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The 2019 NHL Draft-eligible skaters to watch in the World Junior Hockey Championship

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In a tournament filled with players already selected by NHL teams, a few players are still jockeying for draft positions this summer.

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With the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship starting there are not only the drafted prospects that will draw attention to themselves, but quite a few prospects that will look to raise their stock for the upcoming draft in June.

Let me first point out that there are two players from the 2020 draft class present at the WJC this year: Alexis Lafrenière (LW) on Canada’s roster and Anton Lundell (C/LW) from HIFK in Finland. These two players could well be the top two picks then, but for now let’s focus on those who can boost their chances of being selected early this summer.

Forwards

Jack Hughes, C, U-18 USNTDP, Team USA

The speed that Jack Hughes plays the game at is incredible. He can move over the ice and around the defenders as easy as Mikaela Shiffrin goes down a slalom slope, and almost at the same speed, too. He can use his hands to disrupt the best defenders and his mind is even faster than his feet.

His speed, and to a certain degree size, makes him attractive to the new style of game that has taken over in NHL lately, where small players have had great success.

Hughes can set up his teammates with a great awareness of the game. He protects the puck well and uses his vision to spot an open teammate for a high-quality chance. Hughes also takes calculated risks; he might choose the high-risk, high-reward play at times, but usually he does it from a position of strength rather than from a weaker position in order to get out of a vice. He is currently the consensus number-one pick in the draft and it will be a shocker if anything else happens in Vancouver this summer.

Kaapo Kakko, RW, TPS, Team Finland

It almost seems that we are back before the 2016 Draft. There is an American centre as clear favourite to go first, but right on his heels is a big Finnish winger.

Kaapo Kakko stands tall at 6’1” and 181 pounds, and has already made a huge impact in the professional game in Liiga with 20 points (9G, 11A) in 27 games. He is on pace to pass a certain Patrik Laine in scoring during his draft season.

Much in the same way as Montreal Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Kakko never seems to be in a rush. The game slows to his speed — or, rather like a chess grandmaster, he is a couple of plays ahead of the game at any given time — and this is evidence of his high hockey IQ.

He can shield the puck well thanks to his big frame and handling skills. If there is a slip-up from Hughes somewhere along the line, Kakko will look to challenge for the top spot and become the first number-one pick from Finland.

Vasili Podkolzin, RW, SKA-1946 St Petersburg, Team Russia

The Russian winger is strong on the puck and a fierce competitor. He plays hard and will have plenty of eyes on him at this WJC. Standing as tall as Kakko and almost 10 pounds heavier, he will be driving the Russian forward line right to the opposing net.

Podkolzin is built in the same mould as Alex Ovechkin, and he has the same competitive attitude without crossing the line into the undisciplined area; something young players sometimes struggle with. He is the complete winger, and while his defensive assignment isn’t perfect, it is something that he will learn as he goes along. With 10 goals and five assists in eight international games at the under-18 level, plenty of fans will be curious to see if he can live up to the reputation that comes with him.

Samuel Fagemo, LW/RW, Frölunda, Team Sweden

Fagemo was passed over in last year’s draft and was invited to the Arizona Coyotes’ development camp, but received no contract with the club. This might come back and haunt the Coyotes further down the line, but was probably the right decision at the end of summer.

He has enjoyed success with Frölunda in the SHL, and has played on the top line where his speed is being used to a dangerous effect. He is more of a pure goal-scorer with a quick release of his terrific shot.

Brett Leason, C, Prince Albert Raiders, Team Canada

His 6’4”, 200-pound frame allows him to impose his will on opponents at the Junior level, which has let him put up 54 points (25G, 29A) in 24 games. However, as with Fagemo who was passed over in the 2018 draft, Leason is over-age and has been passed over twice already.

He is a strong player both along the boards and in front of the net. He can use his awareness to pounce on loose pucks and creates havoc with tip-ins and rebounds. He has good vision, and protects the puck well in the cycle game. He will have to continue to improve on his skating, even if he has made some big strides this off-season.

Valentin Nussbaumer, C, Shawinigan Cataractes, Team Switzerland

The Swiss team has an interesting prospect in Nussbaumer who plays in the QJMHL. The centre possesses some quick feet and can pivot on a dime. Those feet are used to gain an advantage over slower-moving defenders, and with his quick mind, good vision, and fast hands he can set up players for high-quality scoring chances.

Defence

Mikko Kokkonen, D, Jukurit, Team Finland

Miro Heiskanen was just the start of the Finnish defence prospect line that continues with Kokkonen. Having struggled with the size adjustment from Junior play to the professional ranks, where issues with his defensive positioning and his checking stand out, he should flourish in an environment that isn’t as physical.

He will start the breakout and join the rush, has taken shootout attempts, and his smarts are obvious at both ends of the rink. His play in the offensive zone and on the rush is where he truly shines, and should he end up among the final 23 players on Team Finland, he will be an integral part of the second-wave attack who will benefit from the strong forward group.

*Edit: Kokkonen has been cut by the Finnish team since the article was written.

Philip Broberg, D, AIK, Team Sweden

Your typical Swedish defenceman: offensive-minded with skill to spare. Broberg is built like Ser Gregor Clegane in Game of Thrones; at 17 he is already 6’4” and 203 pounds. He is a terrifying player to play against no matter in which zone you’ll face him, and to top it all off he can skate extremely well too. He has seven assists in 27 games in HockeyAllsvenskan, but he is almost a point-per-game player in international under-20 games.

The one thing that stands out is that his hockey sense is not at the level expected when comparing to other Swedish defencemen that have gone early in the draft. Broberg can easily get drawn out of position and chase the puck, but whether this is due to the impetuous nature of a young offensive-minded player playing in a men’s league and struggling to adjust, or something that actually is a weakness, is something to be determined.

Ville Heinola, D, Lukko, Team Finland

The young and small Finnish defender possesses a good top speed and has some quick first few steps to separate him from the opposition. He uses his stick in Liiga to a great advantage in order to not get beaten despite his size. He has a game that is more mature than you’d expect, and while he plays a secure way in the offesive zone, he plays a smart game in the defensive end where you can see him value the play and choose the right moment to attack the forwards. Heinola is a smart player who logs time on both the power play and the penalty kill.

Anttoni Honka, D, JYP, Team Finland

Honka is a good puck-moving defender who usually has good zone exits and would benefit the Finnish team with some very smart zone entires.

While he is quite mobile, he isn’t a high-end skater overall. Honka will benefit by improving his acceleration and separation with his first few strides. He makes a few errors from time to time in his own end, and some of them are because he is being outmuscled, but a few are related to the same impatience seen in Broberg.

Like Kokkonen, Honka hasn’t secured a spot just yet on a roster that still has a few vacancies. The decision should be known ahead of their first game of the tournament versus rival Sweden on Wednesday night.