., but is no stranger to playing with big talent. He had a breakout season last year as an OHL rookie, scoring 51 goals and 54 assists while playing with Edmonton's Connor McDavid. Playing without McDavid this year hasn't slowed him down at all, however, as he already has 33 goals on the season. Opinions on DeBrincat's NHL potential have been all over the board early in the season, though they seem to have settled in the mid-to-late first round range heading into the World Juniors. Scouts will be watching him closely in the tournament, however, to see how he handles the higher skill level at his size. He has the potential to make a big move either up or down depending on how he handles it.
The US also has two defensemen eligible for the draft this year. With one cut still to come on the US defense, neither is a lock to make the team, though have a very good chance of surviving. Boston University freshman Charlie McAvoy has a very high ceiling. He handles the puck well and is a strong skater. Consistency has been his biggest problem this season, as he's prone to make the big mistake from time to time. McAvoy is generally considered a late-first round draft choice.
NTDP defensean Chad Krys is a pure offensive defenseman with extremely explosive skating ability. He's a calm, patient puckhandler that can drive possession and create offense for teammates with his passing ability. Krys is projected as a mid-first round draft pick.
It will be interesting to see how much freedom to be creative the US team gives both players, as they have extremely high-end skill, but are still maturing and can mistakes.
Canada has already announced their roster, and there is only one draft eligible player on the roster. QMJHL forward Julien Gauthier. Gauthier is a big power forward, listed at 6'4" 212 lbs. His best asset is his heavy shot, as evidenced by a 29-8-37 scoring line 30 games this season with Val D'Or. He'll likely be used in more of a depth role on a very deep Canada roster.
Finland will have a trio of very interesting draft-eligible players playing on their home ice in this tournament. Some consider Finish winger Jesse Puljujarvi the biggest competition Auston Matthews will face for the top overall pick in next summer's Draft. Like Matthews, Puljujarvi is a mix of tremendous size and skill. He's been playing in Finland's top pro league this season, and has 12 points in 31 games, incredibly impressive for a player his age.
Fellow '98 forward Patrik Laine is an intriguing prospect. Laine dominated the World U17 Challenge two years ago as an underage, though still huge at 6'4", player with 12 goals in seven games. He seemed destined to be the star of this class. But the following season, questions about attitude and effort dropped his stock considerably. He's having a strong year playing in Finland's top pro league this year, however, and his size and talent have been undeniable. He's a true power forward and sniper with a great knack for getting into position to score goals. He's projected as a top ten pick, and a good tournament here could solidify him as a top five guy.
Defenseman Olli Juolevi has drawn strong comparisons to fellow Finnish defenseman and current Pittsburgh Penguin Olli Maatta, and not just because he's a Finnish defenseman that followed Maatta's path to the London Knights of the OHL for his draft year. Juolevi is a smooth skater with strong offensive instincts, and has really risen up draft boards with a strong showing in the OHL this year. He's a mid-to-late first round player at this point, but trending upward, and could put himself into the first half of the first round with a good tournament.
Sweden will bring a pair of draft eligible forwards to this tournament. The player expected to make the biggest impact is Alex Nylander. Nylander is the young brother of Toronto first round draft choice William Nylander. Alex plays the same type of smooth, high-skill game that his older brother does. He's an incredibly quick skater and great at creating offense. Nylander is projected as a top ten draft pick next summer.
Expect late-'97 forward Carl Grundstrom to play may of a grinding role for the Swedes. Grundstrom has a very thick build and isn't afraid to battle in the dirty areas of the ice. Grundstrom is projected as a late first round/early second round draft pick.
For the Czech Republic, forward Simon Stransky has been effective in the WHL this season, averaging just over a point per game. Stransky isn't big, but makes up for that with good skill and creativity. The Czechs will need his offensive skill to help generate scoring in this tournament. Stransky is a projected 2nd-3rd round pick in the upcoming Draft.
Slovakia has an interesting draft prospect in 6'5" winger Filip Lestan. Lestan has seen some time in Sweden's top pro league this season, but hasn't made much impact yet. He's very raw, but his size makes him intriguing. Lestan is projected as a mid-round pick. On the other end of the size spectrum is 5'9" forward Samuel Solensky. He's a slick offensive player that is more of a goal-scoring threat than one expects from a smaller player. He is another projected mid-round pick.