With the men’s hockey tournament underway in Beijing, Tony Ferrari takes a look at some of the top prospects playing in the Olympics on the world stage.
The NHL may not be sending their players to the Beijing Olympics to compete in the world’s biggest international hockey tournament. But if you're a fan of future NHL talent, the Olympics will be worth keeping an eye on.
The American’s are banking heavily on the NCAA to bolster their NHL-free lineup. Other nations leaned on their own domestic leagues, but even some contenders are relying on future NHL stars to take them far in Beijing.
Here's a look at eight names to watch:
Owen Power, D (Canada, Buffalo)
The first overall pick from the 2021 NHL draft was having an absolutely outstanding World Junior Championship with Canada prior to its premature ending. But in the eyes of many analysts, Power's play screamed Olympic-worthy once the NHL pulled out.
Power boasts the size and strength to go up against non-NHL level Olympic competition and his two-way game will be given ample room to breathe as he plays a major role for Canada. He will likely be given the chance to play consistent and important minutes for the Canadians, a team with decent defensive depth, but no true leader. Power became that force at the World Championship, and he certainly can do it again in Beijing.
Mason McTavish, F (Canada, Anaheim)
Selected two spots after Power, McTavish has routinely shown that, against his age group, he is a man amongst boys. Now, he'll be given a chance to prove that he’s a man amongst men, and he's definitely up for the challenge with coach Jeremy Colliton giving him top-line minutes during training sessions.
McTavish attacks the net front and could be a factor banging in rebounds or around the net on the powerplay. His physicality and skill blend will be pivotal for the Canadians to have success at this event, hoping to improve on their 2018 third-place finish.
Pontus Holmberg, F (Sweden, Toronto)
The 2018 sixth-round pick has really come on this year with Växjö in the SHL. Holmberg plays the game with skill and speed, which should give him an opportunity to be a solid depth scorer for the Swedes. Holmberg should find a spot in the top-nine, likely sliding in on a scoring third line.
The Leafs’ prospect was a bit of a surprise inclusion on the Swedish roster, but it could be the next big step for a player once thought to be a long shot to make it as an NHLer.
Matty Beniers, F (USA, Seattle)
Beniers has had an impressive campaign with the Michigan Wolverines thus far with 36 points in 28 points. The two-way force has been one of the best players in the NCAA which sets him up to make a real impact at the Olympics with the American squad. The first-ever draft choice by the Seattle Kraken will be leaned on in all situations thanks to playing such a mature game, despite being just 19 years of age.
Beniers could very well use this stage to jump off of towards claiming a spot in the NHL when the NCAA season ends. With Seattle playing below the expectations set out at the beginning of the season, Beniers could wind up being the first player ever drafted by the Kraken to suit up for a game with the club. This is the biggest opportunity that Beniers has had against men, and it's up to him to seize it.
Matthew Knies, F (USA, Toronto)
Seemingly a dying breed, Knies brings an impressively balanced game that incorporates a blend of skill and power. Knies will drop a shoulder, hold the puck to the outside and drive the slot on a defender before using his impressive mitts to flick the puck over the goalie's shoulder. There may not be a player outside of round one from the 2021 NHL draft that has looked better in their post-draft season.
Knies' role on the American team may be up in the air a bit but he played on the second line with Matty Beniers in a pre-tournament game against Canada and from all accounts, looked strong in the role. His ability to use the power elements of his game to be the workman on the line as well as incorporate his skill to finish plays will be a good match for the highly intelligent Beniers, if things work out that way. Regardless of the role Knies finds himself in, he has the tools to excel.
Alexander Nikishin, D (Russia, Carolina)
An emerging defensive force in the KHL, Nikishin is experiencing an impressive season as a goalscorer from the backend. With 8 goals and 12 points in 46 points, the stout Russian has benefitted from a shooting percentage hovering around 12% for most of the season, unsustainably high for the majority of defensemen. With that said, he is having quite a good year for Spartak in the KHL. His defensive game continues to grow and mature. Nikishin is evolving into quite the defensive prospect for the Hurricanes.
It is not uncommon for a Russian team at any level of international play to lack blueline talent, specifically the role of a defensive specialist. This could make Nikishin one of their go-to players in shutdown situations. There is a real opportunity for the Canes prospect to put people on notice that he is a high-end prospect, even if his offensive punch may taper off a bit going forward.
Juraj Slafkovsky, F (Slovakia, 2022)
Slafkovsky is just one of just two draft eligibles at the Olympics, the other being teammate Simon Nemec. Slafkovsky has the size and skill to be an impact player and he has flashed that potential at times in the Liiga this season, but will he be able to establish himself as a 17-year-old in a group of seasoned pros? Slafkovsky is a smooth passer with excellent vision in the offensive zone.
If Slafkovsky is able to show well at the Olympic games, there could be big-time draft implications. Slafkovksy is often being discussed as a top-10 prospect but a solid tournament with some offensive output could very well force him into the top-five with his 6-foot-4 frame that already entices NHL clubs. This could be a huge opportunity for the big playmaking winger.
Simon Nemec, D (Slovakia, 2022)
Is he the best player on Slovakia? No. But is he one of the more intriguing ones? Absolutely. The 17-year-old top defensive prospect for the 2022 draft already has a ton of men's national team experience to his credit and looked great in two World Junior Championship games before the tournament was shuttered. As Nemec continues to get more comfortable against men – and he certainly is with HK Nitra – Nemec will continue to earn more ice time and more responsibility. This is an excellent opportunity for Nemec to seriously build his draft profile.