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Who was the Canucks most impressive prospect at the World Juniors?

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While the marquee names performed well, the unheralded prospects stood out too.

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2018 NHL Draft - Round One
Quinn Hughes arrives for the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on June 22, 2018 in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

There was probably a collective “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment across Vancouver when Finland’s Toni Utunen scored the overtime winner to knock Canada out of the tournament.

Not only did the Canucks’ prospect defenceman score the game-winning goal, he did it against Team Canada, against Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro, and he did it at Rogers Arena.

How’s that for irony?

All in all, four Canucks prospects played in the 2019 rendition of the World Juniors. While the bigger names such as Quinn Hughes and Michael DiPietro drew most of the attention entering the tournament, it was the lesser-known prospects that really raised some eyebrows in Vancouver (and Victoria).

4. Toni Utunen

7 Games Played, 1-0-1

Easily the Canucks most under-the-radar prospect entering the World Juniors, Toni Utunen was swiftly thrust into the spotlight following Finland’s upset over Canada, where it was Utunen who buried the overtime winner.

For Utunen, it was his first goal of the season after going goalless for Finland at the World Juniors through the first four games. He also hadn’t scored yet this season for Tapparra of SMi-Liiga in Finland (one assist in 21 games).

Prior to his dramatic overtime winner, it had been a solid, yet unspectacular performance for Utunen. That’s similar to his style of play. He’s a defensive defenceman who’s not overly physical but is good positionally, and in transition.

Utunen saw his role elevate throughout the tournament as well. He played largely in a third pairing role, playing 15 to 18 minutes per game. However, with an injury to Ville Heinola, Utunen played on the first pairing with Chicago Blackhawks rookie Henri Jokiharju. Utunen then saw his ice time jump to almost 22 minutes in the gold medal game.

3. Tyler Madden

7 GP, 3-1-4

In short, there wasn’t a Canucks prospect at this tournament who raised their profile more than Tyler Madden.

Back in September, Madden was a long-shot to make Team USA for the World Juniors. Hell, some were still miffed that the Canucks passed on American Jake Wise for Madden. Myself included, since I thought Wise would have been a good pick in the second round, nevermind the third.

I think this one falls into the category of “In Judd (Brackett) we trust.”

Madden’s stock has risen dramatically throughout the season, and his value has only increased with the World Juniors in the rear-view mirror. His freshman season for Northeastern in the NCAA has been going better than expected, and he was one of the most heavily used forwards for Team USA at the World Juniors.

Madden led Americans forwards in ice time throughout the tournament. Part of that was due to an injury to Jack Hughes, but Madden made the most of his opportunity, and had the full trust of American head coach Mike Hastings. Here’s what Hastings told The Athletic about Madden.

“I trust Tyler. I trust Tyler a lot, and he’s earned that,” Hastings told The Athletic. “Because he plays both ends of the rink, is very bright with and without the puck. I think he’s got a lot of trust from his teammates, and he definitely does from the staff.”

2. Quinn Hughes

7 Games Played, 0-2-2

Even though Quinn Hughes was battling illness throughout the tournament, he showed more than once why he’s one of the most exciting players not currently in the NHL. Hughes showed off his traditional blazing speed and innate playmaking ability, making plays that most other defenceman wouldn’t dream of making.

The points weren’t there, but anyone who watched the World Juniors will have a hard time convincing me that Hughes isn’t miles above defencemen in his age group in terms of decision-making and creativity.

If there’s one criticism of Hughes, it’s that he tried to do too much. He did make some brutal turnovers, some of which led to goals against.

You can call it the Elias Pettersson effect. Pettersson is tops on the Canucks in turnovers, but largely because he’s trying to make plays. Hughes has the same effect. On that bad turnover against Sweden, Emil Bemstrom went back the other way to make it 3-0 Sweden. If Hughes makes that play in the neutral zone instead of turning it over, chances are that the U.S. go the other way and get a good chance to make it a 2-1 game.

Hughes could be just months away from bringing his game to the NHL, and fans will have to take the good with the bad. They’ll surely take the good, since Hughes was absolutely dynamic for stretches of the tournament.

1. Michael DiPietro

4 Games Played, 1.32 GAA, .951 save percentage

While Hughes was his dynamic self for Team USA, he did make some costly mistakes at times, and didn’t always look like himself, perhaps because of a reported illness that was affecting many of the players.

On the other hand, what more could you have asked from DiPietro? Please don’t say “a save in overtime against Finland,” smart ass.

The Canucks prospect ended up being the starter for Team Canada, and one of the most likeable prospects in the tournament. After giving candid, inspiring interviews pre-tournament, DiPietro became a fan-favourite not just in Vancouver, but across the country.

Saves like these helped endear him to Canadians as well.

DiPietro had to be one of the guys you felt worst for when Canada lost, considering that he had been solid throughout the whole tournament. He was seconds away from shutting out Finland, until a flukey goal finally squeaked by him to kill his shutout bid. Still, there were some great moments for both DiPietro and his family to reflect on amidst his stellar performance.

In a tournament full of solid goaltending performances, DiPietro was right there with the best of them. His 1.23 GAA and .951 save percentage were absolutely outstanding, and it’s hard to really pick at any negatives in his game. He was poised, calm, and did everything Canada asked of him. At the end of the day, Canada just couldn’t give him enough goal support in games against Russia and Finland.