The hockey season never sleeps.
After many teams completed U-20 camps over the last week, the attention turns to the eight-team Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an early look at the top U-18 talent for the upcoming season. The tournament wasn't held last summer but Russia won the last event held back in 2019. Otherwise, Canada has been the dominant unit, winning the tournament in 20 of the last 24 years.
But Canada has chosen not to travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the nation instead hosting scrimmages against the U-20 program back home. That means we'll see a closer competition than usual, with no true No. 1 favorite just yet.
The tournament, set to kick off in the Czech Republic and Slovakia on Monday, is a one-week event prior to Europe's organized leagues returning to play. Russia, Finland and Sweden always typically contend at this event, but USA can never be counted out, even if they don't bring their best players.
The 2022 and 2023 NHL drafts are considered loaded with top end talent, and while Canadian's Shane Wright, Matt Savoie (both 2022) and Connor Bedard (2023) won't be participating, the talent level from both draft classes are something special.
Here's a look at 9 players to watch for the annual summer affair:
Matvei Michkov, C (RUS, 2023)
Truly, Michkov is the real deal. People have been saying that for a few years now, especially after scoring 109 points in 26 games in the Russian U-16 league. He'd pot 56 in 56 games as a 16-year-old in the U-20 division – that's a two-point jump over Nikita Kucherov, the player with the previous best point total from a 16-year-old in the MHL. Kucherov would later become an NHL MVP, for what it's worth. Michkov had one of the best U-18 tournaments ever witnessed a few months back with 12 goals and 16 points, easily making him the tournament MVP after a silver-medal run. Whether it's his lacrosse goals on a consistent basis or his ability to just dominate any shift against older competition, Michkov is as elite as they come for his age - and he might not even be better than Canada's Connor Bedard at this point. Michkov is a top prospect for 2023 but is signed to a KHL deal until 2026, so it'll be a while until he's ready. But once he is, watch out, folks.
Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW (RUS, 2022)
Miroshnichenko was getting hyped up back when he was just 12 years old. At 17, the excitement about his game remains and he continues to shine as one of the most promising young prospects out of Russia in some time. While Matvei Michkov received more attention in Texas a few months ago, Miroshnichenko had six goals and eight points in his first major event with the Russian U-18 team. In fact, at every level Miroshnichenko has played at internationally, he has been one of Russia's leading scorers, even as an underaged forward. Miroshnichenko is one of the best skaters in this tournament and at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he actually does a solid job of using his size to win puck battles. If you give him room to shoot, he'll make you pay.
Simon Nemec, D (SVK, 2022)
At this point, Nemec is almost a shoo-in to go in the top five of the NHL draft The 6-foot-1 blueliner played heavy minutes with HK Nitra in the top Slovak league and got some top-pairing opportunities with Slovakia's men's team prior to the World Championship. A kid getting a chance to play with men is always a big deal and while he was eased into action more near the end, Nemec didn't look out of place. "He's a bit undersized, but the skating, hockey sense, mobility and two-way play... he's a jack-of-all-trades," a scout told The Hockey News. "He brings that offensive element, he gets back on pucks quickly, and he's not soft by any means."
Juraj Slafkovsky, LW (SVK, 2022)
Another piece of Slovakia's incoming youth invasion, Slafkovsky also played for his nation at the recent men's World Championship. Standing tall at 6-foot-4, Slafkovsky had a notable performance with Slovakia at the world juniors in Alberta. Slafkovsky only had 13 points in 16 games, but his .81 points-per-game average was second among 2004-born players in the Finnish U-20 league behind fellow 2022 draft prospect Joakim Kemell. The skill is there for Slafkovsky to take over a shift and don't be shocked if he's one of the tournament's top scorers.
Sergei Ivanov, G (RUS, 2022)
One of the top goaltenders from the U-18 World Championship a few months ago, Ivanov already looks like one of the top goaltenders for the 2022 draft. Ivanov led Russia to a silver medal and battled with Ben Gaudreau at the top of all the major statistical categories among goalies. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 157 pounds by the IIHF, Ivanov doesn't come close to having ideal NHL size, but the athleticism is definitely there. Ivanov's glove hand is noticeably quick and while his five-hole is a weakness and he tends to fall down more often than other goalies, he battles to make every save until the very end.
Joakim Kemell, RW (FIN, 2022)
Compared to other top prospects making the jump from the U-18s to this event, Kemell had a quiet showing with three goals in seven points. But truly, Kemell is going to be a player you won't want to ignore over the next week. A product of JYP in the Finnish league, Kemell led all 2004-born players in the Finnish U-20 league with 36 points and a .95 points-per-game average and even scored in his Liiga debut, too. Kemell is a confident puck-carrier that can also really dazzle with the puck from time to time en route to a goal. Kemell will be a key member of Finland's attack and likely would earn more love if it wasn't for having Lambert as a teammate.
Emil Järventie, F (FIN, 2023)
Järventie was one of just four 2005-born players to play in the Finnish U-20 league last year but was the only one to play in more than 10 games, recording an impressive eight goals and 13 points. It's not completely uncommon for U-16 players to play in that league, but his performance was eerily similar to that of Jesper Kotkaniemi at the same age, with both holding a 0.65 points-per-game average. This will be Järventie's first major international showing for the Finns and he'll definitely factor into the team's scoring hopes.
Hunter Brzustewicz, D (USA, 2023)
Other than a three-game stint last year, this will be Brzustewicz's first real showing of what he can do at the junior level. The University of Michigan commit had an incredible 96 assists and 111 points at the U-15 level with Oakland and is still considered one of the best defensemen for the 2023 draft despite injuries preventing him from true playing action last year. Brzustewicz's appearance with the team is also notable since USA typically doesn't send USNTDP players to the event, but it made since given his long time off the ice. He's an excellent two-way defender that has no issues finding his teammates, and it's only a matter of time until he shows why he's considered a top-10 prospect for 2023.
Noah Östlund, C (SWE, 2022)
He might be small in stature at just 5-foot-9, but he certainly doesn't lack skill. The skilled, intense forward represented Sweden as an underaged player at the recent U-18 World Championship but was quiet - but also just underutilized. He did have a nice season in U-20 league play with 15 points in 10 games, including seven goals, and he's ready for a more extended look this year with Djurgardens. Ostlund can play center and wing, but as a middleman, he will remind you a bit of Jack Hughes, but he likes to shoot a bit more.
Other notables: Mattias Havelid, D (SWE, 2022 ), Hugo Havelid, G (SWE, 2022), Otto Salin, D (FIN, 2022), Kasper Kulonummi, D (FIN, 2022), Adam Jecho, F (CZE, 2024)