Via Erica Perreaux // Hockey Canada
Welcome back to the second edition of the top 10 performances from the 2022-23 Hlinka-Gretzky cup. In the first part, we went over our picks numbered 10-6. Today, we will take a look at the top five players that impressed us the most from the highly touted tournament.
5- Aron Kiviharju, Defenseman, Team Finland/TPS, Liiga
What would make the 2023 NHL entry draft so much more elite than it already is? If Aron Kiviharju was eligible. Unfortunately, Aron was born in January of 2006, making him eligible for the 2024 draft.
But there’s no debate when anyone says that Kiviharju is a lock at first overall in 2024. Completely dominant in every level of hockey that he’s played in, Kiviharju has demonstrated elite offensive and defensive skills whenever he steps on the ice. He didn’t only compete against top players older than him; he dominated them, too.
His hands and his skating sticking out the most, his creativeness with the puck allows him to have the guts to pull off some of the craziest moves you could ever imagine. We saw him do that with a lethal goal at the tournament.
His feet didn’t have an off switch in the tournament. His legs never quit moving. From end to end, Kiviharju possessed the skill where he would always be in motion and while it did make him look restless and a bit bouncy, it showed signs of a player that would demonstrate elite edge work and endless speed in the future.
While he is still almost two years away from standing on stage and putting on a Chicago Blackhawks jersey (kidding… maybe), he’ll be a joy to watch for a long time. We should all feel lucky enough to watch him develop in person, as it could be likely that he’ll retire with many Norris trophies.
4- Otto Stenberg, Center, Team Sweden/Frölunda HC J20, J20 Nationell
Otto Stenberg was the highlight Swede of the tournament. Arguably the most clutch player out of anyone in the entire tournament, Otto tore it up tallying five goals and nine points in five games. Unfortunately his team couldn’t beat Team Canada in the finals, but Stenberg’s elite performance will be remembered for a long time.
Everything about Stenberg was amiable during this tournament. His unprecedented power play skills, his puck distribution abilities, and his overall talent of outsmarting and outplaying opponents was on display during the Hlinka-Gretzky cup.
Throughout the tournament we saw that dominance show off in moments when he showed his strength and used some of his pro-paced level of hockey. He looked like a beast with every single game and that’s because he was playing like a fully developed NHL player against kids.
His cheat code of a wrist shot assisted him for five huge goals. His release, accuracy, and booming power made him look as if he had the most developed and arguably the best shot among any other player at the tournament.
Stenberg, who was the captain of Team Sweden, played best on the powerplay. He had tons of fantastic looks at even strength where he would easily beat out defenders wide, make opponents look silly using his quick and nifty hands, and had many other tidbits of action, but the main course was his powerplay.
Not only did Stenberg set up his teammates in the most creative and deceptive ways where the teammates would be given a scoring opportunity, but he also capitalized on his own chances including going top corner and bar down using one-timers and his notoriously dangerous wrist shot. There was a lot to like about the Swedish center, and if people weren’t already sold on him before the tournament, they certainly are now.
3- Calum Ritchie, Center, Team Canada/Oshawa Generals, OHL
Calum Ritchie was the highest scoring player out of this tournament and it isn’t a stretch to say that we expected it. Ritchie played in the OHL last year with the Oshawa Generals and he tallied 19 goals and 45 points in only 65 games as a 16 and 17 year old. Those types of numbers get players drafted in the third and even second rounds of the draft if they were 18, yet Ritchie put up those numbers a year younger.
While you may be asking why the leading point scorer of the tournament sits at third, ahead of two others, but the honest truth is that a lot of his points were lucky. Fairly, hockey is a game of bounces and you have to be able to create your own luck, but there were a few moments that made you think that anyone playing in the tournament could’ve been just as lucky enough to score the same exact type of points.
There were so many things to like from Ritchie in Red Deer this year, and I was pleasantly surprised with his defensive skills. He had awareness like no others, he broke up multiple high-danger chances, he tracked the puck down well, and he positioned himself like an experienced NHL player on countless occasions. Mentally, he was ahead of anyone else on the ice.
But while his defensive abilities were extraordinary, his ability to create space and time for himself was remarkable. His ability to get himself that extra helping hand of a second of extra time and a bit more time to work around helped him generate scoring chances for himself and his teammates through passes. A lot of that was caused because of his elite transition game which we saw him to the best in Oshawa last year.
Calum Ritchie has this touch to his game where once he enters the offensive zone (which he does quite a lot), he unlocks a boost in his game and a pep in his step. He activates a sense of urgency and a want to get the puck in front of the net. We saw him score points through his transition game which any hockey fan finds so much fun to watch.
