January 8, 2024

Under-the-radar skaters who played well at the 2024 World Juniors

The 2024 World Juniors is in the books with a new champion and some standout performances from its participants.

Some you’d expect; some a little further under the radar.

Team USA won the gold, while Sweden fell short with a silver. Czechia took home the bronze with a come-from-behind victory over Finland. Every year, the talking points are the NHL draft picks and players who dominated on the score sheet. Like Jonathan Lekkerimaki, who won the tournament MVP, or Cutter Gauthier and Jiri Kulich, who led the competition with 12 points of their own. Even the goaltenders, like gold medal winner Trey Augustine, who finished with the best save percentage at .936 and goals-against average of just 1.75. 

But no one talks about those key players who shined, but not the brightest on their team. Or, they were key pieces of a stacked team in other, less notable, ways, such as being strong and reliable in the defensive zone.

Let’s shine a brighter light on some of those lesser-renowned performances, as well as some names who simply went under-the-radar at the 2024 World Juniors. 

Frank Nazar, Team USA

Frank Nazar, drafted 13th overall in 2022 by the Chicago Blackhawks, played on a stacked Team USA roster. He did not have a single goal in the tournament, and largely played second-fiddle to teammates like Gabe Perreault, Gavin Brindley, Isaac Howard and Gauthier. But despite not scoring any goals, Nazar did add eight assists. He was cerebral with the puck on his stick, showing remarkable poise and vision every time the puck was on his blade. His ability to dish the puck around in key moments, almost always making the right decisions, and simply threading the needle, made him a key component for a team full of stars. He deserves his flowers, as he did nothing but raise his stock in the future. 

Aleksanteri Kaskimaki, Finland

Aleksanteri Kaskimaki did not stand out on the scoresheet in a massive way. He netted four points (two goals, two assists), which paled in comparison to Jere Lassila, who had eight points, and Lenni Hameenaho, Kasper Halttunen, and Jani Nyman, who had six points apiece. While the raw stats don’t jump out at anyone for the St. Louis Blues prospect, he was constantly a positive impact for the Finns.

When watching the games, whenever he was on the ice, it felt like he was the main focus for getting the puck into the offensive zone. Then, once in the offensive zone, he would do an excellent job generating chances both on his own and for his teammates. While it did not convert into goals and assists, he played at a high level consistently, while simultaneously helping to get the puck up ice to begin with. A very underrated and under-appreciated performance from a lesser-known prospect. The Blues should be very excited about what they saw from their third rounder (No. 73) from the 2022 draft.

Zeev Buium, USA

Another American, but well deserved. While Nazar is more known in the hockey world, while providing over a point-per-game, Zeev Buium is not quite as known and had five points (three goals, two assists). But, Buium will be a name everyone will grow accustomed to very quickly, especially off this impressive World Juniors performance. A 2024 NHL Draft eligible, his production and growth at the NCAA level has gotten a lot of eyes on him. Not only was he the youngest on the team by several months, but he also played limited minutes as a third pair defender. Yet, he shined at times in the offensive zone with his play creation ability.

Buium helped the Americans generate offensive chances by being a consistently efficient break-out artist. He constantly was displaying his ability to be a puck transporter from the back end. Buium may not have been the number one defender, and he may not have been one of the key pieces to this run. But he made every second he was on the ice count. He brought efficiency that not many could have predicted on a team like the USA. Like Nazar, Buium deserves a lot of credit for helping the stars around him play even better. 

Tom Willander, Sweden 

Tom Willander finished the World Juniors with three points (one goal, two assists), and was a plus-9 on the ice. While he wasn’t super flashy and didn’t produce at a super high pace, he was incredibly consistent each game. He was poised in his own end, and played a key role in shutting down opposing rushes. Not only that, but Willander proved to be a smart puck-mover from the back end in a limited role. That’s despite playing more of a smart and conservative game. When he decided to chip in offensively, he created chances for himself at quite a good clip. Again, that comes despite playing more conservative offensively.

Next season, he has the chance to earn a much larger role. That role could come with potentially more freedom. Perhaps similar to his U18 World Juniors where he had eight points (three goals, five assists) last year. A top prospect for the Vancouver Canucks, he continues to earn his stripes as each season passes. 

Juraj Pekarcik, Slovakia 

Juraj Pekarcik was fun to watch throughout the tournament. He was never a massive standout but, despite that, he did a lot of things right — especially in the nightmare game for Slovakia against Team USA. Pekarcik was arguably one of the best skaters on the roster in that game. Offensively, he generated several opportunities against the Slovaks toughest opponent. Additionally, he was at his best when he was tasked with clearing the defensive zone. Overall, Pekarcik finished with a modest three points (one goal, two assists). Despite not being a key piece of the Slovaks, the Blues prospect did a lot of the little things right, and played more of an unsung role. 

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