If you watched the March 4 edition of Wednesday Night Hockey (you can see it in the video above) you would’ve heard me mention the 2020 IIHF Men’s U18 World Championship. It was scheduled for April 16-26 in Plymouth, Mich., but that event, as I anticipated, has since been cancelled. This is a significant development that will impact the 2020 NHL draft.
The U18s represent the last big international on-ice event for scouts to get a final look at all the best 2002-born players in the world. It is a rare occurrence for the U18s to be played in North America. It is an event that Hockey Canada doesn’t host as the CHL is in the middle of its playoffs. The United States has hosted it before, most recently in North Dakota in 2016, but again, it’s not often that happens.
NHL teams were banking on this event being held in North America, exposing more than the typical number of scouts and executives to the best 2002-born players. The tournament also represented a landing spot for players who scouts didn’t have time to chase. This event would’ve provided an opportunity for NHL GMs to get multiple looks at players they normally aren’t able to see quite as often, especially executives from teams in the playoffs.
Keep in mind, there are several upper-end players in this draft class who are born between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31 2001, thus making them ineligible to play in the U18s, and therefore, we focus this list on players born in the 2002 calendar year.
1. Tim Stuetzle, Adler Mannheim, DEL: While already being considered a consensus top five pick, Stuetzle may have been able to make his way into the two-hole with a strong performance at the U18s. His numbers in the DEL (seven goals, 27 assists in 41 games and an average ice time of 16:06), suggest that he would be dominant against his peer group. Going No. 2 instead of somewhere in the top five after that spot often projects a player into the spotlight. As one scout pointed out, Stuetzle likely would’ve played centre as opposed to wing (where he spent almost all of the season in Mannheim) and that would’ve been a better comparison to Sudbury’s Quinton Byfield. Byfield has had a stranglehold on the No. 2 spot all season long, but Stuetzle’s play in Plymouth may very well have challenged that assertion, and may still anyway. Countrymen J.J. Peterka and Lukas Reichel will also suffer badly from the cancellation of this event.
2. Lucas Raymond, Frolunda, SHL: A projected top five player coming into the regular season, Raymond had trouble getting regular minutes with Frolunda, while several other players took advantage of opportunities in league play. Raymond will still go in the top 10, but it would’ve been nice for scouts to see him in the rare setting against players his own age, which hasn’t really happened for an extended time in his career. Upon looking back, his development may have been better served playing in the Allsvenskan, which is Sweden’s second league.
3. Jake Sanderson, USNTDP: Having already experienced a massive jump in projection from the start of the season, many were anxious to see Sanderson in a setting consistently against top-notched competition. There’s been no questioning Erie’s Jamie Drysdale as the top defence prospect available in this draft class, but a world-class performance in a world-class event might’ve enabled Sanderson to challenge Drysdale in that regard. There is a thought that Prince Albert’s Kaiden Guhle may still be considered the second best.
4. Jeremie Poirier, Saint John Sea Dogs: A gifted skater and puck handler, Poirier has had to do more than should be required for any young player through the first two years of his career on a struggling Saint John team. This trend took flight as a rookie last year, when he played in all situations and ended up with a minus-45 rating, while putting up 21 points in 61 games. A year older and a year wiser, Poirier sits with 20 goals, 53 points and a minus-25 rating through the Sea Dogs’ first 64 games. It would’ve been nice to see Poirier slotted properly, where his minutes would’ve been trimmed, and on a team where his game could be more tame. The U18s would’ve provided a great forum for all of these elements to be in place. Teams definitely have concerns about his ability to play in his own end and without the puck.
5. Ty Smilanic, USNTDP: Having played injured most of the year, Smilanic was expected to be at close to 100 per cent by the time the U18s rolled around. Watching him play at the best health he’s been in all year and in consistent, consecutive viewings would have allowed scouts to get a better read on his potential. At his best, he’s a great skater, with high-energy and sneaky skill. He’s remains a first-round projection, but his place there may have been impacted had he been able to participate in this event, whic the program trains for all season long.
6. Shakir Mukhamadullin, Ufa, KHL: The rangy defender made a lot of noise at the WJAC in December where he put up three points and helped Russia to a gold medal. He performed well again at a tournament in Prague in February. Where it gets tricky with this player is the fact that he’s played at all three levels over in Russia this season and hasn’t had a consistent home club. He’s made great headway internationally and the U18s would’ve provided a place to cement his seeding amongst the best 2002-born defenders in this draft class. Being Russian surely would’ve scared some teams away anyway, but talent alone may have vaulted him into the first round. Currently he’s projected as a 25-40 pick.
7. Jacob Perreault, Sarnia Sting, OHL: Perreault started the season with the disappointment of not making Canada’s Hlinka-Gretzky team, leaving him significantly behind the competition. It motivated him, however, to a 10-game point streak to start the season and ignited the conversation as a first-round projected player. A pure goal scorer with 29 goals in his last 36 games, Perreault would’ve been an easy pick for Hockey Canada to strut his stuff in Plymouth where, if he would’ve been able to display that trait against the world’s best, he very well could’ve upped his draft status. Early in the season, scouts had some concerns about his skating, but most of that was put to rest with all the testing from the Kubota Top Prospects game
8. Daemon Hunt, Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL: Hunt has Hockey Canada experience and no doubt he was going to be a big piece of Canada’s entry into the U18s. Having missed more than half the season due to injury, and playing on a rebuilding Moose Jaw team, getting a true read on this player would’ve been best achieved in Plymouth. Seeing him play with top-notched players in the tournament would’ve given scouts solid recent viewings, where they could’ve gauged his health and effectiveness. Hunt is currently ranked No. 22 on Central Scouting’s North American list and his play in the event likely would’ve meant the difference between being a first- and second-round pick.
9. Yaroslav Askarov, St. Petersburg, VHL: This season has been a rollercoaster ride for the right-catching Russian netminder. His greatest exposure occurred in four landmark events (2018 U17, 2019 U18, 2019 HLG, and the 2019 WJAC) and his play had many draft prognosticators projecting a top 10 pick. Askarov struggled at the WJC, though, and has been pedestrian in some other less-heralded international events. In the VHL, his numbers have been great with a 2.45 GAA and a .920% SV% in 18 games played. Another remarkable international performance at the U18s may have cemented him as the highest-picked goalie since Carey Price went fifth to Montreal in 2005.
10. Hendrix Lapierre, Chicoutimi Sagueneens, QMJHL: This choice features a lot of ifs. Lapierre was limited to 19 of Chicoutimi’s 63 games and there was still no timetable for his return. But, if he was healthy enough to return if the Sags were unceremoniously eliminated from the playoffs, Lapierre would’ve been a prime candidate to lead Canada. With 17 points over his 19 games, many scouts couldn’t get his world-class Hlinka-Gretzky performance out of their heads. He lead the August tournament with 11 points. Having said all that, lingering and lasting upper-body issues are always pause for concern when it comes to the draft. Lapierre was projected as a top-10 pick in September and a strong return in April might have brought him back into the top 10 conversation.