Picture this: a forward under the age of 24 ignites the crowd of a gimmicky team by scoring a hat trick in an unexpected pre-tournament win in the World Cup of Hockey. That same forward later tallies a goal in his next game, this time, a win over a powerhouse country in the preliminary round. To top it off, the youngster scores an overtime winner to advance his team to the semifinals of the tournament.
Who could this mystery forward be? Names that come to mind include Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. The young stars have taken over the tournament, showing that the future of the NHL is in tremendous hands, so it certainly would make sense to leap to any of these conclusions.
The player in question is not Eichel, Gaudreau, Matthews, McDavid, or even one of their teammates. Instead, it is 20-year old German forward Leon Draisaitl, who has sparked Team Europe to an unlikely berth in the semifinals.
Draisaitl has proven to be a headache for opposing teams, using his strong physique and quick hands to frustrate defenses and create offense for a team in desperate need of it. He represents one of the forgotten youngsters in the tournament, as all of the love devoted to young players has gone to those on Team North America.
No player on Team North America has scored as many goals as Draisaitl since the beginning of the pre-tournament games, and only Nathan Mackinnon has scored a goal as important as Draisaitl’s overtime winner against the Czech Republic.
He is not the only under-24-year-old born outside of Canada and the United States who is making an impact on the big stage either. Filip Forsberg may only have two goals since September rolled around, but he has played top minutes for Sweden at the age of 22. He has wreaked havoc on the top pairings of opposing defenses, allowing the likes of Patrick Berglund, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman to score key goals for the Swedes. With that, Sweden clinched a spot to join Europe in the semifinals.
Canada has clinched the third spot in the semifinals, with the fourth and final spot belonging to either North America or Russia. Russia owns the tie-breaker thanks to their win over North America on Monday night, a win contributed to heavily by players under the age of 24. Vladimir Namestnikov scored the first goal of the game for Russia, opening the floodgates for his teammates to get the puck past Matt Murray. Namestnikov did not receive much fanfare in Tampa Bay last season despite contributing heavily to the Eastern Conference finalists, so his helping on the main stage is a welcome site for the NHL.
Team North America will continue to garner the majority of the appreciation for players under the age of 24 competing in the World Cup of Hockey, but there are players across the world making differences for their respective nations or teams. The aforementioned players are contributing heavily, while the teams that will not advance host some young talent of their own.
19-year old Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine got their first tastes of professional international hockey, giving Carolina Hurricanes and Winnipeg Jets fans reasons to watch intently. Aho’s NHL teammate, Teuvo Terravainen, joined him on the roster, serving in his first of likely many appearances for the Fins. While the Czech Republic would have liked to have advanced further, seeing 20-year old David Pastrnak embrace a top six role in international hockey should excite their fans and Boston Bruins fans as well.
So, while Team North America hosts the majority of the skilled youngsters in the World Cup of Hockey, it has been proven that plenty of young talent could be found across the various teams in the tournament. That is fantastic news for not only the World Cup of Hockey and the NHL, but even more so for the fans. The game of hockey is moving in a positive direction.