This post will focus on NHL caliber talent on display with the top 3 teams at the 2016 World Junior Championship.
Finland, Russia, and the USA took gold, silver, and bronze respectively in a highly enjoyable tournament held in Helsinki, Finland – that I had the good fortune to attend.
Finland – Gold Medalists
The host team came through with a gold medal performance for the ages. The youth of team Finland led the way through Group B play and in the Quarterfinal against Canada as Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine paced a powerful offensive attack. Then in the Semifinal versus Sweden the veterans stepped up, with Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen assisting on both goals, and Finland found some team defense to cement a 2-1 win. The gold medal game took both the youngsters and the vets as Puljujarvi and Laine figured in the first two goals while Rantanen and Kapanen scored the last two.
Jesse Puljujarvi – he came in as the 2nd rated prospect for the 2016 draft and he only improved upon whatever you thought of him coming in. He was both prolific and clutch. His dynamic play drove the Finns mighty offense and he used his skills and size to great effect. He can skate, shoot, and pass with the best of them. He led the WJC in scoring with 17 points and was named MVP, best forward, and to the tournament all-star team. Personally, I would rate him ahead of Auston Matthews and you can read more under team USA on why.
Patrik Laine – also a top 5 rated prospect for 2016, he showed why with his performance. With 13 points he was third in tournament scoring and was named to the all-star team. He has size and skating ability similar to Puljujarvi, though not quite as dynamic. He made some mistakes and giveaways that seemed a bit immature, perhaps trying to create too much out of nothing at times. He definitely has all the tools to be a productive scorer and I don’t see him falling from the top 5 after this World Juniors effort.
Sebastian Aho – the third member of the top line, Aho is a draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. He finished second in tournament scoring, showing good hockey sense and effective body positioning. He is under six feet, but should be able to carve out a place as a pro in North America. Whether he has a big NHL future could be debated, but he definitely has a shot at it, especially since Carolina is not a very good team.
Kasperi Kapanen – overall Kapanen, a Maple Leafs prospect and former 1st rounder of Pittsburgh, did not have a great tournament. However, his Semifinal performance was key to Finland advancing and then he scored a goal for the ages with his overtime gold medal winning tally. He has the skill and sense to go far and that should make up for his lack of size. He will have plenty of opportunity with a poor Toronto squad, but nothing will be given to him with Mike Babcock as coach.
Mikko Rantanen – he had a tough time adjusting after coming over from playing NHL and AHL games to be captain of team Finland. Much like Kapanen, he did not have a great round robin, but stepped up in a big way in the last 2 games. He should fit in well with Colorado’s young group of forwards in the near future and play many years in the NHL as he has a good mix of size and skill, after being a top 10 pick last year.
Aleksi Saarela – noticeable for his scoring in the round robin, he exhibited a solid game in the medal round. Saarela is a 3rd round draft pick of the NY Rangers.
Antti Kalapudas – scored big goals in both the Quarter- and Semi-final games. Looked dangerous later in the tournament. Kalapudas remains undrafted.
Olli Juolevi – this first round rated defender for 2016 definitely has the offensive skills to succeed. On the defensive side he needs to work on decision making and taking better care of the puck. His play was a bit of an adventure at times and a miscue led to a big goal for Russia in the final. He definitely looks like first round material and many young offensive defenseman have things to learn about playing defense. He tied for the tournament scoring lead for defensemen with 9 points and was named to the tournament all-star team.
Goaltending was not the strong suit of this team, but two tenders made it between the pipes and were good enough to win Finland the gold. Veini Vehvilainen is eligible for the 2016 draft and Kaapo Kahkonen was a 2014 fourth round pick by Minnesota. Vehvilainen and his fancy red pads was the starter all the way through the round robin and into the Quarterfinal against Canada. He was pulled in the second period after Canada’s third goal and Kahkonen took the Finns the rest of the way to gold. Neither gave a dominant goaltending performance, but both played well enough to win. Since goalies tend to take longer to develop they both have a chance at pro careers, but they are not starting off as blue chip prospects.
Russia – Silver Medalists
The Russians are always dangerous and they proved that again with a silver medal performance. They needed late rallies to win several games and they forced the gold medal game to overtime as well. They beat the Finns in round robin play and took out the US in the Semis, but could not handle Finland again in the Final.
Vladislav Kamenev – he gave a gutsy performance throughout and was very productive, scoring 6 points, good for third on Russia. A Nashville Predators prospect, he was playing with Milwaukee of the AHL prior to the WJC. With good size and skill he looks like a man with an NHL future.
