It’s been an unusual fall for hockey fans in North America.
Since the Tampa Bay Lightning were crowned Stanley Cup champs on Sept. 28, there’s been no NHL, AHL, WHL or OHL action to speak of, and the QMHJL has been plagued by suspensions in play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But across the Atlantic, there’s been some semblance of normalcy. Pro leagues such as the KHL, SHL and SM-liiga are well into their 2020-21 campaigns, despite outbreaks and postponements. And the four-nation Karjala Cup wrapped up last weekend.
With some actual hockey played, here’s a look at a few of the prospects who have caught the attention of scouts overseas and could one day be plying their trade in North American arenas.
2021 draft-eligible prospects
Aatu Raty — Karpat, SM-liiga
Aatu Raty is a known commodity. Pegged by many as an early favourite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, Raty came into his season with Karpat burdened with expectations. And, so far, the six-foot-one, 177-pound pivot has struggled to meet them.
Raty, who turns 18 on the weekend, has sat out games and doesn’t have a regular shift. In six appearances, he has two goals and he’s averaging just 10:02 of ice time. Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, says he’s appeared to lack confidence, but that isn’t surprising given he’s playing in a men’s league on a strong Karpat team amid the pressure of his draft year.
“The skills and attributes that he showed last year, these are not things that you can fake, you’re just not going to see them once or twice, you see them all the time with him,” said Marr.
“So right now, he’s finding his way to get into the lineup and he’ll just have to work his way through it. But he definitely has the talent and the skills — you can put him in the top five for this draft class.”
In 2019-20, he scored 21 points in 30 games for Karpat’s under-20 team in Finland’s second division and added four points in 12 games for the big club. He also had three points in seven games for Finland at last year’s world juniors.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 29, 2019
“He’s shown that he can score and be a playmaker. [He has] really good puck-handling skills — he’s the guy that you use the term ‘soft hands’ [for] — he competes, he plays with a lot of energy, good speed and he can make those moves on the fly where it creates scoring possibilities,” said Marr.
Samu Tuomaala — Karpat Jr.
Another Karpat product, Tuomaala has impressed with its U20 squad, putting up five goals and 11 points in 13 games this season. Marr says the five-foot-10, 174-pound winger has speed to burn and can dazzle with his slippery moves and puck control at full throttle. He expects the 17-year-old will get a taste of action with the big club at some point, but he’ll have to reign in some of his free-wheeling tendencies.
“Sometimes he might try to do too much on his own, and that’s something you just have to harness and channel because he wants to have the puck on his stick, he wants to do well, he wants to create chances, he wants to score, he wants to win,” said Marr.
Simon Edvinsson — Frolunda Jr.
The comparisons to Victor Hedman are easy to see: A towering, smooth-skating Swedish defenceman with a heavy shot, who can dominate the play. Edvinsson, who checks in at six-foot-four and 198 pounds, is off to a strong start with Frolunda’s J20 SuperElit team with six points in 14 games. Marr says it’s too early to say whether he’ll make a push into the first five of a draft loaded with defencemen, but the 17-year-old is a top-10 talent.
“Because he’s such a big guy, he stands out with his skating, with his mobility and he’s got the speed and quickness that when he combines them with his instincts, he can take over and control the play,” he said.
Fabian Lysell — Frolunda Jr.
Edvinsson’s teammate at Frolunda is also making an early push to be among the first names off the board at the 2021 NHL Draft. The five-foot-10, 172-pound right-winger has rattled off 13 points in 11 games. Despite his small stature, Lysell, 17, is difficult to remove from the puck and strong on his skates. The playmaking winger uses his speed and creativity to set up plays. Although, he could stand to shoot the puck more, says Marr.
“When the puck’s on his stick, he can create a scoring chance — he sees the ice so well. But … he’s one of those kids who wants the puck on his stick and he wants to be the difference-maker in the game,” said Marr.
Jesper Wallstedt — Lulea, SHL
In an era where surefire No. 1 netminders are becoming increasingly rare, with goaltending results understood to be unpredictable, Wallstedt is seen to have the necessary talent to beat the odds. The lone goalie projected on Central Scouting’s Players To Watch List to be a first-round pick, the six-foot-two, 214-pound Swede has put up a sterling 1.92 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in four starts this season. Not shying away from a lofty comparison, Marr says the soon-to-be 18-year-old is this year’s Yaroslav Askarov, who was taken with the 11th pick in the 2020 draft.
“He’s assertive the way he carries himself, the way he challenges, the way he moves to the point where he can be intimidating to shooters. And he likes to keep the door closed — he’s a competitor. But he has all the athletic tools, the goaltending skills,” said Marr.
“This kid is the complete package right now. He’s very, very impressive,” he continued.
Jesper Wallstedt- Lulea (SHL)
Watch this sequence of saves, never once does Wallstedt fall into “scramble mode” he stays calm, holds his positioning, and uses his strong edges to stay square to the shooter three times. Wallstedt is down and a little deep, but because he’s 6’4.. pic.twitter.com/sXugx52yPy
— Danny Tiffany (@dantiffany30) November 4, 2020
William Eklund — Djurgarden, SHL
The smallest player considered a first-round candidate on Central Scouting’s Players To Watch List (five-foot-nine, 170 pounds), Eklund has played a big game among men in the SHL. In nine games, the 18-year-old left-winger is fifth on Djurgarden in scoring with five points in nine games. Using his creativity, puck skills and speed, Eklund has made the most of his 16:05 in ice time.
