In Canada at least, the most anticipated day of the holidays is Boxing Day.
Why? Because the World Junior Hockey Championships get rolling in Buffalo, N.Y., with the Canadian team facing Finland as part of a four-game slate.
The team will be looking for its first gold since 2015, after a silver at the 2017 championships.
There won’t be many huge names at this year’s event like in years past, such as Connor McDavid, or Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews, to name but a few.
There will be, however, a host of 2017 first rounders trading hits and goals between the 10 teams involved in the Queen City. They include guys like Canada’s Cale Makar (4th overall to Colorado), Sweden’s Elias Pettersson (5th to Vancouver) and the USA’s Casey Mittelstadt (8th to Buffalo).
There are, too, many players who haven’t been drafted, or were drafted so far down the list that most casual observers may have long forgotten about (but not the NHL scouts and executives).
With the tournament being held in North America, on North American ice, there are at least 20 players who bear keeping an eye on, should they play in the tournament (final rosters for all teams weren’t available as of Dec. 21). We have accumulated a list, representing a cross-section of players drafted by different NHL clubs (with NHL club and draft number in brackets, if applicable).
20. Tobias Geisser, D – Switzerland (Washington, 120th overall, 2017)
The Swiss have been known to be upstarts in these tournaments. In 2010, they knocked off the mighty Russians in the quarter-finals before succumbing to Canada in the semis, on the way to finishing fourth. The Swiss will be in tough in Group B this year, lumped in with Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Belarus. They do, however, possess a strong club composed of many players who are currently on North American junior rosters. The only player listed (that we could find, anyway) who was drafted this year was big (6’4″, 201 lbs.) defenceman Tobias Geisser. The Washington Capitals prospect (4th round, 120th overall) is said by hockeyprospect.com to be “quick and agile for his height, solid in transition when retrieving pucks.” Playing with EV Zug of the Swiss National League, Geisser had four points in 24 games before heading to Buffalo.
19. Ostap Safin, RW – Czech Republic (Edmonton, 115th overall, 2017)
The saying goes, “size can’t be taught” and in 6’5″, 192 lbs. Czech winger Ostap Safin the Edmonton Oilers may have found a late round diamond in. Safin is a good skater for his size with notable speed, shot and hands. He’s also not afraid of the rough going and is getting a good grounding in the North American game playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. So far this year, the native of Prague has 13 goals and 19 assists in 33 games with the Sea Dogs. His international resume also sports participation in world junior events from U16 with the Czechs, to U17, U18 and now U20. He’ll be an asset in Buffalo.
18. Maksim Sushko, RW – Belarus (Philadelphia, 107th overall, 2017)
In the 100-year history of the NHL, just 12 players born in Belarus have played at least one game in the NHL. That list includes guys like Mikhail Grabovski, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Ruslan Salei. One player hoping to make it a lucky 13 would be Philadelphia fourth-rounder Maksim Sushko, who is from the city of Brest. After playing in the lesser know Belarus junior leagues and with the national team in tier-2 world junior events, he’ll get to showcase his skills playing against premier competition in teams like Russia and Sweden (Group B). Sushko won’t be unknown to many fans at the tournament, as he is in his second season with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League. In 28 games this year, he has nearly surpassed his 32 points in 54 games last season, scoring 16 goals and 10 assists in 28 games. Of note, he tallied four of his 16 goals in just one game earlier this year.
17. Adam Ruzicka, C – Slovakia (Calgary, 109th overall, 2017)
Adam Ruzicka is one of few players on this list who has U20 world junior experience already, having scored a goal in five games from Slovakia at last year’s tournament. This year, after being drafted in the fourth round by Calgary the 6’4″ center/winger will be looking to better that performance and show the Flames they weren’t wrong in taking him. He may also be well known to Canadian and American fans attending games in Buffalo, since he’s now in his second campaign with Sarnia of the OHL. Described as a “prototypical power forward” who has “good puck skills” by futureconsiderations.ca, Ruzicka has 20 goals and 19 assists in 34 games for the Sting this year, following a 46-point effort in his rookie season.
