There's no doubt that the primary purpose at the World U18 Championships is scouting for the current year's draft. It's one of the last major events of the year and can have a big impact on when a player hears his name called on draft day.
But at the same time, after following the draft class closely for a year, and in some cases longer than that, there also aren't that many surprises at the World U18s within the current draft crop. Players may move themselves up or down a few spots on the list, but more often than not, they show what they've already shown throughout the year. One of the biggest joys in scouting is the excitement of finding a new player. So it's only natural that in addition to watching the players eligible for this year's Draft, scouts are also watching for prospective top talents in future drafts.
This year's tournament was no exception with a number of players already looking like to prospects for the 2017 NHL Draft. Here are a few players that are going to be watched very closely next year as potential high first round picks.
Timothy Liljegren, Defense, Sweden, 6'0" 190 lbs., 4/30/99
After being one of the top players at this year's World U17 Challenge, Liljegren is backing that up with a great performance at the U18s, where he's maybe been Sweden's best defenseman. Liljegren is one of the smoothest defensemen I've seen in some time. Everything looks effortless and easy for him. He skates and moves the puck around the ice with ease. Though he only stands 6'0" he's strong enough to be a physical presence along the boards and win puck battles and can really fire the puck from the point.
Kristian Vesalainen, Forward, Finland, 6'3" 201 lbs. 6/1/99
Vesalainen saw some time with Frolunda in Sweden's top professional league this year, a remarkable feat for a player that won't turn 17 until this summer. When he joined Finland's U18 team just prior to the tournament, he made an instant impact on their line-up by immediately plugging into their first line and making the line-up much stronger. Vesalainen has the frame of a power forward, but the hands to be a skill player. He really excels in making quick little plays with the puck in tight areas to elude defenders or move the puck to teammates. He's got the potential to be a high-end scorer at the NHL level as his game develops.
Klim Kostin, Forward, Russia, 6'3" 183 lbs., 5/5/99
Kostin went from not being expected to play in this tournament to being named Russia's team captain for the event after Russia's U18 team was pulled out of the tournament over fears of testing positive for meldonium. He's really showcasing his abilities at the tournament. Kostin has a big frame and the skating and puck-handling ability to use that frame to be a big-time prospect. I really like his patience with the puck playing in Russia's heavily possession-oriented system. He's maybe a step behind Vesalainen in terms of high-end scoring potential at the NHL level, but is a really complete player capable of being a big centerman in the NHL.
Kailer Yamamoto, Forward, United States, 5'8" 159 lbs. 9/29/98
Yamamoto doesn't have the same size as some of the other top prospects, but it doesn't matter because he's just a true hockey player. He's fast, but more important is how he uses that speed. He's not afraid to go into tough areas to fight for pucks or angle off defenders to get himself into position to make a play. He's a high-effort, high-energy player and has shown excellent finishing ability to be an offensive threat in this tournament.
Casey Mittelstadt, Forward, United States, 5'11" 201 lbs., 11/22/98
Mittelstadt has struggled a bit in his transition from being a big fish in a small pond to swimming with a lot of big fish at the international level, but has still shown flashes of why he's such a valued future prospect. Mittelstadt has a quick first step and very quick hands, and when he gets some space, he's a deadly finisher. He's not quite there yet, but he has the potential to be a high-scoring winger at the NHL level.
Nico Hirschier, Forward, Switzerland, 6'0" 172 lbs., 1/4/99
Hirschier is a consistently dangerous playmaker. He's a fast skater which forces the opposition to give him a big gap, and when he gets space in the offensive zone, he can be deadly. He's got great vision to see the ice well. When he does find an open teammate, he's got slick hands that allow him to put the puck anywhere he wants it. He's the type of player that always seems to have the puck on his stick.
Eeli Tolvanen, Forward, Finland, 5'10" 174 lbs. 4/22/99
Tolvanen took the somewhat unconventional route of coming to North America to play in the USHL this past season and had success with the Sioux City Musketeers. Tolvanen is a smooth, strong skater that can be disruptive to the opposition's defense with his speed. He's got great acceleration which allows him to create separation over short distances. He also works hard away from the puck to set himself up in good scoring positions. He has a smooth handle of the puck and can get surprising velocity on his shot.