Scout’s Perch: Four Nations lacks star power but not talent

By Josh Deitell

Steve Santini - USA

Photo: U.S. NTDP defenseman Steve Santini is considered a top defensive prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Sitting in a sea of peacoats, it’s difficult to feel unique.

The idea of scouting as an exercise in finding diamonds in the rough is long dead. This is particularly evident at talent gatherings like the Four Nations Tournament, which took place from November 6th thru the 10th in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Sweden’s William Nylander Altelius speeds down the near wing with impressive speed, stickhandles to the inside past a Finnish defender, and releases a wicked wrister to the far corner that the goalie just gets a glove on. It’s not his first great play of the game, nor would it be his last.

I jot down some notes but out of the corner of my eye I notice other pens scribbling. Hundreds of them. There’s nothing secret here. It’s less an exercise of discovery and more one of rating and projection. Liking a player’s game is a fraction of the battle. It’s not if, it’s how much.

The tournament pits under-18 teams from the USA, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland against each other. The teams play one game against each opponent, round robin style, and then the top two teams face off for first place while the bottom two play a consolation game. The USA beat Sweden to win the gold, while Switzerland downed Finland to take the bronze.

The quality of play is not as high as at the Hlinka or IIHF U-18 tournaments, but with 88 16- or 17-year-old players participating, it nevertheless remains a valuable scouting tool. College teams send scouts to look for scholarship prospects, CHL teams look for imports, and NHL teams use it as an opportunity for their North American scouts to get a few days worth of viewings in on European talent, as well as to see how the American U-18 team performs in international competition.

Some teams sent as many as six scouts. Upon arrival each day, they quickly went to work highlighting names for viewing, based on their own experiences and recommendations from their European counterparts. There is little wasted energy here. Observation is focused.

The event is not necessarily a best-of-the-best, and is in many ways experimental for teams involved. With other tournaments going on at the same time, talent must be divided strategically.

Finland was missing top offensive talents Alexander Barkov, Artturi Lehkonen, and Juuso Ikonen, who are all under 18 but were representing their country at the Four Nations U-20 tournament that took place from November 9th thru the 11th in Sundsvall, Sweden. Sweden also sent their three best eligible forwards to Sundsvall, 17-year-olds Elias Lindholm, Jacob de la Rose, and Andre Burakowsky.

The NTDP U-18 team represents the United States almost exclusively. Ryan Fitzgerland, Taylor Cammarata, Mike Downing, and Blake Heinrich, four of the country’s top 17-year-old talents, instead played at the World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth, N.S. from November 5th thru the 11th. The lone outsider on the Four Nations roster was Connor Hurley, a Minnesota high school forward who filled in admirably for injured JT Compher. Switzerland sent U-18 eligible Luca Fazzini to Yarmouth as well.

The consistency seems to work to the benefit of the Americans, who finished first in the tournament for the fifth year in a row. With the advantage of playing nearly two months together to start the season against NCAA D1 and USHL competition, the US team year after year comes into the Four Nations with a defined system and chemistry.

The next major Under-18 tournament is the Five Nations, which includes the US NTDP, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic and takes place from February 5-10 in Jönköping, Sweden.

Results:
11/6: SWE 5 – 4 SUI (OT), FIN 1 – 3 USA
11/7: FIN 2 – 3 SWE, SUI 5 – 4 USA (SO)
11/9: SUI 1 – 5 FIN, SWE 3 – 5 USA
11/10: FIN 2 – 5 SUI [BRONZE], SWE 1 – 3 USA [GOLD]

The following are scouting reports on players that stood out in the tournament, and notes on each team’s play. They’re cumulatively based on four games worth of viewings. Schools next to the NTDP players are college commitments.

USA

Don’t let the shootout loss to Switzerland fool you, the United States were the dominant team in this tournament. They’ve had the advantage of playing together as a team for some time and showed great chemistry. The club was very well coached, as the lines were changed daily with a number of interesting and effective combinations coming through and the team seemed to have a good understanding of what kind of effort level was necessary to win this tournament. They really came to play against the Swedes when it mattered the most. All in all, a very impressive showing by this squad.

