The 2023 NHL Draft has been making headlines for several years already, with several incredibly talented prospects leading the draft class. Typically there aren’t very many under-aged players (haven’t yet been eligible for any NHL drafts) in the World Junior Championship because it is usually a tournament dominated by 19 year olds. Not every 17-year-old (or young 18-year-old) is able to compete well against players that much older than them but the 2023 draft class has delivered.
There are plenty of 2023 draft prospects who will be representing their nation when the puck drops on opening day of the 2023 World Juniors on December 26, 2022. Some of them are top prospects looking to cement that status, some are already locked in as one of the top two or three prospects in the world, and others will be looking to just get drafted next June. Let’s take a look at some draft eligible players to keep an eye on at this year’s tournament and who they will be representing.
Gavin Brindley, RW/C, University of Michigan (NCAA)
It’s rare to see first-year draft eligible prospects make the cut for their national team at the World Junior Championship, and It’s also rare for players under 5-foot-10 to be taken seriously as a prospect. Gavin Brindley falls into both those camps, but his absurd effort level and great skating makes him a prospect that demands attention.
Related: Guide to the 2023 World Junior Championship
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Brindley has worked his way up to the second line center role for a University of Michigan team that is absolutely packed with drafted NHL talent, as a freshman no less. His ability to retain and win back possession of the puck through sheer force of will makes him a positive force on any kind of line, and his flexibility lets him play up and down the lineup.
One of the three 2023 draft prospects who were fighting for a spot in team USA’s forward group at their selection camp, Brindley made the cut and has lined up on the fourth line for the USA in some pre-tournament action. I believe he could succeed in any role they give him but a depth scoring role with defensive responsibilities should work fine. Wach for Brindley to rise in the lineup if injuries or scoring droughts plague Team USA.
Lenni Hameenaho, LW, Assat (Liiga)
Lenni Hameenaho is a Finnish winger who has scored at a remarkable rate so far in Liiga, a notoriously difficult league to score in, especially for teenagers. He has 13 points in 28 games so far, while 2022 1st overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky had just 10 points in 31 Liiga games. That’s not to say Hameenaho is on the same level as Slafkovsky, but just to show how impressive his production has been thus far.
Hameenaho is actually leading all U19 players in Liiga scoring, even ahead of his countryman Joakim Kemell. He isn’t the biggest player (6-feet, 174 pounds) but he plays a very physical game that allows him to set up shop in front of the opposing goalie, setting great screens and battling for rebounds with defenders much larger than him.
Hameenaho could be a bit of a wildcard for Finland in this year’s tournament. He doesn’t have any one skill that really pops, but he is good at everything and his comfortability at the net front could be a huge boon for Finland’s power play. Keep an eye on him as the 2023 Draft nears, if he keeps up his Liiga production, he could easily be drafted in the first round in June.
The 2023 NHL Draft still has no clear-cut top defenseman, with several good choices all vying for that honour. Axel Sandin-Pellikka could claim that title for himself with an impressive performance at this tournament. Sweden’s d-corps is missing Simon Edvinsson (staying in the AHL), Mattias Havelid, and Elias Salomonsson (both injured), so they will need all the help they can get.
There’s a chance that Sandin-Pellikka only made the team because those three were unavailable, but that doesn’t matter now. What does is his play now that he’s been given this massive opportunity to display his offensive skill to the hockey world. He will be one of the youngest defenders in this tournament but his experience in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this year means that he will have more professional hockey experience than several defenders in the tournament who are a year or two older than him.
Sandin-Pellikka is primarily a puck-moving defenseman who makes solid breakout passes under pressure and even likes to join in on the rush when possible. His defensive game is slightly above average for his age which gives me hope that he could blossom into a true top-four defenseman at the NHL level one day. He has a great chance of being selected in the first round of the 2023 Draft (right handed defenders are coveted in today’s NHL), but a solid performance at the World Juniors would go a long way in boosting his draft stock.
Samuel Honzek, C, Vancouver Giants (WHL)
Samuel Honzek has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Western Hockey League (WHL) this year, scoring 43 points in 31 games so far in his first year of WHL action. He was selected by the Vancouver Giants 10th overall in the 2022 Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft and has been their best player ever since.
Honzek’s combination of size and skill make him an absolute handful for opposing defenders as he bullies his way to whatever spot on the ice he wants to get to. He will be a major component of Slovakia’s offense alongside fellow 2023 Draft eligible Dalibor Dvorsky. Honzek has earned time on Slovakia’s top line in pre-tournament play alongside Minnesota Wild prospect Servac Petrovsky and Montreal Canadiens prospect Filip Mesar.
If Honzek can maintain the momentum he’s built in the WHL this year, he will be an absolute force for Slovakia, giving them another weapon in their pursuit of a medal this year. He has been slowly rising up draft boards early this year, but a great performance on this stage could easily help him jump into the top 16 conversation by the time that draft comes around.
Eduard Sale, RW, HC Kometa Brno (Czechia)
Eduard Sale is one of the top prospects for the 2023 Draft so it’s exciting that we’ll get such a good look at him over the next week or so. He is playing in the top Czechian professional league where he has scored six points in 26 games, which is more than any other U20 player in the league. He has shown the ability to succeed against grown men, but it will be nice to see what he can do against his own age group.
