Matthew Beniers of the United States National Junior Team will be one of several draft-eligible players looking to play a key role for his country at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"[Beniers] is an accelerated player for sure; his motor is always going," United States general manager John Vanbiesbrouck said. "I think that he can play center and can play the wing and when you're that usable, you're going to play a lot of minutes. I think that he really cares about every detail of the game, and he's going to be a high draft pick in 2021. Most importantly, he really fits this tournament well because it's a speed tournament and he's got a lot of speed to his game."
[RELATED: Group A preview | Group B preview | United States all-time WJC starting lineup]
The 18-year-old, an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list for the 2021 NHL Draft, has scored six points (three goals, three assists) in eight games as a freshman at the University of Michigan this season. In 2019-20, Beniers (6-foot-1, 174 pounds) scored 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists), including seven power-play goals, in 44 games for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team.
"I'm trying to get better at finishing my chances and my shot, but I think a lot of my game has remained the same (since last season) with the way I think the game, the way I move, the way I can create space, and win battles," Beniers said. "I'm just trying to keep that on track."
Beniers is expected to play a top-six role at 5-on-5 and also receive time on the penalty kill during the tournament.
"He's got a really good work ethic and can also win battles," United States coach Nate Leaman said. "He can get to pucks, but he makes the guys around him better and that's a pretty good attribute. I just think he's got the ability to drive a line, and that's what we're going to need from him."
The United States will play in Group B along with Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Austria. Canada, which won the tournament in 2020, will play in Group A along with Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Germany.
The top four teams in each group will play in the quarterfinals on Jan. 2. The semifinals are Jan. 4, and the championship and third-place game is scheduled to be held on Jan. 5. Games will be broadcast in the United States on NHL Network.
Here are eight other draft-eligible players to keep an eye on in the 2021 WJC (players listed alphabetically):
Daniil Chayka, D, Russia
Chayka (6-3, 187) scored 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 56 games for Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League last season. The 18-year-old, who is an A-rated skater and could be selected in the first round of the 2021 draft, is currently on loan with CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"He's a very smooth-skating defenseman with excellent mobility," said Joey Tenute of NHL Central Scouting. "He's extremely calm and poised with the puck and is a puck-moving defenseman who pushes the pace of play up ice. His size gives him excellent range to defend and his long reach and stick on puck makes him hard to beat."
Taylor Gauthier, G, Canada
Gauthier, who was passed over in the NHL Draft the past two seasons, is hoping an impressive performance at the 2021 WJC will earn him a look in his final year of draft eligibility. The 19-year-old (6-1, 193) was 16-26-7 with a 2.93 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 50 games for Prince George of the Western Hockey League last season and had a 1.11 GAA and .943 save percentage in two games to help Canada finish first at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
"Gauthier is very quick and athletic," said Al Jensen of NHL Central Scouting. "He's a very durable goaltender that keeps getting better. He's quick in recovery and capable of making that big save. He has really good upside."
Samuel Helenius, F, Finland
The 18-year-old has scored eight points (five goals, three assists) while averaging 13:26 of ice time in 18 games as a rookie for JYP in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. Helenius (6-6, 201), a B-rated skater, is a potential second- or third-round draft pick.
"He's a surprisingly mobile center with great size, excellent reach and a good set of tools, including skating, passing, shooting," said NHL director of European Scouting Goran Stubb. "He uses his size well, inside the rules."
Kirill Kirsanov, D, Russia
Kirsanov (6-1, 194), a left-shot defenseman, has no points in 14 games with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL this season. The 18-year-old, a C-rated skater and potential late-round selection, had 13 points (four goals, nine assist) in 40 games with SKA-1946 St. Petersburg in Russia's minor hockey league in 2019-20.
"Kirsanov is solid all-round defenseman," Stubb said. "He's not flashy, but a player with a lot of hockey in him. (He has) a good reach and understanding of the game, he works hard for his team, and is strong."
Nick Malik, G, Czech Republic
Malik (6-0, 180), who was not selected in the 2020 NHL Draft, will get the first start in the tournament for the Czech Republic over Jan Bednar (Detroit Red Wings) and Lukas Parik (Los Angeles Kings). The C rated goalie on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list, who plays for Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, played in one game for seventh-place Czech Republic at the 2020 WJC. His father, defenseman Marek Malik, played in 691 NHL games for the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Malik has great instincts; he's quick and athletic," Jensen said. "He also handles the puck very well and has great balance. He's a very good skater who gets around his crease well."
Oskar Olausson, F, Sweden
Olausson (6-1, 177) has scored four points (three goals, one assist) for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League this season. The 18-year-old, a B-rated skater, will begin the tournament in a third- or fourth-line role and contribute either on the power play or penalty kill.
"He has good size, a good shot and speed in his offensive game and could be a force creating off the rush and on the power play," Sweden coaching advisor Tomas Monten said. "I like Oskar. He's a humble kid. I would like him to play with more of an edge, be a force."
Stanislav Svozil, D, Czech Republic
Svozil (6-1, 172), who turns 18 on Jan. 17, is a B-rated skater heading into the WJC. He doesn't have a point in 10 games for Brno in the Czech Extraliga, and he had one assist in one game while on loan with Prerov in Czech Republic's minor league.
"He's gained a lot of experience playing with or against older players in the Czech and is one of the best defensemen of his age group in the world," Stubb said. "He's a potential top-15 pick. He's got excellent vision, skating, mobility and also is an excellent playmaker and passer."
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Sweden
Wallstedt, an A-rated player, could become the first Sweden-born goaltender to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. The 18-year-old is 6-3-0 with a 2.06 GAA, .920 save percentage and one shutout in nine games for Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League.
"He's got good size, excellent net coverage, plays with confidence, and was the difference-maker in many games 2019-20," Stubb said. "He reads the game well, has very good quickness and plays an athletic style. He's considered one of the best goalie prospects from Sweden in the last five or six years."