Last year at this time, the entire hockey world was buzzing about one of the Bruins best and brightest prospects at the IIHF World Junior tournament when Charlie McAvoy and Team USA took things over when it mattered most.
A year later, McAvoy is one of the lead candidates for the NHL’s Calder Trophy and six other B’s prospects were looking to make their own name at the World Juniors in Buffalo. Those prospects have enjoyed varying degrees of success in this year’s Under-20 tournament, but it also looks very clear that there isn’t a McAvoy-type game-changing youngster rising through the ranks of the Black and Gold.
Certainly, Trent Frederic ended his world junior career on a high note by scoring an amazing four goals to help lead Team USA to a 9-3 blowout win over the Czech Republic for the Bronze medal. It’s the third year in a row that Team USA has medaled in the tournament. That’s a record-setting achievement for the USA Hockey program.
Clearly, there are things to like about Frederic stepping up in a medal game and dominating with a huge offensive night. It tells you something about the player’s overall makeup in big-game situations, and was also a nice response after he was benched for portions of Team USA’s disappointing loss to Team Sweden in a medal round game on Wednesday.
He showed a lot of his strengths: Size, strength, hustle, some great penalty killing and a really dogged, aggressive approach to attacking the puck carrier.
But there were also the other five games in the tournament where Frederic managed just a single point and was essentially the fourth-line center for Team USA with limited ice time and very little presence in any of the games. Clearly, he looks like an NHL player based on his size (6-2, 210), strength and willingness to do a lot of the little things on a game-by-game basis, but the jury is still very much out on whether he’s anything more than the “third-line NHL center” that then-scouting director Keith Gretzky projected him to be way back on the first night of the 2016 NHL Draft.
Ryan Lindgren was good enough to be a top-four defenseman for Team USA, but he looks like a true stay-at-home defenseman with very little natural inclination toward the offensive end of the ice. He finished a minus-3 in five games with just two shots on net leading into the blowout win over the Czechs.
Jeremy Swayman was the third-string goaltender for Team USA and didn’t get into any games while still racking up the big-stage experience being around the tournament.
The B’s 2017 first-round pick, Urho Vaakanainen, was another player, like Frederic, who certainly looked like he belonged in the elite tournament, but had mixed results at best. Vaakanainen finished with an assist in five games, along with a minus-3 rating, and had seven shots on net in a very defense-first performance. The B’s prospect wasn’t on the Finnish power play and most of the time his big offensive move consisted of dumping the puck into the end boards after gaining the offensive blue line.
Perhaps there is some latent offensive ability waiting to come out in Vaakanainen’s game, but it sure doesn’t appear like the instincts or the tools are really there for him. Instead, he looks like a good-skating, shutdown defenseman that will chew up his share of minutes, but is going to be more one-dimensional than one would hope as a mid-first round pick. The good news is that he showed a good, active stick in the D-zone and certainly didn’t seem to shy away from the physical play in front of the net.
But Vaakanainen was simply okay on a Finnish World Junior roster that was loaded with NHL first-round picks and really didn’t live up to the hype by not even making it to the medal round games on Friday.
Instead, it was a pair of lower-round picks that really impressed in the tournament. One was 2016 fifth-round pick Joona Koppanen, a big, aggressive bottom-six center for Finland who seemed to always be fore-checking hard or getting to the front of the net. The 6-5 Koppanen finished second on Team Finland with three goals in five games, and finished with four points and a plus-2 while killing penalties, taking face-offs and showing that he could do a little bit of everything.
It says something about Koppanen that he managed to make plays despite playing a much more limited role on a Finland roster with some pretty big prospect names up front.
Finally, there’s scrappy, undersized Swedish forward and B’s sixth round pick Oskar Steen, who really gave everybody an idea of what he can do in Team Sweden’s dispatching of the Americans in the medal round. Steen scored on a shorthanded snipe under the bar for the eventual game-winner against Team USA, then got in touch with his inner-Marchand when he slashed the knee of American winger Kailer Yamamoto in the closing seconds of the win for the Swedes. It was a cheap play to be sure, but it was also evidence that there’s some snarl and sandpaper to the young Swede’s game that will endear him to the Bruins organization once it’s harnessed.
Clearly, there were a couple of excellent individual performances from B’s prospects and a four-goal game from Frederic is something to long be admired. Still, it sure doesn’t feel like there was a McAvoy-type player, or one that might be able to help the Bruins in the NHL next season, among this crop of B’s world junior prospects.