The Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup is a traditional U18 summer hockey tournament hosted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is the first tournament of the season and a valuable opportunity for scouts to have a first glance at the upcoming draft class. The stands therefore were mostly filled with scouts. Hockey Prospectus did not want to miss this opportunity and was present for the Slovakian group games in Bratislava, which included Slovakia, Canada, Russia and Sweden. Let’s have a look at some of the 2017 and 2018 draft eligible names that stood out in this group.
Two top prospects at the 2017 NHL Draft who lived up to their high expectations were Swedish defender Timothy Liljegren and Canadian centerman Maxime Comtois. Both are projected top five prospects in the upcoming draft by most public pre-draft rankings.
Liljegren of Rogle BK is probably the defender that stood out the most with his performance. He is a defender who excels at both ends of the ice and immediately caught my eyes with his tremendous puckhandling and skating skills. Such a gifted puckmover and a player who can carry the puck up ice for smooth zone entries and to jump the rush or play long and accurate outlet passes. An absolute leader on the ice and an effective quarterback on the powerplay unit. He is not only a pure offensive-minded defenceman, he also plays a reliable game defensively. He is hard to beat along the wall as he does not give opponents much time or space and attacks puck carriers with an active stick. Battled tenaciously with all of his frame and did not take a shift off. He plays a 365-degrees game and should become the number one projected defender at the draft. His offensive turnovers will disappear as he matures.
Canada’s Comtois was the team’s best scorer in points and goals and strengthened his top ten projection. Comtois is one of those players who gets under the skin of opponents with scoring and a physical game. He has the size, grit and skill and that makes him such an elusive prospect. Comtois is equipped with a hard wrist shot and a quick backhand release. He can be used in nearly any game situation and is very dangerous when playing shorthanded as he uses his long reach perfectly and sets the puck carrier under enormous pressure. Twice in the game against Sweden he stole the puck on the blueline and executed both breakaways using his smooth hands and Hockey IQ. He is a feisty kid who plays with a good energy level and is very present in after whistle scrums – He shows up every shift and competes hard. Comtois just loves to chirp at opponents and be in their faces during the entire game. He already had a very productive season with the Tigres of the QMJHL and will be even more dominant in the upcoming season.
Sweden had an average tournament so it is hard to name any standouts. Center Rickard Hugg definitely impressed me with his strong understanding of the game and play around the net. He was great on puck deflections and showed strong skating balance as he was hard to jostle around in front of the net. Puckmoving, undersized defender Erik Brannstrom was the second Swedish defender next to Liljegren that caught my eyes. He possesses a very hard and accurate shot and is a very mobile and fast skater. He can also carry the puck with confidence but given his small size he showed issues when playing against bigger and stronger forwards. The Swedish had a couple of underagers in the lineup and defender Rasmus Dahlin and late 2000-born Lukas Wernblom stood out in particular. Both are strong skaters and have offensive upside. Wernblom’s shot impressed me in terms of power and accuracy.
The Slovakian team showed a strong overall play and stood out with their tremendous work ethic. Individually, I liked forward Patrik Hrehorcak, a winger who played with a good compete level and did not take a shift off. Played a strong and committed two-way game and fired the puck with great velocity. Their goaltender, Jakub Sklenar, came up big in the game against Canada and saved the co-hosts into overtime with his saves. Also speedy winger Jakub Kover had strong games in which he showed his speed with the puck.
Russia started slowly into the tournament and picked up the pace after the loss against Sweden. Their top player was doubtless Klim Kostin, a first-round projection in 2017. He was that one player who kept you on the verge of your seat. Always tried to create offence when carrying the puck and showing off his great puckhandling skills. He often went from the outside to the inside with one direction change and got past the defenders quickly. He combines size, skill and a wow-effect. I especially liked his defensive zone game when playing shorthanded as he was not afraid to block shots and was effectively positioning himself in shooting lanes. Kostin captained the Russian team and stepped up his game in big moments. He is a projected top 20 pick, rather higher than that though. Goaltender Artem Melnikov was lights-out in both of his two games but strangely did not suit up for their semi-final game against the U.S. Defender Mark Rubinchik impressed me with a very physical game and played very reliable defensively in most games. He cut passing lanes effectively by using his full body and showed some good outlet passes, is limited in his puckhandling skills though. Two other Russians who showed good games were Alexei Toropchenko and Nikita Shashkov. I liked their compete levels and skating skills. Toropchenko is a big winger who can protect the puck very well and drive the net without letting the defenders much chance of using their sticks to poke check. Big defender Dmitri Samorukov displayed his skills in some games but did not fully convince me in all of his shifts. He can play physical and does have a decent first pass, but he needs to work on his consistency and shooting accuracy.
