Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Jets: 8 observations from Young Stars tournament

PENTICTON, B.C. — The usually electric atmosphere at the annual Young Stars tournament in Penticton was understandably subdued this year.

After a summer in which wildfires impacted the entire Okanagan region and devastated some nearby communities, the town was quieter and the buzz was muted.

The hockey, however, was fun. The games were physical and competitive. And between the prospect team entries from the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, a lot of intriguing talent was on display.

The Athletic’s Thomas Drance and Harman Dayal took in every game at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Here are their eight most pertinent observations — including standouts — from the 2023 Young Stars tournament.

In an unstructured, chaotic environment you’ll often find at a rookie tournament, the real NHL-level players stand out immediately. They stand out head and shoulders above the invites, recent draft picks and American League depth players.

There weren’t many players who matched that description at Penticton this weekend. The most recent first-round picks — Samuel Honzek and Colby Barlow — look more like projects than dark horse candidates to challenge for a roster spot at their training camps this month. Players such as Matt Coronato and Brad Lambert weren’t consistently excellent — or even consistently noticeable.

The most dangerous offensive player, for us the only forward who really “popped” in this manner, was Canucks rookie Aidan McDonough.

McDonough’s feel for space looked advanced, his line tilted the ice consistently (with him appearing to be the primary driver, especially in-zone) and his finishing is clearly NHL-level. Given that McDonough has yet to play an AHL game in his career, it’s probably a bit hopeful to assume that he’s on the verge of making a compelling case to be on Vancouver’s opening-day roster, particularly given its glut of top-nine wingers.

He made an impression — and a statement to the Canucks organization — with his performance.

Can Xavier Bourgault break out as an NHL player this season?

The jump from junior to the AHL is steep and ruthless. Everybody’s bigger. Everybody’s faster. Everybody’s physical and will take advantage of any undersized young guys who need to pack on more muscle.

Xavier Bourgault, Edmonton’s 2021 first-round pick, adequately handled the adjustment, scoring 34 points in 64 games. He was forced to evolve in year one of professional hockey, with coaches’ strong emphasis on levelling up his defense, which also included learning the penalty kill.

“I was a very offensive player in junior and I wasn’t really focusing on defence, but last year I learned a lot,” Bourgault said. “In the pro, if you get caught offensively you need to be aware that there’s the attack on the other side that can score goals, so you need to be aware of those things.

“If you want to make the NHL team one day, even if you’re an offensive player, you got to be good defensively. They (Oilers) expect me to play like  this, a good pro game.”

Bourgault’s two-way polish was evident at the tournament, even though he didn’t dominate offensively. He was disruptive on the forecheck, won wall battles, broke plays up in the defensive end and consistently made smart, responsible decisions with and without the puck. Bourgault identified all of these details as areas he worked hard on as an AHL rookie.

With that foundation now in place, Bourgault said he expects himself to take a big jump offensively and specifically on shooting more.  The road to making the Oilers out of camp will be difficult, but Bourgault is confident he can earn a big-league spot at some point in 2023-24.

“For sure push for an NHL spot,” he said. “The goal is to play some NHL games this year.”

The experience level disparity

Not all rookie tournament lineups are created equal.

In Penticton, the Canucks’ squad boasted — by far — the most battle-tested forward group in North American professional competition. And for the most part, even in the game Vancouver lost in a shootout to the Jets prospects, Vancouver’s top-six forwards, nearly all of them credible AHL players in their early 20s, picked their teeth with the competition. Vancouver put up some crooked numbers on the shot counter (in the game the Canucks prospects lost, they were outshooting Winnipeg 36 to 12 in the second period), and throttled their opponents in the run of play.

For context, we’ll break down the average age and relative experience of the various prospect teams at Penticton this year. The numbers below do not include goaltenders. They’re also not weighted in any way. If a player was on the club’s prospect camp roster, they were included in our data set.

