2019 NHL draft prospects who impressed at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup

August 14, 2018

HlinkaGretzkyCupThe Hlinka Gretzky Cup, formerly the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, marks the start of the scouting season for the following year’s NHL draft in June. We’re lucky in Edmonton to have hosted the tournament (along with Red Deer, Alberta) this year, as well as 2020 and 2022 (it goes back to Czech Republic and Slovakia for 2019 and 2021). Many of the best under-18 players in the world convened in Alberta last week, and it can be expected that many of those players will be drafted into the NHL in June 2019. The 2018 NHL draft saw 77 alumni of the tournament picked, 7 of those being in the top 10 picks.

There aren’t many 2019 draft rankings out yet, but if I use the projected top 10 from The Hockey News (THN), we actually only have 3 of 10 here, all from Team Canada: Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL), Peyton Krebs (Kootenay, WHL), and Ryan Suzuki (Barrie, OHL). Three of the others played in the World Junior Showcase in Kamloops last week, an event I’ll be writing about soon. I should note that many people have Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL) and Bowen Byram (Vancouver, WHL) in their top 10, but they didn’t make THN’s list back in June when it was published.

Another three are part of the USA’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), which doesn’t send its players to this tournament and instead saves its best under-18 players for the World Championship in the spring, just prior to the NHL draft. The unfortunate thing about that tournament is that several of the top major junior players in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), including many Canadians but also import players from other countries, are tied up in the CHL playoffs.

I don’t have space or time here to go through every player who impressed me at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, so I’m going to pick one 2019 draft prospect from each team to highlight, with brief mentions of a few other players. I do want to give the caveat that, while I was able to watch every game that took place in Edmonton, I didn’t get to see the Group B games in Red Deer, where Russia, United States, Czech Republic, and Finland played. I saw all but one of those teams play at least once in Edmonton after the preliminary round, the exception being the Czech Republic, so I’ll be covering 7 of the 8 teams here.

This is a bit of a long blog, but I assume if you’re reading this, you want the detail. Let’s do it to it!

Canada

CupPresentationIf I was including 2020 draft prospects, I would be writing about Alexis Lafrenière (Rimouski, QMJHL) here, who is currently expected to be the first overall pick in 2020, and was the 16-year-old captain and top player for Team Canada. The choice on who to focus on here is difficult because of the immense amount of talent on the Canadian squad. The 2019-eligible standouts at the tournament for me have been many, including Cozens, Byram, Krebs, Josh Williams, and Jamieson Rees, but I’m going to go with Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL) as the one who had the best tournament.

Dach is one of the top prospects at centre for the 2019 draft. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him at centre in this tournament, as he was playing on the wing of Lafrenière’s line. That said, being on the top line has given him a lot of ice time and therefore given us a lot of opportunity to see him play.

He has all the tools teams are looking for at centre. He’s got a big frame at just over 6’3″, obviously needing to fill out at 181 lbs, but that’s not abnormal for a 17-year-old. He is a playmaker first, with only 7 goals in his rookie WHL season (and 46 points in 52 games); he also put up 10 points in the WHL as a 15-year-old the year before, in an extended 19-game preview with the Blades. But he did use his size to drive the net several times in the tournament and didn’t seem afraid at all to put it on net. The Hockey News likens him to Ryan Getzlaf and Mark Scheifele, comparisons that will leave centre-hungry teams like the Montreal Canadiens hoping he’s still there when they get on the clock at the draft in June.

Sweden

There was a lot of exciting talent on Team Sweden. At forward, their top players by far were a pair of 2020-eligible wingers, Lucas Raymond (Frolunda, Swedish league) and Alexander Holtz (Djurgardens, Swedish league). But for 2019-eligible players, the best Swedes were on defense with Tobias Bjornfot (Djurgardens, Swedish league) and Philip Broberg (AIK, Swedish league).

Broberg was the most impressive to me with his ability to swifty carry the puck up the ice from the back end and blow by defenders to the net. He seemed to do that a couple of times every game against competition both strong and weak. The pair of older guys who sat beside me for most of the tournament swore he was a Swedish reincarnation of Bobby Orr (including the #4 on the back of his jersey).

