As more and more prospects take less and less time to develop into everyday NHL players, using a best-on-best tournament like the annual under-20 IIHF World Junior Championship as a measuring stick of future success can be as tricky as it is reasonable. Although the significant majority of recent World Junior standouts were high draft picks who moved on to NHL stardom, there also are notables who provided nondescript performances.
Through Sunday’s NHL games, 29 of the league’s top 30 scorers played in at least one WJC either during their draft year or thereafter, with Calgary’s Sean Monahan the lone exception. Sixteen participated as predraft 17-year-olds, including Alex Ovechkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005) and Connor McDavid (2015), three generational superstars who used productive draft-year WJCs to help solidify their reputations as can’t-miss prospects.
Outliers do exist, however, as current NHL stars like Nathan MacKinnon (2013) and David Pastrnak (2014) were anything but world-beaters in their first World Juniors appearance. MacKinnon, last year’s runner-up for league MVP, recorded only one assist in six games during his first and only WJC. That didn’t stop him from going first overall in the ensuing draft, nor did Pastrnak’s three points in five games at the 2014 tournament dissuade the Bruins from picking him in the first round.
Since national team coaches rely heavily on experience during short tournaments, first-year draft-eligibles make up only a small percentage of WJC participants regardless of how strong an upcoming draft class is assessed.
Last year’s draft crop, considered one of the deepest in several years, featured 25 prospects who were selected to participate at the World Juniors. That number was nearly halved for 2019, as only 15 of the over 200 competing players were in their first year of draft eligibility. The amount of top 2019 draft prospects within that group can be reduced to six or seven, with Team USA’s Jack Hughes, Finland’s Kaapo Kakko and Russian winger Vasily Podkolzin the only players expected to be top-10 picks in June. Four of the first six picks in the 2018 draft — Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina — were key contributors in their draft-year world junior championship.
Kaako’s golden goal in Finland’s title-winning 3-2 win over the U.S. certainly was a historic moment, but it came in a tournament where 2019 draft prospects did not dominate mostly older competition while leaving us dissecting moments during individual shifts rather than simply being blown away by their dynamism or point production.
In other words, we were left wanting more.
When McDavid graced the WJC stage during his draft year, he was the best player in the tournament. Same goes for the likes of John Tavares and Phil Kessel. But clearly being the flashiest or the most dominant draft prospect at the World Juniors is not a requirement for NHL success, which has been proven by the dozens of top scorers who either played up to expectations or did just enough to get by without crippling their reputation.
As you can see below, even some of the NHL’s top scorers in their draft-year WJC tournaments bounced around from dominant (Tavares, McDavid) to competent (Rantanen, Eichel) to unproductive (MacKinnon).
NHL top 30 scorers (2018-19) at World Juniors
|John Tavares||2009||15 points (6 GP)||2.50|
|Gabriel Landeskog||2011||2 points (1 GP)||2.00|
|Connor McDavid||2015||11 points (7 GP)||1.57|
|Matt Tkachuk||2016||11 points (7 GP)||1.57|
|Phil Kessel||2006||11 points (7 GP)||1.57|
|Sidney Crosby||2005||9 points (6 GP)||1.50|
|Patrick Kane||2007||9 points (7 GP)||1.29|
|Alex Ovechkin||2004||7 points (6 GP)||1.17|
|Nicklas Backstrom||2006||7 points (6 GP)||1.17|
|Leon Draisaitl||2014||6 points (6 GP)||1.00|
|Jack Hughes||2019||4 points (4 GP)||1.00|
|Steven Stamkos||2008||6 points (7 GP)||0.86|
|Mikko Rantanen||2015||4 points (5 GP)||0.80|
|Jack Eichel||2015||4 points (5 GP)||0.80|
|Kaapo Kakko||2019||5 points (7 GP)||0.71|
|Elias Lindholm||2013||4 points (6 GP)||0.67|
|David Pastrnak||2014||3 points (5 GP)||0.60|
|Vasily Podkolzin||2019||3 points (7 GP)||0.43|
|Valentin Nussbaumer||2019||3 points (7 GP)||0.43|
|Nathan MacKinnon||2013||1 point (6 GP)||0.17|
Knowing what we know about draft-year production for the NHL’s top scorers at the World Juniors, let’s take a look at most of the notable names for the 2019 draft and whether their reputations took a hit at the tournament.
NHL Draft 2019 risers, fallers
Rising: Jack Hughes, C, United States
An undisclosed upper-body injury cost Hughes three games, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from displaying his world-class skating and vision. He picked up four primary assists in four matches despite finishing seventh among Team USA forwards in ice time, but it wasn’t like he stat-padded against inferior competition.
Three of Hughes’ helpers either tied the score or gave the U.S. the lead, and he set up a goal in all three of his medal-round matches. Although he’d probably trade all those points for a gold medal, his first (and possibly only) world juniors did nothing to hurt his draft stock. Hughes remains the overwhelming favorite to go first overall in the 2019 draft.
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Rising: Vasily Podkolzin, RW, Russia
One of the tournament’s hardest workers, Podkolzin saw his role expanded as Russia’s games became more critical. He was a tremendous asset in helping win loose puck battles and quickly transitioning from defense to offense.
Podkolzin is an abrasive, in-your-face winger with physicality and exceptional hockey sense, and all these traits were on display at the World Juniors. Russian head coach Valeri Bragin likes to keep his youngest players on a short leash. But he seemed confident in Podkolzin’s ability to impact the game no matter the score or how much time was left on the clock. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a kid who shoved Bruins prospect Jakub Lauko during the handshake line after a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic.
