2023 World Junior Championship Preview: Part II
Can the United States redeem themselves, and will Finland be able to exact their revenge?
Earlier this week, I previewed Group A at the 2023 World Junior Championship (WJC), which begins next week in host cities Halifax and Moncton.
Who will come out of this group to take on Canada and Sweden, and which countries will be able to avoid the relegation round that’s back on the table? Below, I break down the lay of the land in Group B at the 2023 WJC.
|Team||2022 Result||2023 Prediction|
|United States||5th||1st (Group)|
While Group A leaders Canada are looking to defend their gold medal, Group B frontrunners—the United States—are looking to rectify their 2022 WJC performance. In August’s group play, the U.S. went 4-0-0 and allowed just four goals (two of which were scored by Sweden). In the quarterfinals, with their minds set on a medal, the U.S. was upset by the plucky Czechs, losing 4-2.
In August, America didn’t have a scorer in the top ten of the tournament, and they’ve lost their top four scorers this time around (Thomas Bordeleau, Carter Mazur, Matt Coronato, and Landon Slaggert). Regardless, this U.S. roster is strong and in the driver’s seat once again to take home a medal, starting with goalie Kaidan Mbereko, who’s back after posting a 0.921 save percentage a few months ago.
|Sean Behrens (D)||Colorado||2021||Logan Cooley (F)||Arizona||2022|
|Seamus Casey (D)||New Jersey||2022||Dylan Duke (F)||Tampa Bay||2021|
|Ryan Chesley (D)||Washington||2022||Cutter Gauthier (F)||Philadelphia||2022|
|Luke Hughes (D)||New Jersey||2021||Noah Laba (F)||Rangers||2022|
|Lane Hutson (D)||Montreal||2022||Samuel Lipkin (F)||Arizona||2021|
|Jack Peart (D)||Minnesota||2021||Chaz Lucius (F)||Winnipeg||2021|
|Ryan Ufko (D)||Nashville||2021||Rutger McGroarty (F)||Winnipeg||2022|
|Jackson Blake (F)||Carolina||2021||Redmond Savage (F)||Detroit||2021|
|Tyler Boucher (F)||Ottawa||2021||Jimmy Snuggerud (F)||St. Louis||2022|
|Kenny Connors (F)||Los Angeles||2022|
This U.S. group is almost completely drafted prospects. The notable outlier is the goaltending group, which doesn’t include a single NHL prospect, but Mbereko won’t let that drag this team down.
On the blue line, New Jersey Devils top-five prospect Luke Hughes will captain this team and lead its defense corps. In practice, he’s been paired with Jack Peart, and those two are followed by Lane Hutson–Ryan Chesley and Sean Behrens–Ryan Ufko. Ufko, Nashville’s fourth-round pick in 2021, has been starring at UMass for the past season and a half, scoring 44 points in 53 games for the Minutemen. I’ll be watching to see how confident Ufko is with his transition play at even strength during this tournament and anticipate he’ll fare well on America’s second power-play unit.
The United States will replace their missing scoring punch with an even more lethal top six highlighted by Cutter Gauthier, Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud, and Chaz Lucius. Those first three skated together with the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) last season, and Cooley and Snuggerud have been leading the University of Minnesota with 52 points in 39 games this year. America’s bottom six is full of complementary scoring and a physical edge provided by the likes of Kenny Connors and Tyler Boucher.
The biggest challenge to Kaidan Mbereko between the pipes will be 17-year-old Trey Augustine. The Michigan native is having a brilliant season for the U.S. NTDP, including a 0.930 save percentage in 14 games, and he got the start in America’s first pre-tournament game versus Finland. I expect Mbereko to start, but the U.S. still has a lot of confidence in Augustine.
At forward, the U.S. is carrying two 2023 draft-eligible skaters, Gavin Brindley and Charlie Stramel. Both should be first-round picks next summer, and they’ll be vying for a regular role on America’s fourth line.
This team has the firepower to compete with Sweden, Finland, and Canada, but can their offensive output best their scoring from August? Is this roster built to avoid another quarterfinal upset?
Much like the Swedes with Canada, Finland will be looking to dethrone the U.S. as they hope to repeat their 2022 WJC performance. The Finns stumbled a bit in the round-robin, beating Czechia only in a shootout and losing to Canada, but they then took down Germany and Sweden on their way to the gold-medal game.
