With the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship in full swing, hockey fans and fantasy managers alike are offered a holistic preview of the next generation of stars in the making. Whether already drafted into the NHL, or projected for high selection next June, more than a few of these youngsters will dominate score sheets and carry fantasy rosters for years to come. But before we look ahead to what Canadian forward Logan Stankoven will offer Dallas starting next year, or how American Luke Hughes will enhance the makeup of the Devils’ blue line once he’s done at Michigan, or how winning the Connor Bedard draft lottery is appearing more delectable all the time, let’s have a brief gander at some prominent junior performers who are already making somewhat of an impact at the NHL level. Or maybe soon.
Shane Wright, F, Canada (Seattle Kraken/4th overall 2022): If Seattle’s showrunners already know what they’re going to do with their 2022 fourth-overall draft selection post-tourney, they’re not sharing yet. It certainly can’t be the easiest decision. While a permanent role with the AHL Coachella Valley Firebirds isn’t permitted (ridiculously so, but I digress), a gig sitting in the Kraken’s press box, or even seeing sparse ice time on the fourth line, hardly feels ideal. Neither does dominating kids in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs.
But Seattle has to decide soon on one course or the other for their future second-line center. Unless he kicks it up another notch, game by game, as the World Junior Championship wears on, and ends up dominating. Then could we see the Canadian Captain earn a shot at a third-line role with the Kraken, once the tournament wraps up? You never know.
Under such circumstances, he could remain fantasy-relevant in deeper redraft ESPN.com leagues. Otherwise, Wright is only worth rostering in dynasty competition with an eye to future fantasy glory.
Simon Nemec, D, Slovakia (New Jersey Devils/2nd overall 2022): Drafted two spots ahead of Wright in 2022, Nemec will serve as a star defenseman for the Devils sooner or later. Might we argue sooner, considering the injured state of New Jersey’s blue line? Both Ryan Graves and John Marino are labeled week-to-week, on IR, and the Devils are tumbling down the Metropolitan standings in a hard hurry.
Before captaining the Slovakian squad at the WJC – and playing a big part in this week’s upset win over the US – Nemec was performing as one of the Utica Comets’ better blueliners in the AHL. Before hearing his name called super-early in Montreal, he played three seasons of pro hockey – with full-grown men – in the Slovak pro league, beginning when he was barely 16 years old.
Gifted with an incredibly high hockey IQ, this soon-to-be 19-year-old is capable of holding his own already with the Devils, and contribute to your fantasy roster by blocking shots and pitching in on offense. Only whether New Jersey chooses to take that route in the very foreseeable future is yet to be determined.
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Dylan Guenther, F, Canada (Arizona Coyotes/9th overall 2021): Playing with future NHL superstar Connor Bedard looks fun. Just ask Guenther, who has four goals heading into the weekend, all assisted on by the 2023 projected No. 1 draft pick. Scoring is habit forming. While the German or Austrian junior squad isn’t anywhere near the same caliber as Arizona’s NHL competition, getting in the rhythm of potting goals, and enjoying the boost in confidence that accompanies such scoring success, often translates. I’d like to see Guenther enjoy more minutes on a scoring line with the Coyotes once the IIHF tournament concludes. A wholly reasonable arrangement, especially with Matias Maccelli (lower-body) sidelined until early February. Arizona isn’t playoff-bound; there’s no reason to hold the 19-year-old back from making the most, while making mistakes, in his first big-league season. With 11 points in 21 games already, it’s evident Guenther can contribute. Any deeper league manager should definitely maintain the former Oil King on their respective fantasy radar once he’s back in the desert.
Fabian Lysell, F, Sweden (Boston Bruins/21st overall 2021): Remember when the Bruins first seasoned David Pastrnak in the AHL before allowing him to play full-time in Boston for the second half of 2014-15? Drafted 25th overall in 2014, the star winger didn’t turn 19 until the following May, with 46 NHL games already to his credit. Drafted 21st overall in 2021, Lysell turns 20 in January and, like Pastrnak, is also holding more than his own with the Providence Bruins. To the tune of eight goals and 11 assists in 20 games. The dominating B’s hardly need any help at present, but an injury or two – particularly on the wing – could see history repeat itself in the form of a second-half call-up. At which point, fantasy managers of all varieties would benefit from monitoring where the gifted forward might fit into Boston’s lineup.
David Jiricek, D, Czechia (Columbus Blue Jackets/6th overall 2022): The Blue Jackets appear committed to keeping Jiricek in the minors this season, where he’s benefiting from playing heavy minutes as a top-pair defender with the Cleveland Monsters. Fair enough. But should management change course – and that Zach Werenski/Jake Bean-less blue line could undoubtedly use a boost – the 19-year-old merits fantasy thought beyond dynasty competition. Before representing Czechia at the WJC, Jiricek was averaging more than a point/game among grownups in the minors. And that shot of him is something else.