Finland has a population of only 5.5 million, so the fact they have now been crowned both Olympic gold medallists and World Hockey Championship winners in the same year is nothing short of incredible. And that’s just what they accomplished in 2022, with Sunday’s 4-3 OT win over Canada clinching the latter title.
The Finns are a proud bunch and they also know how to celebrate and have a good time. The entire country was partying Sunday night, and we shouldn’t expect it to end until at least Tuesday! It’s just the way Finland rolls. Congrats to the Finns.
With the World Championship behind us, we cane take away a few observations from the tournament, including notes on draft eligible players, some NHL player performances, and which European free agents may be a target now for NHL teams.
Here’s what we saw from the World Championship…
In 2014 I was at the NHL Combine in Toronto working for the Florida Panthers. It was Saturday and the prospects were fitness testing, which is a tortuous process for some players. Not all prospects are built the same after all. Some, in fact, are still years away from being fully developed mentally and physically and have loads of room to add weight and strength.
There was a player that stood out for me that morning. He seemed to take the day in stride and was interacting and laughing with other prospects and some of the evaluators at each station.
It was like a moment out of the twilight zone for me that day, seeing David Pastrnak strut around the fitness testing facility with his long hair tucked inside a headband, which brought back shades of former world No. 1 tennis player Bjorn Borg. And if you don’t know who that is, I recommend looking him up.
Pastrnak was smiling from station to station and was not fazed by the importance of the day or the moment. He had an infectious personality that lightened the mood in the room. Pastrnak has turned into an elite goal scorer and offensive weapon for the Boston Bruins and he’s cashed in, with career earnings north of $35 million and growing.
Which brings me to this past Sunday when Team Czechia faced Team USA in the bronze medal game at the World Championship. It’s not a best-on-best tournament due to the worldwide commitments players have to their club teams, but it means a great deal to the players who do compete. For some of them this is the highest level they will ever play and they badly want to bring home a medal for their country. Team Czechia stormed back in the third period against the Americans and skated to an 8-4 victory after scoring six (!) third period goals.
And there was Pastrnak, the NHL star representing his country and contributing the way the hockey world has come to expect. His hat trick lead the Czechs to their first Men’s World Championship hockey medal since 2012, and he did it with the same kind of emotion and pride I have come to expect from him. The celebration with his team was genuine. The bronze at the Worlds isn’t a Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold, or even World Championship Gold, but you could see it meant equally as much to the group of players on Team Czechia.
And they were led by the Bruins’ 26-year-old star, the Bjorn Borg lookalike back in 2014 at the draft combine in Toronto before his career took off. He hasn’t changed a bit over the years. It was refreshing and enjoyable to watch.
• Juraj Slafkovsky ends his year on a positive note. He was deployed at even strength and on the primary power play unit for the Slovaks at this event and scored three goals and six assists in eight games. His entire game gives the impression that his best is yet to come.
Slafkovsky fit in nicely against some of the best competition he has faced this year and played to his identity. He has given the Montreal Canadiens pause for thought with the No. 1 overall pick. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear the Habs step to the podium on July 7 and call his name first in front of their home fans. He’s not my No. 1, but I can see why a team could have him atop their list.
For me, it still comes down to Shane Wright and Logan Cooley, but somebody is going to get a high-end prospect in Slafkovsky. I have to wonder if trade up/trade down discussions are already beginning.
• Simon Nemec will be selected inside the top five picks at this year’s NHL draft and someone is going to get an outstanding blue line prospect here. He, too, played to his identity at the Worlds and logged a ton of minutes for Craig Ramsay’s Team Slovakia. There were a few hiccups on the defensive side of Nemec’s game, but nothing alarming. A power play QB in the making, Nemec produced one goal and five assists in eight games and it’s rare to see someone this young tasked with running a PP at this level.
• Another player from Slovakia who was enjoyable to watch was Adam Sykora. In six games he produced two goals and three points, and his tip goal against Finland wasn’t a fluke in my opinion.
