World Junior Championship 2020 Preview

My Story:

The World Junior Tournament is one of my favorite hockey events of the entire year.  There is so much pride that these kids are playing for and it shows in the efforts they give on the ice, especially when rival opponents are up against each other.  Participating in this tournament is a sign that draft eligible and drafted players have truly made it and have a legitimate shot of being a professional hockey player.  Not everyone who plays in the tournament goes on to the NHL but being selected to one of these teams is an honor that is an indicator that a player is well on their way.

Hockey has been in my life for as long as I can remember but being an American, I was never exposed to how incredible and intense this tournament was until I was up in Canada as a teenager many years ago (early 2000’s) while it was being played.  I remember being amazed at how everywhere we went that weekend, people were glued to the televisions to watch not NHL action, but Junior hockey.  The hysteria and attention the games (especially Canada’s) received was something I will never forget and enlightened me on what a great event it was.  Ever since that experience, I have been hooked on the tournament and love to take in as many games as possible annually.

As the years went by, I would find myself glued to the TV when the tournament came on and it didn’t matter if it was Canada vs. Kazakhstan or Sweden vs. Finland, as the spectacle of this event and what it represented was so entertaining to me. For whatever reason, this tournament resonates with me and I’m able to recall intricate details of several games over the years that ranged in importance.  I know where I was when Ristolainen scored the golden goal, when John Tavares put on a clinic in a USA vs. Canada New Years Eve match, when Jordan Eberle became a household name in Canada for his incredibly clutch performances, and John Carlson’s top shelf Golden Goal just to band a few. Hell, I even took one week off of work once to sit home and drink beer while watching games all day starting at 7am when it was over in Helsinki in 2015-16.

The allure of this tournament is second to none and the entertainment value is off the charts for any hockey fan. There’s a passion that each player brings to the rink over these few weeks that make it special for those playing, as well as for those spectating. I always enjoy watching for the Sabres prospects who participate, and also the draft eligible guys to see how they fare in the biggest stage of their careers so far in most cases. Albeit the tournament isn’t a great indicator of future success due to the small sample size but being selected to one of these teams is still a great thing for a developing prospect. Below you will find some content related to the Sabres prospects playing, as well as some of my thoughts on the teams playing and players to watch, and finally some predictions.

 

World Junior Preview – Sabres Prospects:

  • Not surprisingly, Dylan Cozens was invited to the Team Canada World Junior Camp in Oakville, Ontario.  He joins a strong group of talent that make Canada one of the favorites to win Gold over in the Czech Republic in the upcoming weeks.  Sitting in 2nd place in the WHL in points at this stage of the season, Cozens figures to play big minutes in the top 6 forward group for Canada, as well as get some power play time.  Even though he is one of the younger players on the roster, Cozens has the skill set to be in consideration for tournament MVP like Casey Mittelstadt did a few years ago but top 2020 Draft Prospects Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield will not make the bid for that honor easy.  With the late addition of Barrett Hayton, Canada is really set down the middle which means Cozens may wind up sliding over to the wing on one of the top 2 lines to spread out their talent further.  Player Goal for Tournament:  10 points (4-5 goals)
  • Team USA announced their group of invitees to camp on Monday 12/9 and the left handed duo of Mattias Samuelsson (2nd-2018) and Ryan Johnson (1st-2019) will both be shooting for starting roster spots.  Samuelsson represented the USA last year and figures to be a favorite to make the squad due to his experience and solid defensive play.  He is physically imposing and will be relied upon to kill penalties in his shut down role as well as play some major minutes in a top pair role possibly. I wouldn’t call Johnson a long shot by any means but he will need to impress at camp to be considered for one of the roster spots.  Known for his high end skating and passing abilities, Johnson would be quite an asset in this tournament that boasts some of the best skill sets in the entire world at the U20 level.  Johnson hasn’t really reached the offensive upside that a skill set like his can offer but the potential is there.  Player Goal for Tournament:  3-4 points for Samuelsson. UPDATE 12/18 – Ryan Johnson failed to make the roster this year and will look to represent the USA next year.
  • With a 1.96 GAA and .929 SV % at the World Junior summer showcase for team Sweden, Erik Portillo has continued his dominance in the USHL this season as he has won 12 out of 15 starts for Dubuque.  The giant netminder has earned every right to be the starting goalie for his home country and figures to be a key component to a gold medal run by a Sweden team led by Holtz, Raymond, Broberg, Fagemo, and Lundkvist just to name a few.  Player Goal for Tournament:  Undefeated Round Robin and a Medal
  • Matej Pekar is on track to play in his 2nd World Junior tournament for the host country Czech Republic and will look to be more of an offensive contributor this time around as he was held pointless last year in 5 games played.  With 16 goals for Barrie, Pekar has bested his season total from 2018-19 in 7 fewer games.  The pesky forward has a knack for scoring goals and will be a great asset for an underrated Czech squad playing on their home ice.  Player Goal for Tournament:  5 points (2-3 goals)
  • Sabres prospect Miska Kukkonen was invited to Finland’s World Junior camp but as of 12/12 did not make it through the final round of cuts.  Of all the players with Sabres ties, Kukkonen probably had the longest shot to make a roster though it was more a product of the high quality of defenders that Finland has to offer.  He will return to Lukko to continue playing in Liiga which is the top mens league in Finland.

