Standouts shine at U18s

Special To FC2017 Draft Center, International Events

Photo by Aaron Bell | CHL Images

The IIHF U18 World Championship gives NHL draft-eligible talent one final chance to stand out among their peers.

They didn’t disappoint.

Team USA took home the gold from Slovakia, but the Americans were not the only ones who stood out. Several 2017-eligible prospects of varying nationalities took their chance and ran with it.

Here’s who impressed:

MacKenzie Entwistle, C, Canada, 6-3, 181, 07-14-1999
Team Canada bowed to Sweden in the tournament’s quarterfinal, but disappointing performances by some of Canada’s top draft hopefuls throughout the tournament gave Entwistle a chance to shine. A big-bodied two-way forward, Entwistle battles hard and never gives up, giving him an edge in board battles and corner play. He is an aggressive forechecker who just won’t back off, and is very responsible in his own end. Entwistle possesses quick hands that let him stickhandle through traffic, and can create danger with powerful shots. He has excellent vision that allows him to get open for scoring chances or set up teammates for shots.

Draft Outlook: Entwistle hasn’t produced much all season, looking more like a future bottom-six guy than a scorer at the NHL level. But leading Canada with team-high four goals and seven points doesn’t happen by accident. Entwistle has some offensive upside in him that could make him an early-to-mid second-round selection.

Ostap Safin, C, Czech Republic, 6-4, 194, 02-11-1999
Safin is a big, strong playmaking center with great upside. He’s an excellent skater with great speed and mobility despite his large frame. He plays a 200-foot game and can have an impact at both ends of the ice. Thanks to outstanding vision and puck skills, Safin has great offensive upside as a playmaker with prototypical NHL size. He is incredibly tough to beat in the corners and can set up all different kinds of scoring chances from there, or he’ll just beat opponents with speed before making a play.

Draft Outlook: Safin has all the tools to be successful, but his draft-year production probably wasn’t good enough to get him into the first round. Yet, with his size, skating and hockey sense, there might be a team that picks him up that early. If not, he is likely to be a top 50 selection.

Miro Heiskanen, D, Finland, 6-0, 174, 07-18-1999
Heiskanen was perhaps the best player of the tournament. The two-way defenseman displayed virtually no flaws. He is an elite skater with equally great hockey sense who stands out both in the defensive and offensive zones. Heiskanen’s skating and active stick allows him to defend the rush, and he has excellent defensive awareness, always putting himself into perfect position. At the U18s, he also proved he can make plays offensively, carrying the puck with confidence and distributing perfect, accurate passes. Heiskanen also sees the ice well offensively and pinches at the perfect time to get set up for a scoring chance.

Draft Outlook: Heiskanen was a potential top-15 pick all year long but continuously moved up. He was excellent at the world juniors and arguably the best player of the U18s. Don’t expect him to fall past 10th overall, and don’t be surprised if he goes off the board in the top three.

Kristian Vesalainen, RW, Finland, 6-4, 209, 06-01-1999
Vesalainen won the tournament scoring title, and he did so in dominant fashion. Thanks to his size, speed and puck skills, he can rush past opponents and drive to the net like a true power forward. He possesses an excellent release on his snap shot and wrist shot, and his shots are extremely powerful. Vesalainen is not afraid to go to the dirty areas either, and battles for every lost puck. He has a very mature frame that he constantly uses to his advantage in battles and to protect the puck. Plus, he is aggressive on the forecheck and quick on the backcheck, doing everything coaches want to see.

Draft Outlook: Though Vesalainen dominated large portions of the tournament, there are still red flags remaining. One, he tends to try too do much on his own and wants to make something happen every time he touches the puck, even when the opportunity is not there, and often causing turnovers by forcing plays. Two, he tends to disappear against more physical competition. The sky is the limit for this young man, but cracking the top 10 might still be unrealistic.

Joni Ikonen, C, Finland, 6-0, 179, 04-14-1999
Everybody was so busy hyping Vesalainen that his center, Ikonen, flew a bit under the radar. Ikonen has elite vision and playmaking abilities, allowing him to set up dangerous scoring chances every shift. He has a silky pair of mitts that let him stickhandle through traffic and make it look easy. Thanks to excellent edge work and agility, he can separate himself from opponents in high-pressure situations. And while he thrives to be an elite playmaker, he also stood out with heavy, accurate one-timers and a strong wrist shot.

