2023 World Junior Championship Preview: Part I
Can Canada defend their title on home ice?
It’s that time of year again! The 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship (WJC) is nearly upon us. If it feels like it hasn’t been that long since the last installment of this tournament, that’s because the 2022 event was completed this past August after the original tournament was canceled last December.
The 2023 WJC begins next Monday in host cities Halifax and Moncton, and I’ve got a full preview of Group A below.
|Team||2022 Result||2023 Prediction|
|Canada||1st (Gold)||1st (Group)|
A few months ago, the Canadian WJC squad went 4-0-0 in group play and made it all the way to the gold-medal game, where they won a thrilling overtime contest against Finland. Next week, Canada will begin their quest to defend its title, playing the same group as before (except swapping Finland for Sweden).
The Canadians are the bettor’s favorite, and while they should easily dispatch Austria and Germany, Czechia and Sweden could make their lives difficult. Regardless, Canada’s expectation is another gold medal.
|Benjamin Gaudreau (G)||San Jose||2021||Colton Dach (F)||Chicago||2021|
|Nolan Allan (D)||Chicago||2021||Nathan Gaucher (F)||Anaheim||2022|
|Brandt Clarke (D)||Los Angeles||2021||Dylan Guenther (F)||Arizona||2021|
|Ethan Del Mastro (D)||Chicago||2021||Zack Ostapchuk (F)||Ottawa||2021|
|Tyson Hinds (D)||Anaheim||2021||Brennan Othmann (F)||Rangers||2021|
|Kevin Korchinski (D)||Chicago||2022||Joshua Roy (F)||Montreal||2021|
|Jack Matier (D)||Nashville||2021||Reid Schaefer (F)||Edmonton||2022|
|Olen Zellweger (D)||Anaheim||2021||Logan Stankoven (F)||Dallas||2021|
|Caedan Bankier (F)||Minnesota||2021||Shane Wright (F)||Seattle||2022|
|Zach Dean (F)||Vegas||2021|
Canada has named just 22 players to their roster (despite a 25-man limit) as they’ll easily be able to replace any injured players. Between the pipes, Sharks prospect Benjamin Gaudreau will start in his first WJC opportunity. The Sarnia Sting goalie has a 9-8-3 record with a 0.868 save percentage this year.
On the blue line, the Los Angeles Kings have loaned Brandt Clarke to the WJC roster; he completes a defense corp that is otherwise full of Chicago Blackhawks prospects like Ethan Del Mastro. In practice, he’s lined up with Olen Zellweger to comprise Canada’s top pair followed by Nolan Allan—Brandt Clarke and Kevin Korchinski—Jack Matier. Matier, who has posted eight goals and 26 points in 26 games with the Ottawa 67’s, is one of three Nashville prospects playing in this year’s tournament. His stay-at-home style should pair decently well with the offensive-minded Korchinski.
At forward, former first-overall favorite Shane Wright will center Canada’s top line with Brennan Othmann on his left wing. Dallas’ Logan Stankoven and Arizona’s Dylan Guenther will anchor the second line, and the bottom six will be rounded out with two more lines of NHL prospects. Keep your eyes on Zach Dean and Reid Schaefer to add some depth scoring.
If Gaudreau falters in-net at all, Canada may turn things over to 2023 NHL Entry Draft prospect Thomas Milic. The 19-year-old goalie was passed over in last year’s draft, but he’s rocking a 0.919 save percentage in 14 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds this season.
Two of the most exciting players on Canada’s roster, however, are two guys fighting to be next summer’s first-overall pick: Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli. The former has been electrifying the WHL with 27 goals and 64 points in 28 games for the middling Regina Pats; the latter is dominating college hockey with 11 goals and 26 points in 16 games as a freshman at Michigan. They’ll provide plenty of offense to replace the loss of last year’s tournament scoring leader Mason McTavish.
This roster, per usual, has no major flaws, but the goaltending could become a concern. Canada has the guns to outscore any opponent, but will they be tripped up by their own expectations?
With the weight of their 54-game round-robin winning streak off their shoulders, Sweden cruised through group play in August, losing only to the United States. They looked on track to meet Canada in the gold-medal game before the pesky Finns defeated them in a tight 1-0 contest.
