The Under-18 World Championships are set to begin this week with some of the top prospects from around the world. In some cases, the players are guys you’ll hear called early in the first round of the NHL Draft this coming June. But in a rare case that you don’t see often in tournaments, the kids that are still another year from having their names called may be the ones to actually steal the spotlight. With some of the worlds top youngsters finished in league action this year, the U18’s present a great opportunity to see some young talent before they get the chance to steal the spotlight at future World Junior tournaments. Let’s take a look at five of the next, next young stars, shall we?
For the top 2015 NHL Draft prospects to watch, check out this list here.
5. Clayton Keller, F (USA): Keller is a product of one of the most incredible hockey development programs in the world, the US National Development Team Program. A potential top ten pick in 2016, Keller is consistently the best forward on the ice against skaters three years older, a sign of greatness that is hard to find in most players. While small (5-8/150), Keller is an incredible skater with a great stride and a high top speed. Every time he touches the puck, you can expect to almost always see him make a great play, whether it be a great long range pass or a powerful slap shot. The Boston University commit has played in one previous international tournament, scoring 13 points in six games to finish first in scoring at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. If that isn’t good enough, Keller finished first in USDTP U17 scoring with 59 points in 45 games this year. Keller is a special kid, and this is just the beginning of a wonderful career.
4. Lukáš Doudera, D (Czech Republic): After years in the HC Kladno system in the Czech Republic, Lukas and his older brother Milan transferred to Oceláři Třinec this summer to kickstart their careers by jumping to the the professional ranks. While Doudera has had some solid seasons at the Czech junior level, which tends to be weaker than in Finland or Sweden, Doudera does have some defensive brainfarts that has taken away from his game at times. Considered to be a late first to early second rounder, Doudera recorded just a single point in ten professional games with Třinec, but the 17-year-old blue liner is much more effective as a stay-at-home defenseman than a two-way rushing guy. Being one of the younger guys on the strong Czech team, Doudera may not see much action in key moments down the stretch, but he sure is good enough to earn a good chunk of minutes if he plays as good as he’s known to be.
3. Dmitri Sokolov, F (RUS): If there is something the Russians do well, it’s developing incredibly talented young superstars. Sokolov is one of the next great players from the nation. An incredible skater with a fantastic shot, Sokolov plays in the Molodezhnaya Hokkeinaya League, also known as the Russian Junior League, with Omskie Yastreby, a junior affiliate of the Avangard Omsk KHL club. In 29 games this season, his first in the league, Sokolov recorded 16 points while playing against mainly older competition. Internationally, Sokolov has won two gold medals this season alone, winning the top prize at both the U17 and European Youth Olympic Festival tournaments. Playing against kids that were two years older, Sokolov led the U18 Five Nations Tournament in points earlier this year, scoring five goals and adding an assist to really impress scouts from around the world. There have been some slight rumors that Sokolov could come over to the OHL through the import draft this year, but regardless of where he plays next season, it’s clear that the talented Russian has a solid future ahead of him.
2. Jesse Puljujärvi, F (FIN): Puljujärvi is a big forward with all the skills and traits of an 18 year old ready to take his game to the next level. One problem: he’s only 16 and isn’t even eligible for the NHL draft until 2016. There is a ton of hype for the youngster, and rightfully so: he’s been well over a point-per-game player in every single Junior league he’s competed in. While playing with the Kärpät U20 squad at the Jr. A SM-liiga last season, Puljujärvi finished with 23 points in 18 contests to go along with 14 points in 8 Jr. B games earlier in the year. This season, Puljujärvi put up a respectable 11 points in 21 games with Karpat in the top Finnish division, adding an extra 13 points in 15 games in the Mestis minor league. While he was unable to put up any points at the World Juniors this year, which, considering he was 16, was impressive enough, he has put up 13 points in 10 other junior events, split between the U18 and U20 levels. Think he’s the next Finnish scoring star? That’s a bet you shouldn’t go against.
1. Auston Matthews, F (USA): Matthews and Puljujärvi have a few similarities. Both young scoring studs participated at the U20 World Juniors a season before their draft year. The only difference is that Matthews, born just a few days shy of the 2015 draft cutoff, is a year older. Regardless, Matthews has been a scoring star every where he’s gone, and if it wasn’t for him being born in September, he’d be a top five pick in the draft this year. He’ll have to settle with being first overall in 2016, and after ammasing 94 points in 51 games with the U.S. National U18 Team this year, are people really questioning his star power? Matthews is the next best thing to come out of the US NDTP, and with stellar performances at every international tournament he’s been apart of, he’s proving why. Last year, he was able to win the U17 and U18 World Championship tournaments, is it time to grab gold number three of his young career?
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.