 

Team Previews:

Canada – Some teams see making the medal round as a win but Canada has incredibly high standards for this tournament. It’s Gold or bust every year and it always amazes me how much these kids fall under scrutiny for their performance. This team is loaded top to bottom with their only real “weakness” being at goaltender where they don’t have a blue chip prospect. The consensus top 2 picks in the 2020 draft in Byfield and Lafreniere will join a team that has 10 former 1st round picks.  Barrett Hayton was loaned to the team from the Coyotes recently which only makes them even more dangerous.  To beat this team, you will likely need to outscore them because it’s going to be nearly impossible to slow them down.  OHL leader in points Connor McMichael is part of an elite group of forwards that includes Dylan Cozens, Joe Veleno, and Ty Dellandrea.  On defense they are loaded with offensive minded puck movers that are elite level skaters.  Ty Smith, Bowen Byram, and 2020 draft eligible Jamie Drysdale will headline a D group that makes team Canada lethal from all areas of the ice and a favorite for the Gold.

Finland – Finland has become quite the national program at all levels the last few years and brings a very strong squad again to this tournament as they look to become the first repeat Gold Medal winner since Canada’s 4 year streak from 2006-2009.  Winning the Gold in 3 of the last 6 tournaments, they are one of the favorites to win it all even though they will be without forward talents Anton Lundell and Patrik Puistola due to injury. Finland has arguably the strongest and deepest Defensive group of any other team in the tournament however as Lassi Thomson, Ville Heinola, Mikko Kokkonen, and Anttoni Honka.  I will be most interested to follow along with Aatu Raty, the projected 1st overall pick for the 2021 NHL Draft.

USA – After setting a record for most Americans drafted in the top 15 last year, it was expected that this years US World Junior team was going to be one of the best ones they’ve fielded in years.  Without Jack Hughes for obvious reasons, this team is going to be led by Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev, and sniper Cole Caufield.  There’s a lot of skill in this lineup but I don’t believe right now that they can go pound for pound with Canada as far as offensive upside goes.  K’andre Miller looks to be the top defender for this team but if the US is going to win the Gold, it’s really going to boil down to their superstar in net, Spencer Knight.  Playing for Boston College as a true freshmen, Knight is currently 6th in the nation in save percentage with .940 which is incredible.  If USA wins the Gold, my bet is Knight wins the tournament MVP.

Sweden – A couple projected top 10 picks in Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz will lead a strong Sweden team this year who like Finland, have a very deep defensive group. Raymond is a skilled goal scorer but has left a lot to be desired in his draft eligible season whereas Holtz has performed very well for Djurgardens of the SHL.  As it was just announced that Jacob Olofsson was injured, Samuel Fagemo, Nils Hoglander and Jonatan Berggren figure to play a key role in the offensive output from Sweden.  On the backend, Sweden should have high end prospects Adam Boqvist and Rasmus Sandin at their disposal which give them an edge right out of the gate.  Add in Tobias Bjornfot, Nils Lundkvist, and Philip Broberg to this group and it’s clear they are likely to be the top seed out of Group A and have not won a Gold Medal since 2012.