16. Jonas Rondbjerg, RW – Denmark (Vegas, 65th overall, 2017)
Not only did the expansion Vegas Golden Knights get to select a pretty darned good NHL squad that is near the top of the standings at almost the halfway mark, but they also were given the luxury of stockpiling 12 draft picks, three in the first round. One player not picked in the top two rounds that they may be excited about is Denmark right winger Jonas Rondbjerg. The 6’2″ native of Horsholm is playing with the big boys in the Swedish Hockey League as a member of the Vaxjo Lakers. The 18-year-old has done an admirable job in limited minutes (9:20 average per game), scoring five goals and two assists in 25 contests. This will also be the Danish sniper’s second go around at the U20 championships, as he tallied two assists in five games last year.
15. Malte Setkov, D – Denmark (Detroit, 100th overall, 2017)
With his towering height (6’6″) and long flowing locks, Danish defenceman Malte Setkov won’t escape notice for too long at the host arenas in Buffalo. He is still slight at 192 lbs. and is still growing, apparently. As his body has stretched, it’s meant that his game has had to evolve and it did. The 18-year-old native of Rodovre started the season with the Malmo Redhawks U20 junior team, then was promoted for a game with the big club. He has since been loaned to IK Pantern of the Allsvenskan (2nd division). The Wings are quite excited about Setkov’s progression as a budding two-way defender through the Swedish hockey system and with a solid tournament in Buffalo, he may take two steps closer to being a NHLer in the near future.
14. Rasmus Dahlin, D – Sweden (undrafted, Frolunda Indians, SHL)
As of this writing, Rasmus Dahlin tops the International Scouting Service as the no. 1 junior aged prospect in the world. And he won’t be a bit player for Sweden at the U20 championships either, having showed well at last year’s event, scoring a goal and adding an assist in seven games as a 16-year-old. Still just 17, he is a force with the Swedish Hockey League’s Frolunda Indians, playing with 30-something vets like Joel Lundqvist (Henrik’s twin) and Canadians Jonathan Sigalet and Ryan Lasch. He is the second leading defensive scorer on the team with five goals and six assists in 26 games, too. The ISS can’t say enough good things about Dahlin’s talents, the topper being “franchise d-man, proven he can meet the challenge of playing above his age level.”
13. Marcus Davidsson, C – Sweden (Buffalo, 37th overall, 2017)
Sabres fans will have much to cheer about in the coming weeks, as at least two of their very own will play prominent roles in Sweden’s quest for a gold medal. Alexander Nylander (8th overall, 2016) is on loan from the AHL’s Rochester Americans, joining Djurgardens “veteran” Marcus Davidsson, who was taken 37th overall in this year’s draft. With Swedish Hockey League team Djurgarden IF, Davidsson holds his own as a sound two-way forward with better-than-average offensive ability. He has already played 69 games over three seasons with Djurgarden, logging eight goals and 11 assists, along with a +4. This year, playing about 12 minutes a game, he has nine points in 23 contests and is +8.
12. Mikhail Berdin, G – Russia (Winnipeg, 157th overall, 2016)
At 19, Mikhail Berdin has already achieved a level of notoriety in North America. Earlier this season, the Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL) goalie scored a goal on an empty net against the Muskegon Lumberjacks. It was the final tally in a Sioux Falls 7-4 win and apparently his celebration was one for the ages. Aside from being a “sniper” the 6’2″ Berdin has performed admirably for the USHL squad, lowering his goals against from his rookie season (2.73 in 31 games) to 2.63 this year in 18 contests. He has also increased his save percentage from .925 to a stellar .930. The Winnipeg Jets drafted him before he went to Sioux Falls (where it will be easy to monitor him, as South Dakota isn’t far from Manitoba), after a standout 2015-16 season with the U18 Team Russia unit.
