2021 NHL Draft Roundtable: Risers After the U18 World Championship

It’s time for another 2021 NHL Draft roundtable here at The Hockey Writers. With the U18 World Championships in the books and 2023 draft-eligible prospects Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov ripping up the hockey world, there is a lot to talk about this time around. From risers to disappointments, this relatively short tournament has given NHL scouts and draft pundits a lot to think about as they prepare their final lists for the end of July.

Related: Connor Bedard: A Generational Talent

In this edition, I am joined once again by my esteemed draft panel of Dayton Reimer (DR), Colton Davies (CD), Hadi Kalakeche (HK), and Peter Baracchini (PB). We will be discussing risers, disappointments, MVPs and unsung heroes, and finally, the biggest surprises from the tournament. We will also touch on the generational under agers and whether the NHL should consider adding an “exceptional status” rule to allow them to jump draft years.

Question #1: Risers

There were a lot of prospects in this tournament that showed up and subsequently raised their draft stock for the main event in July. Which three rose the most for you?

DR: Aleksi Heimosalmi will get a lot of attention now after claiming Top Defenseman. He’s a very intriguing two-way defender with great hands and amazing footwork, and with him owning a right-handed shot, teams will be very interested to see if he’s available after the first round. Olen Zellweger will also get some additional attention after ending the tournament with eight points despite playing on a roster filled with stars. Finally, Logan Stankoven likely has cemented his place in the first round after getting four goals in seven games for Canada and helping them win the gold.

Olen Zellweger Everett Silvertips
Olen Zellweger, Everett Silvertips (Photo by Christopher Mast/Getty Images)

CD: One of my risers is Team Finland’s Samu Tuomaala. He played exceptionally well for the Finns, racking up 11 points in seven games. I believe he has solidified himself as a first-round pick at this year’s NHL Entry Draft and will be a useful winger in the years to come. As for my other two selections, I am going to have to go with Stankoven and Zellweger from Team Canada. Stankoven is a player who is overlooked due to his size, but don’t let that fool you, he has a superstar release and can fire the puck into the net from almost any angle. He’s a pure goal scorer and after his U18 performance, he should be climbing the draft boards. Finally, Zellweger was one of the most impressive defencemen at the tournament. He was one of three defencemen who led the tournament with eight points. He is an offensive threat who can bring a complete two-way game to the table and scouts should be drooling over him.

HK: Heimosalmi got a great chance to showcase his talents and catch scouts’ eyes at this tournament, and he made the most of it. He’s only my second favorite Finn of the tournament; I really liked Tuomaala’s game, he played like a first-rounder and definitely earned his way up some draft lists. Finally, Zellweger’s performance on Canada’s blueline really put him on my radar; he moves the puck very well, has a good active stick, and great instincts.

PB: There were so many for me that I really don’t know where to begin. To keep it short and sweet, I was very impressed with Zellweger from Canada and Heimosalmi and Ville Koivunen from Finland. Zellweger and Heimosalmi showed great composure, puck-moving abilities, and speed on defence for their respective teams. They found the scoresheet often and made a lasting impression on me as a defencemen. Koivunen was a standout at the junior level and the production continued at this tournament. He’s a very strong skater and is smart with his decision-making when he has the puck. This tournament definitely vaulted his draft stock.

MZ: There were certainly a lot of players that raised their draft stock after this tournament. Echoing many of my colleagues, Zellweger opened a lot of eyes after his eight-point performance and is now firmly on everyone’s radar going into the draft in July. In fact, he could be a second-round pick when all is said and done. Sticking with Team Canada, goaltender Benjamin Gaudreau certainly moved up a lot of rankings with his performance in the medal rounds. He was calm and cool in the crease during every start and was one of the reasons his team outlasted Russia and won a gold medal for the first time since 2013. Finally, there’s Simon Edvinsson. Even though he was a highly-touted defenceman going in, I think he’s risen his stock enough to be discussed in the same realm as Brandt Clarke, Owen Power, and Luke Hughes, and could legitimately be drafted in the top five.

Question #2: Underachievers

While there were a lot of prospects that impressed, there were also a few that didn’t live up to the hype. Who was your biggest underachiever in this year’s tournament?

DR: Brad Lambert had a surprisingly quiet tournament, just putting up five assists and no goals. Yes, he was one of the younger players at the tournament, but he’s also been playing in the Finnish Liiga for two seasons already and showed some dominant skill at the U20s. To see him not score a goal at the U18s was a little disappointing. I also wasn’t impressed with Edvinsson’s overall performance. He’s projected to go as high as second overall, yet was outperformed by, most notably, Clarke, who is looking much more like a lock for the top-five.

