After speed bumps for several teams before they even got to Canada—and even including the Canadian camp—the World Junior Championship (WJC) is still scheduled to start this week on Christmas Day. Still, COVID-19 continues to present problems.
Sweden and Germany were barred from pre-tournament games due to persisting positive cases. As of Monday, all of Team Sweden was cleared to enter the bubble with a complete slate of negative tests, while Team Germany found an additional positive test among their staff.
As we continue to monitor the COVID situation inside the Edmonton bubble, I’m back to preview Pool B of this year’s WJC.
|Russia||2nd [Silver]||1st [Group]|
In a different group, Russia would be clear favorites to make it out of the round robin as the top seed. In Pool B, however, they’ll find themselves in an arduous fight for supremacy with the U.S. and Sweden.
After falling to Canada in last year’s gold-medal game, Russia will look to return but with some new faces. Critical players like Grigori Denisenko and Alexander Romanov are gone, but NHL prospects like Vasili Podkolzin, Marat Khusnutdinov, and Rodion Amirov are sure to provide enough firepower.
|Roman Bychkov - D||Boston||2020||Arseny Gritsyuk - F||New Jersey||2019|
|Yan Kuznetsov - D||Calgary||2020||Shakir Mukhamadullin -D||New Jersey||2020|
|Vasiliy Ponomarev - F||Carolina||2020||Artemi Kniazev - D||San Jose||2019|
|Yegor Chinakhov - F||Columbus||2020||Yegor Spiridonov - F||San Jose||2019|
|Vladislav Firstov - F||Minnesota||2019||Maxim Groshev - F||Tampa Bay||2020|
|Marat Khusnutdinov - F||Minnesota||2020||Mikhail Abramov - F||Toronto||2019|
|Semyon Chistyakov - D||Nashville||2019||Rodion Amirov||Toronto||2020|
|Egor Afanasyev - F||Nashville||2019||Artur Akhtyamov - G||Toronto||2020|
|Iaroslav Askarov - G||Nashville||2020||Vasily Podkolzin - F||Vancouver||2019|
Much like the other heavyweights of this tournament, Team Russia is loaded with NHL prospects. Outside of the top line noted above, Vladislav Firstov (MIN) and Arseny Gritsyuk (NJD) will likely flank line two, and Nashville’s Egor Afanasyev has been skating on line three alongside Vasiliy Ponomarev (CAR), Maxim Groshev (TBL), and Mikhail Abramov (TOR).
On the blue line, Russia will be led by 2020 first-round pick Shakir Mukhamadullin (NJD) and Nashville’s Semyon Chistyakov, who was a standout for the U20 team at the Karjala Cup last month. It’s an interesting top pair, and most shutdown duties will likely fall on Chistyakov’s shoulders.
|Daniil Chayka - D||CSKA Moskva [KHL]|
|Kirill Kirsanov - D||SKA St. Petersburg [KHL]|
Team Russia will entrust two 2021-eligible prospects with regular ice time on the blue line. Daniil Chayka—who has suited up in seven KHL games this season after leaving the OHL— will almost certainly be a first-round pick next July; Kirill Kirsanov, who skates for SKA, is likely a second- or third-round pick but could boost his stock with some impressive play on Russia’s bottom pair.
The obvious question many would ask is if Russia has the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with Sweden and the U.S. in group play, but that’s not much of a concern to me. The Russians’ game plan is always so succinct, so I think Pool B supremacy could come down to the goaltending.
Nashville’s Iaroslav Askarov can dominate and carry this team to a gold medal, but he’ll be staring down Spencer Knight and Hugo Alnefelt at the other end of the ice in the tournament’s first week. With these goalie duals, a medal could come down to an unlucky bounce.
The 2020 WJC was an unceremonious event for the Americans. After a 3-1 record in group play—including a tight overtime win over the Czechs—the U.S. bowed out with a loss to the Finns in the quarterfinal.
