Ranking 8 Top Players at the U18 IIHF Championship

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 2, 2021

Ranking 8 Top Players at the U18 IIHF Championship

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The 2021 NHL draft may be the strangest one yet. It will be difficult to top the weirdness of the 2020 virtual draft, but the 2021 draft will likely be virtual as well.

    Not only have prospects had to take different routes to get to the draft than they typically would, but scouts have also had to rely more heavily on video scouting than ever before. That is why the 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship is so important this year. Finally, scouts can see this class of 17- and 18-year-olds in person.

    Players from the CHL went over to play in Europe after the cancellation of the league's 2020-21 season, so scouts were forced to rely on some clips of kids playing in Slovakia or Sweden. That is fine, but it leaves a lot to be desired. Video quality wasn't always high, scouts can't see how players react to certain situations, they can see exactly nothing at ice level, can't see warmups, the bench or players off the puck.

    The tournament began Monday in the greater Dallas area, with Group A playing games in Plano and Group B playing in Frisco. It will run through Thursday. The kids finally get a chance to play competitive hockey against others of the same age and skill level, and scouts can finally see them in person.

    This might be the last chance for this year's draft-eligible players to be seen by anyone from the NHL live before the draft, which is slated for July 23-24. The scouting combine, typically held in Buffalo, New York, may be canceled once again because of the logistical issues it poses. There will be a showcase in Erie, Ontario, for draft-eligible players who missed out on much of the CHL season, but a good showing at the World Championship is crucial to the players in Texas.

    The COVID-19 pandemic may be loosening its grip on society as vaccines are distributed more frequently, but the hurdles it poses to health, safety and travel are still very much in place—especially when it comes to sports.

    So, with that said, let's take a look at a few draft-eligible prospects in Texas who are turning heads. Here are eight of the best, ranked.

8. USA D Aidan Hreschuk

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    Last year, Brendan Brisson, the son of NHL agent Pat Brisson, became the first California-born player to be drafted in the first round when the Vegas Golden Knights took him with the 29th overall pick.

    Aidan Hreschuk, a Long Beach native who also went through the same Junior Kings program Brisson came up in, could go anywhere from the late first round to the third round. He's already had a strong performance in the first four games of the tournament and could improve his draft stock as the Americans progress throughout the tournament.

    Hreschuk is a quiet, diligent worker who improved some of the details of his game this year with the U.S. National Team Development Program. The 5'11" defenseman can diffuse the rush on the defensive end of the ice and join it on the offensive end.

    "His overall game has improved and he's continued to mature," Team USA coach Dan Muse said of the blueliner. "His stick detail defensively, his gaps, he's a more confident player on the offensive blue line. And it's not just in terms of taking shots, but in terms of moving across the blue line, finding little spots and holes to join the rush. He understands those are all identity traits of him as an individual."

    He's headed to Boston College in the fall to further his development. Should he make it to the NHL, he will become the seventh Long Beach-born player to do so.

7. USA D Sean Behrens

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    Luke Hughes, the brother of New Jersey Devils' center and 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes, had to pull out of the tournament in order to have surgery on a tendon in his foot. Hughes could still end up getting chosen in the top five, but the player taking the minutes in his absence is raising his draft stock in Texas.

    Sean Behrens might be undersized at 5'9" and 174 pounds, but smaller, speedier defensemen have found a role in the NHL in recent years as the game has evolved into one dominated by speed and skill.

    Behrens isn't the best skater, but he's got some good offensive upside and is a defensively responsible two-way blueliner. He opened the tournament with a three-point game in a 7-6 loss to Russia. Thursday night against the Czech Republic, he upended a player about five inches taller than him. The competitiveness is obvious the minute he steps on the ice.

    The Chicago-area native will head to the University of Denver next fall.

6. Canada F Logan Stankoven

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    Another undersized player, the 5'8" Logan Stankoven makes up for his lack of height with other attributes. He's an alternate captain for Team Canada, and the coaching staff likes his energy, his drive and his ability to find the back of the net. 

    "He's a smaller player, plays with a lot of energy, got a lot of desire," coach Dave Barr said. "He's got a big heart, he wants to do what he can do to help us win, help Canada win, and that's why he's wearing the A."

    He only played a few games in the Western Hockey League this season because of the coronavirus-related shutdown, but he's been producing for Canada with five points in three games.

