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.