The World Juniors have come and gone and with them the hopes and dreams of young hockey players across the globe. To the surprise of no one, Canada won the tournament, though by the thinnest of hairs in overtime in both elimination rounds. New Jersey Devil Petr Hauser won a silver medal with Team Czechia, their first medal in the tournament since 2005, and Luke Hughes captained Team USA to the bronze.
There was a lot for Devils fans to like in the tournament. Let’s delve in.
Takeaway #1: Devils defensive prospects were anchors for their respective teams
Devils fans who tuned into the World Juniors to get a better look at the future of their favorite team’s backend had plenty of opportunity. Other than Seamus Casey, was on reserve and did not play, Topias Vilen, Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes all ate up big minutes for their countries in the tournament as evidenced by these eyeopening numbers per Mason Gallina of theHockeyWriters.Com.
At the time, Luke Hughes was not far behind:
Luke Hughes (USA:) ranks 10th with 22:04 #NJDevils— Mason Gallina (@mason_gallina13) December 29, 2022
Takeaway #2: Goals scored by driving to the net count just as much as pretty ones
Petr Hauser played a much smaller role as a bottom six forward for silver medalists Czechia in the tournament, but Hauser looked like he has a legitimate chance to play a similar role in the NHL one day.
That’s actually a fairly big compliment for a 2022 5th round pick. In the tournament, Hauser tallied three goals and an assist in seven games playing a fourth line role for Team Czechia. Two of Hauser’s three goals came from driving hard to the net.
Pretty? No. One goal was a lucky bounce off the skate and the other was an easy tap in following up the play, but those are exactly the types of goals one wants to see from their fourth line. Dirty, net-driving goals are often the difference in a game between a 3-2 defeat and a 4-3 win. They may not be as fun to watch, but they count just as much as pretty ones. It will be interesting to see whether goals like these are a fluke or a trend for Hauser as he continues to develop.
Takeaway #3: Topias Vilen looks like a a future NHLer
While Vilen only had one point (an assist), the 19 year-old defender looked calm and poised in both ends of the ice while playing ridiculous minutes for Team Finland. Offensive upside is always going to be the concern with Vilen, but as the anchor on a team who struggled to score goals as a whole, I would put more stock in Vilen’s breakout offensive season in the Finnish elite league than his offensive numbers here. To put Team Finland’s lack of goal scoring into perspective, Connor Bedard had 9 goals and 14 assists in the tournament. As a team, Finland scored only 14 total goals. Overall, despite the weak offensive output for his team, it was a solid showing for the former fifth round pick. The tournament over, Vilen returns to the Finnish Elite League to continue his breakout year.
Takeaway #4: Luke Hughes showed flashes of a future superstar
Filthy goal from Luke Hughes with a spin and score from his knees pic.twitter.com/BEEOrTX8RM— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) January 5, 2023
Average players don’t score goals like that to tie the game in the third period of a medal game. Superstars do. Luke Hughes will likely be one of those one day in the not so distant future.
It wasn’t Luke’s only silky goal of the tournament.
No, it wasn’t a perfect tournament for Hughes. There were some defensive breakdowns. (More on that below). Still, despite the occassional defensive hiccup, Hughes showed flashes of his elite skating and super elite edgework that has led some hockey prospect writers to push him to the top of his class on a redraft. [The Athletic $] The young captain finished the tournament with three goals, an assist and a bronze medal and flashed his leadership bonafides to his team on the bench after tying up the bronze medal game.
Luke Hughes will be a special player.
Takeaway #5: Simon Nemec played very well for a depleted Slovakian team
There was many concerned comments in the World Juniors post about Simon Nemec’s play in the tournament. There shouldn’t have been.
The main gripe seemed to be that some commenters thought that the Devils should have picked Jiricek. To that I say, a definitive — who knows. It’s far too early to know either way who will be better, so let’s pencil that debate in ten years down the road. What we do know; however, is that while Jiricek played at an elite level in the tournament, an argument could be made that he was not the best defenseman on his team. Stanislav Svozil, another Columbus Bluejacket prospect, also had a tremendous tournament for Czechia, equaling Jiricek’s seven points in six games and played terrifically on both ends of the ice.
Of course, as evidenced by their silver medal, Czechia was a far better team than Slovakia is right now — and that’s kind of the point. Hockey is a team sport. Sure, a superstar can make a key play to turn any single game, but even at the NHL level there are reasons that Connor McDavid hasn’t won the cup every year and it’s not because of the play of Connor McDavid.
That said, the World Juniors is a far different beast than the salary-capped NHL. The disparity between a team like Canada and Slovakia is extremely stark. Despite holding their own against Canada, Slovakia had only 5 players who were drafted by a NHL team on their roster. Of the medaling teams, Czechia had 12. Team USA had 19. Canada had 21 and that does not include Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli, who are likely to go first and second overall in this year’s draft.
Though Slovakia nearly upset Canada in the quarterfinals, thanks largely to the defensive play of Simon Nemec, the truth of the matter is that as a team, Slovakia is far closer to Latvia in skill than they are to Canada. In fact, had the Devils not permitted Simon Nemec to play in the World Juniors, then Slovakia would have had only one more current NHL prospect than Latvia (who had 3) and while Slovakia has eligible players likely to be drafted in the first round in 2023, they are not in the same league as Connor Bedard.
The historical disparity between teams in this tournament is so stark and obvious that it led to my favorite interview of all-time from the Switzerland Head Coach before a game between his team and Team Canada a few years back, which I am reposting for your viewing pleasure.
