The World Juniors are always a fantastic time of the year. With the stress of the holidays behind you, there is plenty of time to sit back, relax and enjoy some of the most entertaining hockey of the year.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about this year’s tournament. For Canadians, the team is considered one of the favourites to win it all, which is something they have only done twice in the last decade. For Oilers fans, there are a pair of prospects that could work their way into prominent roles with their respective teams.
2019 first-round pick Philip Broberg will suit up for Sweden and while I don’t expect him to be a fixture on their powerplay, he will play a heavy amount of even-strength minutes and lots on the penalty kill.
Raphael Lavoie, who the Oilers selected 38th overall this past June, made Canada’s final roster but it’s still unclear what his role will be. From playing alongside Dylan Cozens in the top six to being slotted on the fourth line, he’s been moved around a lot through training camp and the pre-tournament games. He’s a natural goal scorer and in a short tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him used a lot if he gets hot early.
Lavoie is not the only Oilers prospect on Team Canada. Olivier Rodrigue had made the team’s final roster, but, the 2018 2nd round pick is likely going to start the tournament as the team’s third goaltender according to Bob McKenzie. He’s posted solid numbers with Moncton (QMJHL) this season (2.79/.907) and has a history with Hockey Canada, which could work in his favour. I’m not sure if he’ll get into a game during the tournament, but there’s always a chance. Nico Dawes, one of the team’s other goaltenders, did leave practice earlier in the week with an injury, but it doesn’t seem serious.
Matt Bjumel is definitely the least-known Oilers prospect in the tournament. He was taken 100th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft and will be suiting up for the Czech Republic at this year’s tournament. The 19-year-old forward has produced just three points in 18 games with HC Dynamo of the Czech league so far this season.
There is a lot to like about this year’s version of Team Canada. They should play a very exciting style of hockey. Up front, they have a lot of firepower. Barrett Hayton (ARZ) and Dylan Cozens (BUF) were both top ten picks this past June, Joe Veleno (DET) has been playing in the AHL this season and should be a force going up against younger opponents. Alexis Lafreniere and Quintin Byfield (he was great in training camp) are both projected to be top three picks in the 2020 NHL Draft. Add in the likes of Ty Dellandrea (DAL), Liam Foudy (CBJ), Connor McMichael (WSH) and Nolan Foote (TB), who have all stood out in positive ways during the pre-tournament games, and you have a deep and skilled collection of forwards.
It’s a shame that the New York Islanders didn’t loan Noah Dobson to Team Canada, he probably would have been their best defenseman, but I still don’t mind the group of blueliners that they have.
Jared McIsaac is the teams only returning blueliner and his minutes will likely reflect that. Bowen Byram is a tremendous puck-mover and could actually be their most impactful defensemen, Kevin Bahl has a massive size advantage and will likely be used in a shutdown role, while the likes of Jacob Bernard-Docker, Calen Addison, and Jamie Drysdale round out the group.
Between the pipes is where I have some concerns. Nico Daws and Joel Hoffer will likely be the duo that Dale Hunter runs with, with Oilers prospect Olivier Rodrigue being the third option. Daws is eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft and has incredible numbers with Guelph in the OHL but the fact he just turned 19 this week worries me a little. Hofer is a few months older and has been unreal this season but doesn’t have any international experience.
Canada is not the gold medal favourite, but they’re close. They have a very deep and skilled forward group, I like their defensemen, but they’re goaltending is the one area that might sink them. It’s tough to predict how goaltenders will perform in a short tournament. If they get the goaltending, then they might be the best team in this tournament.
Canada is going to have to march through Group B, which is being dubbed ‘The Group of Death’. They need to be ready to go right from their first game against the Americans and considering the teams in their group, they cannot afford to take a single night off.
The good side of being in a very difficult group for the round-robin is that if you perform well, you could hypothetically get an easier road to the gold medal game. That’s something that could work in Canada’s favour but this tournament is closer than it’s ever been. There are four other countries who are legitimate threats to win it all.
THE OTHERS – GROUP A
FINLAND: Some very interesting skill, but depth is a big question with this group. I personally don’t think they’re good enough to repeat as gold medal champions. Some are saying that they have the best defence in the tournament and they’re expected to have Justus Annunen (COL) between the pipes and he is good enough to steal them a game. If they win, I expect it to be because they play a solid system and don’t give up very many goals. I don’t know if they can stop some of the high powered offences that other nations are bringing to the tournament though.
SWEDEN: Because of the fact they’re in a weak group, many have them pegged as the favourites in the tournament. They always dominate the round-robin the group stage but have lost the last three gold-medal games they’ve been in. They’re very skilled though and you should keep an eye on potential top ten picks Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond.
SLOVAKIA: They have no returning forwards and not a single drafted defenseman. Their goaltending could surprise some and if they want to win more than one game, it will need to be spectacular. I like their chances of beating Kazakstan and maybe even Switzerland, but I can’t see them beating any of the teams in Group B when the time comes.
SWITZERLAND: With four drafted players, including goaltender Akira Schmid, the Swiss could surprise some people at this year’s tournament. They’re always a tough out and seem to consistently play very good against Canada.
KAZAKSTAN: It’s a massive accomplishment that they stayed alive at last year’s tournament, beating Denmark in the relegation round. This is the second time they’ve been in the top division since 2009 and just based off the fact they’ll need to play one of the Czech Republic or Germany in the relegation round, I don’t like their chances of staying up here, but then again, I didn’t like their chances last year. They do have some returning players though.
THE OTHERS – GROUP B
These are the four teams Canada will have to play in the round-robin.
RUSSIA: In net, they have Yaroslav Askarov (who many feel is the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price) and Amir Miftakhov. They are set between the pipes. I really like their forward group, led by Vasili Podkolzin and Grigori Denisenko, and the reports on their blueline are solid as well. They’re the best team in the group.
USA: Cole Caufield scored four goals in a pre-tournament game. He’s going to be one of the most entertaining players in this tournament. Between the pipes, they have Spencer Knight, who might be the best goaltenders in this tournament but there are some who believe their blueline isn’t very strong. Still, they’re a very good threat to go deep in this tournament after winning Silver last season.
GERMANY: They’re starting to put out some good, young hockey players. This year, they’ll go as far as Moritz Seider and Dominik Bokk will carry them. Might surprise, but I have them coming fourth in the group.
CZECH REPUBLIC: The host nation is in a very difficult spot. While playing on home soil is fun, it can add a lot of pressure. The Czechs haven’t medaled since 2005 and when you look at the group they’re in, it’s hard to like their chances this year.
Canada kicks off their tournament with a matchup against the USA on Boxing Day at 11 am. They’ll follow that up with a game against the Russians on December 28th (11 am start). After a day off, they’ll face Germany on the 30th and then the host Czech Republic on New Years Eve.
The gold medal match will go on Sunday, January 5th.