World Juniors Team Breakdowns: Group A

Tony Ferrari

2020-12-21

Graphic Courtesy of Andrew Armstrong

 

Throughout this week, the DobberProspects’ team is going to be bringing you a full World Junior Championship preview! From team breakdowns to hot takes and picks and predictions to cap off the week on opening day and Christmas! Be sure to check back all week for more World Juniors preview and coverage! 

Monday, December 21: Team Breakdowns: Group A/Group B
Tuesday: World Juniors Players to Watch
Wednesday: World Juniors Sleepers
Thursday: World Juniors Hot Takes
Friday: World Juniors Picks and Predictions

 

Podcasts:
Dobber’s DraftCast World Juniors Preview with Cam Robinson and Danny Tiffany
DPR Episode 96: USA WJC Preview with Chris Peters
DPR Episode 97: WJC Preview Team Canada with Craig Button
DPR Episode 98: WJC Sweden Preview with Jimmy Hamrin
DPR Episode 99: WJC Preview Finland with Marco Bombino

 

Welcome to the Team Breakdowns for Group A at the 2021 World Junior Championships! It has been a crazy year, to say the least, but we are finally at the end of it. what better way to celebrate than with the biggest junior hockey tournament in the world. Group A is the perceived weaker of the two groups but it features the two most recent winners in the Canadians (2020) and the Finns (2019). Both teams expected to finish atop the group, the Canadians bring a ton of firepower as usual but also feature their usual questions in net. As for the 2019 champs, the Finnish club is going to be heavily relying on Anton Lundell with some interesting names like Brad Lambert (2022 NHL Draft) looking to make their mark.

 

It also features the upstart Germans that so many fell in love with at last year’s event with the likes of Tim Stützle and Moritz Seider leading the way. They’ll be without Seider but Stützle will be back and looking to get his first games of the year under his belt. The Swiss always bring some feistiness to their games and make it tougher on the big boys than expected. The Slovak team might not grab headlines but they could feature some really intriguing young talent headlined by 2022 NHL Draft-eligible Juraj Slafkovsky. Let’s dive into the analysis for each team, provided by the DobberProspects scouting team.

 

Canada

OHL Scout Jacob Barker

Coming off an impressive gold medal-winning performance in Ostrava this past year, recent history suggests that Canada will have their work cut out for them if they are looking to win back-to-back IIHF World Junior Championships. Since Canada’s record-tying five straight gold medals in a row from 2005-2009, no team has won the tournament in back-to-back years. Regardless, Andre Tourigny’s roster of 20 NHL first-round selections and only one undrafted player has a very clear expectation set out for them: repeat as champions or bust. 

 

 

The obvious strength of this team is their unmatched depth of highly talented forwards. Canada managed to return four forwards from last year’s team, including big names such as Dylan Cozens, Connor McMichael, and recent second overall selection, Quinton Byfield. While Byfield was given a very small supporting role as a 17-year-old last tournament, Cozens and McMichael were solid contributors to Canada’s success upfront, producing a combined 16 points in just seven games (seven points and nine points respectively). Canada also received some immediate top-end help from the Chicago Blackhawks, when they released their third overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Kirby Dach, to the world junior roster. After posting an impressive 23 points in 64 games as a rookie with the Blackhawks last year, Dach is expected to play a key role in leading the offensive powerhouse of this Canadian roster. Not to mention the large number of new players to the team who are all capable of putting up strong numbers, such as Cole Perfetti, Alex Newhook, and Jack Quinn. Needless to say, the offensive threat that Canada possesses is going to be a key threat for opposing teams to try to shut down.

 

While the offense takes the obvious spotlight for this Canadian team, the defensive core is just as impressive. The projected top pairing of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale is a candidate for the best pairing in the tournament, with both players capable of pushing the play offensively while being reliable in their own end. Right beneath them on the depth chart is the strong shutdown partnership of Thomas Harley and Braden Schneider, who are expected to eat up minutes against the opponent’s top lines and on the penalty kill. In terms of depth, the first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche Justin Barron had a fantastic showing at selection camp and can provide depth production and stability on the back end if needed. 

