With the 2024 world junior championship set to begin in Sweden on Tuesday, we take a look at three players to watch closely from each team at this year’s tournament.
Macklin Celebrini, C: The projected first-overall pick in the 2024 NHL Draft is everything you look for in a franchise player. He skates well, has excellent vision and hands, and an amazing ability to finish with a shot that will sneak up on goalies. Celebrini can play on the wing but is more effective at centre. It will be interesting to see how he’s deployed since centre ice is a strength on Canada’s roster. He’s dogged in his pursuit of the puck and is a legit two-way threat once he has it on his stick.
Matthew Poitras, C: Loaned to Team Canada at the last second by the Boston Bruins, Poitras had given his NHL club an unexpected boost through his first 27 games. With 13 NHL points in the bank, Poitras enters the event as the most tenured NHLer in the tournament. His success has been predicated on hard work and determination. He’s an incredibly smart player whose awareness allows him to avoid oncoming defenders, but also find teammates in traffic.
Fraser Minten, C: Toronto’s second-round pick in the 2022 NHL draft, Minten played well enough in training camp to earn an extended stay with the Maple Leafs through four games of the regular season. After being returned to Kamloops, he was dealt to Saskatoon, making the Blades a legit threat for a long run into the spring. Minten has size, plays with a physical edge and his skill set allows him to take advantage of the space he creates in order to put up points. And while that may not be his calling card in this event, he may be able to handle the dual task of matching up against the opposition’s best while still being able to contribute offensively.
(brightcove videoID=6343799571112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640)
Konsta Helenius, C: Playing his second season in Liiga, Helenius has developed into a top-six player in a top-tiered league. His eight goals and 20 points through 28 games are a testament to the rare blend of skill and will. Projected as a top-10 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, Helenius will get a chance to shine in Finland’s top six. There will be plenty of pressure for him to produce on a Finnish team that has a number of NHL drafted players, but lacks household names.
From a pure numbers projection, Helenius has a chance to finish amongst the top five draft eligible Liiga players ever, a list led by Aleksander Barkov’s 48 points 11 years ago.
Kasper Halttunen, RW: One of the more polarizing figures from the 2023 NHL Draft, Halttunen does one thing extremely well, and that’s score goals. A second-round pick of the San Jose Sharks, he captained Finland’s U18 team in April, where he was named one of his country’s top three players. He possesses an elite shot and release. He can score from a distance and elevate pucks quickly in tight. In his first year with OHL London, he has 20 goals through his first 28 games.
Jani Nyman, RW: At six-foot-four, 210 pounds, Nyman is your prototypical Finnish power forward. The power isn’t derived as much from initiating physical contact as it is from repelling it and protecting the puck. He’s an interesting study, as throughout his career he’s been able to produce points, leaning more to the goal-scoring side than the playmaking side. He can be an effective power-play threat because of his willingness to shoot. His shot is dangerous and can beat goalies from distance. While there are concerns about his skating, he’s been able to put up 14 goals and 22 points through 28 Liiga games this season.
Julian Lutz, LW: Lutz enters the tournament as Germany’s top-ranked forward. The Arizona Coyotes selected him in the second round, 43rd overall, in the 2022 NHL Draft. A move to USHL Green Bay has paid dividends as Lutz is off to a 10-goal, 23-point start through his first 19 games. At six-foot-three, he has the ability to play a power game working through checks and winning board battles. Lutz can make plays and has the patience, poise and puck-protecting abilities to produce points.
Kevin Bicker, LW: At one point early last season, I had Bicker in my top 32 for the 2023 NHL Draft. As the season progressed, Bicker’s play slipped. However, he was still thought of highly enough for the Detroit Red Wings to select him in the fifth round, 147th overall. After a great playoff for Mannheim’s U20 team, Bicker started the year with Frankfurt in the DEL. The transition to Germany’s top league has been difficult, as Bicker has just one goal through 20 games, albeit in limited playing time. Bicker brings speed and a solid work ethic to the table and should be able to provide some offence for the Germans.
Norwin Panocha, D: Made his mark and raised eyebrows at the 2023 U18 worlds, where he was named one of the country’s top three players. At six-foot-two, 195 pounds, the Buffalo Sabres took a flyer on him in the seventh round of the 2023 NHL draft. Panocha was taken 32nd in the 2023 CHL Import Draft by QMJHL Chicoutimi. Through his first 30 games with the Sags, he has 11 assists while still looking for his first major-junior goal.
Dans Locmelis, C: A fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins from the 2022 NHL Draft, Locmelis is the elder statesman for the Latvians. After developing in Sweden’s Lulea system, Locmelis now plays in the NCAA for UMass-Amherst, where he’s scored four goals and has five points in 12 games. This represents his third world juniors, and the seventh time he’s represented Latvia in IIHF play, including a stint with the men’s senior national team in the 2023 worlds. Look for Locmelis to take all of Latvia’s important faceoffs while anchoring the team’s top line.
