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World Junior Championship: The 2021 NHL Draft-eligibles to watch

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Do you remember how well you knew about players like Lucas Raymond and Tim Stützle exactly one year ago today? Now it’s time to go gem-searching again.

2018 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament - USA vs Slovakia Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

During the 2020 World Junior Champinship, we saw breakthrough performances from several highly touted draft-eligible players, which ultimately cemented them as top prospects.

Out of the players who were selected among the top 12 selections, eight had participated in last winter’s tournament as under-aged players. Of those eight, everyone but top choice Alexis Lafrenière return this year for a second outing.

While the 2020 NHL Entry Draft was seen as a tremendous group of players, perhaps the best since the legendary draft class of 2003, the 2021 generation is considered to be weaker when it comes to top-end talent. This is something that is apparent on the 10 rosters arriving in Edmonton.

Checking out Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino’s latest draft rankings from November, we see names like Owen Power, Carson Lambos and Dylan Guenther at the top of the list. None of these players made the cut to play in this year’s tournament. Kent Johnson, who has enjoyed an impressive freshman season with the Michigan Wolverines, was also neglected. Sweden’s top prospect, Simon Edvinsson, got sent back to Gothenburg with the final roster cut, and William Eklund misses the World Juniors due to testing positive for COVID-19 a fortnight ago.

Perhaps the most interesting narrative concerns Finland’s Aatu Räty. Rewind one year and Räty was seen as the consensus top pick when the summer of 2021 rolled around. Since then, his stock has tumbled. Twenty-one points in 30 games in the Finnish under-20 league and inconsistent play during his call-ups to Liiga team Kärpät a season ago didn’t help his status. Going into this year, many were expecting a bounce-back year, but it hasn’t happened. After once again splitting time between the U20 and Liiga, with similar production as last year, Finland’s head coach, Antti Pennanen, made the tough choice to not include Räty on his final roster. Remember, this was a player who played the World Junior Championships already last winter, as a draft-minus-one-year player.

To make matters worse for young Aatu, his older brother Aku, a 2019 Arizona Coyotes fifth-round selection, made the team in an unexpected turn of events, and is currently in Alberta representing the Räty family in what was supposed to be Aatu’s big show.

Below you can behold a cheat sheet of the 2021 Draft-eligibles who were ultimately selected for this year’s WJC. (Note: some of the nations have yet to make their final roster cuts at the time of writing):

Finland

Samuel Helenius

Finland does have a few over-agers who could end up getting drafted next summer. For example, not hearing Ruben Rafkin’s name during the 2020 Draft was surprising. However, if we go through the roster and check the hard facts, there is only one player who is in his first year of eligibility.

Samuel Helenius is a 6’6”, 200-pound behemoth of a man currently projected to go in the second or third round. He left Jokerit’s organization to join JYP Jyveskylä in Liiga ahead of this season and has performed admirably, with eight points in 18 games as an 18-year-old rookie.

Just as a bonus, I urge you to keep an eye on Helenius’s teammate from JYP, Brad Lambert. Lambert is a projected top-five talent in the 2022 draft class and will have his first chance to prove his worth for a big international audience in these upcoming weeks. Turning 17 a few days before Christmas, Lambert has already established himself as a regular in Liiga during this season.

Canada

Unlike last year, when Canada brought what ultimately became the top two selections of the 2020 NHL Draft, Canada has zero draft eligibles included in this year’s roster. The competition is fierce, which was demonstrated when can’t-miss-prospect Shane Wright (2022) was cut during training camp.

Slovakia

Simon Becar

Simon Groch

Robert Baco

Maros Jedlicka

Oleksii Myklukha

Slovakia brings five players born between September, 2002 and September, 2003 to Edmonton. Out of those five, Oleksii Myklukha has the best chance of becoming a player worth remembering. Myklukha was born in Poland, has Ukrainian and Slovakian dual citizenship, and has received his hockey education in the Austrian Red Bull hockey academy which plays its games in ... the Czech Republic’s U20-league. To make matters even more international, Myklukha is signed to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL and played half a season in Québec before last season was cancelled.

Myklukha, rightfully more deserving of the nickname Mr. Worldwide than Miami native Pitbull, projects as a capable two-way centre with above-average vision and intelligence. Dobber Prospects currently ranks him as a third-round-calibre talent.

Germany

Luca Münzenberger

Will Luca Münzenberger get drafted this coming summer? It is a long shot, but with a great showing here, he could at least end up on a few teams’ boards.

Switzerland

Noah Meier

Lorenzo Canonica

Brian Zanetti

Attilio Biasca

Switzerland has four first-year-eligible players on their extended roster. Out of those four, Canonica and Meier will for sure make the final roster. Zanetti should also be in a good position to slide through the final cuts. All three are considered draftable talents by the draft analysts who have posted their first top-100 lists of the season.

