Prospect Ramblings: WJC Thoughts

Dave Hall

2020-12-29

Ah, the World Juniors.

Despite the challenges leading up, the tournament has kicked off and has done so without a hitch – unless you talk to a member of Team Germany, then you may have varied opinions. Through just four days, the competition has already seen its share of blowouts, nail bitters, and most importantly, upsets.

Here are my thoughts on what has transpired so far.

For starters, here is the tournaments current standings:

Canada

Well, Canada is up to their dominant tricks again. Or are they? Sure, they put on a clinic against Germany – a team skating 14 players on back-to-back evenings -, posting a dominant 16-2 victory. Yet, if their match against the Slovaks taught us anything, it’s that this team still has many tweaks to overcome should they want to make a deep run. 

Yes, with 19 first-rounders, they are undeniably strong and certainly have a high chance of taking home gold, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk. With great talent, comes great expectations and Canada simply did not deliver against the Slovaks, all things considered. Chemistry looked to be an issue for them and the ability to find high-danger opportunities was limited – the Slovaks did a great job keeping them to the perimeter.

No, it is not time to hit the panic button. Not even close. Opening the tournament with a 16-2 victory does not bode well for one’s tendencies, and surely does not promote a hard work ethic going forward. They will need to regroup and find a fire to ignite them as they head into their next match against the Swiss. I expect them to burst out with far better performance on Tuesday.

Dylan Cozens, who is NHL ready in my books, has been a rock. Yes, he has notched a tournament-leading seven points, but it’s his performance away from his statistical numbers that have truly stood out for me. He rarely has made mistakes, he’s played a terrific two-way game, and has made a strong case to earn a spot in Buffalo.

Here, he makes a game-breaking play, stripping the puck out of harm’s way before feeding it to Philip Tomasino to alleviate pressure and ice the game over the Slovaks. It’s plays like this that should have Sabres fans resting easy.

Of course, he can be flashy as well.

Speaking of Tomasino, what a start to his tournament. Coming in as the 14th forward during the pre-tournament matches, Tomasino has been a catalyst in the preliminaries with five points (3G + 2A), including the goal (above) to provide insurance on a close match versus the Slovaks. Now that the secret is out, I expect him to play heavy minutes down the stretch. He’s showcasing on a national level just how versatile his game can be, both offensively and defensively. 

USA

Are they the real deal or not? This is the beautiful reality of the World Juniors, any game is a loose-able one. It’s tough to gauge this team based on the two performances thus far. After falling short to the Russians in game one by a score of 5-3, they followed up with an absolute dismantling, courtesy of Team Austria (11-0) – an obvious weak spot in the tournament. On paper, they are a powerhouse more than worthy of a Gold Medal run. Yet, much like Canada, will have some areas to tighten up, and again, an easy-breezy 11-0 game does not help when working on solidifying good habits.

Surprisingly, Spencer Knight looked shaky against the Russians, allowing four goals on 12 shots, eventually being pulled for WHL star, Dustin Wolf. It will be interesting to see who they start in game three, but my gut tells me that it has to be Knight. Sure, Wolf put up a lackluster 10 save shutout, but the Boston College goaltender (Knight) came in as their guy, and he should be given an opportunity to redeem himself before the medal rounds begin. Thoughts?

One thing is for sure – Trevor Zegras is a U20 killer. Early on, he has clearly stood out as my tournament MVP and through just two games is making his nine-point performance in last year’s competition look foolish. Does he have things to work on? Sure. Will he go straight to the NHL out of camp this year? Probably not. However, his uncanny ability to create space for himself is extraordinary. He keeps the puck on a string at all times and is a shifty nightmare for any defender trying to keep him at bay.

Of course, there is his vision. Oh, the vision. He has a tendency of finding players when he shouldn’t be able to. He seems to have eyes on the back, side, and even on the top of his head. Here’s a few examples of his Gandhi-like vision.

and of course, he can shoot the puck as well.

Finland

It was understood that Finland wouldn’t be icing as strong of a team as they did two years ago when they took home Gold in Vancouver, BC. However, as is usually the case, they have built a team that will certainly compete in the deeper stages of the tournament. As is the trend right now, it’s hard to assess their true colors, as they have been matched against two lesser opponents thus far (Germany and Switzerland).

Despite looking arguably shaky versus the German’s – a team that Canada thrived upon – the Finns looked good in their second game. It’s a good thing too, as they will need every inch of that confidence heading into their big Pool A New Year’s Eve matchup against the Canadians.

What I find odd, was their goaltending selection. It seems that Pittsburg Penguins product, Joel Blomqvist, has been demoted to third-string duties. If you asked me before the tournament, Blomqvist was my “for sure” starter for the competition. I am not sure if there is an injury at hand, or if he had a poor camp, but my WJC fantasy pool is not happy about it.

