The IIHF 2022 World Junior Tournament kicked off on Sunday, Dec. 26 and continues on Tuesday with matches between the United States versus Switzerland, and Austria versus Canada. While always a highlight on the calendar of prospect watchers, this year’s tournament will have its share of 2022 NHL Draft eligibles who could find themselves in key roles. A tough tournament for 17-year-olds to shine in, it remains a stage upon which prospects draft stock has risen and fallen in the past.
In this week’s Prospect Report, McKeen’s Director of Scouting, Brock Otten, profiles the 2022 NHL Draft eligible prospects with the best opportunity to catch the scouting community’s eye and change their trajectory in a positive direction. In the absence of NHL action, and the NHL withdrawal from the Olympics, you can catch some future NHL stars, along with some terrific hockey, in a best-on-best competition among hockey nations. We have posted full team previews for all ten nations with profiles of the key players to watch over at mckeenshockey.com for subscribers.
The McKeen’s team are scouting and writing about prospects all season long and provide in-depth reports on our website: www.mckeenshockey.com
PROSPECTS IN THE NEWS: Top 2022 NHL Draft Prospects Playing at the WJC
By Brock Otten
The puck has dropped for 2022 IIHF U20 World Hockey Championships (better known as the “World Juniors”). Every year this tournament gives prospect watchers an opportunity to see the best young talent in the men’s game and a glimpse at some future NHL stars. While this tournament is largely dominated by already drafted, 19-year-olds, it can still offer a look further into the future with those first-time draft eligible to the NHL this year.
Last year, Matty Beniers was a critical component on a gold medal winning U.S. squad and that helped him to become the eventual second overall selection in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Seattle Kraken. If you recall, two years ago at the 2020 World Juniors, Alexis Lafreniere was named the tournament MVP after a dominant performance for Canada en route to a gold medal and was subsequently the first overall selection by the New York Rangers in the 2020 NHL Draft. In 2016, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi led Finland to a gold medal before ultimately becoming top five selections at that year’s draft. The point being that while exceptional performances at the U20’s by U18 players (or recently turned 18-year-olds with late birthdays like Lafreniere) are rare, they do occur.
This year’s tournament is full of potentially impactful first time draft eligible players. This includes eight of McKeen’s preliminary top ten for the 2022 NHL Draft (although this list will be updated early in the new year). All eight of those will be profiled below, in addition to several other draft eligibles that you should be keeping an eye on during the tournament.
Shane Wright - Center - Canada
The current odds-on favorite to be the first overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft, all eyes will be on Wright at this tournament as he plays a key role for Canada as they look to avenge last year’s loss in the gold medal game. His game will, no doubt, be under the microscope all tournament long (perhaps unfairly), especially given that some have been underwhelmed by his performance for Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League this season. For those unfamiliar with his game, Wright is best characterized as a cerebral playmaking pivot. His game has very few weaknesses and it is that versatility and intelligence that has many comparing him to the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron. After a dominant performance at the most recent U18’s, look for Wright to meet expectations at this year’s U20’s and quell any concerns over his lack of development or progression this year.
Joakim Kemell - Winger - Finland
Kemell started the season as a man on the mission in the Finnish men’s league (Liiga) and was on pace to have one of the best U18 seasons in league history. This caused him to rocket up many draft lists early in the season, including passing fellow highly touted Finn Brad Lambert. However, an injury caused him to miss some time leading up to the World Juniors and as such he has fallen down the Liiga scoring race. How this injury affects his performance for Finland remains to be seen, however he will be given every opportunity to play a very large role. Kemell is a dynamic player in transition because of his combination of quickness and creativity. He also possesses a high end shot and has a chance to be among the tournament’s leading goal scorers.
Brad Lambert - Winger/Center - Finland
Lambert has quickly become one of the most polarizing players available for the NHL Draft this year. He has long been hyped as a potential elite talent; however, the polish appears to have worn off in the last twelve months and that has caused him to fall outside of the Top 10 on many draft lists. This includes a couple of underwhelming international performances (the previous U20’s and the U18’s) and a cold start to this year’s Liiga season. Finland is absolutely going to need him to step up and be a prime offensive catalyst for them if they hope to medal. Additionally, the NHL scouting community will be closely scrutinizing his every move in Edmonton. Lambert is a dynamic offensive player when he is at his best. His ability to blend creative stickwork, an above average shot, and high-end skating make him a constant threat to find the score sheet. However, as a later born 2003, this may be a “put up or shut up” kind of tournament for Lambert. In Finland’s first game against Germany, Lambert was the team’s best player in a multi-point performance. In his second game, he added a goal and two assists versus Austria and now leads the tournament in scoring with five points. Obviously, a great start for him.
