With the consistency of tournaments in North America getting canceled over the past year, it's nice to see an event actually take place.
Just days after the women's World Hockey Championship was axed due to COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, the men's Under-18 World Hockey Championship is ready to go in Texas after a one year break. For the most part, it's a good showcase of the top 2021 NHL draft prospects and what they're capable of, but all eyes will be on a few of the players available in future drafts.
Canada will be led by Shane Wright and Connor Bedard, the top prospects for the 2022 and 2023 drafts, respectively. Brad Lambert (2022) and Matvei Michkov (2023) are also in the conversation, and while they're some of the youngest players taking part in the 10-team, two-week tourney, they're the guys most people will be placing the spotlight on.
Think of the U-18s as the World Junior Championship before the World Junior Championship. Many of these players will go on to represent their country this coming December, and some may even find their way directly to the NHL. But most of all, it's just nice to see competitive international junior hockey again - especially for the kids who haven't had anywhere to play this season.
To get you prepared for the tournament, here are 15 players you need to keep an eye on this year:
Shane Wright, C (Canada)
When you draw comparisons to Sidney Crosby, you know you're a quality prospect. Wright was the most recent player to receive exceptional status into the OHL after helping to lead the Don Mills Flyers to one of the greatest runs ever seen by an Ontario minor hockey team, failing to lose a single game in regulation. Wright was an easy choice for exceptional status after his 66-goal, 150-point season and he took no time laying waste to his major junior opponents last season with 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games. Wright hasn't played a competitive game in 2020-21 but did see some action with Canada's World Junior Championship team in camp last November. He didn't ultimately make the team, but he'll be there next year, and maybe even a top-six player, too. But before that, Wright will be leaned on to take Canada all the way at the U-18 World Championship, and despite the long layoff, Wright's natural ability should take center stage when it matters the most.
Connor Bedard, C (Canada)
You've heard the hype - and he's even a big piece of The Hockey News' next magazine issue, on sale soon. The first player ever granted exceptional status in the WHL, Bedard had an incredible 28 points in 15 games with Regina as a rookie this year to be the league's standout player at just 15 years old. For reference, his 1.87 points-per-game average is something you see from the best 20-year-olds, not a kid straight out of bantam hockey. In fact, it smashed Connor McDavid's OHL rookie season PPG run of 1.05 - yeah, McDavid had a bigger sample size of 66 games, but think of what Bedard could have done in a full season. Bedard's name has been mentioned alongside McDavid's in terms of hype at the same age and while you never want to put too much pressure on a young kid to perform, it's been quite clear for years that Bedard is a special prospect.
Matvei Michkov, RW (Russia)
Bedard may hold the more recent edge in media hype, but Michkov is so dangerously close to being able to snag the top prospect honor for the 2023 selection process. One of the best prospects to come out of Russia in well over a decade, Michkov quickly made a name for himself a year ago with 109 points in 26 games in the Russian U-16 league, only to record 52 in 50 games as a 16-year-old in the U-20 division. For reference, Michkov's output this year bests Nikita Kucherov's 54-point U-17 run in the MHL in 2009-10. If Michkov was from Canada, he would have been granted exceptional status in any of the three CHL leagues thanks to his incredible goal-scoring ways, his breakneck speed and his creativity that very few junior players can keep up with. He's the real deal.
Brad Lambert, C (Finland)
One of the big names for the 2022 NHL draft, Lambert is one of the best Finnish prospects to come through the system in some time and will be a force at this tournament - something Finnish fans have come accustomed to. Watching Lambert play is like watching a Nathan MacKinnon clone. A dynamic two-way forward with incredible top-end speed, it’s rare someone manages to take the puck off of Lambert. Lambert is typically the fastest player on the ice and looks so smooth when moving around the big European ice with the puck, handling it in ways many players his age simply cannot. Lambert has thrived internationally on multiple occasions and was even a shining star for the Finns at the World Junior Championship a few months ago. Lambert should be Finland's best player in Texas and if they go far, he'll definitely be a reason why.
Brandt Clarke, D (Canada)
In a draft year dominated by blueliners, Clarke is certaintely among the best. Coming off of strong season in the Slovak men's league, Clarke showed a high sense of maturity and as the games went on, he got more comfortable with his opportunities and finished with 15 points in 26 games. His OHL rookie season a year ago had its challenges, but he still did most of the heavy lifting for a team that wasn't near the top of the standings. An offensive-minded defender, Clarke will be a heavy minute-muncher for Canada and will be the power-play quarterback, and perhaps he'll find a way to rekindle the on-ice magic he had with Shane Wright and Brennan Othmann during their Don Mills Flyers days.
Simon Edvinsson, D (Sweden)
Some think Edvinsson is a top three prospect for the draft. Others think he's not even worthy of a top 10 pick. Regardless, Edvinsson is an interesting player to follow and someone who'll make an NHL team much better someday. At 6-foot-5 and just over 200 pounds, Edvinsson is a tremendous skater with a great long stride and a high top speed. In one-on-one situations, he uses his long reach to knock the puck away effectively and he definitely has the power to rip pucks in the back of the net. Edvinsson played nearly an equal number of games in the SHL, HockeyAllsvenskan and Swedish U-20 league and while ice time was so hard to come by in the SHL, he still showed why scouts love his ability to read defensive plays and at the other levels, he showed his worth as a power-play quarterback. As always, look for him to be an integral piece of Sweden's roster.