CD: Lambert. Although he did record five assists in the five games he suited up for, I thought he could do a lot more given his stature. Being one of the highly-touted prospects for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft I was expecting him to use this tournament to help drive his draft stock against Canada’s Shane Wright, but ultimately that never happened. Another player I would put on that list is Team USA’s Aidan Hreschuk. A projected early to mid-second-round pick, he is a quick and physical defenceman who managed to put up just two points in five games. The Boston College commit has had a great season in the USHL putting up 17 points in 23 games so don’t let his tournament play fool you when it comes to his offensive instincts.

Brad Lambert, JYP
Brad Lambert, JYP (Mandatory Credit: Jiri Halttunen)

HK: I expected Lambert to spearhead the Finns in this tournament, but he was pretty underwhelming for a guy that’s older than Bedard and Michkov. He’s a 2022 NHL Draft-eligible, so hopefully he hits the ground running back in Finland and comes back strong for his draft year. I was looking forward to seeing Dmitry Katelevsky (2021) in action at the U18s, but he only scored one goal in seven games and really seemed out of place.

PB: I really expected more from Simon Robertsson from Sweden. A powerful shot to boast, he did score three goals. Much like the rest of the team, I expected a little more production from a player that was supposed to be one of Sweden’s top offensive weapons. Being on the top line with Fabian Lysell and Liam Dower Nilsson, I didn’t feel like he stepped up like he needed to in order to be a major factor for them throughout the tournament. Sticking with Sweden, I thought that Anton Olsson had some inconsistencies during the tournament. I was hoping he would elevate his play as I have him as a fringe first or early second-round pick. There were times where he showed that two-way game that I was very high on and other times, I questioned his positioning and defensive play.

MZ: Sticking with most of my colleagues, I was expecting a bit more from Lambert in this tournament. After impressing at the U20 World Junior Championships where he was playing against players much older than him, he didn’t seem to stand out as much this time. For a guy that has been discussed as being the second-overall pick behind Wright in 2022, he should have been a lot more noticeable.

Question #3: Biggest Surprise of the Tournament

There’s always a player that comes out of no where in these tournaments and gets on the radar of NHL scouts and pundits with their performance. With that said, who was your biggest surprise?

DR: Heimosalmi was just so much fun to watch. He virtually came out of nowhere before this tournament, and now is one of my favourites outside of the first round. But I was also surprised by Bedard. He is still just 15 years old, and he nearly led the tournament in points. It’s like watching Connor McDavid – no matter how good you think he is, he still is able to pull off something that you didn’t even think possible.

Connor Bedard, Regina Pats
Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller)

CD: For this question I could have gone a couple of routes, but I would have to choose Mason McTavish. I didn’t expect him to have a bad tournament at all, but he played his heart out every single game. Not only did he score 11 points, but he was also very physical in all ends and was a menace to play against. He used his big frame to pry his way into the offensive zone and drive players off the puck. Another guy who can find the back of the net with ease, he will have no problem translating his game to the NHL in the near future.

HK: My biggest surprise in this tournament was Zellweger; I had him nowhere on my radar and he really blew me away in this tournament. I loved his ability to carry the puck up-ice, his passing decisions were sound and kept the team out of their own end most of the time, and he used his shot efficiently when patrolling in the offensive zone. His rush defence is sound, and he can carry himself on the cycle. Overall just a really good puck-moving two-way defenseman.

PB: I was really surprised with McTavish’s performance. Heading into the tournament, I had him outside of the top-20 in my latest rankings, but his speed, shot, offensive awareness and aggressive nature really stood out. His leadership qualities were also on display as he stepped in and took over as captain when Wright was out early on in the tournament. Suffice it to say, he was relied on from the very beginning as he was a major factor for Canada en route to a gold medal.

Mason McTavish Peterborough Petes
Mason McTavish of the Peterborough Petes (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

MZ: One name comes to mind, Danila Klimovich from Team Belarus. He was their best player by a wide margin as he surprised everyone with his speed, creativity, and NHL-caliber shot en route to six goals in five games. He may have been an unknown prospect going in, but I guarantee you he isn’t anymore. In fact, he could go from an unranked nobody to a first or second-round pick. If he’s not the definition of the word surprise, I don’t know who is.

Question #4: The Connor Bedard/Matvei Michkov Question

Should the NHL consider adding an “exceptional status” rule to the NHL Draft for under age generational prospects like Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov to jump draft years?

DR: No, not at all. There are too many instances of top-tier players being rushed to the NHL too young and end up becoming busts because they couldn’t develop at their own pace. Michkov, Bedard, and Wright looked incredible at the U18s, but I don’t believe any of them would be able to handle the pressures of NHL – or even AHL – hockey next season. They’re still growing, and they should do that with their peers, even if they are so much better than them.