“He’s one of those guys that when the game’s on the line and you need a goal, he’s the person that you want to put on the ice,” said Marr.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but the fact that he has the smarts and the skills, he can be a very effective player.”
Fyodor Svechkov — Lada Togliatti, VHL
Svechkov has piqued the interest of scouts this season after making the jump from Lada Togliatti’s junior (MHL) team, where he had three points in four games, to its second-tier pro league (VHL) club and has recorded four points in 16 games. The 18-year-old has stood out with his two-way play — despite having not yet developed a “battle game,” as Marr puts it — hockey sense, quickness and playmaking.
Ruslan Pechonkin, ISS Hockey’s regional scout in Russia, says he’s been impressed by his maturity and all-around game.
“He can play a good physical game and he plays on both ends. He is defensively aware and still he has a really good offensive mindset and skill,” he said.
Nikita Chibrikov — SKA St. Petersburg, VHL
Chibrikov, 17, has made his own impressive climb up the pro-league ladder in Russia, recording his first KHL goal on Oct. 2. Though that was his lone point in nine games with SKA St. Petersburg’s big club, he averaged just 7:12 minutes of ice time. But when given the opportunity he has shined, notching four points in four VHL games and eight points in eight MHL appearances. Boasting strong speed, vision, skilled hands and an ability to find the back of the net, Pechonkin expects the five-foot-10, 161-pound right-winger will be a high pick in the 2021 draft.
“[He’s] one of the guys that I really liked from last season and how he’s developed this season,” he said.
Prokhor Poltapov — Red Army, MHL
Next to Chibrikov, the 17-year-old Poltapov is one of the top prospects in Russia right now, according to Pechonkin. The offensive dynamo has put up 14 points in 19 games with the Red Army team. Central Scouting pegs him as a second- or third-round candidate for the 2021 draft, but some mocks have the five-foot-10, 161-pound left winger going early in the first round thanks to his high-end skill and skating.
Rodion Amirov — Toronto Maple Leafs
If Rodion Amirov was a relative unknown to Maple Leafs fans before the 2020 NHL Draft, they should be familiar with his name by now.
The 15th-overall pick has continued to open eyes this season, putting up six points in 19 games with the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa and he’s fresh off a starring role for Russia at the Karjala Cup. Amirov scored in all three games and helped Russia — which sent its U20 squad to face pro-laden Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic teams as a tuneup for the world juniors, claim gold. The left-winger was named best forward at the tournament for his performance.
Pechonkin says Amirov’s full complement of skills were on display at the event: He’s deceptive, he has a great hockey IQ, the vision to find open teammates, strong puck skills and a quick wrist shot.
“He has just about everything in his game — he’s a really smart player and his [biggest] weapon is his shot and accuracy. He’s a really dangerous player around the net,” he said.
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) November 5, 2020
Yaroslav Askarov — Nashville Predators
Not to be overshadowed, the aforementioned Askarov won all three of his appearances at the Karjala Cup, posting a 0.98 GAA and .962 SV% and pitching a 29-save shutout against the Czech Republic to seal Russia’s victory at the tournament. For his efforts, he was named top goaltender at the event.
“It was really impressive, to be honest,” said Pechonkin.
“The young guys on this team had such confidence and I think it just came from [him through] to the whole team.”
In addition to his success at the Karjala Cup, Askarov has thrived with SKA St. Petersburg where he has a 1.10 GAA and .960 SVV% in four games. His size (six-foot-three, 176 pounds) and quickness were already known qualities, but this year, Askarov is getting glowing reviews for his self-assuredness playing among men at just 18.
“He looks really mature as a player already. He plays like a veteran goalie. He’s calm, he’s confident, he’s big. The positions he takes, how he chooses the positions, how he (moves) in the net — everything that he does, he does with real confidence,” said Pechonkin.
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) November 7, 2020
Yegor Chinakhov — Columbus Blue Jackets
If Amirov’s selection by the Maple Leafs at the 2020 draft was a surprise, Chinakhov’s pick six players later was a straight-up stunner. Pegged to go in the second or third round, due to the unique October draft the right-winger drew late buzz after putting up five points in 12 KHL games with Avangard Omsk. And he’s continued to defy those expectations, racking up another eight points in his next nine games. Chinakhov also pitched in with two goals and an assist at the Karjala Cup.
“It could turn out to be a very astute pick for Columbus, but on the surface, I wasn’t surprised that they would step up for a player of that ilk, because he truly is a smart, skilled offensive player, and he shows up. He shows up every game, you don’t have to look for him,” said Marr.
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) November 8, 2020
Vasili Podkolzin — Vancouver Canucks
Another standout for Russia at the Karjala Cup, the 10th pick in the 2019 NHL Draft captained the young squad to victory and led the tournament in scoring with five points in three games.
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) November 7, 2020
Despite his recent success, the 19-year-old hasn’t had the breakout many expected from his second KHL season. He has four points in 19 contests and he’s averaging just 11:58 in ice time per game on a deep SKA St. Petersburg team.
While the powerful two-way winger has the tools to become a good NHL player, Pechonkin says he needs to work on his skating and he has questions about his maturity after seeing him sulk when he was benched for the third period of a game against Avangard Omsk in September.
“He was just sitting there and didn’t even watch the game,” said Pechonkin.
“You have to control your emotions, control your feelings in a way and still be with the team,” he continued.