This is a prospect fan’s paradise.
The U-18 World Championship is set to begin on Saturday in Germany, marking the return of the final true showcase event of the NHL’s top prospects. This year has a strong mix of 2022, 2023 and 2024-eligible players looking to show just how far they’ve come in the first full normal season back since before the pandemic.
And don’t forget about the reason they’re all truly there: gold.
The tournament is wide open once again. Last year’s Canada team was an all-star effort for the ages, but they won’t have some of its top CHL talent to work with, including projected No. 1 pick Shane Wright. Some believe the Americans, who play together all year as part of the United States National Team Development Program, might not have what it takes to win gold. Can Sweden, Finland or Czechia steal the spotlight with Russia out of the equation?
That’s what makes this tournament so good. There are so many unknowns. And it’s a tournament we’ll be following from start to finish as eight of the best hockey nations in the world battle for glory.
Here’s a look at some of the top prospects to watch in Germany, including many that won’t need to wait long to hear their name selected on draft day:
Logan Cooley, C (USA, 2022 Draft)
With no Shane Wright, Simon Nemec or Juraj Slafkovsky to deal with, Cooley enters the tournament as the top prospect from the 2022 NHL draft class. A University of Minnesota commit, the dynamic center combines speed, two-way resilience, a fantastic ability to win faceoffs and the offensive tools out of someone capable of excelling in the NHL as soon as they make the jump. And Cooley might not need to wait too long, either: many project him as the No. 2 prospect this year, and scouts love the brains out of the kid.
Connor Bedard, C (Canada, 2023 Draft)
OK, so this is an easy one. Considered to be the top prospect for the 2023 draft, Bedard finished second in tournament scoring last year and is a shoo-in to finish near the top again this time around. Let Ryan Kennedy explain it best: “Watching Bedard is a delight, as the kid has constantly made something out of nothing on rushes and found creative ways to score or set up his linemates despite all the attention he draws from the enemy.
Joakim Kemell, RW (Finland, 2022 Draft)
Many believe Kemell can be a top five pick in Montreal this July. A skilled winger out of Finland, he spent the entire season with JYP and scored 15 goals and 23 points, the only U-18 player to record over 10 points this season. Kemell has five goals and six points in five U-18 Finnish national team games this year and was even part of the World Junior Championship team, too. Kemell always seems to show up at these events and scored three goals last year as an underager. For a shooter as good as Kemell, this could be huge to solidify his draft ranking.
Liam Öhgren, LW (Sweden, 2022 Draft)
Öhgren led the Swedish U-20 league in goals despite only playing half the season. The other half? Trying to make a name for himself in the top Swedish men’s league. Öhgren had just two points in 25 games with Djurgardens but has been one of Sweden’s best players with the U-18 national team this year and the projected first-round pick can use this to further show just how strong of a goal-scorer he can be.
Adam Fantilli, C (Canada, 2023 Draft)
Let Tony Ferrari break it down for you: “Already a physical specimen standing at 6-foot-2 and pushing 200 pounds, Fantilli blends power and skill at a level we will not see from any other player at this tournament. The Chicago Steel star has already matched the USHL’s all-time scoring season for a player in his draft minus one season and he did it in two fewer games than Kyle Connor’s 2013-14 season. Fantilli’s goal scoring is lethal, thanks in part to his penchant for attacking high danger areas in a variety of ways.”
Lane Hutson, D (USA, 2022 Draft)
One of America’s brightest stars a year ago as an underage, Hutson will be one of USA’s most important players this time around. At 5-foot-8, Hutson is a very small defenseman and it’s one of the reasons why he isn’t getting more attention. But with the puck against kids his own age, he’s no stranger to taking over a game. Hutson has 10 goals and 54 points with the USNTDP this year and after posting five points in five games last year, he’ll be counted on in a big way for the Americans.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki, RW (Sweden, 2022 Draft)
Many scouts consider Lekkerimäki to be a top 10 prospect for 2022, and a strong showing as one of Sweden’s better players could go a long way in making that a reality. A pure goal-scorer, Lekkerimäki has five goals in U-18 exhibition games and even earned some time with Sweden’s U-20 team. In 26 SHL games, he had seven goals and nine points in what was a successful pro debut for the 17-year-old. If Sweden makes it deep into the tournament, Many scouts consider Lekkerimäki to be a top 10 prospect for 2022, and a strong showing as one of Sweden’s better players could go a long way in making that a reality. A pure goal-scorer, Lekkerimäki will be a big reason why.