The differences between the four teams aren’t massive, but there are a few useful takeaways. The Oilers were the oldest, the Flames the youngest. Vancouver had the highest level and depth of overall experience, but Winnipeg had more North American professional games played than the field — particularly on the blue line:

Young Stars Rosters 2023



Average Age




North American Pro GP














With this in mind, it’s impressive that the Flames rookies performed as well as they did. After being thoroughly dismantled by the far more veteran Canucks in the opening game, the Flames managed to best the older Oilers in the junior battle of Alberta and finished with a decisive victory over the Jets.

The likes of Honzek, Coronato, Etienne Morin and Jaden Lipinski may have looked like projects in need of more development, but the Flames punched above their weight and experience.

Arshdeep Bains controls the puck. (Sergei Belski / USA Today)

How Arshdeep Bains flashed NHL potential

Arshdeep Bains has always flashed standout hockey IQ. He sees the ice well and always makes the right decision with the puck. When you pair that high-end processing with sharp, accurate passing, you have a player with solid playmaking chops who also rarely turns the puck over.

It’s an intriguing package, but one concern in Penticton last year was whether he was fast and strong enough to develop into an NHL player. This year, there’s a marked improvement in his quickness. It’s not that he had blazing straight-line speed, but he was sharper on his edges and smoother at picking up pace carrying the puck through the neutral zone.

Bains consistently created clean offensive zone entries, which allowed his line to dominate possession. He made many little cutbacks, turns and subtle changes in direction that facilitated skilled passes under pressure. Bains’ rebound power-play goal, for example, was only possible because of the quick, smooth rush he made to weave through the defence and help the Canucks get set up. We’re not sure if he would’ve had the skating ability to do this a year ago.

On another offensive entry in the first game against Calgary, a defender was aggressively closing on him. Bains looked like he was running out of time and space, but he executed a sharp cutback to create separation and fed a lateral pass to continue the rush. It was elusive edge work we hadn’t seen from him before.

Bains made a ton of slick passes under duress like the one below, too.

Vancouver is deep on the wings, so it might take time to get an opportunity, but Bains’ responsible, intelligent game looked like it could competently fit in the NHL as soon as some point this season.

How did Winnipeg’s stud forward prospects look?

The Jets had three first-round picks among their forwards: Colby Barlow, Brad Lambert and Chaz Lucius.

Let’s start with the good. Barlow played well considering he was one of the youngest players at this tournament. He showed some solid two-way habits, anticipation and wallwork. He didn’t stand out every shift, but you could see the talent, including a big power-play goal against Vancouver.

Lambert and Lucius, on the other hand, were much less impressive, both going pointless through three games.

Perhaps it was because he was playing out of position at centre, perhaps the competition level wasn’t challenging enough to engage him, but Lambert just wasn’t noticeable enough. He looked dangerous at last year’s tournament — consistently getting behind defenders — but this year we barely saw that game-breaking skill. On the few occasions he would pick up steam, he’d get thwarted by a defender or turn the puck over.

Lucius wasn’t threatening, either. He had plenty of puck touches but lacked the foot speed or dynamic skill to translate them into scoring chances.

A rookie prospects tournament doesn’t mean much in the big picture. There’s plenty of time to make an impression in training camp and preseason. But Lambert and Lucius need to be better than they were in Penticton.

The top blue-line prospects

Each team brought at least one intriguing, young blue-line prospect: Morin (Flames), Elias Salomonsson (Jets), Beau Akey (Oilers) and Hunter Brzustewicz (Canucks).

All of these defenders are under 20 and none has played North American professional games, so standing out at a tournament like this with some hardened AHL pros is a stretch ask. They flashed genuine potential, though, and put together some stand-out moments. Some performance notes on each:

Morin — The first thing that’s clear is that his feet are very nearly NHL-level already. He’s a great skater and shows some signs of being a dynamic puck carrier in the neutral zone. Though he’ll need to add some heft, he’s got time for that. In the first game, he played on his natural left side and looked far more comfortable than in the second and third games, when he played on the right. His defensive reads — an area he’ll need to improve regardless — weren’t instinctive on that side.

