2022 World Junior Championship Preview, Part II
Can Sweden end their gold-medal drought or will Russia and the U.S. be too much to handle?
The 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC) is nearly upon us, and this year’s tournament is shaping up to be another classic. The annual contest among hockey’s best prospects will be hosted in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta beginning on Sunday, December 26. While last year’s tournament was held in a bubble due to COVID-19, this year is different.
Fans are expected at the 2022 WJC, but the ever-evolving pandemic is rapidly changing plans. Yesterday, Hockey Canada announced that the schedule of pre-tournament games has been amended to take place on just one day (December 23) with all ten teams in action. Yesterday, the Alberta government announced that fan attendance will be limited to 50% capacity.
2022 World Junior Championship Preview, Part I
Following up on my Group A preview, let’s take a look at the “Group of Death,” featuring medal contenders like Sweden, Russia, and the U.S., the dazzling Slovaks, and a gritty Swiss squad hoping to stay in the top division.
|United States||1st (Gold)||3rd|
At the 2021 WJC, Sweden saw its historic round-robin winning streak of over 50 games snapped, and a quarterfinals loss to rival Finland didn’t help matters either. This year, the Swedes will be looking to bounce back and control the so-called group of death. Despite missing top-end prospects like Noel Gunler and Philip Broberg, Sweden has star power and depth at every position and looks to be Canada’s biggest threat come the playoffs.
|Calle Clang (G)||Pittsburgh||2020||Alexander Holtz (F)||New Jersey||2020|
|Jesper Vikman (G)||Vegas||2020||Daniel Ljungman (F)||Dallas||2020|
|Jesper Wallstedt (G)||Minnesota||2021||Fabian Lysell (F)||Boston||2021|
|Emil Andrae (D)||Philadelphia||2020||Oskar Magnusson (F)||Washington||2020|
|Simon Edvinsson (D)||Detroit||2021||Theodor Niederbach (F)||Detroit||2020|
|Helge Grans (D)||Los Angeles||2020||Zion Nybeck (F)||Carolina||2020|
|Leo Lööf (D)||St. Louis||2020||Oskar Olausson (F)||Colorado||2021|
|Joel Nyström (D)||Carolina||2021||Isak Rosén (F)||Buffalo||2021|
|Anton Olsson (D)||Nashville||2021||Albert Sjöberg (F)||Dallas||2021|
|William Eklund (F)||San Jose||2021||Daniel Torgersson (F)||Winnipeg||2020|
|Elliot Ekmark (F)||Florida||2020|
If you’re looking to pick which position Sweden is strongest at, you could make an argument for all three, but Calle Clang and Jesper Wallstedt will do their best to convince you it’s in the crease. The latter, who fell to 20th overall this past summer, will be the starter with a stellar first half of the year under his belt (0.923 save percentage in 17 games); if he falters, which is doubtful, the Penguins’ Clang will be there to step up seamlessly.
On the blue line, Sweden’s top six in practice has looked like: Edvinsson—Grans, Lööf—Nyström, and Andrae—Olsson. There probably isn’t any other defensive unit in the tournament I would feel as comfortable rolling out equally as this one.
Nashville’s 2021 third-round pick, Anton Olsson, will still draw some tough matchups even on the bottom pair, but his special teams ice time could be limited due to Sweden’s depth.
At forward, the Swedes may be without Gunler and Lucas Raymond, but a top line of Oskar Olausson, William Eklund, and Alexander Holtz is hard to top. They then follow that up with Fabian Lysell, Theodor Niederbach, and Zion Nybeck on separate lines...Sweden looks ready to go toe-to-toe offensively with anyone.
With an experienced roster, Sweden won’t be bringing any first-time draft-eligible players and just a few non-drafted players overall.
Will a loaded Swedish roster meet expectations or crumble under pressure? Will Sweden’s defense provide an edge over Canada in a potential gold-medal matchup?
After a grueling round-robin loss to Czechia last year, Russia missed out on the top seed in Group B to the United States and ended up drawing Canada in the semifinals. A 5-0 loss to the Canadians and a 4-1 bronze-medal loss to the Finns left a sour taste in Russia’s mouth, and they’ll be hungry to medal once again.