2D Connor Clifton, Quinnipiac (ECACH)
5-11, 171 lbs, b. April 28, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Clifton can really hurt people with his body. He had multiple big hits a game, some of which completely leveled opposing players. Was really surprised to see how average-sized he is, as he played much bigger. Not just a one trick pony, rushed the puck well and showed good offensive instincts and vision. Works very hard in his zone, especially along the boards. Curious to see how his game evolves as the season progresses.

6D Keaton Thompson, North Dakota (WCHA)
6-0, 182 lbs, b. September 14, 1995 [2013-eligible]
One of the youngest players in the draft. Fundamentally sound two-way defenseman with a great skill set. Awareness is outstanding. Made consistently good decisions and made things simple for his teammates with perfectly timed D-to-D and outlet passes. Is capable of rushing the puck up ice with speed and poise. Great on the point both at even strength and on the power-play. Played the umbrella tip on the power-play and QB'ed well. Kept his head up and read the play well. Was very effective against the rush with his stick, angles off with good timing. Showed off hard, accurate wrist and slap shots. Quick lateral movement and body control allows him to bring the puck from the boards to the inside without losing his handle and maintaining a shooting position, making him dangerous for a shot even when it doesn’t seem like he’ll have enough space. Great skater overall, was very efficient and maintained his speed when changing direction. Received passes with his feet moving quickly and maintained motion. Accelerated quickly to recover defensively. Showed some edge with a dirty slash that he got away with, but is not a physical player overall. Still made the odd glaring error, mainly the occasional errant pass up the middle. I think of him as Nick Lidström lite, just so solid overall. I think he’s mid-late 1st round talent, no question. Consistency is a bit of an issue but he plays with so much poise that I think he’ll figure it out.

10LW Evan Allen, Michigan (CCHA)
5-10, 195 lbs, b. February 3, 1995 [2013-eligible]
What a shot. The PP was basically the Evan Allen show. Kovalchuk-esque in the way his teammates were constantly feeding him for shots. He has an absolute cannon, both his one-timer and wrist/snap shots are pro quality. Accuracy was iffy, more often than not it seemed like he was closing his eyes and trying to get the puck on net, which he did with frequency. His 18 shots led the tournament. Scored twice but nearly every one of his shots was a scoring chance. He was always the triggerman when he was on the ice. Showed some touch with his passing including a few nice saucers the few times he did dish the puck. Wasn’t a puck hog, his shots were good ones. Played a respectable two-way game. Forechecked and backchecked with good awareness, showed the ability to strip the puck and restart the offense in one motion. Was active with his stick in the neutral zone to take away passing lanes. Not a flashy skater but he got where he needed to go and didn’t look awkward doing it. Ceiling is a 2nd line winger who can play the point on the power-play.

14LW Tyler Motte, Michigan (CCHA)
5-9, 184 lbs, b. March 10, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Played the whole rink and was an outstanding leader. Knew when his teammates needed a big shift and swung the momentum single handedly on numerous occasions. He was always the first guy on the ice to start warmups and seemed to take the A on his chest very seriously. Was very aggressive on the forecheck and penalty kill. PK play as a whole was outstanding. Great positioning in the neutral and defensive zones, quick stick in lanes, blocks shots and pursues loose pucks for the clear, and is a threat to score shorthanded. On one shift he single handedly pinned the opposing team in their zone for nearly 30 seconds. Skating is great overall, very quick acceleration and good top speed. Flashed a good hard wrist shot and some evasiveness in the cycle but was mostly ineffective in the offensive zone. Got knocked off his feet a few times and had some trouble keeping the puck against bigger defenders. Very intelligent player with great tools whose lack of size/strength could hold him back a bit. Would be nice to see him create a little more offense as he does have the skill. His game projects well to the professional level.

