As much as we’re looking forward to seeing projected top 2019 picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, or even the projected top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft Alexis Lafreniere at this year’s world junior hockey championship, we have to remember that this tournament is more about the 19-year-olds.
Most of the best players you’ll see from Dec. 26-Jan. 5 have already been drafted into the NHL and a bunch of these prospects are connected to one of the seven Canadian NHL teams.
So if you’re more interested in keeping tabs on players who may one day wear the jersey of your favourite NHL team, here’s a brief rundown of who to watch for, and what you may see from them.
Michael DiPietro: Expected to be Canada’s No. 1 for a year now, the spotlight is on DiPietro as he defends Canada’s net in a quest to repeat for gold in front of his future home NHL fans. He leads the OHL with a 2.26 GAA, is fourth in save percentage at .922 and has a 12-8-0 record. He’s behind AHLer Thatcher Demko on Vancouver’s “goalie of the future” depth chart.
Quinn Hughes: Ecstatic to grab him seventh overall last summer, the Canucks and their fans will get an up-close look at Hughes, who said his plan is to sign and play in the NHL when his NCAA season ends in 2019. Expect big things from him at this tournament. He’s already just two goals shy of his total from all of last season and his 20 points in 17 games with the University of Michigan leads his team, while his 1.18 points-per-game mark ranks fourth at the position across the NCAA.
Toni Utunen: A fifth-round pick by the Canucks in 2018, Utunen captained the under-18 Finnish team in the past so he’s comfortable as a team leader. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound defenceman is not a big point-producer and has just one assist in 21 Liiga games this season to follow the 12-point season he had in the Finnish junior league a season ago. But his fundamentals are very strong and, considering where he was drafted, Utunen is regarded as a very smart and clean defensive player.
Tyler Madden: High competitiveness, high hockey IQ and the kind of drive you’d expect from the son of three-time Stanley Cup winner John Madden. Tyler Madden was a third-round pick by Vancouver in 2018 following a 34-point USHL season split between Tri-City and Central Illinois, but his offensive game has really been on display this season. A freshman and top line player at Northeastern University, Madden is second on his team with 15 points in 14 games.
— Gauds Plan (@GaudsPlan) December 21, 2018
Evan Bouchard: Likely to play big minutes on a Canadian team without any returning blueliners from last year’s tournament, Bouchard showed fairly well in his seven NHL games seeing limited minutes. Back with OHL London, though, Bouchard has picked up right from where he left off in 2017-18 when he finished as the CHL’s highest-scoring blueliner. He has 18 points in 13 games and a 1.38 points-per-game mark that ranks second in the OHL behind San Jose prospect Ryan Merkley (1.45).
Phil Kemp: A seventh-round pick by the Oilers in 2017, this 6-foot-3, 203-pound defenceman won’t wow you with offence and he has just 11 points in 38 career games at Yale. If he is to have an impact for the Americans, Kemp will do it with his defensive and physical play.
Ryan Poehling: Just three assists shy of his sophomore season total, Poehling’s playmaking abilities have really come to the fore this season. Back for his second WJC with the Americans, Poehling is the oldest player in the tournament with his Jan. 3, 1999 birthdate. He will look to build off the three points he posted at the 2018 tournament, but it’s still worth noting offence isn’t the primary strength of his game.
“I see him being a Mikko Koivu type player because he’s got such a great 200-foot game,” St. Cloud head coach Brett Larson told NHL.com about how he sees Poehling’s NHL future. “I see him being the guy who’s going to be able to play in any type of situation. He’s going to be playing against real high-end players that are very strong. He’s just got to keep working to make sure that he’s able to step into those roles at the next level.”
Nick Suzuki: A key piece of the future Montreal got back in the Max Pacioretty trade, Suzuki has had point totals of 97 and 100 in his past two OHL seasons and has 43 through 28 games this season. That’s a top 10 points-per-game rate in the OHL. The 19-year-old was one of the final cuts from last year’s Canadian WJC team.
Josh Brook: With nine goals and 33 points in 25 games this season, Brook has tripled his goal total and recently surpassed his point total from all of last season when he was limited to 45 games. He plays under Canada head coach Tim Hunter for WHL Moose Jaw so there is familiarity between the two at this event. A captain for Team WHL for the CIBC Canada-Russia series, Brook will likely take on a leadership role for the Canadians.
Jesse Ylonen: Playing with the Finnish Liiga’s Pelicans, Ylonen’s eight goals in 31 games is tied for second among all under-20 players in the league, trailing only Kakko’s — the projected second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft –
who has nine. Ylonen was the 35th-overall pick of the 2018 draft and, given he’s performed rather well during his first year in Finland’s top league despite limited minutes, should be in line for a big role at the WJC.
