For the first time in 20 years, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup (formerly known as the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup) was held in Canada in 2018. Though last week's tournament isn't an IIHF-sanctioned event, it does serve as a fun unofficial kickoff to the junior hockey season, and a great first look at a lot of draft-eligible players.
Canada defeated Sweden 6-2 on Saturday night to nab the gold medal. Russia claimed bronze, defeating the United States 5-4 in a hard-fought game earlier in the day.
Here are five things we learned from this year’s tournament.
Sure, you've heard of Jack Hughes. Maybe you've even heard of Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish winger who's continually mentioned right after Hughes in early draft discussion. But the draft is more than its top two spots, and this tournament showed there's a lot to be excited about beyond Hughes and Kakko. While every deep draft gets compared to 2003's draft class, this year, that comparison might be deserved.
In no specific order, some 2019 draft-eligible tournament standouts include:
Canada: Ryan Suzuki (C), Dylan Cozens (C), Peyton Krebs (C), Bowen Byram (D), Kirby Dach (C)
United States: Arthur Kaliyev (LW), John Farinacci (C), Nicholas Robertson (C/LW), Josh Nodler (C)
Russia: Vasili Podkolzin (RW)
Sweden: Philip Broberg (D)
Slovakia: Maxim Cajkovic (RW/LW)
Canada's captain isn't draft-eligible until 2020, but that hasn't stopped the spotlight from finding Lafreniere. He's the kind of player who brings fans to the edge of their seats, posing an obvious threat to score regardless of the situation. The winger from Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL set up the game-tying tally in the gold-medal game against Sweden and added two goals of his own, including the game-winner.
Lafreniere has that special quality all elite players have - something that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when he has the puck. He's also got phenomenal hockey sense, outstanding playmaking skills, and a heavy shot.
This kid is gonna be special. Expect to see him on Canada's World Junior Championship roster.
Lafreniere was not alone in stealing the show. Several 2020 prospects captured the attention of an international audience, including Justin Barron, a defenseman for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. Barron was the youngest player on Team Canada, yet he finished the tournament tied with Mitchell Miller (USA) for most points by a defenseman (five). Barron is a great skater with excellent hockey sense that enables him to move the puck well and make smart decisions.
Sweden's duo of Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz were seemingly unstoppable. Both are solid skaters with excellent puck skills, and their offensive instincts made them Sweden's most effective forwards; when they were on the ice, it was difficult to take your eyes off them. Forward Daniil Gushchin of Russia also attracted attention by displaying his playmaking skills and unreal vision.
Podkolzin, who had a hat trick against the U.S. in the bronze-medal game, paced the tournament with eight goals (Josh Williams of Canada was next with five) and with 11 points (three ahead of runner-up Lafreniere).
On defense, Byram made it very clear why the WHL player's name is near the top of many preliminary draft lists. The Vancouver Giants blue-liner is seemingly fearless - a dynamic puck mover with a high hockey IQ.
Robertson, brother of Dallas Stars prospect and Kingston Frontenac Jason Robertson, was a huge factor for the U.S., netting a hat trick in the semifinal against Canada. He plays for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, and if this tournament was a sign of how he'll approach this season, he may rocket into the first round next June.
A controversial call in the semifinal sent the USA-Canada game to overtime when Cozens scored to tie it for Canada - after the final buzzer sounded.
All teams participating in the tournament agreed to forgo video review due to concerns about the consistency of the technology. For that reason, the call made by officials on the ice had to stand, even though video clearly showed the goal was scored after time expired. When Williams scored in overtime, Canada won a trip to the gold-medal game while the U.S. was forced to settle for a chance at bronze.
Bad calls happen all the time at all levels of hockey. But it's 2018; there's no good reason not to have video review in a tournament where video was available.
Hannah Stuart keeps a close eye on both drafted and draft-eligible prospects and can usually be found trying to learn more about hockey analytics. She has previously written for FanRag Sports, The Hockey Writers, and Hooked On Hockey Magazine, and can also be found at High Heels and High Sticks. Find her on Twitter at @HockeyWthHannah.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)