David Jiricek - Defenseman - Czechia
Already an established player in the Czech men’s league, Jiricek is another top ten candidate in 2022. The 6’3, right shot defender will be wearing an “A” for Czechia and will be counted on to eat first pairing minutes. This will obviously give him a great opportunity to shine on a large stage. Jiricek has terrific four-way mobility and has the potential to be an explosive puck mover. However, he is very much a puzzle. While he is a late born ‘03 who is already a little more physically advanced than his peers, the full complement of his skill set is a bit of a mystery. How he develops as a two-way defender remains to be seen. At times he shows the ability to dominate at both ends of the ice, but the consistency of his decision making will need to improve. Unfortunately, in Czechia’s first game against Canada, Jiricek took a knee on knee and all indications are that he will not be returning to the tournament as a result.
Jiri Kulich - Center - Czechia
The captain of Czechia’s Hlinka/Gretzky Cup team from this past summer, Kulich will be making his debut at the IIHF U20’s as a 17-year-old. How much ice time he receives is a bit of a mystery. However, due to his strong performance in the Czech men’s league this year, he is quickly rising up draft lists. Kulich is having the best U18 season in the men’s league since Martin Necas in 2017 and his seven goals thus far put him on pace to have one of the best U18 seasons in league history. Kulich is a quick strike goal scorer who has the hands to navigate traffic and control pace. He also shows potential to be a strong two-way center and someone who can be relied upon in all situations. Improving his quickness and strength on the puck are necessities moving forward, which also means that he could struggle to make a consistent impact at this tournament against the best U20 players in the world.
David Moravec - Defenseman - Czechia
While Moravec may not be producing at the level that Jiricek is in the Czech men’s league, he is still a potential Top 100 selection at the draft this year. He was a real standout at the most recent U18’s. His four-way quickness and vision with the puck make him a potential powerplay quarterback, although he is not likely to get the opportunity to showcase that at this tournament given the defenders ahead of him on the depth chart. Even in more of a third pairing, support, depth like role, Moravec is someone worth paying attention to. With Jiricek out, it could be an opportunity for Moravec to step up
Marco Kasper - Center - Austria
The Austrians would have been in tough to avoid relegation in this tournament (the IIHF has decided to postpone relegation yet again in wake of the pandemic), however they do have some very talented young players. The best of those is power center Marco Kasper, who is in the midst of a strong rookie season in the SHL (including a great Champions League performance for Rogle). Kasper actually stood out at last year’s U20’s as a 16-year-old, however this time he will be counted upon to be the team’s go-to offensive player. Kasper is already sitting comfortably in many first-round lists for 2022 (including ours at McKeen’s), however a strong tournament here could push him closer to the lottery. The allure with Kasper is that he can play with NHL level pace and power, succeeding in playing through the middle of the ice and driving the net. How much skill and offensive potential he possesses remains to be seen, but he is an impressive physical specimen.
Vinzenz Rohrer - Winger - Austria
Rohrer is a likely candidate to ride shotgun with Kasper on the Austrian first line at this tournament. Those that follow and cover the Ontario Hockey League would be very familiar with Rohrer, who has been terrific for the Ottawa 67’s in his rookie OHL season thus far. He is a tenacious and energetic offensive winger whose ability to forecheck and push the pace makes him consistently noticeable. He competes hard at both ends of the ice and is likely to see all the ice time that he can handle for the Austrians. Expect him to have a very strong tournament; a performance that should earn him some additional fans in the scouting community.
Logan Cooley - Center - United States
While his place on this U.S. roster was likely never in doubt, the loss of Thomas Bordeleau (due to a positive covid test) did open up additional ice time and responsibility for Cooley, the only skater from the USDP to make the WJC team (goaltender Dylan Silverstein likely serves as Drew Commesso’s back-up). Cooley, a Pittsburgh native and former Jr. Penguins elite player, is a serious candidate to be drafted in the Top five in 2022. Much like his WJC teammate Matty Beniers, Cooley is one of the most polished draft prospects available this year due to his pro level skating ability and two-way awareness and determination. The University of Notre Dame commit is going to start the tournament as the U.S.’ second line center and he will be given every opportunity that Beniers was last year, which helped him secure his place at the top of his own draft class.
Simon Nemec - Defenseman - Slovakia
A veteran of the Slovak men’s league since he was 15, Nemec has long been hyped as potentially the best defenseman in this year’s draft class. Not only has he already played at the U20’s for Slovakia, but he also played at last year’s World Championships and at this year’s Olympic Games qualifying. It is not too often you see a 17-year-old with the advanced international resume that Nemec has. Scouts will be looking for him to be one of the better defenders in this tournament and for him to lead the Slovaks out of the more difficult Group B. Nemec is a true asset defensively because of his high-end mobility and hockey sense, however his true offensive potential remains a bit of a mystery, with opinions on his NHL future ranging from standout top pairing defender to a steady #4-5. With a strong performance in Red Deer (and Edmonton), Nemec could really cement his status as a top five selection in 2022.