Alexander Romanov: ‘The Czar’ already has a great nickname, but can he make it as an NHL player? Many thought Montreal reached for him in the second round last summer, but in Eric Engels’ most recent prospect report he indicated Romanov’s physical abilities is a little reminiscent of Alexei Emelin. And although Romanov doesn’t have any points in 28 games with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow, he’s shown flashes that display more puck skill than Emelin ever had. He could be a big-minute guy on the Russian team, although it can be hard to predict how the coaches deploy their players.
Cayden Primeau: A seventh-rounder in 2017 following a terrible season in the USHL, Primeau’s stock as an NHL prospect has skyrocketed ever since. His .931 save percentage and 1.92 GAA last season both were among the best in all of the NCAA and although those totals aren’t quite as good this season on paper (.918, 2.40), he’s still one of the top goalies on the circuit. Just two years after being picked in the last round, he now looks as close to a can’t-miss prospect as can be.
Rasmus Sandin: He’s played in three different leagues the past two seasons and performed well in each. Sandin came to OHL Sault Ste. Marie from Sweden’s Rogle partway through last season, then proceeded to score at a near-point-per-game pace. This year he’s stepped up to the North American pro game and is one of just five AHL defencemen under the age of 20. He’s totalled 10 points in 18 games for the Toronto Marlies, which is two more than teammate Timothy Liljegren, who would have also been at the WJC for Sweden had he not sustained a high ankle sprain. Sandin should be playing a key role for his country.
Ian Scott: A fourth-rounder from 2017, Scott may only get one start playing as DiPietro’s backup, but should the starter struggle out of the gate Hunter may have to turn to Scott the rest of the way. His 1.61 GAA and .943 save percentage both lead the WHL, but it is worth noting he posted a sub-.900 rate a season ago.
Filip Kral: An analytics darling from the 2018 draft with strong 5-on-5 totals, Kral is a 6-foot-1, 171-pound two-way defenceman. The Leafs nabbed him with a fifth-round pick following a rookie WHL season with Spokane in which he posted 35 points in 54 games. He was hurt during Toronto’s rookie camp and started his season late because of it, but has seven points in 17 games this season. The Czechs are in Canada’s preliminary round group and could be a Cinderella team, so watch out for Kral’s contributions.
Dylan Samberg: A returning player to the Americans from last year’s WJC roster, Samberg will look to build on his four-point performance from the 2018 tournament. But if he doesn’t do that, don’t worry too much about it. Samberg has only four points in 15 games for his Minnesota-Duluth team and is far more valuable as a stay-at-home defender. Expect Samberg to be used in this role for the Americans and leaned on for the PK.
Santeri Virtanen: A power forward known for a good two-way game, Virtanen isn’t an offensive dynamo at this stage with five goals and seven points in 29 games with SaiPa in the Finnish Liiga. A smart player who needs to improve his skating, Virtanen should nonetheless be a factor on the defensive side of the puck for the Finns.
Josh Norris: Part of the package coming back to Ottawa in the Erik Karlsson trade, Norris is the second-highest scorer on the University of Michigan with 19 points — one shy of Canucks prospect Hughes. With 10 goals already he has surpassed his total from all of last season and is another returning player for the Americans. At last year’s WJC, Norris recorded three assists in seven games.
Martin Pospisil: Picked in the fourth round of the 2018 NHL Draft, Pospisil was described by Flames GM Brad Treliving as “a little bit of a throwback – he’s a hard-edged, hard-nosed, gritty player.” He had 37 points and a whopping 253 penalty minutes in the USHL last season and has gone to another level with the Sioux City Musketeers this season. Pospisil heads into the WJC as the USHL’s leading scorer with 34 points in 22 games and 64 penalty minutes which are seventh-most in the league. The Slovaks will also need him to be a primary weapon on offence.
Milos Roman: Heading into his third WJC for the Slovaks, Roman plays in all situations in his second season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and his 16 goals in 30 games leads the team by a wide margin. His skating is a work in progress to get to and contribute at higher levels, but at this junior tournament he’ll be an important player for Slovakia. In his previous two WJCs, Roman has combined for three goals and four points in nine games.
Adam Ruzicka: Another Slovak heading into his third WJC for the country, Ruzicka was a fourth-round pick in 2017 following a 25-goal, 46-point season for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. He was actually projected to go much higher than that, but was a little slow to adapt to the North American game. Since then, though, he’s had a couple strong showings, scoring 36 goals for the Sting last season and heads into this WJC with 35 points in 33 OHL games. He’s a big body at 6-foot-4, 203 pounds which should help him stand out production-wise at this tournament. The heavy underdog Slovaks need him to be a significant player if they’re to avoid playing for relegation, or pull off a similar upset to what they did against the Americans last year.