5 NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2023 World Junior Championships

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIDecember 23, 2022

5 NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2023 World Junior Championships

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    January 05 2015: Connor McDavid (17) of Team Canada celebrates goal during Canada's 5-4 win over Russia at Gold Medal game at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    John Crouch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    When it comes to the next big thing, everyone wants to be there first.

    So when it comes to the NHL and its superstars, among the best places to get in on the ground floor is the annual IIHF World Junior Championships.

    The tournament begins the day after Christmas and will feature the best prospects in the world who've not yet celebrated a 20th birthday.

    Notable recent alumni include one Connor McDavid, who's won four scoring titles in seven NHL seasons and today leads the league in goals, assists and points.

    But he was just 18 when he put the finishing touches on his pre-professional legend and led Canada to a gold medal in the 2015 event at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

    Teams from Austria, Canada, Czechia, Germany and Sweden make up half of the 10-team draw, while the other half is represented by Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, Switzerland and the United States. They'll engage in pool play through December 31 before whittling the field down to a champion with quarterfinals, semifinals and ultimately a title game on January 5.

    The B/R hockey team looked at the rosters and put together a list of the best prospects in the tournament. Take a look at what we've come up with and drop a thought or two of your own in the comments section.

Connor Bedard

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    EDMONTON, AB - AUGUST 20: Connor Bedard #16 of Canada skates during the gold medal game against Finland in the IIHF World Junior Championship on August 20, 2022 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (Photo by Andy Devlin/ Getty Images)
    Andy Devlin/ Getty Images

    Here's a hint: When the buzz around NHL teams is that they're willing to tank an entire regular season just to get a better shot at drafting a player, that guy's pretty good.

    So that means Connor Bedard is pretty good. And probably a lot more.

    The North Vancouver native is still just six months past his 17th birthday, but he's already had the "future of hockey" label hung on him by The Hockey News, and he's done nothing to slow the hype train even as he's risen through the ranks.

    A broken right wrist suffered a few years ago prompted additional work to strengthen his top hand, which has improved an already deadly shot.

    The 5'10", right-shot center has 27 goals and 64 points in his first 28 games for the WHL's Regina Pats this season, a scoring pace that somehow projects him beyond the 51 goals and 100 points he produced in 62 games for the Pats in 2021-22.

    Those numbers compare well to the 172 points he hung on Canadian Sport School Hockey League foes across 66 games from 2018 to 2020, and, lest anyone forget, he had four goals and eight points in seven games while winning gold with Team Canada at the 2022 event.

    Trust us. If the Canadians manage to repeat and win their third title in four years, he'll have played a significant role. And if your favorite NHL team's GM is calling his name next June in Nashville, you'll be happy.

Shane Wright

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    FRISCO, TEXAS - MAY 06: Shane Wright #15 of Canada controls the puck against Russia in the third period during the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Gold Medal Game at Comerica Center on May 06, 2021 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Shane Wright was tabbed by many to go first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft before falling to fourth. He then produced just two points in a brief eight-game stay with the Seattle Kraken.

    It wasn't a storybook start. But if you think that's all there is to Wright's story, think again.

    Still just 18 years old until the IIHF tournament's penultimate day, the 6'0", left-shot center is lauded for his superior hockey sense and a knack for being in the right place at the right time and also making the players around him better.

    He scored four goals on five shots in his first three games with Seattle's Coachella Valley affiliate in the AHL, a blitz that mirrored his production across two seasons in the OHL during which he scored 71 goals and had 160 points in 121 games with the Kingston Frontenacs.

    Additional evidence of his attitude and impact on teammates came Sunday when he was named Team Canada's captain, a move that pleased Kraken GM Ron Francis.

    He's penciled in to play with this year's consensus No. 1, Bedard, on the top line.

    "I was talking to some Hockey Canada people the other day, and they told me his attitude has been great, his work ethic has been great and just been really good for them all around," Francis told the Seattle Times. "So, he went there with a great attitude, ready to put in the work and this will be another big step for him in the weeks ahead."

