Summer U20 Tournaments: Which Prospects caught my eye?

Finally, we had some ACTUAL live hockey to watch.

For the first time since February, we finally got to see some international hockey in the way of two U-20 tournaments. Last week, Germany toppled Switzerland in a three-game set 2-1 over a three-game stretch, while Czech Republic and Slovakia wrapped up their own mini-tournament on Monday with the Czechs taking a 3-0 sweep. For the most part, the action was… interesting, to say the least. You could clearly tell the players weren’t up to full speed and the result was some mismatched plays by four teams with different agendas. Some were looking at keeping its planned World Junior Championship lineup intact, while others were focused on developing their future young guns.

Regardless, it was hockey. And with nothing else to watch over the past few months regarding prospects, it was a welcome change.

So, let’s have some fun. Here are a few NHL draft prospects that caught my eye over the past two weeks, for both good and bad reasons:

2020

Tim Stutzle, C, Germany (#8) – With no hockey since March, draft watchers were desperate for actual on-ice action. Stutzle’s status as a top-three prospect – will he go No. 2 or No. 3? – has been heavily debated ever since with plays getting micro-analyzed to the point of death. That didn’t change last week when he became the highlight player to watch in the three-game series against Switzerland – only for the top prospect to fail to meet expectations. Stutzle looked frustrated, slamming his stick on a couple of occasions after failing to create much in front of the net. The usually dominant center had just a goal and an assist in three games, with his highlight-reel play to kick off the tournament gaining traction online as a way of showing just how dominant Stutzle can be. Of course, that’s without the context that the Swiss defenders were at the end of a shift and were just trying to survive, but Stutzle was likely the only player who could have pulled that off successfully. Sutzle came in clutch with the goal in the final minute to send the third game to overtime (an eventual 4-3 win for the Germans) and set up John-Jason Peterka earlier in the game, but was otherwise not the player we’re used to seeing, even if he improved throughout the tournament. The good thing? It was a meaningless summer tournament and Stutzle will be completely fine.

Lukas Reichel, LW, Germany (#23) – All eyes were on Tim Stutzle last week, but they quickly shifted to the play of Reichel, a fellow potential first-round pick. Reichel finished the three-game friendly with four goals, the most of any player and by far the most impactful in the series against the Swiss. He simply looked engaged from the get-go, mainly when attacking defenders and forcing mistakes. In the second game when he scored twice, Reichel used the extra space in both cases (power play and breakaway) to his advantage. He didn’t throw the puck on net quickly just to make a play – instead, he waited for the exact opportunity to get the disk on target and it worked. In the third game, he once again exploited the free space to contain the play and send a quick shot past the Swiss keeper for the goal. It’s clear that he can expose weaknesses in his opponents when given extra room and his high top speed compliments that. Reichel still needs to work on his defensive play while remaining consistent at both ends, but there’s something to work with there. For the record, Reichel played on the second line away from Stutzle and Peterka.

Jaromir Pytlik, C, Czech Republic (#21) – My favorite performer from the past two weeks, Pytlik came ready to play and didn’t disappoint. Pytlik centered the dominant second line with Michal Teply and Martin Lang, with Pytlik recording six points in three games. I’ve liked Pytlik before, and I know this is a summer tournament in the midst of a world-changing pandemic, but Pytlik looked hooked up and dominant at times. A strong all-around player, Pytlik was actively engaged on the power play and made his mark both around the crease and in the high slot. Pytlik was best served setting up breakout passes but his quick-play nature allowed him to react to rebounds and keep plays alive after an initial chance was missed. Pytlik was also one of the biggest instigators of physical play, hitting to separate players from the puck and winning puck battles along the boards, especially behind the net. He played most shifts like he had something to prove – it worked.

Nick Malik, G, Czech Republic (#30) – Malik only made one start and technically wasn’t the starter in the three-game series, but I think he deserves a shoutout for a job well done in the 4-0 victory over Slovakia on Sunday. Malik made 22 saves in a strong showing for the young goaltender that has played in many tournaments above his age group. Sunday’s effort was a classic showing for a goaltender that once was seen as a top netminder for the 2020 draft but slipped down the ranks after a tough 2019-20 season. At the very least, this was a good confidence booster for Malik after bouncing around the Czech league and OHL last season before re-committing to HC Ocelari Trinec for 2020-21.

Jan Myšák, LW, Czech Republic (#19) – Myšák is such an enigma to me. Some scouts absolutely love him. Others think he’s an ultimately flawed prospect that will struggle to adjust to the NHL. I’m on the side of he’s got a good foundation to grow from and can turn a switch and become the best player on the ice when he needs to be. A three-point night to open up the series was a good indication of that, although I felt his game trailed off a bit in the following contests. He had just one assist on the next seven Czech goals after the opening contest and was better utilized on the power play than at five-a-side. His play seemed inconsistent at times over the weekend, something that clearly wasn’t an issue with points in 12 of his final 14 OHL games. Myšák’s skating still needs work and I’d like to see him be more engaged at his end of the ice, but there’s still so much to like about his overall game. Tomas Tatar, anyone?

