The 2022 IIHF World Junior Championships (WJC) Men’s U20 tournament got underway Sunday afternoon, with back-to-back four-game slates of action featuring many of tomorrow’s NHL stars. The Carolina Hurricanes, with their record-tying 10-player haul headed to Red Deer and Edmonton, had plenty of reasons to watch over the first two days.
In all, nine of the 10 Carolina prospects in Alberta got into the action, with the lone exception being USA defenseman Scott Morrow, who was a healthy extra for the Americans’ game on Sunday. That USA-Slovakia nightcap matchup was the only game of the first day not to feature a Hurricanes prospect. On the other end of the spectrum, the showdown between Sweden and Russia featured a whopping five players drafted by the team.
There seemed to be a bit of a feeling-out process early in most of the games before things opened up around the second period – the notable exception being the Canada matchup with Czechia, which saw six first-period goals scored in an immediately-wide-open affair. And while the sample is small, there were some exciting developments to take away for fans of the ‘Canes. With two more games on the docket Tuesday and 12 more overall in the round-robin still to come, let’s break down three of the biggest takeaways from a Hurricanes perspective after the first two days of action at the WJC.
Finland Prospects Look Like Difference-Makers
Easily the biggest impact from Hurricanes’ prospects so far came from Suomi, as two 2021 second-round picks played key roles in the Finns’ two impressive victories, a 3-1 win over Germany and a 7-1 dismantling of Austria. Winger Ville Koivunen and defenseman Aleksi Heimosalmi made their presences felt, as they each found the scoresheet in both games.
We’ll start with Koivunen, who is playing on Finland’s “third” line – although they’ve sure seemed like a first line, with a combined 13 points in two games – alongside top 2022 draft prospect Brad Lambert and towering center Samuel Helenius. Lambert’s five points have him first in the tournament through two days, while Koivunen and Helenius’ four apiece have them tied for second. Nobody else has registered more than three points yet, although many teams, including Canada and the United States, have only played once.
The 51st overall pick last July from Karpat of Liiga, Koivunen, has a complete offensive toolkit that has been on full display. In the first game, he had just one secondary assist that came on a highlight-reel passing play featuring all three members of his dynamic line, but he also had two other beautiful feeds that easily could have led to goals, as well. One of them, a beautiful cross-seam pass to Joakim Kemell that looked like a sure goal, was impressively blocked away by defenseman Maksymilian Szuber before it got to a wide-open cage after Germany’s goaltender was down and out.
In the Austria game, though, Koivunen found the scoresheet early and often. After scoring the game’s opening goal off a great play and pass from Lambert, he made the sweet takeaway and centering pass seen above to Helenius to stake Finland to a 2-0 lead. He would later add a second goal on a great display of body control and poise, as he shook off a trip and tucked a backhander into the net while falling down for Finland’s sixth goal of the game. He was named player of the game against Austria.
On the back end, Heimosalmi is the only 2003 birthdate on a veteran (by U20 standards, of course) blue line. He was listed as the team’s seventh defenseman in their opener but ended up playing 14:58 and seemed to earn more and more minutes as the game went along. Then, against Austria, he was listed on Finland’s second pair alongside Florida Panthers prospect Kasper Puutio. He was rewarded for his strong play with over 17 minutes of ice time and looked to be sealing his role as a quick, reliable puck-moving defenseman.
For a smaller defenseman, Heimosalmi defends pretty well, largely thanks to tight gaps with his skating ability, but most impressive was the way he dictated the pace of the game when he was on the ice. He is highly poised for his age and smartly picks his spots, and much like Finnish star Topi Niemela, his patience and playmaking makes him seem very in control of the game when he is on the ice.
Even in the face of forechecking pressure, the poise and ability to calmly and effectively move the puck up ice on the breakout from Heimosalmi has been highly impressive. The 5-foot-11 defender also shows no hesitancy in getting his shot off in the offensive zone and registered a primary assist after his hard one-timer produced a rebound, then was banged in by Joel Matta in Finland’s opener. Heimosalmi also added a secondary assist in his second game, which came on Koivunen’s second goal. Overall, along with his two assists, Heimosalmi has produced a plus-3 rating and five shots on goal through Finland’s first two games. It has been a highly impressive WJC debut for the 18-year-old defender, and he looks poised for a continually growing role moving forward.
Finland looks like Canada’s biggest challenger in Group A. Still, if Koivunen and Heimosalmi continue to impress and provide high-end play and production from what are effectively depth roles, this team’s ceiling looks to be perhaps even more formidable than I initially expected. This squad may be able to surprise, and their two Hurricanes prospects look like good bets to have the biggest impact on the 2022 WJC amongst their organization-mates.
Quapp Impresses As Germany’s Goalie Tandem Looks Legit
One of the bigger unknowns for me entering this tournament, German goaltender Nikita Quapp, a sixth-rounder in 2021, really kept Germany in the game against Finland in their tight-checking tournament opener. I’ve rarely been able to lay eyes on the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), Germany’s top league, so I had just assorted notes and comments from people I’ve talked to about him entering play today. As usual, though, when I lay eyes on a player for the first time, I really try to drown those things out and formulate my own opinion, which applied here.
If you simply scout the box score, you’ll probably be largely unimpressed – much like if you were to look at his DEL stats. Quapp may have allowed three goals on just 22 shots, but his effort was solid nonetheless. In truth, he kept the Germans at bay on many occasions when the highly-dangerous Finland squad applied heavy pressure. The three goals came on a deflection, a rebound off a German defenseman’s skate that went right to an opposing forward on the back door, and the pretty tic-tac-toe passing play I alluded to earlier, finished by Helenius off a beautiful backdoor pass off the rush.