This team has hobbled somewhat into the bubble, losing key players to COVID-19—including Alex Vlasic, Drew Commesso, Thomas Bordeleau, and John Beecher. But the final roster is still stacked with an impressive group of forwards and a gamechanger in net.
|Jackson LaCombe - D||Anaheim||2019||Brock Faber - D||Los Angeles||2020|
|Trevor Zegras - F||Anaheim||2019||Matthew Boldy - F||Minnesota||2019|
|Henry Thrun - D||Anaheim||2019||Cole Caufield - F||Montreal||2019|
|Sam Colangelo - F||Anaheim||2020||Patrick Moynihan - F||New Jersey||2019|
|John Farinacci - F||Arizona||2019||Hunter Skinner - D||Rangers||2019|
|Ryan Johnson - D||Buffalo||2019||Brett Berard - F||Rangers||2020|
|Dustin Wolf - G||Calgary||2019||Tyler Kleven - D||Ottawa||2020|
|Landon Slaggert - F||Chicago||2020||Jack Sanderson - D||Ottawa||2020|
|Drew Helleson - D||Colorado||2019||Cameron York - D||Philadelphia||2019|
|Spencer Knight - G||Florida||2019||Bobby Brink - F||Philadelphia||2019|
|Arthur Kaliyev - F||Los Angeles||2019||Brendan Brisson - F||Vegas||2020|
|Alex Turcotte - F||Los Angeles||2019|
Up front, the U.S. will be led by Trevor Zegras (ANA), Alex Turcotte (LAK), Arthur Kaliyev (LAK), Bobby Brink (PHI), and Cole Caufield (MTL)—all returning from the 2020 roster. Newcomers Sam Colangelo (ANA), Brendan Brisson (VGK), and Matthew Boldy (MIN) round out a lethal top 12 that can score on pace with any team in this tournament.
The blue line will be depleted as many of last year’s group has aged out. But returnee Cam York (PHI) will lead a corps with 2020 draft picks Jake Sanderson (OTT) and Brock Faber (LAK). In net, the U.S., much like Team Russia, has a go-to star; Spencer Knight (FLA) will start every game, backstopping them to a decent shot at a medal.
The U.S. has just one skater on their roster eligible for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft: Michigan’s Matthew Beniers. The center, who has six points in eight games in his freshman season, should easily be a top-15 pick next summer and will have a chance to shine in a top- or middle-six role for the Americans.
While the defense may be a bit weaker, relative to the rest of the roster, the U.S. has a solid group up and down the lineup. Their biggest question will simply be: how well can they bounce back? This team has the talent to win a medal, but what are the consequences for another finish outside the top three or five?
At the 2020 tournament, Sweden continued their group stage dominance only to fall in an overtime heartbreaker to Russia and settling for the bronze medal. In what seems to be a more notable trend this year, some of Sweden’s top players have aged out of the tournament, including Rasmus Sandin, Jonatan Berggren, and the tournament’s leading scoring last year, Samuel Fagemo.
Regardless, the Swedes have the goaltending to match Russia and the U.S. and will be led by their two electrifying scorers, Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond.
|Albin Sundsvik - F||Anaheim||2020||Philip Broberg - D||Edmonton||2019|
|Victor Söderström - D||Arizona||2019||Emil Heineman - F||Florida||2020|
|Noel Gunler - F||Carolina||2020||Tobias Björnfot - D||Los Angeles||2019|
|Zion Nybeck - F||Carolina||2020||Alexander Holtz - F||New Jersey||2020|
|Albert Johansson - D||Detroit||2019||Simon Holmström - F||Islanders||2019|
|Elmer Söderblom - F||Detroit||2019||Emil Andrae - D||Philadelphia||2020|
|Lucas Raymond - F||Detroit||2020||Calle Clang - G||Pittsburgh||2020|
|Theodor Niederbach - F||Detroit||2020||Hugo Alnefelt - G||Tampa Bay||2019|
|Gustav Berglund - D||Detroit||2019||Arvid Costmar - F||Vancouver||2019|
Despite the losses mentioned above and the omissions of Karl Henriksson (NYR) and Albin Grewe (DET) due to COVID-19, Sweden’s forward group looks as dangerous as ever—even behind Raymond and Holtz. 2020 NHL Entry Draft picks like Gunler, Heineman, Niederbach, and Nybeck shouldn’t have trouble finding the scoresheet. Don’t sleep on the Islanders’ Simon Holmström, too.