While the Swedes still took home a bronze medal, the seven returning players from that roster and a new coach in Magnus Hävelid will be eager to win gold.
|Carl Linbom (G)||Vegas||2021||Oskar Pettersson (F)||Ottawa||2022|
|Adam Engström (D)||Montreal||2022||Simon Robertsson (F)||St. Louis||2021|
|Ludvig Jansson (D)||Florida||2022||Isak Rosén (F)||Buffalo||2021|
|Calle Odelius (D)||Islanders||2022||Victor Stjernborg (F)||Chicago||2021|
|Elias Pettersson (D)||Vancouver||2022||William Strömgren (F)||Calgary||2021|
|Filip Bystedt (F)||San Jose||2022||Fabian Wagner (F)||Winnipeg||2022|
|Jonathan Lekkerimäki (F)||Vancouver||2022||Liam Öhgren (F)||Minnesota||2022|
|Fabian Lysell (F)||Boston||2021||Noah Östlund (F)||Buffalo||2022|
In the crease, Sweden will be icing a relatively new goalie group, but the likely starter is Vegas Golden Knights prospect Carl Lindbom. The 2021 seventh-round pick has been excellent in the HockeyAllsvenskan this season, posting a 0.936 save percentage through 21 appearances.
The Swedish blue line is without its star prospects in Simon Edvinsson and Elias Salomonsson, leaving that group largely inexperienced. Florida’s Ludvig Jansson returns from last year’s roster, and he’ll be joined by Calle Odelius as this corp’s headliner. Odelius didn’t join last year’s U20 squad, but he did finish the 2021-22 season with 30 points in 43 games in the J20 Nationell.
Sweden’s forward group is what’s really exciting about this team. There are just two undrafted forwards on the roster, and one will be a top pick at next year’s draft. 19-year-olds Fabian Lysell, Simon Robertsson, Victor Stjernborg, and Isak Rosén will bring leadership and experience, and their goal-scoring prowess will be complemented by the lethal blades of the Djurgårdens trio: Noah Östlund, Liam Öhgren, and Jonathan Lekkerimäki.
The Swedes are bringing two 17-year-olds to Canada: Axel Sandin Pellikka and Leo Carlsson. Sandin Pellikka is a 5’11” defender, who could be a late first-round pick in 2023, is turning heads, scorching the U20 level and scoring five points in 14 SHL games.
Carlsson is firmly a top-ten prospect in 2023. The 6’3” center will turn 18 at the start of the tournament, and he’s already posted three goals and 14 points in 25 SHL games for Örebro HK.
This team shouldn’t panic if they lose to Canada in group play, but they’ll likely have to beat the defending champs at some point to win the 2023 title. Can their impressive forward group go goal-for-goal with Canada’s and could their goaltending give them an edge?
A few months ago, the Czechs stumbled through group play with a 1-2-1 record but then upset the United States in the quarterfinals before falling to Canada. While it’s tough to imagine them finishing higher than third in Group A, I wouldn’t count them out for an upset. If they want to continue to make noise against the bigger nations, they will need to flex their muscles against Germany and Austria to bolster their goal differential.
|Marek Alscher (D)||Florida||2022||Jaroslav Chmelar (F)||Rangers||2021|
|Tomas Hamara (D)||Ottawa||2022||Petr Hauser (F)||New Jersey||2022|
|David Jiricek (D)||Columbus||2022||Jakub Kos (F)||Florida||2021|
|David Spacek (D)||Minnesota||2022||Jiri Kulich (F)||Buffalo||2022|
|Stanislav Svozil (D)||Columbus||2021||Martin Rysavy (F)||Columbus||2021|
|Jakub Brabenec (F)||Vegas||2021||Matyas Sapovaliv (F)||Vegas||2022|
Five of the Czech blueliners are returning from the 2022 WJC, including Ottawa’s Tomas Hamara, Minnesota’s David Spacek, and Columbus’ Stanislav Svozil. Those are three very good prospects, but this group will be led by another Blue Jackets prospect: David Jiriceck. The sixth-overall pick has already made his NHL debut this year and is a near point-per-game player in the AHL. Joining them for his first WJC will be Panthers prospect Marek Alscher as well.
Up front, the Czech roster is full of a lot of good but not great players. Scoring will come from a committee, but I will be looking for three players to stand out. Vegas’ Jakub Brabenec has 25 points in 28 QMJHL games for Charlottetown this season; the Rangers’ Jaroslav Chmelar notched one goal in three WJC games last year, and Buffalo’s Jiri Kulich posted two goals and eight points in seven WJC games last time out.