Yegor Korshkov – he led the Russians in scoring with 8 points and scored the game winner against the US in the Semifinals. One of many sizable Russian players, he is eligible for the 2016 draft and put himself in good standing with his WJC performance.
Ivan Provorov – this top 10 selection of the Flyers put in a good turn on defense, finishing second in scoring on Russia, and among tournament defensemen, with 8 points. He has the look of an NHLer and already plays in North America in the WHL.
Ilya Samsonov – the Washington Capitals first rounder did not play as much as expected, but was solid between the pipes when called upon. He started versus the US in the Semifinal and came away with a 2-1 victory, to go along with a 1 goal against win against Belarus in the round robin. While he played less than the veteran Georgiev, he did nothing to hurt his standing as a highly thought of prospect.
Alexander Georgiev – he played the bulk of the games in the Russian net as a 19 year old. Undrafted, he brought his team to within an overtime goal of the gold medal. This performance may spark some interest in North America as it has for Russian goalies such as Andrey Makarov.
USA – Bronze Medalists
The US has become a perennial contender at this tournament. Since 2004 the US has won three gold medals and this year captured their third bronze in that same time period, compared with only three total medals in three decades prior to that.
Team USA easily took the bronze medal game from Sweden 8-3.
I will review players alphabetically by position for ease of finding specific individuals.
NHL rights status is listed in parentheses.
Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins) – he brought good speed and tenacious play, scoring a beautiful breakaway goal in the bronze medal game. A Bruins 5th rounder he has nearly a point per game in his sophomore season with Notre Dame. I think his level of effort will put him on a solid pro path.
Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) – I expected a bit more from Boeser since he is a 1st round draft pick and has a point per game in college play this year. He wasn’t bad, I just thought I would see more from him. He definitely looks like he could use another year in college to develop.
Alex DeBrincat (2016 eligible) – unfortunately he sabotaged himself a bit with his spear in the first game of the tournament getting him ejected and then by falling into the boards and getting hurt in his next game. Those incidents dropped him off the first line with Matthews and Tkachuk and he never really got it going. We knew coming in that he was a small player, but also a goal a game player this year with Erie of the OHL after being a 100+ point man last season. It will be interesting to see where he goes in this years draft. His scoring exploits in junior point to big things, but he was not able to show that in a best on best format in Finland.
Ryan Donato (Boston Bruins) – draft pick of Boston and son of former Bruin Ted, Ryan showed good speed and a nice shot. He scored an especially nice goal in the game versus Switzerland. He has all the attributes to take his game to the professional level, it will remain to be seen if that is as a top 2 line scorer or as a third liner.
Christian Dvorak (Arizona Coyotes) – while productive in the tournament with 8 points, he has the tendency to pass too much and could be more assertive and effective. This was an interesting phenomenon since he is a goal per game player this year in the OHL with London and put up 41 goals and 109 points last season. Perhaps with the depth of talent he found on Team USA he felt the need to dish most of the time. He was a 2nd rounder of Arizona, along with Ryan MacInnis the same year, and the Coyotes need all the offense they can get, so he should get a fair shot to be an offensive forward in the NHL. I would not count on seeing that for another year or two however.
Scott Eansor (undrafted) – the small and speedy forward plays in the WHL and is not a big scorer. That said, he had a beauty of a shorthanded breakaway goal in the Quarterfinal versus the Czechs. While there are some challenges ahead with his size and being undrafted, I think he can definitely craft an AHL career out of being an energy player and penalty killer. Who knows, perhaps he can work his way into the NHL on the third or fourth line.
Ryan Hitchcock (undrafted) – not a lot of flash to his game. A product of the NTDP, Hitchcock plays for Yale and is not a big scorer. Since he is undrafted he will have to hope his solid play can attract a team to sign him. If so, his future will be as a checking forward. He was not a liability for the US.
Ryan MacInnis (Arizona Coyotes) – the tallest forward on the US squad and a decent scorer for Kitchener in the OHL, Ryan did not show much offensive ability in the World Juniors nor did he use his size to great effect. Son of NHL legend Al MacInnis and a second rounder of Arizona, at this point I can only see him as a third line checking forward at best. I was looking for a more offensive game or some physicality, but neither was evident. If he makes an NHL impact someday I believe it will only be after a lengthy AHL apprenticeship.