CD: I would absolutely argue that after the performances shown by these two young prospects, you need to consider it. The talent level shown by both Bedard and Michkov is generational. These two dominated their respective junior leagues this past year and then went on to have star studded performances at the U18 World’s. When Canada and Russia battled for gold, all eyes were on Bedard and Michkov. I don’t think we’ve seen this type of hype around two players this early since Crosby and Ovechkin.

HK: I don’t think the NHL should be acquiring talent any younger than they already are; playing against the biggest, fastest, strongest hockey players in the world is already overwhelming for some rookies today, and if the stuff Tom Wilson does keeps happening, I want exactly zero sixteen-year-olds anywhere near NHL ice.

PB: The way that Wright, Bedard, and Michkov handled the competition should be the main reason why the NHL should consider an exceptional status rule. They’re going to dominate the junior level for the foreseeable future. If they don’t have anything else to learn even at a young age, why not bring them up to play at the next level. With the way teams develop players nowadays, they should be in good hands.

In the instance of a Nail Yakupov or Alexandre Daigle, you may want to avoid those situations and not take the chance and rush them. Although, aside from Sean Day, players who were granted exceptional status have had strong seasons when they entered the league at 18. It’s unlikely that if they entered the league at 17 it will drastically hurt their development. The same could be said for exceptional talents like Bedard, Michkov, and Wright.

MZ: This is a tough question, but I am leaning towards not allowing generational players to jump draft years. The age cut-offs are there for a reason, to protect young players. As Hadi said, the NHL is a tough place to play, especially when you have fully developed athletes running around out there. Just because they dominate in junior against players a couple of years older than them, doesn’t mean they will be able to do the same thing against players who have five or ten years of experience on them. I would hate to see a supreme talent like Bedard get severely injured just because his body isn’t physically developed enough yet. Let them be a kid and dominate in junior before they are subjected to the pressure cooker of the NHL.

Question #5: MVPs and Unsung Heroes

Each nation in the semi-final had its share of key performers and under-the-radar stars. Who are your picks for MVP and unsung hero from each team?

Dayton’s Picks

TeamMVPUnsung Hero
CanadaConnor BedardBrennan Othmann
RussiaMatvei MichkovIvan Miroshnichenko
FinlandSamu TuomaalaViljami Juusola
SwedenIsak RosenOliver Moberg

Colton’s Picks

TeamMVPUnsung Hero
CanadaConnor BedardBrennan Othmann
RussiaMatvei MichkovIvan Miroshnichenko
FinlandSamu TuomaalaAleksi Heimosalmi
SwedenFabian LysellSimon Edvinsson

Hadi’s Picks

TeamMVPUnsung Hero
CanadaConnor BedardOlen Zellweger
RussiaMatvei MichkovFedor Svechkov
FinlandSamu TuomaalaAleksi Heimosalmi
SwedenFabian LysellIsak Rosen
Samu Tuomaala Team Finland
Samu Tuomaala of Team Finland (Finnish Ice Hockey Association)

Peter’s Picks

TeamMVPUnsung Hero
CanadaConnor Bedard/Shane WrightOlen Zellweger
RussiaMatvei MichkovDanila Yurov
FinlandSamu TuomaalaAleksi Heimosalmi
SwedenFabian LysellWilliam Stromgren

Matthew’s Picks

TeamMVPUnsung Hero
CanadaConnor BedardOlen Zellweger
RussiaMatvei MichkovFedor Svechkov
FinlandSamu TuomaalaAleksi Heimosalmi
SwedenIsak RosenSimon Edvinsson

Final Awards

Canada: MVP – Connor Bedard, Unsung Hero – Olen Zellweger

Russia: MVP – Matvei Michkov, Unsung Hero – Fedor Svechkov/Ivan Miroshnichenko

Finland: MVP – Samu Tuomaala, Unsung Hero – Aleksi Heimosalmi

Sweden: MVP – Fabian Lysell, Unsung Hero – Simon Edvinsson

Final Thoughts

Once again, the U18s lived up to the hype. In a year that was filled with cancellations and postponements, it was great to see it go off without a hitch and smoothly coast right to end with Team Canada winning gold. All the participating countries brought their best hockey to the table, which in turn made every game exciting to watch. From the dominating performances of 2022 and 2023 draft-eligible prospects Bedard, Michkov, and Wright to the surprising contributions from Klimovich and Zellweger, there was drama and intrigue at every turn.

Now, thanks to the upcoming tournament in Erie, we only have to wait a few more weeks before we get treated to more of the same. A three-week smorgasbord to be exact. As always, the great NHL draft team at The Hockey Writers will be there to cover every single minute of it. So stay tuned to the 2021 NHL Draft Guide as we continue to pump out more profiles, features, and tournament coverage right up to the start of the first round on July 23.