Breaking down the big events of the season for NHL prospects so you can follow along
By: Mitchell Fox
Following along with the NHL is not too difficult. It is covered by media enough to see every story and know every star player if desired. However, the players within the NHL are constantly changing, as players earn their way into the league every year. Keeping track of all the new names entering the picture each year is not so easy.
One of the most exciting parts of every NHL offseason comes in July with the NHL Entry Draft, where teams get a shot to build their future. The Draft is undoubtedly a big media event, but the players picked in it are unknown to most people not in the scouting community. Before their names are broadcast for all to hear, there is a long season for young players to make a name for themselves, with the best of the best appearing not only in their usual leagues but in international and prospects tournaments.
Here is a breakdown of the key events you can watch each season to learn about the next generation of the NHL.
Hlinka Gretzky Cup - August
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is an under-18 tournament run by Hockey Canada, the Czech Ice Hockey Association and the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation. Eight countries send a team to the tournament, generally the usual suspects in international hockey.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is named after two legends of the game. Alongside Wayne Gretzky’s name is that of Czech hockey legend Ivan Hlinka, a player and coach who made his mark primarily in Europe, but also played two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and coached two more with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Czech legend passed away in a car crash in 2004.
The Hlinka Gretzky is a short version of the typical international hockey tournament, with a three-game round-robin earning the top two teams from each group a spot in the semi-finals. Each team plays five games in total.
The event is the prospects community’s first chance to watch NHL-draft-eligible players in their draft year (though younger players also take part). It features better hockey than junior leagues and better ice time for young European players who play in men’s leagues, providing a taste of what players have to offer compared to their peers.
The one asterisk with the tournament is not all of the best under-18 players are always there. Namely, the United States tends to be under-represented because players from the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) do not participate. Other countries, including Canada, tend to have players miss the tournament for other reasons as well.
This year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup took place between July 31 and Aug. 5 and featured an overtime win by Canada over Czechia for the gold medal.
Prospects Camps & NHL Training Camps - September
Before the NHL season gets started, teams must figure out who will be playing for them that season. Some players will move between levels throughout a season, but training camps are a necessary part of how teams figure out where to send their players and prospects, whether it be the NHL, their affiliate teams in the AHL (or the ECHL) or, for players under 20, back to major junior. Other players may end up returning to Europe or to the NCAA (American university).
Alongside training camps, teams send players to small prospect showcase tournaments across North America in September. These tournaments take on names such as the Prospects Challenge (hosted by the Buffalo Sabres last year) or the Young Stars Classic in Western Canada, all typically featuring four to six teams consisting of each franchise’s best prospects.
NHL training camps and prospects tournaments will take place in September.
Seasons Start - September/October
Following the preseason, which kicks off on Sept. 23 with the NHL Global Series in Melbourne, Australia, the NHL season will start on Oct. 10. However, the NHL is just one of many leagues starting up around that time. Here is a list of start dates for other professional and junior leagues hockey fans may want to check out.
AHL: Oct. 13
OHL: Sept. 28
QMJHL: Sept. 22 WHL: Sept. 22
SHL; Allsvenskan (Sweden): Sept. 14; Sept. 23
SM-Liiga; Mestis (Finland): Sept. 12; Sept. 21
KHL, VHL & MHL (Russia): Sept. 1
Czech Extraliga (Czechia): Sept. 15
DEL (Germany): Sept. 14
The World Juniors (IIHF World Under-20 Championships) - December/January
The World Juniors are everyone’s favourite prospects showcase. Sometimes held as too high a measuring stick for prospects, at its core the tournament is another chance for players to take on the best of their age group while representing their country. Ten countries are represented across two groups, with four teams from each moving to bracket-style playoffs and the bottom two playing to stay out of relegation.
The World Juniors features players under the age of 20. Unlike the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, most of the best players will be at the tournament, with only injuries or the rare case of NHL teams not letting their players go keeping players away. The result has been very entertaining and close tournaments in recent years (five nations have earned medals in the last two tournaments).
The World Juniors are exciting because they feature the best and brightest of the next generation of NHL players. Many of the players have already been drafted, so rather than trying to impress scouts, they can focus on the thrill of representing their country at a best-on-best. Better yet, it all happens over the holiday season, with rivalry matchups almost always taking place on New Year’s Eve.
This year’s world juniors will be hosted in Gothenburg, Sweden starting Dec. 26.
CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game - January
An event that has fallen somewhat under the radar in recent years, the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game is a chance for the best players in Canadian major junior leagues to showcase their skills. Forty of the best draft-eligible players from within the Canadian Hockey League (featuring the OHL, QMJHL and WHL) get to play in this showcase game, having been selected by NHL Central Scouting and general managers based on their play that season.
