The IIHF World Championships often get a bad rap.
The tournament goes head-to-head with the Stanley Cup Playoffs and isn’t a true best-on-best competition. Most NHL stars are still competing in the playoffs, while others pass on the competition after a lengthy 82-game regular season.
If you’re looking at the tournament as a true world championship, you can go ahead and change the channel. Just wait until the World Cup rolls around in September.
But, if you look at the 16-team showcase as a prospector, it’s well worth your time to tune in for some day time hockey like Thursday’s quarterfinal doubleheader on NBC Sports Network.
The World Championships present a rare opportunity to see a combination of younger players — NHL rookies, college players, yet-to-be drafted prospects, etc.. — step into a larger role on the international stage.
How does an 18-year-old compete with an NHL veteran? How will certain prospects perform in different situations? And which players from smaller “non-traditional” countries will play their way onto the NHL’s radar?
These are the types of questions answered at the World Championships.
Of course, Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine have been the headliners. And the presumptive top two picks in June’s NHL entry draft have dazzled in Russia.
Matthews scored the the United States only goal in regulation — on a sneaky backhand — and picked up the game-winner in the shootout of a 2-1 victory against the Czech Republic. Laine added his seventh goal of the tournament on a wicked wrist shot in a 5-1 win against Denmark.
While the draft-eligible prospects have grabbed the most attention, other NHL prospects have laid a strong foundation for next season during the World Championships.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Sebastian Aho has been one of the most consistent Finnish forwards. The 18-year-old left winger has five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in eight games and has been defensively reliable in his own end.
The Finns also have a pair of top prospects on blue line in Dallas’ Esa Lindell and Chicago’s Ville Pokka, who have helped anchor one of the top defensive units in the World Championships.
Chicago prospect Vince Hinostroza — one of Pokka’s AHL teammates in Rockford this season — is part of a handful of young Americans on one of the youngest teams in the tournament.
Hinostroza and Bruins prospect Frank Vatrano both spent the majority of their season in the AHL, but should hold NHL roster spots next season. They’ve looked like veterans alongside a handful of American college players including J.T. Compher (an Avalanche prospect), Tyler Motte (Chicago prospect), Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), and Steve Santini who made his NHL debut with New Jersey after finishing his college career at Boston College this spring.
Those younger players made a difference in the quarterfinal victory and now the United States has a chance to claim back-to-back medals after winning the bronze in 2015.
Canada — the defending gold medalist — looks like an older team on paper with the likes of Corey Perry and Brad Marchand, but still has it’s share of up-and-comers.
Matt Dumba, 21, scored his first goal of the tournament in a 6-0 quarterfinal victory against Sweden, while Sam Reinhart and Max Domi pieced together the put-away goal to make it 4-0 late in the second period.
His team didn’t reach the quarterfinals, but Hungary’s Adam Vay was one of the tournament’s success stories. The 22-year-old goalie stood on his head in pool play and earned a contract with the Minnesota Wild, becoming the first Hungarian player to sign an NHL contract.
While it’s a showcase for the NHL’s future, the World Championships have also been de facto tryout for September’s World Cup, which is a true best-on-best tournament run by the NHL.
Initial rosters have already been announced with 16 preliminary names, but management groups still have time to finalize the rest of the roster.
That’s good news for a player like Gustav Nyquist, who led Team Sweden with seven goals in the tournament, and Radek Faksa who built off a strong postseason run in Dallas with with his strong all-around play for the Czechs.