Barring things going completely off the rails in the next 48 hours, the 2021 edition of the World Juniors will get underway on Christmas Day.
There will be some slight changes, as is the norm in the COVID-19 world, with Edmonton’s Rogers Place hosting all round-robin games instead of the tournament being split between Alberta’s capital and Red Deer.
Also, there will not be any promotion or relegation this year, which means all 10 teams in this year’s event will be returning to Alberta next winter for the tournament.
When it comes to the talent on display, several countries have benefited from the delayed start of the National Hockey League season as they’ve been able to add players that would more than likely be halfway through their pro campaigns had things been normal.
So without further delay, here’s where each side stands ahead of the start of round-robin play.
Even with last year’s tournament MVP Alexis Lafreniere not coming back as he prepares for his debut in a New York Rangers uniform next month, the forward core is still incredibly deep with all 14 skaters being first round picks in the last two NHL Drafts.
If dealing with the likes of Quinton Byfield, Dylan Cozens and Connor McMichael among others wasn’t scary enough for opposing defenders, they will now have to deal with former Saskatoon Blades star Kirby Dach, who joined Canada on loan from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The defence is just as talented with six first round picks, including Kaiden Guhle of the Prince Albert Raiders and Prince Albert’s own Braden Schneider. The top pairing of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale should be fantastic to watch as they both return from last year’s gold medal winning side.
The one unknown for the squad at the moment is in goal. Devon Levi, who was sensational last year for the Carleton Place Canadians of the CCHL and nearly led Canada East to a gold medal at the World Junior A Challenge, has come out of nowhere to earn the starting job for Wednesday’s tune-up game with Russia. WHL netminders Dylan Garand and Taylor Gauthier are both battling behind him and could take the starter job at a moment’s notice.
The biggest question about Finland’s team this year might be their offence, even though they are welcoming back Florida Panthers first round pick Anton Lundell. Despite being second in team scoring last year, Patrik Puistola didn’t make the roster. Also missing out on the team was Aatu Raty, who had been neck-and-neck with Michigan Wolverines blueliner Owen Power as the top prospect for the 2021 NHL Draft at the start of this season.
Many of the key players on Finland’s backend are on the younger side, including netminder Joel Blomqvist and Everett Silvertips blueliner Kasper Puutio, but they are helped by the return of future Winnipeg Jet Ville Heinola.
One face that’s worth keeping an eye out for is 2003-born forward Brad Lambert, who is considered one of the top prospects for the 2022 NHL Draft alongside Canadian forwards Matthew Savoie and Shane Wright. Lambert has ties to Saskatoon and was picked by the Blades in this year’s CHL Import Draft.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left several holes in Germany’s lineup, as potential starting goaltender Tobias Ancicka, Chicago Blackhawks first round pick Lukas Reichel and Winnipeg Ice forward Nino Kinder all had to leave training camp after testing positive for the virus.
Despite those losses, plus star blueliner Mortiz Seider not returning to the team as he looks to crack the Detroit Red Wings lineup, the Germans still have Buffalo Sabres prospect John-Jason Peterka and Ottawa Senators prospect Tim Stutzle to lead the way.
The third overall pick in October’s NHL Draft, Stutzle suffered a broken arm while training to play for Adler Mannheim shortly after he was selected by the Senators, but is expected to be ready to go for the tournament.
The overall depth for Slovakia isn’t as strong as the other countries in the field, but there are still some exciting players to watch.
After a rough tournament last year, Samuel Hlavaj returns as the starter and will look to show off some of the form that allowed him to put up excellent numbers in the QMJHL last year with the Sherbrooke Phoenix.
With Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick and Val-d’Or Foreurs forward Maxim Cajkovic getting kicked out of training camp for what the team called “a gross violation of sports and human values” after he gave a concussion to a player on a hit, the offence might be led by Los Angeles Kings prospect Martin Chromiak, who is the linemate for Shane Wright on the Kingston Frontenacs.
Western Hockey League fans will recognize some of the faces on the Swiss roster this year. Portland Winterhawks forward Simon Knak will serve as the team’s captain, while Victoria Royals forward Keanu Derungs and Kamloops Blazers blueliner Inaki Baragano are also on the roster.
Switzerland’s forward core also features two players from the British Columbia Hockey League in Stefano Bottini of the Penticton Vees and Ray Fust of the Chilliwack Chiefs. Another duel citizen is netminder Noah Patenaude of the Saint John Sea Dogs, who made several highlight reel saves during a lopsided loss to Canada at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
With Anaheim Ducks draft pick and Drummondville Voltigeurs blueliner Thimo Nickl unable to take part in the tournament due to COVID-19, the Austria squad has basically become the Marco Rossi show, with all due respect to QMJHL forwards Fabian Hochegger and Senna Peeters.
