With the World Junior Championships right around the corner and rosters being announced, Rachel Doerrie and Tony Ferrari bring you some of the key names to watch from the European countries.
From highly skilled forwards to blueliners looking to make a big impact and a goaltender looking to prove his worth, there is a boat laid of talent coming to Edmonton at the end of the month.
G Jesper Wallstedt, Sweden (Minnesota Wild)
One of the best goaltending prospects in the world, Wallstedt is going to be a key factor in Sweden’s attempt to challenge for a medal this year. While many felt that he was the best goalie prospect in the 2021 NHL draft, he was the second goaltender selected, No. 20 overall, after Sebastian Cossa went to the Detroit Red Wings at 15.
This tournament will be an excellent opportunity for Wallstedt to showcase why so many viewed him as a top-10 prospect overall.
The young Swedish netminder is one of the most technically skilled goalie prospects in recent years and his ability to set the tone for his team from the net out is nearly unmatched among his peers. His ability to track the puck and read the play is elite. Wallstedt has an uncanny ability to work his way around the crease without losing his net, even if play is hectic around him.
There is a robotic nature to his approach to the game. While some would assume that’s a negative attribute, Wallstedt is the terminator of the goaltending game. He reads the play, hones in on the shooter, and thwarts the attempt to score. All that said, he does not lack the athleticism to make the big save or dive across the goalmouth in desperation.
The Swedish roster isn’t as in other years, so there will be plenty on Wallstedt’s shoulders. As you can see from Byron Bader’s model above, he is has progressed quite well and continues to be one of the best prospects in hockey. Thankfully he will have some help with a recent loan to the team. The Swedes will go as far as Wallstedt and Alexander Holtz take them.
C Aatu Räty, Finland (New York Islanders)
After making Finland as a 17-year-old, he was left off the team as an 18-year-old in his draft year. After finding his game again back in Liiga play, Räty has the chance to play a major role for the Finns. With 13 points in 10 games since his loan from Kärpät to Jukurit, the young Finn looks like the player that had many people with his name atop the 2021 draft board prior to last season. Räty’s underwhelming play last season caused him to fall to the Islanders in the second round, 52nd overall. That’s quite a fall from the top-five pick that many had thought was possible.
Räty has looked far more assertive with Jukurit since joining his new club. A big part of that is the confidence he has gained from a far bigger role with his new club. With Jukurit, Räty has averaged 19:44 TOI which is a major step up from the 11:25 TOI that he was receiving with Kärpät. This increased opportunity and bigger role have allowed Räty to showcase the skills that made him so desirable prior to his draft year.
The Islanders’ prospect will be looking to prove to everyone that being passed over 51 times on draft day was a mistake. Räty should be front and center, playing in all situations for the Finns at the World Juniors, continuing the redemption tour that he started the moment he was drafted.
W Martin Chromiak, Slovakia (Los Angeles Kings)
The 2020 fifth-round pick has been impressive this season with Kingston as he rides shotgun on Shane Wright’s wing. Chromiak’s offensive game is versatile in that he has no problem playing to role of triggerman or distributor, playing to his linemates strengths. The Slovak forward will be asked to be more of the play driver at the World Juniors than he has been at the OHL level but that shouldn’t be a problem for Chromiak. Despite struggling to find the scoresheet at the World Juniors last year, he has been a point per game player at the U-20 and U-18 levels over the last few seasons despite often player a year or two above his head.
Pair his prior international success with the fact that the Slovak team will be bringing significantly more talent to the table than previous, Chromiak is going to be in a position to succeed. His ability to play to his linemates strength will be an asset. Chromiak plays with creativity and a willingness to try high-skill plays that many others wouldn’t even think about. His vision in the offensive zone gives him the ability to diagnose the defense and attack its weaknesses. Chromiak will be looked to for leadership and offensive production in a tournament where Slovakia could surprise some people.
W William Eklund, Sweden (San Jose Sharks)
How William Eklund got to the Sharks remains a mystery, given that he could be a top-3 player from this draft when all is said and done. In his nine games with San Jose this year, he recorded 4 assists and didn’t look out of place. Credit to San Jose, they sent him back to Sweden for further development. Eklund is a dynamic player who makes everyone around him better because he reads the game better than his peers. His ability to play in small areas, play off contact and drive the puck to the middle is impressive. He’s consistent in his level play, supports the puck well and will be the driver of his line. It is not a stretch to say that Eklund is Sweden’s most important skater and his line, along with Holtz, will be a determining factor in Sweden’s success at this tournament.
W Alexander Holtz, Sweden (New Jersey Devils)
Thank you to the New Jersey Devils, we get to watch Holtz and his draft year running mate, Eklund star at this tournament. In his six NHL games, Holtz has shown he needs more development time, but the tools to be a top-6 scoring winger in the NHL are very obvious. He has 10 points in 10 games in the AHL as a 19-year old, which is a strong indicator that he’s playing at the right level. The opportunity to represent your country is tremendous and can be a huge confidence booster for a young player who projects to score frequently. Holtz is one of, if not the best, pure shooters in the tournament. He is going to be relied upon heavily by Sweden to put the puck in the net. Expect him to get the top power-play minutes and play in important situations. He’s shown chemistry with Eklund in the past and those two will be very tough for other teams to handle. If Sweden is going to perform well in this tournament, expect Holtz to be near the top of the scoring race.
C Marat Khusnutdinov, Russia (Minnesota Wild)
Is this the second Minnesota draft pick on this list? Yes, it is. Given the role Khusnutdinov played at last year’s tournament, you can expect him to be Russia’s top line pivot. He’s a 200-foot player who never cheats for effort and is already playing a top-6 role for SKA in the KHL. His ability to change pace, attack and manipulate defenders, allow him to create off the rush. His speed and deception makes him a fantastic transition player. He will be able to leverage that to play give and go which should fit well with Russia’s forwards who shoot the puck well. Khusnutdinov will see the top competition and will be expected to produce while keeping other offensive weapons in check. He should play in all key situations and both sides of special teams.
D Topi Niemelä, Finland (Toronto Maple Leafs)
It is not often that a defenceman will make a players to watch list at a tournament that is known for offense. However, it is rather difficult to ignore Niemelä’s 22 points in 28 Liiga games this season with Karpat given his calling card at the 2020 draft was his defensive play. He’s not playing against his peers, he’s playing against men. His defensive game continues to improve, with his positioning and transition play already a strength. Coupled with an already impressive performance at last year’s tournament, Niemelä will play a key role on Finland’s blue line. Do not be surprised if Niemala makes noise as one of the tournament’s top defencemen.
The NHL Will Be Watching
As with every world junior tournament, the NHL teams will have their eyes fixated on their top prospects. There will be plenty of fanbases that will be able to get hyped up about their team’s best young talent and the hope for the future will be shining bright! This is often one of the only times fans get to see their team’s European prospects on full display. Whether it’s Holtz and Wallstedt trying to lead Sweden to their first gold medal since 2012 or Räty trying to continue his redemption tour, the Europeans will be some of the most intriguing talents at this year’s event.