By Kris Baker for Sabres.com
The eyes of the hockey world will be on Buffalo over the next week and a half with the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in town. With over 200 players taking part in the action, the host Sabres will be keeping a closer eye on the five they've selected over the last two National Hockey League drafts.
Front and center for fans of both the Sabres and USA Hockey is forward Casey Mittelstadt (2017, first round), who enters the tournament with five goals and 17 points in 19 collegiate games this season as a freshman at the University of Minnesota
Mittelstadt, who follows in the footsteps of Casey Fitzgerald (2017), Will Borgen (2016), Hudson Fasching (2014, 2015), and Jake McCabe (2013) as Sabres properties to represent the U.S. at the World Junior Championship, staked an early claim to a roster spot in August with a dominating offensive performance at the World Junior Summer Showcase, and he's kept his engine humming with goals in each of the Americans' exhibition contests leading up to the tournament.
Equal parts dazzling puck-handler and fiery competitor, Mittlestadt has spent a great portion of pre-tournament action centering the Americans' de facto top line with Kieffer Bellows (NYI) and Riley Tufte (DAL). Head Bob Motzko could always play a trump card, though, and reunite Mittelstadt with Logan Brown (OTT) and Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) in hopes of rekindling the magic that saw the trio combine for 34 points at the 2016 World Under-18 Championship.
Be it as a center anchoring his own line or working the left wall on the power play, Mittestadt's quick playmaking wits and sneaky fast release are sure to result in a few lamps being lit as the Americans' chase their first-ever back-to-back World Junior titles.
If the U.S. is to come away with gold, they will likely have to do so by getting past Sweden, who embarked on training camp a few weeks back with plenty of firepower at forward, and became even more potent when the Sabres opted to loan out highly-skilled Alexander Nylander (2016, first round) for his third tour of World Junior duty.
Nylander, who has two goals and six points in 15 games this season with the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans, returns to Sweden's National Junior Team ranked 10th all-time among his countrymen in World Junior production with 21 points (9+12) over the last two tournaments, including five goals and 12 points in seven games a year ago to tie for the tournament lead. Occupying a featured offensive role with the pace slowing down against junior-aged competition, the 19-year-old Nylander is a sure bet to significantly add to his already impressive World Junior totals.
While he has been a prolific point producer internationally, Nylander will be looking to add the elusive gold medal to his amateur resume. He previously earned a bronze at the U17 World Hockey Championship and a silver at the Under 18's. Despite going undefeated in 40 consecutive group stage games, though, Sweden has failed to earn a medal of any kind at the last three World Junior Championships.
For updates throughout the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship and ticket information, go to BuffaloWorldJuniors.com.
With Nylander's scoring and creativity expected to be the primary offensive force for the Swedish attack, two-way centerman Marcus Davidsson (2017, second round) will be called upon down the lineup to bring a physical edge, pick up some points, and log key minutes on the penalty kill.
Davidsson, who is making his World Junior debut, is a speedy, hard-working forward with excellent sense in all three zones. In 23 Swedish Hockey League games this season with Djurgarden IF, Davidsson has posted two goals, nine points, and a plus-7 rating as the third-line pivot for the league's second-place club. He showed his utility by notching a short-handed goal and an assist in Sweden's pre-tournament victory over Denmark.
Davidsson will join Nylander along with Rasmus Asplund (2016, 2017) and Victor Olofsson (2015) as Sabres prospects to have served for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championship.
A top performer for Finland at the last two World Under-18 Championships, goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, second round) is looking to parlay his previous international experience into a leading role in the first of what will likely be two World Junior appearances.
Luukkonen enters the tournament coming off a decent first half with LeKi in Finland's second professional league, where the 18-year-old has captured 10 wins in 18 appearances with a 2.78 GAA and a .914 save percentage.
Conventional wisdom suggests that playing professional minutes versus grown men should help Luukkonen process the Under-20 action. Finland arrives in Buffalo boasting a balanced roster with speedy, powerful forwards and a fleet of offensively-capable defensemen, but they're still going to need the 6-foot-4 backstop to be a consistent rock if his country is to continue the recent trend of winning gold in even-numbered years (2014, 2016), which began with Rasmus Ristolainen's golden overtime goal in 2014.
After seeing limited action in two World Junior contests a season ago, Vojtech Budik (2016, fifth round) returns this year to play a much larger defensive role for a compelling Czech Republic squad looking to earn its first medal since 2005.
Prior to Budik's 2017 cameo, the Sabres didn't have a player skate for the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championship since Jiri Novotny at the 2003 event.
Budik has represented the Czechs at the national team level for six consecutive seasons thanks to his steady defensive play, ability to move pucks up ice, and heavy slap shot. The Czechs have the talent to produce quick-strike offense in a short tournament, but their level of success hinges upon their ability to stifle the best Under-20 forwards in the world. Budik and the remaining defenders will need to execute flawlessly for the Czechs to have a chance.
A stout defensive performance from Budik, who has contributed two goals and 11 points in 32 Western Hockey League games with the Prince Albert Raiders, could not only help his country return to medal contention, but also better position him for potential growth opportunities down the road with the Sabres organization.
Kris Baker will be providing updates on Twitter @SabresProspects and for more on all Sabres prospects, check out his site, SabresProspects.com.