Cutter Gauthier, C (USA, 2022 Draft)
Possessing one of the best names in the draft and silky smooth skillset, Cutter Gauthier will be relied upon to do what he’s done all year long with the USNTDP: create offense, and a lot of it. The Boston College commit had 31 goals in 47 games and, over the past four years, has managed to score more goals than assists every season. A fringe top-10 prospect in the eyes of some scouts, Gauthier’s scoring ability is definitely there and you’ll get a good effort from him in all zones.
Isaac Howard, LW (USA, 2022 Draft)
The top scorer on the USNTDP this season, Howard is a dual-threat as a goal-scorer and a playmaker. He was known more for his scoring in minor hockey, but his 44 assists helped contribute to his team-leading point total. Howard had a successful U-18 tournament last year as an underaged forward and scored seven goals in four Youth Olympic games back in 2020, so he knows how to perform in events like this.
Elias Salomonsson, D (Sweden, 2022 Draft)
A borderline first-round prospect, this could be a great opportunity for Salomonsson to earn some more love on draft boards. Salomonsson was part of Sweden’s defense core a year ago but played more of a minor role — that’ll change this year after a good showing with U-18 team through various events and even an opportunity in the SHL.
Rutger McGroarty, F (USA, 2022 Draft)
One of the newest faces of the University of Michigan, McGroarty has made a name for himself as one of the toughest prospects in the age group to play against. A potential first-round pick, McGroarty has a physical edge that matches his offensive prowess and it resulted in a solid 60-point campaign with the USNTDP.
Tanner Howe, LW (Canada, 2024 Draft)
Wow, what a talent Howe has ended up becoming. After going 73rd overall to the Pats in 2020, Howe has emerged as one of the best 16-year-old prospects in the world with an impressive 69 points in 64 games as a WHL rookie. Playing alongside Bedard can have its benefits, but Howe has been so impactful for a team full of young talent. Howe is tied with Kelowna’s Andrew Cristall for second in U-17 WHL scoring behind, who else, Bedard. Howe is undersized at 5-foot-8, but the pure speed and skill makes him such an alluring force.
Topias Leinonen, G (Finland, 2022 Draft)
The top-rated goaltender from the NHL’s midseason rankings, Leinonen has tremendous size at 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds, yet moves well for his size. His stats against men in four Liiga games might not scream, well, anything positive, Leinonen is no stranger to heavy workloads at all levels and his style in the crease, good headspace and overall demeanor makes him one of the better goalies in this draft class. Some liken Leinonen to Jacob Markstrom or Mikko Koskinen — the size is certainly there, and the Finns will hope they get a championship-level performance out of him.
Jiří Kulich, C (Czechia, 2022 Draft)
The Czechs have the ability to turn some heads in Germany, and Kulich could be a big reason why. Already with a year of pro hockey under his belt, Kulich has played well whenever needed with the Czech U-18 team, and while much of the attention might be on his 2023 draft prospect teammate Eduard Sale, Kulich is perhaps the biggest name among Czech prospects heading for the draft this time around. Whether it be his work ethic, good shot or his ability to read plays and find good positioning, there’s a lot to like about Kulich’s play.
Aron Kiviharju, D (Finland, 2024 Draft)
Kiviharju, the top prospect for the 2024 draft, is ready to show what he’s capable of. The 2006-born defenseman had eight goals in five U-16 games with Finland to go along with 30 points in 35 games in the top Finnish U-20 league. For reference, 11 other U-16 players combined for 41 games in the same league, and only Aron Kiviharju (37 points in 40 games in 2013-14) had more points at that age. Come for Bedard, stay for Kivijarju.
Other notables: Frank Nazar, C/RW (USA, 2022 Draft), Alessio Beglieri, G (Switzerland, 2022 Draft), Lukas Dragicevic, D (Canada, 2023 Draft), Jakub Dvorak, D (Czechia, 2023 Draft), Charlie Stramel, RW (USA, 2023 Draft)