Inside the NHL

One unintended COVID-19 side effect has been a boost to the prestige of the IIHF Under-18 World Hockey Championship tournament playing out in the greater Dallas area.

This newer event of roughly two decades typically lacks the stature of its older U-20 counterpart — also known as the World Junior Championship — because many top players ordinarily would be in their major junior league playoffs and unable to participate. This year, though, the cancellation of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and abbreviated Western Hockey League (WHL) schedule with no postseason means their players were available.

And that’s great for the Kraken and NHL teams desperate to see prospects eligible for this year’s draft and future ones playing against serious competition after pandemic-related shutdowns.

“Talking to everybody there, they’re just excited to see live games,” said Kraken general manager Ron Francis, part of his team’s seven-member scouting contingent on-hand in Texas last week for preliminary round-robin play. “You do a lot of this work via video and stuff, and to be able to see it live — you can confirm things, or you can look in a different direction on things. So I think it’s valuable from that aspect to be able to see things live.”

Participants include 15-year-old British Columbia native Connor Bedard of the WHL’s Regina Pats, one of those rare prodigal standouts already being likened to Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid for his precocious achievements with arguably the best Team Canada roster in the tourney’s history. The U-18 event historically has been a mostly Team USA affair, with its 10 gold medals topping the global leaderboard and forming this country’s strongest result in any serious international men’s hockey tournament. 

But the U.S. was eliminated Monday by Sweden, 5-2, in the quarterfinals, ensuring this country’s first non-medal showing since 2003. Sweden then got demolished 8-1 on Wednesday by Bedard and his WHL-and-OHL-bolstered Canadians in a semifinal game with Kraken implications, as each squad had a potential top-five selection in July’s NHL entry draft.

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The Kraken is guaranteed a top-five pick, and left-handed-shooting Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson, a 6-foot-5, 207-pounder who gained experience in that country’s pro league because of COVID-19 junior shutdowns there, is certainly a candidate. So is Team Canada forward Dylan Guenther of the Edmonton Oil Kings, who notched 24 points in just a dozen WHL games this season and has four tournament goals and three assists.

Otherwise, the tournament’s story has been Bedard — whose hat-trick Wednesday gave him six goals and six assists in six games — and the juggernaut Canadians steamrolling everyone. Also, Russian forward Matvei Michkov, 16, who now leads the tourney with 11 goals and has 13 points — one better than Bedard — after scoring in a 6-5 semifinal win over Finland. Michkov and Bedard square off in Thursday’s final (6 p.m. PT, NHL Network) and the pair could also battle for the No. 1 overall NHL draft slot come 2023.

So Kraken fans should keep an eye on whether Francis scores additional 2023 first-round picks in pre-expansion-draft side deals this summer. You never know when a trade extra thrown in by a declining team could lead to a dream draft lottery pick for a potential generational player.

Seeing players as young as Bedard and Michkov do this well against older opponents doesn’t happen often. I was fortunate to see Mario Lemieux do it firsthand as a junior player in my Laval, Quebec, hometown, then while covering a 16-year-old Eric Lindros with the Oshawa Generals at the 1990 Memorial Cup.

But Lemieux and Lindros were the size of fully grown men even at 15 and 16. Bedard is 5 feet 9, 185 pounds, and Michkov is 5-10 and 159, so you hope they both keep growing and maintaining hockey interest to see whether they fulfill the Hall of Fame legacies they’ve been touted alongside.

There are also the usual caveats to results put up in tournaments such as this, the most obvious being that other potential draftees already 18 aren’t eligible to play.

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“You’ve got to factor all of that in,” Francis said. “And I think you also have to be very careful in that, this is a two-week tournament. Some of these kids haven’t played, some have played. Some have played with men, some in junior leagues. 

“So it’s dangerous to put too much weight one way or the other. But I think it’s good, because you get visuals on lots of guys, especially skating. I think it’s a lot harder to use video for that.”

As for 2021 draft-eligible players, the tourney boasts its usual high-end projections that should make NHL teams better, but none — unlike Bedard and Michkov — is yet projected as generational catalysts.

From a local perspective, Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Thomas Milic is backing up Canadian starter Benjamin Gaudreau and entering Wednesday had allowed just one goal in two games. T-birds star forward Conner Roulette has two goals, three assists, and defenseman Olen Zellweger of the Everett Silvertips a goal and six assists.

The Kraken hoped to see other top prospects, but Team USA was hampered by injury absences of two potential top-10 picks from its national team development program — defenseman Luke Hughes, 17, and center Chaz Lucius, 18. One reason the U.S. is so successful at the U-18 tournament is its development team devotes year-round preparation for it, which not all countries do.

So missing two program mainstays didn’t help. Hughes, whose brothers, Jack and Quinn, were drafted Nos. 1 and 7 overall in 2019 and 2018, respectively, is another potential Kraken top-five pick.

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“It’s been kind of a frustrating tournament with a lot of the things that have happened,” Francis said of the injuries and Canadian forward Cole Sillinger going into COVID-19 protocol pretournament. “As much as you wanted to see everybody, you didn’t get to see everybody.”

But he’ll take what he can get, with this year’s draft confounding NHL teams about how to gauge prospects with limited pandemic-era game experience. Francis and most Kraken scouts departed Texas last weekend to cover this week’s start of the junior United States Hockey League playoffs, leaving behind only assistant GM Jason Botterill and amateur scouting director Robert Kron.

Francis must see as many players as possible with fewer than three months to finalize his draft board. He’ll also pick third in each of Rounds 2-7 and could land more high-round selections via expansion draft side deals.

So unless Francis somehow swings a top-five pick for 2023 and scores a draft lottery miracle for projected no-brainers Bedard or Michkov, his best bet for long-term success remains figuring out the tougher prospect calls these next two summers ahead.