Salomonsson — The Jets blue line was fairly veteran at this tournament with AHL stalwarts Tyrel Bauer, Simon Lundmark (who was very impressive) and Artemi Kniazev. That experience insulated Salomonsson somewhat, though he was given a lot of run. His skating and range (he’s 6 feet 2 inches) stood out — he’s got the ability to be a disruptive presence defending the blue line and in-zone — and his responsibility was solid, though he didn’t have any particularly dynamic moments as a puck carrier.

Akey — Akey was easily the most impressive defender in the tournament. The 18-year-old 2023 second-round pick is an excellent skater, and though he’s a bit slight and lanky still, he looks to have a long reach and a frame that will give him nearly prototypical NHL size as he matures. His defensive IQ — particularly when defending the rush — was very advanced for an 18-year-old in this environment. He looked very comfortable as a signal caller on the power play, too.

Brzustewicz — Vancouver had a lot of older, more experienced defenders on the right side — including 23-year-old Filip Johansson and 22-year-old Cole McWard — so Brzustewicz was able to ease in a bit. His offensive instincts and overall toolkit stood out, as did the work he’ll need to put in to improve as a shooter. It was clear he was looking to shoot aggressively, and his shot selection was solid, as were his instincts for activating and getting lost in-zone when his team had possession (which they most often did). A solid debut for the Canucks’ 2023 third-round pick.


Akito Hirose, LD, Vancouver: He was far and away the Canucks’ best defenceman. Hirose was agile and smooth breaking the puck out, evading forecheckers with consistency. He looked controlled and poised handling the puck in all three zones and was reliable defensively. He picked up four assists through the first two games and a goal in the third game.

Tyrel Bauer, RHD, Winnipeg: The Jets scratched Bauer for the third game, which is an indication he turned some heads internally in the first two games. A physical, bruising defender with the tactical nous to play on the edge and avoid penalties, Bauer could be primed for an NHL look as a second-year pro if his form from Penticton carries over into Jets camp.

Thomas Milic, G, Winnipeg: Milic was strong in his two starts, notching a .926 save percentage and basically stealing a win versus Vancouver. He was calm in the crease, strong positionally and sharp with his rebound control. He made a couple of excellent post-to-post backdoor saves, too.

Carter Savoie, LW, Edmonton: He looked consistently dangerous offensively carrying the puck and uncorking his shot. He and Bourgault forechecked well. He picked up three points in three games.

William Stromgren, LW/RW, Calgary: He showed solid details, was strong on the puck and seemed to have an appetite for the rougher games. The more physical and intense the contest, the better he played.

Adam Klapa, C, Calgary: A 6-foot-8, 230-pound 23-year-old physical specimen with a deceptively high skill level, Klapka was too much for most other prospect groups to handle at the net front and through the neutral zone.

The only OKs

Danila Klimovich, RW, Vancouver: The skilled winger dominated last year and played fine this year but didn’t stand out as much as teammates Aatu Räty, Bains and McDonough. He struggled with his shot selection despite an evident high-end skill level. We’re still waiting to see him make the leap.

Matvei Petrov, LW, Oilers: Petrov had the best period of any individual player — almost singlehandedly leading an Oilers comeback against the Flames in Edmonton’s second game — but was inconsistent overall. He was noticeable only when he was putting up points. He’s likely headed to Bakersfield and will need to find a way to have an impact when the puck isn’t bouncing his way.

Filip Johansson, RHD, Vancouver: He’s dynamic with the puck — his shot and puck-carrying ability looked high-end on occasion — and a work in progress away from it. Despite the organization’s optimism for Johansson, he looked like a player who’s going to need some additional development before challenging to make an NHL impact.

Chaz Lucius, C, Winnipeg: He didn’t look threatening offensively. He has decent puck skills but it barely translated to scoring chances. It just felt like he didn’t show the dynamic playmaking to drive a line the way you’d expect considering his talent and pedigree.

Brad Lambert, RW, Winnipeg: He was underwhelming in terms of creating offensive chances. There was nothing egregious defensively or in terms of puck management, but he still turned it over a few times trying to charge into the attacking zone.

(Top photo of Aidan McDonough: Derek Cain / Getty Images)

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