Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli on the same team? Yes, please.
Canada's roster for the world under-18s has been released and the defending gold medallists have some explosive weapons at their disposal as the team heads to Germany.
Heading up the roster are two phenoms eligible for the 2023 NHL draft in Bedard and Fantilli. Given Matvei Michkov's long-term KHL contract and Russia's current pariah status (the team will not play at this tournament, for example), Fantilli could very well go second overall next year after Bedard, the Regina Pats superstar who just became the youngest player ever to score 50 goals in the WHL. And he did so as the focal point of every opponent.
"He's getting the best defenseman on the other team, he's getting the best line on the other team - he's getting all the tough assignments," said Regina assistant coach Brad Herauf. "Him learning how to manage the puck and play away from the puck has been important and that's probably been where he has grown the most this year."
Watching Bedard is a delight, as the kid has constantly made something out of nothing on rushes and found creative ways to score or set up his linemates despite all the attention he draws from the enemy.
"I just react to what they give me," Bedard told me. "When you come into the zone you have a little bit of a plan but if you're reading off what they're doing, it's a lot easier to find space for yourself and create chances."
Bedard will have a very familiar face on Team Canada, as Pats linemate Tanner Howe also got an invite. Howe is fascinating because he too is only 16 and, due to a November birthday, not eligible for the NHL draft until 2024. But he found chemistry with Bedard early in the season and ended up with more than a point per game himself.
"He's a great complement to Connor," Herauf said. "He's like Brad Marchand - a smaller, stocky guy who is aggressive and physical, but also has that elite offensive ability. The other (Marchand) antics aren't part of Tanner's game, but how hard he plays with ability makes for a good comparison."
Fantilli, last year's USHL playoff MVP and one of the league's leading scorers this season with the Chicago Steel, will be another load for opponents to handle. Unlike Bedard and Howe, Fantilli is a big, powerful kid who also happens to skate like the wind. Any team with Bedard and Fantilli as their top two centers would be considered a favorite here, but Canada has plenty of other players coming to Germany - many of whom are getting one last chance to show off for scouts in preparation for the 2022 draft.
Up front, Fantilli's Chicago teammate Nick Moldenhauer will try to keep the momentum he built up in the second half, particularly lately: the slick center has 14 points in his past five games. There's also big Rieger Lorenz from the AJHL's Okotoks Oilers. An NCAA Denver commit who can play in all situations, Lorenz has a nice scoring touch to go along with his size.
Since the major junior contingent comes from teams that didn't make the post-season (no QMJHL players will participate due to that league's schedule), the under-18s will be a great opportunity for those players to show what they can do with a more talented supporting cast. Niagara's Pano Fimis and Sudbury's David Goyette are prime examples here. And while the WHL did get in 24 games last season, scouts believe Swift Current's Josh Filmon is still rounding into form, so this is a great stage for him. Filmon has good hands and goes to the net - so he could be a great target on the wing for Canada's ace centers.
Perhaps the most intriguing however, is Matthew Wood. The UConn commit and 2023 draft prospect dominated the BCHL as a member of the Victoria Grizzlies this season and at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds with slick hands, he's a handful in the offensive zone.
The defense corps holds a lot of promise as well, headlined by Swift Current's Owen Pickering. A potential first-rounder in 2022, Pickering is still a bit raw, but already has tons of promise thanks to his size, two-way game and ability to get up the ice. Similarly, the Canadians are bringing Matthew Morden from St. Andrew's College of the Prep Hockey Conference. Morden is huge at 6-foot-5, 203 pounds, but he loves to get up the ice and contribute at both ends. He's a Harvard commit who gets a great spot to shine on here.
The tournament will also present a great opportunity for blueliners such as OHL Erie's Spencer Sova and USHL Lincoln's Michael Mastrodomenico - both of whom have shown promise at times this season - to prove their worth in front of scouts.
In net, Canada has the biggest challenge. Goaltending for the 2022 draft in general has been haphazard and none of the three going to Germany managed to hit even a .900 save percentage. Having said that, Swift Current's Reid Dyck is 6-foot-4 and was a surprise standout at the CHL Top Prospects Game in Kitchener.
Overall, this group just needs decent goaltending and decent defense, because the forwards are going to score in bunches.