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2023 IIHF U18 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: Top Risers for the 2023 NHL Draft

The 2023 IIHF World Under 18 Championships have concluded. It was a great tournament that culminated with a gold medal game between the two most dominant nations in the tournament, the United States and Sweden. Sweden was hunting for back-to-back gold, but the United States had other plans as their high-powered top line (Will Smith, Ryan Leonard, and Gabriel Perreault), carried them to the top of the podium. Meanwhile, Canada captured bronze by defeating Slovakia, even in the face of adversity as their starting goaltender (Carson Bjarnason) had to miss the game due to the concussion he obtained in the semifinals. We were lucky enough to get an overtime period in both medal games with Macklin Celebrini and Ryan Leonard serving as the respective heroes.

While it is important to not be hyper reactive to a single tournament as a scouting team, there were certainly some individual players whose performances helped to increase their draft stock as we commence the discussion of our final rankings and as the 2023 Draft in Nashville draws near. This is only one small piece of the puzzle; what players have done previous to this tournament is still important, however you cannot overlook the positive performances of some players against many of the best players in the age group. This article aims to highlight several players who elevated their draft stock with strong performances. It excludes players who entered the tournament already extremely highly regarded (such as Will Smith), instead focusing on those who had room to “move up.”

PORRENTRUY, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 23: Sweden's Otto Stenberg #23 skates with the puck while Czechia's Matteo Koci #6 chases him down during Preliminary Round - Group A action at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship at Raiffeisen Arena on April 23, 2023 in Porrentruy, Switzerland. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/IIHF)

Otto Stenberg - Wing - Sweden

Fellow independent scout Cam Robinson posted a great meme about Stenberg over the weekend, highlighting the difference between Stenberg internationally this year and his play in the Swedish leagues. At the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup, the WJAC, and at the U18’s, Stenberg was terrific and in the SHL and at the J20 level, his play was less than inspiring. Will the real Stenberg please stand up? Bottom line: you would be hard pressed to find anyone not impressed by Stenberg’s play at the U18’s. He was one of the best players at the tournament and was electric as a play creator with his combination of speed and skill. What really stood out at this tournament was his decision making with the puck, which has been incredibly inconsistent at other times this year, even internationally. Has he done enough to vault himself into the discussion for the top ten?

David Edstrom - Center - Sweden

Last year it was Filip Bystedt, who was phenomenal in helping Sweden earn a gold medal, which in turn made him an NHL first round selection. This year it was Edstrom. Admittedly, Edstrom’s play had been trending up for a few months heading into this tournament, but he likely earned some new fans with his play. A heavy center, Edstrom is a load to separate from the puck as he drives the net and works the wall. He showed a mature two-way approach, and his combination of size, skill, and smarts are going to be highly coveted on draft day.

Tom Willander - Defense - Sweden

To start the year, it was all about Theo Lindstein. Midway through the year it was about Axel Sandin Pellikka. To close the year, it should be about Tom Willander. He’s been quietly good all season long, but this event, in combination with his play at the WJAC, should have convinced scouts that he belongs in the first round in Nashville. Willander is just so calm and composed with the puck. He rarely seems to make a poor play and has a really solid projection as a longtime two-way NHL defender. Perhaps most impressive was Willander continuing to anchor the second pairing even after his strong defensive partner Albert Wikman was lost to injury.

Axel Landen - Defense - Sweden

Not an impactful player on the score sheet, Landen was a standout in the defensive end for the Swedes. He was a top penalty killer and held down the team’s third pairing. He looks the part of a future stay at home type at the NHL level with good mobility, size, and physicality, all from the right side. Last year Elias Pettersson was a standout in a similar way, and he ended up being a third-round pick.

Gabe Perreault - Wing - USA

Perreault has been the forgotten man all year on that dominant top line for the United States. However, his record-breaking year (beating Austen Matthews’ scoring record in the program) should not be overlooked. He may not have the elite physical tools of Ryan Leonard or the dynamic creativity of Will Smith, but Perreault showed in this tournament that he deserves to be ranked higher by scouts. His processing ability is elite, and he did a better job getting to the middle and working through traffic than he has in some other tournaments this year. It shows growth, both in ability and mindset. The size/skating combination is still a bit of a concern, but his NHL projection definitely improved with his performance here.

