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2017 World Juniors: Tournament Preview

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The World Juniors start today! Let’s take a closer look at who you should be watching.

MONTREAL, QC - DECEMBER 19: Julien Gauthier #12 of Team Canada skates the puck against Robin Salo of Team Finland #4 during the IIHF exhibition game at the Bell Centre on December 19, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! ...Wait, wasn’t Christmas yesterday? Hope everyone had a great and relaxing holiday, but now it’s time for the 2017 edition of the World Junior Hockey Championships. This year, the tournament will be held from December 26th through January 5th in Toronto and Montreal.


Tournament Groups

The tournament features 10 teams, with full Under-20 rosters who play in a round-robin group format. Following group play, the top four teams in each group of five move on to the Playoff Round. From there, it’s an eight-team tournament with an eventual winner in the Gold Medal Game on January 5th.

WJHC Groups

Group A Group B
Group A Group B
Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark, Switzerland United States, Canada, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia

United States

Coming off a bronze medal finish in last year’s WJHC, the United States enters this year’s tournament as a nation that will challenge for a medal and, if their cards fall right, could play for the gold on January 5th.

Team USA brass made some waves this past week, cutting OHL goals leader Alex DeBrincat who was a member of the 2015-16 team. Certainly cutting a player of DeBrincat’s ability wouldn’t be possible if the team didn’t have scoring depth up and down the lineup, and fortunately the United States has just that. The only returning forward on the roster is Boston College’s Colin White (Senators), but there is a ton of first-time talent with 10 of the teams’ 13 forwards drafted in the first three rounds of their respective draft.

Returning players Charlie McAvoy (Bruins) and Chad Krys (Blackhawks) will anchor the blue line, with Tyler Parsons (Flames), Jake Oettinger (2017 draft eligible) and Joseph Woll (Maple Leafs) as options between the pipes.

NHL: NHL Draft Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Player to Watch: Clayton Keller – Forward – Boston University

If Keller were a couple inches taller, he likely would have challenged for a top-three selection in the 2016 NHL Draft. Instead, he fell to seventh, where the Arizona Coyotes gladly scooped the St. Louis native up to add to their growing prospect cupboard.

Keller, a freshman at Boston University, is an offensive powerhouse who compares to fellow diminutive forwards such as Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Johnny Gaudreau and Mitch Marner, all who have produced impressive points numbers at the NHL level. He should be the straw that stirs Team USA’s drink from an offensive perspective, generating chances at both even strength and on the power play.

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

Breakout Performer: Adam Fox – Defenseman – Harvard University

Another freshman who has had a stellar start to his college hockey career, Fox has posted 16 points in just 11 games for Harvard. That number is good enough for seventh among all NCAA defensemen. Furthermore, Fox leads NCAA defensemen with 1.36 assists per game and 1.45 points per game.

He is a great skater who moves the puck well and is a power play anchor who will help Team USA generate offense from the back end. Many people may have not seen the Flames’ third-rounder play, and this will be a good opportunity for his skill set to shine.

What the United States needs to do to win:

Last year, Team USA rode Hurricanes prospect Alex Nedeljkovic to a third-place finish. Once again, keeping pucks out of the net is going to be integral to their success. Although they should have no problem scoring goals, taking advantage of power play opportunities will be a big part of the team’s potential to make noise in the tournament.


Canada

Once again, Canada is the tournament favorite playing on home ice, despite their uncharacteristic sixth-overall finish at the WJHC a year ago. Canada returns five players from that team, including Dylan Strome (Coyotes), Mathew Barzal (Islanders) and Thomas Chabot (Senators), all of whom have played games at the NHL level this season and will be looking to atone for falling short of a medal in 2015-16.

Most Hurricanes fans’ eyes will be on Team Canada, with three prospects on the roster, the most drafted prospects the team has ever had to play for Team Canada in the tournament.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Player to Watch: Mathew Barzal – Forward – Seattle (WHL)

Barzal should be one of the best players in the tournament and, along with fellow Team Canada returnee Dylan Strome, he will be key to the team’s offense both at even strength and with the man advantage. After making the New York Islanders out of camp, Barzal appeared in just two NHL games before being sent back to the Western Hockey League.

The 19-year old center is a consummate playmaker, putting up 123 assists in his last 115 WHL games. With the amount of talent Team Canada has on the wing, he should pile up the points in his second go-around at the tournament.

