The hockey world turns it’s eyes to Buffalo as this years edition of the World Junior Hockey Championships drops the puck on what’s known as Boxing Day in Canada. Although the December 26th holiday is not celebrated in the United States, the WJC is cause for celebration. The two week long obsession with junior hockey is followed closely by rabid hockey fans, especially those of teams with headliners in the tournament.
The last few tournaments haven’t had any Predators prospects filling prominent roles but peer a few more years into the past and you’ll see the budding careers of Filip Forsberg which spanned three medals runs with Sweden (one gold and two silvers) and Juuse Saros who backstopped the Finns to a gold medal of their own in defeating Forsberg and the Swedes in overtime in 2014.
On that day nearly four years ago Saros made 35 saves on his way to gold. Both Forsberg and Saros made the all tournament team. Don’t think that game and that tournament isn’t brought up in locker room trash talk this time of year. I’m sure some money will change hands based on the outcome of these games too.
What makes this tournament so exciting to watch is we are often witness to the next great wave of talent to fill NHL rosters. The games are played with speed and emotion. It’s hockey at it’s best, it’s most pure. A group of hockey stars, all shy of their 20th birthday assembled from around the world for the right to don gold around their necks. Last year fans were treated to superb performances from Clayton Keller (ARI), Colin White (OTT) and Charlie McAvoy (BOS) for the Americans along with Thomas Chabot (OTT), Dylan Strome (ARI) and Matthew Barzal (NYI) for Canada. From across the Atlantic Kirill Kaprizov (MIN) and Alexander Nylander (BUF), were the leading scorers. Two years ago, Americans were saw the debuts of Auston Matthews and Zach Werenski, and the top Finnish line of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho dominated the tournament.
If you’re unfamiliar with the tournament, it consists of two pools of five teams each. Each team will play a single game against each of the other teams in their pool.
After the pool games are complete each pool is seeded one through four using a 3-2-1 point system, because well, it makes sense. The winner of each pool plays the 4th place team from the opposite pool and the 2nd place teams each play the 3rd place teams from the other pool. The teams that finish in 5th place play each other for the right to stay in the top division. The loser is relegated to Division 1A.
The pool round of the tournament is played over just six days from December 26th through New Years Eve. The highlight of pool play will be when the Americans face the Canadians at New Era Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, on December 29th. This will be the first time the World Juniors will head outdoors to play a tournament game. With the Finns and Swedes in opposite pools we’ll have to hope were treated to a game between the Nordic rivals in the medal rounds.
Who to Watch
Between the United States, Canada and Finland, Pool A has three of the top four tournament favorites and a slew of talented players. In what seems like a yearly tradition, there is some grumbling among Canadians that they left some of their best players at home, like forwards Nick Suzuki and Cody Glass both of which were drafted in the top half of the first round last year by Vegas. This debate almost always centers on roster building strategy. Should the Canadians fill their team with four lines full of guys who can fill the net, or should they go with a more balanced team with both high end scoring and responsible defensive play among their forward lines? In typical Canadian style they’ve opted for the latter. Guys who can shut down opposing top lines and kill penalties don’t usually make for great TV but they are a staple of how Canada builds its teams.
Defense however is another story. The Canadian defense is deep and strong. They will be bolstered on by Kale Clague (LAK) and Cale Makar (COL). Lettuce jokes not withstanding this will be a very solid top pair for the Canadians. Clague is a returnee from last year and will be asked to eat alot of minutes. He’s been stellar for Brandon in the WHL with 47 points in 28 games. Makar is in his freshman season of hockey at UMASS, but is indicative of the new wave of smallish offensively inclined defensemen making their way to the NHL. In another connection to Nashville, Victor Mete has been loaned to Team Canada by Montreal. Mete has spent stretches of time this season paired with Shea Weber. His deployment bears watching; offensively gifted will Canada use his talents to push the play offensively or will they use his NHL experience in more of a defensive role?
The lone Predators prospect on Team Canada is defenseman Dante Fabbro. Nashville’s first round pick from 2016, who has 12 points in 18 games for Boston University was named an alternate captain along with Mete and Clague.
Fabbro has been hampered by a lower body injury after blocking a shot in a pre-tournament game. His status for the Canadian opener against Finland is still in doubt. If Fabbro is healthy enough to play he’s going to be relied upon for his two-way game and likely used on the penalty kill.
