2023 U-18 World Championship Preview: X-Factors to Watch in Group A

2023 U-18 World Championship Preview: X-Factors to Watch in Group A

In Part 1 of the men’s 2023 U-18 World Championship preview, Tony Ferrari dives into Group A, featuring Canada, Sweden, Czechia and more.

The premier event on the international calendar for evaluating NHL draft-eligible prospects has arrived.

The men’s Under-18 World Championships begins on Thursday, and it could be the final chance for many of the world’s best draft-age prospects to leave a mark on scouts.

Every year, this tournament is why a player rises up draft boards or falls a round from where they were perceived beforehand. Scouts and GMs of NHL teams are always dialed in on the U-18s, looking to unearth a gem or solidify their opinion on a top prospect.

Let’s dive into each team in Group A, looking at which nation has a shot at the title and which players are set to play a massive role in getting them there.

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X-Factor: C/W Macklin Celebrini

The Canadians always have an interesting group at the U-18s since some of their best players remain in action in the CHL playoffs. This year, they are also without generational talent Connor Bedard, whose absence on this roster could mean he is poised to play at the men’s World Championships or take a couple of months off.

With all of that said, this is still an outstanding team who has a shot at winning the ‘group of death.’

The offensive attack will feature several dynamic talents and elite finishers. Chicago Steel forward Macklin Celebrini is one of the younger players on the roster as he is a 2024 NHL draft-eligible player, but he could be among the most talented.

Currently leading the USHL in goals and points, Celebrini is an offensive savant. His creativity, puck skill in open ice and ability to manipulate and look off opponents will chew competition up at the U-18s. There’s no reason Celebrini couldn’t be among the top scorers, not only for Canada but at the tournament.

Colby Barlow and Nick Lardis bring some impressive finishing ability to the lineup, possessing difference-making shots at the U-18 level. Barlow is a downhill attacker who will fire a shot from above the dots and then follow up to attempt to jam in his rebound. Lardis is a bit more dynamic on his feet but possesses an equally good release. He will cut to the middle or pop into space and launch pucks on the net from excellent scoring positions.

Andrew Cristall is a dynamic offensive talent who can score with his wicked shot or dish the puck to teammates with his unreal offensive zone vision. His skating is a limiting factor, but with the transition talent of the top players on this team, he should have no issue finding those opportunities. Matthew Wood and Alex Pharand provide some size for the Canadians to work with up front.

On the back end, the Canadians have an exciting mix of puck-movers and minute-eating defensive players. Lukas Dragicevic is a one-man show at times, with excellent straight-line speed and the skill to create offensively. Caden Price is an impressive raw talent with the tools, and he put them together at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, leading to some early-season hype.

Cam Allen was the captain of the Hlinka team in the summer. He had seven points in five games there as a solid two-way blueliner before having an underwhelming season in the OHL. With Andrew Gibson and Quinton Burns on the back end, the Canadians will have a couple of blueliners who will present a challenge for opponents to play against.

In net, Carson Bjarnason is the likely starter, while Joey Costanzo and 16-year-old Gabriel D’Aigle battle for the backup job. Bjarnason is one of the top goaltenders eligible for the 2023 NHL draft, while Costanzo is one of the sleeper goalies for the draft class after helping Windsor to the top of the OHL. D’Aigle is a 2025 draft-eligible player, so he could be the third netminder getting some valuable experience.

Which OHL Players Can Be on Canada’s U-18 Team? (; 3:42)


X-Factor: C/W Otto Stenberg

The reigning champions don’t have the firepower they boasted in last year’s event, but Sweden should be a strong team again.

The only major missing player eligible for the tournament is the injured Felix Nilsson. Leo Carlsson, a player destined for a top-four pick at the 2023 NHL draft, is one week too old for this tournament.

The dynamic talent up front may not quite be as dynamic this year without the Djurgarden trio or Carlsson, but Otto Stenberg will do his best to lead the charge in filling that void. Stenberg is a highly skilled offensive creator with the bold nature and creativity to generate offense from nothing. He is a true dual threat who loves to have the puck on his stick. If anyone is going to step up and be ‘the guy’ for Sweden, it will be him.

Anton Wahlberg and Noah Dower Nilsson will look to help Stenberg in the attacking zone. Wahlberg is a big, fast, skilled forward who’s been moving up draft boards throughout the season. He was one of the Swedes’ best players in U-18 play at four and five nations tournaments, and he will look to continue that trend. Dower Nilsson has been highly productive thanks to the intelligence he plays with, finding ways to get into position to score and read the defensive layout to exploit the holes. His skating is a weakness, but his production is legit.

The blueline may be the Swedes’ biggest strength. Axel Sandin Pellikka will lead the charge, having played in the SHL this season and growing into a prominent role at the World Junior Championship earlier this year. The dynamic, smooth-skating blueliner is expected to play in all situations for the Swedes.

Tom Willander and Arvid Bergstrom are outstanding defenders in their own right. Willander has been in first-round discussions recently thanks to his four-way mobility and aggressive defensive game, with upside as an offensive producer as well. Bergstrom is a wonderful skater who could be one of the team’s most effective transition players from the back end. Theo Lindstein can’t be forgotten, as he was a member of last year’s gold medal-winning squad.

