I previewed this event last year and it’s that time of year again, where, for two weeks out of the calendar year, much of the hockey world turns its eyes to its young stars of tomorrow for the U-20 World Junior Hockey Championship. Last year in Buffalo, Carter Hart backstopped the Canadians to a 3-1 gold medal victory over Sweden after losing to the Americans in the Gold Medal game the year before. If you really want to get primed for the event, the full game can be seen here:
This year the tournament stays in North America, but swings to the west coast. Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia will be hosting this year’s event, where, once again, the pressure will be on the Canadians to win on home ice. Somewhat ironically, the home crowd will be most interested in diminutive American defender Quinn Hughes, the Canucks’ first round draft pick from this past summer.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of junior hockey is the pace, speed and creativity with which the games are played. These players are the class of their respective nations, yet young enough to not have had the fun coached out of them yet. As the NHL turns younger and younger we are seeing more of this type of hockey in the best league in the world, which makes teams ever more willing to dot their lineups with young players on entry-level contracts. NHL coaches are increasingly willing to trade chances rather than try to lock down a 2-1 victory. Rule enforcement and skill development have much to do with this evolution. Goal scoring is up league-wide and save percentage is at its lowest level since 2008-2009.
In last year’s tournament there were 28 players from around the world that scored six or more points. 14 of those have already logged NHL games this season, including Elias Pettersson (VAN), Rasmus Dahlin (BUF), Brady Tkachuk (OTT), and Nashville’s own Eeli Tolvanan. This year’s tournament will be no different. Guys like Henri Jokiharju (CHI) will return to their NHL teams after the tournament is over. Others, like Martin Necas (CAR) and Filip Zadina (DET), are on the brink of NHL stardom for their respective clubs. There is some speculation that Zadina will go the route of fellow countryman David Pastrnak and become a mainstay in the Detroit lineup after the tournament is complete.
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.
Pool A Schedule
Pool B Schedule
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 fourth-place team from the opposite pool and the second-place teams each play the third-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.
Who to Watch
Unlike last year when the Americans and Canadians competed in the same pool, this year it’s the Canadians in Pool A and the Americans in Pool B. From top to bottom, Pool A is probably a bit weaker, even without the heaviest of underdogs from Kazakhstan. The toughest competition the Canadians will face in pool play is from Russia.
Let’s start with the Canadians, who bring a bevy of talent as always. It starts up front with Cody Glass. A surprise omission from last year’s team, the Golden Knights prospect will be leaned on heavily to provide scoring punch for Canada. Glass is a skilled playmaker who is currently pacing the Western Hockey League in points per game, with 54 points in 26 contests. He will be the team’s #1 center and run the power play off the half-wall.
Joining him up front is a slew of budding talent. Owen Tippett (FLA) has taken a bit longer to develop than had been hoped, but he does have 19 goals in 23 games for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. Tippett has good speed and a great shot and could slot in next to Glass on the top line. Morgan Frost (PHI), Barrett Hayton (ARI), Nick Suzuki (MTL), Joe Veleno (DET), and Maxime Comtois (ANA) should all also slot in prominent roles up front for Canada.
Maybe the most interesting player of the whole group is 2020 top prospect Alexis Lafreniere. Not often does Canada carry a player in his D-1 season, but Lafreniere is a special talent. As it currently sits, he’s a near unanimous choice to go first overall in the 2020 draft, and he’s putting up numbers in the QMJHL not seen since Sidney Crosby was terrorizing the league.
The man to watch on defense for Team Canada is Evan Bouchard. A first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers this past summer, Bouchard got a cup of coffee by way of a nine game stint in Edmonton before returning to London of the OHL. Bouchard is not a flashy puck rusher, but he is steady and consistent in his own end and effective providing offense at even strength and on the power-play. Michael DiPietro (VAN) will be the go-to guy between the pipes.
Where do we start with Mother Russia? I’m always intrigued by how this team shapes up because if we think there are politics involved in the decisions for Canada and the United States, the Russians ratchet that baby up to 11.
There are a bunch of factors at play here, mostly what league the player is currently in and how old they are. Longtime Russian coach Valeri Bragin prefers older players, guys in their D+1 season, and there is a preference to see the kids who stay at home in Russia succeed. Take Andrei Svechnikov, for example. The #2 pick in the last summer’s draft was consigned to a bottom-six role and never really got going for Russia even though he may have been the most talented player on the roster.
With that in mind, the Russian’s top line will likely consist of Grigori Denisenko (FLA), Vitaly Kravtsov (NYR), and Klim Kostin (STL). All three players are in their D+1 season, and all three played domestically in their draft year, with only Kostin currently playing in North America, with the Blues’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio.