In net the Canadians will turn to Carter Hart (PHI), who’s been dominant for Everett in the WHL with a 1.32 GAA and a .961 save percentage. Hart was in net last year for Canada’s silver medal winning team. He will have some extra motivation for gold this year after last years heartbreak in the shootout.
Perhaps surprisingly the Americans are slight favorites to win gold over the Canadians. Team USA will rely on a deeper corps of forwards than Canada. The Americans will be led by Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) Logan Brown (OTT) and Kailer Yamamoto (EDM). We can give a nod to Brady Tkachuk, another top draft eligible player expected to land in the top 10 of the 2018 draft.
Nashville fans will have their eyes on Patrick Harper, the 5th round pick from 2016 currently playing for Boston University. He leads the Terriers with 21 points in 19 games.
Depending on how U.S. coach Bob Motzko deploys his forward groupings, Harper will likely fill out a second line role, perhaps with Ryan Poehling (MTL) who he played with in the last tune up game, a 3-1 victory against Sweden. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman expects Harper to see time on the American power-play but won’t be leaned upon with top line minutes. He’s got good hands and is a deft play maker.
On defense the Americans will look to Adam Fox (CGY) to be the guy who does a little of everything for Team USA. He will quarterback the power-play and see the most ice-time at even strength. Quinn Hughes is an intriguing player also. He’s a 2018 draft eligible currently playing at the University of Michigan. Already expected to be a Top-10 pick, Hughes could push his way up draft boards with a big performance.
In goal Team USA is led by Jake Oettinger (DAL) and Joseph Woll (TOR). Pool play will likely sort out who earns the right to play the medal round games. Both netminders were on the gold medal winning team from last year, but watched and learned from Tyler Parsons (CGY) who stoned Team Canada in the shootout for the gold.
Nashville’s 2017 1st round draft pick and the prospect with the most fanfare is Eeli Tolvanen from Finland. His play in the KHL has slowed somewhat over the last two weeks, but Jokerit has been through a brutal stretch of eight games in 14 days. Maybe a few days respite and a tournament against his age group will rejuvenate Tolvanen.
Embarrassed in last year’s tournament, and forced to win the relegation game just to stay in the top division, the Finns will be looking for a bit of redemption. Tolvanen who led all Finnish scorers last year is expected pace Finland and to be among the top performers in the tournament. If we can take anything from pre-tournament lines, he will play on the top line with Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) and Kristian Vesalainen (WPG). Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA) is setting a torrid pace, leading the WHL with 52 assists and 71 total points in just 29 games. Pairing him with Tolvanen could lead to some serious fireworks; play-maker feeding sniper. Tolvanen will also be a fixture on the Finnish power-play.
Though not as deep up front as the Americans, the Finns will bring arguably the deepest pool of defensemen in recent memory. Five first rounders will patrol the blue line, including the third overall pick from last year’s draft Miro Heiskanen (DAL). Olli Juolevi (VAN) already owns a WJC gold from two years ago, but he needs this tournament to give his career a bit of a reboot. Although still just 19 years old, many expected him to already be a contributor in Vancouver considering Mikhail Sergachyov and Charlie McAvoy are already making significant contributions to their NHL teams since being drafted after Juolevi in 2016.
The Danes have punched above their weight in the last couple of tournaments but they’ve avoided the relegation game. If Pool A unfolds as expected, the loser of the Denmark-Slovakia game will be spared for another year. The Danes will look to Joachim Blichfeld (SJ) for offense. Likewise the Slovaks will be led by Adam Ruzicka (CGY). The goal for both teams will be a 4th place finish in the pool.
Pool B is seen as the weaker of the two pools and features no Nashville prospects. Barring an upset, the Russia-Sweden game on New Years Day will be for the #1 seed in the Pool. The advantage being a probable medal round opener against either Denmark or Slovakia.
Team Sweden has the best odds to win gold from Pool B and have top end talent all over the roster. Alex Nylander led the tournament with 12 points last year, and like Juolevi from Finland, he could really use some positives by tournaments end. Taken 8th overall in the 2016 draft, the younger brother of Toronto’s William Nylander has had a less than stellar professional track record. In 80 AHL games he’s recorded just 34 points, and has only one assist in four NHL games. Buffalo and head coach Phil Housley have released him to play in the tournament in the clubs own back yard. Sabres fans will be anxiously watching his performance here. A poor one will give more ammunition to the naysayers; a great one will quiet the chorus of doubters. He’s got alot on the line in the next two weeks.
