Hlinka Gretzky Cup: 5 Storylines For Scouts

It’s time to put the scouting cap back on. The offseason is officially over — at least for prospect junkies and draft enthusiasts.

The draft year starts in earnest Monday when the puck drops on the weeklong Hlinka Gretzky Cup in the Czech Republic, which will showcase many of the top talents for 2020. Many but not all since there are several highly touted late-2001s that won’t be on display in this tournament for 2002-born prospects. Others are sidelined by injuries and some were instead auditioning for their countries at the WJC Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich.

In a way, this year’s Hlinka is as much about who won’t be there as who will be, but it promises to be a treat to watch and scout even without the likes of projected first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and fellow top-10 candidates Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, Anton Lundell, Rodion Amirov, Noel Gunler, Kasper Simontaival, Dylan Holloway and Justin Barron. Not to mention all the American prospects from the National Team Development Program, which skips this event every year in preparation for their regular season. Germany’s Tim Stutzle and Austria’s Marco Rossi also deserve shout-outs as surefire first-rounders from countries not participating in the Hlinka.

Alexis Lafreniere
Canada’s Alexis Lafreniere hoists the Hlinka Gretzky Cup following last year’s gold-medal game in Edmonton on Aug. 11, 2018. Canada defeated Sweden 6-2 to win that championship, with Lafreniere leading the way as Canada’s under-age captain. (The Canadian Press)

The list of absentees goes on — Jacob Perreault and Michael Benning were notable cuts for Canada, though not as shocking as the Alex Newhook snub last summer — but let’s shine the spotlight on those in attendance.

RELATED: 9 Players to Watch at Hlinka Gretzky Cup

Heading into the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, here are five storylines that scouts will be following:

1) Quinton Byfield

This is his tournament to dominate and to make his case as a legitimate challenger to Lafreniere for No. 1.

There are only three prospects — in this scout’s eyes — with a chance to go first overall in 2020 and Byfield is one of them. Raymond is the other and he already made an incredibly strong case by scoring a hat trick in the gold-medal game of the under-18 world championship in April, including the overtime winner for Sweden as an underager in that tournament.

That set the bar high for Byfield, but he could totally take Canada on his shoulders here. Byfield is an explosive forward with the physical tools to be an unstoppable force against his draft peers. He’s not Eric Lindros, but Byfield has the potential to be better than Eric Staal, who went second overall in one of the best drafts ever — and this 2020 class as a whole has the potential to rival 2003.

OHL, Sudbury Wolves, Quinton Byfield
Quinton Byfield of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves was named the CHL’s rookie of the year for 2018-19. (Photo courtesy CHL Images)

Lafreniere will enter the season as the frontrunner, but Byfield is 10 months younger — born in August 2002 to Lafreniere’s October 2001 — and could be hot on his heels coming off an electrifying performance at the Hlinka, especially with a gold medal to match Raymond’s efforts.

2) Yaroslav Askarov

Finally, it is Askarov’s draft year and the hype is real. He’s been a household name in scouting circles for a couple years already — heralded as the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price. 

Yes, better than Spencer Knight, who went 13th overall in 2019. And also believed to be better than fellow Russian first-rounders Ilya Samsonov and even Andrei Vasilevskiy, who might now be the best goaltender in the NHL ahead of Price.

Askarov could crack the top 10 in 2020 if he’s able to keep his momentum going — starting at the Hlinka, where he’ll be expected to backstop Russia to a medal. That pressure shouldn’t faze Askarov, who was absolutely stellar in outduelling Knight for a shootout win in the U18 semifinals this spring before settling for silver because of Raymond’s heroics. 

He’ll want a golden finish against the younger competition at the Hlinka and Askarov is fully capable of delivering. He could be the single most dominant player in this tournament, even more so than Byfield for Canada. Scouts are hoping for that matchup in the medal round — Canada versus Russia, Byfield versus Askarov — and there’s a good chance we’ll get to see it.

3) Non-Program Americans

They might be billed as the ‘B’ team, but the United States is certainly producing enough talent for two teams of draft-worthy prospects.

As evidenced by last year’s Hlinka squad, which featured 10 eventual draft picks in second-rounders Arthur Kaliyev, Jackson LaCombe, Nick Robertson and Robert Mastrosimone, third-rounder John Farinacci, fourth-rounders Cade Webber and Aaron Huglen, fifth-rounders Mike Koster and Josh Nodler, plus goaltender Dustin Wolf, who fell to the seventh round but just showed in Plymouth why he should have went much higher.

A number of those players made the most of their Hlinka opportunity, highlighted by the chemistry between Robertson and Kaliyev, and the emergence of Mastrosimone and Farinacci as standouts and leaders, while Nodler netted the most points and Huglen scored a lacrosse-style goal against Canada.

That makes for a perfect segue to this year’s Hlinka team, which has already delivered a lacrosse goal courtesy Mark Estapa in a pre-tournament game against Hungary. That is a sign of the skill to come.

Blake Biondi is the biggest name on this U.S. roster — a high-scoring Minnesota high school forward — but Cross Hanas from WHL Portland will be another offensive catalyst to keep an eye on after looking a little like the aforementioned Robertson in dazzling throughout that exhibition win over Hungary. Jack Williams and defenceman Noah Ellis could also be impact players and difference-makers among a bunch of relative unknowns that will be dubbed underdogs from the outset but could finish on the podium.

