2024 IIHF Men's U18 World Championship

Gavin McKenna Is The 2026 NHL Draft Prospect You Won't Stop Hearing About

Gavin McKenna Is The 2026 NHL Draft Prospect You Won't Stop Hearing About

Gavin McKenna isn't NHL Draft-eligible until 2026, but after a record-setting performance at the U18 Worlds, you won't be able to escape his growing hype.

May 6, 2024 by Chris Peters

ESPOO, Finland – If you didn’t know the name Gavin McKenna yet, get ready because you’re not going to be able to escape hearing it for the next two years as we build up to his NHL Draft day.

After leading Canada to the gold medal at the 2024 IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship with a record-setting performance that was punctuated by a hat trick in the final, the buzz is growing around this 16-year-old phenom from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

With a December 2007 birthdate, McKenna is not draft eligible until 2026. But after a spectacular rookie season with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL and his golden-sealing performance in Finland, there is no rail that will contain the runaway hype train that is coming.

Before this tournament, the most points a Canadian had ever scored at the Men’s World Under-18 Championship was 15 – achieved by Tyson Jost and last year by Macklin Celebrini, the top prospect for the 2024 NHL Draft. McKenna had 20. That is just two shy of the single-tournament record that was also set in 2024 by American James Hagens, who is a top prospect for next year’s draft.

McKenna had four points in the finale with three goals including the game-tying goal and empty-net icer, as Canada stunned the U.S. in a dramatic third-period comeback to win 6-4. Head coach Gardiner MacDougall exuberantly proclaimed he couldn’t put the 16-year-old on the ice enough in the third period.

And he really couldn’t. McKenna had more ice time than any Canadian player in the third period, skating 8:21 with his team trailing until the midway point of the period.

This year’s Under-18 World Championship field was admittedly among the weakest in recent memory. The way the American and Canadian players pretty much ran roughshod over the opposition was borderline comical. Still, McKenna substantially beat the previous Canadian record for points in a single-tournament and now is tied for the third highest mark ever, trailing only Hagens and Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov.

McKenna didn’t get to choose his competition, but he did make it look remarkably easy to completely obliterate any level of the already-high expectation for what he could accomplish as an underager, while also putting forth his best overall performance in the game that mattered most.

I knew McKenna was going to be the player to watch for Canada, but I don’t think I was prepared for how close to the best prospects of the last few years he is. You look at guys like Connor Bedard, Jack Hughes and Macklin Celebrini, more recent players that have had that premium-level scoring ability and McKenna is absolutely in their class. At the same age, he may even be ahead of where those players were. Yes, including Bedard, though I would say Bedard’s goal-scoring ability probably gives him the edge ultimately. But there are elements of McKenna’s game that are at worst on-par with what Bedard was doing at 16.

The numbers McKenna put up in the WHL this season tell that story, too. He had 97 points in 61 games with Medicine Hat this year. Over the last 30 years, only one player scored more as a U17 and that was Bedard two years ago when he put up 100 points in 62 games. McKenna’s 1.59 points per game is just a hair behind Bedard’s 1.61.

So what is it that makes him special?

Gavin McKenna Scouting Report

McKenna is a 6-foot, 165 pound forward who has played primarily on the wing, but certainly looks like he could be a center if Medicine Hat wants to go that direction next year. He is a brilliant skater with deceptive bursts combined with a smooth skating stride and natural agility. He can separate from opponents, but can also back down defenders on the rush and use a combination of quick hands and feet to slither through the defense.

McKenna told me that he spent a lot of time on his skating after Christmas, “bag-skating” himself in order to boost his endurance and focus more on getting quick bursts and explosiveness in his stride. It seems like that is paying off.

With the puck on his stick, he is lethal. McKenna can turn nothing plays into something thanks to elite-level hockey sense and an understanding of how to get pucks into high-percentage areas whether it’s with his passing or by taking it himself. 

His hand skills are already at a level above his peers. With a quick release on his shot and purity in his touch on the puck, he can manipulate defenders and goalies with subtlety and speed. 

McKenna is more of a playmaker than a scorer like Bedard, to whom he is so often compared. He gets so many pucks into good spots for his teammates, often doing a lot of the work on his own to draw defenders in or get a puck to the net when he knows he has support.

Another area where McKenna really showed maturity and the fact that he’s putting in the work to be an all-around player, is how hard he works off the puck. He uses his speed to close on opponents. If he strips a man of the puck, he’s ready to make a play right away. As he gets stronger that will come easier, but his commitment away from the puck stood out, especially against USA.

If there’s one area McKenna needs to work on, it’s his physical strength. You can say that about pretty much ever 16-year-old hockey player, but he’s going to need to tack on some weight and some muscle to win more battles, get more pucks and he likely will add more explosiveness with increased lower-body strength. That will all come with time.

And he has a lot of time. With his December birthdate, he’s going to be older for his draft class, but with so much runway by the time he gets picked.

What’s Next For Gavin McKenna?

McKenna is headed back to Medicine Hat next season where he’ll try to help the Tigers earn a better fate than their first-round exit in the WHL playoffs this season. On top of that, McKenna will very likely be in the mix to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship.

He will be eligible to participate at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in August, but we’ll have to see if Hockey Canada would prefer to have him train with the U20 team, which will convene around the same time. There’s no doubt he should be a favorite to make the final roster for the team in Ottawa at the 2025 World Juniors.

After that, it will be another year of the WHL for McKenna in what will be his draft year, 2025-26. Considering he already has a 97-point season under his belt as a rookie, what will we be looking at in two years? 

I don’t think Rob Brown’s WHL record of 212 points is going to fall anytime soon, but could a healthy McKenna tickle 150? Bedard had 143 last year and McKenna will essentially get an extra full season of WHL service. 

There is still a lot of time before McKenna’s name is called. But the countdown is absolutely on and we all should probably get ready for “The Next One” chats to fire up again.

While Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin ushered in a new era for the NHL, the sheer amount of talent that has come into the league on the heels of Connor McDavid’s entry is nothing short of mind-blowing. We very well could be in a new golden age of hockey with skill levels like we’ve never seen before and every year, there’s another young player that starts redefining our expectations of what is actually possible in this sport.

Gaving McKenna is surely the next player on that list.

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