NHL draft-eligible players to watch out for at the world juniors

Hockey Canada's Alan Millar spoke to the media after naming 20 first round NHL draft picks to their 2021 World Juniors roster, including all 14 forwards.

There’s no point denying it: this list has taken a hit of late.

Earlier this month, Finland decided to leave Aatu Raty off its preliminary world junior roster. Many were curious to see how the 18-year-old centre, who notched three points in seven games at last year’s tournament, would perform after struggling to open this season with Karpat of the SM-liiga and falling out of contention of the top pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, an honour for which he’d long been considered the front-runner.

Meanwhile, Sweden was forced to leave William Eklund at home after he was among those who tested positive for COVID-19 after an outbreak on the team. The hyper-skilled winger has exploded onto the scene as an 18-year-old with Djurgarden’s big club in the SHL and has surpassed Raty as the top European forward in the eyes of many. Then the team also cut Simon Edvinsson — a towering but mobile and skilled defenceman — who should be in the mix early in a draft class that’s loaded with talented rearguards.

While their absence is disappointing, there’s still plenty of tantalizing 2021 draft-eligible talent to watch out for at the tournament. Here’s a closer look at those that have piqued the interest of scouts.


Jesper Wallstedt — Lulea, SHL

Wallstedt has a tough task in front of him, but there’s no question he has the talent to steal Sweden’s No.1 goalie gig.

Standing between him and the starter role is Sweden’s top netminder at last year’s tournament: Hugo Alnefelt, a 2019 third-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Last year, Alnefelt was the second-best goalie in the Czech Republic, trailing only Canada’s Joel Hofer for the tournament lead in goals-against average and save percentage.

But the 19-year-old has struggled to reproduce that success in the SHL this season, recording a 3.13 GAA and .901 SVV% with HV71.

On the other hand, Wallstedt — who has drawn comparisons to Nashville Predators stud Yaroslav Askarov and is the lone goalie projected on Central Scouting’s Players To Watch List to be a first-round pick — has been nearly perfect with Lulea, boasting a 2.06 GAA and .920 SVV%. Sam Cosentino had him ranked 32nd on his initial rankings.

And Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, says the six-foot-two, 214-pound netminder could be a “difference-maker” for Sweden, thanks to level-headedness and mental makeup that are reminiscent of Carey Price.

“I don’t think there’s anything that he can’t do at the U20s and, certainly, he’s not a player that I would ever bet against because this is a guy that could win you a game,” he said.

“And in the world juniors, when it comes to a lot of one-game knockouts, that’s a key factor.”


Samuel Helenius — JYP, SM-liiga

Clocking in at six-foot-six, 201 pounds, Helenius is another towering teenager.

In his first season among men in the SM-liiga, the 18-year-old pivot has held his own, putting up eight points in 18 games for JYP.

The son of former NHLer Sami Helenius, plays a no-frills game, but is a good playmaker, has a decent shot and uses his reach well in combination with his vision.

Helenius is currently projected as a bubble first-round prospect, who could go early in the second round, but Marr expects suiting up for Finland at the world juniors will help his stock.

“I wouldn’t say that he’ll be a go-to guy or star on the U20 team — because he’s just not that flashy, skilled guy — but he’s more one of those reliable all-situations players,” he said.

“I think he is capable to rise to the occasion to come up with big plays when they’re needed.”


Brad Lambert — JYP, SM-Liiga

There will, in fact, be a 16-year-old at the world juniors, but it’s likely not the one Canadian hockey fans were hoping for.

Brad Lambert — who is part of the three-headed monster that is expected to top the 2022 NHL Draft, alongside Shane Wright and Matthew Savoie — is one of fewer than 60 players that have made the tournament before their 17th birthday and just the seventh Finn, the latest being Jesse Puljujarvi in 2015.

Despite his youth, the six-foot, 172-pound centre has racked up seven points in 18 games for JYP, good for seventh on the team. He should open some eyes at the tournament with his high-end skill and incredible acceleration and speed. The kid can flat-out wheel.

“He’s one of those guys that has the potential to come in and make a splash,” said Marr.


Matthew Beniers — Michigan University, NCAA

Though this is supposed to be a list of draft-eligible players to watch out for, expect Beniers to make that job easy on you.

The high-energy and highly skilled winger came out red-hot to start his freshman year at Michigan, tallying six points in eight games for a stacked Wolverines team. Beniers — the seventh-best prospect for 2021 in Cosentino’s latest rankings — collected 41 points in 44 games with the USNTDP last season.

And Beniers looks to be in a prime position to stay hot in Edmonton as he’s been centring a line with electrifying goal-scorer Cole Caufield (Montreal Canadiens) and Matt Boldy (Minnesota Wild) at camp. But Beniers — who stands 6-1 and weighs 174 pounds — is also valuable in that he can slot in at any position upfront and is a strong two-way player.