11. Andrei Altybarmakyan, RW – Russia (Chicago, 70th overall, 2017)
The Chicago Blackhawks have had to make do with late round draft picks over the last several years, which is due to the fruits of their labor in the playoffs and winning a couple titles. So, their scouts do a great job scouring the globe for talent that others might miss, Sweden’s Marcus Kruger coming to mind (149th overall, 2009). This year, more than most, the Hawks drafted five international players, with St. Petersburg’s Altybarmakyan going in the third round, 7oth overall. He’s not the biggest guy at 5’11” but has proven to be a solid two-way pivot/winger who can score when needed. With the touring Russian Selects U20 team this year, he scored three goals and added two assists in six games and was +3 as the Russians battled Canadian junior all-star teams.
10. Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Finland (Florida, 40th overall, 2017)
In recent years, the Finns have been a world junior powerhouse, winning it all in 2014 and 2016. However, they hit the skids last year, going 1-3 in the round robin and then having to beat Latvia twice in the relegation round to be invited back this year. The Finns are definitely back and we’d be surprised if they don’t at least make the final four. One of their brighter lights is smallish speedster Aleksi Heponiemi, who was taken 40th overall by the Florida Panthers, despite his 5’10”, 148 lb. frame. He can flat out fly and in just 29 games with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, he already has an astounding 71 points. What he does the best, according to scouting gurus, is create a lot of space for himself and his teammates.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, RW – Finland (Nashville, 30th overall, 2017)
Another smallish Finn forward, Eeli Tolvanen could end up being one of the steals of the 2017 draft. Selected 30th overall by the Predators, the slick sniper is having a standout season with the men on the Jokerit Helsinki team of the KHL. He leads a team chock full of former NHL players with 17 goals and 15 assists in 39 games, as well as an admirable +12. He was one of the Finns best players last year, recording six points in six games and figures to be a leader this year as Finland looks to erase the bad memory of a near last place finish at the 2017 event. The folks at hockeyprospect.com consider Tolvanen’s shot his best asset, saying, ” [Tolvanen] has the full arsenal of quick release snap shot, a powerful wrist shot and accurate one-timer on the power play.”
8. Janne Kuokkanen, C – Finland (Carolina, 43rd overall, 2016)
The hockey factory otherwise known as the OHL’s London Knights sure has turned out a large number of decent to excellent NHL talent since the turn of the century. Lanky pivot Janne Kuokkanen could be one of them down the road, having put in a great season with London in 2016-17 after being drafted 43rd overall by Carolina in 2016. He scored 26 goals and 62 points in 60 games, adding another 16 points in 14 playoff contests for coach Dale Hunter and the Knights. Kuokkanen was a surprise in this year’s training camp, making the Hurricanes and playing in four games before being demoted to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. He had 14 points in 19 games with the Checkers, as well as being +5, before being loaned to Finland for the IIHF championships.
7. Juuso Valimaki, D – Finland (Calgary, 16th overall, 2017)
It’s a relative crap shoot with players taken in the latter half of the first round. Juuso Valimaki is one of them, a big, mobile defenceman who is now in his third season with the Tri-City Americans of the WHL. The Flames saw no problem in scooping the 6’2″, 204 lb. native of Nokia, as he has been a point-per-game man the last two seasons. In 2016-17, he had 61 points in 60 games and was +2 for the Americans. This season, he has 20 points in 19 games and is +6. Desribed as “a skilled puckhandler who utilizes his size and reach well”, Valimaki is also a veteran of last year’s disappointing tournament (two goals in six games) and will no doubt be out to turn the Finnish ship around.
6. Alex Formenton, LW – Canada (Ottawa, 47th overall, 2017)
We told you the London Knights were a purveyor of fine hockey talent to the NHL. The Ottawa Senators got a gem in Barrie native Formenton, who has blossomed into a point-a-game forward for the Knights after being taken 47th overall at this year’s entry draft. And, he has already gotten into one NHL contest, debuting as the youngest player in modern Senators history to suit up at just 18 years and 24 days in a game against Detroit. He had a pretty good rookie season with London last season, picking up 34 points in 65 games, while being defensively aware enough to log a +21. This season, Formenton has 21 points in 20 games and is +1 (albeit for a weaker Knights team). He has already flashed great ability in games leading up to the Boxing day tilt with Finland, registering two assists in a exhibition victory over the Czech Republic.