Sandis Vilmanis, LW: Vilmanis remains unsigned as a fifth-round pick of the Florida Panthers from the 2022 draft. He’s in his second season with OHL Sarnia after a successful rookie campaign that saw him net 20 goals and 45 points. Through 30 games with the Sting this season, Vilmanis has 10 goals and 28 points. Similar to Locmelis, Vilmanis grew up in Lulea’s system, while taking time away from his Swedish club to join the national team for select tournaments and events. This will be Vilmanis’ third world juniors. He should provide a formidable duo with Locmelis on Latvia’s top line.
Niks Fenenko, D: Now in his third season with QMJHL Baie-Comeau, Fenenko has shown remarkable consistency playing for the top-rated CHL team. Projected to play in Latvia’s top pairing, Fenenko is a good skater with some offensive upside to his game. He adds some bite to the lineup, and is effectively defensively to where he will see the opponent’s best for much of the tournament. Fenenko has the distinction of being the only Latvian taken first overall in the CHL Import Draft when the Drakkar selected him in 2021.
Axel Sandin Pellikka, D: Detroit selected ASP 17th overall in the 2023 NHL Draft. From the start of last season to the end, he was the most impressive riser in the draft class. A beautiful and effortless skater, ASP can walk the line in the offensive zone and use his feet and excellent puck skills to evade the forecheck. He continues to develop at a rapid pace in the SHL, where he’s scored nine times for 13 points in 25 games with Skelleftea. He was a key piece to Sweden’s blue line last season, but as an underaged player, had only one assist. He went on to be named the best player at the U18 worlds, and it would be no shock to see him excel for one of the top teams in this tournament.
Jonathan Lekkerimaki, RW: The Canucks’ first-round pick, 15th overall from the 2022 draft, has had quite the rollercoaster ride over the past season and a half. Playing for Djurgardens’ U20 and Allsvenskan teams last season, he combined for just five goals in 31 games. Those numbers are down, considering his calling card is an elite shot that is hard and accurate. On loan to Orebro this season, he’s regained his elite scoring touch to the tone of 10 goals through his first 24 games. As a 19-year-old, he will be expected to be an offensive leader for the host team.
Filip Bystedt, C: Selected by San Jose with the 27th-overall pick in the 2022 draft, Bystedt projects to be a big part of the Sharks’ future. He’s got size, plays hard, skates well and is an effective offensive player. Bystedt was named SHL rookie of the year for his play with Linkoping in 2022-23. Averaging roughly 13 minutes per game, Bystedt had 20 points in 43 games. He’s back at it this season with four goals and nine points through his first 26 games. He was arguably Sweden’s best player at this event last year with 10 points in seven games, and will likely get top billing for Sweden this time around.
Jiri Kulich, C: Was selected 28th overall in the 2022 NHL draft by Buffalo. Kulich transitioned amazingly well from Czechia’s pro league to the AHL, where he immediately scored 24 goals en route to a 46-point rookie campaign with Rochester. Having already made his NHL debut with the Sabres, Kulich will play in his third world juniors. In his two previous appearances, he’s combined to score nine goals for 17 points in 14 games. He’s an elusive player who can get it to the net with pace and accuracy and should be a consistent threat for his country.
Eduard Sale, RW: Was Seattle’s first-round pick, 20th overall, in the 2023 NHL Draft. One of the most polarizing figures of last year’s draft class, Sale’s play in this event last year likely cemented him in the first round. This season he left Czechia to play for OHL Barrie, where the results have been mixed. He’s scored seven times for 21 points in 25 games. When engaged, he will compete hard, go to dirty areas and use his top-notch puck skills to avoid defenders and get it to the net. His skill set is undermined by inconsistencies in effort, but when he’s on, he’s a threat every time he touches the puck.
Adam Jiricek, D: The younger brother of Columbus first-rounder David, Adam Jiricek is an A-rated player by NHL Central Scouting and is expected to go high in the first round of the 2024 NHL Draft. For a player who’s projected to produce offensively, the numbers have never really added up, other than when he played as a double underager in Czechia’s U20 league last season. There, he scored 12 goals and 29 points in 41 games. Aside from that, he’s always played above his age group and has still been an effective defender and puck mover. The returns this season have been mixed, and this tournament will go a long way in establishing his draft position in June.
Michael Brandsegg-Nygard, LW: Projected to go in the top end of the first round at the 2024 NHL Draft, Brandsegg-Nygard is currently playing for Mora in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second league. He’s averaging roughly 15 minutes per game, having put up six points in 22 games. He played a big role in getting Norway promoted back to the top division, with a point-per-game effort in the D1 tournament last year. Brandsegg-Nygard plays quick, he’s highly responsible, and he will be noticeable for Norway through his effort.
