‘Tis the season for watching the world’s best young hockey stars on the international stage: the world juniors.
As we prepare for the tournament ahead, here’s a look back at some of the brightest young stars from last year’s edition who are finding rookie success in the NHL.
Max Comtois (C), LW, Anaheim Ducks | Team Canada
2019 WJC stats: 5G, 1A, 6Pts (5GP)
Comtois led Team Canada in goals and tied for second-most goals tournament-wide — an especially impressive accomplishment considering he’d played through a separated shoulder. He also led by example, serving as team captain and the only returning member from the 2018 team, and admirably taking a stand against cyberbullying after being harassed on social media following Canada’s loss to Finland in the quarterfinals.
Comtois’ NHL career got off to a great start last year with a successful 10-game stint to start 2018-19 after making the Ducks out of training camp. The Longueuil, Que. native scored in his first two career NHL games and added five assists in the eight games that followed but was returned to his junior club, the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs, after being sidelined by a lower-body injury.
This year hasn’t brought quite the same level of production from Comtois but the foundation and chemistry is there with young linemates Sam Steel and Troy Terry at the core of the Ducks’ youth movement under head coach Dallas Eakins. The 2017 second-rounder has a pair of goals and six points through 17 games so far, and is already setting Hockey Twitter ablaze with moves like this:
Ryan Poehling, C, Montreal Canadiens | Team USA
2019 WJC stats: 5G, 3A, 8Pts (7GP)
All eyes were on Jack Hughes in the 2019 tournament, and while the eventual No. 1-overall pick had a strong tournament despite dealing with an undisclosed injury throughout, it was another first-rounder who really shone this time around.
After tallying four points at the 2018 world juniors to help propel Team USA to a bronze medal one year earlier, Poehling (drafted 25th overall in 2017) was a powerhouse at the 2019 tournament. His five goals and eight points led the U.S. in both categories, and his clutch play throughout the tournament — including a third-period hat trick to force overtime against Sweden in preliminary play — helped lead the U.S. to a silver medal. He was voted tournament MVP by the media, named Best Forward by the IIHF directorate and made the tournament’s All-Star Team.
His much-anticipated NHL debut last April saw him score a hat trick, but his first full pro season has not landed him on the NHL scoresheet through seven games so far. Poehling, who has five goals and 12 points in 26 AHL games with the Rocket, got off to a slow start in Laval after suffering a concussion in camp but looks like he’s hitting his stride.
Poehling’s latest call-up to the big club has seen him suit up for the Canadiens’ past three games and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before he heats up there, too.
Erik Brannstrom (C), D, Ottawa Senators | Team Sweden
2019 WJC stats: 4G, 0A, 4Pts (5GP)
Though they didn’t make it to the medal rounds, Team Sweden had several strong performances — Columbus’ Emil Bemström led his teammates in points and Toronto’s Rasmus Sandin was good on the blue line — but Brannstrom’s campaign as Tre kronor captain was the one that stood out most and saw him top off the tournament with an all-star nod.
Now 23 games into his rookie season, Brannstrom is slowly finding his footing in the big leagues. A short stint in the AHL seems to have helped boost his confidence, especially when it comes to driving play from the blue line and jumping into the rush, and the Senators are surely hoping to see much more offence from the young rearguard going forward as he continues to develop into a special player.
Morgan Frost, C, Philadelphia Flyers | Team Canada
2019 WJC stats: 4G, 4A, 8Pts (5GP)
Between Frost and Team USA’s Joel Farabee (3G, 8Pts), Flyers fans had plenty to cheer about at last year’s world juniors.
Frost’s eight-point campaign saw him finish the tournament as Canada’s scoring leader in what was otherwise a disappointing team outing, and landed him in the top five in scoring among all skaters.
Now almost a year later, he’s proving he’s a playmaker at the NHL level, too.
That Morgan Frost vision though pic.twitter.com/Kum2MOifE6
— Brandon Murphy (@2Murphy8) December 15, 2019
After just barely missing the cut out of training camp, Frost’s strong AHL showing (five goals and 12 points in 16 games with the Phantoms) earned him a call up to the big club in November and his solid performance since has many Flyers fans hoping he sticks around. The 20-year-old scored in his first two games upon being recalled and now has six points through 14 NHL games.
Kaapo Kakko, RW, New York Rangers | Team Finland
2019 WJC stats: 2G, 3A, 5Pts (7GP)
As one of the best prospects of the 2019 draft class, all eyes were on Kakko every time Team Finland hit the ice during the 2019 world juniors — and he didn’t disappoint. The then-17-year-old scored the game-winner in the gold medal game against Team USA, solidifying his status as a top-two pick.
By the time his name was called at No. 2 by the New York Rangers, he’d already become the youngest player in IIHF history to win gold at the U18 world championship, world juniors, and men’s world championship.
While we’ve seen flashes of brilliance, Kakko has struggled at times throughout his rookie NHL campaign. He has excelled on the power play, with two of his six goals and nine of his 14 points coming with the man advantage, but has been hot-and-cold on the stats sheet and has been shuffled throughout the lineup in an effort to spark more offence.
Cayden Primeau, G, Montreal Canadiens | Team USA
2019 WJC stats: 936. SV%, 1.61 GAA (5GP)
Backstopping your national team in the gold medal game of the world juniors has got to be an incredibly nerve-wracking experience, but then again so does making your NHL debut in le bleu, blanc et rouge at the Bell Centre.
Primeau, 20, has shown he’s well-equipped to handle the spotlight in both.
The young netminder (and yes, he is Keith Primeau’s son) posted a 1.61 goals against average and a .936 save percentage as USA took home the silver medal and earned some high praise from his teammates along the way:
“(Primeau’s) a pretty quiet guy, but he’s a stone-cold killer!” Team U.S. defenceman Phil Kemp said after the semifinal last January, via the Montreal Gazette. “He’s seeing beach balls out there, and we’re grateful to have him in the cage.”
Primeau’s NHL debut earlier this month was a losing effort that was considered a developmental victory for Primeau, who stopped 32 of the 35 shots fired his way by the powerful Colorado Avalanche. His first career win, a 35-save effort over the Ottawa Senators, earned him some more high praise.
“He’s definitely got a quiet demeanor about himself, and he works hard,” said starter Carey Price after Primeau’s first win on Dec. 11. “He definitely reminds me a bit of my younger self.”
He’s back in the AHL for the time being in order to get more reps, but it’s safe to say it won’t be too long before the 20-year-old will be back at the Bell Centre for more.