 

 

Despite all the star power amongst the forward and defensive groups, there is one obvious concern with this Canadian team: goaltending. This is often the concern with Canadian teams entering this tournament, with the only previous goalies in recent history that were known to star prior to the opening game were Carter Hart (2018) and Carey Price (2007). Of the three goalies selected by Tourigny’s staff, two of which are drafted by NHL teams, the highest of which being 2020 103rd overall selection of the New York Rangers, Dylan Garand. With other teams boasting elite goaltending talents, such as Yaroslav Askarov (Russia), Spencer Knight (USA), Hugo Alnfelt and Jesper Wallstedt (both Sweden), is Canada being set up to get let down by mediocre goaltending? 

 

The main thing for Canadian fans to remember is that Canada’s goaltending does not need to be fantastic; It just needs to be good enough. What that means is if Canada’s stacked forward and defense groups do their job, they do not necessarily need to worry about shutting out every opponent they play to win. They simply need one of those guys to step up and contribute consistent performances while the rest of the team does their job, and they will have a chance. The key is they need to find their consistent goaltending early in the tournament, or else they could find themselves with an unstable crease in a scary quarter-final crossover with a team from the group of death.

 

 

Although that seems like a simple task for Tourigny’s staff to figure out, the issue at hand is that there isn’t a clear-cut candidate out of those three options to start the opening match on Boxing Day against Germany. While Taylor Gauthier possesses the most experience with Hockey Canada, Dylan Garand and Devon Levi have both produced very strong performances at selection camp that make them starting candidates as well. Levi especially stood out in the final intrasquad game, posting an impressive 36 save shutout in a 4-0 victory for Team Red. Does that make him the leading candidate to start? Only time will tell.   

 

Finland

Finnish Scout Eetu Siltanen

Finland hardly ever is a gold-medal contender or even considered to be a semifinal-team, but they will always find a way to be one.  You can tell by checking the recent tournament results: Finland has three of the last seven gold medals at this tournament. But what unites those three gold-medal winning teams? They all had good depth, super junior with the cage (or two), one leading defender, and most importantly: an amazing team spirit. That’s also the thing that made a team of Liiga players beat three teams full of NHL stars in the 2019 Men’s World Championships for gold. I am not saying Finland will win gold or even be my prediction for gold, but they are definitely fighting for it. They have the depth (almost all are Liiga players), super junior (Brad Lambert), leading defender (Ville Heinola) and they always have the team spirit, that I know for sure. I’m going to dive a bit deeper and analyze this team.

 

 

Key point: Experience in the men’s games

Finland has 959 games of experience in Liiga. In comparison, Sweden has 874 games of SHL & Allsvenskan experience compared, Russia has 412 games of KHL experience. If we add Mestis games for Finland, it’ll be easily over 1000 men’s games experience and while Liiga might not be as good a league as SHL or KHL are, that’s a lot of experience from elite-level men’s games. Obviously, this is not comparable to the USA and Canada, but it will give a good glance at how experienced the Finnish squad is.

 

Goaltending

Kari Piiroinen will likely be the starter for Finland. He’s been good in TUTO (Mestis) this season, recording .924 S% and 2.26 GAA in 14 games. His save percentage is fourth-best in Mestis and GAA is the second best. Both statistics are led by the team’s other goalie, Roope Taponen (1.84 GAA, .928%). However, Piiroinen was in the WJC team last year and the head coach Antti Pennanen said that he’s leaning towards Piiroinen “because he’s mentally tough”. However, all three Finnish goalies are a question mark but I think that they are in a position where they can play any one of the three if necessary, as no one really stands out more than others.

 

Defense

Ville Heinola is definitely going to be the leader of the defense. He’s a skilled offensive defenseman with great mobility and puck skills. He’s a great passer and has a solid shot. There’s been development in his defensive game also. He’s scored 14 points in 19 games in Liiga this season and his current 0.74 PPG is the 2nd highest by a U20 defenseman in Liiga (in the 2000s), only losing to Miro Heiskanen. He has already played two WJC’s and is the most experienced player in the team (alongside Mikko Kokkonen) as he has also played 8 NHL games. His D-partner in practice has been Santeri Hatakka, another returning player who plays for Liiga team Ilves. He’s a solid two-way defenseman with pretty good mobility and carries the “A” in his jersey. I believe the third defender with a big role will be Mikko Kokkonen, a WJC-veteran who also wears “A” in his jersey. He’s a reliable two-way defender who’s been improving his defensive game year after year. There’s good depth in Finland’s defense, as all the players are playing in Liiga against men.

