The IIHF men’s World U18 championships completed last week. The US had to navigate some frightening moments in the medal round, but ultimately came away with their tenth gold medal in the event’s history, and seventh in the past nine tournaments.
The tournament is always a fascinating one to watch because so many of the prospects are eligible to be picked in the NHL Draft two months from now. It isn’t a huge deal for NHL teams—in most cases, their 50th viewing of a player isn’t likely to sway the opinion they’ve formed over the first 49 viewing that much—but it is one additional piece of information to take before finalizing a draft list, and the added context of seeing a player against their peer group can sometimes be especially helpful.
A trip to Slovakia for me wasn’t in the budget this year, but NHL Network did a nice job broadcasting the US and Canada games. So with that, combined with a few trusted opinions of people that were over there, here were a few of my thoughts on the tournament, and what it means for the upcoming NHL Draft.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Finland, who had a great tournament, had some of the biggest potential risers in the Draft.
Foremost was Kristian Vesalainen, who ended up leading the tournament in scoring. At last year’s tournament, I was convinced Vesalainen was destined to be a top-five pick in the 2017 Draft with his combination of 6’4” size and great hands. Since then, it has been a struggle for Vesalainen, who didn’t score at all playing pro hockey in Sweden, and then getting loaned back to Finland and not scoring there. Those poor results dropped him to just outside the first round on most Draft projections.
But playing against his own age group, Vesalainen was close to dominant. It’s just so rare to find guys his size that are that big and smooth. Now, it’s a question of how much this good tournament moves him up draft boards. On one hand, it’s just one tournament and opinions and draft lists are likely pretty set by this point in the year. But given the context of the situation, some team may look at this as evidence that he still has sky high potential, but just hasn’t reached a point where he can do it at a pro level yet.
I’m inclined towards moving him into the first half of the first round. Some of that may be bias because I’m seeing him here and I don’t watch a lot of Finnish pro hockey. But also, it’s a weak draft year and there aren’t a ton of guys I’m really excited about, so I wouldn’t be as afraid taking a little extra risk to go for the big home run swing.
The other big potential first round riser from Finland was the tournament’s second-leading scorer, defenseman Miro Heiskanen. Heiskanen has been one of the rare first round-rated prospects this year that has had a good year and consistently moved up the draft rankings thanks to a solid season in the pros in Finland. He’s not the most exciting player, but is he ever smart and rock solid.
I think as we get closer to the Draft, there’s going to be a lot of debate over who the best defenseman in the Draft is between Heiskanen and UMass recruit Cale Makar. Heiskanen is the safe, steady choice, while Makar is riskier, but has the potential to be a rare high-scoring offensive defenseman. One or maybe both should go in the first five picks.
Another defenseman that was closely watched at this tournament was Sweden’s Timothy Liljegren. Liljegren started the year neck-and-neck with Nolan Patrick for the top overall spot, but has slid considerably after a very rough year. In Liljegren’s defense, part of that is due to the fact that he had mononucleosis this year, which caused him to miss a lot of time, and probably didn’t allow him to be 100% for many of the games he did play(The same thing happened to Colin White in his draft year, which dropped him to 21st overall in the ‘15 Draft, a huge steal for Ottawa).
So this tournament was a chance for him to prove himself to people willing to give him a pass because of the illness. He played fine for Sweden in this tournament, but I expect him to keep sliding down in the first round heading towards the Draft. Liljegren is a really strong, solid defenseman, but I just don’t see the hockey sense that would make him a top pairing defenseman in the NHL. It’s not a perfect comparison, but in terms of projection, I see him as being a lot like Jakob Chychrun last year: a player that’s pretty good right now, and probably one of the more pro-ready defensemen available, but much closer to his potential ceiling than other players available.
Meanwhile, I thought Swedish defenseman Erik Brannstrom had a really good tournament. Brannstrom is a little on the small side, but he has major speed and made some nice offensive plays. I really like his upside. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went in the first round, and potentially even went higher than Liljegren.
Swiss forward Nico Hischier had a decent tournament, but didn’t do anything to definitively say he should be number one overall instead of Nolan Patrick. The Swiss had kind of a disappointing tournament, finishing fourth in their group and losing in the quarterfinal to the United States(despite giving the US quite a scare in that game). Hischier had five assists in the four prelim games, and then tipped a goal against the US for six points in five games. Switzerland only scored 11 goals in their five games, so maybe the blame falls on his supporting cast for not making him look better. It depends who gets the first overall pick, but I still think Patrick has the edge to go first overall.
For the United States, it was an all-around team effort. Eleven different players had at least five points in their seven games, and only players didn’t find the scoresheet.
If there was a breakout player for the US, it was Brady Tkachuk, who seemed to be all over the ice in every game the US played. He made a strong case to start next season in the top five for the 2018 Draft. Strong showings from underagers Oliver Wahlstrom and Joel Farabee, as well as ‘18 eligible Quinn Hughes should start them as potential first round picks next year as well.
The leading scorer for the US team was little Sean Dhooghe, who finished with a 3-6-9 scoring line, including the big OT winner against Sweden in the semifinals. At his size, it’s really hard to imagine him as much of an NHL prospect, but he’s a hard-working, hard-nosed player, has some decent skill, and has improved his skating a little bit as he’s gotten stronger. It’s probably a long shot, but I could see a team gambling on him with a seventh round pick.
Similarly, Dylan St. Cyr played every game in goal for the United States, and performed well. He’s a good goalie, and should perform well in college, but I can’t see an NHL team picking a goalie that is half-a-foot shorter than the average NHL goalie. Shooters at that level are just too good.
If there was one US player that really helped himself in this tournament it was defenseman Max Gildon, who scored 4-2-6, including a hat trick against the Czech Republic. Gildon has always had all the physical abilities to be a first round pick, but never quite had the mental side, especially against better competition like he saw against college teams. He showed the ability to use his talents well here. He was probably a 2nd/3rd round guy before the tournament, and this pushed him more towards the second round.
St. Cloud State’s Ryan Poehling showed similar to what he did during the college season. He picked up some points thanks to his great puck pursuit and nose for the net, but didn’t really create a lot with the puck on his stick. I’d hesitate to select him with a top 10-15 pick just because I don’t think he’s ever a scoring line guy, but whoever gets him in the first round is likely getting a guy that will quietly be a very solid player for a long time.
Grant Mismash and Josh Norris have been fringe first round guys most of the year, and turned in nice, solid performances. If anything, they probably helped their cause here in terms of being picked in the first round. Betting the over on the projected number of first rounders out of the NTDP has paid off every year, and I suspect we’ll see similar this year. It wouldn’t be unheard of if a surprise guy like Evan Barratt or David Farrance snuck into the top-30 too, similar to Trent Frederic last year or Jack Roslovic the year prior.
It was a very quiet tournament for Canada. They struggled with Slovakia and lost to Finland in the prelims and then were blown out by Sweden in the quarterfinal.
If they had one stand-out player, it was forward Mackenzie Entwistle. Entwistle is projected as a mid-second round guy, and one good tournament likely isn’t enough to push him into the first round.
The other positive for Canada was that their 2000-born defensemen played very well in this tournament. The ‘99 birth year was always seen as a down one for Canada, but next year appears much better.
WHL forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan had made a strong push towards the first round of the Draft late in the season, but he was held scoreless for Canada in this tournament. Similar to Entwistle, I don’t think this one tournament hurts him all that much, but I could see him sliding out of the first round.
Denver commit defenseman Ian Mitchell also had a bit of a rough tournament, though it’s easy to see his potential. He should be an impact player for the Pioneers next year.