2015 Ivan Hlinka Preview: Canada looks to continue domination of season’s first draft prospect showcase

By Chapin Landvogt
Tyler Benson - Team Canada

Photo: Team Canada forward Tyler Benson will have the role of an alternate captain at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, as he did for the Canada Black squad at the 2014 World U-17 Hockey Challenge (courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)



By June of 2016, a large number of the young men who will be participating in this week’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Breclav, Czech Republic and Bratislava, Slovakia will be the focus next year’s NHL Draft. The historical tournament will feature what are nominally considered the world’s eight best ice hockey nations divided into the following two groups:

Breclav                  Bratislava

Czech Republic    Slovakia

Canada                  Finland

Sweden                 Russia

Switzerland          USA

A novelty for the international ice hockey community, the event will likely be visited by no less than 120 scouts from all NHL teams and a number of other organizations, most of whom will be officially kicking off their 2015-16 season. Although the action on the ice indoors will feature a grueling schedule of what could be five games in six days, the teams will also be coping with 95+ degree temperatures outside, which are expected to last the entire week.

The group in Bratislava, which will play in the town’s largest arena and home to Slovan Bratislava, will see things kick off in a match between U18 World Championship finalists, the USA and Finland.

Team USA will feature a squad full of names just waiting to be discovered, 13 of whom are scheduled to play in the USHL and six more that are headed to the CHL for the 2015-16 season. Expected to lead the way will be forwards Riley Tufte, Timmy Gettinger, William Knierim, and defensemen Mitch Eliot and Cameron Dineen. Already measuring in at 6-5 and 205 pounds are both Tufte and Gettinger. In the highly talented Minnesotans Casey Mittelstadt and Scott Perunovich, and small Connecticut native Patrick Harper, the team features only three purely high school players. Very exciting will be the performance of Kailer Yamamoto, a Spokane, WA native who already put up 57 points in his rookie WHL season. He’ll first be eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft.

For Team Finland, all eyes will be on defenseman Markus Niemelainen (heading to the Saginaw Spirit) and likely Liiga players, defenseman Tarmo Reunanen and forward Eetu Tuulola. Very exciting, however, is a prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft, namely defenseman Juuso Valimaki. Already a 6’2”, 194 pound blueliner supreme from the Tampere program, Valimaki is scheduled to play for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL this fall. Otto Somppi (Halifax Mooseheads) and Eeli Tolvanen (Sioux City Musketeers) are here and will give North American fans a glimpse of what they’ll be bringing in North America next season. Unfortunately, in addition to super talents Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine’s absence, not making the trip is St. John Sea Dogs pick Oliver Felixsson, who is considered one of Finland’s top 2016 talents.

As usual, Team Russia brings some special talent to Slovakia, in particular smaller puck wizard German Rubtsov (2016 draft eligible) and strong-skating Nikita Popugaev (2017 draft eligible), who are two players the team will be counting on for healthy contributions while scouts will be paying close attention. Also worth noting will surely be the play of mid-sized Maxim Bain, who made quite an impression in a scoring capacity at the U17 level for Russia last season. You can be certain that a number of other names will jump up in 2016 draft rankings after this tournament. We’re tipping on Vyacheslav Schevchenko, Danil Veriaev, Artem Ivanyuzhenkov, and Artur Kayumov making some noise.

There’s still fairly little known about the hometown Slovakian club, but Liberec junior scorer Samuel Solensky and solid defenseman Martin Bodak, both veterans of the U18 WC, will look to heavily assist starting goaltender Jan Koziak in keeping opponents off the scoreboard for as long as possible. The 1999-born Milos Roman and Adam Ruzicka may also be top-nine forwards and will be two kids the scouts will keep a good eye on, as will be the case with 2017 draft-eligibles Samuel Bucek, Jakub Lacka and Marian Studenic, who are expected to be top-six forwards. Defenseman Vojtech Zelenak will be depended upon to keep opponents honest in front of the Slovakia net.

