Every few months, European nations take part in tournaments as part of "international breaks".
This is especially a good time for junior teams looking to get one solid look at how their potential World Junior Championship teams could look like next month in Canada.
The Karjala Cup, traditionally a men's tournament, was yet again used as an evaluation tool for the Russian contingent – mainly for U-20 players. Just as they did last year, they sent a group of mostly U-20 players. In Sweden, the U-20 Four Nations tournament just wrapped up between Finland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and an additional full U-20 Russian team.
Finishing third at the Karjala Cup with a record of 1-2, Russia didn’t run through competition as they did last year but they yet again proved to be difficult competition for a couple of the top men's teams.
Matvei Michkov officially became the youngest player ever to represent the Russian national team at the men’s level at 16 and he made his presence felt at the event. The 2023 top prospect is known for his skill and lethal offensive ability and proved it with a highlight-reel lacrosse goal. While most players need time to pull this off, Michkov is able to do it on the fly.
While Anaheim Ducks prospect Artyom Galimov and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dmitri Voronkov led the team in scoring with three points apiece, it was Nikita Chibrikov that looked like one of their most dangerous forwards during the three-game tournament. The Winnipeg Jets prospect finished with just two points, but he was creative and his skill showed well against older competition. Chibrikov put his playmaking on display a number of times with silky smooth passes to the high-danger areas of the ice.
Shakir Mukhamadullin (New Jersey Devils) and Alexander Nikishin (Carolina Hurricanes) played notable roles on the backend for the Russians. Nikishin was relied upon to play some big minutes and was paired with the team’s most seasoned member, 25-year-old Alexander Yelesin, on the top pair for two of the three games. Both young defenders looked steady although there were times where each made mistakes.
At the U-20 Four Nations event in Ängelholm, Sweden, the tournament was full of drafted prospects. Sweden's Emil Andrae, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, collected the top defenseman honor at the tournament, excelling with three points while playing rock-solid defense. The top forward honors went to Russian attacker and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Alexander Pashin after scoring four goals and six points for an undefeated Russian side.
The Czech U-20 squad was pretty underwhelming for the most part. With no player standing out to be a difference-maker, it was difficult for the Czech attack to mount anything. Players like Jiri Tichacek and Jakub Šedivý had moments of functionality on the backend, but the event was one to forget for a Czech team that will head into next month's world juniors with a fight ahead of them in each and every game.
Sweden’s U-20 team had some intriguing talent on the roster but the group finished 1-2 for a third-place finish. Draft-eligible forwards Liam Öhgren and Jonathan Lekkerimäki each showed well, with Öhgren picking up a goal and two assists while Lekkerimäki managed to grab a goal of his own.
The aforementioned Andrae was an excellent elder presence on the team from the backend while Daniel Ljungman, a Dallas Stars draft choice, was the leader upfront. He plays a high-energy game with an intriguing offensive toolkit. His two goals and one assist tied Öhgren for the scoring lead among forwards. While it certainly wasn’t Sweden’s best performance overall, they have a great deal of potential for when the World Junior Championships roll around.
Finland looked quite good throughout the event. Finishing second with their one loss coming to the Russians, Finland had strong performances from a number of players. Toronto Maple Leafs’ draft pick Roni Hirvonen and New York Islanders’ prospect Aatu Räty lead the way with four points each. Paired together of the Finns top line, they were excellent together. Räty looked great down the middle as the playmaker while Hirvonen complemented him perfectly on the wing.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Ville Koivunen and the undrafted Juuso Mäenpää each had three points, looking their best against the Czech Republic when they were paired together. The undersized Mäenpää has a boatload of skill and he showcased it at times at the Four Nations. At a generously listed 5’7”, Mäenpää may not have an NHL future ahead of him but he should carve out a solid career in European pro hockey.
With a solid roster from top to bottom, the Finns will once again be a medal threat at the world juniors. With returning pillars such as Topi Niemelä, Hirvonen and Koivunen, the Finns will be strong at every position.
Going undefeated through three games, Russia rarely looked as if they were able to outscore their mistakes in each game. Despite allowing eight goals through three games, they were able to double that number in their goals-for column with 16.
2022 draft eligibles Danila Yurov and Ivan Miroshnichenko both did a good job contributing to Russia's cause, too. Miroshnichenko had two points and Yurov continued had three goals and an assist to help contribute to what has already been a strong season for the prospect. Yurov in particular looked dangerous on the majority of his shifts. The shifty forward attacks the play with an impressive zest for generating offense and pushing the puck into high danger areas. Miroshnichecnko looked very strong in tight, making use of his power game to get himself into good spots around the net.
Ilya Ivantsov went undrafted last season but he’s been putting together a decent season in an effort to be drafted in his second go around. His performance at the Four Nations is just a continuation of that. Noticeable on the majority of his shifts, Ivanstov collected two goals and two assists. He is a silky smooth passer who was generating offense at a high level for the Russians.
As always, it should be an entertaining international schedule with players such as Michkov, Andrae, and Hirvonen all playing important roles for their respective nations. It's still early, and there are so many more great moments ahead.