BUFFALO – The whole idea coming into this year’s World Junior Championship was to give Brady Tkachuk some reps against the best teenagers in the world and groom him for a prime-time role for Team USA in 2019. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
This one went by the wayside in record time. And now instead of looking forward to having Tkachuk lead the Americans in next year’s tournament, they might not even have him. Because by that time, Tkachuk could be busy playing in the NHL. The World Junior Championship is one of many tools scouts use in assessing players for the draft, but it would be almost impossible to envision Tkachuk going anywhere out of the top five after his performance for Team USA, which won the bronze medal Friday afternoon with an 8-3 win over the Czech Republic.
Kieffer Bellows set an American goal scoring record with nine in the tournament, Trent Frederic scored four goals in the bronze medal game and Casey Mittelstadt led the team in points with 11. But you could easily make the argument that when you look at the entire body of work through the tournament, there was not a better Team USA player than Tkachuk. By the time the tournament ended, Tkachuk had three goals and nine points, but more importantly was on the ice in almost every crucial situation. He killed penalties, filled an offensive role and was out on the ice late in games when his team was protecting a lead. He played physically, as all Tkachuks are wont to do, and he firmly established himself in a group of players vying for the No. 2 spot in the draft behind consensus No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin.
“He’s probably going to go No. 1,” Tkachuk said of Dahlin. “He’s not fooling anybody. But I think I’m right there.”
He certainly is, along with Filip Zadina of the Czech Republic, Andrei Svechnikov of Russia (via the Barrie Colts) and slick Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist. That will be determined by the way each of them plays the rest of this season, but the early frontrunner according to most scouts is Svechnikov. But it’s fair to say there is no shortage of quality in the top five prospects for 2018. As for Tkachuk himself, he has a pretty good grasp on what scouts should see in him.
“I can play in any situation,” he said. “I can play 5-on-5, PK, power play, 6-on-5. I’m just versatile and I try to play my game every shift. I can play that big power forward and not afraid to take pucks to the net, not afraid of anybody out there. I’m physical and I can play any position.”
If Tkachuk does indeed return to the American team for next year’s tournament, there’s little doubt he’ll be a force on a team that should contend for its fourth straight medal in this event. Along with Tkachuk, forwards Ryan Poehling and Josh Norris will be eligible to return to the team, along with defensemen Quinn Hughes, Dylan Samberg and Mikey Anderson. Hughes’ younger brother Jack, who grew up in Toronto and was drafted eighth overall by the Mississauga Steelheads, will almost certainly be on the team as a 17-year-old based on the eye-popping numbers he’s putting up with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Oliver Wahlstrom, a projected top-10 pick who is bound for Harvard next season, is another strong candidate. “It’s a ways away, but we’re going to have a deep team,” Tkachuk said. “There’s a bunch of really good (1999-born players) I played with at the U.S. program and there are a bunch of high-end 2000s who are going to get drafted high this year. It’s going to be a tough team to stop.”
So now Tkachuk goes back to Boston University to hone his game and work toward this year’s draft. “I definitely feel like I took a couple of steps in this tournament, but I definitely have a couple more steps to reach by the end of this year,” he said. “Keep playing with confidence, keep believing in yourself…for me it’s just get better every day, put the bad days behind you and focus on the next one.”
That’s exactly what Tkachuk and his teammates did in the bronze medal game and the attitude they’ll take into the tournament in 2019.
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