Canada did precisely what they set out to do this month in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, capturing their 8th straight Ivan Hlinka tournament. Think about that- the 2008 gold medal-winning roster in the current streak featured Taylor Hall and Matt Duchene on it, and every year since has boasted a who’s who of top NHL draft picks who have gone on to become some of the best players in the league since (Tyler Seguin was a beast in the 2009 Hlinka and Dougie Hamilton stepped up raised his profile as a legit top-10 selection in the 2010 tournament, and Nathan MacKinnon set the all-time points mark with 11 in 5 games in 2012 for example).
Why is Canada so dominant? The answer is pretty simple- because they can take the very best players from the CHL after they get together each August in Calgary for an Under-18 camp around the same time that the WJC/Under-20 camp is ongoing. This year- a pair of high-profile Canadians in forward Logan Brown (son of former NHLer Jeff Brown) and defenseman Sean Day– did not make the cut and were left at home (no Jakob Chychrun either- but he has Canada-U.S. dual citizenship and has yet to determine which country he will represent internationally- as does Brown for that matter).
Not surprisingly, Canada didn’t miss a beat- running the table and edging Russia in a close semi-final match (2-1) before bringing the house against Sweden for the gold in a 7-3 final that aside from a couple of quick garbage time goals by Alex Nylander (son of Michael, brother of Leafs prospect William) and William Fallstrom at garbage time- wasn’t that close. Canada rules this tournament because they can bring their top talent without having to lose players to the CHL playoffs the way they do in April- when the U.S. NTDP flips the script and brings their best U18 players, guys who have spent the better part of the previous two seasons together building chemistry, learning the systems and playing against older talent in the USHL and NCAA. USA does not send the NTDP to the Hlinka- instead putting together a team of the top players from the June Select 17 USA Hockey Festival.
The nice thing about the Hlinka is- it serves as the harbinger of the new hockey season and the next NHL draft. For example, Canada boasted 11 players in Red Line Report’s top-40 projected picks for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft published in the June 2015 Draft Guide. Of those- six were in the top-15. An additional five first-round projections from the USA, Russia, Finland and Sweden all skated in the tournament as well. Now, there will be plenty of movement on the rankings between now and next June when the players actually come off the board in Buffalo, but it gives you an idea about the importance of the Hlinka as a draft-eligible showcase. Late ’97-born players did not participate, and higher-end guys like Jesse Puljujarvi for Finland skated at Lake Placid earlier this month as part of the USA National Jr. Eval Camp- you can look him up in earlier blog posts.
So with that in mind- here are my thoughts on some of the players after streaming and watching some (not all) of the key Hlinka games online.
Dante Fabbro, D Penticton Vees (BCHL)- One word to describe this right-shot (the only one on the CAN roster) d-man: smooth. He exhibited poise with and without the puck on the blueline- making good decisions in the gold medal game and rifling the puck in from the point. He didn’t get any points, but the talent is clearly there. It’s no surprise that he’s a solid early first-round projection, but the fact that he’s playing in the BCHL and not the WHL is.
Tyson Jost, LW Penticton Vees (BCHL)- Fabbro’s BCHL teammate and Vees’ captain was a little buzzsaw in that final game- playing with a lot of energy and cashing in on a nice goal that he picked his own rebound up on. Not sure what Penticton is selling up there, but it must be good to have two top NHL draft prospects skating for them. Jost has average size, but he’s fast and skilled. For more on where these two might end up in 2016-17, check out Mike Chambers’ Avs blog post in the Denver Post from June:
Sam Steel, C Regina Pats (WHL)- I really like this kid. He moves in straight lines, takes pucks directly to the net and plays with a burr under his saddle. Another average-sized Albertan like Jost, he had a nice body of work before the WHL and scored 54 points in 61 games for the Pats as a rookie. Watch for him to make a big jump this season production-wise.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW Cape Breton (QMJHL)- Big-bodied forward who looked it in the final game, powering through traffic and making plays in the offensive end. His dad was a longtime minor leaguer and fourth-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1989 (the same year they drafted Mats Sundin first overall, btw).
Michael McLeod, C Mississauga (OHL)- Big pivot showed some promise here. I like the way he handles the puck in tight spaces and he was always around the net- protecting it and creating space for his linemates. Looks like a pretty solid third-line center with upside to be more if he can pick up a step or two.
Jacob Cederholm, D HV71 (Sweden Jr)- At 6-3, he’s a big, mobile defender who will likely get bigger and more powerful as he physically matures. Was impressed with his play, though Sweden didn’t have much to show for in a game dominated by the Canadians. Looks like a future mobile shutdown horse for whichever team gets him, but there isn’t much of an offensive element emerging from him at present.
Alex Nylander, LW AIK Allsvenskan)- Have to admit- not a fan. Skilled? Absolutely. Too much time on the perimeter, didn’t like the body language. He can skate through a maze of players, but didn’t seem all that inclined to use his teammates. Hoping it was just one game, because he’s unquestionably talented but looked soft, lacking in heart in this one. Sweden needed a better showing from one of the top players on its roster.
William Fallstrom, C/LW Djurgårdens IF (Sweden Jr)- Brother of former Bruins prospect Alex Fallstrom is a University of Minnesota recruit and plays an opposite style to his older sibling. Fallstrom caught my attention with his speed, quickness and willingness to compete/take pucks into traffic. I liked him in a limited viewing and thought- he can’t be Alex Fallstrom’s bro because he’s such a different forward. Wrong, Kirk!
Markus Niemelainen, D Saginaw Spirit (OHL)- Huge (6-5) rearguard will be a well-known draft commodity in the OHL next season, and he looks to have a North American-style of game already. Looks like his footwork will need to get better, but has a long, fluid stride which serves him well in open ice.
Timmy Gettinger, LW Soo Greyhounds (OHL)- Zach Senyshyn’s OHL teammate is from Ohio and has a lot of raw NHL tools- 6-5 frame, pushing 220 pounds and the ability to drive to the net at will when going up against his peers at this stage. He was the lone bright spot in a decisive loss to Finland- going straight in and deflecting a centering pass home. He’s not a high-end skater, but is rangy and doesn’t need a significant speed boost- just has to improve his first few steps and lateral agility.
Kailer Yamamoto, C/RW Spokane Chiefs (WHL)- Late ’98 (2017 NHL draft eligible) is a talented little pivot who is small (5-8) but dynamic. It showed here, as he posted 4g and 7 points in four games. He’s got terrific hands, quickness and is a creative table setter and finisher. After 57 points as a rookie with the Chiefs, bigger things expected of him going forward. Scouts will have two more years to dissect and his game, unfortunately.
John Leonard, LW Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)- One of my personal faves coming out of Springfield Cathedral of D1 Mass high school didn’t make much of an impact, but he no doubt gained an appreciation for what awaits him in the USHL after making the jump this year from high school hockey where he pretty much had his way at that level. NHL scouts will appreciate that he’s taking himself out of the comfort zone to challenge himself in that league in his draft season, and I think the UMass Minutemen have themselves a future key contributor in the hometown Amherst son.
There were many more players out there- but I think this gives you a good taste of the Hlinka and is a solid starting point in August. So much more to be done between now and next June (a little under 2 years from now in Yamamoto’s case).