The World Juniors Championships provide one of the biggest stages for junior-aged players to put their skills on display and make their mark on the world stage. It’s a chance for a player to enamor teams with a great performance on the biggest stage of junior hockey. For some players, it’s the chance of a lifetime.
Every year players stick out and seem to be ‘the guy’ in the big moments even if they aren’t the team’s best players. These players capture lightning in a bottle and have their best stretch of the season while representing their country. they are the X-Factor. Who has the chance to be their team’s X-Factor?
Justus Annunen, Goaltender, Finland
If the Finns have a chance to repeat as champions, the bulk of the success will be driven by the young netminder. Justus Annunen has had an absolutely stellar season in the Liiga, earning the reigns as the starting netminder for Kärpät. The young Finn hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game all season in Liiga play and at one point had four straight shutouts. Annunen has been popping up on the radar of more and more fans and analysts alike this season and the World Juniors could be his coming out party as one of the best goaltending prospects in the world.
Annunen is a big goaltender, 6’4″ and 216lbs, who moves well. His lateral movement is smooth and he closes off the bottom of the net extremely well. His length allows him to cut down the angles with ease. He keeps his eyes free from a screen by peeking around and above defenders. He has a good glove and blocker, controlling rebounds quite well and absorbing the puck into his chest more often than not. He has the athleticism to get himself out of trouble when things break down in front of the netminder. Watch for Finland to go as far as Annunen takes them.
Quinton Byfield, F, Canada
For most, Quinton Byfield is the second-ranked prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft and while he is going to be teammates with the near-consensus number one Alexis Lafreniere, Byfield may be the X-Factor for the Canadian squad. With the majority of teams deploying their strongest defensive units against the top-line with Lafreniere, Byfield, and whatever line he winds up on, may get the opportunity to be the driving force behind the Canadian depth scoring.
Byfield plays with a combination of size, speed, and skill that may be unmatched in this tournament. His elite speed and agility is even more impressive when you realize it is a 6’4″, 216lbs player. He attacks the offensive zone with his speed and then takes advatage of opponents with his high-end skill. His shot is powerful and his passing ability is crisp and precise. Byfield’s offensive game gives him the chance to be Canada’s X-Factor.
Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, F, Sweden
This may be cheating but with the strength of the Swedish team being on the back-end, their forward group may have to rely on a couple of kids to push the pace upfront. The “Terror Twins” have torn tournaments up in recent years as members of the Swedish teams at each age level. Both Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz have played in the SHL primarily this season, they have experienced mixed results thus far in the 2019-20 season in the men’s league. The two young Swedes seem to be able to rekindle their chemistry at international events instantaneously.
Raymond is a slick skater who has the speed and agility to break ankles on the ice. He is shifty and skilled enough to make moves with the puck 0n his stick to create space for the slightly undersized forward. His vision and creativity in the offensive zone is high-end. With a willingness to make passes that many players wouldn’t think of. Although playmaking is his calling card, his shot is underrated. He has a quick and accurate release that helps keep defenders and goalies honest.
Holtz is a goalscorer. He possesses one of the best shots in his draft class and doesn’t shy away from using it. He is a good skater but not nearly at the same level as Raymond. He understands the game at an advanced level and seems to know exactly where to be in the offensive zone in order to give himself the most dangerous scoring chance. The chemistry between the “Terror Twins” could help push the Swedes to the medal rounds.
K’Andre Miller, LHD, USA
With all of the firepower upfront, the American blueline will need to ensure that they can hold their end of the bargain. On a stacked US squad, the leader of the blueline will be New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller. The University of Wisconsin defender will play in every situation for the Americans. His play at five-on-five will be key as he will be one of the most senior players at the tournament. While his scoring rates haven’t gone up in his sophomore season, he is still producing at a high-rate from the back end with 11 points in 18 games while also being one of their better defenders in his own zone.
He plays strong and fast, using his natural physical tools to his advantage when looking to make a difference at both ends of the ice. He takes his offensive mindset from his days as a forward prior to switching to defense in high school. His skating is high-end and he doesn’t shy away from contact. He attacks defenders in transition and doesn’t shy away from joining the rush. Despite his raw tools, he has shown the ability to adapt to a defensive role. If Miller is among the best defenders at the World Juniors, as expected, the United States should blow by most teams with ease.
Yaroslav Askarov, G, Russia
The thing with Yaroslav Askarrov is that despite being the youngest goaltender on the Russian roster, he’s also the best. The only problem? Russia doesn’t like playing their young players. Askarov is not only the top goalie for the 2020 NHL Draft, but he could be the best goaltending prospect in a decade. He has good size, excellent agility and the mental maturity to not allow the moment to get too big. He’s been called the “Dream Killer” because of his performance at international events such as the World U18’s and the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.