The fortunes of the New York Rangers’ rebuild will fall largely on the broad shoulders of the 6’4’’ Kravtsov. He’s highly skilled, with good hockey sense and the ability to both pass and shoot at a high level. Check out his draft year highlights:
The other name to watch here for Russia is 17-year-old Vasili Podkolzin. He dazzled in the U-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament with eight goals in five games. He’s in the mix to go in the top five of this summer’s draft, but given Bragin’s penchant for the older kids, Podkolzin will probably play in a bottom-six role. His highlights are impressive:
A couple of wingers playing on this side of the pond, like Dmitry Zavgorodniy (CGY) and Ivan Chekhovich (SJ), will give the Russians some depth. Alexander Alexeyev (WSH) will log big minutes on defense and Daniil Tarasov (CBJ) will be the man in net.
The Czechs don’t have some of the depth of the big five hockey nations, but recently they’ve been closing the gap, and they will have arguably two of the best players in the tournament in Martin Necas (CAR) and Filip Zadina (DET). Both players finished in the top ten in scoring in last year’s tournament and will be leaned upon even more heavily this year. Necas has high end speed, skill and vision and is complimented nicely by Zadina, who is a high end finisher. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these two combine for 20+ points by the end of the tournament. Martin Kaut (COL) will probably round out this line, each player on which could log 20+ minutes per game. Preds prospect Jachym Kondelik is a tower of a man at 6’6’’ and is leading his UCONN Huskies in scoring. The Czechs will be looking to him along with Jakub Lauko (BOS) to provide some secondary scoring. They also bring back Jakub Skarek in net. Skarek struggled in last year’s tournament but is considered by many the best Czech goaltender prospect in some time.
The Swiss are pretty light on talent this year. No Kevin Fiala or Nico Hischier among this year’s class. They do have a trio of drafted defenders: Nico Gross (NYR), Tobias Geisser (WSH), and Tim Berni (CBJ). Up front they will rely heavily on Valentin Nussbaumer, who projects to be a third-round pick in next summer’s draft. Philipp Kurashev deserves some mention here as well. He was chosen in the 4th round by the Blackhawks last June and currently has 43 points in 33 games for Quebec in the QMJHL.
The Danes occupy the same real estate as the Swiss. There are no slam-dunk prospects like Nikolaj Ehlers, or to a lesser extent like Oliver Bjorkstrand, but the Danes will still ice a couple of NHL prospects. Jonas Rondberg was a third-round pick by Vegas last summer, and although he’s not done much to date in the Swedish Hockey League he’s Denmark’s best hope for offense. Matle Setkov was a fourth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings last year and will be noticeable on the ice, if anything, because he’s 6’7’’.
If being 6’7’’ is a thing in Denmark, Mats Sogaard has that down too. He will be one of the first goalies off the board this summer. If the Danes have a chance of competing against the stronger nations it will be because of his play in net.
This year’s American entry features The Brothers Hughes and some other guys. For my money this is the weakest American roster in a few years, and as everyone knows I’ve never been wrong on the internet before.
Let’s start with the younger Hughes, draft-eligible this summer and probably 80/20 or 90/10 to go first overall. The only knock on Hughes is his size and strength, and as he matures physically the strength will come. He’s just 17 and won’t turn 18 until May. His pace, skill and hockey sense are all elite. He will floor the gas pedal for the American side willing his linemates to keep up.
Who will those linemates be? Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI) is a good bet for one of them. Wahlstrom has struggled so far this year as a freshman at Boston College, but a strong showing at the WJC should get him going once again. Wahlstrom has a deadly shot and is a perfect linemate for Hughes.
Ryan Poehling (MTL) is returning from last year’s team, and will be leaned upon in all phases of the game. He’s a reliable two-way player who has the scouting community divided on just how much offense he will be able to produce in the NHL. For this tournament, though, he will play a pivotal role for the United States. Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien—both Flyers prospects—will also need to produce if the USA wants to challenge for gold.
On defense the player to watch is Quinn Hughes (VAN), currently playing for Michigan in the Big Ten. He’s a puck wizard in his own right. Like his younger brother, the only drawback to his game is his proclivity for getting knocked off the puck and losing board battles in his own end. Once he has the puck, though, there might not be a better player in this tournament.
Much of the rest of the defensive corps is made up more of reliable in-zone defenders, but an interesting name to keep an eye on is K’Andre Miller. He was a first-round selection of the New York Rangers last summer and played mostly in a defensive role for the USNTDP. Now a freshman at Wisconsin, he’s displaying more offensive touch, with 17 points in 18 games.
The Americans have a few prospects in goal, but Spencer Knight will draw the most interest. He’s the youngest of the bunch and only draft eligible this year, but he’s one of the best goalie prospects in the last several years and if he plays well he could steal the starter’s job.
The Finns are a team that really interest me because they have a legitimate chance at gold. This team brings back some experience from last year, along with some high end skill. Although no Finnish team may ever equal the 2016 team with Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Kasperi Kapanen and Jesse Puljujarvi—among others—we are in the middle of a sort of renaissance of Finnish hockey, and this year’s squad is very talented.