Skating and driving offensive play are where he was noticed most, but he was also a strong defender, breaking up rushes coming in against him by the opposition’s top players.

It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Sweden to have a draft eligible player or two on their World Junior team, so we’ll see what they decide to do in December. He’ll be playing in the Swedish men’s league this season, so if we don’t see him at the World Juniors, we’ll have to wait until the U18 World Championships in the spring.

Russia

In the two Russian games in Edmonton against Sweden and the United States, Vasili Podkolzin (SKA-1946 St. Petersburg, MHL) was unquestionably the standout player. In the bronze medal game, he and his linemate Daniil Gutik (Loko Yaroslavl, MHL) looked unstoppable, but Podkolzin shone in both games.

He scored what was perhaps the nicest goal of the tournament in the semi-final against Sweden on an incredible play where he picked up the puck in his own zone, carried it with speed all the way up the ice, split the two defensemen and fell to his knees, then lifted the puck on his backhand over the goaltender’s glove. He was the only dangerous Russian player on the ice for that game.

Then in the bronze medal game, he buried a hat trick and added an assist to lead his team to a 5-4 victory. He scored the most goals of any player in the tournament with 8, which was 3 more than any other player, and tied Canadian captain Alexis Lafrenière for the tournament points lead with 11. The release on his snap shot was deadly from the slot.

He’ll play next year in the Russian junior league and looks like he should be drafted in the upper half of the first round in June. Unlike the Swedes, the Russians rarely bring draft eligible players to the World Juniors, so we may not get to see much or any of him until the U18 World Championships, but the 200+ scouts who were in Edmonton last week now definitely have Podkolzin firmly on their radar if they didn’t already.

United States

Again, the US NTDP never attends this tournament, so most of the top American players were not there. However, they still had a good team, finishing fourth with a loss to Russia in the bronze medal game.

I only had the opportunity of seeing the United States play twice, and in both of those games, Nicholas Robertson (Peterborough, OHL) was their best player. He handled and controlled the puck well, showed a decent amount of speed, and had a shot that was difficult to stop. He had four goals in two games against Canada and Russia, two of the best teams in the tournament. There was no other American player on the ice consistently driving offensive play. He is short at 5’9″ and has a stocky build, reminiscent in many ways of a young Phil Kessel. I don’t necessarily expect him to measure up to that comparison, but he has potential.

Robertson played his 16-year-old season on a weak Peterborough team in the OHL, putting up 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games; not bad for a young rookie. He will be a player to keep an eye on, and there should be more opportunities to watch him during his upcoming sophomore campaign in Canada with the Petes.

Switzerland

The Swiss had the weakest team in the tournament, losing every game with a combined score of 28-5, so the bright spots were few. I thought two players stood out from the rest, both forwards. Simon Knak (Kloten, Swiss league), a big power forward, was their best player but isn’t eligible until 2020. Dean Schwenninger (Portland, WHL) was the only other Swiss player who stood out to me at all.

Schwenninger has a very small frame at 5’8″ and 148 lbs, but found lots of space on the ice with the puck by dangling around defenders and creating a fair number of chances on the net. He definitely had several moments where the crowd was impressed but didn’t make enough of an impact on the game to make me think he belongs in first-round discussions. He’s probably a later-round pick, at this point at least.

He’ll play his first year in North America with the Portland Winterhawks this coming season, a team which has been developing NHL prospects at perhaps the best rate in the WHL, most recently under former Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston. Assuming neither of them make the NHL this year, he’ll be on a roster with two NHL first-rounders in Cody Glass (6th overall pick by Vegas in 2017) and Henri Jokiharju (29th overall pick by Chicago in 2017), so we’ll see if he can produce with more talent around him in the year to come.

