The World Juniors is not the only international junior tournament of the year. It's not even the only one that occurred (or started) this month.
The World Junior A Challenge is a tournament that is... interesting to explain. So I'll list the important to consider elements:
- There were five teams involved: Canada East, Canada West, USA, Sweden, and Slovakia
- It is 'technically' a tournament for U19 players, so there's an interesting mix of D+1 re-entry prospects and first time draft eligibles.
- The sole exception is Sweden, who brought a completely U18 roster for their own reasons.
- Canada only brings players who are playing outside of the CHL, so mostly in the other major junior leagues: the OJHL (Ontario), AJHL (Alberta), BCHL (British Columbia), and so on.
- Team USA brought all their players from the USHL, but NOT the NTDP.
You can basically consider that all of these players are not the very best prospects of the relevant age group that the countries could bring. It's basically the "best of the rest".
There are two reasons why I'm interested in this event. First, because Hudson Malinoski played in it last year, and it likely helped him get drafted by Toronto. In that sense I can see this "best of the rest" tournament helping showcase interesting late round picks who are the best of the junior leagues that are a tier down from the CHL, and/or good re-entry players.
Second, it was a good opportunity to see some of Sweden's better U18 players. I'm guessing they see this tournament as a good mid-season measuring stick for their players, between the Hlinka before the start of the season and World U18 Championship at the end of it. Their team is the exception to the "best of the rest", where in their case it is actually mostly their best.
So while the vast majority of players involved in the tournament are not/won't be drafted, the cream of the crop are genuinely interesting.
This is the second time I am writing about how great Trevor Connelly looked at an international tournament. The first was after the Hlinka Gretzky tournament, where he was tied for the tournament lead in points (5 goals, 5 assists in 5 games). This time, he finished tied for second in the tournament with 6 goals and 11 points in 6 games. You can see the dynamic elements of his offense in the highlights of his 4 goal game against Sweden in the Bronze medal game: a rush goal, a one timer on the powerplay, taking the puck to the net on an offensive zone possession, and a lacrosse goal.
While Connelly's USHL production has been very good, it hasn't been as dominant as he's looked in these tournaments. He is just a pure offensive force between his skating, puck handling, play making and goal scoring. His issues are reportedly that has inconsistent effort and decision making in junior. He seems to rise to the occasion in these short, major tournaments but he hasn't really sustained it at the USHL. Even without that consistency, the promise likely makes him at least a late first/early second rounder.
Pettersson is another player I have already written about, as he was one of the big European breakouts earlier this season. He centered Sweden's top line, and finished second on the team (8th in the whole tournament) in points with 3 goals and 5 assists in 6 games. In some ways, Pettersson is the exact opposite of Connelly. He's a very well balanced forward in every sense, not just offensively. He works hard in all three zones, he has a strong impact on the game even when he's off the puck, he gets used in all situations, and he served as an alternate captain.
As far as the strengths of his offensive skill, he looks to me to be better as a playmaker and facilitator that helps offense happen, rather than being a finisher. Honestly given his size, versatility and strengths I get some Alex Kerfoot impressions.
The other Swede that I've come to really like is defenseman Alfons Freij. I haven't written at all about him so far this year, but he is emerging as arguably the top Swedish defenseman in this year's draft. Leo Sahlin Wallenius was their top offensive defenseman as far as his usage goes. But Freij was their best all-around defender. He finished with more points (7 in 6 games), and was their most effective at defense and driving transitions.
Freij is an excellent skater and showed very good decision making, even when under pressure when he doesn't have a lot of time to react. I'd count him as a first rounder at this point, with the rest of this season determining just how high.
Stop me if you've heard this before: a top AJHL point producer, specifically on the Brooks Bandits, who is committed to Providence in the NCAA. Sawyer was tied for the team lead on Canada West who won the tournament this year – 3 goals and 3 assists in 6 games. So not at the same level as any of the others mentioned above, but one of the top players on the winning team.
In the bits I saw, I thought his play reminded me of Malinoski too. They're similar size (6'1"), he is a pretty good playmaker, has a good shot, and while he seems like an average skater he works hard and can protect the puck. He likely tops out as a mid-round pick, but I can see him going later. Players from Junior A leagues are seldom taken that high unless they put up some truly insane numbers, and Sawyer's production is not that good.
Morello played on a much more re-entry heavy roster on Canada East that lost in the finals to Canada West. Their top two lines were all at almost as old as they could be, and their top line was among the tournament leaders in points. Morello, as a July 2006 birthday, was one of the younger players. From the tournament lineups posted each game, Morello was used as the third line center – though by production his was more of the second line, and I'd argue it was the de facto second line even if it didn't quite get as much usage. He finished with 6 points in 6 games,
Morello is 6'3" and 192 lbs, and while he probably has the least 'offensive skill' on this list, he is probably the most interesting from a pure athleticism perspective. Despite his size, he looked like a deceptively fast skater to me. The combination of his size, willingness to engage physically, and effort to skate hard and fast makes him a menace. He was skating after loose pucks in the neutral zone, forechecking aggressively to harass and disrupt the defensemen, getting back to help defend rushes back on defense, etc. He plays in the OJHL and has a commitment to Clarkson University in the NCAA, though I wonder if he can eventually switch to a better program if his game comes together more. I can see a late round pick in his future if only for his size, skating, and hard work forechecking.