If you’re anything like me, boxing day holds a special place in your heart.
No, it’s not the hours of lining up outside of big box stores for their door crashing sales and the subsequent videos of human beings trampling their fellow man to save a couple bucks off a piece of technology that will become obsolete by the time they reach the parking lot.
It’s of course due to the time honoured tradition of the World Juniors firing up.
Ever since I was old enough to hold a mini stick, my dad and I would hunker down for the holiday season and hardly miss a game – and never a Canadian contest.
That precious and rejuvenating time is quickly approaching with players jettisoning their junior and European club teams to descend upon their nation’s individual training camps. There will be sweat, blood and for a few, that fateful phone call or knock on the hotel room door will incite tears – either joyful or full or sorrow.
With that in mind, I’m going to lead you down a path of some top producing players, some draft eligibles to watch, and a handful of players who will see their role and their stock rise as the tournament moves along.
This week, we’ll take a look at Group A
Casey Mittelstadt/Logan Brown/Kailer Yamamoto
Barring injury or sub-par play, the aforementioned American trio is destined to line up together at even-strength and make up the bulk of the team’s first power play unit. Mittelstadt moves from his natural centre position to the left side and is likely to run wild with the reduced defensive responsibility. He and Yamamoto will be the recipients of Brown’s exquisite playmaking ability.
I predict this line with make up three of the top six or seven forward slots on the scoring leaderboard by the time it’s all said and done and will be the engine in the Yanks' attempt to defend their title on home ice.
I expect Trent Frederic and Kieffer Bellows to make some noise on a likely second line, while the third member of that group will be the returning, Joey Anderson. Anderson is a New Jersey 2016 third round selection who is returning from last year’s gold medal winning squad and will have an increased role this time around. He’s a good bet to see his overall stock improve by the end of this tournament.
On the back end, Adam Fox is primed to feast on what should be a deadly power play unit. The Harvard defenseman and Calgary prospect has done nothing but put up gaudy totals in his young career and despite not being overly big or speedy, his distribution skill, big shot and high IQ more than make up for it at this level.
Fox will be supplemented by Ryan Lindgren who will see a ton of all-situations ice, and (hopefully) top 2018 draft prospect, Quinton Hughes.
Hughes is an incredibly dominant offensive player who has his sights firmly trained on a top 10 selection this June with a chance of even creeping into the top five. Hughes isn’t a big player, but seems to create and exude confidence every shift. He’s likely to start on the second power play unit but should be able to create loads of offense at even strength.
Hughes is a late 1999 birthdate, so he’s already 18 and not as green as some of the other potential draft-eligible players.
Quinton Hughes 2017 IIHF U18 Highlights
The other draft-eligible to watch is Brady Tkachuk. Just a single day away from being eligible for the 2017 draft, the younger brother of Matthew and son of Keith has been playing well at BU but hasn’t been dominating as many would have hoped.
His advanced age for this draft class puts added pressure on him to produce right away and a strong showing in Buffalo would go a long way in securing him a top seven selection in June. He’s likely to start in the bottom six and work his way up.
The Fins almost pulled a first-to-worst style collapse last year. After dominating the scoring leaderboard and taking home to Gold in 2016, last year’s crop failed to ever get rolling. With their coach being canned mid-tournament, to having to win in the relegation round to even stay in the tournament for 2018, it was a dreadful showing.
However, with a new year, comes renewed hope for the Suomi.
You’ve surely heard all about the historic season Eeli Tolvanen is having with Jokerit of the KHL. The Nashville first rounder exploded into the professional ranks and was unstoppable for a lengthy period of time. While his production has cooled as of late, he remains just a hair outside of the top 10 scorers in the second best league in the world and has already match Evgeni Kuznetsov’s U19 record in five fewer contests.
He’ll have about 10 games to record 11 points to overtake Kirill Kaprizov’s U20 mark set a season ago.
Tolvanen’s shooting ability is already world-class and will no doubt strike fear into the heart of opposing net minders at the junior-aged tournament. A combination of he and Aleksi Heponiemi has all the ingredients to ride deep into the medal rounds and produce big numbers.
Speaking of Heponiemi, his play so far with Swift Current has been beyond impressive. The small and shifty centre has found a way to score nearly 2.5 points-per-game thus far (71 in 29) and while he’s been earning recognition, the big stage at the World Juniors will surely catapult him into the household name variety.
Keep an eye out for Aapeli Rasanen – an Edmonton sixth rounder from 2016. The 19-year-old centre led the Fins in scoring at last year’s competition with two goals and six points in six games and has a history of dishing the puck to Tolvanen. If he lands that plum assignment in Buffalo, he’s definitely one to watch.
24th overall pick from this past June, Kristian Vesalainen was having a strong year in the Finnish Liiga and brings a terrific combination of size and skill. The Jets prospect was injured last week but no comment on the duration of the injury just yet, so hopefully he’s well enough to suit up.
He’s a player who could really thrive at this tournament as a net front presence on the first unit and playing across from Tolvanen at even-strength.
