The World Junior Championship is typically seen as a 19-year-old tournament, but the mid-season classic has also had a history of fantastic performances from younger players. And while a draft prospect’s profile cannot entirely be determined by a 10-day tournament, success at the WJC can be a good omen. From Patrik Laine to Nico Hischier to Alexis Lafreniere, we’ve seen some big names help (or solidify) their cases at the world juniors.
So who helped themselves this year? Because the tournament was in a bubble, scouts had to watch from home, but they were still keyed in on the action. I asked four high-ranking NHL team scouts which 2021 draft prospects helped their stock in Edmonton and here’s what they said.
Matty Beniers, C, Team USA
Not only was Beniers impressive with the puck for the gold-medal Americans, but he was also trusted to take key defensive zone faceoffs late in medal-round games. Earning coach Nate Leaman’s trust as the youngest player on the team was very impressive for the University of Michigan freshman. Beniers finished the tournament with three points in seven games.
“He plays the game the right way,” said one scout. “He plays fast, he’s on pucks, he has skill and he can make a play. I think the tournament helped him. We had a good book on him from last year’s NTDP, but this just put a stamp on the kind of player he is.”
“Don’t let your coach influence your draft decisions because every coach is going to want to coach him,” said another scout with a laugh. “Find me a shift where you didn’t notice him. He plays the same way at Michigan – he’s got that motor. We’ve known Beniers for a couple years and sometimes that can work against a player because you get fatigue, but I don’t think anyone has that with Matty.”
Kirill Kirsanov, D, Russia
Back home, he plays on loaded SKA-St. Petersburg teams, so Kirsanov’s emergence as a go-to defenseman for coach Igor Larionov was an intriguing development in Edmonton. Kirsanov ended up averaging the third-most ice time on Team Russia, playing on a solid pairing with San Jose pick Artem Knyazev. This was significant because teammate Daniil Chayka was more well-known heading into the tourney.
“I liked him,” said one scout. “He moved the puck, he skated, he looked smart and he looks thick. His puck game was as good as anybody out there. He helped himself; he caught my eye for sure. He was easy to find because he was around the puck.”
“Chayka was the guy the scouting world was interested in and Kirsanov kind of stole his thunder,” said another scout. “He did himself a lot of good with North American scouts not being able to go over there right now.”
Daniil Chayka, D, Russia
Scouts had a little more familiarity with Chayka since he has played the past few seasons in Canada, including two years in the OHL with Guelph. Chayka ended up getting pushed down the Russian lineup as the tournament wore on, but he is young. Scouts still see him as a first-rounder right now, but there are questions as to his NHL projection.
“I liked him, but I think he’s a lot better when he keeps it simple,” said one scout. “I’m trying to figure out how his game will translate at the next leveI. I don’t think he’s a puck guy; maybe he’s a tweener where he’s more of a shutdown guy. In Guelph he seems to get thrown into doing everything, but here, when he didn’t worry about the offense he was good. Sometimes he got himself into trouble when he tried to do too much.”
“He had an OK tournament,” said another scout. “I don’t think he hurt himself, but we’re not going to evaluate him based on that tournament. He has played very well in the KHL this season.”
Stanislav Svozil, D, Czech Republic
Svozil has been playing against men back home in the top Czech league, so the world juniors gave the teen an opportunity to be a little less conservative. Though the Czechs had an up-and-down tournament, Svozil impressed.
“I didn’t mind him at all,” said one scout. “He was on the radar for sure and I thought he was very good. He showed more than what our group had him projected to do.”
“I liked the way he played,” said another scout. “He made plays on the puck, good hockey sense, skated real well. Has some bite too – he took some runs at guys even when they were down in the game. It shows he cares.”
Oskar Olausson, LW, Sweden
Sweden was a bit of a mess due to the pre-tournament Covid exposures, but Olausson still managed to get a bit of a stage for his skills. He was essentially an extra forward for most of the tourney and barely played in the quarterfinal loss to Finland. Nevertheless, there’s first-round talent there.
