As the 2019 World Junior Championship begins in Victoria/Vancouver B.C. this holiday season, Sam Cosentino picks out three players from each of the competing teams to keep an eye on.
Brett Leason: The Prince Albert Raiders star is the talk of the CHL. Never a part of the Program of Excellence, and never invited to an NHL camp, Leason has had a breakout season for the top team in the loop. He started the season with points in his first 30 games, including 28 goals. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound right shot, right winger had NHL scouts rerouting in the first half. They’ll get several solid looks with Leason playing with and against top notched competition. Is he the next Tanner Pearson?
Alexis Lafreniere: The ninth-youngest player to make Team Canada, Lafreniere is expected to be the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft. The reigning CHL Rookie of the Year scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old in 2017-18 and is back amongst the top point producers in the QMJHL this season with Rimouski. Likely to start down the lineup, it will be interesting to see if he can vault his way up by tournament’s end.
Evan Bouchard: With seven NHL games out of the way, the Edmonton first-rounder will see a ton of ice in all situations, but should be most noticeable on the power play. Bouchard’s vision, big shot and ability to get pucks through are all important assets. He’s big, defends well and passes the puck with purpose. He’s used to logging big minutes in OHL London, so the workload shouldn’t have an impact.
Jack Hughes: To date, he’s the consensus first overall pick for the 2019 draft. He’s dominated every event he’s played in. He’ll be challenged to do that in Vancouver with most of the competition two years older, but Hughes is Connor McDavid-light. He hounds pucks, knows where to go on the ice and is equally as good a finisher as he is a playmaker.
Jason Robertson: The Dallas second-rounder from 2017 has lit the OHL on fire. Having played two fewer games than league-leader Justin Brazeau, Robertson has 31 goals in 32 games, with a 60-point total. Broken down further, he’s put up 22 points in just eight games since being acquired by Niagara. His former coach in Kingston believes he’s the best player in the OHL. Robertson is extremely confident in his abilities. He’s got a big league shot and release, and has become a much more well-rounded player as he’s gotten older.
Quinn Hughes: Playing time was erratic during the 2018 WJC, but whenever the US needed a goal, Hughes was out there trying to ignite the fire from the back end. His plan is to sign a contract with Vancouver once his sophomore season ends at Michigan. A year older, a year wiser, the experience of playing in the men’s senior worlds should serve him well in this event. Getting the chance to play in front of the crowd that will be supporting his NHL endeavours along with internal competition from his brother should spurn Hughes to a fun-filled tournament.
Erik Brannstrom: The Vegas Golden Knights draft pick was highly sought after in the 2017 draft for his ability to play an up-tempo, puck-moving, fast style of game. He’s currently playing in the AHL and is operating at just under a point per game pace. As a returning anchor on the back-end, Brannstrom should be a high level point producer for the Swedes.
Isac Lundestrom: His all-around play in this event last year made the Anaheim Ducks take notice as they selected him 23rd overall in the draft. He will be a huge addition to the Swedes as he was loaned at the last second. He’s excellent on faceoffs and like Dillon Dube for Canada last year, Lundestrom should transition from an energy guy to being a key go-to offensive player. While he is still looking for his first North American pro goal, he does have 15 NHL games and another 12 AHL games under his belt.
Philip Broberg: Made the training camp roster as a result of an injury to Timothy Liljegren and took full advantage of his opportunity. A break-out player for the Swedes at this summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky tournament, Broberg settled into a more subtle role in the Allsvenskan. Returned back to play with those close to his age, it will be interesting to see what game he brings to the U20 team.
Klim Kostin: Was the fifth most utilized forward for Russia in 2018, yet still lead them with eight points and a plus-7 rating. The St. Louis Blues first-rounder has yet to taste the NHL, having spent the last year and a half with AHL San Antonio. Kostin has all the tools to be an impact player once again, and with a coach who prefers to lean on his 19-year-olds, ice time shouldn’t be an issue this time around. He’s got size, a physical edge to his game and is a better finisher than his 11 AHL goals suggest.
