The World Juniors are almost here! While I'd be watching anyways because of Minten and Cowan being part of Team Canada, I'm also just as excited to watch several 2024 draft eligible players who will be playing for their respective countries.
Keeping with a growing theme for this year's draft, the vast majority of them are defensemen. In fact, in this list of seven players I have on my list to watch going into the tournament, only one of them is a forward. So let's talk about them.
Adam, the younger brother of David Jiricek who was the 6th overall pick in 2022, entered this season as a top defenseman prospect for 2024. He's still generally maintaining that position, but there's a reason why I included him in my pre-season watch list but did not include him in my early season "European breakouts" list.
Jiricek has been playing virtually all season in Czechia's pro league, just like his brother did. But he hasn't looked as good as people expected of him. He has one point in 19 games so far, and his ice time has fluctuated from the high teens to only a few minutes. He was even sent down to their U20 junior league for three games. While playing for Czechia's junior team at the Hlinka this past summer, he was a workhorse – playing over 20 minutes in each game, and even over 30 minutes in their OT loss to Canada in the finals.
I'm looking forward to seeing Jiricek play in this tournament. Even for a top prospect, playing as a U18 player against the world's best who are mostly a year or two older than you is no mean feat. It will be a good measuring stick to compare where he's to other draft eligible defensemen on the team. If he continues to not look as good as expected I wouldn't be surprised if he is someone that could fall into the second half of the first round, as others rise up over him. So I'm very interested to see how he looks for myself. In fact, he's the guy I want to see the most in this tournament.
A teammate of Jiricek's on the Czechs, Galvas is a smaller but offensively inclined defenseman who has been catching up with Jiricek's hype all year. I wrote about him in my European Breakouts list earlier this year, and everything I said in that article has continued. He's gotten into more pro games and looked strong for his size, age and position. But Galvas could use a strong WJC tournament, since he was not used as much as Jiricek at the Hlinka, and a big performance on the international stage always helps your draft hype. He'll likely be a PP quarterback for the Czechs, but I'll be curious how much they use him at even strength.
I got to watch a bit of Ustinkov in Switzerland's pre-tournament exhibition against Team Canada, and boy did I like what I saw. I watched him a bit at the Hlinka where his skating and two-way play impressed me, and since then I've only heard more rave reviews about his game in Switzerland's junior and pro league. Against Canada, he was used as a fourth pairing guy but did get into a fair amount of the game. He was very smooth and poised with the puck, even while being swarmed by Canada's aggressive forecheck.
Being a defenseman with good skating, a good head on your shoulders to deal with pressure, and being a good passer are all assets you love to see in a defenseman. I'd consider him a first rounder and definitely on my radar for Toronto's pick. He's probably the one I'm second most interested in watching at the WJC this year.
Ustinkov is the hipster pick from the scouts, but Muggli has the points as another Swiss defenseman. He's a similar size to Ustinkov, and might have more offensive skill. Muggli definitely has more points in the Swiss pro league, though Ustinkov doesn't get as many minutes on one of the league's top teams. Ustinkov has the edge in points in Switzerland's international games, however. In the exhibition game, Muggli started lined up on their top pair, which may be a sign that he will get more playing time. I want to see how he holds up defensively against older peers, and how well his offense can play through the pressure he'll face against the top teams.
Uljanskis is not someone I've seen at all this year, but I've heard good things about his play in Sweden. He's on Team Latvia, he's a very young prospect with an Aug 25th, 2006 birthday, and has a bit of size (6'1", 185 lbs). The bits I've heard from scouts is that he has size, he's a good skater, he can move the puck and has a rocket of a shot (wrist and slap) and fun to watch. He's not so high level that anyone is really saying he's a lock to get drafted at all, but I always love these kinds of guys who sound interesting and could be a late round swing. So I'm looking forward to seeing him myself against top prospects.
Mayer is another late round possibility. He's a 6'3", 187 lb, left shot defenseman on Team Germany. He is one of the older 2024 eligible prospects with a Sep 25th, 2005 birthday, which could actually help him in a tournament like this. Mayer has played in Germany's system, starting in their U20 junior league, then spending a mix of time between the second tier and top tier pro leagues. He's more of a defensive defenseman, with only one assist all year. He'll be on a pretty weak German roster and may get a fair amount of playing time – not exactly set up for success and could look overwhelmed, but if he shows some signs of brightness through that I may wind up adding him to my watch list beyond the tournament. It will be a big help to turn his season around, given he's struggled so far this year:
The lone forward on this list, I almost included Mateiko in my QMJHL breakouts list but he didn't make the final cut. He's on Team Latvia, but plays in the QMJHL as an import since last season. He's a 6'5", 209 lb winger who has an interesting mix of size and skill. He has some concerns about his skating like you'd expect from someone that tall, but it's not nearly as bad as other big guys in junior who solely rely on size to score and could be improved enough to make his movement at least passable. He has 15 goals and 30 points in 28 games for Saint John, who love him enough that they reportedly almost named him as Captain this year despite being a 17 year old import. Scott Wheeler liked him enough to rank him just within his top 64, so I'll want to see how well he can hang at the WJC despite being one of the younger players.
Elite Prospects wrote about his 'rising stock' earlier this month as well:
So whenever Minten and Cowan are facing off against these teams, keep an eye out for these players!