Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Canucks prospects shone in World Juniors, but what’s next for each of them?
By Dave Hall1 month ago
The 2024 World Juniors have officially concluded in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Despite settling for a silver medal after losing to the USA in the gold medal game, the strong performances of Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Elias Pettersson, and Tom Willander during the tournament offer promising glimpses into the Vancouver Canucks’ future.
Now that they are returning to their respective clubs to continue their 2023–24 campaigns, we begin to reflect on what this means in terms of their potential and NHL timelines.
Following such a strong tournament, particularly from Swedish sniper Jonathan Lekkerimäki, it’s common for a fan base to push for an accelerated timeline, especially when he appears to fill a much-needed hole on the current roster.
Let’s delve into the paths ahead for each prospect and explore the expected timelines for their growth.
By now, the buzz surrounding Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s standout performance at the 2024 World Juniors has likely reached your ears and eyes.
The 19-year-old contributed points in all seven games, racking up quite the list of accolades: tied for the lead in goals (7), third in points (10), second in shots (34), a Silver Medal on home soil, and of course, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player honours.
While Sweden’s success can’t solely be attributed to Lekkerimäki, his impact often made stretches feel like the “Lekk show.”
Of course, strong goaltending and a solid defensive corps played major roles, but his exceptional offensive efforts truly stood out, meeting all expectations as a sharpshooter in his third and final go-around at the event.
His play wasn’t just limited to offensive contributions, either. He was engaged in the forecheck, disrupted puck carriers, and exhibited a pest-like pressure on opponents all throughout. Heck, he even provided defensive coverage at times, showing dedication to both ends of the ice. While he’s not widely considered to be a two-way player, his effort levels displayed truly embodied the strong developments he’s made throughout the season.
As a result of all of this, those who grew skeptical after a disappointing post-draft season may have been forced to come around and accept that health may have played a major role, after all.
So, what does this mean for his immediate future?
Currently, the Vancouver Canucks are enjoying a stellar season, sitting tops in the Pacific Division and third league-wide. However, in recent memory, the team has faced some turbulence among their forward group, juggling lines and prompting a need for a bona fide goal-scoring replacement.
Could Lekkerimäki’s incredible release be of assistance? Absolutely.
In due time, that is.
From a fan perspective, there may be a temptation to integrate the 19-year-old — who has now won a WJC MVP and leads the U24 SHL circuit in goals (10) and points (16) — as soon as possible. However, management seems inclined towards a slow and steady approach, which, realistically, is probably the best course of action.
In a recent Patrik Allvin interview, the Canucks GM touched on how management acknowledges the need for him to bulk up, given his relatively slight stature, and would like to allow the appropriate time needed to ease him through the process.
“He’s had a good season here in Sweden,” Allvin said. “He’s been working hard since the offseason. Another eight months from him and we’ll be excited to see him in training camp. Once the season is over, we hope he’s gonna be in Abbotsford and we’ll take it from there.”
The 19-year-old, set to return to SHL club Örebro, undeniably plays an offensive-oriented style and scores the majority of his goals through his world-class release. This is perfectly acceptable in the SHL, given their relatively finesse-type hockey and space on the ice.
However, not only is the competition much more physical in North America, but the NHL schedule (30 additional games) is also much more demanding and stretched out.
Ultimately, he will need to withstand the rigours of being targeted as an offensive forward on a nightly basis for a much longer period.
Now healthy and confident, and presumably with a full summer of preparation along with some well-deserved time in the AHL would bode well for the young sharpshooter — both for the short and long term.
Make no mistake, Lekkerimäki is a pure goalscorer with an undeniable transferable toolkit, but there are bound to be a few bumps along the way, and he’ll still need to make adjustments. He may be a workhorse, but the issues with him being held to the perimeter and still lacking size remain a concern.
Is it enough to keep him from reaching his top-six NHL potential? Likely not.
However, he will need to find new creative ways to get himself into scoring positions, particularly at even strength.
As an example, the goal below shows a play that he often creates in the SHL, corralling the puck on the outside and straddling the blue line to allow for a sneaky snapshot from the point.
He showcased this move a few times at this year’s World Juniors, as well.
While he may get away with this and similar perimeter plays in the SHL or among his U20 competition, he likely doesn’t get the time and space to make this move at the NHL level.
At least, not as often.
A summer devoted to working with the Canucks staff, a showcase in the Young Stars Classic along with a full NHL training camp followed by a stint in Abbotsford are both the best and likeliest outcomes for Lekkerimäki come fall 2024.