 

 

Forwards

Finland has good depth as always; almost every player has a role in a Liiga team. Especially the centers are really good but there’s not that much quality in wingers. The key forwards are Lundell, Roby Järventie, Kasper Simontaival, Brad Lambert, Juuso Pärssinen, and Roni Hirvonen. Anton Lundell is obviously going to be a leading forward of the team, carrying “C”. Lundell’s a great two-way center with great smarts and has also shown that he can generate points, creating a play, or scoring by himself. Roby Järventie will likely be his left-winger. He’s a sniper, but he’s also creative and has the playmaking skills to create chances for his linemates. The right-wing in the first line in practice was Kasper Simontaival, a skilled winger with good offensive tools. He is a great playmaker with good vision but also has a great wrist shot. The 2nd line in practice composed of a big two-way center Juuso Pärssinen, an undersized but skilled playmaker Roni Hirvonen and an elite skater Brad Lambert, who also possesses great skills and smarts. Also, keep an eye on two-way center Henri Nikkanen and defensive forward giant Samuel Helenius, who’s going to be eligible in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

 

Not a lot of people think of Finland as a gold medal contender, but they are definitely fighting for it and you shouldn’t sleep on them.

Germany

Central European Scout Jeff Rea

After four seasons in Division 1A, Germany returned to the World Junior Championships last year. Not only did they manage to stay up, but they also beat the host Czech Republic and narrowly missed out on a quarterfinal spot in uber-competitive Group B. Draft Year eligible stars JJ Peterka, Tim Stützle, and Lukas Reichel became household names and Detroit Red Wings franchise prospect Moritz Seider showcased his enormous potential. All four players were due to return and 2021 was destined to be a famous year for German ice hockey. 

 

 

While still likely to remain unforgettable, the 2021 World Junior Championships have been, thus far, heartbreaking. Despite taking precautions and being thorough in their pre-tournament preparation, Germany has repeatedly been hit. Be it through injury, covid testing results, or mysterious absences from the roster, Germany will enter this tournament heavily wounded and short-handed.

 

Thankfully, Germany’s first line will most likely remain intact. Having allegedly recovered from a broken hand and mid-October surgery, Adler Mannheim phenom Tim Stützle will likely partner EHC München star John-Jason Peterka on the first unit. Stützle selected 3rd overall by the Ottawa Senators, put up 34 points in 41 games in limited time-on-ice as a rookie in the DEL. After also establishing himself as a draft year sensation, JJ Peterka (34th overall to Buffalo) has been on loan this season at EC Salzburg. The Red Bull prodigy has 7 goals and 16 points in 12 games in the top Austrian league. Jan Nijenhuis of Wolfsburg (DEL), who also featured in Ostrava last year, will likely join the high scoring pair after appearing in all three games at last summer’s development alongside them.

 

Of seven potential returning players, those three are the only ones available. Chicago’s first-round selection Lukas Reichel (17th to Chicago) was announced covid ineligible on the same day projected second line C Nino Kinder was declared unfit. That effectively leaves former Mississauga Steelheads winger Filip Reisnecker as the only member on the second unit. It was a unit that had been simmering nicely at last summer’s camp and would have featured three players from the Deutschland Cup German Prospect team.

 

Mortiz Sieder was not released to participate. The 2019 6th overall pick played an instrumental 25:32 in the win over the Czechs last year and was due to play even more minutes this year as the sole returning defenceman. Instead, Germany’s defense will likely be anchored by a collaborative group of rather uninspiring names. 

 

Maximilian Glötzl and Maksymilian Szuber played pivotal roles on the U18 team last year, whilst Luca Münzenberger is another big body who has been worked into the system. Simon Gnyp had a cup of coffee with Kölner Haie, 5’7 Mario Zimmermann and converted forward 5’9 Steven Raabe has defined themselves as undersized puck-movers in the DNL U20 and German third league, and Lucas Flade and Niklas Länger played the consistent top-six minutes at this summer’s camp. Tommy Pasanen, formerly of Sioux City (USHL), was mysteriously cut.

 

Behind them, it was expected that returning goalie and Deutschland Cup selection Tobias Ancicka would backstop the Germans. Sadly, he’s yet another covid related absentee. Promising Florian Bugl of Red Bull Juniors, big-bodied Jungadler Mannheim graduate Arno Tiefensee, and development camp goaltending survivor Jonas Gähr will compete for starts. Keeping the likes of Canada and Finland off the board without their preferred starting Goalie, #1 Defenseman, and shutdown Center will likely be a challenge.

