It’s that time of year where, for two weeks, the hockey world’s attention kind of wanders away from the NHL and turns toward the future. The 2023 IIHF Men’s World Junior Championships gets underway on Monday in Halifax and Moncton, Canada.
The best players in the the world (THE WORLD!) aged 20 and under are together playing for national glory, and for some players, the culmination of 15 years or so of their hockey life. If you win gold, hockey fans in your country will buy you a beer for the rest of your life even if you’re slinging insurance in two years.
While there aren’t any Tampa Bay Lightning prospects on the roster of the presumptive favorites, Team Canada, there will be some representation sprinkled throughout the tournament. Dylan Duke will be suiting up for Team USA,Niko Huuhtanen will be playing for Finland, and Klavs Veinbergs will be skating for Latvia.
Since the world is talking about a bunch of under-20 hockey players it seems like it’s a good time to check in on the nine players in the Lightning system that are currently under the age of 20. All of these players have been drafted in the last two years and are still developing, so don’t expect to see them in Tampa any time soon. Of the nine players, two are still 18-years-old as of the time of this writing and would be eligible for the 2024 World Juniors in Sweden.
Let’s see how the kids are doing after a couple of months of play.
Cam MacDonald (C/LW) - Saint John Seadogs (QMJHL)
27 games played, 16 goals, 13 assists
2021 5th Round
It’s been a breakout season for the Saint John Sea Dogs alternate captain. His 29 points is already approaching his career best (34 points in 2021-22) and his 1.07 points per game leads all non-professional prospects in the Lightning system.
Perhaps he was a bit miffed that he didn’t make the 2022 Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25 list this season (he almost made it). While it’s been a rough first half for the Seadogs (they are last in the standings after the first half of the season) MacDonald has been on fire. He netted a hat trick in his last game and his 16 goals is second on the team and tied for 21st in the QMJHL. With his production and Saint John’s spot in the standings, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him dealt to a contending team at some point this season.
Dyllan Gill (D) - Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
33 games played, 4 goals, 22 assists
2022 7th Round
Another Lightning prospect that is his team’s alternate captain, Gill has already eclipsed his career best with 26 points. He’s racked up 22 assists which is the 5th-highest total for defensemen in the “Q”. Just 18-years-old (he’ll turn 19 in June) Gill could be in the rotation for Team Canada next season. As a 7th-round pick, he was a bit of a lottery ticket in the draft, but he is showing he has some skills that may translate to the professional game.
Dylan Duke (C) - University of Michigan (NCAA)
20 games played, 10 goals, 8 assists
2021 4th Round
The first of three players that will be playing for their respective countries this week, it’s been a solid second season for the Lightning’s 2021 pick. With a big portion of Michigan’s super team heading to the pros after last season, Duke was in line for a bigger role in the offense and he’s already just one point behind his season total from last year.
For Team USA he’s been lining up on the wing with Red Savage and Tyler Boucher, two fellow NHL prospects. He also saw some time on the second power play unit for a few games.
Back in 2020-21 he did represent the US in the Under-18 and put up 3 goals and an assist in 5 games. This is his one shot at winning gold at the Under-20s (he turns 20 next March) but is likely a few years away from turning pro.
Niko Huuhtanen (RW) - Jukurit (Liiga)
24 games played, 9 goals, 7 assists
2021 7th Round
Huuhtanen is the only U20 Lightning prospect playing professional hockey as he’s played 24 games for Jukurit in the Finnish professional league and is holding his own with 16 points. If he finishes out the season strong, there is a good chance he could make the trip back across the pond and suit up for Syracuse next season.
The 19-year-old will also be at the U20 World Juniors this week, like Duke he’s been seeing time on the third line. Looks like he brought his scoring touch as he potted one goal already in a pre-competition match against Canada:
Klavs Veinbergs (C/LW) - Lincoln Stars (USHL)
20 games played, 6 goals, 8 assists
2022 7th Round
The other prospect that’s playing in a professional league, [Never forget, I’m an idiot and the USHL is an amateur league...JG] and the third one that will be in the World Juniors, Veinbergs has had a solid start to his season in the USHL. He will be repping Latvia this week. It’s the second time he’s appeared at the U20’s, having put up a goal and an assist in 5 games during that weird summer version the IIHF put on in August.
Following this year, Veinbergs has committed to Minnesota State University (Mankato) for the 2023-24 season, so it’s likely he’s more than a few years away from turning professional.
Roman Schmidt (D) - Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
27 games played, 2 goals, 11 assists
2021 3rd Round
One of the top defensive prospects for the Lightning not yet in the pros, Schmidt was our number 16 pick in the Top 25 Under 25 this past fall. The big defensemen is off to another solid, if unspectacular season. Depending on how his year goes, the 19-year-old could be with the Crunch next season as he has already signed his entry-level deal. It will come down where the Lightning feel he can best address any deficiencies in his game.
Isaac Howard (LW) - University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA)
16 games played, 1 goal, 5 assists
2022 1st Round
Perhaps the most dynamic player in the Lightning’s prospect pool, Howard is off to a bit of a muddled start to his collegiate career. He only has 1 goal in his first 16 games, but has produced 3 assists in his last 5 games. There was a two-game suspension he had to serve at the end of October for a major cross-checking penalty Wisconsin on October 22nd.
The slow start doomed his chances at getting invited to the Team USA camp, but he will have chances in the future to represent his country.
Connor Kurth (F) - University of Minnesota (NCAA)
19 games played, 4 goals, 1 assist
2022 6th Round
After a dynamic final season with Dubuque in the USHL (81 points in 62 games) Kurth is adjusting to life at the NCAA level. The Golden Gophers have a lot of high-end talent in Jimmy Snuggerud, Logan Cooley, and Jackson LaCombe so playing time is a bit sparse for Kurth at the moment.
Kind of like Dylan Duke at Michigan last year, it could help in his development as he can learn what things are like at this level without having too much pressure on him. As those players head out to the pros, Kurth should be set up pretty well for next season.
Robert Flinton (LW) - Dartmouth College (NCAA)
9 games played, 2 goals, 3 assists
2021 7th Round
Flinton, who goes by “Cooper”, is a project. Drafted in the 7th round of 2021, the 19-year-old went the USHL route that we’re seeing more and more for the Bolts. He’s put up 5 points in 9 games (good for third on Dartmouth) in his first year in NCAA hockey. The New Hampshire-born forward will likely spend a few more years at the college level before we know if the pros are in his future.
It’s not out of the question, after all another former Cedar Rapids RoughRider went to a school in the northeast after the USHL and is currently logging time in the NHL for the Lightning. That player - Ross Colton.