Their overtime loss to Canada there was especially heartbreaking as Mason McTavish knocked Finland’s best overtime chance down right at the goal line before setting up the game-winning goal. This year’s roster is blessed with the ability to go toe-to-toe with the U.S.; it will be a dogfight to see who comes out of Group B on top.
|Niklas Kokko (G)||Seattle||2022||Aleksanteri Kaskimäki (F)||St. Louis||2022|
|Aku Koskenvuo (G)||Vancouver||2021||Joakim Kemell (F)||Nashville||2022|
|Aleksi Heimosalmi (D)||Carolina||2021||Ville Koivunen (F)||Carolina||2021|
|Aleksi Malinen (D)||Islanders||2021||Brad Lambert (F)||Winnipeg||2022|
|Otto Salin (D)||Los Angeles||2022||Jani Nyman (F)||Seattle||2022|
|Topias Vilén (D)||New Jersey||2021||Topi Rönni (F)||Calgary||2022|
|Niko Huuhtanen (F)||Tampa Bay||2021||Kalle Väisänen (F)||Rangers||2021|
|Oliver Kapanen (F)||Montreal||2021|
The Finns will be icing an almost entirely new goaltending group, and it’s a tossup between the Seattle Kraken’s Niklas Kokko and the Vancouver Canucks’ Aku Koskenvuo for who will get the Day 1 start. Regardless of who it is, this position group is Finland’s biggest question mark.
Coming out from the net, the Carolina Hurricanes’ Aleksi Heimosalmi will lead the Finnish blueline that is losing Joni Jurmo, Topi Niemelä, Eemil Viro, and Kasper Puutio. Heimosalmi was a point-per-game player at the 2022 WJC and has 12 points in 25 Liiga games this year. Behind him will be the Los Angeles Kings’ Otto Salin and the New York Islanders’ Aleksi Malinen, and New Jersey’s Topias Vilén will battle with Jimi Suomi and Kalle Ervasti for the final two spots in each lineup.
The forward group is highlighted by Winnipeg Jets prospect Brad Lambert, Carolina prospect Ville Koivunen, and Nashville’s Joakim Kemell, who finished second in the 2022 WJC scoring (12 points). The 2022 first-round pick has eight goals and 10 points in 24 Liiga games this year but has struggled lately, playing just bottom-six minutes, after returning from illness and injury. Depth scoring will be needed to replace the offensive flare of Aatu Räty, Roby Järventie, and Roni Hirvonen. It’ll come in the form of the Montreal Canadiens’ Oliver Kapanen, the St. Louis Blues’ Aleksanteri Kaskimäki, and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Niko Huuhtanen, who has 16 points in 24 Liiga games with Jukurit.
Lenni Hämeenaho is an older forward eligible for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. I’m not sure how much ice time he’ll see at this tournament, but he’s impressed with 13 points in 28 Liiga games this year and could be picked as high as the second round.
Another interesting name on the Finns’ roster is Aron Kiviharju. He’s not eligible until 2024, but the 5’10” defender has been a point-per-game player at the U20 level this year and earned a six-game call-up to the Finnish Liiga.
Can the Finns’ goaltending withstand offensive attacks from the U.S., Sweden, and Canada? And does an inexperienced blueline hinder their usual ability to play a tight, disciplined defensive game?
Slovakia’s 2022 WJC was an utter disaster for a country that makes a habit of making the tournament’s playoffs. They lost to Canada, Finland, and Czechia and barely beat Latvia in a shootout, finishing last in Group A with a -16 goal differential.
However, they were missing their three best players, Filip Mesar, Simon Nemec, and Juraj Slafkovský—the latter two being the top two picks at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. This year, this group has retooled and is looking to make some noise not just in the round robin but in the quarterfinals too. They’ll have a new netminder with Simon Latkoczy aging out, but Patrik Andrisik will look to continue the WJC tradition of the Slovak goalie standing on his head.
|Simon Nemec (D)||New Jersey||2022||Adam Sýkora (F)||Rangers||2022|
|Filip Mesar (F)||Montreal||2022||Adam Zlnka (F)||Arizona||2022|
|Servác Petrovský (F)||Minnesota||2022|
Simon Nemec returns to the 2023 WJC to lead an experienced blue line with Simon Groch, Viliam Kmec, Dávid Nátny, and Boris Zabka returning. Nemec has 12 points in his first 24 AHL games this year and will look to build on his World Championship and Olympic experience from last season.
Up front, Slovakia is losing Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jakub Demek as he rehabs from shoulder surgery. But they are welcoming back Mesar; the 2022 first-round pick has 22 points in 17 OHL games for Kitchener this year. He’ll be joined by the Minnesota Wild’s Servác Petrovský, who scored three points in August with his shifty, agile style of offense; the New York Rangers’ Adam Sýkora, who has nine points in 20 games in the Slovak pro league this year; and the Arizona Coyotes’ Adam Zlnka, who is headed to Northeastern next season after he graduates from the USHL’s Sioux Falls.
The Slovaks are bringing the most robust group of draft-eligible skaters to the 2022 WJC, headlined by Dalibor Dvorský. The 6’1” center is a bonafide top-ten pick next summer, and he’s dominated the J20 Nationell in Sweden plus has added eight points in 21 HockeyAllsvenskan games.