Martin Chromiak, LW, Slovakia (#18) – It’s a shame Chromiak had just one goal to his credit because I thought he had a strong showing. In the first two games, Chromiak was a consistent play-driver for the Slovaks and his speed and skill made him one to watch. In the third game, I felt like he couldn’t do much with the puck and the Slovaks were ultimately outmatched for 60 minutes, but Chromiak wasn’t bad by any means. Chromiak caught the eye of scouts late in the season when he lined up with Shane Wright in Kingston after making his case as one of Slovakia’s best U-20 players and he should be one of his nation’s go-to wingers at the WJC – they just need to set Chromiak up with a bit more help.

Simon Knak, C, Switzerland (#8) – Knak is still a work in progress: he has good size and can control the puck for long periods of time without getting stripped of it, but you can tell his foot speed left him struggling at points. Still, what caught my attention was Knak’s smarts in setting up his teammates in short-area situations and he forced a few turnovers in the offensive zone, leading to a goal early in the tournament. Knak’s skating does look improved from a year ago and he reserved enough energy to stay active late in games, but it’s still not a positive in his game just yet. I still liked what Knak was capable of in the offensive zone and he should emerge as one of Switzerland’s best players at the World Junior Championship.

2021

Lorenzo Canonica, C, Switzerland (#14) – I didn’t have many notes on Canonica before the camp but he easily thrusted his way onto my radar. Signed by the Shawinigan Cataractes for the 2020-21 QMJHL season – if it happens at all – Canonica fought his way to the top of the Swiss lineup and the 16-year-old didn’t disappoint with three points in as many games. I especially loved him on the power play, moving from the middleman spot to the point and utilizing his powerful slap shot to create scoring chances. He hit the post on multiple occasions, but his teammates still looked to him to get the puck on net and he did with little difficulty. Besides his slap shot, his wrister is unleashed at a high rate of speed and he has the hands and speed to move past defenders. When Canonica was lined up against Stutzle and Co., he faired well and showed consistency in the faceoff dot. I think he made a real case to be a key contender for Switzerland’s World Junior Championship outfit.

Ray Fust, RW, Switzerland (#28) – Fust also played on the top line for the Swiss and seemed to catch everyone’s attention. A late-2002 born forward, Fust had three points in three games in his debut tournament for the U-20 squad, the best tournament he’s played to date internationally. One scout told me Fust looked rejuvenated after making the switch from the Swiss U-20 league at 16 to United States prep action last year, honing his scoring abilities to score 31 goals in 44 games with Northwood. He had a silent U-18 tournament with the Swiss last year but looked like a pure ball of energy last week. Fust is a creative forward who keeps defenders guessing (this shootout goal is a perfect example of that) and his wrist shot was on full display throughout the tournament. When Fust gets the puck in his own zone, he does a good job of quickly exiting the zone to create a scoring chance at the other end and it seems like his footwork has taken nice strides over the past year.

2022

Juraj Slafkovsky, C, Slovakia (#20) – Statistically, Slafkovsky had a quiet outing with just one goal (in the final seconds of the last game) in three games. But the fact that Slafkovsky was so noticeable – and arguably one of Slovakia’s best players – on the back half says something about just how good this 16-year-old is. It took him a bit to get going, with Slafkovsky struggling to keep up with the pace and generally looking lost through the first game. By the second game, Slafkovsky was doing an excellent job of finding his teammates and moving the puck with a level of confidence we’re used to seeing in Finnish U-18 action. He was used solely as a fourth-line forward but once he found his groove, Slafkovsky was noticeable nearly every shift and made the most of it. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t rewarded with a goal in the second game because you could tell the effort was there, but the results didn’t follow. Overall, there was a lot to like about the U-20 debut for Slafkosvky, one of the top prospects for the offensive-heavy 2022 NHL draft.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

What it was like covering the last Leafs game before the Pandemic

It honestly doesn’t feel that long ago.

March 10, 2020. The virus had begun to ramp up in North America, and the NHL, among other leagues, took part in a new media policy that acted to prevent the media from getting too close to players. The media were no longer allowed in the changerooms after the game, forcing interviews to take place in a more formal setting. At the time, 75 total COVID-19 cases were considered a major deal, enough to force a state of emergency in New York.

Simple enough. Sure, it made getting through the rink to the media gondola a bit more tricky, but that’s a minor inconvenience – boohoo. I attended the game with fellow The Hockey News colleague Ken Campbell, who’s covered too many NHL lockouts and probably has a few dinosaurs in his phone’s contact list at this point.