5. Robert Thomas, C – Canada (St. Louis, 20th overall, 2017)
With no huge name on the marquee like Connor McDavid, the Canadians will be a scrappier bunch and hard to play against. Third year OHLer, and also a London Knight, Robert Thomas has made it known he wants to be a leader on a team that relishes gold and not the silver it claimed last year. In a exhibition game against the Czech Republic Wednesday night, Thomas scored a goal and three assists as Team Canada routed the Czechs 9-0. Now in his third season with London, Thomas is having a breakout year after being taken 20th overall by the Blues, scoring 20 goals and adding 26 assists in just 27 games so far. Like a few others on this team, Thomas doesn’t have a ton of international experience, but that may serve him well, not having seen his foes that often.
4. Boris Katchouk, LW – Canada (Tampa Bay, 44th overall, 2016)
The rich could get that much richer in the coming years. The Tampa Bay Lightning, already loaded with top flight talent, could have bonus second rounder Boris Katchouk in the line-up soon, as well as Team Canada teammates Taylor Raddysh (58th overall in 2016), Brett Howden (27th overall in 2016) and Cal Foote (14th overall in 2017). Katchouk, a 6’3″ native of Kitchener, bears watching in that he has already played four seasons in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie and is a gifted goal scorer. In 171 games with the Greyhounds, Katchouk has 86 goals and 76 assists, while also sporting an overall plus-minus of +57 (+32 this year, 27 goals in 30 games). He is playing on a talented line with Robert Thomas and Raddysh and fired a goal against the Czechs too.
3. Jeremy Swayman, G – USA (Boston, 111th overall, 2017)
The defending champion Americans will be on a mission to grab gold on home soil in Buffalo and it will all start from the net out. Lumped in a group with silver medalists Canada and a contrite Finnish team, the U.S. will need stellar goaltending like they got from graduate Tyler Parsons last year. Of the three goalies they have to choose from, they could do worse than University of Maine’s Swayman. The Boston Bruins draftee and native of Anchorage, AK is having a fine freshman season with the Black Bears. In 12 games so far, he is 7-3-1 with a 2.58 goals against average and .927 save percentage. Interestingly, he split duties with Team Russia’s Mikhail Berdin with the Sioux Falls Stampede last season. Swayman was 7-18-3 in 32 games, with a .914 save percentage and 2.90 GAA.
2. Andrew Peeke, D – USA (Columbus, 34th overall, 2016)
Not many players call Florida home, much less the town of Parkland, which is northwest of Fort Lauderdale. But, in due time, the town may be able to put on their welcome sign that they are home to NHL defenceman Andrew Peeke. At 6’3″ and 200 lbs., the University of Notre Dame rearguard is learning to use his big frame better, while still being an excellent puck-mover and defensive stalwart. In 60 games with the Fighting Irish, Peeke has a modest 22 points, but his also +22 for the Big 10 school. He does have some international experience, having played for the Team USA U18 squad at the Hlinka Memorial in 2016. The Blue Jackets must be thrilled they got him in the second round of the 2016 draft.
1. Max Jones, LW – USA (Anaheim, 24th overall, 2016)
With his size and scoring ability, Max Jones is going to be a load for teams like Canada and Finland to handle in round robin play. Yet another product of the London Knights, the Orion, MI born Jones was taken 24th overall by Anaheim in 2016 and with his scoring prowess it may not be long before he’s in a Ducks uniform. His stat line with the Knights this season is remarkable, as he has 18 goals and just three assists in 25 games. This is in stark contrast to his 45 goals and 43 assists in his first 96 OHL games. He has used his size too, to be belligerent, logging 205 penalty minutes in 121 contests. He will be a force in his first foray into the U20 championships.