Unless his game translates right out the gate — which could certainly still happen — sit back and enjoy the slow development a little closer to home. Perhaps he’s ready by Christmas, but it could just as easily take the entire campaign to fully adjust.
The important thing is that he is on his way and will be in a Canucks uniform for the 2024-25 campaign, whether it be Abbotsford or Vancouver.
As a third-round selection, it’s not as if his game came out of left field. However, Elias Pettersson’s strong World Junior showcase may have taken you somewhat off guard.
His two-way ability and heavy frame were all well-known facets of his game heading in, but his ability to play robust, shutdown hockey, was taken to another level during these last two weeks.
Whether it was on the rush, in the corners, or at the net front, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound defender made his opponent’s nights incredibly difficult, asserting his physicality and delivering bone-crushing checks on multiple occasions.
He often found himself matched against top opponents and played a crucial role in the tournament’s second-best penalty kill.
Additionally, his strong transition game, marked by a great first pass and the ability to initiate rushes quickly, has been a consistent feature throughout the season – whether at the WJC or in the Allsvenskan.
Patrik Allvin’s comments in the above-mentioned interview suggest a swift transition for Pettersson, and we can likely expect him to join the Abbotsford Canucks’ blueline immediately following his season overseas.
Västerås, his current club team, is set to conclude its regular season on March.8th. However, they currently hold a playoff spot, which would set the transition back several weeks.
Unlike Lekkerimäki, his imposing frame should allow him to adapt to the North American game quickly, at least from a physical standpoint. On top of his size, he skates well, and he can chip in from the point from time to time.
So, for him, it’s more of a system and timing adaptation.
Pettersson provides a strong outlet pass, as he curls from behind the net with his head up. However, given the stronger pressure and less time to react in the North American game, there is always the possibility of an adjustment period, which is common for those transitioning from overseas.
While he provides Vancouver with a solid call-up option for the bottom pairing next season, a full year in the AHL is the likely landing spot for now.
In fact, with injuries and his movable contract, the likelihood of him seeing NHL minutes next season, assuming his game develops accordingly, is relatively high. But ultimely, he’s poised to push for a role in 2025-26, which likely comes in the form of a bottom-pairing, penalty killer.
Tom Willander had a solid tournament, especially considering his relatively modest role as an 18-year-old.
While he wasn’t sheltered, by any means, he did not see any time on the power play and was not utilized in many crucial moments in the dying minutes.
Instead, he played a prominent role on the penalty kill, and skated second-pairing minutes, alongside the tournament’s leading scoring defenceman, Theo Lindstein.
He showcased his strong skating ability, aggressiveness in closing gaps, and overall sound two-way play. While he only posted a modest three points, including a game-winning goal against the Canadians, he showcased his strong outlet ability and saw several opportunities to provide much more offence.
His most notable contribution came in the plus/minus department, finishing third tournament-wide with a plus-nine, and was only on the ice for two goals throughout the entire event – none before the Gold Medal match.
As an 18-year-old getting his first reps, this tournament was more about the experience, than the counting statistics.
Of course, there were moments of lapse, notably in his decision-making on some of his transitions, which led to some costly turnovers, and at times, he was beaten as a result of his overly aggressive demeanour.
Overall, however, the tournament should be considered a success and an encouraging foreshadowing of what’s to come.
As a 19-year-old, Willander is expected to return next year and play a much more pivotal role, which likely includes time on the team’s secondary power play, at the very least.
The same can be said for his time in the NCAA, as it was made clear that Allvin and company will not be rushing their prized 11th overall’s development.
They feel strongly encouraged by what they saw in Sweden, and are content to allow him to stew, eating up valuable minutes with the Boston University Terriers for another season.
Being a first-round pick, there is pressure for him to develop quickly, but the decision to keep him in Boston for another year should be viewed as nothing but a positive.
Staying put allows him to continue adjusting to his new environment, while taking on a much heavier role as the go-to option for BU, especially with the likely departure of Lane Hutson next season. By all accounts, he should be considered the ‘guy’ next season and likely take over the top spot, both on the power play and even strength.
Fans can rest easy knowing they have a strong, right-shot defender waiting in the pipeline, with the likeliness of him joining the organization, in some capacity, at the tail-end of the 2024-25 campaign.
While the prospect of having all three in the lineup is an exciting thought, it’s important to allow the proper development and refrain from rushing players who are poised to be key contributors in just a few short seasons. Canucks fans have seen first-hand what rushing youngsters can do, and with this new regime, it finally appears that those days are over.
With that said, the 2024-25 should be a fun campaign in Abbotsford.
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