Regardless of where coach Nate Leaman plugs him in, you won’t miss him once he’s jumped the boards.

“You don’t have to go to the game and try to find him when he’s on the ice. He just stands out because he’s always got his foot on the gas pedal,” said Marr.

“He plays a Nazem-Kadri-type game where he’s got the talent and the ability, but he’s also got that grit and sandpaper to where he’ll battle for position, he’ll compete in front for positioning, he’ll compete on loose pucks and he’ll make the hit — give and take on the play.”


Daniil Chayka — CSKA Moscow (on loan), KHL

Chayka is set to make his return to Canada after being on loan in his native Russia with the OHL’s 2020-21 season postponed.

Expected to return to the Guelph Storm before the Feb. 4 puck drop, the projected first-round pick has been plying his trade in Moscow, going pointless in 15 games combined with the club at three levels of competition (KHL, VHL and MHL).

While he hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet with CSKA, the talented, six-foot-two, 187-pound defenceman played well for Russia as it captured gold at last month’s four-nation Karjala Cup. The 18-year-old put up three points in three games for the country, which sent its U20 squad to face pro-laden Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic teams as a tuneup for the world juniors.

Marr says Chayka is a smart and strong two-way defender with excellent vision, who looks to lead the rush and has a good shot from the point.

“(He has) really, really quick feet and good mobility to a strong transition game. Moves the puck quickly. He skates the puck up the ice to make plays, but he can also skate his way out of danger,” he said.

“Once (the Storm) get going, he’s going to be able to really help their power play and we’ll see how they use him with Russia. But good set of tools on him.”

Ilya Safonov — Ak Bars Kazan, KHL

Another player who shone for Russia at the Karjala Cup, the twice-unselected Safonov is a late-bloomer who’s finally caught the attention of scouts as a potential second-round pick in 2021.

The six-foot-three, 205-pound forward had three points in three Karjala Cup games, but, like Chayka, struggled to get on the board in KHL, registering just a single assist in 22 games while averaging 6:21 minutes of ice time.

Marr says the 19-year-old has been deployed by world juniors coach Igor Larionov in a variety of game situations at the Karjala Cup and other tournaments, and expects more of the same in Edmonton.

“He’s just a really strong, mobile skater (with) good vision. He’s got a real good knack to be in the right place at the right time. Good puck-moving game, smart playmaker, he just competes hard,” said Marr.

“It’s a 19-year-old tournament and he’s got that physical strength and maturity (along with) the skating and the skills to where he could be a go-to guy (for Russia).”

Czech Republic

Stanislav Svozil — HC Kometa Brno, Czech Extraliga

A strong, mobile defenceman with good vision and skills, Svozil, has shown a lot of improvement in his second season in the top Czech league.

While he’s been held without a point in 10 games so far, the 17-year-old was selected for the country’s roster at the Karjala Cup and suited up for one game at the event.

Marr says Svozil is going to be the country’s “next young star,” but, given his youth, needs to add muscle to his six-foot, 172-pound frame and get better in his own zone.

“Right now, his instincts and his skills are carrying him,” said Marr, of the projected second-round pick.

“He’s a guy that likes to have the puck on his stick, he likes to lead the rush. He’s got the talent, (but whether) they can use him in all situations remains to be seen just because he’s still not physically developed yet — his game is just starting to mature.”


Lorenzo Canonica — HC Lugano, Switzerland’s U20-Elit

Canonica will finally make his debut on Canadian soil. Just several months later than expected.

The 17-year-old centre agreed to join the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes after being taken 16th overall in this summer’s CHL import draft.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has put that transition on hold, but the playmaking centre lit up the Swiss junior league for the second year in a row, with 19 points in 20 games for HC Lugano.

Though the five-foot-11, 179-pound playmaker is seen as a borderline B/C player, (the former indicating a second or third-round candidate, while the latter being anywhere from fourth to sixth) Marr is interested to see how he adapts to play in North America, the first test being in Edmonton.

“He has the smarts and creative ability in his passing game … (but) he doesn’t have the physical strength and the confidence there to compete with some assertiveness to go along with his skills, which could make a difference on plays. But he’s a good prospect,” said Marr.

Noah Meier — GCK Lions, Swiss League

Another borderline B/C player, Meier could also have a chance to showcase his skills in Edmonton.

A late ‘02 birthday, Meier has split the season between the U20 level and Switzerland’s second-tier pro league, collecting eight in five junior games and five points in 17 SL appearances.

Marr says he’s seen a newfound maturity in the five-foot-11, 172-pound D-man’s game this season, and it will be interesting to see if he has the confidence to elevate his play further and take charge at the world juniors.

“(He’s a) strong skater, always poised, he makes good decisions — there’s nothing flashy about him,” he said.

“He’s just smart and solid.”


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