Askarov is unbeatable when he is on his game. He is structured and plays a hybrid style in goal. He relies on a lot of techniques from the butterfly style and seals the ice with efficiency. He is technically sound and reliable but he has the athleticism to come out of his structure to make an outstanding, Dominic Hasek-esque save. If Askarov is given the opportunity to carry this team to gold, he just may very well do it.
Nico Gross, LHD, Switzerland
The Swiss don’t have a ton of options when it comes to who could be their X-Factor. Nico Gross isn’t an offensive dynamo by any means but he may just be able to provide the stability that the Swiss defense is looking for. Gross is a Rangers prospect who relies on quick thinking and good positioning.
Gross will do his best to help control the pace of play for a Swiss club that’s devoid fo elite talent. His play on the backend could be the deciding factor when it comes to whether the Swiss are playing in the quarter-finals or the relegation round.
Moritz Seider, RHD, Germany
Jokingly referred to as the “German Lidstrom” by Detroit Red Wings fans, Moritz Seider has gone from being a surprise sixth overall pick this past June to a player who has analysts and scouts around the hockey world saying “We undervalued this kid”. His play in the AHL has been nothing short of stellar as he is on track to surpass the record for points by an 18-year-old defender and his defensive game, his calling card coming into his draft, has been solid and reliable.
Seider played in the DEL, the top German men’s league last season, and was asked to focus on his defensive game. He did that. Scouts and analysts alike seemed to question his offensive upside. Every time he was given the chance to show it off, whether at the Division I Group A World Junior Championships or the men’s World Championships last season, he did just that. He is a smooth skater, a physical presence and everything a team would want from a modern-day defender. Puck-mover, physical presence, offensive contributor and German X-factor.
Michal Teplý, LW, Czech Republic
The Czech Republic has forwards who do things better in just about every facet of the game. They come to the World Juniors with plenty of skill and speed. They have plenty of guys with experience and even some first-round graded 2020 Draft prospects. Michal Teplý will be the guy that is relied upon for a little bit of everything. He’s experienced and should help provide leadership. Teplý is going to be relied upon to be one of the host nation’s biggest contributors.
The Blackhawks prospect should be among their best goalscorers and should help provide offense. He has excellent vision and the ability to make crisp passes throughout the offensive zone. His shot is his calling card. His shot is hard and heavy and he has a willingness to fire the puck from anywhere on the ice. The key will be whether or not he can show that his 200-foot game has grown, at least against his age-level peers. If Teplý can provide his usual offense to fo with an improved 200-foot game, the Czech’s may be able to do some damage.
Martin Chromiak, LW, Slovakia
Martin Chromiak is the top Slovakian prospect for the 2020 draft and he may end up being relied upon at the World Junior Championships earlier than he is ready for. He is a good two-way forward who thrives in a puck-possession game. He has good hands and a very good shot. Offensively, he is a sniper first and foremost but his playmaking is going to be among the best of the Slovakian team. His defensive game is smart and relies on his aggressive positioning and stickwork. He plays a smart game and should be the driving force behind the Slovakian’s success, even if it is just avoiding relegation.
Editor’s note: Chromiak was a surprise cut by the Slovakian team. This is a similar situation to the one Maxim Cajkovic dealt with last season. They decided against taking him despite being clearly one of their top skilled forwards and it burned them a bit in the scoring department. This year will likely be the same as the shortsighted cut of Chromiak. Relegation is even more likely now.
Maxim Musorov, W, Kazakhstan
Let’s not pretend that Kazakhstan is bursting with potential NHL players. This is clearly the weakest team on paper but outside of the goaltender, Vladislav Nurek, going on a hot run for two weeks, Masim Musorov will be the reason they avoid relegation. He is currently the 2nd leading scorer on his MHL team with 23 points, despite playing only 17 games while most have played roughly 40. The only player to outscore him with his MHL club is his Kazakhstan teammate Dias Guseinov who has 41 points in 36 games. He has split the year between three levels, the KHL, VHL, and MHL. Musorov will need to produce against his peers, which he has shown capable, in order to ensure that he and his teammates are able to fight for their lives again next December and January.
The World Juniors begin later this week and its become one of the best events in junior hockey. While some of these X-Factors are clearly going to have an easier time being the difference-maker than others, they are all going to be integral parts of their respective countries’ chances of accomplishing their goals. Be sure to check out some Bold Predictions for each country at the World Juniors and the rest of the World Juniors content from the team at Dobber Prospects!
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!