    Canada's best players can't enter the draft this season. Connor Bedard is a 16-year-old phenom and Shane Wright will be eligible next season. Stankoven and Francesco Pinelli, who had a hat trick and an assist for four points in a 7-0 rout of Switzerland on Friday, are garnering the most attention of all of the draft-eligible Canadian forwards.

5. Russia F Prokhor Poltapov

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    The best player at the entire tournament might be Matvei Michkov. He could be the next Nikita Kucherov or even better, and he's still only 18. He's teaming with Prokhor Poltapov, Nikita Chibrikov and Fyodor Svechkov to create a scary good offense. Poltapov scored twice in an 11-1 thrashing of the Czech Republic on Saturday night, and his goals were filthy.

    He's a power forward who plays the MHL, and scouts say those are a rarity in that league. He is extremely physical—almost too physical at times—doing everything it takes to get to the net. But once he's there, he has great hands and great vision, which can lead to a whole lot of goals.

    The Russians don't like to talk about individual performances or players, so it's tough to get much insight on Poltapov outside of scouting reports. But scouts say he's similar to Kucherov's Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Blake Coleman, which is a good comparison for the 5'11" winger, who has already appeared for CSKA in the KHL.

4. Finland F Ville Koivunen

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    Ville Koivunen has the third-most points in the tournament with nine (four goals, five assists) and two of them came in Finland's overtime loss to the U.S. on Saturday night. This is the kind of production expected from a player who scored 23 goals and totaled 49 points in just 38 games with Karpat U20 in Finland. 

    The Rookie of the Year in his league, the 17-year-old is already used to playing with older players and can handle players with more size and strength. The 6'0" winger is a key piece of Finland's power play, and he's lauded for his adaptability.

3. Canada D Brandt Clarke

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    One of the top defensemen in this year's draft class, Brandt Clarke moved from forward to defense when he was 11 and brings the skills of a top-line forward to the blue line. The 6'2", 190-pound, right-shot defenseman is extremely mobile and moves the puck well, but those forward skills come into play when he joins the rush.

    He prides himself on using a hard shot to start plays and models his game and his shot after Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg, per NHL.com's Mike G. Morreale.

    When the Ontario Hockey League shut down for the season, he to play in Slovakia. He scored five goals and assisted on 10 in 26 appearances, showcasing his excellent passing skills.

    Scouts like his combination of size, smarts and skills. Clarke's brother, Graeme, was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2019, so he's seen his brother go through this draft process and has an idea of what to expect.

    The Devils have two first-round picks, and they have a chance to either reunite the Clarke brothers or the Hughes brothers. Clarke should be a high first-round pick, and the Devils, a team that has long been in need of quality defensemen, could be an intriguing fit.

2. Russia F Nikita Chibrikov

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    One of the hardest shots showcased at the tournament has come from Nikita Chibrikov. He's extremely strong and puts all of his weight behind it. Scouts say the 5'10" right wing is quick, elusive and always finds himself in the high-danger areas.

    Chibrikov scored the overtime winner in the first game of the tournament to help Russia come back from a 5-1 deficit and beat the U.S. 7-6. He had three points in that game and hasn't slowed down. His record of 10 points is second only to Michko's 11.

    He split time between three levels this season in Russia, the KHL, VHL and MHL, so now he's playing against other players his own age, he's showing what he's capable of doing.

    However, his physicality crosses lines. He elbowed Team USA's Justin Janicke in the head during that first game, though he did take accountability for it with his team, which is an indicator he can control his temper and the physical nature of his game.

    Look for Chibrikov to go in the first round.

1. USA F Sasha Pastujov

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    He scored the overtime winner Saturday night to help Team USA defeat Finland, bringing the puck down the ice while taking on multiple defenders before making an unbelievable move to score and keep the U.S. in third place in Group B.

    Pastujov, who was born in Bradenton, Florida, but grew up in Northville, Michigan, and played his youth hockey in the Detroit area, leads the U.S. with seven points (four goals, three assists). The 6'0" winger has been an offensive force at nearly every level. As a 14-year-old, he had 42 points in 20 games. He scored 28 goals and assisted on 34 this past season with the U.S. National Team Development Program and another 10 goals and 16 assists during USHL play.

    He spurned the Michigan Wolverines and an opportunity to play with his two brothers, Michael and Nick Pastujov, to attend Notre Dame. With the way he's playing, he could end up being drafted in the first round before he heads to South Bend, Indiana.