Dmitri Samorukov: The Guelph Storm stalwart plays a pro-style game. He’s big, strong, moves well for his size and is continuously working on his stick skills. A top defender with leadership capabilities, the Edmonton prospect will likely be a top four defender for coach Valery Bragin. Samorukov’s success won’t best be measured by goals and assists, but the intangibles he brings to the table.
Stepan Starkov: As consistent a two-way player as I’ve seen the Russians bring over for the CIBC Canada-Russia series. He accepts all tasks be it shot blocking, checking the opposition’s best line, or producing in a timely matter. Starkov lead all players with six points in the series and has had some success playing in the KHL this season.
Jakub Skarek: The numbers didn’t play out well in the 2018 WJC. Upon closer look, however, Skarek lost 3-1 to Sweden, beat the Swiss 6-3 and then gave up three goals over two periods against Belarus, but still picked up the win. Skarek is extremely athletic and is holding his own in the Liiga where he has put up a 2.02 goals-against average and .920 save percentage through 16 games on a decent team. His experience last year will be key to his country’s success, but there’s nothing to say this Islanders prospect won’t be up to the task.
Martin Kaut: It was his play in the 2018 WJC that essentially cemented Kaut’s position in the first round of the 2018 draft. Kaut put up seven points in seven games en route to the Czech Republic’s first semifinal appearance in 12 years. He played in all situations, took important draws and at times looked like a man amongst boys. Kaut underwent a heart procedure in the off-season, but has shown no ill affects in transitioning to the AHL. Selected 16th overall, the Avs are hoping Kaut can follow the same path as Mikko Rantanen, who went to the AHL the year after he was drafted, got into nine NHL games and then played a full schedule with Colorado in his 19-year-old year.
Filip Zadina: The sixth overall pick from 2018 lit the lamp seven times for the Czech Republic in 2018. No question his calling card is his sniping ability. With a dogged determination to play in the NHL, Zadina did not blink when asked by the Red Wings to accept a demotion to the AHL. Knowing it would be a great step for his development, Zadina has started to show signs of comfort in Grand Rapids. Six of his 17 points this season have come in the last eight games. Getting back to playing for his country should give him the confidence to recover his goal-scoring ways.
Eeli Tolvanen: The 30th overall pick from the 2017 draft has traveled a winding road in his attempt to become an NHL regular. From the USHL to the KHL, the AHL and the NHL, Tolvanen’s path will take yet another turn. A recent four-game stint with the Predators produced his first NHL points, but not enough for Nashville to keep him in the lineup. Tolvanen is on his way to his third world juniors with Finland. If past international experience tells us anything, he should shine in Vancouver. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound winger finished second in the 2018 Olympics with nine points, making the all-tournament team. In his two previous stints with Finland’s U20 team at the WJC, he’s put up 12 points in 11 games.
Kaapo Kakko: Rated second in Sportsnet’s December rankings for the 2019 NHL draft, Kakko has shone playing against men for TPS in the Liiga. Through 27 games, Kakko has nine goals for 20 points. He’s playing close to 18 minutes per game for one of the league’s top teams. Kakko is a big winger who skates well with excellent puck protection and shooting skills. Based on his play in the Liiga, he should be a prominent piece to Finland’s attack, but then again, it was thought L.A. Kings first rounder Rasmus Kupari would do the same last year, and it just never happened.
Aleksi Heponiemi: Coming off a WHL title and a trip to the Memorial Cup, Heponiemi has taken his act home to play for Karpat, the top team in the Liiga. The Florida prospect is up to his old tricks, producing at almost a point per game, heavily weighted towards assists. The slight of frame Heponiemi put up over 200 points in two seasons with WHL Swift Current. One year ago, while playing top-six minutes, Heponiemi was only able to salvage two goals in this tournament. He’d look great playing with Tolvanen on Finland’s top line.
Milos Roman: There was a time last year where Roman, who was playing for the Vancouver Giants, was a must-see for the 2018 draft. By the end of the season, he had faded and ended up going to the Calgary Flames in Round 4. He’s returned to Vancouver and has not disappointed operating at close to a point per game pace. He scored two goals in last year’s tournament, but will be leaned-on more as a 19-year-old this time around.