15RW John Hayden, Yale (ECACH)
6-3, 221 lbs, b. February 14, 1995 [2013-eligible]
One of those players whose game I think is much better suited to the professional game than junior hockey. Very strong, physical, and intense and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Looks to play the body in all three zones and has the ability to line up big open ice hits. He was great on the penalty kill and tenacious on the forecheck. Backchecked fully. Mixed it up after the whistle. There were times where he carried the puck into the zone and instead of trying anything fancy, just bulldozed through the defensemen to the net for scoring chances. Has some good passing skills but his hands are lacking in finesse. Had trouble finishing and does not have a great shot. Difficult to get the puck from along the boards, fights off checks with determination and takes a lot of punishment without giving an inch. Was hard to deal with in front of the net, good at distracting the defense and goaltender. He brings a lot of intangibles and I think he’ll be a fairly safe pick for whoever does select him.

16D Steve Santini, BC (HEA)
6-1, 208 lbs, b. March 7, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Fantastic skating ties his game together. Got a lot of power from his stride going forward and backward and moved well laterally. Quarterbacked the power-play at times and did well to bring the puck up the ice and find the open man with speed. Had a good point shot, kept his head up when shooting. Moved the puck around well from the point and is capable of long bomb outlet passes. Has been picking his spots much better with hits lately and can absolutely light guys up when given the opportunity. Difficult to play against in his own zone, especially in front of the net and along the boards. Plays the game a lot like Scott Stevens. He has all the tools you want from a top pairing defenseman, including a mean streak. Creeping towards 1st round status if he’s not already there yet.

22RW Hudson Fasching, Minnesota (WCHA)
6-2, 214 lbs, b. July 28, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Budding power forward with a ton of upside. Has outstanding puck control and protection skills, very difficult player to get the puck from. Give him space between the defenseman and the net and he’ll take it every time. Dipped his shoulder and drove the net from the outside multiple times, keeping a good handle on the puck in the process and creating scoring opportunities for himself or teammates crashing for the rebound. Can also go from behind the net to the net front in one step with his reach and strength. Very strong through the middle, looked like a freight train coming up the ice when he was determined. Good passer, capable of accurate one-touch puck movement at speed and sees open lanes in defensive coverage. Has a good wrist/snap shot but does most of his damage around the net. Gets a lot of velocity and lift on shots in tight. Defensive zone coverage is iffy. Reached for the puck and stopped moving his feet, lost his man multiple times. Still a very raw player but he’s got high upside. Borderline 1st round talent at this point.

24RW Michael McCarron, Western Michigan (CCHA)
6-5, 227 lbs, b. March 7, 1995 [2013-eligible]
I think of all the forwards on the US roster, McCarron was probably the hardest one to get a read on. He has the size and skill to be an absolutely dominant player, but I can’t help but think of Brian Boyle and how deceiving a bigger player performing well against smaller players can be. Not only doesn’t shy away from contact, he relishes it. Wreaked havoc along the boards, was near impossible to get the puck from when he used his reach. Took the body hit when given the opportunity and did a lot of damage with his hits. If Fasching is a freight train, McCarron is a cruise liner. Willed his way through people when he wanted to. Worked hard on the forecheck and backcheck. Parked in front of the net and was difficult to move. Got good power on his wrist and snapshots, placed his shots well for rebounds from the face-off dots out. Projects as a third-line talent right now, but there’s upside. Reminds me of Los Angeles Kings forward Jordan Nolan.

25LW Connor Hurley, TBD
6-1, 175 lbs, b. September 15, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Born on the draft cutoff day. Played very strong hockey in all four games. A hard-working two-way player who finished his checks. Still has a lot of room to fill out but rarely lost a physical battle. Kept his head on a swivel in the defensive zone and backchecked hard. I went back and forth on his skating. He has some good attributes with his feet (accelerating with the puck, keeping his feet moving, going into the corners with speed) and some poor ones (his stride in general was a little off and he had trouble keeping his positioning on the backcheck against faster players). Passing was inconsistent. Some great feeds, some poor giveaways. Didn’t get a great read on his shot but he did show some good awareness to shoot for redirects and rebounds. He has the makings of a great third-line forward, would like to see him again to see if his upside is capped there or if there’s more offense to him as his numbers in high school have been impressive.