Rutger McGroarty, C (USA)
With Chaz Lucius out with an injury, that gives 2022 draft prospect McGroarty an elevated role with the squad. The underaged prospect made waves when he recorded 82 goals and 160 points in his minor midget season with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies. His USNTDP debut was exactly what scouts were expecting with a point-per-game with the U-17 team before getting an extended run with the U-18 team - and not looking a foot out of place. The term "elite" is used too much to describe prospects, but his skillset definitely meets the criteria.
Fabian Lysell, RW (Sweden)
When Lysell represents his country, you need to pay attention. He burst onto the scene two years ago with 10 goals and 19 points in nine U-16 games with his nation, only to finish above a point per game with the U-17 squad a year later. Lysell got a taste of the U-18 team for a four-game stretch and was one of the best players in the top six, but now this group is his team, no question. Lysell spent most of the year in the top Swedish men's league and while he had just three points in 26 outings, he played fewer than five minutes in many games prior to his season coming to an end. Against his own age group, Lysell is a tough cookie to crack, especially when he gets his feet moving and puts himself in scoring territory. The aggressive forechecker can also be of good use in his own zone, although you won't find him engaging in physical battles. Still, if you're looking for a dynamic winger in this year's draft, few can match what Lysell brings to the table.
Dylan Guenther, LW/RW (Canada)
Speaking of high-quality wingers, Guenther is a real threat to go in the top five of the draft this year. A skilled forward who is so dangerous when he gets the puck, Guenther had over a point-per-game as a WHL rookie a year ago and doubled that in just 12 games this year - just imagine the damage he could have done in a full season. He's equally reliable as a playmaker and a shooter, and at the minor hockey level, he found a way to take his game to the next level in important contests. He hasn't had that opportunity in major junior, but this tournament could further cement Guenther as one of the best offensive forces for the 2021 draft.
Fyodor Svechkov, C (Russia)
Scouts seem to have mixed opinions on Svechkov, but nobody can deny his talent. Many young Russian forwards don't get much credit for being strong defensive players, but few wingers are as good in their own zone in this class as Svechkov is. He's not an explosive skater by any means, but he can handle his own and might surprise you from time to time. He's not a big kid either, but Svechkov is physically strong and can be a pain in the you-know-where to steal the puck off of. His biggest issue is being a constant offensive threat, but his previous appearances with Russia in U-17 play suggest he'll be fine.
Sasha Pastujov, LW (USA)
The third Pastujov brother to represent USA in this tournament looks to be the best so far - and the highest one drafted, too. Pastujov has been among the top of his peers throughout his entire junior career and was a big catalyst for USA at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge back in 2019. This year has been no different, with Pastujov leading the USNTDP with 52 points, with just two instances of being left off the scoresheet since Dec. 16 - specifically, twice in the past three games. If you give Pastujov too much space, he'll make you pay with his quick release and he's downright dangerous on the man advantage.
Stanislav Svozil, D (Czech Republic)
Svozil has made a habit of being among the best players in any given tournament. Even though he didn't have the points to show for, Svozil was consistently a key member of the Czech world junior outfit over the winter and even saw some action with the men's team, too. After the World Junior Championship was over, his ice time fluctuated from game to game with Kometa Brno of the top Czech league, but that shouldn't concern anyone right now. He's got two years of pro experience and he looks a veteran on the ice. Projected to be a mid-first-round pick over the summer, Svozil is one of the better defensemen at this tournament and will be leaned on to shutdown other team's top lines.
Sean Behrens, D (USA)
With Luke Hughes out of the lineup for the rest of the season, Behrens has had an opportunity to steal some of the spotlight for himself and has really taken control of it. The University of Denver commit likely isn't going to be a top-pairing defender in the NHL because while he's good at so many things, he isn't near the top in any category - but that's alright because he doesn't have many glaring weaknesses, either.
Nikita Chibrikov, RW (Russia)
First thing you'll notice when watching Chibrikov? His lethal, scary, dangerous, powerful, whatever buzzword wrist shot. He gets the release off so quickly, with so little effort. His skating is top-notch, he can start and stop with ease and his hands have no issue keeping up with the pace of his own game. Every time he has represented Russia internationally, including in Euro Hockey Tour action earlier this year, he was among the offensive threats in the tournament and will be just the same again this year. Defensively, his game can be a bit of a challenge, but if you need goals, he's got them. It'll take a few years for him to make the jump to the NHL and he definitely needs to work on his own-zone play, but he's got the talent to make him a key contributor here.
Benjamin Gaudreau, G (Canada)
Will it be Gaudreau or Tyler Brennan who gets the bulk of the starts for Canada? That's a big question right now, and while Gaudreau has received some attention as top 60 prospects for the 2021 draft, Brennan was on a hot run prior to joining Canada and should definitely get some consideration. But Gaudreau could still get the edge due to his pedigree, being viewed as one of Ontario's best young goaltenders after boasting a perfect 20-game run in midget before carrying the load for Sarnia last season. Had the OHL actually kicked off this year, Gaudreau would have been one of the league's best goalies and his background in the Hockey Canada program is a nice plus. This is somewhat similar to what Canada had at the World Junior Championship: do they go with a guy who has already seen some action this year, or go with the guy they believe in most? If we're going on potential, Gaudreau may be the guy, but if they give him the early nod, he needs to be really darn good because Brennan will be ready for anything thrown his way.