Three players to watch on every team at the 2018 World Junior Championship

The consensus overall No. 1 NHL draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin is in heady company, already drawing comparisons to countryman Erik Karlsson.

The World Junior Championship tournament runs from Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Buffalo, N.Y., this year and again there is no shortage of interesting talent from all the countries involved.

To get you prepared for the event, here are three players to keep an eye on from each team:

USA

Kailer Yamamoto
The Oilers draft pick (22nd overall in 2017) started the season in the NHL and even got some time alongside Connor McDavid. Overall, he showed well for a freshly drafted player who wasn’t expected to stick by posting three points in nine games, but was inevitably returned to WHL Spokane. He’s been a key playmaker for them with 12 points in 13 games, and figures to be a key cog on one of the top two lines for the Americans at the WJC.

Casey Mittelstadt
Will get a chance to compete in Buffalo in front of fans he’ll play for in years to come. Mittelstadt was picked eighth overall by the Sabres in last summer’s draft and has impressed in his first NCAA season with the University of Minnesota, where he has 17 points in 19 games. After getting a taste of the WJC through past USA selection camps, he finally stuck this year.

Brady Tkachuk
Brother Matthew is making waves in the NHL as a penalty-drawing pest who adds scoring value and Brady is quickly rising as a potentially better player. While Matthew was the sixth overall pick in 2016, Brady was ranked No. 5 on Sam Cosentino’s December draft rankings. Unlike his brother, Brady went the NCAA route and has 14 points in 19 games with Boston University. Now, he’ll get his first WJC experience after captaining Team USA at last year’s U18 and finishing with seven points in seven games.

FINLAND

Kristian Vesalainen
The whole Finland team is looking to rebound from a terrible ninth-place finish in last year’s WJC, and the big-bodied Vesalainen is especially under pressure to have a better performance. The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder managed just two points in six WJC games last year and with the strong season he’s having in Finland’s top pro league (19 points in 26 games), Vesalainen will be relied upon for a heavy dose of offence.

Olli Juolevi
Speaking of players under pressure for a strong WJC performance, Canucks fans will be looking for improvement from Juolevi. Two years ago, he actually had a very strong WJC and tied Zach Werenski for the defencemen scoring lead with nine points in seven games. Last year was the complete opposite, so which Juolevi will show up this time? Because it’s his third WJC tournament and he’s coming to it from Finland’s Liiga, expectations are high for 2016’s fifth overall pick.

Eeli Tolvanen
There will be a number of players at the WJC who are coming from pro leagues around the world and one of those is Tolvanen, who is having a huge impact as a KHL rookie. Drafted 30th overall last summer by Nashville out of USHL Sioux City, Tolvanen returned to Finland to play for Jokerit in the KHL. There, he has 32 points in 39 games, which places him 12th in league scoring and ahead of the rookie points pace once displayed by current NHL star Evgeny Kuznetsov.

SLOVAKIA

Dávid Hrenák
If Slovakia is going to surprise and pull off an upset along the way, it’ll likely be on the back of a stellar performance in net from Hrenak. Undrafted and 19 years old, the 6-foot-1, 176-pound netminder is having a monster season for St. Cloud State in the NCAA. Playing in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, he leads the NCHC in GAA (1.82) and save percentage (.947) in six games.

Adam Ruzicka
A fourth-rounder in 2017, Ruzicka is just seven points shy of his full-season output with the Sarnia Sting last season and is 17th in OHL scoring with 39 points in 34 games. Now 19, Ruzicka is set to build on his performance at the WJC last year, when he had one point in five games.

Milos Roman
A late-1999 birthday, Roman is draft-eligible in 2018 and though he hasn’t yet appeared in our top 31 draft rankings yet, talk is beginning to bubble that he could slip into the first-round discussion by season’s end. A strong performance at the WJC would certainly accelerate that talk. Roman had two points in four games at last year’s event and leads all WHL rookies in scoring with 29 points in 33 games as part of the Vancouver Giants. He’s been a point-per-game player since the end of October.

DENMARK

Joachim Blichfeld
A seventh-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2016, Blichfeld has increased his stock markedly since being picked. After that selection he crossed from Sweden to the WHL where he has gained a lot of attention due to his deadly shot. He scored 28 goals for the Portland Winterhawks last season and has 13 in 26 games this season. At the WJC for underdog Denmark, Blichfeld will look to improve on the three goals he scored in five games last season.

Kasper Krog
An undersized (5-foot-9) and undrafted goalie, Krog returns to the WJC after a stellar performance at last year’s tournament in which he posted a .900 save percentage and even earned a 34-save win against Finland. Struggling in Denmark’s top league with a 13th-ranked save percentage of .880, Krog returns and, as is always the case with a minnow team like Denmark, will need to be a key player if it pulls off any more upsets.

Oliver True

For the fourth year in a row Team Denmark will have a member of the True family on the roster. Oliver follows in the footsteps of his older brother Alexander, who played in the past three WJCs for the country and posted five points in 15 games. Alexander was never drafted to the NHL, though he was signed by the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda for whom he has eight points in 24 games this season. Oliver is set to play in his first WJC and heads into the tournament with seven points in 30 games for OHL Ottawa.

CANADA

Victor Mete
Canada’s defence should be one of its biggest strengths at this year’s WJC, with three returning players from last year’s team, plus one cut ahead of the 2017 tournament who is joining this year’s squad from the NHL. Mete brings speed and big league experience to the blue line so it will be interesting to see how his 27 games with the Montreal Canadiens translate to big WJC minutes.