 

 

It goes without saying that Germany will live and die on the back of its top two lines. Joining Reisnecker on the second block will likely be German U18 scoring sensation Florian Elias and possibly Elias’ Zuchwil U18 Tournament winger Jakub Borzęcki. Jan-Luca Schumacher and Enrico Henriquez-Morales are two others who have top-six potential. The bottom six will play a strong systems-based game.

 

The loss of injured AlpsHL star Filip Varejcka is being felt and the questionable decision to leave certain 2021 and 2022 talents behind, such as Julian Lutz and Kevin Niedenz, lingers.

 

Instead of targeting a medal, Germany is simply hoping to beat their Swiss rivals and respectfully represent themself in a quarterfinal. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and a far cry from what was hoped for.

 

Slovakia

Czech/Slovak Scout Samuel Tirpák

Slovakia has finished in the quarterfinals five out of the last six World Juniors. One exception was in 2015 when they miraculously won bronze medals. I don’t see them replicating this level of success anytime soon. But the quality of the team has been getting better and better each year, which shows progress in player development. And more exciting young prospects would be on display this year as well!

 

Sherbrooke Phoenix’s starting goalie and one of the best QMJHL goalies last year, Samuel Hlavaj, is the expected starter for Slovakia. Hlavaj was already a starter for them in the last two years and sadly did not perform really well in each of the two showings. Was that due to him being not that good or was that because the system on defense was rather bad? We have a good chance to find out this year. I don’t expect any of the backup options to take over his role.

 

Defensively, and that would be one of the main storylines to watch for, the group they took to Edmonton is definitely better than it was last year. There are 4 returnee defensemen, the best one of them is Columbus Blue Jackets’ third-round selection from the 2020 NHL Draft, Samuel Kňažko, who I believe will get the top pairing role for Slovakia. Marko Stacha is the player I look forward to watching because he was like a firecracker when he entered the lineup last year and his style of play would be really fitting on a small ice surface. The most exciting defenseman this year would be 2004-born, 2022 NHL Draft eligible right shot defenseman Šimon Nemec, who I expect to be in conversations for a top-10 spot in his class. Extremely smart two-way blueliner should play a prominent role for Slovakia and be an important player in more of a defense-based role and probably on both special teams. If he does, it could be one of the storylines to watch. 

 

 

On offense, there is one obvious leader and that’s Los Angeles Kings’ (somehow) fifth-round pick from the 2020 NHL Draft, Martin Chromiak. He was snubbed from being on the team last year due to age, but this year I expect nothing but big minutes, rock-solid offensive performances. He can shoot very well, use his body great, and make plays with ease either with established zone possession or straight from transition as he did so much with Kingston after moving to Canada. I expect him to lead the team in scoring and honestly by not a close margin. One of the top storylines, however, is how big of a role would Juraj Slafkovský and Filip Mešár get. Two other 2022 NHL Draft prospects, one of them rated very highly, got the opportunity to make the WJC team this year and in scrimmages, both play in top-six roles. Will that last in Edmonton? I’m really looking forward to finding out.

 

Switzerland

Central European Scout Jeff Rea

Switzerland is a nation in flux. Relishing in Roman Josi and Nico Hischier’s wake, eagerly anticipating the futures of Timo Meier and Kevin Fiala, and now consistently delivering at the World Championships, it would appear that things are booming. Look more closely, however, and the well is seemingly more dry than most realize. 

 

Whilst their World Junior Championship teams remain competitive and able, a lack of high-end talent and elite goaltending is raising a growing concern. It’s been well-publicized that this Swiss team lacks a single NHL drafted player. 

 

In terms of depth, however, the team is strong. Whereas Germany has a dash of elite talent and some soft spots, Switzerland has a team of soldiers. 

 

Simon Knak will captain the team. Knak had a respectable 2019-20 season where he participated in his second Hlinka Gretzky Cup, put up 34 points in 49 games with the Portland Winterhawks, and featured at the World Juniors Championships, albeit in a limited role, scoring twice. Surprisingly to some he went undrafted. This season on loan with HC Davos, Knak has chipped in with a couple of goals and a pair of helpers in 11 games, playing in a bottom-six role. 

 

Knak may be joined on the top line by fellow returning players Joel Salzgeber and Gaétan Jobin. Jobin played last season with Charlottetown of the QMJHL. Salzgeber spent most of last season with Olten, in the Swiss League (formerly known as the NLB). Both players had noticeable moments last year and are potentially dangerous this year, too.

