December 24, 2021

Keep a close eye on these NHL Draft eligibles at the World Juniors

The World Junior Championship is one of the most exciting events on the hockey calendar.

As is the NHL Draft. 

So when you get draft-eligible prospects playing big roles at the World Juniors, exciting things can happen.

With this year’s edition of the under-20 tournament set to kick off in Red Deer and Edmonton, Alberta, FCHockey has put together a list of 10 first-time, draft-eligible prospects that should be top of your list to keep an eye on.

Whether you’re a draft enthusiast, a prospect enthusiast, or a casual hockey fan, these 10 prospects will be sure to impress over the next two weeks:

Logan Cooley, C, Team USA

Position: D
2021-22 stats: 7GP | 4G | 4A | 8PTS
FCHockey Rank: 5

It was only a year ago that Matthew Beniers impressed as the lone draft-eligible on Team USA en route to a gold medal finish. This year, Logan Cooley is the only NHL Draft eligible for the American team. Can he stand out as much as Beniers?

Cooley has been a big climber on draft boards this season thanks to his impressive performance with the U.S. National Team Development Program. He’s racked up 30 points (14 goals, 16 points) in just 20 games of non-USHL competition, leading the program in points-per-game. 

Expect Cooley to impress all the same, as he has been doing all season long.

“He is a strong skating center with dynamic playmaking skills and shooting ability,” US-based FCHockey scout Douglas Larson said. “His skating is very good, with a strong, wide base. He’s hard to knock down and uses exceptional edge work to maneuver throughout the zone.”

David Jiricek, Czechia

Team: HC Plzen (Czechia)
Position: D
2021-22 stats: 29GP | 5G | 6A | 11PTS
FCHockey Rank: 15

David Jiricek is returning to the World Juniors after a top-three performance for Team Czechia in the tournament last year. He’s one of six players on this list heading to their second World Juniors and based on his 2021 tournament, expect a big showing from the defender.

Playing in the top league in Czechia, the defender has collected 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 29 games. While those numbers may not jump off the page, it’s the fourth-highest point-per-game rate for a U18 defender in the Czech league all-time. 

“Jiricek is a right-handed defenseman with a rare combination of size and skill,” reported European-based FCHockey scout Miroslav Simurka. “He uses his long stick to manipulate opponents with the puck to the wall, then taking the body and taking the puck away. Jiricek also shows good passing skills, as he can receive the puck easily with forehand and backhand, and he also finds his teammates with accurate passes with the right intensity.”

Marco Kasper, Austria

Team: Rogle BK (SHL)
Position: C
2021-22 stats: 24GP | 2G | 4A | 6PTS
FCHockey Rank: 18

Another returning player, Marco Kasper collected just one assist in 2021 in a limited role on a struggling team at last year’s World Juniors. While Austria isn’t likely to surprise in this year’s edition of the tournament, Kasper very well could.

The talented forward has carved out a role for himself in the SHL this season, with six points (four goals, two assists) in 24 games while seeing limited ice time. The forward could be a top player for Austria, and could very well carry the team in avoiding relegation.

“Kasper is a versatile forward who has the skating ability and quick processing mentality to be a two-way center,” observed FCHockey crossover scout Curtis Schwartzkopf. “With his high-end offensive awareness, Kasper finds himself open frequently in the offensive zone, due in part to him constantly moving his feet. Kasper also has high-end agility, which allows him to skate away from crowded areas with subtle changes in direction and an efficient stride that generates a lot of power but looks effortless.”

Joakim Kemell, Finland

Team: JYP (Liiga)
Position: RW
2021-22 stats: 21GP | 12G | 6A | 18PTS
FCHockey Rank: 6

The hottest draft-eligible prospect of the season so far, Joakim Kemell is now taking his talents to one of the biggest stages in the world. He’s been outplaying JYP teammate Brad Lambert – widely seen as a top-two prospect entering the season – and has entered that top-three conversation.

Kemell has solidified his role in Liiga, the top-Finnish pro league, and has looked good doing it. He’s put up an extremely impressive 18 points (12 goals, six assists) in 21 games. His 0.86 points-per-game is just behind Aleksander Barkov’s 0.91 and ahead of players like Patrik Laine (0.72), Kaapo Kakko (0.84), and Jesse Puljujarvi (0.56). Yeah, it’s impressive.

“Kemell is an absolutely electrifying player to watch with his blend of speed, puckhandling and finishing ability,” Finnish-based FCHockey scout Rasmus Tornqvist said. “He always seems to find ways to make plays and go for the goal even when there seemingly is nothing there. His ability to protect the puck while going up the ice is very impressive, considering he is on the smaller side. He’s was able to use his speed to force the opposing defense to make a play, which led to a couple of turnovers in favor of his team.”

Brad Lambert, Finland

Team: JYP (Liiga)
Position: C
2021-22 stats: 24GP | 2G | 4A | 6PTS
FCHockey Rank: 8

Once considered the biggest challenger to Shane Wright for the No. 1 spot in the draft, Brad Lambert’s draft-eligible season hasn’t gone to plan. He’s struggled and been outplayed by teammate Kemell, seeing him drop in rankings. However, don’t sleep on him – this is still a highly-skilled player.

Lambert looked very good at the 2021 World Juniors, and perhaps this is exactly what he needs to get his season back on track. Last year, he had four points (one goal, three assists) in seven games, en route to the bronze medal. In the Liiga this year, he has six points (two goals, four assists) in 24 games – slightly behind his pace from a year ago.

