For an 18-year-old, it’s impressive enough to simply crack Sweden’s lineup for the World Junior Championship.

That was the case for the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect, Jonathan Lekkerimäki. It came as a bit of a surprise to see him on the roster for Sweden, but with a handful of players opting out of the tournament, it opened the door for the 2022 first-round pick to slide into Sweden’s lineup.

If it was a surprise to see him on the roster, it was a Champ Kind ‘Whammy!’ to see him begin the tournament as the second-line right-winger.

Lekkerimäki was put into a role where his skill would be able to shine as he was also gifted the left half-wall spot on the second power play unit. Coming into game one of the tournament, it looked like Lekkerimäki was going to be leaned on for a good chunk of Sweden’s offence.

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The problem was that Sweden only scored 20 goals over their seven games at this tournament. Unlike past years, Sweden appeared to lack the skill that was required to compete with the stronger teams at the World Juniors. This inability to find the back of the net came to fruition in the semi-final game against Finland where the Swedes were shutout and lost 1-0.

Finding offence looked difficult for Sweden and a big reason was because of their nonchalant manner of attacking goaltenders. This team’s biggest downfall was on display in a petri dish with Lekkerimäki’s play. The 18-year-old was more of a passenger than a play-driver in most of Sweden’s games and only really found success on the power play.

Now, there are two things we should throw out there to help better contextualize Lekkerimäki’s play.

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The first is his age.

With the tournament being postponed and ultimately replayed in August, this is basically Lekkerimäki playing as a 17-year-old at the World Juniors. This is why we aren’t worried about Lekkerimäki’s relatively quiet tournament because he can play at this tournament in not only December but the December of 2023 as well.

Another reason could be the long-term effects of dealing with mono, which he reportedly had back in March. We have that full story here.

So, we’ve established a few things prior to getting into the takeaways.

Because the takeaways aren’t glowing about the Canucks’ prospect, I do want to clarify that he is absolutely the best prospect in the system and I am confident that he is going to be a strong power play contributor to the Canucks as soon as the 2024-25 season.

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Now that this all has been said, let’s get into our takeaways from Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s first of three World Junior Championships.

Biggest Takeaway

Our biggest takeaway from Lekkerimäki’s play at the World Juniors is that he needs to assert himself in the play and not live on the perimeter waiting for the puck to be put on a platter for him to showcase his skill. The kid is extremely talented with his puck-handling, shot and playmaking but at this tournament, he limited his ability to use his skill because he wasn’t involved in enough offensive zone possessions.

A good example of what you want to see more of in Lekkerimäki’s game was not far away on the ice. As you watched Sweden play, you couldn’t help but shift your eyes to Boston Bruins prospect Fabian Lysell. Every time that Lysell was on the ice for Sweden, he wanted the puck more than anyone in yellow and blue.

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We weren’t expecting the 18-year-old Lekkerimäki to play with a ton of confidence at this tournament but after leading the U18 tournament with 15 points in just six games — we thought he’d have a bit more swagger.

There was just not enough effort in a lot of situations where if he was going 100% for the entirety of the shift, you’d likely see scoring chances and more offensive possession time for the talented winger. It just felt like Lekkerimäki wasn’t on the same wavelength as the rest of the team. He wasn’t moving well with his linemates to generate scoring chances and this is a bit surprising as he played a majority of the tournament with his centre from Djurgärdens, Liam Öhgren.

Now that Lekkerimäki is back with his Allsvenskan team, we are expecting to see a better fit with the game plan as well as chemistry with his linemates. There should be more effort in his willingness to move around in the offensive zone and we’re hoping that he gets himself into more scoring areas with the puck on his stick once the Allsvenskan season gets going.

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Positive Takeaways

Once the puck made it to Lekkerimäki, there was a lot to like.

 

For one, his shot is very strong and he seems to have a variety of shots that he is confident in. He’s got power behind the one-timer, can quickly release a snap-shot, and his wrist shot generates pop like an NHLer.

Here’s a montage of his shots on net in the tournament.

Normally, a player who lives on the perimeter is not a great defender but it looks like Lekkerimäki was pretty damn engaged in the defensive zone. We saw a much higher effort level in his own zone on defence than the effort level he had to create offence of his own. He was doing a good job of closing in on the points to get a stick on defencemen who were walking the line or hesitating to see passing lanes open.

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Lekkerimäki may not be big but he does a good just of using his stick in board battles to fish pucks out and quickly make the right decision to take the next step in a breakout. All in all, defensively we thought he was pretty good. At five-on-five, we were more impressed with his defensive play than his offensive play and that’s what confused us more than anything.

He did show well with the man advantage. The power play is where his production came from. Here are some of his points from the tournament.

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Negative Takeaways

It just felt like the drive was not there for Lekkerimäki at this tournament. We know that he has two more of these but they selected him to be a scorer who helped drive offence and he struggled to do that aside from the occasional power play or his really good first period against Germany.

He was taking short shifts and potentially just trying to make a good impression with his coach. He didn’t seem to have confidence in himself like we hoped we would see. Lekkerimäki was ridiculous at the U18s and he alongside Liam Öhgren was the guy who drove Sweden to win a gold medal.

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Something just felt off about Lekkerimäki at the World Juniors.

I mean, this is a kid who has the confidence to pull moves like this off in the SHL — which is much better hockey than you will see at the WJC.

Something didn’t feel right about his game at the World Juniors and maybe the mono was affecting him negatively even all these months later. He also had a busy summer with the draft as well as development camp but we just don’t believe that this version of Lekkerimäki is even close to the player we will see playing in the Allsvenskan this fall.

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Final Thoughts

It wasn’t a great tournament for Lekkerimäki and that’s fine because he is still so young and can play for Sweden two more times at the WJC.

We can compare Lekkerimäki’s “17-year-old” performance at this tournament with Vasily Podkolzin’s if we want — both players had three assists in seven games. Two years later, Podkolzin looked like one of the top-three players in that tournament and the hope is that Lekkerimäki is the guy to look to for Sweden for the 2024 WJC.

Though he didn’t shine at this U20 tournament, we aren’t doubting the skill and high-end potential in Lekkerimäki’s game. We’re confident that he will have a better tournament in December and simply playing in this tournament is still looked at as a win for Lekkerimäki. The problem is that we saw some of the worries that we talked about pre/post-draft with Lekkerimäki as he needs to be better at engaging himself in the offensive zone.

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We love the skill but want to see him be the player who makes it happen offensively. He is relying on his skill instead of utilizing it and with the right coaching and development, we expect to see a good NHL player down the road.

There will be much more positivity in the next two World Junior wrap-up articles that we write about Lekkerimäki.

That’s for sure.