GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN – DECEMBER 25: USA’s Zeev Buium #28 – 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship at Frolundaborg on December 25, 2023 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/IIHF)
With all the hustle and bustle of Christmas now behind us, if you find yourself not knowing what to do with some much-needed time off, I would suggest tunning into the NHL Network to watch the IIHF’s World Junior Championship U20 Tournament that is currently taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden. It is here where some of the most talented prospects in the game today from countries all around the globe commonly come together to see which nation will be able to skate away with the bragging rights and the hardware (Gold Medal) after winning it all.
To help you further enjoy these contests, in this article, I will break down some of the top 2024 NHL Draft Eligible Players available on each team. In this tournament, teams tend to fill their rosters with their country’s best players who are currently under the age of 21. This means that many of the prospects that you’ll find yourself enamored by have already been drafted by an NHL club and, therefore, are just fine-tuning some points to their games before signing their entry-level contracts. But this is not the case for all players involved. On every team’s roster, there are a few un-drafted players who were skilled enough to find a way to make it through their country’s final rounds of cuts to play in this tournament. So, let’s take a look.
One of the favorites this year has to be Team USA, and for good reason: 21 of the 23 players on their roster have already been drafted by NHL Clubs. Many of them were good enough to be selected in the first or second round of their respected draft classes, such as Cutter Gauthier, Will Smith, Ryan Leonard, Gabe Perreault, Lane Hutson, Seamus Casey, and Frank Nazar, to name a few. But, despite the Red, White, and Blue having all these future NHL stars playing for them right now, there is still one undrafted player in their lineup whose play is already on par or better than his already claimed counterparts.
That player is Zeev Buium, the 6’0, 183-pound left-hand shot defender who is just 18 years old, that you can typically find playing in the NCAA for the University of Denver. While Buium was respected for his work with the U.S. National Development Program in previous years, no one expected that Zeev would come out this season and make the collegiate ranks look like child’s play. What do I mean by that? Well, in just his first year of college hockey, Buium has been able to score five goals and 20 assists for a total of 25 points in only 18 games played for the Pioneers thus far. It is this 1.38 point-per-game pace as a defenseman, mind you, that has allowed Zeev to see his name vault up the mock drafts as of late to the point where some even have him potentially being taken by a lottery team this summer.
So far in this tournament, Buium has scored just one goal and one assist in two games played, but look for his point totals to continue to climb as he gets more comfortable playing with his new teammates.
Now, as good as the USA looks, it would not be the WJC if we did not talk about the perennial favorites Team Canada. Like America, Canada’s roster is filled with talent that NHL clubs have previously drafted in prior drafts, but there are some names that you’ll most certainly see called this upcoming summer as well.
The easiest to pick out would be Macklin Celebrini, who not only leads the entire tournament in points right now but is all but typed in already as being the first overall draft pick taken in the 2024 draft. So, let’s pick another name you should look out for.
Mathis is a 19-year-old goaltender who can be found most nights in net for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Rousseau, who is only 5’11 and 172 pounds, has astounded many this year with his play, so much so that he has managed to beat out fellow Canadian goalie Scott Razlaff, who was taken by the Buffalo Sabers last summer for Canada’s starting job. In two games played thus far in this tournament, Mathis has been able to post two victories and maintain an impressive 1.00 goals against average (G.A.A.) and a .958 save percentage (SV%).
As far as what got him the privilege to try out for Team Canada, Rousseau had to post a 2.07 G.A.A. and a .934 SV% through 21 games with the Mooseheads. But what might have given him the edge over others is the fact that if needed, he can evidently be counted on to provide some goal-scoring depth, as he proved capable of doing just that in a game a few months back against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.
Having already been handed an unexpected 4-3 loss to Germany earlier in this tournament, Finland will obviously be looking to rebound quickly. And to do that, they might have to rely on one of their promising undrafted prospects.
And for me, while they have a few to choose from in that regard, I think the player they will be counting on the most throughout the rest of this tournament will be Konsta Helenius. The consensus on this 17-year-old forward, who already finds himself competing in his country’s highest professional league, the Liiga, is that he has the type of talent that will see him selected as one of the top ten players in the 2024 draft class. With that being said, I would have to agree. From an early age, Konsta has proved that he can hang while playing with older players. No other example of this would be more evident than this year while playing in the Liiga, where through 28 games playing for Jukurit, he has been able to tally eight goals and twelve assists for 20 points.
But while that success has not yet translated in this tournament as Helenius has been held scoreless through two games played (when last year he was averaging well over a point per game in both the WJC-U17 and U18 competitions), look for him to step up and will his country to a couple of victories in the coming days.
Another strong team in this tournament, as always, is Sweden. Like Canada and Team USA, Sweden’s roster is full of players who already find themselves residing in NHL systems.
But perhaps the player whose name surprises me the most that does not find his name on that list is goalie Hugo Havelid.
Hugo is a netminder who I had a team certainly taking at some point this past summer because of his phenomenal play. But sadly, that wasn’t the case. My guess as to why that didn’t happen would have to be his height. Havelid stands at just 5’10 tall but manages to circumvent any shortcoming (pun intended) by shooting out of the crease to challenge the shooter.
And while he has not yet managed to play a game in the SHL (Sweden’s top professional league), he did manage to not only secure the crease in Sweden’s first game against Latvia, over both Melker Thelin and Kevin Reidler, who were lucky enough to be drafted by an NHL team already but also earned himself a shutout for his efforts in the team’s 6-0 victory as well.
While I don’t expect Hugo to get the majority of the starts, moving forward, if he somehow can continue to make the most out of the starts that he does receive in this tournament, you can expect an NHL team to call his name come draft day this summer.
Well, while this country may have gone through a lot of changes over the years, especially involving its name- Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, to now being known as Czechia, one thing that hasn’t changed is that prospects born in this country can flat out play.
And while defenseman Adam Jiricek should have been the talk of the town for Czechia this year at the world juniors, the knee injury he sustained in their first game against Slovakia has left Czechia desperate for someone to step up and help lead in his absence.
For me, that player should be Dominik Rymon. This 19-year-old undrafted forward possesses the kind of quick stick work that allows him to collect points in bunches. If you need proof of this, look no further than what he has been able to do this year while playing for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. Through 32 games played thus far, Dominik has been able to score 18 goals and 25 assists for 43 points. Rymon is quick to rush to a puck, and once he has retrieved it, he makes sure that it doesn’t stay on his stick blade for long because it doesn’t matter where he is on the ice; Rymon is going to let it fly.
Besides his scoring ability (which he has used to average a points-per-game so far in this tournament), NHL clubs are also sure to be captivated by his defensibility as well, seeing that he is currently ranked among the WHL’s league leaders in plus-minus with an average of +19.
Any and all of these undrafted prospects could potentially earn themselves the honor of being drafted by an NHL club this summer simply by having a good showing at this tournament. For although it is just a week or two long, it is held in high regard because it is one of the only places where all the best and brightest prospects from around the world can come together to face off against each other. So, if you can prove to the masses that you can play well on this stage, the sky is the limit.