He’ll be joined by Alex Ciernik, Frantisek Dej, Samuel Honzek, and Martin Misiak in the top 12. Ciernik has posted 13 points in 10 J20 Nationell games this year and has earned a nine-game call-up to Södertälje SK’s HockeyAllsvenskan club. Dej is a big-bodied forward who could be a late-round pick at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, Honzek is similar in stature and has 43 points in 31 games for the Vancouver Giants this year—helping him quickly rise up public draft boards, and Misiak is an older 2023 draft-eligible center with seven assists in 23 Slovak league games this year.
The other name to watch is Maxim Strbak, who is a younger 6’2” defender that will likely be an early- to mid-second-round pick in 2023. He’s leading the Sioux Falls Stampede blue line in scoring with 12 points in 21 games.
Will Patrik Andrisik emerge as the next great Slovak goalie at the WJC? And who will emerge as this team’s best offensive threat and improve their 2023 draft stock: Dvorský, Ciernik, or Honzek?
The Latvians were the darlings of the 2022 WJC. They entered the tournament as a replacement for Russia and did more than hold their own. They kept things interesting against Canada, took Slovakia to a shootout, and dispatched the Czechs to finish third in Group A.
On top of that, they took Sweden down to the wire in the quarterfinals, holding the game at 1-1 until the Swedes scored a late third-period goal to win. This time they’re back, hoping to maintain their momentum and finish third in their group once again.
While this team isn’t full of NHL talent, they are bringing back tournament veterans Patriks Berzins (G), Niks Fenenko (D), Rihards Simanovics (D), Martins Lavins (F), Peteris Purmalis (F), and Anri Ravinskis (F).
|Dans Locmelis (F)||Boston||2022||Sandis Vilmanis (F)||Florida||2022|
|Klavs Veinbergs (F)||Tampa Bay||2022|
The Latvians have no NHL prospects on the blue line or in the net, but their offensive group features Boston Bruins prospect Dans Locmelis, Tampa prospect Klavs Veinbergs, and Florida Panthers prospect Sandis Vilmanis.
Locmelis notched two points at the 2022 WJC and is tearing up the J20 Nationell this season with 12 goals and 33 points in 27 games for Luleå HF J20; he’s off to UMass next season. Veinbergs also scored two points at the last WJC, and the 6’3” forward has 14 points in 20 games for the USHL’s Lincoln this year. Vilmanis might be the best pure shooter of the trio, and he can be a dynamic puck handler in tight spaces; the 6’1” winger has 24 points in 29 games for Sarnia in the OHL this season.
Three of Latvia’s forwards could be intriguing late-round options at next summer’s draft. Rodzers Bukarts might not have a huge WJC, but he has been nearly a point-per-game player at the U20 level in Switzerland this year; Rainers Rullers is a big center who has scored 12 points in 13 games for Zemgale in the Latvian league, and Davis Borozinskis has been a nice depth piece for the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers this year before heading to Western Michigan next year.
Can this upstart group career over their progress from August and finish just behind the U.S. and Finland in Group B? If so, do they have a quarterfinal upset in them too?
The Swiss had a pretty uneventful 2022 tournament, beating only Austria in the round-robin before bowing out to Canada in the quarterfinals. This roster hasn’t historically been built to compete with the top teams, but they always give at least one medal contender a hard time each year.
At the 2023 WJC, the Swiss may have a hard time even doing that. They’re welcoming back their best player, who missed August’s tournament, but I’m not sure there is enough scoring or good enough goaltending—led by Kevin Pasche—to beat both Slovakia and Latvia this time around. They recently dropped a pre-tournament game to Canada 6-0.
|Lian Bichsel (D)||Dallas||2022||Brian Zanetti (D)||Philadelphia||2021|
Lian Bichsel—the Dallas Stars’ first-round pick in 2022—refused to participate in the Swiss training camp earlier this year and was subsequently left off their August roster. This time, he’s back and will bring a big boost to Switzerland’s top four, along with Flyers prospect Brian Zanetti.
The Swiss’ scoring committee is highlighted by Attilio Biasca (four goals and six points at the 2022 WJC), Jonas Taibel (three points in 2022), and Joel Henry (two points in 2022). They’ll suffer from the loss of former captain and Nashville prospect Simon Knak, and they may not best the eight goals they scored in last year’s round robin.
Switzerland’s youngest player is Moncton Wildcats center Miles Müller, who just turned 18 this week. The 6’0” isn’t likely to be picked next summer, but he could earn an invite to an NHL rookie camp with a strong WJC showing and a better 2022-23 season than he’s having (Müller’s on pace for just eight more points than his 2021-22 campaign).
If the Swiss get into an offensive shootout with Slovakia or Latvia, can they survive? If not, can they avoid relegation and a dip in the recent rise in Swiss hockey?
Projected Group A All-Star Team
Forward: Jimmy Snuggerud (United States)
Forward: Joakim Kemell (Finland)
Forward: Logan Cooley (United States)
Defender: Simon Nemec (Slovakia)
Defender: Luke Hughes (United States)
Goalie: Niklas Kokko (Finland)
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and iihf.com.