This time of year for hockey prospect watchers is synonymous for one thing: the biggest international event of the whole year in the form of the World Junior Championships. The best players in the world under-20 (the ones who aren’t in the NHL, anyways) compete for national glory. Legends are made and careers can be launched.
The WJC tournament has been has not been very high on the Penguins’ radar lately. The best 18 and 19 year old players tend to get drafted really high, and Pittsburgh hasn’t been in position to get their hands on many in the past few years.
That’s starting to change, and also could be a sign of how strong (or at least encouraging) Pittsburgh’s 2023 draft class is looking. Three players from that draft are competing in the WJC. A fourth player from the class in new Pensburgh fave Mikhail Ilyin likely would have joined them if Russia was allowed to participate.
Congrats to Penguins prospects Brayden Yager (Canada), Emil Pieniniemi (Finland), and Kalle Kangas (Finland) on being selected to represent their respective countries at the IIHF 2024 World Junior Championship.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 24, 2023
The trio of prospects open the tournament on Dec. 26 at 8:30 PM ET.
The key focus is on Yager, the Pens’ first round pick. Yager has had a strong season so far in the WHL, with 17 goals and 41 points in 28 games. But the spotlight burns a lot brighter and the pressure is amped up representing Canada more than it is playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors.
So far, so good for Yager. He has 2G+2A in the four games, good enough for second on the team in goals and points, and has factored into the lineup prominently. Yager worked at the beginning of the tournament with presumed No. 1 overall pick in 2024 Macklin Celebrini and the two combined on several pretty goals.
Nice pass from Celebrini after the entry, Brayden Yager rips it to put Canada up 2-0. pic.twitter.com/ixov2K8Lq9— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) December 27, 2023
Following Canada’s 2-0 loss to the host Swedes, lines were shuffled and Yager found himself working on the first line with Conor Geekie and Matthew Poitras (the rare NHL player loaned to this competition). That line was short-lived because Geekie was questionably ejected from the game in the opening seconds of the game following a hit.
Yager scored on the power play in the first period to give Canada the lead. He would add an important third period assist on a Celebrini goal that provided insurance to help Canada to the win.
With a 3-1 record in the preliminary round, the Canadians play in the quarter finals against the Czechs this morning. Despite the impressive positioning and quality of teammates, Yager isn’t exactly basking in minutes or a heavy amount of ice time - he only played 14:47 in the win over the Germans (and that saw Canada play 59 minutes with only 11 forwards following Geekie’s ejection). Yager, at 18, is still on the younger end of the team and has maximized his minutes so far.
Canada is in an interesting spot, usually they are considered the odds on favorite for gold, but that isn’t the case this year with a strong USA squad. The Canadians also don’t have the typical individual star players (though the 17-year old Celebrini with eight points in the first four games is emerging in such a light). Yager has meshed well with Celebrini and it will be interesting to see if Yager can play the hero as the tournament advances to the elimination rounds. He’s stood out and done well so far, but what happens next will go a long way to determining just what level he is at across the industry as a potential rising star.
The other two players in the Pens’ organization that are playing in this year’s WJC are a pair of Finnish players. Emil Pieniniemi (third round pick) and Kalle Kangas (seventh rounder) are both score-less in four games. Kangas has four PIMs, Pieniniemi has two.
The Finns are 2-2, starting the tournament out slowly with losses to Canada and then being upset by Germany. Since then, they’ve stabilized with a win over Latvia and then a thrilling shootout victory over their rivals and the hosting country of Sweden. Finland will be playing Slovakia in the quarter finals.
The World Juniors wrap up by Friday. All three of the Pens’ prospects are still alive and hoping to help their countries get a medal. Many eyes will be on Yager to see if he can rise to the occasion. It’s a fun spot for Pittsburgh to observe and watch it unfold in the coming days.