Unfortunately, the dangles of Antonio Stranges won’t be on display for Team USA, with the OHL London forward a controversial cut after a promising audition. Politics might have been at play in that decision, but Stranges is still all the rage thanks to a wicked shootout goal.

This ‘B’ team will be fun to watch regardless and should be able to shed that label by showcasing some of the top American prospects for 2020 since the new Program team isn’t as stacked or expected to produce as many first-rounders as that record-setting powerhouse in 2019.

4) Soon-To-Be CHLers

The Hlinka always offers a first look or a closer glimpse at the CHL Import Draft class for the coming season. This year will be no exception, with the top three picks and nine of the top 20 representing their countries here.

Finland’s defence features Kasper Puutio, the first overall selection for WHL Swift Current, and Ruben Rafkin, who was taken 14th by OHL Windsor after spending last season with USHL Tri-City. They will both be in the CHL for their NHL draft year.

Joona Lehmus, the sixth overall pick for QMJHL Saint John, could have also been part of Finland’s blue line but was surprisingly left off the roster.

Martin Chromiak, the second overall selection for OHL Kingston, will be Slovakia’s go-to forward after already starring in last year’s Hlinka. Chromiak, like Byfield, was born in August 2002 and is among the youngest prospects for 2020.

Noah Delemont, the third overall pick for QMJHL Acadie-Bathurst, should be a standout for Switzerland as an undersized defenceman with offensive flair.

Russia will be deploying three forwards selected in succession from seventh to ninth in June’s import draft, with Daniil Gushchin (WHL Regina, previously of USHL Muskegon), Marat Khusnutdinov (OHL Erie) and Vasili Ponomaryov (QMJHL Shawinigan). That trio should be able to do some damage on the scoreboard in this tournament before the latter two launch their North American careers this fall. That is assuming they sign with their respective CHL teams following this showcase.

The host Czechs also boast a couple forwards taken in the top 20, with Pavel Novak going 13th to WHL Kelowna — the 2020 Memorial Cup host team — and Jan Mysak selected 20th by OHL Hamilton, though he would have went higher had he been committed to the CHL route. Mysak is expected to stay home for his draft year. Two other Czech forwards of note are Stepan Machacek, taken 26th by OHL Owen Sound, and Ivan Ivan, selected 36th by QMJHL Cape Breton. That is not a typo, Ivan has a duplicate name and he is coming over, so QMJHL broadcasters can look forward to calling that one!

For WHL followers, also be on the lookout for Swiss forward Simon Knak (40th to Portland) and Slovakian defender Samuel Knazko (59th to Vancouver), along with Finnish forward Jesse Seppala (52nd to Edmonton) and Czech forward Michal Gut (57th to Everett). Those four later first-rounders are all expected to be in the Dub for their draft year.

5) Elite Underagers

The word generational has been thrown around way too much since Connor McDavid — he is the only generational talent of the last decade — but there are some elite underagers on these Hlinka rosters.

The youngest being Brad Lambert, a 15-year-old Finnish phenom who isn’t draft eligible until 2022. That is going to be another amazing draft headlined by a trio of forwards in Lambert and two Canadians you’ve probably already heard of: Shane Wright, who was granted exceptional status to play in the OHL this coming season, and Matthew Savoie, who went first overall in this year’s WHL bantam draft despite getting denied exceptional status.

For those thinking Lambert isn’t a very Finnish name, that’s true, but he’s grown up there with his Canadian-born father Ross serving as a skills coach in the Liiga. His uncle Lane is coaching in the NHL as the Islanders’ associate, so that’s quite the hockey family, but at least for now Brad is representing Finland internationally. As he should.

Finland also has a contender for first overall in 2021, with Aatu Raty already centering his country’s top line at this year’s Hlinka despite not being draft eligible in 2020. His older brother, Aku, was selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NHL draft by Arizona and could be on Finland’s WJC roster this winter, but all eyes will be on Aatu going forward. They could become similar to the Granlund brothers at the NHL level, with Aatu even better than Mikael. Aatu didn’t look out of place for Finland at the U18 worlds, but he’ll play more of a starring role at this tournament.

The other underager worthy of the word ‘elite’ is Swedish goaltender Jesper Wallstedt, who is also no stranger to the international stage and could continue the trend of goalies going in the top 15 come 2021. Knight, Askarov and Wallstedt are the future of that position, and Wallstedt will certainly be tested at this tournament with Sweden also sending a ‘B’ team of sorts without Raymond and Holtz — thus headlined by two other 2020 eligibles in forward Zion Nybeck and defenceman Helge Grans, as well as Wallstedt. The 6-foot-3 netminder will need to stand tall in the absence of those ringers. 

Raymond and Holtz, both 2002 born, would have made Sweden the favourite for Hlinka gold, but they have proven to be a level above their peers and will play key roles for Sweden’s WJC team, while Gunler was too old for this tourney as a late-2001.

There are five more underagers, all eligible for 2021, that may not be considered elite — yet — but could use this year’s Hlinka as their coming-out party: American forwards Mackie Samoskevich and Avery Hayes, Canadian goaltender Tristan Lennox, and two Russians in defenceman Daniil Chayka of OHL Guelph and forward Nikita Buruyanov.

The list goes on, but those eight — led by the big three of Lambert, Raty and Wallstedt — are the underagers expected to show well against older competition at this tournament.

As great as the 2020 NHL draft is shaping up to be — perhaps one of the best ever, as mentioned — that group of underagers will be ensuring the future is bright too.