I arrived about an hour before puck drop, giving myself to get used to the new guidelines, but also to snake my way through the crowd. Social distancing? There was no such thing. I made my way up past the Tampa Bay changeroom, but through a less direct route and after all players were back in the room. I made my way towards the media elevator with at least 3-4 others and two scratches for the night. Remember packed elevators?

I took some time to chat with a few other media members in the gondola hallway before getting to my seat. From there, it was business as usual. Some in the media row chatted about the virus, laughing at the thought of the NHL stopping the season due to the virus. In the back of our minds, we knew it was a possibility, but a full stoppage due to the virus would be – wait for it – unprecedented times.

Immediately after puck drop, you could tell something felt… different. The arena, which can hold up to 20,270 fans with standing room, typically takes up to 10 minutes after puck drop to reach close to capacity. It’s downtown Toronto, after all – it’s just a mess near the rink, which sits right beside Canada’s largest train station, Union Station. But for a mid-March contest against Tampa Bay – one of the league’s top teams – it felt very off. The attendance was announced at 19,124, but it felt much, much quieter than what you’d expect, even on a Tuesday night. I’d been to many games in the weeks prior and a few airports, too, but it was the first time I was starting to see people wearing masks in a crowded area. There were at least two people outside selling hand sanitizer, and you could see at least a few people taking advantage of it once they arrived at their seats.

The game itself was fine. The Leafs won 2-1 after a solid goaltending battle between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen and Auston Matthews found the net for what felt like the 500th time at Scotiabank Arena this season. The media box tends to empty a few minutes before the final buzzer to allow adequate time to get on the elevator down and make it outside the changeroom. I typically would chase down the opposing team, which only would have a handful of media looming around, anyways. I took the stairs down with Ken instead of the elevator – we’re on the top floor of the building up in the media gondola, so it’s a lengthy walk down – and ended up by the Platinum Club lounge area on the event floor, not far from where the changerooms are. If you’ve ever been down there, it can get a bit hectic after a game. But since the the team’s weren’t allowing us to walk through our usual route – beyond the team changerooms towards the media centre in the middle of the player hallway – it meant we had to weave through hordes of fans (and many that were quite intoxicated) to what would end up being the makeshift media availability room.

The room was cramped – not a ton of seats, but not many media members around, either. I stood by the front entrance so I could get a quick look at who was coming around the corner, but more so because the seats in the media box were so bad that I just couldn’t pain myself to sit another second. We expected a cluster-crap – not the fault of Tampa Bay’s PR team at all, to be clear – since the whole procedure was still new to everyone. I think we sat around for maybe 15 minutes before the first player showed up. Usually, the wait’s pretty short because the players want to get back on the bus and get out of dodge, but teams were being careful and allowing one at a time. It was otherwise normal from there: ask a few questions, new player (slowly, but surely) would come in, repeat.

There was a delay in getting players to the podium, and I believe just three showed up. We couldn’t take players to the side to ask a few more personal questions like usual. The access was much tougher to get – and at the same time, I applaud the NHL and the Tampa Bay PR for the fantastic job they did making it work. It was new for everyone, and if that’s what we were forced to deal with for the next few months, so be it. I do remember being annoyed at the time because I, like many others, wondered if after the virus died off that teams would stick to making it tougher to get access. Many still believe that could be the case, but following the media policy was the least we could do in uncertain times. Usually in the Leafs room, there’s about 25 people standing around with mics bumping and rubbing into each other – the exact opposite of what we’re accustomed to in society these days.

My job was to gather quotes from the Lightning for a piece I was going to write about the next stretch of games for the Lightning and how they can use it to gain the momentum they didn’t have heading into the post-season the year before – which ended in an untimely exit. I wanted to focus on it quickly because I had a handful of podcasts to record the next day and wanted to make sure I wasn’t rushing to get the piece done. Ken asked me to grab drinks with him that night – I declined, lamentably, not realizing it was going to be the last time outside of the office that I’d see him, or any member of The Hockey News’ team.

Two days later, the NHL announced it was going on hiatus. The next day, the THN team was – temporarily – cut, but I was still working. I got to see a few friends that cover the NASCAR Pinty’s Series with me over the weekend, the last weekend where Ontario was still active by normal standards. On March 23, the Ontario government – along with most of Canada – declared a state of emergency. Life as we knew it was put on hold, a hold that’s still active to this day.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to keep busy. My position at THN was eliminated, leaving me on the sidelines professionally until recently. I started contributing 2020 draft reports to Smaht Scouting, working on an unannounced draft guide I’m self-producing and will be contributing hockey coverage for a soon-to-announced deal I’m really excited about. I’ve also probably spent too much time playing iRacing and racing against real life NASCAR drivers, but I’ve been making some good friends (and a bit of money) along the way while making the most of the opportunities offered due to the pandemic.

But to think just how different life was on March 10. Thoughts of a complete shutdown just felt crazy. There was no chance. None. There’s no way we could shut down the world, right?

Now look where we are.