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BELL: Scout’s Prospects Notebook: One Overlooked Player From Each 2024 World Juniors Team to Watch

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - DECEMBER 26: Finland vs Canada Preliminary Round - Group A action at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship at Scandinavium on December 26, 2023 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/IIHF)

The World Juniors brings together some of the top prospects in hockey in one action-packed, exciting event. While the stars often take a large portion of center stage, we can always count on some unexpected (or less expected) prospects to make an impact and stand out in a big way.

The 2024 World Juniors will be no different. While players like Matthew Savoie, Jonathan Lekkermaki, Jiri Kulich, Lane Hutson, and Denton Mateychuk will be expected to take on huge roles, some other prospects are hitting the ice that are likely to have just as much impact in this event.

Here’s one player to watch from every World Juniors’ team this year, who may not be the main star or focus on their team as they enter the event but could very well be the hero by the end.

Team Canada: Mathis Rousseau (2024 Eligible)

The Canadian roster is filled with players who can stand out and step up in this event. It’s loaded with star power from Savoie and Macklin Celebrini up front to Mateychuk on the back end. Any skater on this team could be a star whether they came into the event as one or not. However, as we’re accustomed to discussing about Canada in this event - what about goaltending? Enter Mathis Rousseau.

Rousseau has been dominating the QMJHL this season with a 16-3-2 record to go along with his .934 save percentage. Despite recording a .912 save percentage and a 36-7-2 record last season, the Montreal native went undrafted in last year’s draft (and the year before). This could very well be his year and this World Juniors could be his pedestal to show why.

It won’t be easy as he’ll need to beat out Buffalo Sabres’ prospect Scott Ratzlaff for the role, but Rousseau has the talent to do it. While he’s an “undersized” goaltender at 5-foot-11, he reads the play so well and his technique is excellent. He can make a sprawling desperation safe when needed as well, and you can expect his athleticism will be on full display in this event. Prediction: he’ll be Canada’s guy by the end of the event. That means that Canada’s medal chances will rest on his shoulders.

Team Czechia: Matyas Sapovaliv (Vegas Golden Knights)

Looking at the Czech roster, of course, attention is drawn to captain Jiri Kulich or even recent draft pick Eduard Sale. However, don’t sleep on Matyas Sapovaliv. The centerman is entering his third World Juniors event, last year standing out with a point-per-game performance as he helped the Czechs to a silver medal. He was also named a top-three player on that team.

Sapovaliv looks to be taking a big step in the OHL this year, already with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 27 games. He’s on pace for 87 points - a big step up from his 56 points last season. The Vegas Golden Knights prospect, drafted 48th overall in 2022, is centring the top line between first-rounders Kulich and Sale and should more than fit in with those two.

The forward brings good size, excellent vision, impressive puck possession, and underappreciated two-way ability to the Czech roster. I’d expect him to push Kulich and Sale to be better in this event as the pivot on their line. Sapovaliv is not a passenger. He can drive plays, and look for him to do just that in what could be a breakout event for the young prospect.

Team Finland: Jani Nyman (Seattle Kraken)

Every discussion of this Finnish roster falls on one player: 2024-eligible Konsta Helenius. And that’s fair, if this roster is going to have any success, their young centerman will need to have a big tournament. But don’t forget about Jani Nyman. The Seattle Kraken prospect was drafted in 2022, 49th overall, and is playing in his second World Juniors.

Nyman has been having a strong season in the Liiga with Ilves, recording 22 points (14 goals, eight assists) in 28 games. That goal total is tied in the Liiga for the most in the league. As his stat line would suggest, he’s strong at finding the back of the net and that will be relied on heavily at the World Juniors if the Finns will have a chance at stealing a medal. I’d expect him to lead the secondary scoring for the Finns and potentially work his way up to the top of the lineup by the time the tournament’s over.

With Nyman’s excellent season in Finland, expect that to carry over into the World Juniors, especially as a returning, veteran player on this roster. His shot might be one of the best in the entire tournament and he’ll put it on display as much as he can. He has some soft hands as well and has a knack for finding open space. Keep an eye on him as the tournament progresses.

Team Germany: Simon Wolf (Undrafted - 2024 Eligible)

The Germans have had a ton of star power in recent years, but this year’s roster does seem to lack that aspect. Julian Lutz should be the leader, and any success that this team has will likely come from his stick, but it’s Simon Wolf could be the true catalyst for the Germans in this event.

The netminder is a returning player on this roster, granted he was the backup last year and had one, rough start. This year, it looks like he’ll take the starting reigns in the tough Group A and will be relied on heavily to face a large flurry of shots and keep his team in games as much as he can. He’s been passed over in the NHL Draft twice and while he’s a long shot to be selected in this year’s crop, a strong World Juniors could help change that (hello Tomas Suchacek and Adam Gajan).

Wolf has good size at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, His stats haven’t been great over the years, but neither have the teams that he’s played on. He’s much better than his stats suggest. For example, in three games at the 2022 U18s, he was 0-3 with a .876 save percentage - but I thought he looked strong. He faced 56, 35, and 46 shots against though. Again, he’s better than the stats suggest.

Team Latvia: Darels Uljanskis (2024 Eligible)

Like Germany, this Latvian team doesn’t quite have star power in this year’s event. They do have some returning, NHL-drafted pieces that should help them in Sandis Vilmanis and Dans Locmelis, but it’s 2024 Darels Uljanskis that could be the one turning heads in this year’s event.

The 2024-eligible prospect has the potential to be a top-100 selection in the draft and could improve on that stock as the World Juniors roll on. The 17-year-old defender has spent most of the season with AIK J20 in the J20 Nationell, where he’s collected 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 25 games - good for third on the team as the youngest player on the team.