As we get ready for the World Juniors in a week, I wanted to bring the best interview I've ever seen back.— Jonny Lazarus (@JLazzy23) December 20, 2022
This is the Switzerland Head Coach, Christian Wohlwend talking about his team's chances against Canada in the Quarterfinal of the 2019 World Juniors.
That’s how a lot of these teams have to play in this tournament — survival. They scramble to keep the puck out of the net and hope to get an odd man rush for an opportunistic goal here and there. That’s going to lead to a lot of tossing the puck up the wall to clear the zone and similar scrambling plays that make it very difficult for the few elite players on clearly outmatched teams to show off their skill.
That said, Nemec played very well throughout the tournament on a depleted Slovakia team. The former second overall pick was not as flashy as some of the other big name defenders, but he made the subtle plays that usually go unnoticed and never make it onto highlight reels. Scott Wheeler highlighted this point in his piece in the Athletic on his notes of all the players in the World Juniors. [The Athletic $]
That isn’t to say that Simon Nemec did not shine at times. He did, as evidenced by this goal against Latvia.
Or this shot against Canada in the quarterfinals that was tipped in front:
To further illustrate Nemec’s fine play, please take a look at the cumulative Game Score after Slovakia was eliminated.
Game score is a hockey analytics tool that takes into consideration shots, shot assists, breakups and zone entries and exits. At the time Slovakia was eliminated, Simon Nemec was tenth in the entire tournament behind Luke Hughes in this metric and, most importantly, the only player other than teammate Filip Mesar in the entire tournament to make the top 10 at that time and not earn a medal. I chose game score as the metric to highlight as some of the other analytics overpenalyze a player like Nemec, who was a great player on an often outmatched and outshot team.
Was Nemec perfect in the tournament? No. While it was nice to see Nemec play physically, his horrendous cross-checking penalty late in the quarterfinals nearly cost Slovakia the game. Other than that, Nemec had a solid tournament, playing big minutes, on an underdog team that nearly upset the gold medal winners. That’s a lot for Devils fans to be proud of.
Takeaway #6: Don’t get too caught up on the occasional defensive lapse in this tournament
Readers of this site should know that I am a big proponent of defenders, even offensive-minded ones, being able to hold their own in the defensive end. That said, analyzing defensive play in a tournament such as this should be done with more than a few grains of salt.
A few teams largely play together in the same league or at least grew up playing together and have better chemistry and structure because of it. But, for most teams in this tournament, it’s hard to build chemistry. Lapses are going to happen with more regularity in the World Juniors for a myriad of reasons:
- Players are learning a new system.
- Players are learning the tendencies of new teammates on the fly with few practices.
- Elite defenders are skating far more minutes than they are used to in often back to back days.
- On some teams, elite players have to adapt to skating with players who may be far below their own skill level.
- On some teams, elite players may be playing against teams, who as a whole, are far above the skill level of the rest of their team.
- Some players (or their teammates) are learning to adjust to a smaller ice surface.
And so on.
That’s not to say the defensive lapses aren’t important, especially for defenders, who need to be able to defend in order to play in the NHL. Much has been written about young defensemen, even elite players, developing slower and peaking later than forwards. It’s a real issue and players like Hughes, Nemec, and even Vilen, as poised as he looked in this tournament, still have a lot to learn in the defensive end. So for that reason, and the ones outlined above, I would caution against getting overly excited about any particular bad pinch or defensive lapse in a tournament such as this.
Takeaway #7: A far too early look at the 2023 NHL draft
Devils fans have been blessed this season not having to focus on next year’s draft as there is still meaningful hockey to be played. However, since the World Juniors presents an opportunity to look at future prospects, one prospect stood out for me amongst those currently projected to be picked towards the end of the first round: Charlie Stramel.
While Stramel did not blow up the stat sheet this tournament (if he had, he’d probably go too soon in the first round to be considered), he still contributed with three assists and had a goal taken away during an offsides challenge, all while playing a fourth line checking role with penalty kill duties as the youngest player for Team USA.
Stramel was slow out of the gate this year as a freshman for the University of Wisconsin, but has picked it up as of late and his 22 points in 26 games for the USDP U-18 Team last season indicates that he has offensive skill. During the broadcast, Stramel drew stylistic comparisons to Tage Thompson, an archetype the Devils could surely use in their future top 6. “Big Rig,” as Stramel is known, lives up to his namesake as a big, physical power forward, who has enough skill and mobility to make plays and contribute on special teams, while playing center or wing.
Overall, at this early stage, Stramel looks like a potentially shrewd pick in the latter end of the first round. If he puts it all together, Big Rig has the potential to a Tage Thompson-esque power forward on the top line, but even if he doesn’t, Stramel still likely possesses enough skill to develop into a hard-forechecking, bottom six center, who contributes offensively, and plays the PK. In short, Strammel a low risk/high reward type of pick, who is likely to provide value even if he does not reach his full potential.
I should note that at current, Stramel would not be my first choice for the Devils amongst the players likely to be available whenever they end up picking, but he was one player I have an eye on who actually played in the tournament — and one I will continue to watch.
Lastly, if the Devils are going to draft another goalie in the mid to latter rounds, I hope they have a close eye on Adam Gajan, who nearly stole the quarterfinals away from Team Canada. He looks like a player to take a flyer on.
What did you think of the Devils prospects in the World Juniors tournament? Let us know in the comments below.
Next week the prospect update returns to normal format with an update of the Devils prospects playing in the Canadian Juniors.