Adam Ruzicka: Much more comfortable now that he’s in his third year in North America. He continues to put up numbers with 35 points in 33 games for OHL Sarnia. Ruzicka has size, he’s built like a brick and can shoot it a ton. This will be his third world juniors and after an underwhelming two-point effort last year, Ruzicka should be well-positioned to be more of a mainstay for Slovakia’s offence.
Martin Fehervary: Played top four minutes as an 18-year-old last year and had two points in Slovakia’s seven games. Then, was invited to play for Slovakia at the worlds, and again added two points. The Washington Capitals don’t miss much with their high picks, and Fehervary was taken in the second round last year. He has transitioned to the SHL this year and points have been much harder to come by.
Philipp Kurashev: A fourth round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, is averaging a point per game over 2-plus seasons with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. A slick playmaker who has enough shooting ability to keep defenders honest. Kurashev has played for his country all the way up the ladder and has produced points in almost every event.
Nando Eggenberger: Once highly thought of in NHL circles, Eggenberger went undrafted in 2018, and this tournament last year was a big reason why. He’s got size, plays with an edge, is extremely confident, yet highly coachable. He made the trek over to play with Oshawa this year in hopes of getting back on to the NHL radar, and it’s worked. He’s put up good numbers while proving he can play a North American style of game. His shot is NHL ready and he should be motivated by his poor showing for the Swiss one year ago.
Nico Gross: Didn’t look out of place as a 16-year-old defenceman who played the second most minutes for the Swiss in the 2018 tournament. He continues to play with the nastiness of a pro and the demeanour of a veteran. Gross plays with a long stick and can defend well, especially the net front. He’s not going to be a high-end point producer, but there’s still a place in the game for the steady d-man. He will see the opposition’s best and will find a way to rattle the cages of opponents.
Artur Gatiyatov: Had seven points in the D1A tournament last year, as one of the top performers. His strong play helped elevate the country back into main pool play. Most of Kazakhstan’s players play on the same Snezhnye Barsy MHL team. Sergei Starygin is also the head coach of both teams.
Sayan Daniyar: The leading scorer for Snezhnye Barsy in the MHL, which is the CHL equivalent of the KHL. He’s operating at a point-per-game pace with 11 goals and 27 assists for 38 points. In pre-tournament action, he put up a goal and an assist in two tune-up games.
Maxim Musorov: Scored twice in a 5-2 win over Alberni in Kazakhstan’s first pre-tournament game. A mainstay in Snezhnye Barsy’s offence, he has 10 goals over 38 games in MHL play. As a 16-year-old Musurov had four points in the D1A U18 tournament last year. He takes a big step up in competition considering he’s just 17 with the added pressure of being in his first year of draft eligibility.
Mads Sogaard: Denmark’s third goalie for the 2018 WJC, Sogaard didn’t play one minute, despite dressing in three games. Through 19 games with WHL Medicine Hat, the 6-foot-6 behemoth has a .931 save percentage and a miniscule 2.39 goals against. Sogaard is a late birthday, making him eligible for the 2019 draft and while it’s not likely Denmark will shine in the tournament, Sogaard can make his mark by helping the Danes avoid relegation.
Jonas Rondbjerg: Lead the 2018 team with seven points and was the only forward with an E or better rating. With Vaxjo in the SHL, has just two points in 23 games played this season. The Vegas third round pick from 2017 will anchor Denmark’s top line and they’ll need him to log big minutes, accept the challenge of playing against the opposition’s best, while also produce at a rate equal to or better than last year.
Jeppe Mogensen: Playing his second season in the USHL, Mogensen is listed at a solid 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. He was named as one of the three best players for Denmark in the 2018 tournament, while playing a team-leading 22:08 per game. Denmark’s top defender will be tasked with holding down the fort first and foremost. It won’t be easy as he will see some of the top lines in the entire tournament with Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic all in the same pool.