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
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 B 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! This is the group with the heavy hitters in it. All of Russia, Sweden, and the Americans come into the tournament with gold medal aspirations every year. Russia isn’t being talked about by many but they have the formula that often wins short tournaments – an explosive offense and an elite, game-stealing netminder. The Americans come into the event with high hopes thanks to having the security of Spencer Knight in net and the talent on every line and defensive pairing. They feature an offense with explosive potential as Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte and the 2019 U.S. NTDP get much of the gang back together. Sweden is a bit of a wildcard this year, however, as they have been the hardest hit nation by COVID with only the German’s challenging them for the unfortunate title. Sweden is missing coaches, stars like William Eklund and so many more that would have played integral roles. They still boast a bevy of talent though headlined by the likes of Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz looking to dominate and drive this team to a medal despite their challenges.
The Czech Republic are always up-and-down at these events and you never know what you’re going to get from them. This year’s squad features some interesting talent including 2021 NHL Draft prospect Stanislav Svozil and they bring back veterans Jan Myšák and Jaromír Pytlík among others. They could make some games pretty interesting. The final team in the group is the Marco Rossi led Austrian squad. They don’t feature at this tournament often and they don’t last long generally but with no relegation to worry about this year, could Marco Rossi have a big game and upset a big dog? He’s certainly talented enough to do so. Let’s dive into the analysis for each team, provided by the DobberProspects scouting team.
Every year, Team Russia is seen as the “good, but no way they’ll get that far” team, and this time around, it seems no different. A good number of key names such as Grigori Denisenko, Alexander Khovanov, and Alexander Romanov are no longer eligible for the World Juniors, but they’ve done a good job replacing them. Yet, comparing the team to the likes of Canada, the United States, and Sweden still makes them seem like the underdogs.
Forward Depth: Speed, Scoring, and Strength
There’s no real ‘star power’ outside of Russia’s top line, but there’s plenty of talent that meshes well. Yegor Chinakhov, Yegor Afanaseyev, and Vladislav Firstov all have quite different styles of play, but will all be relied upon to be the scorers to fill out the squad. To accompany them and create plays are three speedy workhorses in Mikhail Abramov, Arseni Gritsyuk, and Vasily Ponomaryov. Maxim Groshev, Ilya Safonov, and Zakhar Bardakov bring the muscle to the lineup, but will rarely show up on the score sheet.
The First Line: Amirov – Khusnutdinov – Podkolzin
This is the definition of stacking a line, but also creating a synergized group. Marat Khusnutdinov is a small, feisty centerman who works hard to get the puck and move it, Vasily Podkolzin is a powerful, play-driving winger, and Rodion Amirov brings the scoring touch. We got a taste of these three at the Karjala Cup (a men’s tournament) and they blew expectations out of the water with Podkolzin racking up five points in three games and Amirov being named forward of the tournament.
But is this the ideal line? Sure, it is going to be dominant, but how much is it going to hinder the middle-six? For me, this isn’t the best option.
Amirov, Podkolzin, and Khusnutdinov all have the ability to run a line to an extent, and there’s one simple switch to make that really plays to the players’ strengths: swapping Yegor Chinakhov and Rodion Amirov. Chinakhov has a cannon of a shot but doesn’t play a complete game. He’s invisible without the puck, besides finding spots on the ice where he can catch the puck and shoot it. Playing him with Podkolzin alone creates a strong dual-threat offense and Khusnutdinov can be used as the support man.
Moving Amirov down to the second line is not a demotion, but rather putting him in a position to be even more important to the team. His two-way play will allow the other winger, likely Gritsyuk or Afanasyev, more freedom to use their creativity, rather than be stuck in the defensive zone. Amirov is not as good of a goal scorer as Chinakhov, but he has an accurate shot and uses it at the right times.
The Defensive Question Mark
Team Russia has one right-handed shot on the entire roster (Yegor Spiridonov), leaving them with eight LHDs. Kirill Kirsanov and Daniil Chayka are the lone 2021 Draft eligibles and ranked 2nd and 3rd in even-strength ice-time for the Russians at the Karjala Cup. Shakir Mukhamadullin is going to be a key player for the team, but he’ll need to show up big time, which he really did not do in the last tournament. Semyon Chistyakov was arguably the best defenseman for Russia at the Karjala Cup and brings a strong puck-moving ability. Artemi Knyazev and Yan Kuznetsov weren’t able to make the Cup games, but are big additions to the WJC team. Knyazev is a smooth skater who creates space and moves the puck well with great technique and finesse, whereas Kuznetsov is a big, powerful defender with a sneaky good ability to move the puck up the ice. Yegor Shekhovtsov and Roman Bychkov round out the defensive unit.
Superstar Between the Pipes
For those who aren’t aware, Yaroslav Askarov is a really good goalie; however, there’s still some question if he can atone for his previous WJC performances. He’s one year older now and has already figured out how to dominate the MHL, VHL, and KHL, plus he was deservedly named the goalie of the tournament for the Karjala Cup. The defense in front of him won’t be doing him any favors, but be ready for Askarov to put up more incredible numbers. Artur Akhtyamov and Vsevolod Skotnikov will battle it out to see who can be the number two behind Askarov.
