HELSINKI, FINLAND - It has been the year of the draft phenom at the world juniors. Auston Matthews flirted with an American goal-scoring record, Alexander Nylander put up points in his injured brother's stead, while Finland got gigantic performances from Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi (my choice for tourney MVP).
But let's not forget Matthew Tkachuk. The American left winger ended his tournament on a high note, posting up two goals and three points in an 8-3 wiping out of Sweden, winning himself a bronze medal in the process. With his size, smarts and skills, Tkachuk is firmly entrenched in the top-five for me, with Nylander behind him (and perhaps Jakob Chychrun, though being the only defenseman in the conversation may help him on draft day).
"He's extremely intelligent," said one NHL exec. "Very competitive, goes to the tough areas like his old man (ex-NHLer Keith Tkachuk). It's instinctive and he gets rewarded for it."
Playing on a line with Auston Matthews last year at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program made for an easy decision at this year's world juniors. The two were reunited, first with elite scorer (and also a 2016 prospect) Alex DeBrincat and then with Ottawa Senators pick Colin White, of Boston College. Matthews and Tkachuk were happy to be back together in Helsinki.
“It's pretty fun, honestly," Matthews said. "He's such a smart player and loves to get into it and work hard. He's one of my best friends, so it's been fun playing with him last year and at this tournament.”
Originally bound for Notre Dame, Tkachuk instead headed to the OHL's London Knights, a near-constant powerhouse that loaded up over the summer, adding J.J. Piccinich (Toronto), Kole Sherwood (Columbus) and Max Jones (2016) to an already impressive roster also featuring Mitch Marner (Toronto) and Christian Dvorak (Arizona). Oh, and don't forget rookie Finnish import Olli Juolevi, another hot 2016 prospect who is patrolling the Suomi blueline in Helsinki.
Tkachuk has been a natural fit, piling up points for the Knights and challenging for the league scoring crown with 59 points in 29 games, currently good for third overall. But his new squad has helped in different ways.
“Not only offensively, but defensively I've really learned a complete game," he said. "We've got a great team, I'm playing with great players and it really was the best decision for me to get to the NHL as fast as I can.”
And to be honest, that could be as soon as next season. A December birthday, Tkachuk has already turned 18, so he'll have a bit more growth under his belt than the average prospect once the 2016-17 NHL campaign begins.
Though the Tkachuk-Matthews-White line couldn't get on track against Russia in the semifinal, the trio dominated most other times.
“I just think it's the fact we have three guys on the puck at all times," Tkachuk said "We always have somebody in a defensive posture where, if something does go wrong he's back and can steal it, throw it back to us behind the net. And just 2-on-1ing guys, overloading and keeping the puck on our sticks, moving it to each other.”
Part of a growing cohort of prospects coming out of the St. Louis area, Tkachuk is proud of his fellow Missouri products and though the city lost out on a host bid for the 2018 world juniors to Buffalo, it's definitely an area to watch thanks to the local grassroots army. Some of the most prominent supporters are ex-Blues who stuck around, such as Keith Tkachuk, Jeff Brown and Al MacInnis. Not coincidentally, Logan Brown looks like a first-rounder in 2016, while Ryan MacInnis won bronze alongside Tkachuk this year and is an Arizona prospect. Two other kids from the area, Luke Kunin (2016) and Luke Opilka (St. Louis) will likely be on Team USA for next year's WJC tournament in Canada.
“The growth in St. Louis is huge right now and it's because of the Blues, because of all the past players that are there helping," Tkachuk said. "Youth hockey has gone through the roof there."
And being able to point to a top-five NHL draft pick as a native son can't hurt for the future, either.