Recapping the 2023 World Junior Championship
Analyzing how Nashville’s three prospects performed in Moncton and Halifax.
The Nashville Predators had three prospects compete at the 2023 World Junior Championship (WJC): Joakim Kemell (Finland), Jack Matier (Canada), and Ryan Ufko (United States). By now you know that Ufko and Matier went home with a bronze medal and gold medal, respectively, but below, I did a deep dive into all three players’ performances, including video examples and manually-tracked data from the tournament.
There was a bit of drama surrounding Kemell to start the 2023 WJC as he began Finland’s first game as their 13th forward. That demotion didn’t last long (not even a period), and Kemell quickly showed why it was a mistake.
In five total games, Kemell totaled two goals and four points, including three primary points at even strength for a total of 2.52 primary points per 60 minutes. Although he didn’t finish the tournament second in scoring as he did in 2022, Kemell was one of Finland’s best play drivers, skating top minutes on the first line and first power-play unit.
At even-strength play, Kemell recorded a 53.79% Corsi rating throughout the tournament, and Finland recorded 59.64 shot attempts per 60 minutes Kemell was on the ice.
He contributed to that shooting onslaught with 15.12 individual shot attempts per 60 minutes, including 4.20 of them from high-danger areas. Kemell also added 12.60 primary shot assists per 60 minutes of even-strength play.
Finally, Kemell was a monster in transition, exiting his defensive zone with control and entering the offensive zone with control on 75.00% of his attempts. He chose to carry the puck in (compared to dumping and chasing after it) 71.88% of the time and succeeded in establishing possession over the line on 86.96% of those tries.
After his opening game woes, Kemell (#37, white) had a clear buzz about his game for the rest of the tournament. He was engaged in all three zones, as we see above, dazzling opponents with his slick puck skills and refusing to be selfish with the puck. Kemell was more aggressive on the forecheck than I’ve seen him much of the season, playing physically and winning battles before setting up his teammates with primary shot assists like that shown in the clip above.
Kemell was aggressive with his footwork, matching the speed of his hands with cutbacks and quick pivots. He combined those with no-look passes to deceive defenders and generate chances in the offensive zone for Team Finland.
Kemell was helpful in his end, sticking to his defender on the point and using power skating and good puck protection skills to move in transition. When he dished the puck off as in the clip above, he stuck with the play, finding a good puck-support position without losing a step.
And of course, Kemell was a scoring threat with his rocket of a shot. Despite just scoring twice, the Finnish winger rang several shots off the post and was able to use his entire shooting arsenal from all over the offensive zone.
Matier started and remained Canada’s seventh defender for the entirety of the 2023 WJC; he saw just over 51 minutes of ice time.
In closer games, Matier didn’t see the ice much. The most he played in a game was 14:50 against Austria and the least was 1:54 in the gold-medal game against Czechia, where he didn’t see the ice after the first period. Matier finished the tournament with one secondary assist in seven games.
Canada was much more of a juggernaut when it came to even-strength possession, and that highlights the major reason we can’t take too much from WJC performances; there is just too much disparity in such a short tournament. Jack Matier finished with a 61.36% Corsi in seven games and contributed 11.20 shot attempts and 3.20 shot primary shot assists per 60 minutes.
In transition, Matier didn’t have a lot of reps but finished with an okay 58.82% successful controlled zone exit rate; he skated the puck out on his own 40.00% of the time. Defensively, #27 for Canada prevented two-thirds of controlled zone entries against him and won a puck retrieval race on 63.64% of his tries. He also allowed just 1.60 high-danger shots on goal per 60 minutes of even-strength play.
Matier spent significant time on Canada’s penalty kill, serving generally on the right side of their diamond formation. In that position, Matier (#27, white) was able to use his size to disrupt power-play zone entries—as we see above—and his physicality to pin plays against the board and drain the clock. On the flank, Matier was successful in activating near the point, blocking shots and getting his stick in opponents’ passing lanes too.
At even strength, Matier was solid defensively. He blocked out opponents from posting up in front of the net and limited high-danger shots against his goalie. In puck retrieval, he made some mistakes, as we see at the start of the shift below, where he needs to think more proactively about his next play with the puck.
But on other shifts, Matier was smarter with the puck, making quick plays up to his wingers and advancing Team Canada’s attack. I also like how Matier opened up his hips against attacking opponents, as shown a couple of times in the clip below, limiting their passing and skating options with his wide wingspan and base.
Ryan Ufko was the star of the organization at the 2023 WJC. Playing mostly on the United States’ third pair (with some appearances on the second pair), Ufko was one of their most consistent blueliners at both ends of the ice.
In seven games, Ufko scored one goal and ten points, including five primary ones recorded at even strength. He was named player of the game for the United States in their quarterfinal beatdown of Germany as he notched five primary assists. In 128 minutes of ice time, including 107 minutes of even-strength ice time, Ufko bested Kemell with 2.78 primary points per 60 minutes.
Similar to Matier, albeit with much more even-strength ice time, Ryan Ufko finished the WJC with a 60.00% Corsi rating, threw 12.82 shot attempts per 60 minutes towards the net, and added an impressive 9.44 primary shot assists per 60 minutes.
Ufko was stellar in exiting his defensive zone, maintaining control (through pass or carrying the puck out) on 61.36% of his attempts. But I was disappointed that he once again limited himself in leading the rush by carrying the puck out of his end just 22.22% of the time.
Ufko was arguably the United States’ best defender at the WJC. He didn’t take a ton of risks, letting Sean Behrens or Jack Peart do that, and he relied on his solid skating ability to cover large swaths of the ice. When Ufko (#6, blue) was caught up ice, he recovered well, as we can see below. While he might have lost some puck battles in the corner by being overmatched physically, Ufko rebounded with smart defense to separate opponents from the puck without working too hard, as he does against Canada’s #11 below.
During most shifts, Ufko was a step or two ahead of the play. Mistakes like the one below were rare, but they’re still worth noting. With his lack of size, Ufko needs to be elite at positioning himself in the defensive zone and using his stick to his advantage; on the goal for Canada shown below, he was just slightly off on both.
At the other end of the ice, Ufko used his excellent vision to activate below the faceoff circles when necessary, and he managed time and space well with good puck handling. During the shift shown below, it’s notable how quickly he transitions from receiving the pass to pivoting into a passing position himself. That level of quick playmaking will serve him well in the future...
...and so will elite backchecking as we see below. Ufko has really begun to perfect his skating mechanics and is quietly becoming one of the faster prospects in Nashville’s pipeline.
All statistics are courtesy of iihf.com, eliteprospects.com, or manually tracked.