Johannes Lokkeberg, RW: Another key cog in helping to get Norway promoted to the top division for the world juniors, Lokkeberg has taken an interesting path in the game. He left Norway at a young age in order to play in Mora’s program in Sweden. After three years playing in the U18 and U20 loop, he’s made his way to the West Kelowna Warriors in the BCHL. A play-making right winger, he’s put up eight goals and 23 points in 23 games. He will pursue his hockey career next season with NCAA Bowling Green.
Noah Steen, LW: In his second season playing for Mora’s U20 team, Steen has proven to be an effective goal-scorer. Last season after making the jump from the U18 team, Steen had 17 goals en route to a 28-point season that saw him pile up 78 PIMs. He tallied 10 more goals this season amidst a couple of stints in the Allsvenskan, which is where he spent the last seven games before leaving for the world juniors. With moderate minutes, he’s scored four times with one assist for five points in 22 total games in the second division.
Adam Gajan, G: The goalie who came out of nowhere and was sensational in this event last year. He was named the tournament’s top goalie with a 2.40 GAA and .936 save percentage. What makes the story more amazing is that he was on an NAHL roster to start last season, typically not a place where top-end talent resides. Gajan was taken by the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 3 of the 2023 NHL Draft. He’s six-foot-two, 190 pounds and is back with USHL Green Bay where his numbers have been decent with 14 wins and a .911 save percentage, good enough for second in the league.
Filip Mesar, RW: Another Slovak playing in North America, Mesar started the year in AHL Laval before being sent back to Kitchener for his second OHL season. Upon his return, he put up points in eight of his first nine games, totalling five goals and 13 assists. The 26th-overall pick by Montreal in the 2022 NHL Draft, Mesar is a slick playmaker who gets around the ice well. This will be his second WJC appearance and he’s expected to be amongst the top players for Slovakia.
Dalibor Dvorsky, C: When things didn’t quite work out with his new SHL club, Dvorsky committed to OHL Sudbury. That’s proven to be the right decision, as he’s assimilated quickly to the North American game. Dvorsky showed up in Sudbury on Oct. 20 and in the 20 games he’s played he has been pointless only twice. All told, he has 18 goals and 34 points. He’s a rarity in that this will be his third world junior tournament. Dvorsky is highly intelligent, very responsible, and immensely talented. He was taken 10th overall by St. Louis in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Rodwin Dionicio, D: After not being selected in his first year of draft eligibility, Dionicio was selected in the fifth round of the 2023 NHL Draft by Anaheim. A trade from Niagara to Windsor last season sparked interest amongst NHL scouts. After landing in Windsor, Dionicio put up 11 goals and 43 assists in the final 33 games of the OHL season. Since then, the six-foot-two, 210-pound defenceman has been traded to Saginaw, where he will suit up for a Memorial Cup in May and June. Dionicio is masterful with the puck and is not afraid to make plays all over the ice.
Leo Braillard, LW: It’s been quite a ride for this player over the past season and a half. Braillard started 2022-23 with Biel-Bienne in Switzerland’s U20 league. After the international break, he made his way to North America, landing with Shawinigan, which selected him 36th overall in the 2022 CHL Import Draft. He showed well internationally, where he had four points in five games at the U18 worlds. Braillard got off to a mediocre start with the Cats before being claimed by WHL Lethbridge in October. The move has sparked Braillard to better than point-per-game totals.
Daniil Ustinkov, D: Another highly rated prospect for the 2024 NHL Draft, Ustinkov is a six-foot, 200-pound left-shot defenceman. In November, he received a B rating from NHL Central Scouting, projecting as a second- or third-round selection in June. He’s a complementary type who won’t dazzle you with his numbers, but he’s more than capable of moving pucks effectively.
Lane Hutson, D: There was no doubt Hutson was one of the most effective players in his draft class. The question was always about size. Listed at five-foot-10, 161 pounds, Hutson has tore up his first year plus with Boston University in the NCAA. He was a Hobey Baker finalist as a freshman last year after putting up 15 goals and 48 points in just 39 games. After playing well at the world juniors last year, he was named to USA’s men’s national team and performed well at the worlds with six points in nine games. He skates well, has plenty of poise, knows when to make plays and how to make them. This will be yet another proving ground for a player who has always risen to the challenge.
Cutter Gauthier, C: The fifth-overall pick by Philadelphia in the 2022 draft has continued to raise his game. Gauthier has size and plays with some bite to his game, but he’s super skilled. He gets to the net and is strong enough to maintain net-front position. He can score from all over the ice, but has hands that work well in the small area game. After a men’s worlds that saw him put up nine points, it was suggested he may sign with the Flyers. Instead, he returned to Boston College and has 13 goals and 23 points in 17 games to date.
Rutger McGroarty, LW: Hospitalized earlier this season, the Jets’ first-round pick from the 2022 draft recovered in time to be named team captain. McGroarty is an interesting offensive player. He finds soft ice around the net to make him a viable scoring option. He also possesses excellent vision and is good at protecting the puck long enough for teammates to get open. He was a point-per-game player in both the NCAA and last year’s world juniors.