Slovakia

Maxim Cajkovic (Saint John, QMJHL) played in Sweden last year but is moving to the Quebec league for the upcoming season, giving North American fans much more opportunity to follow his development in his draft year. He was the first overall pick in the CHL import draft. There were flashes of other talented players on the Slovak team, but they clearly were relying on Cajkovic (pronounced CHAI-KOE-VICH) to carry the bulk of the weight.

He showed good foot speed throughout the tournament and often used his individual talent to create chances for the Slovaks. He showed strong ability as a two-way player on several occasions, particularly in the game against Switzerland, which was Slovakia’s only tournament win. It’s a bit hard to measure Cajkovic’s play on a team where there wasn’t a lot of talent to help him, so he’ll be a player to watch in the QMJHL this year and potentially in the World Juniors if he makes the roster, where he would get to play with some more talented players in the under-20 tournament.

Finland

With Team Finland playing in Group B in Red Deer, I only got to watch this team once, in their final game of the tournament against Switzerland at the Downtown Community Arena in Rogers Place. The crowd for the game was made up almost entirely of about 200 scouts in black jackets; there were NHL team logos everywhere.

Henri Nikkanen (Jukurit, Finnish league – not to be confused with Jokerit, which is now in the KHL), the Finnish captain, was unquestionably the standout player of this game, putting up 5 points in the first period and 6 in the game in an 8-2 victory. It’s worth noting that the 2020-eligible Kasper Simontaival (Tappara, Finnish league), playing on the same line, put up 5 assist in the game. But Nikkanen was the one driving the play; he was simply dominant. He has a big frame at 6’3″, and it was clear the Finns were getting him the puck whenever they could; he was making no mistake with it. He was both scoring goals and making plays, including a seeing-eye pass across the offensive zone through a couple of defenders for the first goal.

Looking at his stats from the rest of the tournament, it’s hard to say how representative this game was of Nikkanen’s abilities. He has been a point-per-game player for his Finnish junior team, but he didn’t score points in any of the Finns’ other three games in this tournament, and his team didn’t win any of those games. That said, he definitely made an impression on the crowd of scouts in the stands, so they’ll be watching much more of him this year in Finland to see how he develops.

Final thoughts

In this tournament, many players made an impression on those watching: scouts, fans, and analysts alike. Some of the players who had the biggest impact aren’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2020, and I’ll talk more about them in a future post.

I watched the television coverage of this tournament for the first couple of days, and TSN’s Craig Button then mentioned his top five draft prospects: Jack Hughes, Dylan Cozens, Bowen Byram, Kappo Kaako, and Raphael Lavoie. Interestingly, after I finished writing the body of this post, I saw that Button had updated his rankings based on what he saw at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. In place of Byram and Lavoie, he now has Philip Broberg and Vasili Podkolzin on his list.

So, things are clearly in flux already, and that is how it should be. This tournament is really a taste for all of us to get an idea of which players to watch in the year ahead. And I’ve gotta say, in that respect, this tournament tasted pretty good.

NOTE: If you’re looking for a bigger guide right now of which players to follow in the coming year, I recommend checking out the long list (not ranked, but categorized into “Top Prospects” and “Other Notable Prospects”) at Elite Prospects.

A new blog, a new adventure

August 10, 2018

My name is Joel, and I’m starting a hockey blog focused on giving my insights into players eligible to be drafted into the NHL. I’ve found over the past few years that watching these young players develop in junior hockey interests me immensely, as does the NHL draft itself. I find it particularly fascinating how difficult the task for drafting is. Some players drafted in the highest positions (Oilers fans know this well) don’t always have successful, sometimes not even mediocre, careers. And players drafted in the lowest spots, or sometimes not drafted at all, can become some of the best players in the world. But before I get into what I’m planning to do with this blog, I want to go into my own hockey story a bit.

I’ve been watching the sport for a lot of years. I grew up in Lloydminster, so Edmonton was the closest city with an NHL team. My dad was an Oilers’ fan, so that came naturally to me, though I have to admit when Gretzky got traded to the LA Kings (I was 4 years old), I couldn’t resist following him. I remained a Kings fan for years and even followed Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues. I don’t know how many Gretzky St. Louis jerseys are out there, but I’ve got one of them. I still get funny looks if I wear it around in Edmonton. A lot of people forget he even played there. Then, when he went to the Rangers, that was enough moving around for me, and I went back to where it all started – Oil Country.