28C Shane Eiserman, New Hampshire (HEA)
6-2, 196 lbs, b. October 10, 1995 [2014-eligible]
Would not be a stretch to say Eiserman was the best all-around forward for the Americans. His production didn’t match but that’s not for lack of effort. Battled hard. Just a really resilient player along the boards and in the neutral zone. Got boarded head first and hard against Sweden and bounced up after about five seconds. He was a shark on the PK. His one goal in the tourney came when he stripped a forward breaking out, deked around another, and scored on a great snapshot. Heavy hitter that finished his checks consistently. Can go end-to-end with speed and strength, shrugging off hits or dangling.  Has power moves to the net as part of his arsenal. Good wrister and gets a lot of velocity and elevation on his backhand. Not eligible for another year but I don’t think it’s too early to pencil him in as a potential first rounder.

Sweden

I don’t want to say the Swedes disappointed, because they did finish with the silver medal, but this team had the potential to play much better. After looking painfully average in squeaking out an overtime win over Switzerland and being forced to come from behind in the third period to beat Finland, the Swedes played an outstanding final round robin game against the Americans in which they kept up step-for-step with a very strong squad. In the final against the same US team, the Swedes were dominated physically, outshot 31-12 in the first two periods, and never really looked like they had a chance, even when they scored to make it a one-goal game in the third period. A lack of chemistry caused this team a lot of problems, but there were still plenty of individuals who stood out as legitimate talents. 

4D Robert Hägg, MODO (J20 + Elitserien)
6-2, 204 lbs, b. February 8, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Hägg played a very aggressive game overall, sometimes to a fault. Very involved. He was noticeable every time he was on the ice. Stride is awkward and tended to favor one side. Had a tough time with gap control on the rush and went for the all-or-nothing play (hit or poke) often, with very mixed success. Shifted between coasting while looking for an outlet pass and determinedly rushing the puck with his feet churning, without much in between. Starts/stops in coverage were slow and lacking in first step quickness. Transitioned smoothly from north to south and visa versa. He was very strong on his skates and showed great balance. Shot was among his biggest assets. Great selection and decisions. Able to keep his shots low for rebounds or pick corners. Hard wrister and slapshot, quick release on his snapshot. Was able to consistently get the puck on goal through traffic. Stickhandling was a little sloppy overall. Very intimidating player. Was nasty in front of the net and hard to deal with along the boards. Finished checks well and consistently. His over-aggressiveness caused him a lot of problems defensively. Tended to try and pin his opposition before they were able to gather steam, but once players got their feet moving against him he had a hard time timing his contact. Took himself out of position to play the body on a concerning basis. Great play in front of his net clearing the crease and tying up. Overall he reminded me a lot of Willie Mitchell with a little more offensive upside.

9D Wilhelm Westlund, Brynäs (J20)
5-11, 185 lbs, b. March 15, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Solid two-way defenseman. Used his size well. Showed very good body and stick control. Kept his stick active while moving his feet, making him difficult to beat one-on-one. Had his head on a swivel at all times. Has a quick first step and is very agile. Played with a lot of poise. Evaded forecheckers well and fought through checks when he did get hit. Went end-to-end a few times with good speed through the middle. Chipped the puck and chased it deep when coming to the line with speed (seemed to be a coach’s order as Hägg did this too). Showed a hard one-time shot and good wrister from the point, both of which he got through traffic well. Had a few lapses, including some problems against speed on the outside and some poor decisions based on tentativeness. For the most part he played a mistake-free game. Lacking elite upside but I think he’ll be an NHL player.