Auston Matthews (2016 eligible) – coming in as the #1 rated prospect for the 2016 NHL draft, Matthews did not disappoint as far as point totals go. He finished 4th in tournament scoring behind the Finns big line, tied for 1st in goal scoring with 7, and made the all-star team. He helped the US to a bronze medal and teamed with Tkachuk and White to form a potent first line.
However, once you step beyond the stat line I noticed some deficiencies that cause concern for such a highly rated player.
First off, he was not a dynamic, dominating player all over the ice. By far his greatest impact was below the top of the offensive zone circles. He did not create much off the rush or effectively penetrate the offensive zone. Most of his points were goals and came as the result of work by other players. He showed himself to be a great finisher for sure, but not a ‘force of nature’ type player.
From his play, let’s look at his physical attributes. Depending where you look he is listed at 6′-0″ or 6′-2″ and I would say he is every bit of the latter if not taller. With his frame he could use it to greater advantage. The most striking thing I noticed was his lack of elite acceleration. He has some quickness and a few moves, but in terms of explosiveness and getting up to speed he is only average.
Next let’s compare him to some other players. At this tournament Jesse Puljujarvi came in rated #2 in draft projections and I would say easily outperformed Matthews. Not just in number of points, but in his impact on the individual games, Puljujarvi carried the play and created chances. Matthew Tkachuk and Patrik Laine are both also top 5 rated prospects and were very productive with 13 and 11 points respectively. Laine showed some immature moments trying to do too much and Tkachuk got many more assists than goals, so I would not say either was better than Matthews, but they were not far off. Now let’s look at the 2015 and 2016 drafts combined, as I have heard and read some folks saying that they would rate McDavid #1 and then Matthews #2 with Puljujarvi, Eichel, and Laine rounding out the top 5 in some order. I think that is really projecting a lot, Matthews has a lot of work to do in skating and in his 200 foot game to be better than Eichel. Matthews may score more goals, but in terms of all-ice impact I would bet on Jack. Now comparing Puljujarvi and Eichel may get more interesting. At this point Eichel still has the more mature game, but Puljujarvi showed an interest in being omnipresent and impacting play anywhere. Laine needs to show that he can reign in his impulse to do too much before he could leapfrog any of the other 4. Personally, in that group of 5 I would say McDavid, Eichel, Puljujarvi, Matthews, and Laine with Eichel ending up as the best all-around player when considering all 3 zones.
Finally, to project Auston Matthews is a bit difficult since he has some things he needs to work on. I see him as a pure goal scorer, but a finisher that lacks elite skating, needs work on defense, and could use his size better. If this were 1997 I would be higher on him, but the game today is so fast that a lack of acceleration will hamper him. He really makes me think of a modern day Phil Esposito and I don’t know if that is the way the game can be played today.
Now keep in mind this is being especially hard on him because he is rated a #1 overall pick and, to use the parlance of our times, a ‘generational talent’ that only comes along once a decade or less. In those terms I find a bit to be desired in his game. It will be very interesting to see how the next 6 months play out and who will eventually go first overall at the 2016 NHL draft.
Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) – he had a good tournament and was productive, but not at an elite level. He has always had the slick skills and showed some of them off, but not to a dazzling degree. I wonder how his game will translate to the NHL as he does not quite possess a Patrick Kane level of skill and he is not a big player. Playing in the AHL this year he has 11 points in 22 games, but he is a rookie so we can’t judge that too harshly. He definitely needs to spend some development time, add some strength, and refine his game to an effective professional standard before getting a shot at the big leagues. With the recent trade of Ryan Johansen out of Columbus, there will definitely be room for offensive players with the big club.
Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks) – for me, Schmaltz was one of the best players on Team USA. Effort, skill, and results were there in equal measure. He is not a big goal scorer, but he is very creative and assertive. That said, he had a gorgeous first period goal versus the Czechs in the Quarterfinal. In his sophomore season with North Dakota, I would say the only reason he would not turn pro after this season would be because his rights are owned by Chicago and there may not be room for him. I was very impressed with his play and project a long NHL future for him. Chicago will only get richer as he can initially help their salary cap situation and team up with other young players like Teuvo Teravainen. His skating, skill level, and hockey sense all are pro caliber. He carries himself well and looks like the player that will score you the big goal in the clutch.