A first round pick by the Minnesota Wild this fall, Rossi has dominated the last two seasons in the OHL for the Ottawa 67’s but was unable to play for his country until this year at the World Juniors.
With no promotion and relegation this year, Austria will look to gain valuable experience towards next winter, where they will be without Rossi as he’ll be too old for the event.
Had this team been in Group A and not the incredibly loaded Group B, they would easily be Canada’s toughest opponent during round-robin play, and not just because they have two members of the world-famous Soo Greyhounds.
The offense features a lot of talent, such as CHL players Jan Mysak, Pavel Novak, Jaromir Pytlik and Michal Teply, while all three netminders (Jan Bednar, Nick Malik and Lukas Parik) could all serve as starters.
Although the defence isn’t as strong as the other aspects of their lineup, it also features WHL talent with Simon Kubicek of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Radek Kucerik of the Saskatoon Blades. Simply put, this is a team that no one will want to mess with when the quarter-final round takes place on Jan. 2.
It’s a changing of the guard behind the bench for Russia as long-time head coach Valeri Bragin has moved up to the men’s national program and has been replaced by Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Igor Larionov.
The roster is also dramatically different from last year’s silver medal side with just two forwards (Maxim Groshev and Vasili Podklozin) coming back and the entire defence featuring fresh faces. There is a lot of new talent coming to the team though, such as 2020 NHL first round picks Rodion Amirov and Yegor Chinakov on offence and highly-touted blueliners Daniil Chayka and Shakir Mukhamadullin.
The key to any success the team might have though is netminder Yaroslav Askarov, who was the 11th overall pick in October’s NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. Although he had an up-and-down tournament last winter, he’s widely considered to be the best goaltending prospect in years and has put up a dazzling 0.96 goals against average and a .962 save percentage for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL to start the season.
Like Germany, Sweden also had to deal with COVID-19 cases during their training camp, which caused changes to the coaching staff and the early departures of Detroit Red Wings prospects Albin Grewe and William Wallinder, plus 2021 NHL Draft prospect William Eklund.
Despite that adversity, Sweden’s roster is once again full of talent. Recent first round picks Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond should lead the way on offence, while Tobias Bjornfot and Phillip Broberg could both have monster tournaments on the backend in front of potential starting netminder Hugo Alnefelt.
As always, the biggest question surrounding Sweden is if they will extend their 51-game round-robin win streak at the tournament that has lasted since 2006. A tough Group B might lead to that incredible run coming to an end, but it might for the best, as they’ve only won one gold medal during that span.
The Americans forward core had an argument of being just as strong as Canada’s firepower about a month before the tournament, though that changed slightly when Robert Mastrosimone, John Beecher and Thomas Bordeleau were also diagnosed with COVID-19, while Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson is looking to crack the NHL on a full-time basis.
Despite those losses, any team that features the likes of Cole Caufield, Arthur Kaliyev, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras is going to be frightening, especially with a host of others waiting in the wings behind them.
The defence isn’t quite as impressive as Canada’s, though Jake Sanderson and Cam York should both have excellent tournaments as the projected leaders on the blueline.
The Americans also have a good problem to deal with as they have two excellent netminders. Normally, a CHL goaltender of the year winner like Dustin Wolf would serve as the starter. The only thing standing in his way is Florida Panthers first round pick Spencer Knight, who has been incredible during the last two seasons for the NCAA’s Boston College Eagles.
So who’s going to win?
Oh no, I’m not doing this again.
The last three previews that I did (Saskatchewan Female Under-18 AAA Hockey League, Saskatchewan Male Under-18 AAA Hockey League and the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League) all resulted in the three circuits coming to a screeching halt due to COVID-19 after just a few weeks. I’m not going to jinx the World Juniors.
As such, please accept this compromise.
What will be the key to victory?
As cliché as it sounds, it is going to be the goaltending.
When you look at the big four contenders at this year’s tournament (Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States) they all have excellent players up and down the roster, but the play of the puckstoppers will determine how far they will go.
Will any of the Canadian trio stand out from the pack? Will Askarov rebound from his up and down showing in 2020? Will Knight or Wolf take the reigns or will they split time all week long? Will Alnefelt make his case as the best junior goaltending prospect in the world?
There could also be something unexpected, like one of the Czech CHL players or Finland’s Blomquist standing on their heads to help their country win it all.
Or Marco Rossi could score 300 goals in a week and Austria takes this whole thing. That’s par for the course here in 2020.