January 9, 2021

BELL: 2022s leave bigger, longer-lasting impression at World Juniors

Another edition of the World Juniors has come and gone.

Team USA has been crowned under-20 champions, Team Canada left with a bitter taste in their mouth, and Team Russia surprised many by failing to medal.

A year ago, the talk of the hockey world at this time was Alexis Lafrenière. The Canadian star took over the tournament, scoring four goals and adding six assists for 10 points in just five games. He was named the tournament MVP and Best Forward, on top of walking away with the gold medal.

But it wasn’t just the future first-overall selection that stood out in the tournament. Germany’s dynamic trio of Tim Stützle, JJ Peterka, and Lukas Reichel commanded attention, signalling a wave of German prospects that had never been seen in the NHL Draft.

Sweden’s “Terror Twins,” Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz built up excitement for the draft. Canadian defender Jamie Drysdale looked extremely good on the Canadian back end. All of these players were eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft.

There was only one 2021 NHL Draft-eligible in the event: Aatu Räty. The youngest player in the tournament didn’t necessarily stand out but he didn’t look out of place.

Fast forward a year. There was a pretty intriguing list of 2021 NHL draft-eligibles at the 2021 World Junior Championship and six draft-1 prospects, eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft.

There was no Lafrenière-style performance from a draft-eligible this year. It’s often been said that the 2021 NHL Draft is a weaker class than what we’ve seen in recent years and that the next two classes could be exponentially stronger. The 2021 World Juniors helped prove that case.

Looking at standouts for the 2021 NHL Draft, Matthew Beniers comes to mind. The young American was dominant in his game, playing top-six minutes, showing off an impressive transition game, strong possession numbers, and a competitiveness that was evident on every shift.

It should be mentioned that Germany’s Florian Elias, a re-entry candidate that centered Stützle and Peterka, also stood out in a big way. Not only did he keep up with the two strong German prospects, but he battled hard and matched their pace often. A handful of other overagers impressed as well, from goaltender Kari Piiroinen to Switzerland captain Simon Knak.

But other than Beniers, the performances from the 2021-eligibles in the tournament start to fall off. Czech’s Stanislav Svozil had very promising moments but didn’t exactly take over any games or many shifts. Russia’s Daniil Chayka seemed to really struggle through the tournament, even getting scratched for a game. His teammate Kirill Kirsanov had a strong first half, but seemed to tail off as the tournament went on and the pressure piled on.

Finland’s Samuel Helenius played his fourth-line role well, without really rising his game to another level. He did what was expected but didn’t bring anything more. Sweden’s Oskar Olausson had some impressive flashes but wasn’t really given the minutes to truly stand out or really prove that he deserved more minutes. Jesper Wallstedt really impressed, but only played about a game and a half.

Many of the remaining first-year draft eligibles from Team Austria, Team Slovakia, and Team Switzerland struggled much like the rest of their teams and failed to make a big impact.

This brings us to the six 2022 NHL Draft eligibles. Five of them not only stood out as the youngest players in the tournament but outplayed the 2021 class overall. The sixth player, Filip Mesar, didn’t really get a good chance in the tournament, playing just two games. He’ll have a chance to fix that next year.

Finland’s Brad Lambert led this charge, playing well above his age and at times looked like one of the best players on the ice. In the seven games to the bronze medal, the young forward collected three assists and a goal, playing just 11:37 on average. He averaged 3.1 shots per game, with 2.7 (86%) on goal. While he had some struggle against the bigger, faster teams, the prospect definitely outshined Helenius on the same lineup. He looked extremely good in transition and showed the ability to drive play offensively. The projected top-two pick for the 2022 NHL Draft should be a key player for the Finns at the 2022 World Juniors.

After Lambert, David Jiricek from Team Czech Republic did very well to boost his draft stock, a year and a half out. Jiricek was honoured as one of the team’s top-three performers in the tournament and for good reason. The defender stood out on the team in his skating and his quick processing of the game. He had a goal and an assist in five games, while playing 15:43 per game. The Czech was a Corsi beast, leading all draft-eligibles (overagers and 2021s included) in total positive Corsi at plus-51, while averaging plus-10.2 a game – sixth-best in the entire tournament. He looks to be following, and possibly exceeding, in Svozil’s footsteps as a projected first-rounder.

On a struggling Austrian team, Marco Kasper was the youngest player both on the team and in the entire tournament. The prospect played on the top line with Marco Rossi and overager Senna Peeters, not looking out of place for a second. He played an average of 17:55 per game, scoring once. The Austrian winger showed off impressive skating, the ability to make plays under pressure, and stellar confidence that the team needed. He was very impressive and proved why he’s a top prospect in the 2022 class.

Finally, Team Slovakia’s Simon Nemec and Juraj Slafkovsky came into this tournament as advertised – if not better. Defenseman Nemec was one of the best players on the team consistently and was rightfully honoured as a top-three player on the team. He averaged 11.8 challenges per game, winning 8.4 (71.2%) of them. The majority of those came in the defensive end, 9.6 per game, where he still won 6.6 per game (68.8%). He collected four assists in five games, playing an average of 17:18 per game. Nemec was arguably the best player on the team through the tournament.

Slafkovsky may have been held off the scoresheet through five games, but the young winger showed off his skill in many other ways. The six-foot-four, 218-pound prospect showed off strong skating, puck protection, and competitiveness. It’s common for big, young prospects to not know how to properly use their size – that wasn’t an issue for Slafkovsky by any means. Engaging in an average of 16 puck battles per game, he won 9.2 (58%). He played top-six minutes, finishing with an average of 17:52 per game. He also generated an average of 5.2 shots per game, getting 2.6 (50%) on net. Expect him, Nemec, and Mesar to be stars for this team in a year.

The World Juniors is a small sample size, with just four to seven games per team, and some players seeing less. However, with these 2022s showing off their high-end talent, outshining the 2021s, it may provide a glimpse at the stark difference in the skill level of the two classes. At the very least, it should build the excitement of the 2022 NHL Draft.

Statistics from InStat Hockey

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