Don’t sleep on Janne Kuokkanen either. The Hurriances second rounder from 2016 saw four games of NHL action earlier this season and is having a strong U20 campaign in the American league.
The 19-year-old centre is a strong bet to line up on the first line and will look to rebound after just a single assist in six games during last year’s tournament.
On defense, the left side is extremely deep with Miro Heiskanen a favourite for top defender at the tourney and Olli Juolevi anchoring the second pair and likely second power play unit. Juolevi is a year older, so he may start out with some more offensive opportunities, but it’s hard to keep a horse like Heiskanen down for long.
Down on the third pair is the Flames' most recent first round selection, 16th overall, Juuso Valimaki. The all-around defnder is clicking at over a point-per-game in the WHL this season and has the ability to rise up the ranks with strong play early on.
Oh yeah, and Henri Jokiharju, another 2017 first round pick, is hanging around on the right side, looking to put up points as well. He's a player who forever has his head up and rarely misses an outlet pass. Finland has arguably the deepest back end at the tournament and will use it to their every advantage.
The Slovaks are led by 2018 NHL draft prospect, Milos Roman. The extremely speedy 18-year-old was taken sixth overall by the Vancouver Giants in this past summer’s CHL Import Draft. He’s acclimated nicely, leading all first year WHL players with eight goals and 30 points in 32 contests.
He suited up in four games at last year’s event recording a goal and an assist.
Roman will likely be flanked by Calgary Flames fourth round pick, Adam Ruzicka. The 18-year-old is having a very strong year with the powerhouse Sarnia Sting of the OHL and is another returning player.
Unfortunately for the Slovakian squad, they’re in the tougher of the two groups and are very likely to slide into background in a hurry.
Much like the aforementioned Slovakian team, the Danes are going to be in tough to earn more than a handful of points during the preliminary round of play.
The one player who could make an impact at this upcoming tournament is San Jose Sharks' prospect, Joachim Blichfeld. The 19-year-old winger has done quite well in his two WHL seasons, producing 39 goals and 86 points in 88 career games.
He was a standout player for the Danes at last year’s event, totalling three goals and four points in contests.
At this point, outside of Blichfeld, there isn’t really a player to key in on that will be of actual note. That said, I’m also not an expert on obscure Danish prospects, so forgive my ignorance if an Oliver Bjorkstrand clone comes running out on Boxing day.
The big news this week for the Canadians was their finding out that NHLers, Victor Mete and Tyson Jost will be loaned to the team to compete in Buffalo. Both are expected to take on major roles with the squad and likely be mainstays on the top pair/top line and first power play unit.
Jost is a returnee from last year’s Silver Medal winning team who will no doubt be hungry for revenge against the Americans. He’s a tremendous two-way player who will anchor the top line and provide the impact from the middle of the ice that was the only potential flaw Canada had before this announcement.
*Editor's note: I was working on the information that Jost was all but confirmed to be loaned to Team Canada. As of this morning (Dec.12th) that has yet to be confirmed. My apologies for potentially jumping the gun. Let's all wait and see!**
Mete was an early cut from last year’s training camp, but has seen his development take off like a rocket in the past 12 months. He was seeing a decrease in confidence and ice time with Habs of late so sending him down to play big minutes and hopefully witness a great deal of success was a smart move.
The OHL’s leading point scorer and St Louis Blues’ top prospect, Jordan Kyrou will be expected to provide a lion’s share of offense from the right-side, while Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki are two players to watch as they’re good bets to see their deployment increase as the tournament rolls along.
Suzuki is no sure bet to even make the final roster, but if he does – even as a 13th forward, he’s my pick for surprise player of the tournament for the Red and White.
NICK SUZUKI 2016-17 OHL Highlights
Another player to watch is Canucks’ 2017 second round pick, Jonah Gadjovich. The power forward was a load to handle during his one game in the Canada-Russia Series and has never met a puck he didn’t enjoy shooting.
The 6’2 200lbs left-winger is an elite net-front presence in the OHL with Owen Sound and has been red hot of late, racking up 10 goals and 18 points in his last 13 games since returning from a wrist injury in early November.
He currently sits second in the CHL with an average of 5.48 shots-per-game, trailing only Owen Tippett’s 5.93, which he’s accrued in just 14 contests.
On the backend, Kale Clague is returning and rolling in a big way with Brandon of the WHL. As he leaves for camp, he currently sits 10th overall in WHL scoring with 47 points in 28 games (1.68 ppg). The WHL hasn't seen a defender put up more than 1.66 points-per-game in 27 years, and Travis Sanheim's 1.31 from 2015-16 is the highest output we've seen since 1997-98.
Clague will run the top unit with with Avalanch top prospect, Cale Makar and both are strong bets for big totals.
Jake Bean should anchor the second unit and bring quality production at even-strength.
Canada has opted to leave the draft-eligible players at home this year, which is too bad as defensemen, Ty Smith and Even Bouchard had played well enough to garner consideration. Both should be big parts of the team in 2019.
Join us next week when we break down Pool B featuring the Swedes, Russians, Czechs..and a couple other teams that won't be as fun to write about.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter @CrazyJoeDavola3