Before we begin, let’s enjoy this clip from Casey Mittelstadt’s goal in last year’s World Juniors en route to an MVP for the Sabres center.
On December 26, the 2019 World Juniors Championship returns to Vancouver. Four Sabres prosepcts are headed to British Columbia: Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen (Finland), Oskari Laaksonen (Finland) , Matej Pekar (Czech Republic) and Mattias Samuelsson (USA).
Let’s dive into what each player has been up to this season and how they might fit in their respective lineups.
With a disappointing 2018 World Juniors, Lukkonen will look to bounce back as the starting goaltender for Finland. In 5 games, UPL sported a 3.13 goals against average and a .879 save percentage. It’s been a busy 2018 for the 19 year-old as he saw his first and only Liiga game, two U-20 tournaments in the summer, Sabres development camp and Prospects Challenge and signing with the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL.
Here’s Lukkonen at one of those two tournaments this summer handling a breakaway with ease, you can see how his big frame makes it easy to cover the bottom half of the net.
So far this season for Sudbury, Lukkonen has appeared in 26 games posting a 2.49 goals against average (third in the OHL) and a .923 save percentage (third in OHL among starters). He’s helped lead a Wolves team that was last in the OHL last season to 21-9-1-1 record, good for third in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the OHL.
The athletic goaltender will have to lead the Finnish team with poise in the crease. He has the big frame and the athleticism, he’ll need to show solid positioning to prevent him from having to make desperation saves.
Laaksonen has gone from an unknown prospect picked in the third round to one of the more promising Sabres prospects in the system. This will be his first and only World Juniors as he will be too old to play in 2020.
The 19 year-old is having a solid season in Finland for his age with 3 goals and 10 assists for 13 points in 26 games. He’s playing for Ilves in Liiga, the top league in Finland which is typically considered the fourth best league in the world. When you see clips of his play, it’s Lawrence Pilut-esque. He’s patient with the puck and has a wide variety of escape moves to open up space for himself and moves the puck well
He’s at his best when on the powerplay with space to work. While his shot isn’t a booming howitzer, he has a shot that can find it’s way through traffic or even beat a goalie clean as you’ll see below. He is penciled in as a top pair defenseman for the tournament, so Sabres fans will have plenty of opportunity to watch the still relatively unknown Finn.
Even though he looks like the prototypical Jason Botterill defenseman, Laaksonen is still prone to mistakes. Mistakes at a young age in a professional league will happen. Trying to create opportunities for yourself won’t be frowned upon, unless you don’t learn from them. Laaksonen thinks the game well, he’ll clean up mistakes with time and experience. He recently signed a two-year deal with Ilves, so it looks like he’ll be in Finland for a bit before coming overseas.
Pekar made an immediate impact on Sabres fans after getting drafted in the fourth round this season. A tenacious, borderline pest style is his game, but there is a bit of an underrated skill set there. He is the cliche of “he’s a player you hate to play against and love to on your team” because he’ll get under your skin, but he can also put pucks in your net.
The Czech forward was originally going to attend Miami of Ohio to play for the RedHawks, but ended up going the OHL route to the Barrie Colts. Barrie has a knack for acquiring pests as former Sabres draft pick Brendan Lemieux is a Colts alum, but I digress…
If Pekar is used as a center, he’ll likely be on the third line as the Czechs are loaded up the middle with Martin Necas and Filip Chytil. Pekar seems to be a player that can flourish in several different roles regardless of being in the top or bottom six. He can find his way into the top six as a winger and could find himself on a line with one or two of Necas, Chytil and Filip Zadina.
Keep an eye on the Czech Republic this year, they could be lethal offensively. Here’s my sleeper pick at the World Juniors.
Samuelsson is an intriguing player to keep an eye on at the World Juniors. While he won’t blow you away with skill, he’s a steady, calm presence on the back end. He was a safe pick at 32nd overall in the 2018 NHL Draft because of impressive intangibles as he’s 6 foot 4 inches and around 220lbs.
He uses his large, athletic frame to play physical and use his reach to his advantage. He’s a smooth skater with a defensive calmness that can translate well into the NHL. With smaller, more skilled defensemen like Pilut and Laaksonen, you’ll want to have big, rough guys to pair them with. It’s not like he can’t contribute offensively, he has 3 goals and 5 assists and a team high +12 in 16 games for Western Michigan University.
I’d expect to see Samuelsson to play on the 2nd pairing. He will relied on heavily for penalty killing and playing against the other teams top lines, making their nights miserable.
I’ve seen the question asked once or twice as to why Mattias Samuelsson went to Western Michigan. His brother Lukas is a forward for Broncos, even though he’s only played 5 games in two years. Regardless, he still gets to play college hockey with his brother and not many people can say that.
Also, going to Western Michigan as opposed to Michigan opened a bigger role for Samuelsson in the team. He’ll probably play more minutes and in more situations than he would in Ann Arbor. It’s not like Western Michigan is a bad team, they’re ranked 18th in the Nation by USCHO.com with a 9-6-1 record.
Overall, there should be a general excitement to see players we don’t usually get to see in important roles on their respective teams. Buffalo won’t always have a Casey Mittelstadt to dominate the World Juniors, but having your prospects perform at the World Juniors reflects well on your prospect pool.