What To Expect
This team definitely has the ability to medal and challenge the top dog Canadians. Most of the players on the team have already been given the chance to play with one another at the Karjala Cup, which they went undefeated in. Keeping the key names from the run like Amirov, Podkolzin, Chinakhov, Chistyakov, and Askarov plus adding talents in Abramov, Ponomaryov, Firstov, Knyazev, and Kuznetsov is going to put a major target on their backs. What perhaps doesn’t bode well for this team is the lack of World Juniors experience. Only three players (Podkolzin, Groshev, and Askarov) have made appearances in the tournament before and only Podkolzin managed to make a real impact. Only time will tell if they can reenact their performance in Finland or fail to overcome the more star-studded national teams.
The last time the Swedish under-20 team was in Alberta for a World Junior Championship, they won. Mika Zibanejad scored the game-winning goal in overtime for Sweden as they beat Russia 1-0 in the Saddledome. That was only the second time Sweden won the tournament but now they’re back in Alberta and despite an outbreak of Covid-19 that has decimated the squad and coaching staff, Sweden is still aiming for gold.
Last year Sweden lost the semi-final against Russia in overtime and with that the opportunity for a lot of talented players born in 2000 to win a tournament with Sweden. Players like Samuel Fagemo, Rasmus Sandin, Nils Höglander, Jonatan Berggren, Nils Lundkvist, and Mattias Norlinder have all become old, too old for this tournament at least.
However, there are still players left from last year’s squad that will make an even bigger impact this year. Victor Söderström was one of the standouts last year and have the opportunity to lead the Swedish defense. Philip Broberg and Tobias Björnfot were both on last year’s squad and hope to make an even bigger impact this year. To add to the three returnees there’s Albert Johansson, a Red Wings second-round pick in 2019, who’s had a great first half of the season with Färjestad in the SHL. Another new face on the team is the Philadelphia Flyers 2020 second-round pick, Emil Andrae. Andrae has spent his entire year in the SHL with HV71. Those are the five defensemen that are most likely to be in the lineup for Sweden in their first game against the Czech Republic on the 26th of December. Then there are three defensemen that are fighting for the sixth and seventh spot. There’s Gustav Berglund, a sixth-round pick by Detroit Red Wings. Alex Brännstam, an undrafted player who’s played six games in the SHL with Djurgården this year. There is also Ludvig Hedström, also undrafted and a teammate of Brännstam, who’s played three SHL games this year.
Missing is William Wallinder who was tested positive for Covid-19 before the tournament and therefore not allowed to travel (not the only player in Sweden affected by the virus). Wallinder would’ve most likely been one of the eight defensemen traveling to Edmonton if he didn’t test positive. Helge Grans was the last player to get cut from the Swedish team, quite surprisingly. Grans was thought of being a sure thing on this team, especially since he was one of only three right-handed defensemen on the roster.
Behind the defense, Sweden will have possibly the best goaltender duo in the tournament with returnee and Tampa Bay prospect Hugo Alnefelt, who had a great tournament last year. They also have Jesper Wallstedt, a 2021 draft-eligible prospect who’s impressive play in the SHL as an 18-year-old has made him the next top goalie prospect and a top-10 prospect overall on the DobberProspects rankings in November. They’ll have to fight it out in the round-robin to see who’ll grab the starting spot in the playoffs. Behind the two is Calle Clang who most likely won’t see any minutes this tournament but the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect has had a good season with Kristianstad in HockeyAllsvenskan.
The Swedish forward group looks strong, despite the losses of William Eklund, Karl Henriksson, and Albin Grewe. Eklund, who’s eligible for the 2021 draft, tested positive for Covid-19 after a soaring start to the season and he leads all under-20 players in the SHL in points. Eklund would’ve been a key player for Sweden this tournament and could’ve improved his status in preparation for the 2021 draft. Henriksson, a second-round pick of the New York Rangers and the center between star players Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz for several years, also tested positive for Covid-19 and is out. Albin Grewe, a third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, also tested positive for the virus. These three forwards were all certain to be a part of the roster but have now found themselves staying home in Sweden instead of traveling to Edmonton.
Despite all these losses Sweden doesn’t lack in firepower. There’s the previously mentioned Holtz and Raymond who both played last year and made their marks in the tournament in the Czech Republic. They’re now the main pieces in the Swedish offense and are relied upon to bring Sweden all the way to gold. With them, the center will most likely be Theodor Niederbach. The Detroit Red Wings (they like their Swedes in Detroit) second-round pick has been dominating in the Swedish junior league this year and have also played a few games in the SHL with Frölunda. Among the forwards, there’s also New York Islanders first-round pick from 2019 Simon Holmström, Carolina Hurricanes second-round pick from this year’s draft Noel Gunler, 2021 draft-eligible Oskar Olausson, and Hurricanes fourth-round pick Zion Nybeck.
If there’s one concern with the Swedish forward group, it’s the lack of center depth. Henriksson was supposed to be the first-line center but when he was out of the tournament, Oskar Bjerselius was called to replace him. Bjerselius is an undrafted center w