1994OilersKingsTickets I still remember pretty vividly the first NHL game I ever attended, just after my 10th birthday. It was March 25, 1994 (my dad kept the ticket stubs), between the Oilers and the Kings, and I remember my dad taking me down the steps at Northlands Coliseum to watch warmup. Gretzky was stretching on the ice in front of us, and I was in awe. I still have a souvenier Kings’ puck on the bookshelf in my bedroom that we bought that night (not sure looking back why they had souvenirs of the opposing team, but maybe things were different back then). I got to go to two games when I was a kid. These days I get to between 6 and 10 NHL games per year.

I also played minor hockey for nine years, stopping when I finished bantam. In my last year, I was the final cut from the bantam “A” team in Lloydminster, and captained my house league team to a win in the consolation final. Those were the glory days. I took a few years off, then started in the beer leagues. I’m a veteran player now but still suit up for both the winter and summer seasons each year. At 34, I know my days on the ice are numbered, but over the past few years I’ve developed a bigger passion than ever for the sport. Naturally, I’ve started watching it and reading about it a lot more.

I moved to Edmonton ten years ago for university and went to my first WHL game in the 2012-13 season, when the Edmonton Oil Kings were at their high point, having won the league title the year before. They lost it that year in the final, then won it again the year after, along with the Memorial Cup. All three of those consecutive WHL finals were against the Portland Winterhawks, and both teams had several drafted NHL prospects to watch. That got me more interested in the draft than I had ever been before.

I quickly started following prospects of NHL teams on their paths to the big league, as well as NHL draft prospects who hadn’t yet been selected by any team. I now take any opportunities I can to watch games live or on TV to see the prospects play. For the most part, the live events I watch are whatever I can in Edmonton. I don’t travel much to watch games. But my PVR and night owl schedule make sure I watch everything I can that ends up on cable TV.

These are the events I take in during the year-round season leading up to the NHL draft:

  • Regular season and playoffs: several live Edmonton Oil Kings games, as well as any televised WHL, OHL, or QMJHL games on Sportsnet or Shaw, and some televised NCAA games (throughout the year)
  • World Junior Summer Showcase (July)
  • Hlinka Gretzky Cup (August)
  • Canada Russia Series (November)
  • World Junior Championship (December)
  • CHL Top Prospects Game (January)
  • U18 World Championship (April)
  • CHL Memorial Cup (May)
  • NHL draft (June)

Although I watch a lot of drafted prospects in many of these events, I plan to focus the blog on players eligible for the NHL draft only. This will be the first year I’m actually taking notes on each player I watch. I won’t be posting those notes verbatim but plan to use them to inform my overall take on each player.

I also do like to take in draft analysis from a few sources, including ranking shows or blogs by Craig Button, Bob MacKenzie, and The Hockey News (the only print magazine I still subscribe to!), and I use the Central Scouting Service rankings pretty regularly throughout the season to help me decide which players I should watch. Their “Players to Watch” should come out at the beginning of October.

I’m calling the blog “Pop Scout” to mimic the idea of “popular” academics or scientists. So popular not meaning well-known, necessarily, but meaning written not for other experts to read but more for the general public to take in. And to be clear, I’ve never done this professionally. I’m just a hockey geek who can’t get enough of the stuff. I know other hockey geeks are the most likely to read this kind of material, and that’s who this blog is for.

Anyway, this is all probably not that interesting but will serve as a background of sorts on why I’m doing this, what will inform it, and what you can expect from it. I don’t completely know what it will turn into, but I hope you’ll join me for the ride! With the World Junior Summer Showcase now wrapped up and the Hlinka Gretzky Cup nearing its end (I’m catching most of the action live in Edmonton!), I have a lot to write about, so stay tuned!