Danny Nelson - Center - USA

Nelson has been a tough player to get a read on this year with how he has moved around the lineup for the NTDP, but he was terrific in this tournament as the U.S.’ fourth line center and a top penalty killer. Nelson has an intriguing profile as a big and versatile forward. His skating has improved over the course of the year, as has his confidence with the puck. One of the youngest players available this year, there may be a huge runway here for future development. He was terrific in the gold medal game, scoring a goal and generating a few other great scoring chances.

Aram Minnetian - Defense - USA

All season long the question has been, who is the top draft eligible defender on this NTDP team? We have always felt it to be Minnetian, but he did a lot at this tournament to prove to everyone else that he is the answer to the question. He was a remarkable +16 and was a force at both ends of the ice. There is a lot to like here with his plus mobility, quick hands, vision, and improving physicality.

Cal Ritchie - Center - Canada

This was a huge tournament for Ritchie. He came into the year as a potential top ten pick after leading the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup in scoring, but his performance with the rebuilding Oshawa Generals (OHL) left something to be desired during the year. However, he was fantastic for Canada here, perhaps the team’s most consistently effective forward. His high-end offensive awareness and playmaking ability were on full display, especially from his office behind the net. It should also be noted that he was pretty banged up coming into the tournament, having suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the OHL season. Then, of course, he appeared to injure the same shoulder in the bronze medal game. He can now, deservedly, rest up.

Andrew Gibson - Defense - Canada

Canada’s defense was largely a mess during this tournament. A mix of poor play and poor chemistry (thanks to line shuffling) led to their downfall against top end competition. However, Andrew Gibson was a standout as a defensive stalwart. It seems like he was always there to clean up the mess made by someone else with a great stick, great positioning, or a big shot block. He missed the majority of the second half of the OHL season with an injury (that also kept him out of the CHL Top Prospect’s Game), but he looked strong here. His strong rush led to the eventual bronze medal winning goal by Macklin Celebrini.

Jakub Dvorak - Defense - Czechia

Speaking of injured players, it was a tough year for Dvorak. Injuries limited his exposure this year. Entering the year there was some thought that he could be a first-round pick, but his offensive game just didn’t develop as expected, perhaps due to his health. Thus, it was great to see him healthy at this event and playing at a high level as one of Czechia’s top players and defenders. He looked good in the defensive end and likely left scouts with a positive lasting impression before the draft.

Samuel Urban - Goaltender - Slovakia

Without a doubt, Urban was one of the key reasons why Slovakia was able to go from relegation to a top four finish this year. He had a really strong finish to the year in the USHL (with Sioux City) and was consistently excellent at this tournament when Slovakia needed him most. Even in the semifinals against the United States, when he was pulled, he was great and kept the game from being even more lopsided. He likely secured a draft selection with his play, something that was not guaranteed heading into the tournament.

Dalibor Dvorsky - Center - Slovakia

Much like Otto Stenberg, Dvorsky has had an up and down year leading to wide fluctuations in his draft ranking. However, he put the Slovaks on his back at this tournament; he was the team’s offense. His play at both ends and his vision with the puck were standout qualities. A well-rounded player, Dvorsky appears to have a number of different paths available to him as an NHL player. Improving his skating still appears to be needed, but you cannot argue with the results. He unquestionably raised his stock at this tournament.

Juraj Pekarcik - Wing - Slovakia

One of the main surprises of the tournament, Pekarcik did more than just ride the coattails of Dvorsky. He drove play too and made Dvorsky better by giving him a skilled winger to play with. A bigger forward, Pekarcik was excellent around the net and showed an ability to play through traffic. His competitiveness was admirable, and he looks like he has some runway to develop into a skilled power forward at the pro level in North America.

Kasper Halttunen - Wing - Finland

As mentioned with a few other players in this piece, the U18’s were a huge event for Halttunen, who had a disappointing season playing in Finland. Certainly, the big, power winger did what he needed to do at the tournament to impress scouts, even if Finland had a somewhat underwhelming result. Finland’s offense flowed through him. He may not have done enough to draw back into the first round, but he likely also silenced some critics with strong play.