Draft Outlook: Ikonen is a bit on the smaller side and needs to gain strength, but his upside is extremely promising. With a scoring winger like Vesalainen, Ikonen can be an elite playmaker, but he also has all the tools to be a big-time scorer himself. Get ready to hear his name called as soon as the second round begins.

Ivan Chekhovich, LW, Russia, 5-10, 172, 01-04-1999
Chekhovich highlighted Russia’s top line along with 2018 top prospect Andrei Svechnikov, and the two showed some incredible chemistry that took Russia to the semifinal. Chekhovich is a speedy, skilled winger who can get opposing defensemen into trouble consistently. He has good vision and can distribute pucks very well, but he is also an excellent shooter who can get the puck off his stick and into the net in no time. Chekhovich displays great decision making, as he doesn’t force plays but rather waits for opportunities to develop before playing a pass or shooting the puck. He’s an all-around offensive player who has all the tools to be successful.

Draft Outlook: Chekhovich has some work to do before he can play in the NHL, especially regarding his play away from the puck. He also needs to get stronger to succeed at the next level. So, despite his high offensive upside, Chekhovich is likely a third round candidate who will need some development time.

Adam Ruzicka, C, Slovakia, 6-4, 209, 05-11-1999
Everyone loves big centers, and Ruzicka is a very promising one at that. He uses his size and reach to his advantage, protecting the puck extremely well and winning puck battles. Ruzicka has excellent mobility for his size, possesses a heavy shot with a quick release and displays good vision and playmaking ability as well. He will likely be a shooter rather than a playmaker at the next level, and could develop into a goaltender’s nightmare.

Draft Outlook: Ruzicka hasn’t put up crazy numbers in OHL or international play, but he displayed all the tools needed to succeed. Perhaps the only knock on him is that he needs to improve his defensive play and get a little more engaged on a consistent basis. But with that, he is still a candidate for the second round.

Erik Brannstrom, D, 5-10, 179, 09-02-1999
Sweden has a promising D-group, and Brannstrom jumped into the spotlight. He is a dynamic offensive defenseman with great scoring upside from the back end. He has an excellent release and his wrist shots and one-timers are heavy and accurate. Brannstrom displays strong vision in the offensive zone, distributing the puck well with accurate passes. Expect this player to net a lot of points at the next level.

Draft Outlook: If you are looking for a strong defensive player, don’t pick Brannstrom — although he isn’t bad in his own end by any means. If you are looking for a dynamic point producer from the backend, however, look no further. Brannstrom could easily make his way into the top half of the first round after this strong tournament.

Filip Westerlund, D, Sweden, 5-11, 181, 04-17-1999
Westerlund took every opportunity to raise his stock. He is a quick and mobile skater, which helps him keep a tight gap to defend the rush. Westerlund has good defensive awareness and plays responsibly in his own end, using his smallish frame to pin players against the boards. He is an excellent passer with great vision on the breakout and in the offensive zone, giving him solid offensive upside.

Draft Outlook: Westerlund is a two-way blueliner who is not elite in any aspect of the game, but consistently stands out by being a smart, effective player. His size hurts him defensively and he doesn’t have the same offensive upside as someone like Brannstrom, but he looks like good value as a third-round candidate.

Max Gildon, D, USA, 6-3, 187, 05-17-1999
Gildon seemed to project as a two-way defenseman who mostly excels defending the rush and his team’s net, thanks to great skating and excellent stick work. But, he used the U18s to prove he can do more than that — like scoring a hat trick against the Czech Republic. Gildon displays excellent vision and passing ability, playing crisp, accurate outlet passes over varying distances and setting up scoring chances in the offensive zone. He has good speed and carries the puck with a lot of confidence, constantly checking for space to open up. Gildon was a consistent threat in the offensive zone thanks to accurate set-up passes and an accurate wrist shot.

Draft Outlook: Gildon is more than a defensive player and he made sure everyone knows it. He doesn’t have the same type of offensive upside as someone like Brannstrom either, but he can be a very smart, reliable player in all three zones. This was Gildon’s final move to establish himself as an early second-round pick.

Article by Janik Beichler