Joining him up front is Elias Pettersson who was picked 5th overall by Vancouver last year. If we want some more Nashville connections, his brother Emil has 21 points in 25 games for the Admirals in the AHL. What Pettersson the younger is doing in the Swedish Hockey League though is unheard of. Prospect hyperbole is thrown around entirely too often, but in this case it’s warranted. The wiry center, who just turned 19 in November is turning in a U20 season in the SHL for the record books. Through 26 games he has 35 points. On a per game basis his 1.35 PPG is second all-time in the SHL only behind Kent Nilsson’s 1.50 mark set all the way back in 1976. Considering some all-time greats like Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Markus Naslund all played professionally in Sweden in their U20 campaigns, Pettersson is in the midst of something remarkable.
On defense, the Swedes may not have the depth that the Finns have, but the top end of the Swedish D-corps may have more talent. Consensus #1 pick in the upcoming draft is Rasmus Dahlin. Still 17, he’s in his second WJC and already has 70 games under his belt professionally in the Swedish Hockey League. He’s 6’2’’ 183 and is seen as a complete defenseman who can step in to the NHL on day one. He will be joined by Erik Brannstrom (VGK) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) both 1st round picks from a year ago, and how about this number? Sweden hasn’t lost a pool game in a decade!
Typically the Russians bring a veteran laden team full of 19 year olds. The most talented player on this years team is Andrei Svechnikov. A 2018 draft eligible expected to go quickly after Dahlin, especially if he shines for the Russians in this tournament. The big ole question mark here though is how will head coach Valeri Bragin use him? Will he move him down the lineup and rely on the older players or will be let Svechnikov loose?
We don’t know the Russian lineup yet, but Svechnikov was joined by his junior teammate Alexei Lipanov (TB) and St. Louis Blues draftee Klim Kostin in the Russians last tune up against the Czechs just before Christmas. The second line of Dmitri Sokolov (MIN), German Rubtsov (PHI) and Vitali Abramov (CBJ) is a good one too. Mikhail Maltsev (NJ) was the Russians best player in the Canada-Russia series just a month ago. Nothing would surprise me with the Russians though. Lipanov was cut on Christmas, I told you nothing surprises me.
Solidly the third best team in this pool, the Czech’s dont have a ton of depth, but they do have a few high end forwards. Martin Necas (CAR) has great speed and skill and returns from last years team. Filip Chytil (NYR) saw action in a pair of NHL games this season and has 12 points in 15 games for the Rangers AHL affiliate. The third member of this dynamic trio is Filip Zadina who’s eligible for the upcoming draft. He’s the leading draft eligible scorer in the QMJHL and can do just about everything you’d ask for in a top prospect. Expect him to go in the top five of next year’s draft.
There is no Nico Hischier in the lineup for the Swiss this year, but the talent they do have is young and will get a few cracks at the WJC. Philipp Kurashev has 31 points in 33 games in the Q and is expected to go somewhere near the end of the 1st round in next years draft. Nando Eggenberger, yes thats a real person, has a good frame at 6’2’’ 185 and is more of a goal scorer. He will hear his name called in Dallas next summer, likely in the second or third round. Valentin Nussbaumer isn’t draft eligible until 2019, but he’s skilled at handling the puck and will be a fixture for the Swiss for the next few years.
The Belorussians are the team most likely to be relegated back to Division 1A when the tournament is over, but the play of Maxim Sushko (PHI) will be worth watching. If they can manage to win even one game they can stave off relegation for at least one more year. Their best chance at a win will come Wednesday against the Swiss.
All teams will get the day off on New Year’s Day, but the quarterfinals will be played on the 2nd, with another day off on the 3rd, the semifinals and finals will be played on back to back days on the 4th and 5th. Each of the last four years the gold medal game has been decided by one goal, with three of those games reaching overtime.
The NHL will skip the Olympics this year, but if you want to watch some tremendous, up-tempo, emotion filled hockey tune-in to this years World Junior Championships. Outside of about a dozen and a half of U20 players scattered across the NHL, this tournament features the best prospect talent in the world and many of these players will be stars in the NHL as early as next season.
As Predators fans this will be your chance to catch a glimpse of Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro and Patrick Harper before they put on the Predators jersey. With all three players in the same pool and on three of the favorites, some locker room bragging rights will be on the line, and there is a good chance two of the three will return to their teams with medals draped around their necks.