The last time Sale played against his own age group was last season where he played 39 games in the top Czechian junior league, scoring an absurd 89 points. At 17 years old he will be one of the youngest players in the tournament, but Czechia will certainly lean on him as one of their top forwards alongside Buffalo Sabres draft pick Jiri Kulich.
In my first rankings of the top prospects in the 2023 Draft, I had Sale ranked 9th overall so there’s not a ton of space for him to move up in the public scouting sphere, but I’m sure a solid World Juniors performance would cement his status as a no-doubt top-10 pick this year. He is an excellent offensive winger who can do everything well, even though there isn’t one elite skill that pops out. Sale kind of reminds me of Shane Wright in that way as a prospect that you can confidently project as a consistent and smart top-six forward even if he never develops one skill to an elite level.
David Reinbacher, RD, EHC Kloten (NL)
As I mentioned earlier, there is no clear-cut top defender in the 2023 Draft, but my favourite at the moment is David Reinbacher. Reinbacher is a big Austrian defender who is playing in the top Swiss league this year and has begun to prove himself as a legitimate top-four caliber defensive prospect.
Reinbacher is 6-foot-2 and has a right-handed shot which automatically makes him a valuable prospect, however, his defensive play and surprisingly potent offensive production are why I think he’s a first round talent. He is a great skater and can ably keep up with grown men in Switzerland both on defense and offense. Reinbacher has played big minutes for his team which is very impressive for an 18-year-old defenseman in a professional league.
He won’t have a ton of help when it comes to big-name talent on Team Austria, especially since Detroit Red Wings prospect Marco Kasper opted out of the tournament to continue playing in the SHL. Reinbacher will be expected to be Austria’s top defender and might just be their best player considering his wealth of professional experience and defensive fortitude. I certainly hope he has a great tournament and that the scouting world begins to jump on the Reinbacher bandwagon.
Niks Fenenko, LD, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)
Niks Fenenko is a shutdown defender who is on one of the very worst teams in his league. After being named to the All-Rookie First team last year in the QMJHL, Fenenko has followed that up with an even better defensive performance. His offensive game leaves much to be desired, but defensive specialists are valuable too and can carve out a real niche in the NHL.
Related: Early Look at the 2024 NHL Draft
Fenenko currently has 18 points in 27 games this year which puts him at nearly the exact same scoring pace as his rookie year, however, his defensive game has continued to grow. Fenenko’s team is 14th out of the 18 teams in the QMJHL, with an atrocious goal differential of -22, but despite his team being dominated on a regular basis, Fenenko has a plus/minus rating of +1.
Latvia proved to be a tougher opponent for most teams than was expected at last August’s tournament, and Fenenko will be a valuable piece for them. The first round of the 2023 Draft is quite stacked with talent so I think it would take a lot for him to jump up that far, but a solid performance this week could easily help him stand out as a second-round talent.
Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)
You’ve probably heard enough about Connor Bedard by now so let me tell you about his main competition for the first overall selection in the 2023 NHL Draft, Adam Fantilli. Fantilli is a 6-foot-2 center who skates well, has excellent awareness, and scores in bunches, what’s not to like?
Playing for a stacked University of Michigan team, Fantilli has taken over as the team’s top center despite being an 18-year-old freshman. He has already scored an absurd 26 points in 16 NCAA games this year which is a similarly impressive pace to that of Jack Eichel in his draft eligible season back in 2014-15 before he went second overall.
This will be Fantilli’s best chance to make up some ground on Bedard in the race for first overall. His size and skating have already done a lot of the heavy lifting, but seeing the two players on the ice in the same game will give scouts a much clearer comparison of the two excellent prospects. Fantilli appears to have earned a spot in Canada’s top-six forward group which is a huge success because that means he will always have some excellent linemates to play off of.
If Fantilli can keep his college hockey momentum going in the World Juniors, he could be a massive offensive catalyst for Canada, and also give Bedard a true competitor for the first spot in the draft this June.
Full List of Draft Eligible Players at the 2023 World Junior Championship
(These player have made the expanded roster, but a few may not make their nation’s final tournament roster after the last round of cuts)
- Connor Bedard – Team Canada
- Adam Fantilli – Team Canada
- Gavin Brindley – Team USA
- Charlie Stramel – Team USA
- Trey Augustine – Team USA
- Lenno Hameenaho – Team Finland
- Aron Kiviharju (2024) – Team Finland
- Leo Carlsson – Team Sweden
- Axel Sandin-Pellikka Team Sweden
- Dalibor Dvorsky – Team Slovakia
- Maxim Strbak – Team Slovakia
- František Dej – Team Slovakia
- Samuel Honzek – Team Slovakia
- Eduard Sale – Team Czechia
- David Reinbacher – Team Austria
- Benedikt Oschgan – Team Austria
- Ian Scherzer – Team Austria
- Niks Fenenko – Team Latvia
- Rodzers Bukarts – Team Latvia
- Rainers Rullers – Team Latvia
Tons of Draft Eligible Talent This Year
The incredible talent level of the 2023 NHL Draft class has been talked about for years already so it should be no surprise that we are likely to see so many incredibly talented young players at this year’s World Junior Championship even though they are considered under-agers at the tournament.