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2018 World Junior Hockey Championship: What to Watch For in Buffalo

As the puck drops today on the 2018 World Junior Championships, we take a closer look at some of the tournament favorites, Canes prospects and other game breakers to watch over the next 11 days.

United States v Canada - Gold Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

A little under a year ago, the Americans, led by current NHL players Clayton Keller and Charlie McAvoy, were celebrating a tournament winning victory in the Bell Centre after defeating Canada in the finals of the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championships.

Fast forward a year and it’s time to remember why we love international junior hockey so much, as the tournament moves stateside. Although this year’s edition is lacking as much Canes flavor as last year, there are still several things to watch over the next 11 days in Buffalo. Here are a few to keep a close eye on.

United States v Canada - Gold Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Team USA looks to defend their 2017 gold on home ice

The defending champions enter 2018 as the favorites to repeat on home ice when the medals are given out on January 5th. Playing out of Group A, the Americans will face a strong group with Canada and Finland as their biggest competition and Denmark and Slovakia rounding out the group. Team USA will have a chance to build up some points within the group with early games against the Danes and the Slovaks before taking their matchup with the rival Canadians outdoors at New Era Field on December 29th.

United States Round Robin Schedule

  • December 26: vs. Denmark, KeyBank Center
  • December 28: vs. Slovakia, KeyBank Center
  • December 29: vs. Canada, New Era Field
  • December 31: vs. Finland, KeyBank Center

Three (non-Canes prospects) to Watch

Adam Fox – D – 2016, 3rd, 66th Overall – CGY

Fox is the next Team USA defenseman to be given the mantle of number one defenseman at the World Juniors. In the past, the Americans have leaned heavily on talented blue liners to play big minutes in multiple situations in this tournament, and Fox will be given the same task. The Harvard sophomore is a returnee from a year ago and will be a key member of the team’s power play success. Fox has always been a prospect known for his offensive ability, but he will need to showcase his development on the defensive side of the puck throughout the tournament if the Americans are going to repeat.

Kailer Yamamoto – F – 2017, 1st, 22nd Overall – EDM

Fans were given a small sample of how good Yamamoto can be in his short stint in Edmonton to start the season. The Spokane Chief is one of just four Americans (Logan Brown, Kieffer Bellows, Max Jones) to play in a non-NCAA league. He will likely play plenty of minutes with Brown and fellow 2017 first rounder Casey Mittelstadt, who together will form potentially the best forward line in the tournament. Team USA has plenty of firepower among their forwards, and has the luxury of sprinkling in versatile players like Ryan Poehling and Joey Anderson throughout the lineup to create unmatched depth.

Brady Tkachuk/Quinn Hughes – F/D – 2018 Draft Eligible

It wouldn’t be a World Junior Championship without paying attention to some players eligible for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Both Tkachuk and Hughes are likely top ten selections in June, and will fill roles for the Americans over the next two weeks. Tkachuk is the younger brother of current Calgary forward Matthew, and is physically ready for the next level as an 18-year-old. Hughes is a phenomenal skater, who should be one of the team’s top blue liners, as an older player in his draft year. The Michigan Wolverine is a joy to watch, and for those who don’t watch a lot of college hockey, the WJC could be his coming out party.

United States v Canada - Gold Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Team Canada a rare underdog looking for revenge

Canada enters this year’s WJC in an unfamiliar role, acting as a dangerous underdog. As with most Canadian entries in this tournament this group is talented, but the 2018 roster may not as have as much depth as past teams.

For Hurricanes fans, it’s going to be important to watch how Jake Bean takes on the challenge of a returnee in his second WJC. Canada’s team is deep on the blue line, and Bean will be an important piece of the group. He will likely get a ton of minutes, both at even strength and with the man advantage. He’s still one of the best in the business breaking the puck out, and Canada will rely on his talents against the strong forward groups of the United States and Finland in the group stage and beyond.