Filip Mesar - Winger/Center - Slovakia
A potential first round selection in 2022, Mesar actually played at the U20’s last year as a 16-year-old, however he played sparingly. He returns this year and will be counted on to provide secondary scoring for a young Slovak team that will badly need it in order to make it out of the quarterfinals. Mesar is a master manipulator of space because of his explosiveness and quickness. This makes him a very dynamic play creator in transition. Early indications have the Slovaks putting Mesar with Petrovsky and Slafkovsky as part of an all 17-year-old, first time draft eligibles line. This line created many significant chances against the U.S. in game one.
Servac Petrovsky - Center/Winger - Slovakia
Another key member of Slovakia’s secondary scoring unit, Petrovsky is currently slotting in as the team’s second line center. He has had a very successful rookie season in the OHL with the Owen Sound Attack, where he has excelled as an all situations top six forward. Petrovsky is a terrific penalty killer who can use his speed and stick to be a disruptive force; however, he also excels down low with his ability to protect the puck and prolong possession. He could be the perfect complement to Mesar’s creativity and Slafkovsky’s power/skill on that aforementioned all 17-year-old line. At this point, Petrovsky looks like a solid bet to be a mid round selection in 2022, but a strong performance at the U20’s could make him a top two round candidate.
Juraj Slafkovsky - Winger - Slovakia
Slafkovsky, much like Simon Nemec, is an international veteran for Slovakia already. The 6’4, 225lbs winger is someone scouts will be watching very closely at this tournament after he was pretty invisible as a 16-year-old at last year’s U20’s. Perhaps it was unfair to expect him to perform better, however given his advanced physical maturity and hype, expectations were high. Slafkovsky enters the WJC’s as a potential top five candidate in 2022 because of his combination of size and skill. He catches defenders off guard because of his surprising quickness and soft touch around the net. Playing out of the TPS program in Finland (Slafkovsky left home at 15), it is tournament appearances like this where he will truly get the opportunity to shine with increased ice time.
Danila Yurov - Winger - Russia
Yurov may just be the player NHL scouts are most excited to see at this event. The potential top ten selection plays sparingly in the KHL, which has frustrated draft watchers thus far. Yurov has long been considered the best Russian player in this draft crop, however draft watchers will continue to be frustrated if he continues the tournament as Russia’s 13th forward or on the fourth line (where he has started). Yurov was absolutely terrific at the most recent U18’s and he has been dominant at the MHL level this year, but as a late born ‘03, this tournament may be the final opportunity for NHL scouts to see Yurov play internationally this scouting season. His pure skill level may be among the best of any player available at the draft this year and as such his NHL potential is sky high. His offensive skill set is extremely well rounded. Hopefully he gets the opportunity to show his talent with an increased role as the tournament progresses.
Vladimir Grudinin - Defenseman - Russia
Speaking of a lack of opportunity, Grudinin appears to be in tough to see significant ice time for this tournament. He found the press box for Russia’s exhibition game against Canada, however he did play on the third pairing for their opener against Sweden. Grudinin may not be the largest defender (5’10), but his offensive talents from the back-end are valuable. His quick feet, smooth hands, and vision make him an ideal powerplay QB. The question is what kind of potential does he have as a defensive player at even strength? Like Yurov, Grudinin has played sparingly in the KHL this year despite being a late born ‘03 too. Hopefully Sergei Zubov and the Russian coaching staff at the WJC’s give Grudinin a chance to prove that he can play and be a solid third pairing defender on an underwhelming Russian defense (especially after an underwhelming performance through an exhibition game and the team’s first official game).
Lian Bichsel - Defenseman - Switzerland
A massive 6’5, 215lbs defender, Bichsel is a first-round candidate in 2022 and he will be playing significant minutes for the Swiss at this event. Thankfully for them, relegation has been postponed, as previously mentioned. He left Switzerland to play in Sweden this year with the Leksands program, where he has split time between the SHL and the J20 league. The captain of Switzerland’s entry into last summer’s Hlinka/Gretzky Cup, Bichsel is intriguing because of how well he skates for a bigger defender. An impressive physical specimen, he offers significant upside as he learns to harness his physical tools. The Swiss will need a big performance from Bichsel and some others to get out of Group B with Sweden, Russia, Slovakia, and the U.S. At the very least, NHL scouts will get a chance to see Bichsel play heavy minutes against some impressive competition.