5 Standouts from Hlinka Gretzky Cup

There were no shortage of stellar performances at this year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup, which didn’t disappoint in terms of entertainment value as the annual summer under-18 tournament played out in primetime from Edmonton for the first time.

It wasn’t without some controversy, with the United States getting robbed of a chance to play for gold due to a decision preventing the use of video review, which allowed Canada’s semifinal equalizer to stand up despite clearly not beating the buzzer. Canada went on to win in overtime, then overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat Sweden 6-2 in the championship game on Saturday night.

For the organizers, it was an ideal result, with Canada repeating as champions and defending gold on home ice in front of a healthy crowd of 10,000-plus at Rogers Place, the fancy new home of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.

This tournament, formerly known as the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, has long been a launching pad for future NHL stars and showcases the top draft-eligible talent for the coming years. For scouts, it is the official start of the draft year, the first look at the next class in a best-on-best environment.

I’m still conferring with scouts in attendance, fielding feedback to finalize my preseason Top 100 rankings — to be published later this month — but from my view on television, these five prospects were the biggest standouts at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Vasili Podkolzin, LW, Russia

Podkolzin scored in every game for Russia, finishing with a tournament-high eight goals, including a handful for the highlight reel.

I’m not sure he scored an “ugly” goal among those eight and his hat trick in the bronze-medal game was a thing of beauty, securing Russia’s spot on the podium with a 5-4 victory over the U.S.

Podkolzin wasn’t a consensus first-round pick heading into the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, but I’m with TSN’s Craig Button in considering him a top-five prospect for 2019 after watching Podkolzin work all that magic. Button was making the comparison to Pavel Datsyuk — The Magic Man — but I saw more of a power element to Podkolzin’s game in addition to that finesse. A bit of Ilya Kovalchuk.

Philip Broberg, LD, Sweden

Broberg, even more so than Podkolzin, was probably the tournament’s biggest revelation and should be the biggest riser in everybody’s preliminary rankings.

This kid may have been a surprise, but he’s going to be a stud. To me, Broberg was the best defencemen at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and it wasn’t even close. With all due respect to Canada’s Bowen Byram and others, Broberg seemed to be on another level.

Here we have a 6-foot-3 blueliner who skates like the wind, dazzling with end-to-end rushes and top-end speed while also quarterbacking Sweden’s power play to produce three goals and four points in the tournament.

Broberg was no slouch in his own end either, playing in all situations and showing shades of Victor Hedman in his upside. Broberg isn’t as dynamic as Rasmus Dahlin — this year’s first overall pick — but if there was a prospect emerging from the Hlinka Gretzky Cup as a potential challenger to Jack Hughes for the top pick in 2019, it was Broberg for my money.

Alexis Lafrenière, LC, Canada

Lafrenière isn’t draft eligible until 2020 — as a late-2001 birthdate — but he certainly lived up to the hype in leading Canada to gold as a 16-year-old captain.

Lafrenière got better as the tournament progressed and saved his best for last in scoring a ‘wow’ goal that stood up as the winner against Sweden. Yes, Lafrenière netted the golden goal — on a terrific individual effort that gave Canada a 3-2 lead.

Lafrenière starred on Canada’s top line throughout, flanked by Kirby Dach and either Peyton Krebs or Dylan Cozens. There is a very good chance that we’ll also get to see Lafrenière playing for Canada at the World Juniors in Vancouver. There could be a couple or even a few under-agers on that U20 team, but Lafrenière stands the best chance of making the cut.

RELATED: Projecting Canada’s World Junior Roster

With Lafrenière, the Vincent Lecavalier comparisons are inevitable since he plays for the same junior team — the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic — but I really think Lafrenière will be his own player. The only worry for Lafrenière will be overexposure since he already scored 42 goals as a rookie in Rimouski and has two more seasons to go before hearing his name in the NHL draft.

Nick (Nicholas) Robertson, LW, USA

Robertson really jumped out at me, generating a ton of offence for the Americans and outshining his highly-touted linemate Arthur Kaliyev, who entered the Hlinka Gretzky Cup as a projected top-15 pick after helping the Hamilton Bulldogs to an OHL championship.

Robertson, who also plays in the OHL (Peterborough Petes), elevated himself into that top-15 conversation and certainly into the top 31 as a first-round candidate going forward. Worth noting, Robertson will be one of the youngest prospects available for the 2019 NHL draft, born on Sept. 11 — just four days before the cutoff and only a month older than Lafrenière (Oct. 11).

As a fellow 16-year-old at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Robertson’s shot stood out — both for his quick release and his accuracy. He was a volume shooter throughout the tournament, but also showed off some smooth moves to set up his team-high four goals.

Robertson looked and played bigger than he’s listed — at 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds — and he’s likely to experience a growth spurt during his draft year. His older brother Jason, a second-round pick (39th overall) for the Dallas Stars in 2017, is listed at 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds. Jason will likely play for Team USA at the World Juniors, but the knock on him has been skating. Nick displayed no such woes, keeping pace with pretty much everybody at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Lucas Raymond, RW, Sweden

Raymond was a true under-ager at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup — as a 2002 birthdate, eligible for the 2020 NHL draft — but you never would have guessed it. He was consistently among the best players on the ice as one of the youngest skaters in the tournament.

Raymond formed a dynamic duo with Alexander Holtz — another 2002 birthdate — and they will be among the top picks in 2020, perhaps pushing Lafrenière for first overall. Those two staked Sweden to that 2-0 lead in the gold-medal game — each scoring a goal, with Raymond getting the first on a wicked top-shelf snipe.

Raymond can really rifle the puck, but he can also handle it at high speeds in traffic. He was dangerous off the rush and anywhere in the offensive zone. A constant threat to shoot, especially from faceoff possessions, Raymond is going to be difficult to contain when he eventually comes to the NHL.

Honourable Mention

Josh Williams, RW, Canada

Speaking of snipers, Williams warranted a mention on this list after his coming-out party at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. He scored several clutch goals for Canada, including the overtime winner in that controversial semifinal victory over the Americans.

Williams wasn’t as noticeable on a shift-by-shift basis as these other prospects, but you definitely took notice when the puck was on his stick in a scoring position. More often than not, it was in the back of the net seconds later. Five times to be exact, tying Lafrenière for Canada’s team lead in goals during the tournament.

Williams is going to continue to fill the net in the WHL this season — as a sophomore for the typically high-scoring Medicine Hat Tigers — and should be another big-time riser in the draft rankings between now and next June. Williams was just getting started at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and that outburst was no fluke — rather a sign of things to come.