The World Junior Championships are the marquee event for U-20 international hockey, but four top teams got an early glimpse at their potential teams at the recent Four Nations event this past weekend.
With the event being held in Hodonín, Czech Republic, the host nation put on a show for the fans and scouts in attendance. The Russians, Finns and Swedes all brought some talent expected to make their respective WJC rosters, but they were also filled with many wildcards. They took full advantage of this event for self-scouting and team-building purposes, and that's what makes this event a bit different than the final big show.
The Swedes went winless in their three games over the event. Their roster was missing almost everyone expected to be on the world junior roster, with just a few notable names such as Liam Dower-Nilsson, Alexander Ljungkrantz, and Oliver Tärnström. The majority of the roster is filled with their ‘B team’ who were looking to put their name on the map.
Unfortunately for the Tre Kronor, the Swedes didn't play well and their standouts were few and far between. Dower-Nilsson, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, had a decent showing with a few flashes of offensive flair as a passer.
Åke Stakkestad was one player who may have impressed a bit more than expected. With a goal and two assists, the 19-year-old Stakkestad has put his name on the minds of NHL teams tracking overage talent this season.
While the Swedes couldn’t find a win, the Czechs, Finns and Russians all traded victories – resulting in all three finishing with two wins and a loss. A triangle of tensions among the three nations, the Czechs won the goal-differential battle with plus-nine - thanks to a blowout over the Swedes – while the Finns and Russians both finished one above par.
The Finns looked good through most of the Four Nations. Draft-eligible winger Joakim Kemell was consistently one of their best players and put his name firmly in the discussion for a top-nine role at the world juniors. Kemell was creative with his vision and playmaking while using his speed to the outside to win puck races and beat defenders. If he can keep this level of play up heading into the Liiga season, the JYP Jyväskylä teen should see his name ascend up draft boards.
Goaltender Aku Koskenvuo didn't allow any goals in his two games, capping off a tremendous performance from one of Finland's top options for the crease this December. The Vancouver Canucks fifth-round pick from 2021 showed his ability to stay calm in his crease during a bit of a barrage against the Russians, making 35 saves in his shutout.
Although Finland also featured many names that likely won’t be suiting up come world junior time, players such as Oliver Kapanen (Montreal) and Aleski Malinen (New York Islanders) had pretty good showings in an effort to make the final team in the winter.
The Russian squad had a few players who could be in consideration for the world juniors, but left the vast majority of their top players at home after playing at the recent Sochi Open. With New Jersey Devils prospects Shakir Mukhamadullin and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Dmitri Ovchinnikov as two of the more likely world juniors participants, we saw a lot of interesting names attempt to make their mark.
A couple of undrafted forwards in Pavel Tyutnev and Ivan Didkovsky helped lead the charge. They showed good puck movement and the ability to find their spots offensively to create plays all over. The Russians seemed to come in and just do what they had to do in every game. Russia's one loss against the Finns wasn’t for lack of creation of chance generation as they out-shot and out-chanced the Finns, but Koskenvuo was on top of his game.
The host nation wound up finishing tied for the best record but ran away with the goal differential crown. The Czech squad had quite a few of their top names in defender Stanislav Svozil (Columbus) and David Jiříček (2022 draft) as well as top forwards Jan Myšák (Montreal) and Pavel Novák (Minnesota Wild). The depth for the squad that came to play was a big reason for their success though.
The aforementioned Myšák and Novák (Minnesota) were centered by Josef Koláček and they were the driving force of the team throughout the international U20 exhibition season, accounting for 46% of their offense over seven games this summer together. All three should be locks to make the World Junior roster and should be some of the team's top difference makers at the annual under-20 event.
One player who jumped out a bit over the three games was Buffalo Sabres prospect Jakub Konečný. The 2020 seventh-round pick continuously put himself in a position to generate chances and push the play in a positive direction. Konečný's off-puck anticipation on offense was quite good and he put in the effort at both ends of the ice. His role was primarily in the bottom six, but he provided energy on each and every shift.
From unexpected performances by late-round picks to draft-eligible players starting their draft year strong, the August Four Nations tournament was about as good as expected from both an entertainment and a quality hockey perspective.
At the end of the day, it was still very much summer hockey. Taking too much away from this event could be dangerous when setting expectations for a player. With that said, it was some really fun hockey that gave us a taste right before seasons across the world really start to kick off.