The team has a few names that have stood out, none more so than Brad Lambert. If you are on Twitter, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as everyone and their dogs have been raging over the 17-year-old sensation. And believe me, it’s warranted. Despite being one, of only five 2022 draft eligibles, he looks to be one of the better performers in the entire tournament.

His ability to create plays on his lonesome has been outstanding, going for gingerly skates often and creating high-end chances off the rush. His hands in tight are good, and his vision is the mold that holds it all together in one very impressive package. It will be nice to see how he fairs versus top competitors. Regardless, look out Shane Wright, the number one overall spot may have some company.

Of course, Anton Lundell has come as advertised. He’s got goals in both games, which is an additional bonus to the other intangibles he brings to this Finnish team. He is stellar in all areas of his game and provides a very strong two-way presence every time he hits the ice. He seems to be in the right position always, and understand when and when not to push for the offensive pinch. He has been dominant in the face-off dot, winning 79.4% of his draws thus far (27/34). He’s 48.1% in Liiga play, so Florida Panthers fans can expect him to be a strong contributor in that regard. Underrated, unsung, and a potential star in the league.

I will also give credit when credit is due – Juuso Parssinen has played well. He’s been handed important minutes, both on the team powerplay and penalty kill, and has one of the tournament’s highlight goals.

 

Russia

Fresh off handing the Americans a big 5-3 loss in game one, Russia had all the momentum heading into their second game of the tournament. Luckily for them, they were set to face their “weaker” rivals from the Czech Republic, who were fresh off a disappointing 7-1 opening loss to the Swedes. And boy, did the Russians have their hands full. For just the first time since 2012, they failed to register a goal, suffering a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Czechs.

Credit the Czech defense for remaining relentless on the backend, shutting down Russia’s offensively talented squad. Ultimately, Russia looked flat and it seemed that all of their heavy lifters lost all upper body strength. 

To sum up the Russian team thus far:

  • For me, Vasili Ponomaryov has been their best player with a bullet.
  • I was expecting more out of both Vasili Podkolzin and Yegor Chinakhov. Neither has played bad, per se. But, I had an eye on both heading in, and I have yet to be “wowed”.
  • I have no idea what to think of Shakir Mukhamadullin – one shift he warrants his 20th overall pick, while others he looks far off.
  • While he hasn’t been bad – he has certainly made some sensational saves – Yaroslav Askarov has looked a little shaky, much like he did in last year’s tournament. He’s a bonafide beast, and will likely continue his dominant play once he returns to the KHL, but something just seems off.

Sweden

I am not happy about it, but I will be honest. I have failed to catch either one of Sweden’s games, thanks to prior commitments. Of course, I have seen the highlights but I do not have much to say in regards to gameplay. Here are a few thoughts, without having seen a game:

  • I recently took part in our Dobber leagues fantasy roto (deep) draft, where I drafted Noel Gunler with my third pick (34th overall), and I have been fully vindicated by his play in the tournament. The kid can shoot the puck.

  • Both Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond are going to be stars in the NHL, and all I wish is that the Ottawa Senators drafted the pair at three and five, so we could have them together forever.

Germany

Dwindled by Covid, the Germans were forced to ice just 14 skaters and go back-to-back against the two-headed monster of Pool A – Finland and Canada. They managed to put up a good fight versus the Finns on Christmas day, but the short bench and inferior skill caught up with them, resulting in a 5-3 loss. Then came Boxing Day. Even as a Canadian, It’s not easy to watch a blowout like that. 

All things considered, the players did not play a dreadful game. They were not great and were certainly upskilled, but by no means terrible. If they were to receive even a portion of the goaltending that Austria has been given, the game could have been a lot different. By the third period, it seemed like any shot taken by a Canadian skater was finding the back of the net. In fact, at one point, they were five-for-five in shots to start the period – not good.

However, this was all expected. With their schedules extremely top-heavy, they took their lickings and will now get to take a breather against some less-than-stellar opponents. On top of that, they will regain some of their players, including their starting netminder, who got the nod against Slovakia on Monday night – and what do you know? They won their first of the tournament in a tight overtime game over the Slovaks.

Czech Republic

Game one was a write-off for the Czechs, falling to the Swedes by a 7-1 score. However, in a “one extreme to the next” game,  match two was a major confidence booster for them. With brick-like defensive efforts, the Czechs fended off a highly offensive Russian team for a stingy 2-0 win. It’s a huge moral victory for the team, while it’s also a major let down for a Russian team gunning for a top spot in Pool B – which, for bragging rights alone, is also a major win for the Czechs.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier for them, as they gear up to face the States in game three; they will have to bring those same bricks for this one as well as extra concrete to secure them.