15C Victor Crus-Rydberg, Linköping (J20)
5-11, 190 lbs, b. March 21, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Played fairly pedestrian games against Switzerland and Finland, save for a few nice saucer passes and the two goals he scored as an opportunist. Had a strong shoot-first mentality. Flashed a quick wrist shot with a good release and a fantastic one-timer, laser-ed a goal home from the point on the power-play. Put five shots on net against Finland. In the first game against the US, he really put it all together. Backchecked hard and tied up sticks in front. Showed good straight line speed up the middle, drawing defenders back to allow his teammates to progress up ice. Worked well in the cycle with agile stops/starts. At some point suffered a concussion that caused him to miss the final game. If he shows that he can consistently play like he did against the US, I like him as a top-60 talent. Good combination of size/skill/speed.

21LW William Nylander Altelius, Södertalje (J20)
5-9, 163 lbs, b. May 1, 1996 [2014-eligible]
Son of Michael Nylander. Sweden’s most gifted offensive talent in the tournament by far. Great lateral agility and good, efficient stride overall. He’s a very deceptive skater who creates havoc with quick cuts. Good top speed that he gets to quickly when given room. Showed very quick hands and good dangling ability. Cycled and protected the puck well, but only against lax defenders. Had a hard time utilizing his stickhandling when someone played the body against him. Showed off good hands on the power-play to create space but tried to do too much. Did not utilize his teammates on a consistent basis. The passes he did make were outstanding, including crisp cross-ice breakout feeds to breaking teammates and soft setup passes on the power-play and off the cycle. Passed up numerous good passing plays to take low-quality point shots on the power-play. Outstanding wrist and snap shot, great one-time ability. Great velocity, quick release, and good accuracy. Physicality was not an issue until the American games, where bigger, well-positioned players rubbed him off the puck too easily. Defensive play needs work. A player to watch for 2014. 

27D Niklas Hansson, Rögle (J20 + Elitserien)
6-0, 173 lbs, b. January 8, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Pretty average overall player right now, but I like his upside. Lacking any real explosiveness in his skating, which caused him some troubles in coverage and against the United States’ heavy forecheck. His positioning against the rush was very solid. Angled off effectively and finished his checks. Not the most physical player but he was mostly capable. Bigger forwards gave him trouble in front. He’s listed at 6’0” with a 175-pound frame, safe to say there’s room to add there. Can’t remember anyone ever blowing past him. Outlet passing was outstanding. Found forwards with long bombs to create outnumbered breaks on three occasions. Like many of the Swedish defensemen, had the green light to go deep into the offensive zone. Carried the puck up ice with poise. Great on the point on the power-play with nice keep-ins and a hard one-timer. Gradually had more trouble getting the puck on net as the tournament wore on. He just got into his first Elitserien game and could improve drastically if he gets the chance to stick. Rögle also brought Hampus Lindholm along slowly and he wound up being a top player for them down the stretch and in the playoffs after starting the season playing mostly in junior.

28RW Anton Karlsson, Frolünda (J20)
6-0, 192 lbs, b. August 3, 1996 [2014-eligible]
Brother of Carolina pick Erik. Hard-working, intelligent player. Very creative passer, made difficult feeds with precision. Made smart plays at high speed. Flashed a hard wrist shot with a deceptive release. Pass-first mentality but not afraid to put the puck on net. Good on the power-play, better on the PK. Worked hard on the forecheck and took the body hard when appropriate. Backchecked fully and read the play well overall. Skating is a major concern. He had a shallow, uncomfortable looking stride. Kept his feet moving but was not efficient. Not eligible for another year so hopefully he’s already working on his skating. Everything else looked good.

29C Lucas Wallmark, Skellefteå (J20 + Elitserien)
6-0, 176 lbs, b. September 5, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Pretty similar player to Karlsson. Two-way talent with creative passing skills. Primarily worked as a playmaker but his 16 shots were second-best in the tournament. Great velocity on one-timers, quick wrister with a good release. Very useful power-play player. Shifty in tight, made space for himself and teammates. Would not call him a great finisher. Shot for rebounds often. Backchecked fully a majority of the time and had good awareness of his responsibility in the defensive zone. Skating stride needs work.