Russia – Team Russia has won a bronze or silver medal 7 times since their last Gold in Buffalo’s Tournament in 2011.  A program that typically doesn’t include draft eligible players, their forward group is led by the supreme talents of Vasili Podkolzin who really fell in the draft this past summer due to the age old “Russian Factor”.  I think it was criminal that Pavel Dorofeyev fell to the 3rd round last year as he is a great offensive talent who is going to make a big impact for Russia this year.  On defense, Alexander Romanov should be able to build off of his solid 2019 World Junior tournament.  The Montreal Canadiens prospect is a responsible defender and can chip in on offense and figures to eat up big minutes.  Russia has the best draft eligible goaltender prospect in the entire world in Yaroslav Askarov who many are projecting to be a top 10 pick this summer.  As a 17 year old, it’s going to be challenging for him to get the starting job but playing in the VHL for most of the season, he stands a good chance be the starter.

Czech Republic – The host country’s team has a noticeable home ice advantage but that’s not the only reason I’m picking the Czech’s to surprise this year. Jan Mysak is putting up remarkable numbers this year in the top Czech league and is one of the younger draft eligible players in 2020 who could provide an offensive spark.  Players like Jan Jenik, Martin Hugo Has, Matej Pekar and Jaromir Pytlik give this roster some sleeper appeal. Having landed in a “Murderers Row” of groups, it’s likely that the Czechs will need to beat Germany or face the relegation round.  They may only get 1 win (over Germany) in the Round Robin but have a legitimate chance at an upset in the quarterfinals crossover game.

Germany – Though they are likely to be playing in the relegation round, I wanted to highlight Germany because they do have some very good players that are worth watching.  The Red Wings’ 2019 4th overall pick Moritz Seider is a big bruising defenseman who has been playing in the AHL this year and tapping into the offensive side of his game, something that was a question mark headed into the draft last year.  At forward, Dominik Bokk and likely top 10 pick in 2020 Tim Stutzle will be interesting to watch how they handle adversity as their team is severely outmatched.

The Rest – Outside of the teams mentioned above, the remaining teams in Kazakhstan, Switzerland, and Slovakia are the least likely to make it far in the tournament and 1 of these teams will be playing against Germany or Czech Republic to not be relegated when all is said and done.  The Swiss play a very low risk and responsible game that ensure they are at least competitive every year it seems so I believe that they will be safe from playing in the relegation games and actually have a chance to upset someone in the quarterfinals.  Slovakia doesn’t have an overly talented group with the exception of Maxim Cajkovic but playing in Group A, they should be able to find a win which will ultimately leave Kazakhstan as the last seed and with a relegation round vs. Germany where I predict Germany will win and punch their ticket for next years’ tournament.

 

Prediction:

Group A is going to be a toss up between Finland and Sweden with the edge going to Sweden in my opinion.  The other 3 teams really don’t pose any real chance to do damage in this tournament though Slovakia and Switzerland have been known to come out of nowhere with surprise wins.  It’s going to boil down to Slovakia, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan fighting to see who will play the relegation round with my bet being Kazakhstan as they do not possess the talents of Slovakia and Switzerland.

Group B is stacked and it’s arguable that 4 of the 5 teams could win the tournament from this grouping of teams.  I give the edge to Canada to win the Gold as they have the most talented and deepest groups of both forwards and defensemen.  I don’t think anyone will be able to completely shut them down which means teams will have to keep up and outscore them to win and that’s seems like an insurmountable task.  The Czechs being at home will make them dangerous but they don’t have the forward depth to hang with the big 3.  I believe that Canada will have the top seed here with a coin flip  between Russia and the USA for 2 and 3.  Had Germany been in the other Group, I’d pick them to win 1 or 2 but unfortunately they’re going to have trouble finding a win in the Round Robin.

Group A Finish:

  1. Sweden
  2. Finland
  3. Slovakia
  4. Switzerland
  5. Kazakhstan

Group B Finish:

  1. Canada
  2. USA
  3. Russia
  4. Czech Republic
  5. Germany

Quarterfinals Finish:

  • Canada over Switzerland
  • Russia over Finland
  • Sweden over Czech Republic
  • USA over Slovakia

Semifinals Finish:

  • Canada over Russia
  • USA over Sweden

Gold Medal Finish:

  • Canada over USA

 

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