2021 World Junior Championship Preview, Part I
Who to watch and what's happening in Pool A.
The annual World Junior Championship (WJC)—despite a bumpy road along the way—is nearly here. While enduring the hardships put in place by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has restructured the 2021 WJC to take place in a single-venue bubble in Edmonton, eliminating the second host city, Red Deer.
The IIHF also canceled all lower-division U20 level championships, meaning no team will be relegated from the WJC for 2022. While taking necessary precautions, the IIHF has hit its fair share of snags: Team Canada shut down their selection camp for two weeks due to two positive tests, Sweden’s coaching staff and several players were removed from their roster due to positive tests, two American players—John Beecher and Thomas Bordeleau—were sent home due to the virus, and several of the European teams were stuck overseas pre-flight due to limited luggage capacity.
But, as of now, the prospect showcase is still on, starting Christmas Day. This year, I’ll break my preview down into a story for each pool with Canada, Finland, Slovakia, Germany, and Switzerland up first. Read more on how the WJC bubble will work here.
|Canada||1st [Gold]||1st [Group]|
As is usually the case, Team Canada comes to the WJC with a stacked roster ready to compete for gold. After taking home the top prize in last season’s tournament, the Canadians will be looking to ride a high-powered offense to a repeat.
The host country has just one undrafted prospect on their roster—goalie Taylor Gauthier—and should easily make it out of the group stage as the top seed. Their only real test will come from the Finns.
|Jamie Drysdale - D||Anaheim||2020||Devon Levi - G||Florida||2020|
|Dylan Cozens - F||Buffalo||2019||Quinton Byfield - F||Los Angeles||2020|
|Jack Quinn - F||Buffalo||2020||Jordan Spence - D||Los Angeles||2019|
|Jakob Pelletier - F||Calgary||2019||Kaiden Guhle - D||Montreal||2020|
|Connor Zary - F||Calgary||2020||Philip Tomasino - F||Nashville||2019|
|Ryan Suzuki - F||Carolina||2019||Dawson Mercer - F||New Jersey||2020|
|Kirby Dach - F||Chicago||2019||Braden Schneider - D||Rangers||2020|
|Alex Newhook - F||Colorado||2019||Dylan Garand - G||Rangers||2020|
|Justin Barron - D||Colorado||2020||Peyton Krebs - F||Vegas||2019|
|Bown Byram - D||Colorado||2019||Connor McMichael - F||Washington||2019|
|Thomas Harley - D||Dallas||2019||Kaedan Korczak - D||Vegas||2019|
|Dylan Holloway - F||Edmonton||2020||Cole Perfetti - F||Winnipeg||2020|
At forward, Canada will roll out what looks like four top lines, including a dynamite top six with Quinn, Cozens, Dach, Perfetti, McMichael, and Krebs. Lines from the team’s first post-cut practice had Dawson Mercer (NJD) and Ryan Sukui (CAR) as the extra forwards with the Nashville Predators’ Philip Tomasino on line three with Quinton Byfield (LAK) and Connor Zary (CGY). That line has been consistent throughout camp.
On the blue line, Bowan Byram (COL) and Jamie Drysdale (ANA) seem to have the top pair locked up, and Schneider and Spence will likely start the tournament as scratches.
Taylor Gauthier enters the tournament in his final year of NHL draft eligibility. The Prince George Cougars’ goalie has started 137 games over the past three seasons with modest success but may not have enough playing time at the WJC to improve his 2021 draft stock.
The Canadians don’t have many holes in their lineup, and I don’t expect the group stage to be much of a challenge; this team should medal, and anything less is a disappointment. But as is seemingly a trend, Canada’s biggest question mark comes in the net. Among the three goalies—Gauthier, Levi, and Garand—none stand out as a workhorse who can steal games like other netminders in Pool A. I don’t think it will be a fatal flaw, but certainly, something to monitor.
After a 5-0 rout by Canada in the 2020 Semifinal and a loss to Sweden in the bronze medal game, Finland will be hungry to medal and should have an easy road through group play. Once again, the Finns will roll out a balanced team that could take down Canada in a defense-heavy contest or due to excellent goaltending.
While they’ve lost their top three scorers from last season, an injection of new NHL prospect talent and the return of Anton Lundell should boost their medal chances.
|Roni Hirvonen - F||Toronto||2020||Santeri Hatakka - D||San Jose||2019|
|Roby Järventie - F||Ottawa||2020||Ville Heinola - D||Winnipeg||2019|
|Anton Lundell - F||Florida||2020||Mikka Kokkonen - D||Toronto||2019|
|Matias Mäntykivi - F||Boston||2019||Topi Niemelä - D||Toronto||2020|
|Henri Nikkanen - F||Winnipeg||2019||Kasper Puutio - D||Florida||2020|
|Mikael Pyyhtiä - F||Columbus||2020||Matias Rajaniemi - D||Islanders||2020|
|Juuso Pärssinen - F||Nashville||2019||Eemil Viro - D||Detroit||2020|
|Aku Räty - F||Arizona||2019||Joel Blomqvist - G||Pittsburgh||2020|
|Kasper Simontaival - F||Los Angeles||2020|
In net, the Finns will be counting on Blomqvist (PIT) to carry the workload throughout the tournament, as the 2020 draft pick has the potential to be a top goalie at this year’s WJC.
The defense will be led by Ville Heinola, and returnees Santeri Hatakka and Mikko Kokkonen will be ushered into bigger roles. Players like Kasper Puutio and Topi Niemelä will round out a calm blue line with a touch of skill.