2016 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Breakout Performer: Tyson Jost – Forward – University of North Dakota

If there was one player in the 8-12 range that I was disappointed did not fall to the Hurricanes at 13 last year, it was Jost. The British Columbia Hockey League product was instead selected by Colorado with the 10th overall pick in June, and has had a good start to his college hockey career at North Dakota.

A prospect who has been compared to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (not just for the UND connection), Jost broke onto the scene at last year’s U18 World Championship, putting up 15 points in seven games. This year’s tournament will be a prime opportunity for Jostto continue that momentum from a year ago in a Team Canada jersey. Jost has been playing on a line with Canes prospects Nicolas Roy and Julien Gauthier in the pre-tournament games, so you will see plenty of Jost while tuning in to watch the Canes prospects.

Chicoutimi Sagueneens v Gatineau Olympiques Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

Canes Connections:
Julien Gauthier – Forward – Val-d’Or (QMJHL)
Nicolas Roy – Forward – Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
Jake Bean – Defenseman – Calgary (WHL)

As mentioned above, the Hurricanes have three players on this year’s edition of Team Canada, and they are arguably three of the top upside prospects in the Carolina system.

Gauthier is returning for the second time to the WJHC, putting up two points in five games for Team Canada a year ago. Roy and Bean are both newcomers to the roster, playing in their first WJHC. Roy and Gauthier have been spending a lot of time together, playing on the same line, which should help them to start to develop the chemistry that Canes fans hope will carry over to the NHL in a few seasons.

Bean, one of the youngest players on Team Canada’s roster, has been out for the majority of the season due to a broken finger. He has just recently begun starting to work his way back, and has been playing on the team’s second pairing alongside Canadiens prospect Noah Juulsen.


Finland

Fresh off a gold medal at last year’s WJHC, Finland looks to carry that momentum towards another podium run. Although Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho are busy playing in the NHL, there are plenty of Finns who are back to defend their title. Goaltender Veini Vehviläinen, defenseman Villi Saarijarvi (Red Wings) and forward Julius Nättinen (Ducks) return to what could arguably be the most exciting team to watch in the tournament.

Saginaw Spirit v London Knights Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Player to Watch: Olli Juolevi – Defenseman – London (OHL)

Juolevi was selected fifth overall by the Vancouver Canucks at the 2016 NHL Draft, and had the distinction of being the first defenseman taken. He was returned to the London Knights this offseason, the correct move by Canucks brass, who preferred him to play big minutes with his junior team while making a run at this year’s Memorial Cup.

The two-way defenseman was a major part of last year’s gold-medal winning Finland roster, posting nine assists in seven games. He will be relied upon in all situations this year, serving as the team’s captain.

Breakout Performer: Eeli Tolvanen – Forward – Sioux City (USHL)

Tolvanen is a 2017 draft eligible prospect that has been penciled into the top 10 in most mock drafts at the midpoint of the season. He is currently playing with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League, keeping his NCAA eligibility alive in order to play for Boston College next fall.

The 17-year-old is currently ranked second in the USHL with 27 points in 23 games, impressively outpacing the rest of the league with 126 shots. Tolvanen has put 31 more shots on net than any other USHL player, averaging nearly 5.5 shots on goal per contest. He is a pure sniper, who already possesses an NHL-level shot at this point in his development. Tolvanen is a player who will have the opportunity to impress as one of the youngest players in the tournament.

Saginaw Spirit v London Knights Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Canes Connections: Janne Kuokkanen – Forward – London (OHL)

Carolina’s 2016 second-round pick (#72 above) has played well for the London Knights of the OHL, posting 40 points in 28 games, ranking 12th in the OHL in scoring. He is a silky-smooth playmaker, who will be a large part of Finland’s offense throughout the tournament.

Last year, Sebastian Aho used the World Junior Championships to vault himself from a prospect with NHL potential, to one who was talked about as one of the best prospects not playing in the NHL. Kuokkanen is a bit behind Aho at this point in their development, but the steps he has taken since being drafted should make Canes fans excited for his future.


Sweden

Sweden is hoping for an injury-free tournament in 2016-17, as a vicious hit knocked William Nylander out in the first game of group play a year ago, significantly hurting their chances to make a deep run. The two-time champions won the WJC in 2012 when it was played on Canadian ice, and have medalled in six of the last 10 tournaments.

Barrie Colts v Mississauga Steelheads Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

Player to Watch: Alex Nylander – Forward – Rochester (AHL)

Challenging Strome, Barzal and Juolevi as one of the best prospects in the world entering the tournament is the younger Nylander, who was integral in Sweden’s tournament not derailing completely a year ago. His breakout offensive performance helped to cushion the blow suffered when his brother and fellow first rounder was knocked out of the tournament in Sweden’s first game with a concussion.

