World Under-17 Hockey Challenge preview

Joseph Veleno of the Saint John Sea Dogs. (Francois Laplante/Getty)

There’s a discussion that takes place whenever Canada participates in a big international hockey event. Fans and pundits from around the country look at the rosters competing and then at the list of players Canada has left behind and comment that there really could be multiple Canadian entries. Well, at the World Under-17 Challenge—a tournament that showcases top prospects from across the world and many players who will be high picks in future NHL Entry Drafts—Hockey Canada does just that.

Canada will have three teams competing in this year’s event, which kicks off on Sunday. The United States, Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic will also be competing and the talent on display is going to be pretty incredible.

Team Canada Black will be headlined by the youngest Canadian in the tournament, 2018 Draft-eligible Joe Veleno. Veleno was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada, which allowed him to begin his major-junior career a year early, just like John Tavares and Connor McDavid.

Veleno is joined up front by David Levin, the Israeli-born winger who went first overall in the 2015 OHL Draft and who should challenge Veleno for one of the top spots when NHL teams pick in 2018. Also on Team Black is Matthew Strome, the youngest of three Strome brothers and a key prospect in the 2017 NHL Draft. Eldest brother Ryan Strome went No. 5 overall in 2011 to the New York Islanders and has already become an impact player, while middle brother Dylan was selected third overall last summer by the Arizona Coyotes.

But Canada’s other entries haven’t been shortchanged.

Team Canada White will be backstopped by goaltender Ian Scott, who in 2014 became the highest-drafted goalie in the WHL Bantam Draft in more than a decade. The last goalie to go so high was Carey Price. The offence, meanwhile, will be built in large part around Gabe Vilardi, the 6-2 centre who is a probable top-five pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. Ryan McLeod, another expected early pick in 2017, will also figure in.

Team Canada Red can answer with top guns of its own. Maxime Comtois is just 16 but already has a ridiculous 21 points in 16 games playing for Victoriaville. He may end up skating with fellow QMJHL star Antoine Morand, who is just under the point-per-game mark at the same tender age. Jordy Bellerive, who was a second-overall pick in the 2014 WHL Draft, will also be on the team.

The other rosters in this tournament are also wonderfully impressive.

Team USA boasts unrivaled bloodlines. Goaltender Dylan St. Cyr is the son of a former AHLer, but his mother Manon Rheaume is famous as the only woman to play in an NHL exhibition game. Dwayne Norris and Quinton Hughes have multiple relatives in the game; the latter’s dad is currently Toronto’s director of player development. Keith Tkachuk’s son, Brady,who’s brother is a top prospect for the 206 NHL Draft, is participating; he’s also related to several Fitzgeralds and Hayeses who have played in the majors.

The team’s most important player lacks famous relatives, but might be the first defenceman drafted in 2017. Max Gildon is a rare Texan hockey player, but despite his unusual background he combines size, speed and offensive skill and already has NHL teams excited about his potential.

The stars of the European entries will be less familiar to North American audiences, but they aren’t any less gifted.

Sweden’s 15-year-old Isac Lundestrom is a top prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft, while 2017-eligible Hugo Leufvenius is currently averaging two points per game in Sweden’s U-18 Elite league. Finnish defenceman Urho Vaakanainen has many of the same qualities as Gildon and will push him for priority in 2017. Russia is bringing not one but two 15-year-olds who are already playing in its top junior league, along with Nikolai Kovalenko, whose dad played 620 NHL games. The Czechs have an older and less-distinguished team, but 16-year-old Martin Necas is currently demolishing his country’s U-18 league and will be a player to watch.

Put all those rosters together and the heart of the 2017 Draft will be on display this week in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C., the two cities hosting the tournament, along with the early candidates to go in the first few selections of 2018. Twenty of the 30 first-round picks in the 2015 NHL Draft participated in either the 2013 or 2014 edition of this tournament, and it’s a key event both for the players involved and for NHL scouts.

The first games of the preliminary round start Sunday, Nov. 1, and the tournament will conclude on Saturday Nov. 7 with the gold and bronze medal contests. For the full schedule, click here.

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