The forward group won’t go anywhere without Anton Lundell. The 2020 first-round pick, who was forced to miss the 2020 WJC, will be the offensive engine for the Finns. Without Carolina Hurricanes prospect Patrik Puistola, Joonas Oden, or Kristian Tanus, scoring will be needed from players like Roni Hirvonen, Kasper Simontaival, Aku Räty, and more. Nashville’s Juuso Pärssinen will play a middle-six and special teams role.
Since Aku Räty’s brother Aatu (formerly in consideration to be the top pick at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft) was left off the Finns’ roster, forward Samuel Helenius will hit the ice looking to improve his draft stock. He’s impressed this season with eight points in 18 Liiga games for JYP.
Much like the Canadians, Finland doesn’t have many glaring red flags. There may be roster construction questions at hand (Puistola, Räty, etc.), but the biggest storyline I’m watching is Brad Lambert. The 16-year old is a top prospect for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, and I’m curious to see how he can produce against 18 and 19-year olds. He already has seven points in 18 Liiga games this season alongside Helenius.
The Slovaks enter the 2021 WJC with some of their best group stage chances in recent memory. While they may not have the firepower to go far in this tournament, another stingy goaltending performance from WJC veteran Samuel Hlavaj might give them hope for a quarterfinal victory.
This team likely isn’t beating Finland or Canada (although they usually provide one upset watch per tournament), but they should be able to outmatch Switzerland and potentially Germany.
|Samuel Knazko - D||Columbus||2020||Martin Chromiak - F||Los Angeles||2020|
It seems tradition for the Slovak team to leave an offensively-talented forward off their WJC roster each year due to inexperience or some other reason. This year, it’s Maxim Čajkovič, who was removed from the team’s camp due to injuring a teammate in practice and other unsportsmanlike behavior.
With the Tampa prospect out of the picture, the Slovaks will be relying on 2020 draft picks Martin Chromiak and Samuel Knazko to lead their young team at both ends of the ice.
|Simon Groch - D||HC Olomouc U20 [Czech U20]|
|Robert Baco - F||HC Karlovy Vary U20 [Czech U20]|
|Oleksiy Myklukha - F||Rouyn-Noranda Huskies [QMJHL]|
The group stage will be an excellent opportunity for some young Slovaks to showcase how they can perform against older competition. While six players are still to be cut from the roster, 2021 NHL Entry Draft prospects Oleksiy Myklukha, Robert Baco, and Simon Groch are sure to receive a lot of ice time with just six skaters returning from the 2020 roster.
With no relegation on the line, Slovakia may have the leeway to ice the younger parts of their lineup in critical situations. A few players I’m watching are Simon Nemec and Filip Mesar—who are already playing in Slovakia’s pro league at 16 years old—and Juraj Slafkovsky—who’s notched eight points in 13 games for TPS’ U20 squad in Finland, boosting his 2022 NHL Entry Draft stock.
Germany’s group stage looks a little easier this year compared to last where they won just once (against Czechia) and narrowly avoided relegation. Unfortunately, the German roster will be somewhat depleted as they fight the Slovaks and the Swiss for third place in Pool A.
|John-Jason Peterka - F||Buffalo||2020||Tim Stützle - F||Ottawa||2020|
Without Mortiz Seider and Chicago’s Lukas Reichel—who was sent home from the German selection camp due to COVID-19—Peterka and Stützle are the only two NHL prospects on the roster. They’ll be counted on heavily on the scoresheet for a team that may struggle to score against the powerhouses of the tournament.
There are no legitimate first-time draft-eligible players on Germany’s roster, but there are a few skaters who will be looking for a boost to their stock after going undrafted, including defenders Maximilian Glötzl and Simon Gynp and forwards Florian Elias and Justin Volek.
This team will struggle to make an impact beyond the group stage, but they have the ability to outplay Slovakia and Switzerland. Much of their tournament hopes will rest on Peterka and Stützle’s offensive production and the latter’s health.
The Swiss were a surprise of the 2020 WJC, finishing second in Group A with an upset over Finland before bowing out to the Russians in the quarterfinal. This year, they’re likely to struggle and almost certain to finish last in group play with an extremely inexperienced and, frankly, untalented roster.
While there are plenty of fresh faces at the 2021 WJC, no country may have lost more talent from last year than the Swiss. They’ve got no NHL prospects on this year’s roster and will be without headliners like Akira Schmid, Nico Gross, David Aebischer, Tim Berni, Valentin Nussbaumer, and Julian Mettler.
|Attilio Biasca - F||Zug U20 [Swiss U20-Elit]|
|Lorenzo Canonica - F||Lugano U20 [Swiss U20-Elit]|
|Giancarlo Chanton - D||Langenthal [Swiss SL]|
|Noah Meier - D||GC/Küsnacht U20 [Swiss U20-Elit]|
|Brian Zanetti - D||Peterbourgh Petes [OHL]|
Much like the Slovaks, the Swiss will be counting on some 2021 NHL Draft-eligible prospects to produce in key situations. On the blueline, Giancarlo Chanton and Noah Meier will complement Noah Delémont to lead a defense corps. Up front, Simon Knak—who went undrafted in 2020—will lead a forward group with Ray Fust, Lorenzo Canonica, and Gaétan Jobin that will struggle to fill the scoresheet.
In a normal year, the Swiss would be entirely focused on avoiding relegation and the hope they could beat out Austria in a three-game series. But with their 2022 spot guaranteed, the Swiss will be using the 2021 WJC to see how their national development model matches up against regular NHL talent and where their deficiencies lie.
Pool A All-Star Team
Projected all-Pool A team:
F1: Kirby Dach - Canada
F2: Anton Lundell - Finland
F3: Tim Stützle - Germany
D1: Bowen Byram - Canada
D2: Ville Heinola - Finland
G: Joel Blomqvist - Finland
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and iihf.com.