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2020 World Juniors: Players to Watch in Group A

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Ottawa has 11 picks (so far!) in the 2020 Draft. Here’s who to keep an eye on during the best hockey tournament of the year.

NHL: JUN 29 Ottawa Senators Development Camp Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s Christmas World Juniors eve! With 11 picks in the 2020 NHL Draft and more expected to come, this Sens’ performance this June will go a long way in determining the success of the current rebuild.

While scouting hockey is a full-time job with plenty of travel, the annual IIHF U20 World Championships allows for scouts to get a sense of what the elite players in the draft class do against other nations’ top stars over a two-week period.

While our Open Thread will be your place to discuss the tournament, and contains details on the tournament schedule and the Sens players in action, we thought it’d be a good idea to put together a companion piece of draft-eligible players that you might want to keep your eye on.

The players will be sorted by team, and if you’re looking to watch, you should know the groups for the round-robin play:

Group A: Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland

Group B: Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, USA

Today’s post will feature the players from Group A, while tomorrow morning’s post will highlight players in Group B.

Finland

Lassi Thomson’s Finnish squad is without their top 2020 prospect, Anton Lundell, who’s out of the tournament with an injury. They do, however, feature seven draft-eligible players — all of whom have been passed over once already in 2019. It’s a group that has a lot to play for.

Two of the seven are goaltenders, Kari Piiroinen and Jasper Patrikainen, who will be competing for the backup job behind Colorado’s Justus Annunen. Neither has stats that wow my amateur eye, and while the Sens have liked to use at least one pick on a goalie in past drafts, I don’t know if I’d spend my resources here. Ditto on defence, where Peetro Seppälä appears to be the odd player out behind seven drafted prospects.

At forward, the three centres not named Rasmus Kupari will be interesting to watch. Ville Petman has played 24 games in Liiga this year, and Aatu Räty is a likely top-five pick in 2021 (!), but is on the team to get his feet wet.

Kristian Tanus stands at 5-foot-8 and 159 pounds — likely the reason he was undrafted last year — as he finished eighth in Mestis scoring with 13G, 31A for a 1.33 points-per-game. Only 11 U20 players scored 10+ points in the Mestis last year, and Tanus’ production is first all-time in Finland’s second league. He’s currently T-7 in U20 Liiga scoring with eight points. Look for Tanus to use his high hockey sense to be positionally sound, and check out his vision on display when he gets the puck in the middle of the ice. He’ll likely be outmuscled along the boards and isn’t the best skater, but could be an interesting late-round pick if a team can develop his skating to an average or above-average level.

You can also look for right-wingers Joonas Oden and Eemil Erholtz to generate energy for this group. American-born Oden had 11 points in 20 Liiga games in his first draft-eligible season, and is a fleet-footed skater with a hard shot. The high-scoring Erholtz finished as a T-5 scorer in Finland’s top U20 league last year, and has five points in 17 games this year. He’s smart, with good hands, and is defensively responsible.

Kazakhstan

Led by Artur Gatiyatov (8P in 6GP), the Kazakhs survived last year’s World Juniors, eliminating Mads Søgaard’s Danes in the relegation double-header to stay in the top bracket.

Goaltender Maxim Pavlenko, defenceman Artyom Korolyov, as well as forwards Stanislav Alexandrov and Ansar Shaikhmeddenov are all first-time eligible in 2020; the rest of the team is all second or third-time eligible as Kazakhstan does not feature a drafted prospect.

On defence, expect Danil Butenko to get offensive minutes. The 5-foot-11 rearguard is the team’s top point getter from the backend in the MHL this season, and is likely their powerplay quarterback. He’s extremely aggressive with and without the puck, often racking up a lot of penalty minutes along the way, but has the confidence to try moves that could lead to some highlight reel goals.

At forward, the trio of captain Oleg Boiko, Dias Guseinov, and Maxim Musorov are expected to be the most dangerous offensive group. All three suit up for Snezhyne Barsy Astana in the MHL, and are the team’s top scorers as 2001-born 18-year-olds.

Slovakia

Led by their lone drafted prospect, Tampa Bay’s Maxim Cajkovic, the Slovaks are going to be in tough this year.