Much like draft fans will be watching Bedard and Fantilli when Canada is on the ice, Eduard Sale may garner just as much attention at the 2023 WJC. The 6’1” winger doesn’t turn 18 until next March, and he’s a surefire first-round pick next summer. The slick puckhandler has six points in 26 games at the pro level in Czechia, and he made his mark on the 2022 U18 WJC with nine points in six games.
Which goalie will stand out for the Czechs, and without Jan Bednar, will their goaltending hold them back from another upset or two in the playoff rounds?
The Germans made quite the impression at the 2022 WJC. As German hockey has been on the rise for a few years now, this squad beat Switzerland and Austria in group play last year and even gave Sweden quite a fight. They fell to the Finns in the quarterfinals, but this group is back and very interested in finishing third in their group once again.
|Nikita Quapp (G)||Carolina||2021||Julian Lutz (F)||Arizona||2022|
|Håkon Hänelt (F)||Washington||2021|
Germany is bringing three NHL prospects to Halifax and Moncton, including starting goaltender Nikita Quapp. Quapp—a Hurricanes prospect—struggled in last year’s tournament, going 0-2-0 with a 0.893 save percentage. But the crease is all his this time around even though he’s appeared in just three DEL2 games this season.
The German blueline has lost Maksymilian Szuber and Luca Münzenberger, and they’re returning just three players from the 2022 roster.
Washington’s fifth-round pick in 2021, Håkon Hänelt, will lead Germany’s (likely anemic) offensive attack. At the 2022 WJC, he scored one goal and two points in five games, and he’s scored three goals and 17 points in 28 QMJHL games for the Gatineau Olympiques this season. Hänelt will be enlisting the services of Coyotes prospect Julian Lutz for scoring help; the 2022 second-round pick can be a force moving up the ice, using lateral crossovers and creative cuts to manipulate defenders. He has just six assists in 13 DEL games this season but was a point-per-game player at last year’s U18 WJC.
Can Nikita Quapp steal a game for the Germans? They’ll need to beat Austria to avoid the relegation round, but can their starting goaltender give them a win against the Czechs or even a bigger upset against Sweden?
Austria finished last at the 2022 WJC and scored just four goals the entire tournament. Luckily for them, there was no relegation and promotion, so they lived to fight another year. They were without their best player in Marco Rossi, and they may have a little more punch this time around, but it will be tough sledding to get out of Group A.
The Austrian roster is actually pretty consistent from the 2022 event. They’re returning six defenders and one goalie but none are NHL prospects. Watch for Thomas Pfarrmaier to start between the pipes, but it’s not likely to be pretty for any goalie on this team.
19-year-olds Lukas Hörl, Lorenz Lindner, and Maximilian Preiml will bring some experience to this tournament, but this blue line will struggle to contain the offensive dynamos on Canada and Sweden.
Austria’s attack will run through Montreal prospect Vinzenz Rohrer; the Ottawa 67’s player has 11 goals and 32 points in 26 games this season. His bull-in-a-china-shop-style offensive attack is electric in the OHL, but he doesn’t have the help to make too much of an impact at this tournament.
Somewhat surprisingly, Austria has a number of 2023 draft-eligible players on their team this year. Benedikt Oschgan probably won’t see any ice time, but the goalie prospect has impressed in a short stint in the AlpsHL this season.
David Reinbacher is coming back from the 2022 WJC, and the 6’2” defender is looking to impress scouts and sneak into next year’s first round. He’s scored 14 points in 28 Swiss league games this season and notched two assists in four games at the last tournament.
If there will be any complementary scoring to Rohrer, it could come from Ian Scherzer and Max Stiegler. The latter is one of the older players in this draft class; he probably won’t be picked next summer, but he’s brought a scoring touch to the U20 Czech league this year with 16 points in 13 games. Scherzer is a much later birthday, and the 6’0” center is a depth scorer for Rögle BK J20 in Sweden this season.
I suppose it’s not impossible for Austria to make it out of the round-robin, but assuming they don’t, can they win in the relegation round? On an individual level, how much of an impression can David Reinbacher make in his second WJC?
Projected Group A All-Star Team
Forward: Connor Bedard (Canada)
Forward: Isak Rosén (Sweden)
Forward: Shane Wright (Canada)
Defender: Olen Zellweger (Canada)
Defender: David Jiricek (Czechia)
Goalie: Carl Lindbom (Sweden)
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and iihf.com.