The 2013-14 tournament season continued for NHL prospects in November, with the Four Nations U18 Tournament and World Junior "A" Challenge contested during the first 10 days of the month. Although many of the top already-drafted North American prospects will get a longer look in the U20 World Junior Championships in late December and early January, for several of the 2014 draft eligibles from Canada, Sweden, and the United States, these two tournaments were another chance to really stand out.
The team representing the United States won both of these tournaments. In the Junior "A" Challenge, the United States team defeated Russia in the final game, by a score of 4-1. In the 2013 U18 Four Nations tournament, the U.S. team trounced Sweden 6-2 in the championship game.
More important than who won in these tournaments, for those of us who follow prospects, is how certain players performed, especially the participating 2014 draft eligibles.
Junior "A" Challenge
The World Junior "A" Challenge was hosted by Hockey Canada in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia from November 4-10, 2013. Six teams participated, including two from Canada, as well as one each from the United States, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Switzerland.
So, who stood out?
The player who was most impressive in this tournament was Nick Schmaltz (Green Bay Gamblers, USHL). The record-setting leading scorer, Schmaltz averaged 3.0 points per game, posting 12 points (four goals, three assists) in the United States' four games. After his outstanding performance at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this past summer, the offensively-oriented, highly-skilled Schmaltz was already on many people's watch list of possible first rounders. But I believe that his performance in Nova Scotia, as well as his continuing excellent play in Green Bay, have solidified Schmaltz's place as a top-30 selection.
Although not as impressive as Schmaltz, Russia's Kirill Pilipenko (HC MVD Jr., MHL) improved his stock for the 2014 draft. Undersized, but an excellent offensive player, with good hockey sense and a very strong effort on every shift, Pilipenko posted eight points (four goals, four assists) in five games in the Challenge.
One player, Kyle Connor, not draft eligible until 2015, was very impressive. Connor, a winger for the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms, ais currently sixth in scoring in that league (19 points in 12 games). Committed to play at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2015, Connor recorded five points (two goals, three assists) in four games for the United States in the Junior "A" Challenge. His points included the game winner in the championship tilt against Russia. Good sized, with excellent instincts and good hands, look for Connor to be a top prospect for the 2015 draft.
Four Nations U18 Tournament
Played in Finland from November 8-10, many of the top European prospects for the 2014 draft participated in the Four Nations U18 Tournament. The countries that sent teams were the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland.
The United States team consisted almost entirely of National Team Development players. Two standout defensemen for the team were Jack Dougherty and Ryan Collins. Although neither Dougherty or Collins posted a point in the tournament, their solid defense had a huge effect on the outcome of the tournament. The offensive heros for the tournament were Alex Tuch, Sonny Milano, and 2015 draft-eligible Jack Eichel. Of the three, Eichel is clearly the most talented prospect. Expected to be a top-five selection in the 2015 draft, Eichel can do it all: he is a very good skater, and has excellent hands and outstanding hockey sense. A big-game player, Eichel scored the game winner in overtime of the semi-final game for the United States, and led the team and tournament in overall points (seven points in three games).
Tuch has been moving up in scouts' minds in recent months. He had an excellent All-American Prospects Game in September and now a very good Four Nations Tournament. Expected to be a first round selection in the 2014 draft, Tuch recorded three goals and three assists in three games last weekend. Milano has outstanding offensive instincts and very good skating skills. Like Tuch, Milano also posted six points in the three tournament games at the Four Nations Tournament. A leading scorer for the U-18 US National Development Team, there are questions as to whether Milano will go in the first round next June, but he is ranked an "A"in the November NHL Central Scouting's list of Players to Watch.
William Nylander is often mentioned as a candidate to go top five in June's draft in Philadelphia. But the Four Nations Tournament was not one of his best showings. Neither was it a tremendous offensive performance for Oskar Lindblom, another top Swedish prospect, who should also be selected in the first round of the next draft. The most impressive player on Sweden's team was its netminder, Linus Soderstrom, who will also be draft eligible in 2014. Soderstrom appeared in two games at the Four Nations Tournament and posted two wins, 1.50 GAA, and a .936 save percentage. This was not the first international tournament this year in which Soderstrom has looked good. At the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this past summer, he appeared in three games, recorded one shutout, and posted a 2.27 GAA and a .900 save percentage. Ranked a "B" in the November NHL Central Scouting's list of Players to Watch, expect Soderstrom to be one of the first goalies selected in the next draft.
It was a 2015 draft-eligible player from Finland, however, that really caught my eye in this tournament. Mikko Rantanen played in the SM-Liiga with men as a 16-year-old in 2012-13, and then was one of the leading scorers in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this past summer (eight points in four games). In the Four Nations Tournament, Rantanen posted two goals and two assists in three games. Rantanen has good size and excellent vision, but will need to get stronger to fulfill his potential. Watch for him over the coming year, as he may be a first round selection in 2015.
The tournament schedule continues this week, with the Canada/Russia Super Series starting tomorrow. Although Russia will not be sending its top prospects, the CHL's top players will put their skills on display in six games across Canada.