In net, Sherbrooke’s Samuel Hlavaj was the country’s starter in both the U18s and the U20s last year while playing his regular season hockey in Lincoln (USHL). He’s been performing much better in the QMJHL this year, with his 0.925 save percentage over 22 games leading all goaltenders. Expect the 6-foot-4 netminder to face a lot of pucks and try to steal a couple of games. He may be worth a late round pick in 2020.

On defence, first-time eligible Samuel Knazko is the most intriguing of the bunch. He played for Slovakia in the U18s as a 15-year-old in 2017-18, spending time in Slovakia’s U18 and U20 leagues that season. As a 16-year-old, he moved over to Finland to play for Markus Nurmi’s TPS U20 team, and was the top scorer among U17 defencemen. This year, his 22 points in 33 games is 7th among all defencemen in scoring. He plays a calm, stick-focused style of defence, and is adept at using his hands to navigate the puck through tight spaces or carry it up the ice. Given that he’s been playing above his age group his whole life, it’ll be interesting to see how he fares in this tournament, and what his trajectory looks like after he’s drafted.

At forward, I thought Oliver Okuliar should’ve been drafted last year. He co-led Slovakia’s strong U18 squad two years ago with Cajkovic, and last season, he put up a solid 42 points in 66 games with Sherbrooke. This year, he’s over with Lethbridge in the WHL, and his 42 points in 32 games is outpacing players like Ottawa’s Mark Kastelic. Daniel V. Tkac, playing in the BCHL, and Michal Mrázik, playing in Sweden, are also interesting players to watch as 19-year-olds in this tournament.

Sweden

Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz are two names that you’re now familiar with thanks to Colin’s 2020 draft previews. Both of Sweden’s offensive dynamos are expected to be top-10 picks — potentially even top-five — and will play major roles in this tournament. While they’re going to start the tournament with NYR prospect Karl Henriksson on the team’s third-line, expect them to receive ample powerplay time on a unit that’s always dangerous. Raymond was injured a few weeks ago and appeared doubtful to make the tournament, but has rested through Sweden’s pre-tournament games and is expected to be in.

The team’s fourth-line may feature three players who were passed over last year in Hugo Gustafsson, Linus Nässén, and Linus Öberg. Nässén is the one with the most international experience, suiting up in the U17s and U18s previously, and playing 27 SHL games in Frölunda last season. Öberg has spent 20 games there this season with Örebro.

Switzerland

The Swiss feature four drafted players in goaltender Akira Schmid, defencemen Nico Gross and Tim Berni, and forward Valentin Nussbaumer. That core group is expected to lead an older team that only features five players born in 2001 or 2002.

On defence, Gatineau’s David Aebischer stood out to me in last year’s tournament. The right-handed defenceman ran their top powerplay unit, and was aggressive in the offensive zone. He’s got great lateral mobility, and can utilize the boards to keep pucks alive. He’s stepped up his game this year, with 13 points in 18 games while wearing a letter in Gatineau. The Swiss are also expecting big things out of Janis Jérôme-Moser this tournament. He’s played internationally in last year’s U20, the 2018 U18s, and last year’s world championship (!!!). He’s a mature, defensive defenceman whose spent the last two seasons fully in Switzerland’s top mens league (NLA) with EHC Biel-Bienne, and will be expected to lead the PK this year.

At forward, the team’s only first-year draft-eligible is Simon Knak, who’s currently playing as an import in Portland (WHL). Knak captained the U18s last year as a double-underager, and led his age group in scoring in Switzerland’s top U20 league. This year, he’s got 18 points in 25 games in a third-line role, and is adept at using his size to win battles along the boards against North American opponents. You can read more about Knak and his transition to North America here.

Of the overagers, Kyen Sopa appears to be the one whose development hasn’t stagnated this year. Sopa is above a point-per-game with Niagara (OHL) this season, playing on a Philip Tomasino and Akil Thomas-led squad that opens up some room for his shifty, creative play. He’s reliable defensively, and while he could stand to work on his shot and his skating, he’s been unafraid to drive tough areas this season.


Check back tomorrow for a preview of the players to watch in Group B. Happy holidays!