Tournament organizers may have considered making a new Norris Trophy after the performance Team USA’s top center put on at the recent 5 Nations Cup U-18 event in Sundsvall, Sweden on Feb. 8-12. Josh Norris not only led all skaters with three goals and four assists, he was the catalyst for an improbable comeback that led to a stunning US tournament victory.
In a thrilling final game that saw Sweden overcome a 3-1 deficit to go up 4-3 early in the third, Norris tied the game with a shorthanded goal at the 19:57 mark of the third period, and after a scoreless overtime scored on both attempts in the shootout to propel the US to victory.
It was a heartbreaking loss for the home side given that they were three seconds away from victory; perhaps this was the “Swedish massacre” Donald Drumpf was referring to last week.
Here is a glimpse at how the top draft eligible players performed for Sweden at the five-day tournament:
Erik Brannstrom – Without question, he was the best draft-eligible defenceman in the tournament, and the talk among scouts began to revolve around whether he might be a first-round pick, and perhaps a better prospect than Timothy Liljegren.
“They played him ahead of Liljegren,” noted one scout who like Brannstrom in the first-round discussion well before the event ever started. “He’s much smarter, he’s just as good a skater. He just gives up two inches on Liljegren, that’s all.”
Brannstrom was the go-to defenceman on the power play and was a regular on the penalty kill, utilizing his great mobility and on-ice vision to control play in all three zones. Another performance like that at the U-18’s in front of all the scouts will make him a tough player to pass on in the top 31.
Timothy Liljegren – Scouts are still waiting to see the phenom that was heralded going into the draft year as a surefire top two prospect expected to give Nolan Patrick the best run for his money for the first pick overall.
It’s not like this latest disappointing performance was an aberration – Liljegren was subpar in the summer at the Ivan Hlinka, struggled upon his return from mono with Rogle in the SHL and ending up being demoted, and average at best in this 5 Nations Tournament. A 6-0 defenceman that is supposed to be special offensively should not be stuck on the second power-play unit and end the tournament without a goal, especially when he continues to have struggles defensively because he tries to do too much at times and lacks vision.
Concerns about his hockey sense abound in the scouting world, and there have been more than a few whispers about him following a similar path to Oliver Kylington, who like Liljegren was a 6-0, swift-skating offensive defenceman pegged as a top five prospect going into his draft year only to drop to 60th overall by draft day due to sense issues. Liljegren isn’t reaching Kylington levels in his draft season brain cramping..but it is becoming more and more of a concern.
“I’d be nervous taking him in the top five,” noted one scout who was stating the obvious. They (hockey pundits) don’t put him under the microscope.”
It’s difficult seeing a team looking at Liljegren in the top ten…and if he’s not any better in the U-18’s he may not go in the top 20 either by draft day.
Lucas Elvenes – He had an up-and-down performance leading up to the gold Medal game, where scouts were able to see the competitiveness and glimpses of skill that have had some scouts heralding him as a top 40 pick. On the whole, though, a prospect who was expected to stand out was just okay over the four games, scoring two goals and an assist while centering one of the top two lines.
“He was disappointing,” said one scout. “He skates too upright…he doesn’t get any power in his skating drive. Some people might even have him in the first round but I don’t see that.”
A high-scoring junior who has seen some time in the SHL, Elvenes will have one last chance to impress the scouting masses at the U-18’s.
Olle Eriksson Ek – This was not a tournament in which goaltenders made a strong case to be considered in the same breath as the top American goalies Jake Oettinger and Keith Petruzzelli. In fact, the best thing that could be said about Eriksson Ek’s performance by more than one scout was that he looked better than Luukkonen, who let in 13 goals in two games.
It’s never a good sign when the goalie who is not rated as a potential draft pick outplays the more heralded one on the team, and that was not only the case for Luukkonen as Eriksson Ek let in five more goals than his goalie partner Adam Ahman in the same number of games.
“It’s not a great year for goalies,” said one scout who left the tournament underwhelmed by the goaltending group. “The best one over there was Dylan St. Cyr, and he’s 5-8.”
Kalle Miketinac – The craft playmaking center/winger seems to start every tournament with a bang, creating score chances galore in the opening match, and then cooling off as the tournament progresses. Whether it’s an issue with strength or simply inconsistency, scouts would like to see more than just flashes from the talented Swede.
I don’t see much in him,” noted one scout who also didn’t like him much in the summer. “He teases you once in while but he wasn’t consistent.”
Another scout was a little more effusive in his praise. “He’s small but effective. He’s got some smarts and skill.”
Used liberally by the coaching staff on both the penalty kill and power play and on the wing and at center, he’d be a top-60 candidate if he was more consistent and a bit bigger.
Jonatan Asplund – I went into this tournament not having seen the 6-3 blueliner or even having him on my “to see” list, so it was a pleasant surprise to see a large defender on a team besides the US who could skate and move the puck with a modicum of skill.
While he’s by no means an offensive defenceman, and the viewings were limited because he didn’t play much and missed a game with injury, it’s apparent that Asplund will be drafted somewhere in the mid rounds, if not sooner. He makes a smart first pass and moves well enough and has soft enough hands in his own one to get the puck our or on a teammate’s stick without turning the disc into a square.
“Asplund is a solid D man,” said one scout who figures he’s at worst a mid-round pick. “Not flashy, but gets it done.”
Filip Westerlund – Considering that he has played much of the season in the SHL, there were high expectations for the 5-11 competing against 17-year-olds that weren’t necessarily met at this tournament.
A blueliner who usually plays in the top four in the SHL was often paired on the bottom-six playing a defensive role even though he lacks the strength and size to be overly effective in the corners or in front of the net.
He relies on his guile and stick work to defend, and while he didn’t turn the puck over much or get caught out of position, he did nothing that shouted out that he looked like a future pro defenceman…if he ever plays it will likely be a minor role as a bottom-line NHL defenceman.
“He lacks any special dimensions, especially offensively, for an undersized defenceman” said one scout who felt the same way after his last U-18 tournament as well. “He’s a mid-round selection at best.”
Rickard Hugg – Touted as a possible top 60 candidate going into the season after spending time with the Swedish U-18 team last season as an underager, Hugg has not developed as hoped this season and is not longer looked at as a top 90 prospect.
“I don’t like him,” said one scout who didn’t mince any words. “Heavy skater, skill are very average.”
Hugg is a decent two-way junior who takes care of his own end with smarts and positioning, but for a player his size scouts wish he was faster and had a better skillset. His performance in that tournament was solid as he had a point-per game while also tending to his defensive and faceoff duties.
Fabian Zetterlund – He was by no means a constant force in this tournament, but he did make a couple of plays in the Gold-Medal game that made scouts stand up and pay attention, particularly on Sweden’s second goal when he swept around a very mobile Quinn Hughes and fed a beautiful pass over to Jacob Peterson.
By the end of the event when you checked the stats sheet Zetterlund was Sweden’s top point getter, and that was in limited ice time. He also had some moments in earlier U-18 competitions where you began to take notice of him…so there is at least some intrigue being generated in the 5-11 winger’s potential.
“He can score,” said one eastern conference scout. “He should be drafted in one of the later rounds.”