Every year we all sit down on Boxing Day (or just December 26th for non-Canadians) to watch the World Junior Championship. An annual tradition that is the Canadian equivalent to March Madness. The best players under the age of 20, from all around the world get together for two weeks of fun.
One of the reasons we all love the World Juniors is that there always seems to be a great deal of unpredictability to the event and the drama that unfolds is the stuff that dreams are made of. Whether its Jordan Eberle’s clutch play in back-to-back World Juniors in 2009 and 2010 or the Fins magical run to the title last year which included a last-minute goal to get to overtime before eliminating a strong Canadian squad last year, the World Juniors are always fun.
Who could see any of that stuff coming? No one. What we can do is get a little bold and make some predictions about each team at the World Junior Championships, from Canada to Kazakhstan, and see just how close we got to being right at the end of the tournament. It’s all for fun so let’s get a little bold shall we?
Finland Disappoints in their Title Defence
After winning it all last year, the Finns have it tough this year. They are missing one of their top players in 2020 draft-eligible center Anton Lundell, a big hit to their talent pool considering how much talent aged out. The subtraction of players such as Aleksi Hepomiemi, Eeli Tolvanen, and Henri Jokiharju due to age is a big blow but then its compounded by the likes of Kaapo Kakko staying with the New York Rangers and the Finns are in tough. Players such as Patrik Puistola and Rasmus Kupari will be looked upon to carry a large load of the offense.
While there is clearly talent on this team, they don’t have the high-end talent that they had last year. Aatu Räty, the top projected player for the 2021 NHL Draft, is an intriguing player but having just turned 17, it would take a remarkable performance for him to help carry this team. A third-place finish in the group stages followed by a swift exit in the quarters is a very real possibility.
Switzerland Finishes Second in their Group
The Swiss have been making a bit of noise lately. While they haven’t had any big tournament wins or high finishes in any major tournaments, they have been a feisty and competitive group at all levels lately. While they don’t have an elite player or even a sure-fire first-round talent, they are set up for success this year at the World Juniors. They avoid the group of death, the usually strong Finns are having a bit of a down year, Kazakhstan is in their group and Slovakia hasn’t been very good in a decade or so. This is the best chance for the Swiss.
It isn’t going to be easy but the Swiss have some intriguing players on their team who can put themselves on the map with a good performance. They have a strong left side of the defense with Nico Gross, Tim Berni, and 2021 prospect Giancarlo Chanton. They have a couple of intriguing names upfront as well in Simon Knak and Valentin Nussbaumer. While it’s evident that the team doesn’t possess any world-beaters, this year is as good a chance as any for the Swiss to make their mark.
Slovakia Plays to Avoid Relegation
The Slovakian team isn’t great this year. It rarely has been in recent years. Finishing above 7th just twice in the last decade, a 6th place finishes in 2012 and a surprise bronze in 2015. The roster isn’t particularly strong this year again and while they don’t play in the group of death, they look like they could be the weakest roster in their group. Playing in the relegation games is a real possibility.
It’s likely going to come down to Slovakia’s game against Kazakhstan, loser likely playing the relegation round. A poor performance against the only team in the tournament with a clearly weaker roster could ultimately do the Slovaks in. Are they likely to lose to the entrants from Kazakhstan? Probably not but it’s no certainty that they beat anyone in this year’s World Juniors.
Sweden Wins their Group but Doesn’t Medal
Death, taxes and the Swedes not losing in round-robin play. That’s been the reality since 2007. Yes, you read that right. The Swedish junior team hasn’t lost in the round-robin games since 2007. The only problem they’ve had over that time is finishing with a medal. In that time, they’ve finished without a medal almost as much as they’ve had hardware around their necks. Only once they finished on top. Why does this happen to the Swedish team? There are a lot of theories ranging from “lacking intensity in elimination games” to a “soft roster that doesn’t know who to win”. In reality, hockey is a weird sport and they’ve been getting some pretty odd luck.
With the weaker of the two groups, they should cruise through the round-robin yet again. Playing a team like Germany or Canada in the quarters could present the Swedes with their biggest test of the tournament. The German’s will be looking to prove that they belong on the big stage and the Canadian’s would be looking to avoid disaster. The Swedes will be doing much the same. With a strong back end including Rasmus Sandin, Philip Broberg, Victor Söderström and Nils Lundqvist they should be a stout defensive team. Injuries up front have taken away from a roster that still looks promising. Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, the Terror Twins, will be among their best forwards along with Nils Hoglander, Samuel Fagemo, and Jonatan Berggren. Will they be able to push the team through to the medal rounds?
Kazakhstan Doesn’t have to play in the Relegation Round
You want bold! This is about as bold as it gets with a roster that doesn’t feature any real NHL-level prospects. This prediction is based solely on a good strong (not strong at all) gut feeling! Could someone step up and steal a game for a scrappy little squad from Kazakhstan? Sure. Who? Your guess is as good as mine.
Germany Beats a ‘Big Boy’
THE GERMANS ARE COMING! The young, upstart German squad was unlucky in drawing into the group of death with Canada, Russia, and the United States all to go along with the host nation looking to impress in the Czech Republic. That doesn’t matter for one of the best collections of German talent ever. With leadership from Moritz Seider and Dominik Bokk to go along with the youth movement that includes a potential top-10 selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, Tim Stützle, this German club could do some real damage.
