Year after year the focus of the World Juniors is typically on the highly touted and/or high draft pick prospects such as Elias Pettersson, Cale Makar, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt to see just how dominant they can be against the rest of the best in their age group. But every tournament a handful of players come out of relative obscurity that make people sit up and take notice. Here are three such players.
Libor Hajek – TB, 2016 round 3, #37 overall
In a tournament filled with high-end offensive defensemen like Adam Fox, Makar, Dahlin among others, it should come as no surprise that the leading point getter among d-men through the quarter-finals is…Libor Hajek??? Yes, that’s right. After being cut from last year’s team, the Czech defender has made his one and only WJC showing a memorable one. He’s tied for fourth in tournament scoring with seven points and is in a four way tie with Mittelstadt, Martin Necas and the aforementioned Dahlin for the tournament lead in assists with six. Hajek also leads his countrymen in plus/minus with a plus-five mark. This isn’t the type of play we’ve come to expect from the Tampa Bay selection as he doesn’t have a history of producing at an elite level.
Playing for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, Hajek put together two extremely similar statistical seasons in his first two years in North America with stat lines of three goals, 23 assists, 76 penalty minutes, and a minus-19 in 69 games in year one and four goals, 22 assists, 81 penalty minutes, and a miuns-17 in 65 games in year two. Neither of these Blades teams were particularly strong however. Through the first half of this year with a slightly stronger squad, Hajek has almost surpassed his previous career offensive bests. He has already doubled his previous best goal total as he’s found the back of the net eight times and has added 16 helpers. He’s focussed on shooting the puck more this season and numbers don’t lie, it’s been a smart decision. Hajek has a ten point lead over the next highest scored defender on the Blades. A smooth skating defender with good size, the Czech has put himself in the mix for tournament all-star team honours.
Jonas Rondbjerg – VGK, 2017 round 3, #65 overall
There wasn’t a whole lot to be positive about from Denmark’s performance in Buffalo this year given the fact they’ve been outscored by a margin of 30-7 at this point, but Jonas Rondbjerg’s showing has been encouraging. Turning 19 in a couple of months, Rondbjerg is a grizzled veteran of this event as he’s competing in his third edition of the tournament. Through the four group stage games and the first game of the relegation round, the Dane has factored in on five of Denmark’s seven goals, scoring once and adding four assists. Granted three of those points came in a 5-4 comeback victory over Belarus in the relegation round. But still, it’s the best performance by a Vegas Golden Knight drafted prospect in World Junior History!
Back with his home club, Rondbjerg suits up for the Vaxjo Lakers and is competing in his first SHL season but did have a cup of coffee last year. As the second youngest player on the squad he’s registered five goals and a pair of helpers in 25 games. The give goals place him is a tie for fourth among U20 players in the league and has the eighth highest point total among junior age player. He’s been averaging just over nine minutes of ice time on the year and save for a few games he has been seeing more as of late. Just before departing for Buffalo he caught relative fire, scoring three goals in the past two games.
Maxim Sushko – PHI, 2017 round 4, #107 overall
Like Denmark, Belarus has given their country little to cheer about so it should be no surprise that these two countries are battling it out to avoid relegation. But even on bad teams someone has to produce and leading the way offensively for the Belarussians has been their captain Maxim Sushko. He’s wearing his country’s colours for the second time at a world junior tournament, but it his first playing with the big boys as Belarus was in the lower division last year. One of only a handful of 18 year olds on the team, the Philadelphia Flyers property has put up a respectable stat line consisting of one goal and five assists in five games. Most surprisingly is that he has somehow not managed to dip into the negative column where plus-minus is concerned sitting at a nice round zero.
Sushko is currently in his second season with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, having been selected 29th overall in the CHL import draft in 2016. In his first year in North American, his draft year, Sushko scored 17 goals for the Attack and added 15 assists in 54 games. It was good enough to get him noticed by the Flyers who grabbed him in the fourth round with pick 107 which was a lot higher than the majority of scouting services had him. It’s beginning to look like it might be a solid pick as Sushko has produced at nearly a point-per-game clip this year. Through 28 games this year he’s nearly matched last year’s goal total with 16 and has 10 helpers. He sits second on the Attack in goals behind 1st rounder Nick Suzuki.
Thanks for stopping by this week. Give me a follow on Twitter @BradHPhillips.
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