On defense, William Wallinder (COVID) and Helge Grans (surprise cut) are absent, but Philip Broberg (EDM), Tobias Björnfot (LAK), and Victor Söderström (ARI) register as a top-three that may be the most dangerous of any team in the tournament.
In net, the Swedes are spoiled. They’ll start Hugo Alnefelt (TBL), who was nearly unbeatable at last year’s tournament.
|Jesper Wallstedt - G||Luleå HF [SHL]|
|Oskar Olausson - F||HV71 J20 [J20 Nationell]|
In the unlikely event that Alnefelt stumbles, Sweden can turn to 2021-eligible goalie Jesper Wallstedt. The 6’3” netminder has a 0.920 save percentage through nine games in the SHL this season and, while maybe a tier below Iaroslav Askarov, is certainly a first-round talent come next July.
The big storyline everyone with a knowledge of WJC history will be watching is Sweden’s group stage record. They haven’t lost a group stage game since 2007; over 50 consecutive wins later, is this the year their streak is snapped? They’ll be playing against one of the more difficult groups in some time.
Of any team in this tournament, the Czech Republic may be in the most uninspiring spot. They’re easily good enough to avoid losing to Austria, but not ready to compete for the top two seeds of the group. If the round-robin goes normally, the Czechs could likely face another quarterfinal exit.
|Michael Krutil - D||Chicago||2020||Jan Mysak - F||Montreal||2020|
|Michal Teplý - F||Chicago||2019||Jaromir Pytlik - F||New Jersey||2020|
|Jan Bednar - G||Detroit||2020||Adam Raska - F||San Jose||2020|
|Lukas Parik - G||Los Angeles||2019||Martin Has - D||Washington||2020|
|Pavel Novák - F||Minnesota||2020|
This roster will only rely on a handful of NHL prospects; however, it is an older group with a myriad of undrafted 19-year olds. Scoring will be led by 2020 second-round pick Jan Mysak (MTL) and complemented by the likes of Michal Teplý (CHI) and Jaromir Pytlik (NJD) along with Pavel Novák (MIN) and Adam Raska (SJS), who may help the Czechs grind out some gritty wins or manage tight losses to better teams.
The blue line is an interesting group of skaters that I think could surprise some viewers. I expect Martin Has (WSH) to take a big step in leading this team offensively and defensively. Michael Krutil (CHI) will be key in shutdown situations.
The Czech Republic roster also features an intriguing talent for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft: Stanislav Svozil. The 17-year-old defender—a likely first-round pick—will turn heads in a top-four role at this tournament with an exceptional transition game and a quick ability to convert on opponents’ errors.
Two questions come to mind for the Czechs. First, can their goaltending stand out? It will be hard to compete in a group with three netminders that will challenge for all-tournament honors, and I’m not convinced Lukas Parik is a steady number one.
Second, what can this team get out of its skaters that were passed over at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, like Simon Kubicek and Michal Gut? They have Major Junior experience in the WHL, but can they be enough of a difference to help upset Sweden, the U.S. or Russia?
The Austrians surprised many with their promotion to the top division for the 2021 WJC and did so without 2020 first-round pick Marco Rossi. Now the diminutive center will suit up for them, but with Benjamin Baumgartner gone and little else to show in top-tier talent, how much will this team be able to compete?
All eyes will be on Marco Rossi (MIN), as Team Austria will only go as far as his elite scoring touch can take them. Another name to watch is Senna Peeters (undrafted), who’s played his junior hockey in the QMJHL and will be Rossi’s best offensive complement throughout this tournament.
Much like the Swiss in Pool A, the Austrians don’t need to worry about relegation. From a Rossi standpoint, this team will be a lot of fun to watch, and you never know when an upset may happen. Otherwise, there won’t be much to ascertain from this squad over the coming few weeks.
Pool B All-Star Team
Projected all-Pool B team:
F1: Lucas Raymond - Sweden
F2: Marco Rossi - Austria
F3: Rodion Amirov - Russia
D1: Philip Broberg - Sweden
D2: Martin Has - Czech Republic
G: Iaroslav Askarov - Russia