While the U-18’s didn’t change a whole lot in the grand scheme of things in regards to the 2017 NHL draft, several players did help their draft stock at the top-end of the rankings, and a few made their way into the discussion for the top 100 who were previously on the cusp.
Two players who were ranked outside of Recrutes’ top 31 made a case to be moved up into the top round in US center Josh Norris and Finnish center Joni Ikonen. Two Finns already ranked in the first who helped their draft stock significantly were defenceman Urho Vaakanainen and winger Kristian Vesalainen. Vaakanainen for many scouts is now considered the third best draft-eligible defenceman and Vesalainen firmly planted himself back into the mix for the draft’s top ten and perhaps even top five.
The talk of the tournament, however, was the play of Miro Heiskanen, a 6-0 Finnish defenceman who went from probable top-five selection to a prospect who may now be looked at as the first-overall pick.
“He was really good,” said one scout of a team picking in the top ten who now realizes he has no shot at getting him. “I put in my report that it wouldn’t shock me if he goes first overall.”
He’s not alone in that assertion. Three scouts I talked to during and after the tournament all have Heiskanen ranked as one of the top-two prospects for this draft. The only thing scouts hadn’t seen from Heiskanen going into the event was top-end offensive skills, and he answered that with solid offensive output, finishing second overall in scoring and leading the event with ten assists, one of the three best offensive performances by a defenceman in U-18 history.
Even more impressive, however, are the smarts and poise Heiskanen showed once again, the traits that draw comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom more than any other defence prospect since…Nick Lidstrom.
“He’s an elite prospect because everything he does comes naturally,” said one scout who thinks the Devils will have to seriously consider choosing him first overall. “His skating is fluid, it’s natural. Puckhandling is natural too, soft hands, and the way he thinks the game comes easily. He sees the play a step ahead. Very poised, confident. He lets the puck do the work for him. In today’s NHL you are looking for guys who move the puck quickly. It’s just easy for him to play the game.”
There may have been no prospect with more to prove than Vesalainen at the U18’s, and he passed the test with flying colours, leading all players with six goals and 13 points while flashing the physical sills that made him a top-ten candidate going into the season.
“There were shifts where he looked like Jagr,” noted one scout who thinks he’s in the discussion for the top five. “They couldn’t take the puck off of him he would just rag it around, he’s got some skill, he made plays, he shoots it. This guy may be just scratching the surface, that was kind of a coming out party for him I thought. He looked very good. First game I saw him I go ‘oh f***…this guy’s really changed.’ He looked so much more confident..just carrying pucks and holding the puck. He looked like he came a long way since the world junior.”
Vaakanainen was the other Finnish prospect to leave a lasting impression with scouts after the U-18’s, putting in another solid effort for his country in an international tournament and cementing his status as a surefire first-round pick who may end up being the third defenceman off the draft board.
“He was very good,” noted one scout who has him firmly entrenched in his top 20. “This guy is pretty poised and makes a play, he has some power play ability. He showed a little bit of an edge to him, he was a little more gritty. I don’t know too many defencemen I like better than him.”
Ikonen had a great start to the U-18 tournament playing on a high-flying line with Vesalainen and Linus Nyman, peaking with a three-goal performance versus Belarus where he showed scouts his elite ability to finish with a hard, accurate shot. Ikonen has always exhibited an ability to stickhandle few other players in this draft possess, and it was once again on display during this event, but what impressed scouts also was that he began sharing the puck more instead of just trying to do it all himself. That is..until the final two games of the tournament, when he resorted to some old habits.
“In the semi finals and the finals all he wanted to do was shoot the puck,” noted one scout. “Early in the tournament he was good but then he was selfish I thought. You could see it was there I guess early on, the inclination to pass, but later on there was no way.”
What made his inclination to shoot in those games even more puzzling is that he played both games with a separated shoulder, which normally makes shooting the puck with any kind of velocity an arduous task. Despite the continuing concerns about his inclination to dangle too much and not utilize teammate, Ikonen only helped his draft stock with his many flashes of high-end offensive skill.
“He’s got big-time talent,” said one scout who likes him in the top 40. “Puck skills are almost too good for his own good because he did too much toe dragging…he’s got to break that habit a bit.”
Norris reconfirmed what was displayed in the U-18 5 Nations tournament in February where he led all players in scoring. His biggest issue this season has been consistency, but in his last 11 international games versus his peers he was an offensive threat in most matches playing on the top US line with Brady Tkachuk and scoring six goals and eight assists to lead all US players.
“He actually moved into the first round for me after the February tournament,” said one scout who now thinks he may have more offensive upside than Ryan Poehling, a player ranked in the 20 range on most draft lists. “That was his coming out party for me. He took his game to another level. He made plays in the offensive zone in the U-18’s. He’s a 200-foot player. Plays in all four corners of the rink. Comes from a hockey background with his dad playing in Quebec and Anaheim.”
Norris brings the size/skating combination that always intrigues scouts, and with his more consistent play has solidified the odds that someone takes him in the first round, perhaps even the top 25.
Three players who rose into consideration for the top 100 to second-round candidates were US defenceman Max Gildon, Russian winger Alexei Toropchenko and and Finnish center Santeri Virtanen.
Scouts never like to put too much emphasis on one offensive performance, but it was hard not to take notice of Gildon‘s three-goal game versus the Czech Republic that demonstrated his lethal shot and abilities to join the rush with his strong skating skills.
While there is still work to do on his outlet passes and defensive game, Gildon managed to allay some concerns about his decision making and reads. The physical package is certainly there as he has good mobility, size and puck skills.
“He had a very good tournament,” said one scout who went from liking him in the fourth round to pegging him in the second round. “He cleaned up his game. It was ice to see him score four goals…he showed an extra dimension…he has a very good shot.”
Virtanen had the most to gain by a strong showing as he missed the majority of the season after first capturing scouts’ attention last summer at the Ivan Hlinka, and the hard-working two-way center did not disappoint.
“He is a good player,” said one scout who wouldn’t be surprised if he goes late in the second round. “He’s got some size, got some skill, his skating is going to be pretty good I think. A good two-way guy…kills penalties, even was on the power play. You’ve gotta remember this guy came out of nowhere because he was injured all year…he’s not even where he needs to be yet, so… outta sight outta mind..I’m glad that he ramped it up.
“I don’t think he has a ton of speed yet but his mechanics are pretty good…I think it’s just about playing and getting his power back.”
Toropchenko did not score in the tournament but he checked off all the other boxes. The big winger moves really well, works hard at both ends of the ice, exhibits decent sense and set up several nice plays in vaulting into the discussion to be the second Russian selected in the draft after Klim Kostin, especially after Alex Lipanov was essentially a no-show in the tournament.
“He gradually got better this year so I like that,” said a scout who thinks he will go in the 50-70 range. “A big guy, works…I don’t know if he’s a natural goal scorer. He made some good plays and he’s really competitive and physical. You don’t have sell me on him.