The intensity Podkolzin brings to the ice is unmatched among his draft peers. He recorded three assists in seven games, but stats rarely tell the whole story when you’re the youngest player on a medal winner playing nearly 14 minutes a game. If he falls out of the top five of the draft, it will have more to do with his desire to stay in Russia for a few more years than anything he did (or didn’t do) at the WJC.
Rising: Kaapo Kakko, RW, Finland
Scoring a gold medal-clinching goal was the icing on the cake in an impressive tournament for Kakko, who like Hughes earned more ice time as the tournament progressed, going from a low of 13:30 in the preliminary round loss to the Americans to a high of 16:23 in the finale.
Although you wouldn’t classify him as a two-way forward, Kakko was aggressive on the forecheck, covered for overcommitted teammates and was used on the penalty kill with effectiveness. What wasn’t a surprise was the way he expertly stickhandled out of jams, showed quickness in tight spaces and threaded the needle with cross-ice passes.
Where Kakko gets drafted, however, will likely depend more on which team is doing the drafting rather than what he did in Vancouver the past two weeks. He’s a virtual lock for the top three, but overtaking Hughes for the top spot will take more than a golden goal in a short tournament.
Rising: Valeri Orekhov, D, Kazakhstan
A slick, two-way minute-eater with speed and agility, Orekhov quickly turned a rough preliminary round into dominant play during relegation. He was Kazakhstan’s backbone both on defense and in the locker room, and his experience playing against older competition in Russia’s KHL proved valuable when teams tried to get physical with him. He’s a 1999-born draft prospect, so he’s been passed in each of the last two drafts. That likely won’t happen again come June since his reaction time and breakout proclivity are advanced for a teenager.
Falling: Anttoni Honka, D, Finland
One of the 2019 draft’s most poised puck movers, Honka walked a tightrope during a few of his opening-round matches, and at times he buckled under pressure. This may have been more from nerves than actual a degradation in hockey IQ, but it ended up costing him in ice time.
Honka played under eight minutes in three of his final four matches and didn’t have a single third-period shift in the medal-round wins over Canada and the U.S. — the two opponents whose styles mirror what Honka likely sees in the NHL. He still remains a middle to late first-round talent and should be a primary option for next year’s squad.
Rising: Kirill Slepets, RW, Russia
Like Orekhov, Slepets is a double over-ager who went undrafted in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. He plays for Lokomotiv’s powerhouse program in Yaroslavl, which traditionally works busily to lock down its youngsters into the organization. No stranger to international competition, Slepets was a joy to watch during his dominant run in Vancouver, where he capped off his WJC with a hat trick in Russia’s bronze-medal win over Switzerland. Blessed with speed, agility and incredible balance, Slepets has developed into a dangerous 200-foot forward who can run a power play from the half wall as well as he can disrupt on the penalty kill.
Newcomers to his career may think he put on his best performance under the WJC’s big spotlight, but the potential for a lengthy NHL career has been with him since his early teens. Slepets should be one the first draft re-entries taken off the board, possibly as early as the second round.
Falling: Mads Sogaard, G, Denmark
You hate to knock a 17-year-old goalie in the midst of any sort of slump, but this 6-7 netminder had a nightmarish tournament that left the Danes relegated to the lower division.
Considered one of the premier goaltending prospects for the 2019 draft, Sogaard’s strong pre-WJC play with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers had people believing he was good enough to help Denmark avoid relegation. Things fell apart from the onset, however, as he was blitzed for 11 goals in Denmark’s first game in a 14-0 drubbing against Canada. It was no picnic against equal adversaries either, and he was yanked early in the first period of Kazakhstan’s relegation-round clincher.
By bottom-feeder standards, Sogaard’s 4.31 goals-against average and .838 save percentage in four WJC games after the Canada loss should be considered respectable. But he was surprisingly slow to react to basic plays near the net, and his anticipation and timing from cross-ice passes proved to be problematic.
It’s not like Sogaard will forget or lose his ability to quickly cover a lot of net and execute a powerful lateral push that helps separates him from most draft-eligible backstops. We’ll have to just keep an eye on his second half with Medicine Hat and see if the issues from Vancouver resurface.
Rising: Ilya Morozov, D, Russia
You can always count on the Russians to provide casual WJC onlookers with a fair number of players to consider for an upcoming draft. Morozov is a multitool defenseman with top-four potential who handled his important role with poise and confidence.
Like Slepets, Morozov was not selected in consecutive drafts, and his full-time position with Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL makes the likelihood that he gets picked up in June all the more remote. That shouldn’t stop teams from inquiring into his availability or a possible desire to play in North America, simply because he’s such a capable two-way defender with size, mobility and a cannon of a shot.
Rising: Valentin Nussbaumer, C, Switzerland
A feisty two-way center, Nussbaumer was a key contributor to Switzerland’s surprising fourth-place finish. He played a top-six role and was constantly around the net or battling in corners. The last thing any prospect wants to do in front of a bunch of scouts is to reveal a low compete level, so Nussbaumer’s hard work and integrity made him noticeable when he wasn’t scoring.
That also is the case for his regular season play in the QMJHL with Shawinigan, a struggling team that relies on Nussbaumer to provide offense in the face of tough matchups. The fact that he was able to record two goals and an assist in seven games while playing alongside quality teammates shows the potential for point production at higher levels is there. He may not have the type of resume you’d like to see in a first-round pick, but the character, work ethic and sharp hockey sense he displayed for Team Switzerland should help him in the second half.
Rising: Philip Broberg, D, Sweden
A late replacement for the injured Tim Liljegren, Broberg was the tournament’s second-youngest defenseman and finished with one assist in four games. Although the Swedes failed to medal after winning their group, Broberg provided them with a glimpse into the future as their possible top WJC defender in either of the next two years. Blessed with excellent instincts, ideal size and outstanding mobility, Broberg held his own on the bottom pairing and remains a strong candidate for the middle of the first round.