Simply put, Ritchie did get a ton of lucky bounces and everything at the Hlinka-Gretzky cup went the way he would’ve ever wanted it to, but he did show extreme levels of compete and skill at the tournament and it’ll be so much fun watching him explode past defenders and set himself up (as well as his teammates) in the offensive zone this year in the OHL.
2- Brayden Yager, Forward, Team Canada/Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL
A lot of people will personally believe that Brayden Yager was the best player in this entire tournament and I’ll definitely side with them on that one… if it wasn’t for the guy we have at one. I wouldn’t even say that Yager is two; he’s like a 1B to the 1A.
“Phenomenal” doesn’t even come close to describing how Yager performed at the Hlinka-Gretzky cup this year. He was five levels ahead of anyone else whenever he stepped foot on the ice and others simply couldn’t catch up to his pace including some of his own teammates. His game sense, speed, passing abilities, and game smarts outwitted everyone including his teammates in situations where he had made a beautiful play just for his teammates to not be in proper position.
We all know how elite Yager was in the WHL with the Moose Jaw Warriors last year, and it looked like he was even better this time around. Arguably the best playmaker this upcoming draft, his well-roundness was noticeable every time he played. Not once did I see him attempt to create a play whenever he had the puck. If nothing was generated, it was the lack of finish from him or his teammates. Yager generated any type of play under any type of pressure in any type of situation. He was the go-to guy if you ever needed something executed, and executed quickly.
His ability to create plays at high speed will comfortably transition into the NHL level quicker than almost anyone and he even had a few looks of that in the tournament that made me think he was NHL-ready now.
While his shot lacked power and his physicality and hitting lacked strength, it’s all a little early and he will eventually gain mass and he will become a bigger and more aggressive player. With more work on his shooting and more size gained, he’ll be a tank and he will steamroll the competition. We saw how often he tried to engage in heavy-hitting situations; it just never went his way because of his size. Once he gets bigger and stronger, he’ll be a tough challenge to play against.
Yager impressed me a lot during the tournament and my love for his play grew even more during the games. With what he was able to create at such high speeds and such difficult given roles, he really did make me believe in him and I can guarantee anyone that it will translate into NHL hockey relatively soon.
1- Zach Benson, Forward, Team Canada/Winnipeg Ice, WHL
Last year, Zach Benson was my favorite player on the Winnipeg Ice. He stood out the most on a team that had star power such as Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie. His speed, hockey sense, ability to pre-plan plays in his head, and his overall ability to control neutral and offensive play with and without the puck was all on display at the tournament.
Scoring seven points in five games, Benson wasn’t the highest scoring player and his goal scoring wasn’t anything that stood out. Having him first in these rankings is quite a hot take considering players like Otto Stenberg and Brayden Yager tore up the tournament with ease. But to me, Benson truly sent me over the moon with his efficiency.
During this tournament we saw him improve on his deceptiveness. When he was with the Winnipeg Ice last year, he struggled with him being able to outmanuever and outsmart bigger and better opponents. While his hockey smarts and his creation of space and perfect passing plays has always been his best aspects, deceptiveness was a bit of a working area, and it was obvious that he had already started on improving it.
The top thing about Zach Benson is plainly how smart he is. It’s really cliche to say that a hockey player is smart, or that he knows how to play the game inside out, but Benson topples the competition with his toolbox.
He knows how to make and what to do so that opponents bite. A lot of the time we saw how Benson would go deeper in the zone than he needed to. That made him look vulnerable in situations where he could lose the puck with a simple hit or poke check. Then at the last second, he would turn using his exceptional edges, make the opponent crash into the boards, and eventually create an odd man opportunity in favor of his team.
While explosiveness was an issue with Benson, his skating technique was nothing short of aspiring. His strides weren’t choppy and his legs never stopped moving. He had a smooth skating ability that very possibly lacked a little bit of power on the starts and off crossovers.
While Zach’s scoring wasn’t perfect and 3 of his own teammates out-did him, I still loved Benson the most out of any other player in this tournament. If people thought he was good a few months ago in Winnipeg, he’s going to turn the heads of many people this upcoming year seeing how much he’s improved and how he’s able to figure out competition so easily in the WHL.
As the highly-regarded tournament came to a close, many hockey fans were introduced to so many new players and no matter if you are a prospect junkie or not, the talent that we saw from these players really makes you excited. To know that the 2023 NHL draft class will be filled with kids that are able to do things we’ve never seen before is reassuring especially for fans with teams that are in the rebuilding stages.
Even though it was short-lived and it felt like it came and went too soon, we saw so many fantastic players, and making this list made me realize how good this upcoming draft class will be because of how many promising prospects I had to leave off the list.