Finland

The Finnish team as a whole was ridiculously enigmatic. A guy would flash skill, then I’d follow him for his next few shifts and he’d be totally uninvolved. Someone else would show something, and then he’d taper off, too. Nobody really took the reigns for this team, it was a squad of players who looked like they didn’t really have much chemistry or drive. At certain points I would try to focus on taking notes on the Finns, only to find that they weren’t really doing anything noteworthy, positive or negative.

5D Julius Honka, JYP U20
5-10, 167 lbs, b. December 3, 1995 [2014-eligible]
Listed at 5’10” but I think he’s smaller. Offensive defenseman who got himself into trouble trying to do too much at times. Great skater, was very shifty and difficult to track down on the forecheck. Great lateral movement and agility. Turned up ice quickly when he got to the puck, was always looking to make a play. Quarterbacked the power-play well, showed poise carrying the puck up ice and ran the attack well from the point. Jumped into the rush responsibly and recovered well with good top speed. Was weak defensively against larger forwards, overpowered and out of position. High-skill player with upside. Needs to bulk up but he’s a good talent for 2014.

13LW Joose Antonen, JYP-Akatemia (FIN-2)
6-2, 183 lbs, b. April 28, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Pretty enigmatic player. For most of the tournament it didn’t look like he wanted to be there. Had shifts where he turned it on. Has some power to his game, capable of bringing the puck down the wing with speed and strength and was hard to knock off the puck when he used his protection ability. Showed good hands on a few occasions, good passing ability with nice power-play feeds and some seeing-eye blind dishes through sticks that hit the target. Hard wrister with a quick release but his accuracy was off. Defensive zone coverage needs work. Good skill/size combination but left me wanting to see more.

25RW Timi Lahtinen, Jokerit U20
6-2, 187 lbs, b. January 6, 1995 [2013-eligible]
Lahtinen was one of the few Finns who I thought brought it consistently. He skated well, backchecked hard, and played the body. Had a swagger to him, played confident hockey overall. Took the puck end-to-end with speed and went hard to the net. Should be able to transition to North American hockey and make an impact as a bottom six forward.

Switzerland

17LW Kevin Fiala, Malmö U20 (SWE)
5-9, 178 lbs, b. July 22, 1996 [2014-eligible]
Scored the goal of the tournament with an outstanding individual display of skill. In Switzerland’s first game against Sweden he played an outstanding game, breaking out the puck single handedly against a good forecheck and making great decisions with the puck that led to numerous scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Showed great stickhandling ability. Put the puck on net often but had trouble getting velocity on his shots. Play gradually tapered off as the tournament went on. Did backcheck and play defense but was inconsistent with his effort in his zone. Played great hockey for a 16-year-old.

29RW/D Yannick Rathgeb, Langnau U20
6-0, 183 lbs, b. October 24, 1995 [2014-eligible]
Rathgeb was not Switzerland’s best player in the tournament, but I think he projects to be the best talent who comes off this roster down the line. Played a very smooth all-around game, rotating between wing and defense on a game-by-game or situation-by-situation basis. Was strong on the forecheck, physical along the boards, and used his size to his advantage. Made good decisions with the puck in the neutral zone. Backchecked hard and showed good defensive zone awareness. Good skater with an efficient stride, changes directions smoothly and keeps his head on a swivel. As a defenseman, he was a little tentative in his own zone, but kept an active stick and was generally well positioned. Played the point on the power-play with good results, netting three goals in four games. Did have a tendency to float late in games, I couldn’t tell whether it was an issue of work ethic or conditioning. His versatility makes him a prospect to watch.

Scout's Perch will be a regular feature over the course of the 2012-13 season with Josh Deitell providing his observations from the road as he scouts various players eligible primarily for the 2013 NHL Draft.  Follow Josh on Twitter via @jdeitell.