International Ice Hockey Federation

Young guns at it again

Young guns at it again

U18 World Championship set to begin

Published 16.04.2015 04:15 GMT+2 | Author Adam Steiss
Young guns at it again
From left: Denis Malgin, David Kase, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Auston Matthews are all looking to raise their game at the 2015 U18s.
The annual spring rite of passage for the world’s best under-18 hockey players gets started with the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.

The tournament, taking place this year in the beautiful central Swiss cities on Zug and Lucerne, happens as usual on the eve of the start of the IIHF World Championship. Judging by the talent on the ice, it’s not a reach to say that some of these youngsters won’t take long to make the leap to the senior level. 

The U18s, after all, were the international start point for many of today’s stars like Carey Price, David Krejci, Marian Gaborik, and Ilya Kovalchuk just to name a few. The big question, one that all the hockey scouts travelling to Switzerland for the U18s will be trying to answer, is who is going to be the “next one”, the “can’t-miss prospect”.

Charting a player’s future at this age isn’t an exact sciene, for every generational player like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby there are your Zdeno Charas, your Johan Franzens, you Mark Streits, guys who went undrafted or found their game in their early-to-mid 20s before becoming well-established pros.

Still, hockey is more and more a young man’s game, the average age of NHLers has gone down steadily as young players have more options to gain pro experience ahead of joining the top men’s leagues.

So who will be the next big star? Defending champions USA probably have the inside track on the top hockey prospect for the 2016 NHL draft in forward Auston Matthews. Matthews played in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and also led the Under-18 National Team Development Program this year with 102 points, tying Patrick Kane for the single-season record for the program. Matthews also registered five goals in seven games in last year’s U18s. Another forward that could make an impact is Matthew Tkachuk, the latest son of a former NHLer to appear at the U18s, his dad being former NHL All-Star, World Cup gold medalist, and Olympic silver medalist Keith Tkachuk.

Canada brings in each year a collection of players that doesn’t always necessarily reflect the best the country has to offer, due to the fact that the Canadian junior league playoffs are still going on. But nevertheless the Canadians are always in contention, and from the looks of the team the ones to watch will be forward Matt Barzal and goaltender Evan Cormier. 17-year-old Jansen Harkins should also get involved in the scoring after leading the Prince George Cougars with 79 points in 70 games.

On the European side, Switzerland’s Denis Malgin made a name for himself in the last two U18 tournaments collecting 11 points in ten games. He also competed at this year’s World Juniors, sparking the Swiss with a seven-point effort in the tournament playing alongside Kevin Fiala. Switzerland has struggled at the U18 level for the past, finishing no higher than fifth in the last eight years it has competed at the top division. But playing at home, and with some help from Malgin and other prospects like defencemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Yannick Rathgeb, this tournament might end positively for the Swiss.

Perennial U18 competitors Sweden have been close to tasting U18 gold but have gone the last two years without a medal after three straight championship final appearances. Led by William Nylander, the Swedes’ high point in 2014 was a 10-0 steamroll over hosts Finland in the quarter-final, followed up by an unceremonious elimination at the hands of the States. With no Nylander or any other established stars on this year’s squad, it will be interesting to see what type of game Tre Kronor will bring to the table.

Sweden’s role as the main challenger to the United States and Canada was usurped last season by a surprise Czech Republic team, one that erased all notions of a failing junior program by defeating the Canadians in a shootout in the semi-final en route to a historic silver medal.

It could be said that the Czechs will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2014 magic, as the team’s two stars David Pastrnk and Jakub Vrana have moved on. But last year’s team was a success thanks to its tremendous scoring depth. 12 players last year registered at least three points in the tournament, and among the returnees will be forwards Davis Kase, Michael Spacek , and Pavel Zacha, who together accounted for 17 points in seven games.

Looking to Russia, the country’s biggest advantage could be in net, as highly touted prospect Ilya Samsonov of Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk is expected to lead his team from between the pipes. The forwards are a young group with little experience in international competition, but nevertheless Russia is always dangerous, and will be bringing back head coach Yuri Rumyantsev, who was the last coach to guide a Russian U18 team to a medal in this tournament.

After being blown out by Sweden on home ice last year, Finland will be looking to erase the bad memories of 2014. Things are looking up and there are more than a few bright spots on the Finnish squad, beginning with forward Jesse Puljujarvi. Just 16-years-old but already a tall and powerful skater on the ice, Puljujarvi represented Finland at the World Juniors this year and made regular appearances in the Finnish League with Karpat Oulu. Puljujarvi and other highly-touted prospects like Julius Nattinen and Petrus Palmu will be counted on to bring the Finns back into medal contention.

While Latvia, Slovakia, and Germany may not challenge for a medal, keep an eye on players like Kristians Rubins (LAT), Filip Lestan (SVK), and Julian Napravnik (GER), among others. Over 250 scouts will be in attendance at the 2015 IIHF U18 World Championship, and they didn’t come for nothing.

The tournament begins with Sweden-Slovakia in Lucerne and Canada-Latvia in Zug, followed by Russia-USA and Finland-Czech Republic.

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