The prospect exudes confidence and loves to join the rush, make plays, and show off his creativity. While he’s still a younger player in this event, expect him to put that on full display as often as he can. He has good reach and an active stick and will be leaned on to make plays in his own end as well. Look for him to be a difference-maker for the Latvians and put his name on the draft map.

Team Norway: Petter Vesterheim (Undrafted - 2024 Eligible)

Noway has one clear-cut star on the roster in Michael Brandsegg-Nygard, who’s already earned the title of the best prospect to come out of Norway in recent memory and looks to be the first-ever first-rounder out of the country. Outside of him, the talent level on this Norweigan roster does drop off. But Brandsegg-Nygard’s teammate Petter Versterheim could help this team avoid relegation.

Vesterheim even plays on the same line as Brandsegg-Nygard with Mora IK in the HockeyAllsvenskan and has been playing well over the past two seasons. He’s up to nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 24 games - ahead of Brandsegg-Nygard by three points. He went undrafted in 2023 but was on a handful of public lists, including coming in at 216th at McKeen’s. He should be an overage target in this year’s draft.

The forward should be the pivot on the top line, maintaining his connection with MBN and Noah Steen (all on the same line with Mora) and leading the team all tournament. He’s a strong playmaker and consistently pushes the pace. He brings a level of creativity to his game, utilized often to create space for himself and his teammates.

Team Slovakia: Servac Petrovsky (Minnesota Wild)

The Slovaks have been pumping out some extremely talented prospects in recent years, and there’s a handful of them on this World Juniors roster. Dalibor Dvorsky, Filip Mesar, Samuel Honzek, and last year’s top goaltender Adam Gajan should help disrupt this tournament, and could even push Slovakia into the medal rounds. They’ll be helped though with some pieces throughout this roster, highlighted by Servac Petrovsky.

Drafted way down in the sixth round, 185th overall by the Minnesota Wild, Petrovsky has been having an excellent season in the OHL, maintaining a point-per-game pace. He’s entering his third World Juniors already, recording two goals and an assist in each of the last two. Expect that to shoot up this year.

Petrovsky’s offensive abilities are obvious thanks to his ability to find the soft ice and his knack for breaking free from the defender assigned to him. He has an excellent, accurate shot and likes to use it. But he also brings defensive ability, where he’s responsible and active as well. There’s a chance that Petrovsky becomes the hero of this team and should be a huge factor in any success the Slovaks have.

Team Sweden: Filip Bystedt (San Jose Sharks)

This Swedish roster has been built for success and there’s been a lot of talk about the top three forwards of Jonathan Lekkermaki, Noah Ostlund, and Liam Ohgren. There’s also been discussion of the potential top defender of the tournament Axel Sandin Pellikka. After these big four though, the roster will open up and rely on a large number of players. However, Filip Bystedt should be one to watch as he could very well be the difference-maker in games for Sweden.

There’s proof that this is possible actually, if you look back to the 2023 World Juniors where Bystedt went off for 10 points (four goals, six assists) in seven games where he was named a top three player on the team. Last year’s SHL Rookie of the Year has stuck in the SHL this year as well with Linkoping HC where he has nine points (four goals, five assists) in 26 games. That total isn’t exactly a step forward from last year, but this tournament could be the confidence boost he needs this season.

A hulking forward at 6-foot-4, Bystedt is a strong player who can dominate the play at times. He has good speed and his skating has improved this year. He’s a solid possession player that can make an impact in both ends of the ice. He should factor into the top six and should once again be an offensive leader on this team. I’m expecting this to be the jumping-off point of his season to get back on his development track.

Team Switzerland: Leon Muggli (2024 Eligible)

Switzerland is likely entering this tournament will a goal of avoiding relegation, unfortunately. The roster does lack a star-power element but does have Anaheim Ducks prospect Rodwin Dionicio who should be the leader of this team from the backend. The backend does have the potential to lead this team altogether, especially with another up-and-comer looking to be a cornerstone on the blue line in Leon Muggli.

The young defenseman has had an exceptional season so far in the Swiss National League with Zug, where he’s put up nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 25 games. While that might not pop off the page, this is a professional men’s league, he’s 17, and his 0.36 points per game is the best of a U18 defender in the league ever - including Nashville Predators star Roman Josi.

Muggli has been an underrated prospect to this point in the season, but the World Juniors could act as his public coming-out party. He looks to factor into the top four (if not the top line with Dionicio) and will display his intelligence and maturity in every play. He should contribute offensively and be relied on as a solid defensive piece. Look for him to lead the breakout and could join the rush often. Another prediction: Muggli ends the tournament as one of the Swiss’ top three players.

Team USA: Zeev Buium (2024 Eligible)

Team USA is in Sweden for one reason and one reason only: gold. They have the roster to do it. This team is stacked. Rutger McGroarty, Cutter Gauthier, Will Smith, Lane Hutson, Gabe Perrault, and the list goes on. This team looks to be the favourite to win the tournament. This forward corps has dominated much of the conversation so far, as has Hutson and Seamus Casey on the back end. But one defender that needs to be on the radar is Zeev Buium.

The 2024-eligible prospect is in the midst of a potentially historic season, putting up 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in just 18 games with the University of Denver in the NCAA. He’s on pace for the highest-scoring season for a U19 defender in the history of the NCAA. He’s no stranger to having success with Team USA either, putting up six points (one goal, five assists) at the 2023 World U18s en route to a gold medal.

Buium is the only draft-eligible skater on this roster and should start the tournament by playing some sheltered minutes. However, if his play from the NCAA continues, he’ll force the USA coaching staff to move him up the lineup before the event ends. He’s incredibly intelligent and calm, with strong skating ability and excellent puck distribution. Watch