Sorry, United States.
Sweden upset the juggernaut Americans in the finals of the U-18 World Championship to take the gold medal, ending what had otherwise been a dominant effort for USA.
After a surprising opening game loss to Latvia, Sweden was unbeaten the rest of the way, seemingly improving every step of the way. And in the end, they won where it mattered most.
The U-18 World Championship always provides NHL scouts and analysts an excellent view on what the upcoming NHL draft class is capable of against other top talents. The 2022 event was no different.
Let’s take a look at some of the standout performances at the U-18 World Championship:
The Djurgårdens Line: Lekkerimäki, Östlund, Öhgren
Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Noah Östlund, and Liam Öhgren all showed up in a big way. Their ability to consistently find the scoresheet, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play, was the driving force behind the Swedish offense. The three forwards were relied upon as the team’s top powerplay unit and drove play positively on just about every shift they were on the ice. Their excellence was exemplified in the gold medal game against the Americans, as the Djurgården line was the only one who generated offensive chances at five-on-five with any consistency.
Lekkerimäki led the tournament in scoring with 15 points in six games, including 10 points in the elimination round. Lekkerimäki had no issue scoring and his playmaking and puck distribution were on display throughout the tournament. He showed a willingness to use his teammates more consistently, which has been something scouts have been looking for all year.
Östlund was driving play all over the ice, playing a sound two-way game that relied on him using his intelligence to manipulate opponents into making mistakes that he could take advantage of. Östlund has impressive puck skill and excellent playmaking ability. He made everyone around him better and finished top-five in tournament scoring as a reward for it.
Öhgren, the captain, finished tied for seventh in tournament scoring and saved his biggest performance for the championship game. His two goals, including the game-winner, came up clutch against the Americans. Öhgren was strong at both ends of the ice, showing so many crafty little skills along the boards and in traffic. He may not flash the same high-level skill that Östlund and Lekkerimäki did but he was solid in every facet of the game.
The Dynamic Czech Duo: Eduard Šalé and Jiří Kulich
Czechia was the feisty underdog that was the only team to provide any pushback against the Americans before the gold medal game, led by Jiří Kulich and underager Eduard Šalé. They didn’t wind up getting a medal, losing to the Finns in the bronze medal game, but Kulich as the top goal scorer and second in total scoring thanks to absolutely feasting on the power play while Šalé finished second in assists.
The two Czech forwards were able to boost their respective draft stock, with Kulich seemingly solidifying himself among the first-round talents in the 2022 NHL draft. Kulich showed how big of a difference-maker with his goal-scoring ability, particularly with the man advantage. Šalé showed that his playmaking ability has become a major weapon as we head into his draft year next season. This Czech duo, along with a group of emerging talent around the same age, should be fun to watch as they mature and make the jump to NHL rosters over the next few years.
The U.S. NTDP Squad
This team ran roughshod through the U-18 World Championship until the gold medal game, winning by an average of 6.4 goals. They had a dozen players score at a point-per-game clip and five players finish in the top-ten of tournament scoring. To say that the depth of this American squad was on full display seems almost underselling just how good this squad was throughout the U-18s.
It seemed like every game had someone else step up to be the hero. From Isaac Howard’s four-goal opening game against Canada to Rutger McGroarty’s clutch goal scoring in the semifinals, there was a number of big moments from a deep and skilled American team. Logan Cooley showed just how good he was at driving play, constantly creating for his linemates. Frank Nazar III flashed his speed and skill, finishing with nine points despite being a bit snake bitten at times. Lane Hutson, Seamus Casey, and Ryan Chesley all showed why they are being discussed as first-round possibilities.
It was mentioned on the broadcast repeatedly but there is a very real chance that this American team features five or more first round talents in this year’s NHL draft. There could be 10 players taken in the top-50 this July, and a few others could be taken in the first round next year. This team was a juggernaut that unfortunately succumbed to the randomness of hockey, losing the final game of the event despite being the clear-cut best team in Germany.
The Finnish Phenom: Aron Kiviharju
Kiviharju helped solidify Finland's back end and showed his puck-moving ability in all three zones. Kiviharju averaged over 20 minutes a game and set the record for U-16 scoring by a blueliner with six points, doubling the output of Samuel Knazko at the 2018 event.
Kiviharju understands the small details of the game, oftentimes looking like a seasoned veteran with and without the puck on his stick. His ability to read play defensively and guides play to where it best serves him. Kiviharju is excellent at evaluating pressure and finding ways to alleviate himself from it before moving the puck to safety. His offensive game still has room to grow. Remember the name Aron Kiviharju when the 2024 draft rolls around.
Canada’s 2023 Draft Kids: More than Bedard and Fantilli
Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli were Canada’s best players in what was ultimately a disappointing performance as a whole for the defending champions. Bedard finished with seven points while Fantilli was right behind him with six. They were the only two players for the Canadians who consistently generated offensive chances.
Bedard was his usual game-breaking self. He made plays out of nothing at times, showcasing exactly why he will likely be the top pick in next year’s draft. Fantilli was snake-bitten in the goal-scoring department, finishing with just one goal, but it was not for a lack of chances. His adaptability to playing the role of playmaker was admirable to say the least. Fantilli and Bedard weren’t the only two 2023 draft-eligibles that stood out for Canada though.
Lukas Dragicevic showed his dynamism from the blueline, jumping into the play and trying to generate offense when no one else seemed to be capable of it. Matthew Wood was a star in the BCHL this year and was behind only Bedard among Canada’s goalscorers at the U-18s. Wood was noticeable in his limited shifts and likely could have been a bit more of a difference-maker had he been utilized more consistently. In the end, the Canadian roster needed the underage group to lead the way and even though they seemed to do a good job of it, the depth of the roster from the 2022 draft-eligible group just wasn’t what it needed to be.