2021 WJC: 5 2021-eligible standouts
The 2021 World Junior Championship has come and gone and, in turn, we’ve had a look at some first-year draft eligibles and how they were able to perform at the highest international stage of junior hockey.
Related: 2021 WJC: 5 overager standouts
Though there were not any draft-eligible performances along the lines of Alexis Lafrenière in 2020 or Jesse Puljujärvi in 2016, there were still plenty of standout performances by players who will be available for the upcoming 2021 NHL Entry Draft, with some potential first-round selections making themselves noticeable throughout the duration of the tournament.
Matthew Beniers, C, Team USA
Heading into the gold medal game against Canada, Matthew Beniers’ raw stat line may not jump off the page with just one goal and two assists in six games played, but his impact on the ice has been felt beyond the scoresheet. Lining up throughout the tournament as the USA’s second-line center, Beniers was a stabilizing force playing between Matthew Boldy and Cole Caufield, often doing the hard work in order to give his linemates the best chance to succeed.
Throughout the tournament, Beniers has demonstrated fantastic all-around sense and awareness, particularly in his own zone where he’s shown a consistent commitment to supporting his defensemen down low to clog up passing lanes, retrieve loose pucks, and assist in controlled breakouts. Used on Team USA’s penalty kill, it was clear the Americans viewed Beniers as one of their most reliable forwards in their own zone, though it was not just Beniers’ defensive prowess that stood out on a nightly basis.
Beniers was one of, if not the best, players on this American roster at carrying the puck, positively contributing to his team’s possession by securing controlled zone exits and entries with more consistency than anybody on the roster. Beniers is a gifted puckhandler who sees the ice incredibly well, using deception and smarts to find lanes to skate the puck, it was clear throughout the tournament that the 200-foot American center was among the best draft eligible players in the bubble.
Samuel Helenius, C, Team Finland
Samuel Helenius, a six-foot-six mountain of a player, was mostly cast in a depth role for the Finns and did quite well in the ice time he was given. Skating as Finland’s fourth-line center throughout the entirety of the tournament, Helenius, the team’s lone first-year eligible player, was deployed primarily in a defensive role, taking defensive zone starts and was used quite prominently on the team’s penalty kill.
For a player his size, Helenius moves quite well when he gets his feet going. He showed good ability carrying the puck in transition, using a combination of surprising mobility and his reach to gain separation in the offensive zone. This lead to two goals and one assist through his six games played. Helenius has work to do in his first-step quickness, and his lack of elite puck skills or creativity may cap his offensive ceiling, but in a fourth-line role for Finland the big man center impressed with his ability to provide depth minutes on a strong team.
Noah Meier, D, Team Switzerland
The Swiss had a largely disappointing tournament, but Noah Meier was a definite bright spot on the team’s blue line. Meier led the team’s defense core in scoring with one goal and an assist during Switzerland’s four games, and where the five-foot-eleven defenseman shined was in the transitional aspects of the game.
Meier showed himself to be more than capable as a puck-moving defenseman throughout the tournament, showcasing a smooth skating stride that allowed him to exit the defensive zone with control of the puck more often than not. Meier was not among the most staunch defenders on the ice and will need to do more moving forward to get stronger on his skates on top of improving his defensive awareness. But the overall package of mobility, crisp passing ability, and efficient offensive play was a bright spot on an otherwise dim Swiss showing at the 2021 World Juniors.
Stanislav Svozil, D, Team Czech Republic
It’s difficult to discuss this year’s Czech Republic team without recognizing the contributions of Stanislav Svozil, who played in a top-four role on their blue line throughout his five games played. Among the youngest players at the tournament, Svozil looked very comfortable, showcasing a well-rounded two-way skill set every time he was on the ice.
What stood out the most with Svozil was how gifted of a skater he is, as he’s incredibly smooth and fluid on his skates and can move in all four directions with ease. Svozil’s skating ability allowed him to be a consistent contributor in all areas of the ice by allowing him to control gaps on opposing attackers, carry the puck in transition, and jump up into the offensive zone to join the attack. Svozil played in all situations, playing a minor role on the team’s penalty kill while also seeing time on the second power-play unit.
There may be some questions regarding Svozil’s offensive upside, which were not particularly quelled by the blue liner’s singular assist in the tournament, but his performance for Team Czech Republic left plenty of optimism for his projection as an all-situations, top-four defenseman. Svozil figures to be an even bigger part of this team next year.
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Team Sweden
Sweden decided to go with Tampa Bay draft pick Hugo Alnefelt for the bulk of their starts, but if given a chance to reconsider their decision following the performance of their netminders, it would be surprising if they didn’t look the way of the stellar Jesper Wallstedt.
Though only given the chance to start one game for the Swedes, the six-foot-three netminder looked comfortable between the pipes in his two appearances in the tournament, posting a stingy 2.40 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. What stands out so much with Wallstedt on a consistent basis is his poise, anticipation, and ability to make himself big in his crease. It’s those attributes that he rode to the tournament’s fifth-highest mark in save percentage.
Wallstedt can be a bit too reliant on his size and could stand to improve the use of his hands to make saves, but his ability to give himself a chance on nearly every shot with great vision, angles, and positioning made him clearly the top draft-eligible goaltender available in Edmonton.