“Lambert is an offensive dynamo who is very dangerous in the offensive zone given his sublime skating and fast hands,” reported FCHockey crossover scout Sebastian Death. “His skating stride is quick and powerful, and he generates a lot of torque with every push. His edgework is phenomenal and he makes quick cuts very effortlessly, making him hard to cover 1-on-1 as he can easily shed defenders.”

Filip Mesar, Slovakia

Team: HK Poprad (Slovakia)
Position: RW
2021-22 stats: 20GP | 5G | 4A | 9PTS
FCHockey Rank: 26

Another player that has been climbing draft boards, Filip Mesar has been turning heads as part of a trio of Slovaks that look like first-round talents in the 2022 draft class. Previously thought of as well behind the other two, Mesar has been closing the gap.

He plays in the top-pro league in Slovakia with HK Poprad, collecting nine points (five goals, four assists) in 20 games. Earlier this year, he had a strong, eight-point performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and looks poised to take on a big role with Slovakia in his second stint at the World Juniors.

“Mesar is very agile and is able to escape pressure with quick cuts, stops and weight shifts,” Simurka said. “His speed and quickness are both above average in my eyes. He complements his skating abilities with very good stickhandling and puck control. Regardless of the situation, in full speed, under pressure or in tight areas, Mesar seems to be in full control every time he touches the puck.”

Simon Nemec, Slovakia

Team: HK Nitra (Slovakia)
Position: D
2021-22 stats: 22GP | 0G | 13A | 13PTS
FCHockey Rank: 3

The top defenseman in the draft, Simon Nemec returns to the World Juniors poised to be the top defender on the Slovakian team. He’s the future of Slovakian hockey internationally on the back end, captaining the team at the Hlinka and even participating in the Olympic Qualifier and the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship.

The rearguard has collected 13 assists in 22 games playing in the same circuit as Mesar, playing significant minutes in the professional league. While Slovakia may not be a medal contender, Nemec very well could be in the conversation for the top defender of the tournament.

“Whether it’s with his feet or with a pass, Nemec is relied on heavily by his team to get the puck up ice and he does so with relative ease,” one FCHockey scout noted. “He’s a smooth skater, with a fluid, powerful stride and good mix of crossovers in his movement. He always has his head up, scanning the ice and firing a pass when the time is right. His decisions with the puck on his stick are excellent, really opening up the ice and creating chances for his team often.”

Juraj Slafkovsky, Slovakia

Team: TPS (Liiga)
Position: LW
2021-22 stats: 20GP | 1G | 3A | 4PTS
FCHockey Rank: 9

The third Slovak on this list Juraj Slafkovsky is also the third Slovak entering their second World Juniors tournament. Like Nemec, Slafkovsky is making his mark on international hockey at a young age, playing in both the World Championship and the Olympic Qualifiers. 

He has split time this year between the U20 SM-sarja, with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 11 games, and the Liiga, adding four points (one goal, three assists) in 20 games. Slafkovsky should be a top forward for Slovakia.

“Slafkovksy is a strong winger who plays a power forward game with great offensive instincts,” observed Finland-based FCHockey scout Ville Holopainen. “His strong stride makes him quick enough to challenge defensemen and if he gets just a little opening his strong edgework makes him really hard to keep outside on the rush. His passing and playmaking are also good so he doesn’t easily tunnel vision himself when he is protecting the puck down low and he can find the open man in the slot.”

Shane Wright, Canada

Team: Kingston (OHL)
Position: C
2021-22 stats: 22GP | 11G | 19A | 30PTS
FCHockey Rank: 1

After being cut from the Canadian entry last year, Shane Wright is now on this roster and will be looking to make his mark on his biggest stage yet. Canada typically uses their younger players sparingly, but knowing Wright and his ability to lift his game in these big moments, he will simply just force his way into prime time.

Wright didn’t explode out of the gate this season in the OHL as many thought he would but he picked up the pace as the year has rolled on, entering the World Juniors with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 22 games. Expect him to show why he’s a No. 1 prospect in this tournament.

“Wright is a two-way forward who has an elite shot and an ability to make an impact whenever he steps on the ice,” said Ontario-based FCHockey scout Mat Sheridan. “His shot and awareness on the ice stand out. He has a quick release with great shooting mechanics, getting a lot of torque in his shot while showcasing an ability to shoot in stride or off both feet. He has a lot of confidence with the puck, consistently finding teammates in high danger areas for scoring chances.

Danila Yurov, Russia

Team: Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Position: RW
2021-22 stats: 21GP | 0G | 0A | 0PTS
FCHockey Rank: 4

Russia forward Danila Yurov has been having a strong draft-eligible campaign, despite his points not jumping off the scoresheet. After being a top player at the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Championship earlier this year, Yurov now looks to bring that performance to the U20 level.

He has seemed to solidify his spot at the KHL level, although he’s been used in a very limited role. That has resulted in no points in his 21 games. At the MHL level, he’s played another six games with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) under his belt. If he gets meaningful minutes in the tournament, expect him to rack up the points. 

“Yurov is a poised playmaker with soft hands and strong hockey IQ,” Death observed. “His playmaking abilities are his greatest strength. He has exceptional vision, awareness, and release with his passes. He knows how to time his passes and place them perfectly in his teammate’s wheelhouse. Yurov plays a mature game and has good IQ in the offensive zone. He’s calculated with his routes and positioning and knows how to take a hit to make a play.”

Other key draft-eligibles to watch: Lian Bichsel ( Switzerland), Vladimir Grudinin ( Russia),  Arseni Koromysov ( Russia), Jiri Kulich (Czechia)

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