Noah Erliden looks to be the starter in net. He is an undersized netminder who has routinely put up impressive stats anywhere he’s played. Erliden is a technically sound netminder who should excel with the deep Swedish blueline playing in front of him.


X-Factor: RW Eduard Sale

After a fourth-place finish last year as the talk of the tournament, Czechia is back with arguably their best player from last year’s tournament. I’m not talking about tournament MVP Jiri Kulich, who has aged out of the tournament. Instead, it’s Eduard Sale.

Sale was the engine that drove the Czech bus last year, creating so many of the opportunities that Kulich cashed in on. This year, it’s Sale’s turn to take all the headlines. A premier playmaker, Sale should be able to find twine with regularity at the U-18s as well.

Sale will have plenty to work with, too. Adam Csabi is among the more underrated players eligible for the 2023 NHL draft. He is a bit undersized, but he is a sneaky good playmaker who can thread pucks through traffic with precision while using his puck skill to open space for himself.

Jakub Stancl will provide some size throughout the lineup as well. Stancl could be an option in the top six as a finisher to go along with Sale, having the skating ability to keep up with the high work-rate Sale.

The back end is young but promising. Jakub Dvorak will be the head of the class on the blueline, who must thwart the firepower of the other teams in the group. Dvorak could be in line to boost his draft stock with a great performance at the U-18s.

Adam Jiricek, a 2024 draft-eligible blueliner, could be heavily relied upon for the Czechs. Jiricek is the younger brother of Columbus draft pick David Jiricek. The younger Jiricek has already played a dozen games in the top Czech league, looking more than capable of providing a two-way presence for this U-18 squad. Next season, he could use the U-18s as a springboard into his draft year.

In net, the Czechs have been blessed with 2023 draft-eligible goalies. Michael Hrabal has been rated as one of the best netminders in the draft class thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism. He should be the starter and provide Czechia with some of the best goaltending in the tournament. Adam Dybal should slot in as the backup. While he’s not garnering first-round discussion like Hrabal, Dybal plays low and has excellent reflexes. He could easily backstop them to wins if they want to give their star netminder a game or two off.


X-Factor: C/RW Dalibor Dvorsky

The Slovak team is set to be the oldest of any squad at the U-18s, littered with players who have already turned 18 heading into the event. Slovakia’s program has been building something special over the last few years, and one of the players at the forefront this time is Dalibor Dvorsky.

The Slovak sniper will be the team’s best player. Dvorksy’s finishing ability should give him a shot at the tournament’s goal-scoring lead, while his defensive play should make him one of the event’s most well-rounded players. Dvorsky can be a strong puck carrier through the neutral zone, as he has the hands and shiftiness. Still, he will need some help offensively as he is generally the finisher and not the play-driving force.

Adam Cedzo and Frantisek Dej are expected to help out on offense. Cedzo is a 5-foot-9 winger who has some puck skill and shooting talent. He plays at a high pace, pressuring defenders by attacking them head-on. Dej is on the other end of the spectrum, using his 6-foot-4 frame and getting in the face of his opponents. His speed and skill aren’t very valuable assets, but he should be an impact player in the middle six for Slovakia at the U-18s.

The back end features a couple of impact players. Maxim Strbak is a solid two-way defender who had the opportunity to play with the U-20 team at the world juniors in December, collecting three assists in a limited role. He should be Slovakia’s best defender. The 2024 draft-eligible Jakub Chromiak should play a key role in the squad as well. The OHL defender has worked on becoming a more efficient puck-mover while rounding out his defensive game. The U-18s should provide an excellent spot to showcase his game.

The goaltending is unsettled, as we could see any of the three netminders in the crease for Slovakia. The favorite is Samuel Urban, who has some NHL draft interest and has posted good numbers in a limited run in the USHL. Damian Slavik and Lukas Fursten have both been quite good at times in Slovakia’s junior ranks and could find their way into the net as well.


X-Factor: C/W Kevin Bicker

Germany will likely finish at the bottom of Group A. The run of high-level German talent featuring Moritz Seider, Tim Stutzle, Lukas Reichel, J.J. Peterka and Simon Wolf appears to be over. The Germans have come back down to earth a bit, with players such as Kevin Bicker and Timo Ruckdaschel likely leading the charge this time around.

Ruckdachel led all German skaters in scoring in U-18 friendly games throughout this season, but he hasn’t had much of a track record of success outside of those games this year. Bicker is one of the few Germans garnering draft discussion this season, boasting good size and some skill in the offensive zone. Bicker has had some success internationally as well.

The dark horse who could be an offensive difference-maker for the Germans is Linus Brandl. The six-foot center has been lights out at the German junior level this season with 25 goals and 47 points in 32 games. His release is quick and heavy, popping off his stick with some impressive pace despite not being a heavy player.

The defensive group is still up in the air. Edwin Tropmann and Norwin Panocha are the two names sticking out in the crowd, but even they will struggle to play solid defensive games against the top four squads in Group A. Germany’s defensive game must be about a five-man unit collapsing and forcing opponents to play to the outside, but even that won’t net them significant results, unfortunately. 

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