What stood out most about Quapp was his poise and how he used his 6-foot-3 size to choke off angles. In many ways, he’s comparable to the Hurricanes’ current goaltender, Frederik Andersen; he doesn’t jump off the screen athletically, but he gets square to shooters, seems to track the puck well, keeps his shoulders tall, and swallows the puck when it gets to him without a rebound. His athleticism may not be notable but does not seem to be a hindrance, as he gets side-to-side adequately, too. Only so much can be gleaned from one game, but it was a nice WJC debut for the 18-year-old.
Germany followed up their hard-fought loss to Finland with an impressive overtime victory over Czechia, and they appear to have a heck of a one-two punch in net. Quapp’s tandem mate, Florian Bugl, was sensational in that one, stopping 39 of 40 shots and being named Germany’s player of the game in the affair.
Germany’s tough road continues Wednesday, as they will face Canada in their next game. We’ll see if Quapp or Bugl will get the start, but either way, we should see both again in this tournament. Both look like promising young netminders for an underrated German squad, one which is shaping up to be a sneaky-fun team to watch moving forward.
Seeley Proving Himself
Spoiler alert: Canada is really, really good. I know, it’s surprising.
The blue line is flush with top draft picks: Montreal first-rounder and team captain Kaiden Guhle, Minnesota first-rounder Carson Lambos, Detroit third-round pick Donovan Sebrango, Anaheim second-rounder Olen Zellweger, Vegas third-rounder Lukas Cormier, and, of course, the star who recorded the first hat trick by a Canadian defenseman in WJC history, 2021 first overall pick Owen Power.
But guess what? None of the players I just mentioned got the nod as Power’s partner on the top pairing. That would be an under-the-radar seventh-rounder that’s seemingly come from out of nowhere, turning heads all over the hockey community over the last few months: Ronan Seeley. The 208th pick in 2020 from Everett of the Western Hockey League (WHL), I wasn’t sure he would even be in the lineup, much less in a featured role. And, to be fair, he didn’t quite play top pairing minutes – just 16:38, mainly due to all the power play time Canada got and his absence from that unit. However, he was largely excellent at five-on-five and will also be a key penalty killer for the team if their opener is any indication.
The thing that always absolutely jumps off the screen with Seeley is his explosive skating ability. He’s an incredibly twitchy athlete with elite four-way mobility. The 6-foot lefty can play an extremely aggressive, pinching brand of hockey with the skating ability to get back when he gets in trouble, which will fit like a glove within the Hurricanes ultra-aggressive system. However, he still has a way to learn where to pick his spots, which we saw in the first period against Czechia. He pinched without the necessary support on the backcheck from his forwards that were needed to adequately slow the opposition’s attack, which would have therefore let him use that skating ability to recover. The Czechs capitalized on the ensuing two-on-one to tie the game at one.
Still, Seeley shook off that early mistake and turned in an impressive overall showing. He has some sneaky one-on-one stickhandling skills that showed up on a few rushes and showed a willingness to jump in the offense frequently. Although he was held off the scoresheet in the match, one has to think that will change if he remains similarly active and effective. He even showed some snarl in his game on a few occasions, both in netfront battles and in stepping up to finish checks, which the Hurricanes could use with the big club.
Seeley is continuing to showcase big-time NHL upside as a puck-moving, swift-skating, modern defenseman, and his growth just over the last year-and-a-half since being drafted has been remarkable. This looks like another late-round steal for the Hurricanes, one that is tracking towards a legitimate role on the blue line in Raleigh before too long.
Other Quick Notes, With Much More Action to Come
Eight games down, 12 more to go over the next four days of round-robin play, leading up to the quarterfinals starting on New Years’ Day. Beginning Wednesday, the schedules will alternate between two and four games leading up to the bracket-style elimination portion of the tournament.
As a rule, it can be tough to make significant judgments on players from the WJC because of the small sample the entire tournament is, so in that sense, there is little reason to get too high or too low about anything seen through the first two days of play. However, it’s much better to get the tournament off to a good start than a bad one, and in that sense, the Hurricanes should feel pretty good about their prospects’ showing so far.
There are definitely places to hope for improvement, though. An obvious example is Team Russia, who has simply looked off as a team in their first two games. The three Hurricanes prospects on the roster – Alexander Pashin, Vasili Ponomaryov, and Nikita Guslistov – are talented players who all possess the potential to provide a needed shot in the arm. Pashin was a healthy extra in their win over Switzerland, and Guslistov, while dressed, did not get a shift in the game. Considering the team looks to badly need a spark if they want any prayer of medaling, the reliable, two-way nature of Guslistov or the game-breaking, highlight-waiting-to-happen speed and skill of Pashin could very well be alluring to head coach Sergei Zubov.
Meanwhile, the other big player not mentioned too much yet, Sweden, has been highly impressive to begin their tournament slate. Joel Nystrom is a savvy defender who will continue to eat minutes; even if he doesn’t produce big offensive numbers, he’ll be an important piece of the Swedish unit if they make a deep run. He’s already proving to be a top penalty killer and eating lots of minutes at five-on-five. Plus, Zion Nybeck has some sneaky offensive skill and has popped on screen a few times, despite the lack of production on the scoresheet so far. However, his peskiness, motor, and forechecking ability have made him a great fit in their bottom-six; he’s helped create energy and momentum for the Swedes.
All this is to say, there’s still plenty of reason to watch even the teams that, from a Hurricanes’ perspective, have been a bit quieter so far, such as Sweden and Russia. Both can produce storylines for the team as the tournament moves along.
We’ve only just begun, and there’s a very long way to go of competitive, highly-skilled young talent to watch. Be sure to check back in here at The Hockey Writers daily, as we’ll continue to break down all the tournament’s storylines as they develop.
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Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played hockey in NC for about 15 years. Many of those in the Carolina Junior Canes program, and hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!