Draft eligible players to watch in world juniors

In addition to Connord Bedard, the juniors of the world have a wide variety of players who will capture the attention of the NHL as they seek to improve their draft status.  (Getty Images)

In addition to Connor Bedard, the world’s juniors have a wide variety of players who will capture the attention of the NHL as they seek to improve their draft status. (Getty Images)

Each year, an elite group of players eligible for the NHL Draft compete for the world junior ranks. This year will be no different, with several potential top-ten selections suitable to represent their country.

Past tournaments have featured first overall picks such as Juraj Slafkovsky, Rasmus Dahlin and Connor McDavid, and barring catastrophe, Connor Bedard will soon join this exceptional group of top picks to play at the world junior tournament ahead of their draft.

In addition to Bedard, the tournament has a wide variety of players who will capture the attention of the NHL as they look to improve their draft status. Here’s a rundown of the top candidates taking part in the 2023 tournament from each country:

Squad Canada

It would be impossible to start this discussion without Connor Bedard. He is exciting and can take over a game at will – at any level. Bedard combines a unique blend of speed, creativity and scoring ability reminiscent of McDavid. He will be at the center of Canada’s offense.

Perhaps the next player off the board in the 2023 NHL Draft will be Canadian teammate Adam Fantilli. This season Fantilli had a record start with the University of Michigan as a rookie. Although Fantilli plays a different style than Bedard, his impact is similar. Fantilli is calm and moves through the neutral zone with speed, provoking an attack from anywhere he finds the puck. His presence in big games will be an asset to Canada and any team that selects him in the top five of this year’s draft.

Goaltender Thomas Milic is the only other player not drafted on Team Canada.

Team USA

Charlie Stramel, 6 feet tall, enters the tournament with World Junior experience and also has something to prove. He has a slow start with Wisconsin at the NCAA level and has seen his stock fall from the middle of the first round to the end of the round, or into the second. A standout performance for Stramel could help reverse his slide.

Another possibility for the US in the first round is University of Michigan forward Gavin Brindley. Brindley unexpectedly defeated draft-eligible forwards Will Smith and Ryan Leonard for a roster spot. While the talent up front is tempting, perhaps the most intriguing prospect, if he were to play, would be goaltender Trey Augustine.

By NHL standards, his six-foot frame is small, but Augustine, the only 2005-born player on the roster, has stopped nearly everything that came his way this season with the USNTDP. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Augustine steal the net as the tournament progresses. Year-old defender Luke Mittelstadt could also attract attention.

Team Slovakia

Last year it was Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemac, this year’s fast-growing nation for top hockey prospects, Slovakia, has a quartet of high-end players in Dalibor Dvorski, Samuel Honzek, Alex Ciernik and Maxim Strbak. Dvorsky is the cream of the crop and will be an important part of the Slovakian attack. He dominated at the U-18 tournament last year and had a decent junior showing but will try to solidify himself as a top ten contender at this tournament. He hasn’t put up great numbers in Allvensken, Sweden, but Dvorsky continues to shine against his peers – showing off his elite vision and powerful shot.

Samuel Honzek is a name on the rise this season, sneaking onto many lists in the first round of talk. The 6-foot-3 forward played professionally in Slovakia last year and currently dominates the WHL with Vancouver, scoring 43 points in 31 games this season. Alex Ciernik plays with speed and a first round skillset. He can shoot through checkers and will be a threat to this strong Slovak team.

Maxim Strbak is a 6-foot-2 blueliner committed to Michigan State and currently playing in the USHL. Alongside Simon Nemec – the second overall pick in last year’s NHL draft – Strbak will be counted on to carry the puck and contain the best in the world. Towering striker Frantisek Dej also has an outside chance of being selected, while Slovakia failed to bring in Ondrej Molnar, a prospect currently linked to a second or third round.