Teams are often coached by celebrities (Bobby Orr is usually one of them) and there is lots of fanfare around the game, but for the players, it is another chance to impress. They want to win the game for their team and put up an impressive individual showing as they take on the players most comparable to them in draft rankings.
By late January, when the game is played, many of the players are well-known and established among scouts, so it is really about kicking off a strong second half of their seasons to give scouts the right impression.
Still, like all prospects games and tournaments, the small sample size has to be taken into account. One performance on a big stage halfway through the season should not define their status among prospects.
This year’s CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game will take place on Jan. 24, 2024, in Moncton, N.B.
CHL Canada/Russia Series - N/A
Another event that used to attract some fanfare was the CHL Canada/Russia Series, which featured Canadian players in the CHL playing against a team of Russian CHL players and prospects from Russia’s own minor leagues. This tournament has been cancelled since the war in Ukraine started and Russian and Belarussian players were banned from most events.
The Memorial Cup - April/May
The Memorial Cup is the pinnacle of Canadian major junior hockey. Featuring the winners of each of the three leagues in the CHL as well as a host team, the tournament represents the ultimate championship.
The tournament usually takes place just after the three seasons end, signalling a worthy follow-up to hard-fought playoffs and some of the best junior hockey of the season. With a major piece of hardware on the line, the short four-team tournament is what players look forward to all season and represents the last big event of the season.
The Memorial Cup usually takes place in April or May. This year’s event will be hosted by the Saginaw Spirit.
OHL Cup - March/April
Moving on to an even younger age group, the OHL Cup is the ultimate championship for the top under-16 AAA teams in Ontario and some of the United States. Teams from all over the Ontario Hockey Federation and invited teams from the United States earn their way to the tournament through their play in their regular seasons, earning qualification or selection by a committee.
The OHL Cup is one of the few occasions that players from the under-16 age group will be on TV or play in a best-of-the-best tournament, so it is no small deal. The hardware also looks great on a career resume.
Players who have played in the tournament have become NHL prospects and even stars. The 2018-19 Don Mills Flyers, who won the tournament, had six players later drafted to the NHL, including Shane Wright, Brennan Othmann and Brandt Clarke.
The OHL Cup occurs each year in March and April, often at Scotiabank Pond and Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto.
IIHF World Under-18 Championships - April
Like the World Juniors, the World Under-18 Championships is a best-on-best showcase of young talents representing their nations. Often slipping under the radar, the tournament tends to be a big deal for players, as it takes place either as the last international event of their draft season or as an ending to the part of their career where the NHL Draft is not their focus.
The under-18 championship gives players an opportunity to impress scouts with their play on the ice before the draft. Last year, the American trio of Will Smith, Gabe Perreault and Ryan Leonard cemented their cases as first-round picks with dominant performances at the tournament, while 17-year-old Macklin Celebrini proved himself as the front-runner for the 2024 NHL Draft class.
The under-18 world championships take place in late April. This year’s edition will be played in Espoo and Vantaa, Finland.
NHL Draft Combine - June
The last chance for players to make their mark in scouts’ rankings comes at the NHL Draft Combine, where players are tested in a number of strength and conditioning events.
Combine tests include measurements of height, weight and wingspan, various jumps, pull-ups and many more. One of the most coveted is the V02Max aerobic fitness test, which involves maximum effort on a stationary bike. Success at the V02Max can mean a lot, especially if combined with other Combine successes.
Players who succeed in a number of different categories tend to see their stock rise with assessments of their strength and ability to compete against grown men in professional hockey. Players who do not perform so well can lose some popularity, but the combine is never the be-all, end-all.
Another important aspect of the draft combine is it includes draft meetings, where players meet with teams, including coaching, management and scouting staff. Some teams are known for asking incredibly difficult or strange questions, often trying to learn about a prospect’s work ethic and personality alongside their physical attributes shown in the combine.
The NHL Draft Combine takes place each year in early June, a few weeks before the draft.
NHL Entry Draft - June/July
The big event of the year comes in late June, when the NHL Draft brings all 32 teams and a stadium full of fans, prospects, families and media for the event of the season. Seven rounds of action means 224 players are drafted into the NHL.
Not all of these players will be familiar names at the time and many may never become familiar names, but for some, it is the first step to becoming a professional hockey player.
After the Draft, the whole cycle starts again. The next draft class will take over the minds of amateur scouts, while the players selected will move on to the next stage of their career: making the leap from junior to pro.
Predicting the future is certainly impossible, but hockey has plenty of showcases for finding the next generation of talent to bless our screens.
Stay tuned to Intermission Sports for junior and prospects coverage all season.