The first major event of the 2014 NHL Draft season opens up Monday when the puck drops on the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Under-18 Tournament in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia.
The tournament features national teams from the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and Russia, which makes it a huge early scouting event.
The U.S. team was selected out of the Select 17 Player Development Camp, which was held back in late June into early July. This roster features many of the best players in USA Hockey’s player pool outside of the National Team Development Program. This tournament gives USAH a chance to get more of its players international experience in a high-level event, so there’s a ton of value there.
Canada has typically dominated the Hlinka as it is the country that typically invests the most in this tournament. Since many Canadian players are unavailable for the World Under-18 Championship in April due to the CHL playoffs, this is typically the best team Canada can ice at the U18 level in any given year.
More countries seem to be putting more into this tournament as well, with Sweden notably including many of its best U18 players on its roster.
Coming up after the jump, a closer look at Team USA and some of the opposing players to watch.
How to Follow the Hlinka
This is a bit easier said than done. Despite the increasing profile of this tournament, there is no official live stream of any game at this point, so there’s no real way to watch it. The tournament does have a central website however, for the first time.
I’ve been told HlinkaMemorial.com will have live statistics, so that’s at least a way to track it if you’re interested. @USAHockeyScores will be providing some updates for Team USA as well, while the tournament’s official in-English twitter feed is @czechhockey. USAHockey.com’s limited coverage of the tournament is available here. Hockey Canada provides tournament coverage here as well.
Aside from this here preview, there won’t be a lot of Hlinka coverage on this site due to the lack of video availability, but I plan on sprinkling updates into World Junior camp posts throughout the week.
Team USA Preview
The U.S. Under-18 Select Team roster has a good mix of talent on it and should be able to be pretty competitive this year after managing just one win for a seventh-place finish at the last tournament. Team USA’s best finish in recent years was second-place at the 2010 tournament, which featured several players that helped the U.S. to its most recent World Junior Championship gold-medal. Team USA has just one Ivan Hlinka championship under its belt, which was back in 2003, while the Americans have finished second seven times.
This year’s U18 Selects have a difficult task ahead, with a schedule that includes Finland, Russia and Slovakia in the round-robin portion of the tournament. The two teams with the best record on each side of the tournament during round-robin play meet for the tournament title. There is also typically a third- and fifth-place game. So it’s important to get off to a good start and try to maintain that momentum throughout.
Team USA will meet the Czech Republic in a pre-tournament game Saturday, so head coach Bob Corkum will get a good look at his troops before heading into the real thing. Corkum, a former NHLer and now part of the New York Islanders organization, led the 2011 U17 Select Team to the Five Nations title in Ann Arbor, so he’s had some international success. This will be a lot tougher of a tournament. Corkum will be joined on the bench by three more former NHLers: NTDP assistant coach John Gruden, American Development Model regional manager Matt Herr and Minnesota-Duluth assistant Derek Plante.
As far as the roster goes, I think it’s a pretty good one, starting with a really solid tandem between the pipes with Plymouth Whalers goalie Alex Nedeljkovic and NTDP netminder Blake Weyrick.
Nedeljkovic put up some fantastic numbers as an OHL rookie last year, with a 19-2-1 record, .923 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in 26 appearances. He played in 15 games in the OHL playoffs as well, posting a .908 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Weyrick sat out most of last season at the NTDP while recovering from surgery, but he showed enough to earn a spot on last year’s World Under-18 Championship team that won silver. Weyrick backed up Thatcher Demko and only saw action in the exhibition, but there’s a ton of potential here with his 6-3, 210-pound frame. Both of these guys are strong options for Team USA.
If there’s one word to describe Team USA’s defense for this tournament it’s this: Big. Only one of the seven players on the roster is listed under 6-foot-2.
The biggest of them all is Ryan Mantha who should be playing a relatively important role on this team. At 6-5, 215 Mantha has a great frame. Additionally he played 52 games in the USHL last season. The U.S. players with that junior hockey experience tend to be able to better adjust to the pace of this tournament, which is quite fast. The North Dakota commit will have to use that experience to his advantage. The same goes for Aaron Haydon, who played 42 games with the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL last season. He is a former first-round pick in the OHL Priority Selection Draft.