Cale Makar
Another blueliner, what’s interesting about Makar is that he is the highest-drafted player on a Canadian team that lacks any star power. The fourth overall pick in 2017 by the Colorado Avalanche, Makar has nine points in 16 games for UMass-Amherst of the NCAA. He doesn’t have to be a huge-minute player on a deep Canadian blue line, but he’s a very strong skater who can create offence, so don’t be surprised if he comes out on the other side as a team leader.

Sam Steel
He scored 131 points in 66 WHL games last season, but was left off the Canadian WJC roster in what was seen as the biggest snub. This year he’s not scoring at nearly the same pace, but with 14 goals and 35 points in 27 WHL games, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick now has a chance to show off his scoring chops and play a top-line role for a Canadian team that has questions about its offence.

SWEDEN

Elias Pettersson
The fifth overall pick in 2017, Canucks fans will want to pay close attention to Pettersson, who is having an historic season in Sweden’s SHL. He’s currently tied for the SHL’s scoring lead and is putting up the second-highest ever point-per-game total by an under-20 player, ahead of even Peter Forsberg. He recently said he wanted to dominate every game of the WJC and there’s no reason to think he can’t do just that.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Sweden's Elias Pettersson on World Juniors: 'I want to dominate every game'
December 20 2017

Rasmus Dahlin
The projected first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Dahlin is already in his second WJC — and last year he looked like Sweden’s best player whenever they used him. You could easily argue he deserved more ice time than he got in the 2017 tournament, but chalk that up to the coaching staff wanting to use its older players. This year, don’t expect the Swedes to shy away from Dahlin, who is set to wow the world.

Timothy Liljegren
Once considered a lock as a top-five pick in 2017, injuries and play led to Liljegren falling all the way to 17th and into the lap of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who immediately signed him and put him in the AHL. Liljegren has nine points in 17 games for the Marlies and will now get a crack at his first WJC after he had to miss last year’s tournament with injury.

RUSSIA

Andrei Altybarmakyan
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the third round last summer, Altybarmakyan may be the next in a long line of great finds by the Hawks on the draft floor. He turned a lot of heads with a great showing at the recent CIBC Canada-Russia series and could contend for the scoring lead, depending on how the Russian coaches use their players. Andrei Svechnikov, the projected second overall pick in 2018, was in consideration as a “player to watch” here, but there is some question as to how much he’ll play. The Russians tend to lean on their 19-year-old players and those playing at home rather than in North America. Altybarmakyan has played 13 KHL games this season and has 13 points in 20 VHL games.

Mikhail Berdin
A sixth-round pick of Winnipeg’s in 2016, Berdin could get his first look at the WJC if the coaching staff opts to go with a netminder who’s playing in North America. And there’s every reason to go with Berdin, who has been dominating the USHL for two years now. He’s currently third in the league with a .930 save percentage and has a 9-4-2-1 record.

Klim Kostin
The 31st overall pick by St. Louis in 2017, Kostin missed almost all of last season with an injury, but crossed over to North America this season where he’s playing for San Antonio of the AHL. In his first full pro season, Kostin has 11 points in 26 games. Stepping back for the WJC, the Russians will need Kostin to be a key contributor.

SWITZERLAND

Tobias Geisser
A 6-foot-4, 201-pound defenceman, the interesting thing about Geisser is that he only recently converted from a forward to a defenceman. A fourth-round pick of the Washington Capitals, he has that diamond-in-the-rough potential and brings good foot speed and a strong transition game. This season, he has four points in 24 games for Zug in Switzerland’s top league.

Philipp Kurashev
A 2018 draft-eligible player who could slide into the back end of the first round, Kurashev was the fifth-highest rookie scorer in the QMJHL last season and is 28th overall this season with 31 points in 33 games. The Swiss will need to get offence from anywhere they can, which is why Kurashev will be such an important player for them.

Nando Eggenberger
Another draft-eligible player, Eggenberger is currently ranked in the 45th overall range. Eggenberger has four points in 25 games for Davos in Switzerland’s NLA and is returning for his second go at the WJC. Last year, he scored just one goal in five games and could do a lot for his draft stock with a big follow-up this time.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Filip Chytil
The 21st overall pick in 2017, Chytil started the season with the New York Rangers, but was soon sent down to the AHL, where he has 12 points in 15 games. Chytil was injured in a recent AHL outing and hasn’t played in a pre-tourney game yet, though the coaching staff is certain he’ll be ready for the start of the WJC.

Filip Zadina
Ranked No. 4 on Sam Cosentino’s most recent 2018 draft rankings, Zadina is the second-highest scorer in the QMJHL (46 points in 32 games) and is doing it as a rookie. A 6-foot-1, 192-pound left-winger, Zadina is at his first WJC and can announce himself in a big way.

Martin Necas
If you think the Carolina Hurricanes need offence, Necas is their hope to fill that role in the future. The 12th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Necas played one NHL game this season and has been a strong presence in the Czech Republic’s top pro league. He has great speed and stands 6-foot-1, so he needs to be a key contributor for the Czechs this year.

BELARUS

Maksim Sushko
A fourth-round pick by Philadelphia, Sushko has 26 points in 28 games for OHL Owen Sound, an organization that has pumped out NHL prospects for years.

Vladislav Yeryomenko
In his second WHL season, Yeryomenko has already surpassed his point total from all of last season in exactly half as many games. He scored three points in five games at last year’s Div I WJC to get Belarus back to the top division.

Igor Martynov
Like Yeryomenko, Martynov is a draft-eligible player from the WHL, though he is going through his first CHL season with the Victoria Royals. He has 25 points in 35 games as a 6-foot, 180-pound right-winger. These are the guys who will need to provide offence for an immense underdog.

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