Nylander is an incredibly skillful prospect who is dynamite with the puck on his stick. He is currently playing for Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, where he has 17 points in his first 29 games as an 18-year-old.

Breakout Performer: Rasmus Dahlin – Defenseman – Frölunda (SHL)

Dahlin has taken the hockey prospect world by storm this year, as a 16-year-old playing for Frölunda in Sweden’s top professional league. Early comparisons have been made to fellow Swedish international and Frölunda product Erik Karlsson due to Dahlin’s extremely high talent level and skating ability.

The 2000 (!) birth-year prospect is not eligible to be drafted until 2018, but already has the hockey world excited for what the future could bring. His talent level is undeniable, but it will be interesting to see how Tre Kronor utilizes their young superstar-to-be given that he is two years younger than any other player on the team’s roster.

What Sweden needs to do to win:

It’s rare that Team Sweden misses out on challenging for a medal, and they will be looking to erase their disappointment from the last couple years with a strong tournament in Canada. They will rely on their terrific defensive group and overall depth to propel them into a medal-winning position. Sweden is always one of the more skilled groups at the tournament and this year is no exception.


Russia

Russia has been the model of consistency at the WJHC over the last ten years, medalling in nine of the last ten tournaments with one gold, four silver and four bronze medals. They will look to get revenge on Finland after a 4-3 overtime loss a year ago in the tournament’s gold medal game.

2015 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Player to Watch: Ilya Samsonov – Goaltender – Metallurg Magnitigorsk (KHL)

Recognized by many as the best goaltending prospect playing outside of the NHL, Samsonov has had a very good season in the KHL, playing in 19 games with a .936 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average.

After appearing in two games at the ’15-’16 WJC, he should take on the full load for Team Russia this year, helping to lead a team with gold medal aspirations after a second-place finish a year ago. The 2015 Washington Capitals first-round pick will have to live up to his pedigree if the Russians are to bring a gold medal home.

Breakout Performer: Kirill Kaprizov – Salavat Yulayev Ufa (KHL)

Kaprizov, a Wild fifth-round pick from a year ago, has had a breakout offensive season in the KHL, putting up 30 points in 37 games. In a league that favors older players, Kaprizov is impressing as a 19-year-old, registering numbers similar to other high-ceiling prospects that have made the KHL to NHL jump.

The winger will captain the Russian squad, an honor held by many current and past NHLers. As a top-six difference maker and point producer, Kaprizov has already begun to outplay his draft slot from a year ago. He could be in line for a strong tournament.

What Russia needs to do to win:

Team Russia boasts one of the tournament’s best defensive corps and will be solid between the pipes, but at some point will have to count on their forwards to score a goal in a key situation. A year ago, Russia had no players within the tournament’s top ten scorers, but allowed only 15 goals in seven games. The Russians will again rely on that formula in their quest for another gold-medal game appearance. If one of their forwards can step up as a go-to option, it could change their luck from a year ago.


The 2016 WJC’s Best of the Rest

Halifax Mooseheads v Blainville-Boisbriand Armada Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Players to Watch:
Nico Hischier, Switzerland
Adam Ruzicka, Slovakia
Martin Necas, Czech Republic

Three 2017 draft-eligible prospects from Switzerland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are worth watching on teams that will have trouble challenging for a medal spot but still could play spoiler in the group round and beyond.

Hischier (#13 above) plays junior hockey for the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads, and is the top scoring rookie in the league in his first season on North American soil. He currently ranks in the Q’s top-20 in points (48), goals (23), assists (25), power-play points (20) and shots on goal (116).

Like Hischier, Ruzicka is also playing his first season in North America after being selected in the second round of the CHL Import Draft this summer. He has a strong international pedigree as a junior player, captaining Slovakia at the Ivan Hlinka tournament this summer. Ruzicka is expected to be drafted in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Projecting as a top-six center, Necas has 13 points in 29 games in the Czech League as a 17-year-old. The potential top-15 pick in next summer’s draft is one of just six players younger than age 19 on the Czech team, and the only 17-year-old who will play a significant role.


Tournament Details

Check out http://www.worldjunior2017.com/en/games/ to follow along with the tournament schedule and results and enjoy the youth that will be on display in the next 11 days. Many of the prospects playing in this tournament will be on NHL ice in the not too distant future.

We’ll also have daily posts in our 2017 World Junior Championships section featuring scores, schedules, the latest on Hurricanes prospects and much more.

Enjoy the tournament!