He’s an energetic player with offensive instincts, and though his height and weight will be a discussion point, it shouldn’t be a concern (5-foot-10, 172 pounds). Sykora was ranked in the middle of the pack for European prospects by NHL Central Scouting (No. 42) and I see him as a possible target around the beginning of the fourth round. One of the things scouts will discuss at their year-end meetings is the fact he is very young for this draft. His Sept. 7 birthdate falls just below the Sept. 15 cut-off date for this year’s draft class. At 17 years young he was competing against men much older than him at this event and, for the most part, fit right in. If he was born 13 days later than he was and had another full year to impress teams, he would very likely be a more coveted player. His age has to be considered.
• Six-foot-3 defenceman David Jiricek from Czechia will benefit from his experience at the Worlds. He’s a top eight prospect for the upcoming NHL draft, but he’s not in the same category as Nemec. Teams will complete their due diligence on Jiricek’s injury history and ability to stay in the lineup. His fives games at the Worlds in Finland produced one goal and two points. I continue to appreciate his IQ and ability to find open space and skate pucks up ice. In small areas he doesn’t panic and throw pucks away. My biggest concern continues to be his posture. There is very little knee bend in his stride. His upright style can lead to less centre of gravity and stability, which can lead to some balance issues at times.
• Drake Batherson is on the verge of taking his game to a new level. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward scored 17 goals and 44 points in 46 games for Ottawa this year. He’s a top line player for the Senators and ended up the second leading scorer at the Worlds for Team Canada with three goals and 14 points in 10 games. He’s tracking towards being a consistently dominant NHL player.
• It’s safe to say the Seattle Kraken hoped for more than they got from goalie Chris Driedger this season, but he became the starter for Canada at the Worlds after Logan Thompson suffered an injury. Driedger’s stats weren’t elite at this event either, finishing with the fifth-best save percentage at .915. It’s ironic that Driedger suffered a third period injury himself and had to leave the gold medal game versus Finland. This is a season Driedger would like to put behind him. Let’s hope his injury isn’t serious and he can reset through the summer.
• Some players are better suited for the way the game is played in Europe. Mikko Lehtonen has won Gold representing Finland at the World Juniors, World Championships, and Olympic Games, and he led the Finns in scoring at this tournament with two goals and 12 points. Lehtonen stands out on the international stage at big events, though his time at the NHL level split between Toronto and Columbus resulted in just six assists in 26 total games. He’s a fine player but his foot speed is an issue for the NHL game.
• Denis Malgin is an interesting name coming out of this tournament. His rights are owned by Toronto and he’s an RFA. Teams have interest in Malgin coming back to North America, especially after he finished this tournament with five goals and 12 points in only eight games for Switzerland. I don’t see him as a fit for the Leafs, but he could be included in a trade. The team that acquires him will likely have permission to discuss a contract before approving the trade and setting their cost. He’s the same player he has always been. He produces over a point per game in Europe, but has found less room to navigate and settle into a rhythm in the NHL. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see him on an NHL roster to start the 2022-23 season. A team that needs scoring (possibly Seattle where head coach Dave Hakstol is familiar with Malgin from his time with the Leafs) could take a chance.
• Credit to Pierre-Luc Dubois. He came to Finland and played a significant role for Team Canada on the top line alongside Dylan Cozens and Drake Batherson. He was used in all situations, took key defensive zone face-offs on his strong side and contributed seven goals and 13 points in 10 games.
There are players who elect to sit out the Worlds when they are entering free agency and Dubois is a pending RFA from the Winnipeg Jets. This is a player who is hard to play against when at his best. He’s 6-foot-3, 218 pounds and not afraid to lean on people and play heavy in the trenches. He has to be part of the solution moving forward for the Jets. I have no idea what conversations have been like between the player and the team, but I hope the two parties can come to an agreement that makes sense and the Jets can count on him being a central figure in their team building this summer.
(Note: His AAV was $5 million this year, but he was paid $6.65 million in actual cash.)