Moritz Seider of Germany celebrates his goal during the group A stage match Germany vs Great Britain of the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship at Steel Arena in Kosice, Slovakia on May 11, 2018. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
With a shot at taking down three of the hockey world’s biggest giants, a victory over the Canadians, Americans or Russians will not only put them on the map but it shouldn’t be a surprise. For the first time in a long time, the German’s seem to have a bit of depth behind their top stars. Players such as forwards Lukas Reichel, John-Jason Peterka, Nino Kinder and defenders Maximilian Glötzl, Simon Gnyp are all impressing with their respective club teams. This team is poised to take down a big boy. If forced to choose which one, Canada might be the victim.
The Czech Republic are Relegated at Home
The host nation probably wishes they were in the other group. As previously mentioned, they are in the group of death and may not win a game in the round-robin play. The Czech team doesn’t have it easy if they expect to win against any of Canada, USA, Russia or even the upstart Germans. An 0-4 record could be realistic, forcing them into the relegation round.
If things play out the way that’s laid out here, they would be going up against their long-time rival, Slovakia. With the Czech’s playing the tougher group, being worn down by three traditional powers and a spunky German club, a loss to the Slovakian’s in front of their home fans would be not only disappointing but it would be a crushing blow to a country whose been on a bit of decline in recent years.
Russia Barely Scores but Gets to the Semi-Finals
This is a good Russian group. Players such as Vasili Podkolzin, Grigori Denisenko and Pavel Dorofeyev are all highly talented players. There is no doubt that this team has the potential to put up some decent numbers but for the purposes of these bold takes, they won’t. Russia is going to have to rely on a common x-factor over the last could of years, their young netminder. The best player on this team might just be the young netminder Yaroslav Askarov, the clear-cut top netminder in this draft class and maybe the best goalie prospect in over a decade.
Askarov has been a dream killer in international tournaments. He has been known to will his teams to the medal rounds with consistency, often playing an age group above his own. He’s taken out a historic American group at the World U18s in the spring and then proceeded to hold off a dominant Canadian team at the Hlinka this past August. The young Russian has impressed at the VHL level in Russia and impressed in his lone KHL game. To say that Asakarov could steal the gold medal isn’t a shock. Honestly, its almost expected at this point.
The USA Goes Undefeated on Route to the Gold
As a Canadian, this is tough to write. The American’s are going to destroy worlds at this year’s World Juniors. Despite not having Jack Hughes available because he’s sticking around with the New Jersey Devils, this roster is loaded with talent. Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Arthur Kaliyev could all be the best forward at the event. K’Andre Miller and Cam York have a shot to be the top blueliner. Spencer Knight is the closest competition to Askarov for the best goaltender. This team is stacked.
If they can solve the aforementioned Askarov in their game against the Russians, this team should have no issues taking care of business. Canada has some high-end talent but they have holes as well. The German’s are feisty but will likely be overmatched. The game against the Czech Republic could get ugly. This is the American’s group to lose. If and until they play the Russians and Canadians in the elimination rounds, the U.S. squad should be confident in their ability to dispose of whichever team lines up across from them.
Canada Fails to Medal
Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield, Dylan Cozens, Barrett Hayton, Bowen Byram, Ty Smith, and a fourth-place finish. I know, crazy right? Well, it’s not that crazy when you think about it. The Canadian squad has some elite talent. They almost always do. The problem is that despite some high-end talent, they just don’t stack up to the other top contenders. The Americans also have high-end talent, but they have depth and goaltending that exceed the Canadian squad’s. Russia may not have the high-end talent but they have the ultimate difference-maker in net (I know, you’ve heard that a few times). The German’s will be a challenge and could look at the Canadian’s as their opportunity to take out a goliath.
The biggest area of concern of the Canadian club is in between the pipes. Nico Daws, Joel Hofer, and Olivier Rodrigue don’t instill the same kind of confidence that Knight or Askarov provide. Even the Swedes with Hugo Alnefelt and Eric Portillo and Finnish netminder Justus Annunen are likely to outperform the Canadian threesome. The Canadian blueline isn’t a stellar group by any means, with 17-year-old Jaime Drysdale possibly being their third-best defender. There are about a half dozen defenders who could have been taken ahead of new Devils prospect Kevin Bahl but none of them are 6′ 6″, a trait that the Canadian national program seems to drool over. In all honesty, the Canadian’s very well could medal. Just don’t be surprised when they don’t.
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
The World Juniors are among fans favourite time of the year. Fans get to see their team’s prospects and some of the top draft prospects, all in one place competing against the best of their age group. The predictions above are bold (and at times a little crazy) so the likelihood of them all happening isn’t high. But I bet you at least a few will.
Thank you for joining me for another edition of my Ramblings. I’ll be moving to a new day starting next week, coming at you on Monday’s to start your week off on the right foot with some Prospect Ramblings. I also invite you to check out my bi-weekly series called Shift Work. It’s a series of shift-by-shift analysis focusing on a 2020 NHL Draft eligible prospect. This past edition featured World Junior hopeful Jan Myšák of the Czech Republic. As always, you can reach out to me on Twitter at @theTonyFerrari! Which prospects have stood out to you recently? Let me know!