Like many NHL teams, the LA Kings sent a sizable contingent of executives and scouts to the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, a prime event showcasing many draft-eligible players in their final high-stakes tournament before the NHL Draft. This tournament serves as the playoffs for the USNTDP’s U-18 team, so their third place finish – even one earned with a bronze medal game win over Canada – leaves bittersweet punctuation to a season in which top draft talents Jack Hughes, Cole Caufiled, Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Matthew Boldy, Cam York and Spencer Knight left marks on the program’s all-time record books.
It was played in Örnsköldsvik and Umeå, Swedish cities separated by an hour and a half of Gulf of Bothnia coastline roughly halfway between Stockholm and the Arctic Circle. This is part of Sweden’s hockey-mad heart, with Peter Forsberg, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Viktor Hedberg and Anders Hedberg all calling from Örnsköldsvik, and though the weather was too chilly and damp to play golf, the Kings group did visit the property where Forsberg hosts his annual golf tournament. Adrian Kempe, who hails from Kramfors, a smaller town southwest of Örnsköldsvik, is a MODO Hockey alum, as are the names above.
Sweden won the tournament on home ice, defeating Russia 4-3 in overtime despite Vasily Podkolzin’s goal and assist in the championship game. Podkolzin didn’t quite have the same tournament in Sweden as he did at the World Junior Championship, according to several, including LA Kings Director of Player Personnel Nelson Emerson, who was part of a Los Angeles contingent that also included General Manager Rob Blake, Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti, Director of Player Development Glen Murray and a variety of scouts and team figures. But there was still “a reason why people are talking about him in the [draft] area that they are, because he’s that capable,” he said.
“He’s strong on the puck, he skates decent and his hockey sense is very, very good. He’s a tough kid and he takes pucks to the net. If you watch him play, every puck that he gets on the goal line or behind the net or coming from the hash marks, he’s always trying to get inside the scoring area, and that’s what makes him dangerous.”
Neither Kaapo Kakko nor Bowen Byram participated in the tournament – Byram’s WHL Championship series against Prince Albert begins this weekend – but other players projected to be available at or around fifth overall took part, including Podkolzin, Dylan Cozens and a number of interesting U.S.-born players bound for NCAA hockey who may not have broken through towards the the likes of Podkolzin or Cozens, per se, but certainly seem to be trending well. Five-foot-seven, 163-pound Cole Caufield, ranked eighth among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, scored 14 times in seven games and finished his USNTDP season with 72 goals in 64 games.
“I would like everybody to watch a player like him playing against his peers at this age group,” Emerson said. “Obviously the fact that he’s able to play with Jack and do the things they’re doing – and what an exciting tandem to watch – but the kid loves to score goals. He’s able to score them against older college teams. He scored against the USHL kids, he scored for the U-18 team, he basically scored them wherever he went. He had an outstanding tournament, and you watch him, and he sets records, he’s just doing phenomenal things. You’ve got to give the kid credit this season when everyone’s watching him and seeing what he can do, and everyone’s wondering if he can be able to score at this event or this level or against these guys, and he always was able to. I think his stock as a player, the tournament there helped him, just how well he did. You’ve got to give him lots of credit.”
In another two weeks, the major junior championship series will give way to the USHL’s Clark Cup and the CHL’s Memorial Cup, thus concluding the real-time viewings. From there, team lists really firm up and take shape.
“That’s Yank (Yannetti),” Emerson said. “He’s done a tremendous job with his group all year, and they meet all the time during the season, so they’re all at the tournament over there, and that’s basically their final one. There are obviously some games left to be played in the USHL and the finals in the junior leagues, but once all that’s done, then our scouts will all come together again before the draft, have a big meeting, and June will come soon enough. There’s still a lot of togetherness and meetings before Vancouver.”
“The homework we do on everybody, our guys do a good job.”
LA Kings Insider: With Dylan Cozens, What did you see from him and the path and story his tournament took?
Nelson Emerson: He showed what he is. If you follow him in the Western League, he’s a skating centerman with really good size. Plays the game the whole rink, 200 feet. Plays in his own end very well. He’s a very well-rounded player that can score a real nice goal that we saw there. He just plays in all situations, and for coaches, I think he’d be a player a coach would really love, just because he can play in so many situations. He had a good tournament for himself. One of the players obviously counted on for Canada – he was one of the captains.”
LA Kings Insider: Because you now have a pretty good sense of where that second first round pick is going to be, how does that affect scouting? I know the team is looking at so much more beyond who is available at one particular spot and you’re scouting for seven rounds and beyond. But because there is some definition and you’ll be in that 20-to-23 range, does that change at all how you look at the tournament or the types of players you’d really give a keen eye to?
Nelson Emerson: Well, you’re right. A couple weeks ago, we weren’t sure where that second pick would be, and now at least it’s going to be coming down to a certain area where it’s going to be between a couple different picks there. That changes things, but the interesting thing is you still have to be very well-rounded with the players that you’re looking at, because you never know what can happen around 20-to-25, who’s going to be left. You have to make sure you’re well prepared and you’re doing your homework on a high number of players because you’re not sure what’s going to be there at that time. We feel real lucky – once you get to that part of the draft, there’s an abundance of really good hockey players, and the exciting part is there’s not just a couple or three, there’s a group there. Like you said, it looks like it’s going to be in that 21-to-23 range, or somewhere in there anyway. We can at least have a feeling of where we’ll be picking for our second pick.
–Lead photo via Steve Kingsman/HHOF-IIHF Images