Team Sweden

The top three in the NHL Draft looked safe for a long time: Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli and the Russian Matvei Michkov. However, that trio no longer seems as ironclad outside of Bedard due to the emergence of Swedish prospect Leo Carlsson. He effectively uses his 6-foot-3 frame and demonstrates nifty puck skills as he drives to the center of the ice and creates chances. Carlsson has posted numbers that surpass recent top players in the SHL, collecting 14 points in 25 games for Orebro HK. This tournament will be used to evaluate Carlsson against his peers where he has the potential to dominate.

On the blue line, Axel Sandin Pellikka was not initially one of the top defender interlocutors available in this design. Agile and patient with the puck, Sandin Pellikka loves to activate from the backend and puts up striking numbers with Skellefteå AIK at both J20 and SHL levels. Right now he looks like a 1st round slot, but could make his way to the top half of round 1 if his play continues.

Team Czech Republic

The hockey world took notice when some scouts put Eduard Sale in their top five to open the 2023 Draft season. He was spectacular for the Czech Republic at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the U-18 World Championship, and a strong performance at this tournament would solidify his top ten status for this draft. Sale has great hands and vision, allowing him to create chances for his teammates, but he also has enough scoring ability to finish his own chances.

Team Finland

The underage player who will be most closely watched is blueliner Aron Kiviharju, who is a candidate to take first overall in 2024. In terms of the 2023 NHL Draft, Lenni Hämeenaho is Finland’s top candidate entering this tournament year. Hämeenaho has moved up the ranks quickly, playing consistent minutes as he scored 13 points in 28 games with Ässät in Liiga. He’s not a great skater, but he reaches the crowded areas on the ice, is strong in front of the net and completes checks, while managing to make his way onto the scoresheet.

Hämeenaho cracking Finland’s line-up bodes well for his draft status, given that other notable Finnish forwards, including Kasper Halttunen, Jesse Kiiskinen and Emil Jarventie, were all omitted from the roster.

Team Austria

After 2006, Austria went 14 years without a selected player in the NHL Draft. Recently, the country has seen several first-round picks, including Marco Kasper and Marco Rossi. Last year, the Montreal Canadiens chose Vinzenz Rohrer in addition to Kasper in the third round, who will play in the tournament this year.

David Reinbacher looks like the next big name to come out of Austria, and arguably the best blueliner the country has ever produced. The 6-foot-2 right-shot defender has 14 points in 28 games with Kloten in Switzerland’s top flight this season. While there isn’t much flash in its game, there aren’t many concerns either. Originally an afterthought in the draft, Reinbacher was able to sneak into the first round and appear as a staple in an NHL top four. Although a longshot to be drafted at this point, Ian Scherzer is the second best Austrian prospect at the tournament.

Team Latvia

Rainers Rullers is an intriguing prospect for his 6-foot-4 frame and production this season, performing well for Zemgale in the Finnish Mestis league and domestically in Latvia. Aside from Rullers, Rodžers Bukarts, who plays junior in Switzerland, is a name scouts have been discussing in connection with this team.

Niks Feņenko is a second year eligible player who was considered a top 100 candidate by some scouts last year. The offensive defenseman was named to the QMJHL’s All-Rookie team for his play with Baie-Comeau, and will aim to improve his game against the elite league in the world juniors.

Switzerland team

Leo Braillard may be Switzerland’s top contender, but he’s not in the tournament and he’s not the right person. Braillard was a top performer for the Swiss at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and split his current season between the Swiss U20 loop and QMJHL with mixed results.

Attilio Biasca, who was not picked last season, could spark NHL interest after scoring more than a point per game this summer at the Junior World Tournament and amassing nearly a point per game as captain of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads this year .

Team Germany

After several years of watching Moritz Seider, JJ Peterka, Tim Stutzle and Lukas Reichel shock opponents and attract scouts to watch Germany play, the well has dried up at the U-20 level. One of the few candidates who can crack a draft interview from Germany this year is Kevin Bicker, but he was left out of Germany’s roster.

Whether it’s a draft or an eventual free desk, Bennet Roßmy is a player teams will be watching. He is 6 feet 8 inches tall and scored a point per game at the post-draft world junior tournament this summer. He plays in a strong team of Eisbaren Berlin and has not had many offensive chances, but he will get them at this tournament.

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