Russia, Sweden, and the United States could finish in any place in the group’s top three, and I wouldn’t be that surprised, but right now, Russia’s New Year’s Eve contest with the U.S. looks like it will have major implications.
|Yaroslav Askarov (G)||Nashville||2020||Marat Khusnutdinov (F)||Minnesota||2020|
|Kirill Kirsanov (D)||Los Angeles||2021||Alexander Pashin (F)||Carolina||2020|
|Shakir Mukhamadullin (D)||New Jersey||2020||Vasili Ponomaryov (F)||Carolina||2020|
|Nikita Novikov (D)||Buffalo||2021||Fyodor Svechkov (F)||Nashville||2021|
|Nikita Chibrikov (F)||Winnipeg||2021||Kirill Tankov (F)||Pittsburgh||2021|
|Nikita Guslistov (F)||Carolina||2021||Dmitri Zlodeyev (F)||Vancouver||2020|
It’s been an uneven season for Nashville prospect Yaroslav Askarov in the KHL and VHL, but he has a chance to get things back on track with a strong WJC performance. His last two tournaments have left a bit to be desired (although expectations have been through the roof), so all eyes will be on his performance in the crease this year.
On defense, Semyon Chistyakov has aged out, but his 2021 partner, Shakir Mukhamadullin, is back to lead the blue line with the Kings’ Kirill Kirsanov. Behind those two, their depth is thin, so Mukhamadullin will need to be a workhorse for the Russians to keep things tight defensively.
Predators prospect Fyodor Svechkov will be playing in his first WJC and will likely be Russia’s center behind Marat Khusnutdinov. Nikita Chibrikov and Vasili Ponomaryov will provide additional scoring threats in the top-six along with skaters like Alexander Pashin and Kirill Tankov adding some depth.
The only player eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft joining the Russians is forward Danila Yurov, who’s already recorded two decent seasons in the KHL. Although he’s gone scoreless in 21 games for Magnitogorsk this season (his ice time has been dismal), Yurov will be a top pick in this summer’s selection. Yurov and Svechkov were dominant together at last season’s U18 WJC, combining for 21 points in seven games.
Though he’s not eligible until 2023, Matvei Michkov is the potential star of the show for Russia at this upcoming tournament. The 17-year old phenom torched the U18 WJC last year with 16 points in 7 games, shattered the MHL scoring record for U17 players (56 points in 56 games), and has dropped every jaw along the way.
Can Yaroslav Askarov rebound enough to compensate for a weak Russian defense, and how much can Matvei Michkov threaten for the tournament scoring title?
Coming off of their gold-medal victory over Canada on the latter’s home ice in 2021, the United States is making a strong case to repeat (or at least medal once again). Their tough round-robin schedule, though, could land them a stingy opponent in the quarterfinals or semifinals. The Americans have a deep squad, but if they’re caught flat-footed at all, they could disappoint.
|Drew Commesso (G)||Chicago||2020||Matt Coronato (F)||Calgary||2021|
|Brock Faber (D)||Los Angeles||2020||Tanner Dickinson (F)||St. Louis||2020|
|Luke Hughes (D)||New Jersey||2021||Matthew Knies (F)||Toronto||2021|
|Wyatt Kaiser (D)||Chicago||2020||Chaz Lucius (F)||Winnipeg||2021|
|Tyler Kleven (D)||Ottawa||2020||Carter Mazur (F)||Detroit||2021|
|Ian Moore (D)||Anaheim||2020||Sasha Pastujov (F)||Anaheim||2021|
|Scott Morrow (D)||Carolina||2021||Mackie Samoskevich (F)||Florida||2021|
|Jack Peart (D)||Minnesota||2020||Redmond Savage (F)||Detroit||2021|
|Jake Sanderson (D)||Ottawa||2020||Landon Slaggert (F)||Chicago||2020|
|Matty Beniers (F)||Seattle||2021||Ty Smilanic (F)||Florida||2020|
|Brett Berard (F)||Rangers||2020|
In net, the U.S. will roll with Boston University’s Drew Commesso, but they have little to no experience behind him. In front of him, however, the American blue line will be tough to pass through. Jake Sanderson will lead the way in all situations, and Brock Faber and Luke Hughes will be there to eat minutes and lead transitions as well. Look for Scott Morrow and Jack Peart to add to the United States’ offensive flare too.
The forward group will be led by Kraken prospect Matty Beniers at center, and the rest of the lineup is a who’s who of goal-scorers. Matt Coronato has 12 points in 11 games at Harvard this year, Matthew Knies has 16 points in 18 games for the University of Minnesota, Chaz Lucius has eight points in 12 games for the Golden Gophers, and Sasha Pastujov is decimating the OHL with 35 points in 26 games for the Guelph Storm.
Of the two undrafted skaters the U.S. is bringing, only Logan Cooley is a first-time eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. The Pittsburgh native has quickly separated himself as the U.S. National Team Development Program’s (USNTDP) best all-around player, scoring 14 goals and 30 points in 20 games; the Notre Dame commit will be a top-15 pick next summer.
Commesso’s backups—Kaidan Mbereko and Dylan Silverstein—are also eligible to be picked in July.