Adam Fantilli

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    Michigan's Adam Fantilli plays during an NCAA hockey game on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
    AP Photo/Al Goldis

    It's one of those years when finishing second might not be so bad.

    Though teams are justifiably salivating over the prospect of getting the aforementioned Connor Bedard with the first overall pick in next summer's draft, slotting in for the second pick and a chance to select Adam Fantilli won't be a bad consolation prize.

    The 6'2", 195-pound forward is a freshman at the University of Michigan who has gotten his collegiate career off to a prolific start with 11 goals and 15 assists through 16 games.

    But if you think he's just a burly, "bull in a china shop" type, think again.

    The 18-year-old is one of the best 2023 draft-eligible skaters and has the speed to beat unsuspecting defensemen around the outside—in addition to using his size to bully them off the wall to get pucks to high-danger areas in front of the net.

    Two years in the USHL resulted in 55 goals and 110 points with the Chicago Steel, and Fantilli was also good for a goal and six points in four games with a fifth-place Team Canada at the 2022 world under-18 event in Germany.

    He's likely to slot in as a second-line winger for Canada at the upcoming event, and it'll provide a big stage for him to prove the gap between him and Bedard isn't so vast.

Luke Hughes

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    MONCTON, NB - DECEMBER 21: Luke Hughes#43 for Team USA skates puck from back of net against team Sweden in the third period during the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship game at Avenir Centre on December 21, 2022 in Moncton, Canada. (Photo by Dale Preston/Getty Images)
    Dale Preston/Getty Images

    Luke Hughes has two brothers playing in the NHL.

    So, if he simply reaches the level of his older siblings—Jack with the New Jersey Devils and Quinn with the Vancouver Canucks—it'll be an impressive accomplishment.

    But the ceiling for the youngest of the Hughes boys, still just 19, may be even higher.

    A 6'2", 190-pound defenseman with elite skating ability, Luke went fourth overall to the Devils in the 2021 draft and showed some of the family chops with 39 points in 41 games as a freshman at Michigan. For his efforts, he became the only freshman to earn top-10 placement in Hobey Baker Award voting.

    He's been only slightly less prolific as a sophomore this season, producing three goals and 18 points in 20 games for the star-studded Wolverines. Hughes has taken turns in a Team USA uniform at three different events, earning a silver medal at the U-17 tournament in 2019 before spending time at both the worlds and the world juniors in 2022.

    His vast international experience led to him being named Team USA's captain, and his college production and draft position have him in a high-profile slot for the upcoming event.

    "Anytime you can wear the USA jersey," Hughes told NHL.com, "it's an honor, and I'm super excited. I'm really excited to get started with that."

Seamus Casey

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    LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - JANUARY 21: Dylan Silverstein and #3 Seamus Casey of United States celebrates the win after\ Men's 6-Team Tournament Semifinals Game between United States and Canada of the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics on January 21, 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo by RvS.Media/Robert Hradil/Getty Images)
    RvS.Media/Robert Hradil/Getty Images

    Yes, the University of Michigan will have some impact in the tournament.

    The aforementioned Fantilli is a surefire first-round NHL draft pick and Hughes has already been one, going fourth overall to New Jersey in 2021. But the productivity of the Wolverines isn't limited to the highest of the high-profile players.

    Case in point: Freshman Seamus Casey, who'll join Hughes on Team USA.

    A native of the non-traditional hockey hotbed of Fort Myers, Florida, Casey saw 45 players come off the 2022 draft board before he was selected in the second round, also by the Devils.

    Still 18 years old until three days after the tournament ends, the 5'10", 178-pounder is a right-shot defenseman on the Michigan blue line who has produced 16 points in his first 20 games with the nation's seventh-ranked team.

    He was scoreless in four games in the world U-16 tournament before managing three goals and three assists in six games while winning silver at the U-18 event earlier this year.

    And as Team USA coach Rand Pecknold sees it, he's ready for the next step.

    "The biggest thing, he's just defending better," he said after the team's initial selection camp practice session. "He's always been an elite player. … He's maturing at a nice rate. He's making really good decisions, whether it's retrievals, the power play. I thought he was excellent."