The U.S. will also have to look to Jack Dougherty, who is headed to the NTDP next year, and Notre Dame commit Robert Nardella. The pair has some solid international experience having been part of the U.S. Under-17 Select Team that won the U17 Five Nations Tournament last August.
Brandon Carlo, who isn’t draft eligible until 2015 and headed to the Tri-City Americans in the WHL next year, Jerad Rosburg of the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets and Eagan High School’s Nick Wolff round out Team USA’s defensive corps.
At forward, the story is possibly as much about who isn’t there as who is. Blake Clarke, a potential top-10 pick in the upcoming NHL draft was not selected for the team, despite participating in camp. It was a head-scratcher among NHL scouts I spoke to and I’m afraid I don’t have any extra insight into the decision myself. Clarke, who was part of the Brampton Battalion last year and a former USHLer, is an American-born dual citizen with Canada, adding an element of intrigue to the story.
Also not in the lineup, who probably would have helped, Seamus Malone. The Dubuque Fighting Saints forward is headed to the World Junior Club Cup in Russia with his USHL team. Similar to the losses of Ian McCoshen and Taylor Cammarata last year with the Waterloo Black Hawks for the same reason, it’s unfortunate to lose a high-quality player like Malone when the depth is already hurt by not using NTDP guys.
Bringing the focus back to the guys who will be there, however, there’s some really solid guys in this group led by Green Bay Gamblers forward Nick Schmaltz. Perhaps one of the best NHL Draft prospects playing in the USHL, Schmaltz posted 52 points as a 16-year-old last season, which is a pretty big number. The North Dakota commit also has international experience having been part of the Youth Olympic Games U16 team in 2011, so he’s seen top competition before. He’ll need to be an offensive leader for this club.
The U.S. will also likely be looking for big contributions from a trio of Portland Winterhawks at forward. Paul Bittner, a 6-foot-4 power winger saw some quality minutes for Portland last year and really improved his game it seemed. He should be a factor at both ends of the ice for Team USA. Teammates Keegan Iverson and Dominc Turgeon (son of Pierre) also should play a sizable role. Both saw quality international experience when they joined the U.S. National Under-17 Team for the World Under-17 Challenge last year, which should help at the Hlinka.
Austin Poganski also played at the World U17 Challenge last year. He should be a big source of production for the U18 selects. The North Dakota commit scored six goals at the U17 Challenge and showed some really solid skills and speed. He was also part of last year’s U.S. U17 Select Team, so he could be a leader for this group with his level of experience.
Other returnees from last year’s U17 5 Nations championship team include Youngstown Phantom Kyle Connor and Joey Dudek of Kimball Union Academy.
Rounding out Team USA’s forward crop is Select 17 Camp leading scorer Dylan Malmquist, Cody Milan of the Sioux Falls Stampede, Shattuck-St. Mary’s product Chase Phelps, Joseph Snively of the Sioux City Musketeer and a Yale commit, Ryan Wagner of Chicago Mission and White Bear Lake forward Jake Wahlin.
Among the players from opposing countries to watch, Canada’s always stacked team will be led by defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who could push for the No. 1 overall pick next year. Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury are also a pair of defenders looking to make a good first impression for the NHL Draft.
The Canadian forward crop will include former USHLer Brendan Lemieux (son of Claude), who spent a brief spell with the Green Bay Gamblers. Among others to watch closely, Jake Virtanen, Sam Bennett and U.S./Canadian dual citizen Daniel Audette (son of former NHLer Donald).
Dale Hunter, head coach of the London Knights and former bench boss of the Washington Capitals, will be serving in that same role for Team Canada at the Hlinka this year.
The Swedish team also has one of the big time prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft on its roster as William Nylander is scheduled to participate for the Tre Kronor. He is an exciting talent and could push for the No. 1 overall selection next year.
Jakub Vrana will be the big one to keep eyes on for Team Czech Republic. He was part of the World Under-18 Championship team last year and looks like he has the skills to be a first-round pick in the NHL Draft.
The remaining rosters for the tournament are not yet available, but Finland will certainly be without top 1996-born Kasperi Kapanen, who will be in Lake Placid for the World Junior Camp.
This tournament, though difficult to follow, is an interesting one. For these players to play in a high level tournament this early in the season and get seen by many scouts is such a great opportunity for both their development and their NHL evaluations.