Three (non-Canes prospects) to Watch

Carter Hart – G – 2016, 2nd, 48th Overall - PHI

Many times, the WJC is labeled as an over-ager’s tournament. However, goaltenders can often steal the spotlight and help push their teams towards the elimination round and beyond. Often a stellar goaltending performance can be the difference between going home with a medal or going home empty handed. A year ago, Hart and Connor Ingram split the time in Canada’s net, but this year the Flyers prospect looks to be the go-to guy. He’s been unbelievable for Everett in the Western Hockey League this season, sporting a 1.32 goals against average and a 0.961 save percentage, and he will look to carry that play over to the WJC’s over the next two weeks.

Jordan Kyrou – F – 2016, 2nd, 35th Overall – STL

Unlike in recent years, Canada doesn’t have a number one, go-to player in their forward group. There’s no McDavid on this roster, but it doesn’t lack in forward talent. Kyrou has long been a player I was high on dating back to his draft year, and he has taken a huge step forward this season – leading the OHL in scoring. His offensive talent is undeniable, and Canada will need output from him both at even strength and on the power play.

Cale Makar – D – 2017, 1st, 4th Overall – COL

Makar is a special talent, and Canada will use his game-breaking ability from the back end to generate offense in all situations. He will play a ton on the power play, where he can act as the unit’s quarterback and at times a fourth forward on the ice. The UMass product has played well as a freshman, where he currently ranks fourth in points among freshman defensemen in Hockey East and has averaged three shots-per-game. He’s a joy to watch with the puck, and a player that you tune in to see something special from.

Sweden v Russia - Bronze Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

European teams looking to repeat history

There has been a trend in the World Juniors dating back to 2012 that a team from Europe has won gold every other year for the last six tournaments, with wins by Finland (2016, 2014) and Sweden (2012). Even numbered years have been kind to the Europeans recently, and the Swedes, Finns, and Russians will be looking to continue that trend. The last time the tournament was played in Buffalo (2011), Russia defeated Canada, with the United States finishing third.

The Czechs will lean strongly on the Canes’ Martin Necas and Rangers prospect Filip Chytil to carry the offensive load throughout the tournament. Both must be difference makers if they are going to play in a medal game for the second year in a row. Finland will do the same with Janne Kuokkanen, who has been centering the team’s top line between 2017 first rounders Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen. This is a huge tournament for the Finns and a great opportunity for Kuokkanen, as the team looks to bounce back after a nightmare 2017 that barely saw them escape the group stage. Carolina’s second rounder from 2017, Eetu Luostarinen, was invited to Finland’s camp but did not make the final roster.

Three (non-Canes prospects) to Watch

Miro Heiskanen – D – Finland – 2017, 1st, 3rd Overall – DAL

The first defenseman taken in the 2017 Draft will be a catalyst for Finland throughout the tournament, and has the talent to be one of the best defensemen at the tournament. Heiskanen has been great this season in the SHL, with 11 points in 26 games and his strong play should continue against his peers.

Elias Pettersson – F – Sweden – 2017, 1st, 5th Overall – VAN

Pettersson’s abilities as a dynamic playmaker got him drafted in the top five in June, and he has continued to show that ability in his post-draft season. His 35 points in 26 games are staggering for a 19-year-old in the SHL, as he continues to break the mold for Vaxjo. He was a non-factor for Sweden in six games a year ago at this tournament with just one point, but don’t expect that kind of output this time around. His combination of his current form with his club team and his overwhelming offensive ability, trend him towards one of the top forwards at the tournament.

Rasmus Dahlin – D – Sweden – 2018 Draft Eligible

As tough as it is for a 17-year-old player to be a difference maker at the World Juniors, it’s even more difficult for a defenseman. Dahlin, the odds on favorite to be the top player picked in June’s draft, has the potential to be one of those rare players. His skill and size combination is unmatched in his age group, and trends towards him being one of the top players at the tournament. Adding Dahlin to returning top scorer from the 2017 tournament, Alex Nylander, and talents like Jesper Boqvist and Petterson will make for a lethal power play unit for the Swedes. Russia’s Andrei Svechnikov and the Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina are also 2018 draft eligible game breakers who will be worth taking a closer look at in Buffalo.

For more information on the tournament, including schedules, visit Give Kevin a follow @kleblanchockey for prospect talk and happenings.