Switzerland did not play a good tournament and I saw them only in one game. The only Swiss I liked in that game was Nando Eggenberger, a big-sized power forward who will not be available until 2018. I liked his powerful strides and determination towards the net and draws comparison to Nino Niederreiter in terms of playing style. He is not that good with the puck, though.
Although I’ve seen only one game of the U.S. team, there were two players who stood out immediately, namely forwards Vanya Lodnia and Ryan Poehling. Lodnia impressed with silk-smooth hands and great skating mobility. Loved to make quick turns with the puck and is able to sneak through defenders where there is almost no room. He made some Russians look like fools with his strong puckhandling skills combined with great skating. Poehling on the other hand is a big power forward who is hard to separate from the puck. Although he is big in size, he is a great skater and is able to take off in a hurry as he hits top speed with only 2-3 powerful strides.
Despite the fact that Canada failed to win the Ivan Hlinka for a ninth straight title, there was plenty of talent to discover in the team. Next to Comtois, I really liked Shane Bowers and goaltender Michael DiPietro. I was impressed with Bowers’ skating speed as he has great top speed and has the ability to take 2-3 quick extra strides which creates breaches into team defence. He was great around the net and often in the right position for rebounds or puck deflections. His two-way game is advanced and he competes hard in his own zone. He might not have high-end scoring upside but his hockey smarts and skating speed make him a first-rounder. Michael DiPietro, Canada’s starter at the tournament, convinced in all of his games with a calm and athletic game. He is a matured and confident netminder who showed strong rebound control and never panicked, always focused calmly on the puck and tracked shots well. Showed great communication skills, too, and was in touch with his defenders all the time. A 2018-eligible player I also liked was Ryan McLeod who is a good skater and possesses strong vision and playmaking skills. On the blue line I liked captain Markus Phillips, who is a hard-working stay-at-home defender with some offensive upside, as well as Ian Mitchell who is a lightning-quick skater with puckmoving skills.
Two Canadians who slightly disappointed me were Matthew Strome and Owen Tippett. Both are supposed to be first rounders, Tippetts is even projected within the top five often. Tippett showed his skill in some shifts but my impression was that he really needs a strong playmaker aside to feed him. He does have a great shot and has a natural scoring touch but had a hard time in creating scoring chances by himself. He is solidly built and has the tools to become a top-six scoring winger with the right center next to him, but his tournament performance was not good enough to convince me he belongs into the top five next year.
Matthew Strome, younger brother of Dylan and Ryan, did not have a good tournament and was not very noticeable. He did not manage to create a lot of offence, something that he usually does. He was invisible in most of his shifts and rarely displayed his good puckhandling and playmaking skills.
Another prospect who did not fully live up to my expectations was Adam Ruzicka from Team Slovakia. He is seen as first-round material by scouts but did not fully convince me. He does have the size, offensive upside to become an intriguing scoring forward but his compete level and play away from the puck did not satisfy me. He does not have a jump to his game and has a really poor defensive zone game, where he just floats around and waits for a long outlet pass. He also seems to have a consistency issue as he has games where he is invisible but comes up big the very next one. He did the same at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, where he was outstanding against the Swiss and displayed his strong offensive upside but was terrible against other, bigger nations. He is hard to project, but as of today I would definitely say he is no first-rounder, not even second or third in my eyes.
The Ivan Hlinka Memorial was also delivering scouts with a head-to-head of the projected top prospects in 2018, Joseph Veleno and Andrei Svechnikov. Both prospects are believed to go first overall, respectively second. Both players have lived up to my expectations, although Svechnikov had some down times where he was not very visible. I need to add here though that the Russian has probably seen less ice time than Veleno, who played in one of Canada’s top lines. Veleno is a physically mature player who plays a strong all-around game and possesses a high motor and quick feet. He can play very physically if needed and is able to make plays in tight spaces very well. Svechnikov on the other hand is not that strong physically but does possess good timing on one-timers and can beat goaltenders with his hard and accurate shot. Similar to Veleno, he can make plays in tight but has a better pass than the Canadian. Svechnikov likes to go for the hard passes and has great vision and awareness with the puck.
At that point I would say Veleno is slightly ahead of Svechnikov. I liked Veleno’s compete level and overall package while Svechnikov will not catch your eyes immediately. If you have a closer look though, he does have tremendous upside and also a reliable own zone game.