The eyes of Nashville will be on Eeli Tolvanen. Although the hype machine has slowed since last year’s tournament, Tolvanen is still a very good prospect and should star in this tournament. Tolvanen will be expected to produce, especially on the power-play. His release has few rivals, especially in his age group. Check out his pre-tournament goal against Canada below:
Matching him up front will be Rasmus Kupari (LAK) and his teammate in Karpat of the Finnish Liiga, Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA). Kupari will be the #1 center for Finland. He’s always a threat with the puck on his stick and is rounding into form as one of the top prospects outside the NHL. Heponiemi torched the WHL last year and after returning to Finland is showing that his game can carry over to a men’s league alongside Kupari.
The one player who may push Jack Hughes for #1 overall next summer is Kaapo Kakko—and no, this isn’t a randomly generated name from NHL 19. But it is so perfectly Finnish. Kakko has good size, hands, and vision and is putting together a fantastic season as a 17-year-old in Finland’s men’s league. His point pace at the same age surpasses that of both Laine and Puljujarvi and sits just behind Mikael Granlund and Aleksander Barkov. Check out his highlights:
On defense, the Finns will lean on Henri Jokiharju. On top of being a returning player from last year, he has 30-odd games of NHL experience to lean on, having made the Blackhawks’ opening night roster. It’s full tank season in Chicago, though, as they’ve released him to play in this tournament. Boston prospect Urho Vaakanainen has also been released by his club to play.
In net the Finns will turn to Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), which is also not a NHL 19 generated name. Luukkonen is the future of goaltending for the Sabres and should be one of the top performers in this tournament.
The Swedes lack some of the name-brand players they’ve had the past few years, which is the driving factor behind them being considered outside the medal contenders. In typical Swedish fashion, though, they do have some awfully skilled players on defense—namely Erik Brannstrom (VGK). He had four points in last years tournament and currently has 20 points in 24 games for the Chicago Wolves, the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate. He’s on the small side but his skill and vision are tremendous.
Joining him on defense is Adam Boqvist, a name that will surely come up in Nashville in the next few years. He’s a top prospect for the Chicago Blackhawks. The transition to North America hasn’t been as smooth for Boqvist, who is currently playing for London in the OHL, but he has lots of runway left and should fare well for the Swedish side in Vancouver. Rasmus Sandin (TOR) and 2019 draft eligible Philip Broberg will also play significant roles for Tre Kronor.
Isac Lundestrom (ANA), Filip Hallander (PIT), Fabian Zetterlund (NJ), Emil Bemstrom (CBJ), and Lucas Elvenes (VGK) will be expected to carry the mail up front.
Much to the dismay of my fellow OTFer Eric Dunay, the Slovaks are the fourth-best team in their pool. While that does mean they should advance to the quarterfinals and avoid the relegation games, it also means that they will likely face the Canadians as the winners of Pool A in the quarters.
The Slovaks do have some talent, but it’s talent more in line with what the Swiss and the Danes have, not a roster that will contend for a medal. Slovakia will be led by Maxim Cajkovic. He’s playing for a truly awful junior team in St. John which is suppressing his numbers, but he’s likely to be a late first- or early second-round pick. Cajkovic has good speed and a good shot but needs to show better hands to make it in the NHL.
Outside of Cajkovic, there is some decent talent—albeit without a lot of NHL upside—in Adam Ruzicka (CGY) who has some power-forward elements to his game, Martin Pospisil (CGY) who leads the USHL in scoring, Milos Roman (also of Calgary) who is a point per game player for Vancouver in the WHL, and Martin Feverhery (WSH) who was a second-round pick last summer.
I got nothing, no, seriously, they are going to finish last and be replaced next year by the Germans. That’s all you need to know.
Why not? These are easy enough, aren’t they? Picking chalk isn’t all that fun either, so let’s cook up something.
Order of Finish: Canada, Czech Republic, Russia, Switzerland, Denmark
Most Interesting Game: Canada v Czech Republic
This will be the first real test for Canada after tune-up games against Switzerland and Denmark. The Czechs will be coming off a matchup against Russia the night before and will be riding high after the win. On paper the Canadians should win this one too but Necas and Zadina will push them before falling 5-4.
Order of Finish: Finland, USA, Sweden, Slovakia, Kazakhstan
Most interesting Game: USA v Finland
This game will be billed as the one featuring the potential #1 overall picks. Hughes will be tasked with producing more offense than will Kakko, but if the Finn shows well in this tournament, debate could rage into the summer about who’s the best prospect in the draft.
Quarterfinals: Canada over Slovakia, USA over Russia, Finland over Switzerland, Czech Republic over Sweden
Semi-Finals: Canada over USA, Finland over Czech Republic
Gold Medal Game: Finland over Canada
Bronze Medal Game: USA over Czech Republic
Forwards: Martin Necas (CZE), Cody Glass (CAN), Eeli Tolvanen (FIN)
Defense: Quinn Hughes (USA), Erik Brannstrom (SWE)
Goalie: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
MVP: Martin Necas