Things get all the more interesting in Breclav with Team Canada as they will be featuring a very strong lineup. For the constant favorite, there’s a plethora of talent that scouts will be having a field day with, already starting with the trio of captains. Brett Howden, brother to Florida Panthers first rounder Quinton, will lead the way after a full season of WHL play and 46 points under his belt. He’ll be assisted by fellow WHL forward Tyler Benson (45 points) and QMJHL playmaker Pierre-Luc Dubois (also 45 points). All three were members of Canada’s bronze medal-winning U18 contender.

These three are surrounded by a team that features many of 2016’s top draft-eligible players, including Michael McCleod, Tyson Jost, and Sam Steel, all of whom are currently ranked by many to be amongst the top 20 players taken next summer. The only players not currently on a CHL roster are Jost and a kid who is perhaps the most talented defenseman in the lineup, namely 6-foot, 190-pound Dante Fabbro, who plays for the Pentincton Vees and is thought to have Top 5 potential for the 2016 NHL Draft. In Carter Hart and Dylan Wells, the team has two goaltenders who already have a semi-full season of CHL play under their belt, although Hart’s 18 wins in 30 WHL games last season has him being the likely starter. Defensemen Jake Bean and Samuel Girard look primed for a big role on the power play after 39- and 43-point seasons for their respective CHL clubs.

After a disappointing international showing at both the U20 and especially U18 levels last season, Team Sweden will hope that highly rated Alexander Nylander, brother to William, as well as flashy University of Minnesota commit William Fallstrom, will be able to lead the team to the medal round. Nylander is one of the tournament’s premier names and will be the focus for the opposition’s defense. Speaking of which, SHL-tested defenseman Jacob Cederholm is thought of as a likely top 45 pick in 2016. He is joined on the blueline by Adam Thilander, the highest rated Swede for the 2017 draft, and the 6’2” and 200-pound Jacob Moverare, both of whom are expected to make an impact. Up front, the team will be hoping for contributions from most especially Tim Wahlgren, Elias Pettersson, Oliver Olsson, and smallish scoring sensation Jesper Bratt. Still licking its wounds at this point, Sweden would love nothing more than to see this group arrive back on the international scene with a medal.

For Team Switzerland, two of the pillars of the team will be Zurich-based defensemen with Swedish names, namely Axel Andersson and Victor Öjdemark, the latter of whom may be the go-to guy on the blueline as the tournament progresses. Defenseman Livio Stadler and linemates Dominik Volejnicek and Nico Hishier will likely be first-liners, all bringing U18 World Championship experience from this past spring with them. The latter is first eligible for the 2017 draft. Forward Lee Roberts will be someone the team will look to for goals while youngsters Nando Eggenberger and Tobias Geisser will be gathering experience in what is felt to be one of Switzerland’s weaker years in recent memory.

The host Czech Republic is coached by Robert Reichel, a Czech legend who is well-known in NHL circles, as well. His son Kristian Reichel is a top-flight 2016 draft-eligible and is expected to play a prominent role in the Czech attack. Expected to join him in creating offense are Marek Zachar, Matyas Kantner, Martin Havelka and 16 year old David Kofron. All of these are names that, in addition to likely starting goalie Adam Brizgala, draft fans should get used to as the year progresses.

Still, the strength of Team Czech Republic is expected to be the defensive corps where Libor Hajek – felt to be a possible 2016 first rounder – leads the charge. A veteran of the U18 WC and of 17 Czech Extraliga games already, few at this tournament can display that kind experience at this stage. He is heading to the Saskatoon Blades for the upcoming season. He’s joined by Ondrej Vala, who’ll suit up for the Kamloops Blazers, Vojtech Budik (Prince Albert Raiders), Ondrej Kachyna (Hamilton Bulldogs), and Frantisek Hrdinka (Saint John Sea Dogs). Hardly a team this side of Canada can boast that many upcoming CHL players.

The hosting countries Slovakia and the Czech Republic have never copped a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka, and in fact, Canada has won gold at this tournament 19 times since it began in 1991. For the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial, it shouldn’t be out of the question to think that the Czechs and Canadians could ultimately duke it out for gold, but don’t bet against Canada securing their 20th gold medal regardless of the opponent.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin