There have been many World Junior Championship preview articles written over the last week, most of which have focused on coverage of the players within the North American teams. There has been some coverage of the Europeans, but not much as it relates to how their play in Malmo, Sweden will affect their chances with NHL teams.
It is no secret that the World Juniors is one of the most important viewings of players who are not currently skating in North America. For a young European, this world stage can make or break his draft position, and most of the potential first round European prospects will be playing in the tournament.
Notable exceptions are possible top-10 selection William Nylander and expected late first rounder Adrian Kempe. Earlier in the season, several prognosticators had Nylander competing for the number one draft position. His failure to be selected for Sweden’s team in this tournament almost assures that he will not be selected in the top five in Philadelphia this June. But Nylander just has not done enough to earn a spot on Sweden’s very strong U20 WJC team.
A junior in Sweden’s Allsvenskan League, just a few days ago Nylander was loaned from Rogle to Sodertalje, where he will join another top prospect in this year’s draft, David Pastrnak. Although Nylander will most likely pick up the pace as a member of one of the worst teams in Sweden’s second-tier league, it won’t make up for his failure to showcase his talent in this tournament.
Kempe, an excellent-sized two-way center, is a member of the MODO J20 team. Posting good numbers, he will likely play in this tournament when it returns to Canada next year, but there were too many Swedish players ahead of him for Kempe to be chosen to represent his country this year. Unlike the situation with Nylander, the “snub” will mean less for Kempe’s draft position.
Pastrnak, who will appear in Malmo for the Czech Republic’s team, is one of the more interesting prospects in the tournament. A very offensively-minded winger, Pastrnak has the perfect stage to rapidly rise in the 2014 draft rankings. This is especially true with the Czech Republic playing in the same group as Canada and the United States (television broadcasts and streams of the Czech games will be watched all over North America). Currently thought of as a player who could be selected in the bottom half of the first round, an outstanding performance in the WJCs could lift Pastrnak to the middle portion of the round.
Also appearing for the Czech Republic is Jakub Vrana, who is an U-20 WJC veteran. Currently thought of as a better prospect than Pasternak, Vrana appears to be on everybody’s list for first round picks. However, Vrana was expected to be a regular member of Sweden’s Linkopings hockey SEL team this season, and after he did not make a good early showing, he was returned to the J20 club. An excellent offensive prospect, Vrana needs to make a very good showing against top-notch competition in this tournament to solidify his first round draft position.
One of the players that most in North America won’t get to see early in the tournament is Anton Karlsson, another consensus top pick in the 2014 draft. Karlsson, who will take the ice for Sweden, is a strong two-way winger, with an edge. Skating for Frolunda J20, Karlsson has excellent size and hockey vision, and has good offensive upside. He is expected to go in the first half of the first round, and with a solid tournament, especially if he shows his grit in addition to offensive production, Karlsson could be selected among the top 10 in this draft.
Also expected to be a top-15 selection, winger Kasperi Kapanen, will take the ice for Finland. With one of the strongest defenses in the tournament, Team Finland will get Kapanen the puck often enough to make an outstanding impression. Currently playing with KalPa in the men’s SM-Liiga, Kapanen is small, with incredible creativity. He caught scouts’ eyes in international competition over the last year; the question is whether he will be able to replicate those performances with older prospects in the U20. If so, Kapanen should be a top-10 pick this coming June.
A lesser known European prospect to watch for the 2014 draft is Kevin Fiala of Switzerland. A speedy winger, with excellent hands, he is a sleeper pick in the draft, who could move up with a good tournament. Currently playing for HV71 J20 team, Fiala is second in team scoring, and should get plenty of ice time on Switzerland’s U20 WJC team.
A final draft-eligible player to watch is Sweden’s Lucas Wallmark, who regularly skates for the Allsvenskan Asploven HC. A highly-skilled, slightly undersized center with excellent hockey vision and good faceoff skills, Wallmark has a lot to prove in this tournament: can he put it together to show that he can keep up with the best skaters of his age group? If he can, expect Wallmark to go in the second or third round of the 2014 NHL draft.
Leslie Treff covers professional and amateur scouting for Hockey Prospectus.
Follow Leslie on Twitter at @HFNYRangers.