Can the Americans’ deep blueline hold up against a relentless Swedish attack, and will the U.S. have Canada’s number for a second year should they meet in the playoffs?
This Slovak team might be the squad that talent evaluators are most eager to watch. And although their group-play task looks daunting, this team could be a surprise with one of its deepest rosters in years. I don’t anticipate they’ll finish higher than fourth in Group B, but a quarterfinals upset wouldn’t be that much of a shock to those with a keen eye.
|Samuel Knazko (D)||Columbus||2020||Jakub Demek (F)||Vegas||2021|
|Martin Chromiak (F)||Los Angeles||2020|
Slovakia’s NHL-drafted prospects will be just a few of their most important players come Sunday. On the blue line, Blue Jackets prospect Samuel Knazko will return to lead this group after recently transitioning from the Finnish U20 SM-sarja to Seattle of the WHL. Up front, Martin Chromiak—who’s notched 13 goals and 32 points in 23 games alongside Shane Wright in the OHL—will pace the Slovaks on offense. Jakub Demek has yet to make his WJC debut, but he’s impressed the WHL this year with 35 points in 28 games for a dominant Edmonton Oil Kings squad.
While Knazko and Chromiak may be more established prospects, viewers’ eyes will be glued to a trio of draft-eligible skaters: Šimon Nemec, Juraj Slafkovsky, and Filip Mešár. Nemec has been an executive’s dream in his draft year, shooting up into the top-15 of most rankings with his play for HK Nitra in the pro Slovak league. He’s a smooth skater, a good puck distributor, and makes smart decisions in transition and on offense. This tournament could solidify his status as a top-five pick come July.
Slafkovsky returns to the WJC for Slovakia looking to build off of his 2021 performance. Although he went scoreless in last year’s tournament, the hulking winger looked like the team’s best player most of the tournament. He’s dynamic with the puck and has a world-class shooting and stickhandling arsenal—especially for someone who’s 6’4”. Slafkovsky has posted 18 points in 11 U20 SM-sarja games this year.
Finally, there’s Filip Mešár, who’s worked his way into the first-round discussion with nine points in 20 games for HK Poprad of the top Slovak league. He’s a smaller forward, but he can confuse defenders and weave through the neutral zone with a great set of hands and creative control of his edges.
Other 2022 draft-eligible players include Servác Petrovský, Adam Sýkora, and Rastislav Eliáš.
Two other names to watch: Simon Latkoczy and Dalibor Dvorsky. The former will claim the starter’s crease for the Slovaks and hopes to put in a noticeable performance for scouts before he heads to the University of Nebraska-Omaha next season. The latter will join Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov as the Class of 2023 at this tournament; at just 16 years old, Dvorsky has put up 13 goals and 27 points in 20 J20 Nationell games in Sweden.
Can the Slovaks’ youth propel them to an upset win in the playoff round, and can Dalibor Dvorsky outshine Bedard or Michkov?
Last year, the Swiss slightly bested the Austrians in the WJC table with a better goal differential, and it looks likely those two will face one another in this year’s relegation round. Switzerland’s best hope to make the playoffs is a win against Slovakia, but a retooled and youthful Slovak squad will make that difficult.
Otherwise, I think Switzerland has decent enough experience to propel them over Austria and return to the WJC next year.
|Brian Zanetti (D)||Philadelphia||2021||Simon Knak (F)||Nashville||2021|
The Italian-born Brian Zanetti is Switzerland’s lone drafted prospect on the blue line, but he’ll join forces with returnees Giancarlo Chanton, Noah Delémont, and Noah Meier to form a relatively okay top-four.
The Swiss’ forward group is, to put it nicely, bleak. Nashville’s Simon Knak will be an important difference-maker for them in all situations; he has three goals and eight points in 25 NL games for HC Davos this year. The Swiss will have to rely on Lorenzo Canonica (undrafted) and returnees like Attilio Biasca, Ray Fust, and Valentin Hofer to provide some semblance of offense.
The big name (literally) in this category is 6’5” defender Lian Bichsel. Projected to be a borderline first-round talent in the summer, Bichsel has been skating in the Leksands IF program this season with 12 SHL games already under his belt. His fundamental skills aren’t amazing, especially his skating and one-on-one defense, but he’s a bruising player who has a good offensive touch to his game. I’m curious to see how this tournament helps shape his development.
Can Switzerland survive to see another year at the WJC in 2023, and will anyone step up and stand out as a game-breaker on this roster?
Projected Group B All-Star Team
Forward: William Eklund (Sweden)
Forward: Matty Beniers (United States)
Forward: Marat Khusnutdinov (Russia)
Defender: Simon Edvinsson (Sweden)
Defender: Jake Sanderson (United States)
Goalie: Yaroslav Askarov (Russia)
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and iihf.com.