What better way to get prepared for some incredibly fun hockey than hot takes?
The Under-18 World Championships are set to kick off this weekend and it's a must-watch for those interested in the next wave of top talent. Often one of the best collections of the year’s NHL draft talent in one place, the U-18s are always good for a breakout performance or surprise star.
The whole intrigue of hot takes or bold predictions is the fact that they likely won’t happen, but if they do, they sure can be a load of fun. So let’s get spicy!
Adam Fantilli will score more goals than Connor Bedard - and match his point production
Connor Bedard finished second in scoring at last year's event, only behind fellow 2023 NHL draft phenom Matvei Michkov. All signs point to Bedard being the favorite to lead the tournament in scoring. The kid had 51 goals and 100 points in the WHL this year and looks like one of the most dynamic prospects in hockey since Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
With that said, Adam Fantilli has made a name for himself this year tearing up the USHL. He was leading the league with 37 goals when he left for the under-18s. He scores in a variety of ways but one thing is consistently true about his goal scoring. He is always in high-danger areas and generating shots from the home plate at a rate that seems nearly impossible. Fantilli is bigger and stronger than most of the players at this tournament and his raw skill level is up there with just about anyone outside of Bedard. With his penchant for scoring and his physical advantages, Fantilli will match Bedard’s scoring pace, thanks in large part to finding the back of the net more than anyone at the U-18s.
The USA Disappoints and plays in the bronze medal game
The Americans come into this tournament as favorites in the eyes of many. They have played together all season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, which is always good for chemistry. They boast a few players expected to go in the top-15 such as Logan Cooley and Frank Nazar as well as many others who could challenge for first-round picks. The American team is always expected to do big things at the U-18s because of the NTDP but they haven’t won a gold medal since 2017. This year, like each of the last few years, is supposed to change that.
Unfortunately, it won't. The team lacks high-end goaltending this year and their defense core is fun but not really intimidating in any sense. Their forward group is as dangerous as anyone in the tournament, but unless they plan to outscore and run and gun the entire time, it may be yet another disappointment.
Finland gets to the gold medal game on the back of Aron Kiviharju
The Finns are notorious for performing over expectations at international events. So often, they're written off as lacking dynamic talent or not having the firepower to compete with the Canadas, USAs and Swedens. And yet, they're always there. They have two golds, a silver and a bronze in the last five tournaments which is an impressive feat for any nation.
The Finnish roster this year looks like it is being undersold yet again despite some solid names such as Joakim Kemell and Aleksanteri Kaskimäki. But the player that could be the real difference-maker is Aron Kiviharju, a 2006-born defender playing much older competition back home. He reads play at such a high level, making plays in all three zones that drive play positively. With players such as Kemell to fire pucks off in the offensive zone while Kiviharju quarterbacks play, both at even-strength and on the powerplay, Kiviharju could very well be one of the best defensemen at this event, helping Finland to yet another finals appearance. And he can come back again. Twice.
The Djurgården big three (Öhgren, Östlund, Lekkerimäki) all finish in the top-six scoring race
A trio of Djurgården forwards making noise has been a popular theme of the 2022 draft class. They’ve all been quite good this year, splitting time between the U-20 and SHL levels. Liam Öhgren, Noah Östlund, and Jonathan Lekkerimäki will be important to Sweden's success, and, if all goes well, should all contend for the tournament scoring race.
Öhgren and Lekkerimäki have both proven that they are borderline dominant at times against their own age group. Both can fill the net and have quite a few pro tendencies to their game. Öhgren is a pro’s pro already. He is more than willing to fill any role on a team as he has done at the SHL level. Öhgren leads the U-20 squad in scoring with 58 points in just 30 games and has played in 25 SHL games, rarely looking out of place.
Lekkerimäki is the most dangerous shooter of the trio with a wicked release. His track record of filling the net translated nicely to the SHL, scoring 7 goals in 26 games against men. His playmaking is a bit underdeveloped at this point but at the U18 level, he should be a force.
Östlund is the biggest wildcard. While his dynamism and passing ability may be at a higher level than his Djurgården teammates, he has struggled to find success at the SHL level. Furthermore, his international resume is a bit spotty. Östlund plays fast and is always trying to create offensive chances for his teammates, which should bode well for him in a tournament like this. The possibility of playing with familiar teammates in Öhgren and/or Lekkerimäki could also help in a big way. If Östlund can have a big showing at the Under-18s, it would do wonders for his draft stock.