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There are two types of Junior World Championship fans.
The most common are those who follow to encourage their country. But there are also those who care more about where their NHL prospects play and just want to watch them, regardless of country. And that’s what makes this event more popular than, say, the U-18 World Championship: the majority of top players are already affiliated with an NHL team, and some have even skated with their respective clubs.
I leave aside three players in particular: Shane Wright, Dylan Guenther and Brandt Clarke. All three have been loaned directly from their NHL clubs and, at least in Guenther’s case, are expected to return once the tournament is over. The first year of Guenther’s entry-level contract is already activated, so he’s a full-fledged NHL player. The other two have been in the NHL all year except for five AHL conditioning games, so they’re still NHL players.
So, with that, here’s a look at 10 of the NHL’s top prospects to watch at the 2023 World Junior Championship in Halifax and Moncton from Dec. 26-Jan. 5:
Luke Hughes, D, New Jersey Devils (USA)
Hughes finished the August tournament with six points in five games, playing the quarterfinal injured after blocking an early shot. The 2021-22 season was a memorable one, with a strong performance at the World Championship and one of the best NCAA seasons of anyone, regardless of age. The New Jersey Devils prospect followed that up with a similar near points-per-game season at Michigan to become one of the best defensemen in the NCAA. Whether it’s the power play, late game situations, or just ice time against the best players in the tournament, Hughes will be one of the top players to watch, as expected. At 6-foot-2, he’s also the tallest player on the blue line.
Simon Nemec, D, New Jersey Devils (Slovakia)
The second overall pick in 2022 is expected to be on the blue line after recording 12 points in 24 games as an outstanding AHL rookie with the Utica Comets. Nemec isn’t your average prospect: he stood out as a double undrafted minor in 2021, has two world championship appearances under his belt, and not only helped Slovakia qualify for the 2022 Olympics , but played a significant role en route to the nation’s first. Olympic bronze in men’s ice hockey. Nemec is one of the best defenders to come out of Slovakia for quite some time. With the Devils continuing to rise, he may not get many opportunities to represent them internationally in the future.
Logan Stankoven, C, Dallas Stars (Canada)
The 2021-22 season couldn’t have been much better for Stankoven. In the year after the Dallas Stars grabbed him in the second round — yes, I laughed at the other 31 teams that night, too — Stankoven was the WHL and CHL Player of the Year, had a WHL-leading 31 playoff points, had the best faceoff percentage in the WJC (72.84), and set up the game-winning goal for the gold. This year? He’s on pace over 120 points with Kamloops, so that’s no big deal. Stankoven is one of the best prospects in the game today, and after making everyone look ridiculous in Edmonton, he’s ready to step it up a notch in Halifax.
Olen Zellweger, D, Anaheim Ducks (Canada)
After leading all defensemen with 11 points in August, Zellweger is back and ready for more. He also led all WHL defensemen in points with 78 and won the league’s top defenseman trophy, showing even more how well the Anaheim Ducks flew in the second round in 2021. Clearly, his lack of size hasn’t slowed him down, and the Everett Silvertips defenseman should be the best pairing and first power-play unit.
Logan Cooley, C, Arizona Coyotes (USA)
Cooley enters the tournament on one of the biggest radiators of them all. In his last 10 NCAA games with the University of Minnesota, he had 17 points, which gave him 25 in 19 games. His play with the U-18 and U-20 teams last season made him one of the most dangerous players to wear red, white and blue, and the Arizona Coyotes prospect is clearly playing with money from home right now.
Cutter Gauthier, C, Philadelphia Flyers (USA)
The Flyers are far from a competitive NHL club, but once they are, you can bet Gauthier will be one of them. The fifth overall pick in 2022, the Swedish-born American winger tore goaltenders apart with Boston College and was a dynamic threat at the U-18 World Championship in the spring. All he does is generate scoring chances, and he will immediately enter the American top six and make an impact.
Joakim Kemell, RW, Nashville Predators (Finland)
After racking up 12 points in last year’s tournament, can Kemell up the ante? He has been one of, if not THE best, Finnish striker almost every time he has played, and was Finland’s most outstanding striker during the team’s exhibition in November. He’s in his second season with JYP in Finland’s top league, and while he’s not blowing things up offensively, his quick release has come in very handy. Kemell has one of the best shots of any prospect right now, and he’s ready to fight for the lead in Canada East.
DaJiricek videoD, Columbus Blue Jackets (Czechia)
Jiricek has been one of the best defensemen in the AHL this season, regardless of age. The Columbus Blue Jackets let him simmer in Cleveland and he’s been excellent, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s vying for a first couple role with the big club. There was no guarantee he would be available for the Czech Republic, especially with Columbus’ injury troubles this year. But since it will be,
Brennan Othmann, LW, New York Rangers (Canada)
With good pal Shane Wright by his side, Othmann will be right at home on Canada’s top line. Othmann made his presence known in August, throwing big hits and scoring one run per game. He was starting to find his groove with the Peterborough Petes after being traded by Flint in November, but his impact in pre-tournament action with Canada was undeniable. Othmann may not be the brightest player – especially compared to Wright and Connor Bedard on his own line – but he’s the glue that holds it all together, and his teammates love him for it.
Fabian Lysell, LW, Boston Bruins (Sweden)
Lysell, one of the AHL’s top scorers for the Providence Bruins, has been electric this season. He scored twice in the Summer Tournament, but they were both absolute snipes. Lysell has a rocket of a shot, boasts the speed of Lewis Hamilton at his peak and can blow your mind with his immense talent around the net. Sometimes it feels like no one can keep up with Lysell, which is a testament to her talent.
Other notables: Brad Lambert, RW, Winnipeg Jets (Finland), Chaz Lucius, C, Winnipeg Jets (USA), Jonathan Lekkerimaki, RW, Vancouver Canucks (Sweden), Liam Ohgren, LW, Minnesota Wild (Sweden), Jimmy Snuggerud, RW , St. Louis Blues (USA)
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