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Eight Exciting Players from the U-18 Five Nations Tournament

The USA U-18 team swept the Five Nations tournament in front of a home crowd. Tony Ferrari explores the game of eight players who impressed during the event.

The U-18 Five Nations tournament went down in Plymouth, Mich. over the past week, showcasing some of the best 2023 NHL draft talents from around the world. The host Americans came away with the title as they went undefeated and outscored opponents 29-8 in a dominant performance.

The Swedes were undefeated until a loss to the Americans on the final day and played a strong tournament in their own right. Finland played their typical brand of defensive, structured hockey but lacked the offensive pop in the form of star power. Czechia finished at the bottom of the table but showed a fight in all of their games and likely deserved a better result. The Swiss entrant to the tournament was often on the wrong end of the boxscore in a lot of ways but managed to secure a win over the Czech squad to secure a fourth-place finish.

Several players impressed throughout the event, with many players on the American squad deserving some recognition. Here are seven standouts from the event.

Will Smith, C, USA

The best player on the USA Hockey National Team Development Program squad showed exactly why that was the case with an impressive performance over four games. He only finished with just nine points – which led the tournament – because of missed opportunities from his teammates rather than a lack of individual domination. His ability to cut into space with the puck on his stick, seemingly pulling it through defenders as if it were magnetized to his stick, was spectacular.

Smith is the American’s top point-getter and tied for the goal-scoring lead for the U-18 team, and he showed off that goal-scoring touch throughout the Five Nations. He also showed the ability to put defenders on their heels and juke the netminder in tight. Smith displayed high-level IQ by using his teammates well and presenting a passing option when he didn’t have the puck on his stick. Smith should go fairly high on draft night.

Axel Sandin Pellikka, D, Sweden

Sweden’s best player throughout the tournament was Sandin Pellikka, a puck-moving blueliner that's gained traction in draft circles. His ability to control play with the puck on his stick in transition and the offensive zone are weapons that helped propel the Swedes to the tournament's second-best record.

Sandin Pellikka is strong on the power play, directing traffic and manipulating defenders to open up shooting and passing lanes. The 5-foot-11 Swede stands near the offensive blueline and looks to jump into space whenever it presents itself. His four points were tied for the lead amongst the Swedish contingent at the Five Nations, but it was his poise and control of the ice that made him one of the more noticeable players at the tournament.

Otto Stenberg, RW, Sweden

Stenberg was one of the shiftiest and more entertaining players at the Five Nations. He can put you on the edge of your seat at times, dangling and dashing through traffic with the puck on his stick. The Swedish winger tends to hold onto the puck and circle the outside, passing up chances to use his teammates sometimes while he looks for the “perfect” play.

Stenberg pairs his quick hands and agile feet to create space for himself. He evades pressure along the wall with quick turns and evasive footwork. He's a shooting threat that could be made all the more dangerous by regularly using his passing ability. The 5-foot-11 Swede is a talented playmaker with puck skill, speed and excellent offensive tools overall. Failing to routinely diversify his offensive attack and become a more willing passer was the biggest red flag for an incredibly skilled prospect who many have pegged as a first-rounder at this point in the year.

Jesse Kiiskinen, LW/RW, Finland

The Finns had a bit of a disappointing Five Nations overall. They never really took control of a game, and arguably their best game came when they almost made a third-period comeback against the Americans after being down 6-2. Their best player throughout the event was their captain, Jesse Kiiskinen. His eight points doubled anyone else on the Finnish squad, evidenced by his ability to push play up ice and create plays.

Kiiskinen is a good skater who shifts his weight to help escape and evade pressure. He routinely drew the attention of opposing players and then found the open man. His passing was as effective in transition as it was in the offensive zone, making him Finland’s most dangerous player throughout the ice. His defensive zone attentiveness could use some work, but he did routinely pressure the points and use his stick to disrupt play along the walls. Kiiskinen was Finland’s MVP, without a doubt.

Aram Minnetian, D, USA

The NTDP has been routinely producing NHL talent on the blueline, and Aram Minnetian could be one of the next solid NHLers to graduate from the program. Minnetian is as confident in his game as they come. He has no hesitation with the puck on his stick, and his defensive game, particularly against the rush, is quite good.

Minnetian has the quickness when changing direction that's needed when it comes to playing defense in the modern game. The Americans have a ton of firepower up front, and Minnetian’s ability to push the puck up ice was a big reason the U.S. squad went undefeated in convincing fashion.

Adam Csabi, LW/RW, Czechia

Although undersized, Adam Csabi was one of the best Czech players on the ice throughout the tournament in what wound up being one of their most disappointing results, finishing in fifth place. Csabi was relentless at attacking the center lane despite his stature by getting under defenders to establish position.

The 5-foot-9 winger was an offensive catalyst on the second line, driving play despite his linemates failing to contribute as much. Csabi was a threat on the power play as well. His shiftiness and agility made him an asset in fishing pucks out of corners and escaping to create plays. A shooting threat from the half wall and the bumper position, Csabi was rarely stagnant with the man advantage. If not for Csabi, Czechia would have been routinely outplayed without their top line on the ice.

Eric Schneller, D, Switzerland

There weren’t many bright spots for the Swiss entry in the Five Nations, but Eric Schneller was a standout for the group. He played a steady game in his own end, oftentimes seeming like the only defender who could keep up with the faster and more skilled forwards from Sweden and the USA. Schneller displayed a good stick, putting himself in a position to limit damage and create disruptions for the opposing attackers.

The 5-foot-11 blueliner was calm with the puck despite the chaos often surrounding him, making crisp passes on the breakout. Schneller led the Swiss contingent in scoring from the blueline with three assists. The young Swiss defender looked a step ahead of his teammates in terms of processing and pace, likely a result of playing his club hockey in Sweden with Rogle over the last couple of years.

Ryan Leonard, RW/LW/C, USA

Leonard plays a power game to perfection with an interesting blend of physicality and skill. His ‘Thunder-and-Lightning’ combo with Will Smith on the American’s top line was pure entertainment value. Smith would dip and dangle through traffic while Leonard dropped a shoulder and stormed the net front.

Leonard skates like an NFL running back runs through holes, with no regard for who is in his way.

What made Leonard so interesting was just how skilled he was once he got to his spots. His hands were quick and decisive, evading stick checks before tucking the puck in the top of the net. Leonard was consistently engaged in physical battles, oftentimes winning them with ease before escaping with the puck and starting a play. He compliments skilled teammates with his brute and more than keeps up with his finesse.

Honorable Mentions: Jakub Stancl (CZE), Ryan Fine (USA), Charlie Cerrato (USA), Alain Graf (SUI), Anton Wahlberg (SWE), Dominik Badinka (CZE), Janne Peltonen (FIN), Drew Fortescue (USA), Danny Nelson (USA), Paul Fischer (USA), Felix Nilsson (SWE)


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