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 somewhat subdued this year.

After a summer in which wildfires impacted the entire Okanagan region and devastated some nearby communities, the town was a little bit quieter this year and the buzz was somewhat 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 there was a lot of intriguing talent on display.

The Athletic’s Thomas Drance and Harman Dayal were in the Okanagan over the weekend and 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, downright chaotic hockey environment like what you’ll often find at an NHL rookie tournament, the real NHL-level players will stand out immediately. They pop, and stand out head and shoulders above the invites and recent draft picks and American League depth players that fill out rookie tournament rosters.

There weren’t many players that 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 respective club’s training camps this month. Players like Matt Coronato and Brad Lambert weren’t consistently excellent — or even consistently noticeable — in their games in Penticton this weekend.

The most dangerous offensive player, for us the only forward that 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 ability is clearly NHL-level. Given that McDonough has yet to play an American League 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 Vancouver’s glut of top-nine wingers.

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

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

The jump from junior to AHL hockey 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 first-round pick from 2021, adequately handled the adjustment, scoring 34 points in 64 games. He was forced to evolve his game in year one of professional hockey, with a strong emphasis from the coaching staff on levelling up his defensive game, 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 told The Athletic. “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’s 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 American League players in their early 20s, picked their teeth with the competition. Vancouver put up some truly 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.

Just for the sake of adding context, we figured we’d break down the average age and relative experience level of the various prospect teams at Penticton this year. The numbers presented below do not include goaltenders, and are isolated solely on the skaters. 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 squad was the oldest, the Flames the youngest. Vancouver’s roster had the highest level and depth of overall experience, but Winnipeg’s roster featured 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 pretty impressive that the Flames rookies performed as well as they did. After being thoroughly dismantled by a far more veteran and experienced Canucks side in the opening game of the tournament, the Flames prospects managed to best an older Oilers side in the junior battle of Alberta, and finished off the tournament with a decisive victory over the Winnipeg Jets prospects.

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

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

How Arshdeep Bains flashed NHL potential

Arshdeep Bains has always flashed a standout hockey IQ. He sees the ice exceptionally 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 watching him in Penticton last year was if he was fast and strong enough to develop into an NHL player. Watching Bains this year, there’s a marked improvement in his quickness. It’s not that he was blazing up and down the ice in terms of his 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 in the first place because of the quick, smooth rush he made up the ice to weave through the defence and help the Canucks get set up. We’re not sure if he would have had the skating ability to do this a year ago.

There was another offensive entry in the first game against Calgary where 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 then fed a lateral pass to continue the rush. It was elusive, slippery edge work that we hadn’t seen from him before.

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

Vancouver is incredibly 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 an NHL environment 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 definitely 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 that 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 at the Young Stars tournament brought at least one intriguing, young blue-line prospect: Morin from the Flames, Elias Salomonsson from the Jets, Beau Akey from the Oilers and Hunter Brzustewicz from the Canucks.

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

Morin — The first thing that’s clear in watching Morin is that he has very nearly NHL-level feet already. He’s just 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, Morin played on his natural left side and looked far more comfortable than in the second and third games he played when he bumped over to the right side. You could tell the defensive reads — an area of the game Morin will need to improve regardless — weren’t instinctive for him on that side.

Salomonsson — The Jets blue line was fairly veteran at this tournament with American League stalwarts like Tyrel Bauer, Simon Lundmark (who was very impressive) and Artemi Kniazev. That experience insulated Salomonsson somewhat, although he was given a lot of run. His combination of skating and range (he stands 6-foot-2) stood out significantly at the tournament — 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 pretty easily the most impressive defender in the tournament. The 18-year-old 2023 second-round pick is a truly 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. 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 at this tournament — including 23-year-old Filip Johansson and 22-year-old Cole McWard — so Brzustewicz was able to ease in a bit at this tournament. The offensive instincts and overall tool kit 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). 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. Looked controlled and poised handling the puck in all three zones and was reliable defensively. Picked up four assists through the first two games and a goal in the third game.

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

Thomas Milic, G, Winnipeg: Milic was strong in his two starts, notching a .926 save percentage, and basically stealing a win during the Vancouver game. 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: Looked consistently dangerous offensively, both carrying the puck and uncorking his shot. He and Bourgault forechecked well. Picked up three points in three games.

William Stromgren, LW/RW, Calgary: Solid details in his game. Reliable, 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: Skilled winger dominated this tournament last year, and played fine this year, but didn’t stand out as much as teammates Aatu Räty, Bains and McDonough. 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 at the tournament — almost singlehandedly leading an Oilers comeback against the Flames in Edmonton’s second game of the tournament — but was inconsistent overall. Was only noticeable when he was putting up points. 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: Dynamic with the puck — his shot and puck-carrying ability looked high-end on occasion — 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: Didn’t look threatening offensively. Decent puck skills but it barely translated to scoring chances. It just felt like he didn’t show the dynamic playmaking to truly drive a line the way you’d expect considering his talent and pedigree.

Brad Lambert, RW, Winnipeg: Underwhelming in terms of creating offensive chances. Nothing egregious defensively or in terms of puck management, but 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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