Matthew Tkachuk (2016 eligible) – he was the energy and driving force of the US first line. Matthews got a lot of his goals off Tkachuk hard work and skilled setups. He plays with an attitude and a fire that gets his teammates going. A top 5 rated prospect for the 2016 draft he put up about 2 points per game with OHL London prior to the WJC after playing the last 2 years with the US NTDP. I think he and Laine will battle Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun for the 3-5 spots in the draft. Laine might have the purer skill set, but Tkachuk has the drive you want to see in a top player. When you look at the top 5 coming up, this may be one of the best top 5 draft pick groups we have ever seen.
Colin White (Ottawa Senators) – served as the first line replacement for DeBrincat after the spearing ejection in game 1 and held that spot for the rest of the tournament. He acquitted himself well with Matthews and Tkachuk, putting up a point per game pace. He is over that pace with Boston College in this his freshman season. He was a first round pick of Ottawa last year and will definitely become an NHLer. I think he will not be a major scorer in the NHL, but more likely a responsible second or third liner who gets a fair number of points.
Overall the US Defensemen were very well coached and all exhibited great active sticks throughout the tournament, deflecting many shots harmlessly away and breaking up many passes.
Louie Belpedio (Minnesota Wild) – playing on the second pairing with Borgen, Belpedio was mobile and efficient. He is under six feet tall so that may be a challenge, but he appeared poised and has definite pro potential, perhaps even NHL chops for Minnesota.
Will Borgen (Buffalo Sabres) – the Sabres 4th rounder has had a good year and developed well with St. Cloud State. He has good size, showed good skating ability, and was a solid player for the US on the second pairing with Belpedio. A player I did not know too much about prior to the WJC, he looks to have a strong future. At the least he showed that he could play in the AHL and hopefully will develop more and see NHL duty.
Brandon Carlo (Boston Bruins) – played on the top pair with Werenski and is the biggest US defender. Though he puts up points with Tri-City of the WHL, Carlo may need to stick to a more conservative defensive game if he is to reach the NHL. With the world class talent he competed against in Helsinki, he was solid, but not carrying the play offensively. The Bruins blueline will have plenty of openings in the next few years with Chara and Seidenberg getting older, so Carlo’s size will be a coveted asset if he can keep showing a responsible game.
Brandon Fortunato (undrafted) – this slight defender is putting up points in college this year, but did not show too much flair with Team USA. The bottom 3 defensemen (Fortunato, Krys, McAvoy) certainly did not carry the load lIke the top 4 in this tournament. Fortunato is a small, undrafted sophomore at BU so he will bear more watching and likely not turn pro for a year or two.
Chad Krys (2016 eligible) – Krys is a Boston University commit playing this year with the US Under-18 team in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. He played as much or more than Fortunato and McAvoy in the bottom 3 D-men and will likely be drafted this year. He has put up a fair number of points the last few years, but was held scoreless in the World Juniors. His college development will be critical to his pro prospects.
Charlie McAvoy (2016 eligible) – a common theme with the bottom 3 defensemen is BU. McAvoy is in his freshman season there and is eligible for the 2016 NHL draft. Not a big sample size from the WJC to go on, but he looks likely to be drafted and continue in college for another year or two at a minimum.
Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) – as Captain of Team USA, best defenseman of the World Juniors, and a member of the tournament all-star team Werenski left his mark on Helsinki. This Blue Jackets first rounder is always calm and cool. He has that ability to slow the game down and instill teammates with confidence that is rare even among the best players. He led US defenders with 9 points, tied for most at the WJC with Juolevi of Finland.
His pro career is much anticipated and will likely start after his college season is over. He will join a Columbus blueline with notable US junior team alums Jack Johnson and Seth Jones. I was high on him for last years draft and his performance in Finland did not disappoint.
The only criticism I have came in the Semifinals when he and Nedeljkovic both made a mistake on a Russian goal that ended up costing the US the game, very similar to the 2010 Olympics when Rafalski and Miller both committed errors to allow Crosby to score the OT gold medal winner.
Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes) – the number one goaltender for Team USA was fabulous from start to finish. If not for Linus Soderstrom he would have been the goalie of the tournament.
As mentioned above, only his miscue in the Russia game was a blemish on his performance.
Carolina looks to have a strong building block in Nedeljkovic, but many goalies have had a strong WJC and then not made it big in the NHL. Time will tell, but early returns look good.
Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) – he only started one game versus Denmark and played a total of about 90 minutes in the tournament, but he played well in those minutes. For the Rangers there is currently no vacancy in their crease with King Henrik in control, but in a few years they will need a successor. With the long term development of most goalies, this may work out well for Halverson. Look for him in AHL Hartford before long.