Meier has played well in the Swiss second tier this season, and Canonica is a crafty, creative centre. Zanetti signed with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL and has been keeping in shape with his old team, Lugano, in the U20-Elit. An offensive-minded defenceman, it will be interesting to see if he can translate his point-production both to the OHL and to the World Juniors team.

USA

Matthew Beniers

Matty Beniers was a point-per-game player with the USNTDP two seasons in a row. He also wore an A last year as a testament to his leadership ability on that team. This winter, he is the only North American draft-eligible who made the cut for a final roster. In an uncertain draft year with no clearcut leaders, Beniers’s stock can soar with a great tournament.

If he indeed gets put on a line with Cole Caufield and Matt Boldy, expect that line to produce both points and smiles during the next few weeks. Beniers may not have the ultimate skill level of a true number-one NHL center, but with his skating, vision, and strong 200-foot game, he could still provide great value for a centre-hungry team near the top of the draft.

Russia

Daniil Chayka

Kirill Kirsanov

Russia’s blue line is inexperienced and without clear leaders. Could the solution be spelled Daniil Chayka? As a player with the Guelph Storm, he demonstrated his strong two-way game last year. This season, he has bounced between Red Army’s KHL, VHL and, Junior teams, waiting patiently for the OHL to start back up again. He has a lot of the traits you would want from a top-four defenceman in today’s game. He skates well, can use his big body when needed, and can provides stability in his own zone as well as put up offensive numbers. Look for Chayka to have a breakout tournament.

Kirill Kirsanov missed the cutoff date for the 2020 Draft by a hair’s width. This season has served him well though, so he surely wouldn’t complain about that. After playing all of last year in the MHL with SKA’s Junior team, he has now featured regularly in the KHL with the Saint Petersburg giant. He is another player who could make a leap up draft boards and end up as a first-rounder with a strong finish to the season.

Czech Republic

Stanislav Svozil

The offensively gifted Stanislav Svozil is the most talented defenceman the Czechs have fostered in years. Recently, analysts have started nitpicking his game since he hasn’t taken as big a leap this year as most would have expected. Still, Svozil doesn’t turn 18 until January 17, and he already has over 50 Extraliga games to his resume.

Last year, he was awarded Rookie of the Year accolades after maintaining a blue-line spot with Kometa Brno throughout the season. Svozil has great puck skills and could become an efficient power-play quarterback in the future. At this point, his performances are uneven, but that is expected from a player as young as he is. Look for Svozil to get extended playing time on a Czech roster severely lacking offensive creativity off the blue line.

Austria

Senna Peeters

Yes, he may be an over-ager, but I wanted to include at least one Austrian player so that you would have something besides Marco Rossi to watch during the alpine country’s games this Christmas. Peeters was born in the sleeping hockey giant that is Belgium and has had his formative years in different organizations throughout Germany, Austria, USA, and Canada before landing in Ängelholm, Sweden a couple of months ago.

A quick adapter, Peeters has kept up a goal-per-game pace thus far with supreme talent developers Rögle BK’s U20-team and could facilitate for Rossi with some much needed secondary scoring in the WJC.

Sweden

Jesper Wallstedt

Oskar Olausson

Last but not least, we have the best hockey nation in the world. The magnificent Three Crowns from Sweden continue their fabulous talent development by sending two potential first-round selections to Edmonton. Two could have become considerably more, but players like Simon Edvinsson, Fabian Lysell, and Isak Rosén will have to wait for their turn.

The same goes for Djurgården center William Eklund, who misses the tournament due to a positive COVID test just days before departure.

Jesper Wallstedt is the brightest shining star of next year’s goalie class — not only with Swedish bias in mind. He is considered to be a talent in the same supreme range as Yaroslav Askarov and Spencer Knight. If nothing extraordinary happens in the upcoming months, he will be the first goaltender chosen in the summer.

Wallstedt is already playing in the SHL for top team Luleå and has yet to look out of place. Cool, collected, and poised, Wallstedt has already made history as the youngest netminder ever to play in the SHL and is currently being compared to Sweden’s greatest goalie of all time, Henrik Lundqvist.

Oskar Olausson is more of a surprise on the roster, but in no way a negative one. He has played lights-out in the U20 league for HV71 this season, keeping up a pace of over 1.5 points per game. This has naturally made him interesting for a senior squad which is dealing with severe struggles to stay afloat.

Olausson received his first call-up in November and ended up scoring three goals in three games before he was awarded with a senior-team contract until 2023. He skates well, shoots well, and has looked mature beyond his years in a limited SHL sample.


So, will the first selection of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft be playing in this year’s World Juniors? Probably not. But for us Montreal Canadiens fans, it is considerably more interesting to look at players who might be available further down in the first round. Because if everything goes as expected this season, the Canadiens shouldn’t be in the running for one of the higher draft picks come July.