“Showed high skill, which is where we had him,” said one scout. “In the games I saw, he just showed flashes, so the consistency wasn’t exceptional by any means.”
“Had some skill but I don’t know if he got anything accomplished,” said another scout. “I liked his game in the SHL and I guess I had bigger expectations for him. Good skater, good parts, good quick hands. I have to go back and watch him.”
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Sweden
This was never going to be Wallstedt’s tournament – Tampa Bay prospect Hugo Alnefelt is older and more experienced – but Wallstedt did see action as the backup, getting into two games and coming out with a very nice .923 save percentage. Next year, he’ll be a star at the tournament.
“Looked good, like we all thought,” said one scout. “Looks like the top-rated goaltender for this draft. Limited playing time but when he did get in there, he looked like as we expected him to, which was nice. Especially when you watched (Russia’s Yaroslav) Askarov, who was sub-par to what was expected. Wallstedt’s composure is really good and obviously he has size. But he looked in control, he wasn’t flopping around – he was always square. Looked like a solid goalie.”
“Right now he’s the top goalie in the draft,” said another scout. “He’s got that prototypical modern goalie build – big guy, moves well, has a lot of upside.”
Samuel Helenius, C, Finland
You can’t teach 6-foot-6, so Helenius already had a coveted asset, despite the fact he can still put more muscle and weight on his frame (he’s currently 201 pounds). He averaged a little more than 13 minutes a game but still delivered four points in seven outings for the bronze medallists.
“I was impressed by him, definitely with the compete level,” said one scout. “He just has to grow into that big frame of his. All the basics are there and the skating will come along with more added strength.”
“He’s big – well, he’s not big, he’s huge – he skates and it looks like he got put in more of a defensive role here: killing penalties, big body, long reach,” said another scout. “I asked our Finnish guy if he has skill and he says he does. And he says he’s tough.”
Florian Elias, C, Germany
Passed over in last year’s draft, the 5-foot-8 Elias got a plum job this year centering Tim Stutzle and J.J. Peterka. That meant nine points in five games for the diminutive pivot, but how much could be attributed to his dynamic linemates?
“He was dynamite,” said one scout. “Why wouldn’t you go back and look at him? He played with Peterka and Stutzle, who were both very good in the tournament, but it’s difficult to play with those kind of players. You need a lot of hockey sense – he knew when to have the puck and when to defer and, at times, get out of the way. You think of Karl Henriksson (NYR) unable to be there because of Covid and wonder how much Holtz and Raymond missed him on Sweden.”
“Maybe,” said another scout. “I don’t think we’ll give him an opportunity, but someone might. I didn’t see the explosiveness for his size, but I could see someone giving him a chance.”
Luca Munzenberger, D, Germany
Once Germany got a full lineup, it was a lot easier to get a feel for the talent on the squad. One beneficiary might be Munzenberger, a big, sturdy kid who is committed to the University of Vermont and currently playing in Germany’s junior league.
“We’ve watched him this year and talked about him,” said one scout. “But to see him come over and play in this tournament – which for draft eligible players is the mecca – he came in and held his own. He was easy on the eyes.”
“He was another guy who grew on me as the tournament went on,” said another scout. “A little on the rugged side and he made that good first pass. He wasn’t on our radar prior to the tournament but he showed well and looks like a draft.”
Elsewhere, Switzerland had a number of draft-eligibles, but the team was so bad overall that it was hard to really key on talent. Lorenzo Canonica and Noah Meier did garner some interest.
“Meier had a little more clout going in,” said one scout. “But you don’t take anyone off because they had a bad tournament.”
Slovakia’s Oleksii Myklukha didn’t register with all the scouts, but they’re all keeping an open mind.
“He opens your eyes to what he’s able to do,” said one scout. “Now he has a few months to build upon it.”