 

 

Lorenzo Canonica is certainly the player people most want to see. After showing well at a U17 level and starring in the summer U20 development camp against Germany, Canonica leads the Swiss draft class and has scouts eager for more viewings. The Lugano product has struggled to build on a strong draft minus one season, which makes the World Juniors an even more important stage for him. Canonica moves around the ice well, disturbs the puck effectively on the power play, and is a threat on the rush. It’s possible he’s paired with Dario Allenspach and Ray Fust. The three played together throughout the summer. Allenspach led the U18 program in scoring last year and has made the jump to pro hockey this season. Fust is skating with the Chilliwack Chiefs in the BCHL and recently signed with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The 6’3 190 lb winger stared at Northwood School last season. 

 

Filling out the forward ranks, the Swiss have some other wildcards as well. Attilio Biasca was selected 5th overall by the Halifax Mooseheads in the CHL import draft. He put up decent numbers in his draft minus one year with Zug, collecting 29 points in 34 games in the Swiss U20 Elit. He was good enough to be called upon by a Mooseheads team who has had a fair share of success with import draft picks. Keanu Derungs returns to Western Canada. Derungs put up 29 points in 57 games with the Victoria Royals last season. He has been playing with Zug Academy in the Swiss League, this year.

 

Switzerland’s success at the World Juniors over the past two seasons can largely be attributed to their defensemen and goaltender. In the crease, Luca Hollenstein was steady if not spectacular at times in both Vancouver/Victoria and Ostrava/Trinec. 

 

Replacing Hollenstein are three goalies who have each represented the Swiss on various occasions. Thibault Fatton tends net for Lugano in the U20 Elit, Andri Henauer has split his season between the U20 and the Swiss League and Noah Patenaude plys his trade with Saint John in the QMJHL. None are exceptional, all are serviceable. All three have played parts of three games at the Hlinka Gretzky and Fatton and Henauer both saw action this summer at the development camp. It’s uncertain how the games will be divided at this point.

 

Last year’s defense returned two players, Bastian Guggenheim and Rocco Pezzullo. Neither player was high usage last year, but this time around it’s possible both log more ice time. 

 

 

Inaki Baragano of the Kamloops Blazers could see time on the powerplay. He played exclusively with Niagra Ice Dog Giancarlo Chanton this summer. Chanton is 2021 draft-eligible, as are fellow defensemen Brian Zanetti and Noah Meier. Meier has been up and down with the Zürich Lions playing across three levels which includes the National League. Zanetti was selected by the Peterborough Petes this summer and plays with Canonica and fellow Dman Alessandro Villa in Lugano. Meier likes to carry the puck and create offense whilst Zanetti plays a poised, mature, and controlling game. The other recognizable name on the blueline is Noah Delémont. Once highly regarded, Delémont is struggling to recapture the reputation he once garnered. It will be interesting to see how and when he’s deployed.

 

As with the forward core, the defense is deep and capable but lacking in elite talent. Last year the Swiss rode an underrated defense into the quarterfinals. All seven of those players are playing professional hockey already. This year’s backbone is not nearly as strong. It could spell trouble against tournament favorites.

 

Switzerland will go tooth and nail with Germany and Slovakia for a spot in a quarterfinal. They’re unlikely to go any further than that.

*******

 

The World Juniors are inching closer and despite the COVID-19 pandemic throwing things for a loop on multiple occasions, the IIHF is pushing forward. Additional COVID cases and sudden changes are likely to change a lot as we go forward and the analysis in the team breakdowns will not be immune to that. The German team had eight positive tests just prior to the weekend. With their roster already missing key cogs such as Mortiz Seider (SHL) and Lukas Reichel (pre-travel COVID), what happens if JJ Peterka or Tim Stützle are among the positives? What if Canada, a pre-tournament favorite, suffers an outbreak just before the quarter-finals? There is so much still up in the air with trying to pull off the World Juniors during a global pandemic.

 

It will be a unique year at the annual holiday tournament, mirroring the year we all went through in reality. If the players, staff, and teams working behind the scenes can all stay healthy, maybe this could be the perfect way to end the year. Maybe watching a Finland-Sweden quarterfinal will remind us all of years past. We could get a bit of a mental breather from the real world to sit down in suspense as Canada battles the Americans in a pivotal game. Hopefully, this tournament is able to help bring some normalcy to our lives in a life-changing year for many of us. Enjoy the World Juniors.

 

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