There’s a fine line between celebrating surprising performances at the World Junior Championship and overhyping a prospect before they make the NHL. Justin Pogge looked like a future NHL All-Star at the 2006 tournament after going 6-0-0 and helping Canada win the gold medal, convincing the Toronto Maple Leafs to trade Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for veteran Andrew Raycroft. However, the deal didn’t pan out and has gone down as one of the worst trades in franchise history.
On the other hand, the race for first overall in 2017 was tightly contested between Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick until that winter’s World Juniors, where Hischier went on a tear, finishing 12th in the tournament with four goals and seven points, despite Switzerland not registering a win. That was enough to push the New Jersey Devils to go with him, and in the five seasons since, he’s been named the team’s captain and was selected to play in the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, while Patrick has struggled with injuries and consistency.
So, while it may be difficult to judge a player’s success on just one tournament, there were some performances this year that deserve a second look from the NHL. Here are five players that have been passed over in the draft but have proven that they are among some of the best young players in the world.
Tomas Suchanek – Czechia
Tomas Suchanek put on one of the best goaltending performances at the 2023 World Juniors. He stunned the Canadians in the opening game, allowing just two goals on 38 shots, then squashed the Swedes’ gold medal hopes, stopping 21 of 22 shots against him in the semifinals. In the final, he faced Canada once again, and although the Czechs lost, he turned away 35 attempts from the Canadians, keeping them in the game for as long as possible. To put a cherry on top of his incredible tournament, he was chosen to the Media All-Star Team after posting the lowest goals-against average and setting the record for most assists from a goaltender ever at the World Juniors.
Given all those accomplishments, it may surprise some to learn that Suchanek was passed over in two separate NHL Drafts. It hasn’t helped that he hasn’t been a dominant presence during the regular season. In The Hockey Writers’ tournament preview, Blain Potvin wrote, “His stats don’t jump off the page and scream star.” But this year, he proved that he can be a dominant goaltender when called upon.
Suchanek will return to the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Tri-City Americans, where he currently has a .901 save percentage in 23 games, despite facing the 10th most shots in the league. With the confidence that comes from winning a World Junior medal, he’s bound to improve those numbers and become a top target, either at the 2023 NHL Draft or as a free agent.
Adam Gajan – Slovakia
Another goalie who made a significant impact at the tournament was Slovakian Adam Gajan, who finished with the highest save percentage of any goalie at the World Juniors this year, posting an impressive .936 over four games, and was named the Best Goalie of the tournament. Not only did he put on a 53-save performance in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Canadians in the quarterfinal, but he was responsible for stunning the Americans in the preliminary round, stopping 33 of 36 shots en route to a 6-3 Slovak win.
However, what’s even more impressive is that Gajan wasn’t even supposed to play; Slovakia brought him in as their third-string option after Patrik Andrisik and Matej Marinov. Yet the 18-year-old is starting to get used to defying the odds. He was never part of a U18 or U20 team before this year, convincing him to try his luck in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). Yet even then, it was a tough start. “A year ago, nobody believed in me that I can play, even in the NAHL, to be the first goalie there,” he said to IIHF reporter Lucas Aykroyd. “And then after a few games, I think about six USHL teams talked to my coach. So yeah, it was pretty crazy. Everything happened so fast.”
Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship
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After the Slovaks fell to Finland in their opening game, he was given a shot and never looked back. He’s set to join the University of Minnesota-Duluth next season, but until then, he’ll return to the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Green Bay Gamblers, where he already has a shutout after two starts. After going unranked and undrafted last year, he’ll certainly be given some attention this summer.
Attilio Biasca – Switzerland
Switzerland was one of the big surprises of the 2023 World Junior Championship, winning three games in overtime in the preliminary round to give them the most points since 2020. Leading the group of upstarts was Attilio Biasca, who finished with a team-high two goals and four points, including the game-winner against Finland. Last year, he also lead the Swiss Team with four goals and six points, but this year was a little more special for the Halifax Mooseheads’ captain as he got to perform in front of his home crowd.
Like Suchanek, Biasca has been passed over twice in the NHL Draft, but that trend is unlikely to continue this year. Not only did he come up big for Switzerland, but his numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) have been much better. After putting up 22 points in 58 games over his first two seasons in the league, he had nearly a point-per-game with 27 points in 28 games before leaving for the World Juniors. For a team looking for a well-rounded player with a dangerous shot and getting better each year, he is a perfect fit.
Gabriel Szturc – Czechia
A lot of Czechs will see their value increase after their World Junior performance, and while Suchanek stole the spotlight on most nights, Gabriel Szturc emerged as one of the best offensive threats on the team behind Buffalo Sabres first-round pick Jiri Kulich. After seven games, he finished second with five goals and eight points behind the team’s top star, giving Czechia a much-needed offensive punch from the second line.
Not only did Szturc emerge as a star for Czechia, but he’s become quite the fan favourite for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, where he’s played for the past two seasons. Last season – his draft year – he put up an impressive 41 points in 67 games, but given his diminutive 5-foot-10 frame, no NHL team took a chance on him at that summer’s draft. This season, however, he’s been much better, scoring 37 points in 26 games, which helped him perform better under the international spotlight. “It’s given me confidence to play here, my play with the puck, to take shots, make hockey plays,” he said before Czechia’s semifinal victory over Sweden. “I’ve had more ice time to make a difference.”
Although NHL teams still look for size when drafting, Szturc has been an excellent complementary forward regardless of whether he’s beside Brabenec at the World Juniors or potential first-round pick Andrew Cirstall with the Rockets. That will certainly attract some NHL scouts who will attempt to add him to their organization.
Bogdans Hodass – Latvia
No one expected much from the Latvians this year, especially grouped with the United States, Finland, and Slovakia, but the team showed up for every game, forcing the Swiss to overtime and allowing more than three goals against just once. A lot of credit goes to their goalie Patriks Berzins as well as Boston Bruins’ pick Dans Locmelis, who led the team with three goals, yet it was defenceman Bogdans Hodass who led the team in scoring with two goals and four points in six games, three of which came in the first relegation game against Austria, ensuring the 5-2 Latvian victory.
Although Hodass was ranked 181st by Central Scouting last year, his name wasn’t called on draft day, but there’s a good explanation. Last season, the Medicine Hat Tigers were abysmal, winning just 11 games, the team’s worst finish since 1951-52 when the Tigers played with just seven other teams. Despite their record, Hodass finished second in defensive scoring with 24 points and just six points behind the team leader, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Lukas Svejkovsky.
This season, Hodass has 15 points in 27 games, putting him on pace to finish with 31 points, which is a slight improvement, but both fans and scouts now know that he’s capable of much more. Not only is he skilled with the puck, but at 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, he has the potential to be a powerful depth defender in the NHL and should gain some attention.
A Successful World Juniors, No Matter the Result
After the 2023 World Juniors concluded, Hodass reminded us what makes this tournament so great, saying, “I can play with my best friends, my old buddies and teammates. It felt great to play together.” It’s a perspective that we sometimes forget as we watch with bated breath, wondering if our favourite players will make an impact in the future. Regardless of whether these five players are drafted or signed, they will likely look back on these games as a highlight of their career and one of the best moments of their lives because they got to do something they enjoy with those who are closest to them.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.
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