It’s that time of year again! Today is Boxing Day in many countries around the world, which means hockey fans get the annual gift of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, which begin this evening in British Columbia.
- Czech Republic
Group A pairs defending champion and host Canada with an ever-dangerous Czech side, mainstay and perennial medal threat Russia, and two upset-seeking clubs in Switzerland and Denmark.
- United States
After a disappointing bronze medal finish on home ice in Buffalo in 2018, the United States looks to bounce back in group B against the Swedes, silver medal winners from a year ago, a Finnish team coming off an uncharacteristic sixth place finish in 2018, and two of the bigger underdogs in the tournament in Slovakia and Kazakhstan. This will be Kazakhstan’s first foray into the top division since 2009.
Coming off a year where Team USA was unable to defend its 2017 title on home ice, the Americans will look to get back to the championship round in 2019. The Americans sport a roster that is solid in all facets, and will count on a versatile forward group to improve on last year’s finish.
United States Round Robin Schedule (all times Eastern)
- December 26: vs. Slovakia, 6:30 p.m.
- December 28: vs. Kazakhstan, 10:30 p.m.
- December 29: vs. Sweden, 10:30 p.m.
- December 31: vs. Finland, 10:30 p.m.
Player to Watch: Jack Hughes – 2019 Draft Eligible/USNTDP
It will be hard to find a prospect in western Canada with more scouting eyes on him than Hughes will have during the tournament. The odds-on favorite to be the 2019 first overall pick will be counted upon to provide offense for a team that may not have as much top-end skill as some past roster iterations. He has the chance to be the next draft eligible to showcase his skill on the World Juniors stage before hearing his name called in the summer.
Breakout Performer: K’Andre Miller – New York Rangers/University of Wisconsin
Miller has had one of the more impressive debut seasons in college hockey this year, leading all freshmen defensemen (and the Badgers) in scoring with 17 points in 18 games. The pedigree is there, as Miller was drafted in the first round by the Rangers just six months ago, but he has finally found the opportunity needed to flourish. As an 18-year-old, the Minnesota native should play solid minutes in this tournament, and will look to continue the success he’s had in Madison.
Canes Connections: Jack Drury - Harvard University
Carolina’s second-round pick from the 2018 draft has found success in his first season at Harvard, chipping in with 12 points in his first 11 games of his freshman season. Drury brings a Swiss-army knife approach to the red, white and blue, as he will likely be asked to play tough minutes both at even strength and on the penalty kill.
The hosts are a perennial gold medal threat, and this year’s team is no different. Canada will rely on its terrific forward depth to meet their goal. Their defensive group is solid, and goaltender Michael DiPietro should be among the top netminders at the tournament.
Canada Round Robin Schedule (all times Eastern)
- December 26: vs. Denmark, 10:00 p.m.
- December 27: vs. Switzerland, 10:00 p.m.
- December 29: vs. Czech Republic, 10:00 p.m.
- December 31: vs. Russia, 10:00 p.m.
Player to Watch: Cody Glass – Vegas Golden Knights/Portland (WHL)
As Vegas was making their push for the Stanley Cup last season, many wondered if the Golden Knights brass would bite the bullet and trade any of their three first round picks from the 2017 draft to help bolster the club. They didn’t, and the team made the Stanley Cup Final anyway. Glass was the first of those three first rounders selected by Vegas in 2017, and will be among Canada’s top forwards in Vancouver.
Currently at the point of his development where he has surpassed his competition in junior hockey, Glass is just waiting for his opportunity to turn professional. After posting a 102-point season for Portland a year ago, the pivot has taken another step forward this year, averaging over two points per game in the WHL this season.
Breakout Performer: Alexis Lafreniere – 2020 Draft Eligible/Rimouski (QMJHL)
Much like Hughes, this will be one of the first chances for the common fan to see Lafreniere play. The 2020 draft eligible is projected to be the first overall selection when his draft year rolls around – bringing the expectations that come with such a distinction. On such a deep team, he may not get the top offensive minutes, but even at a young age, he is talented enough to make a mark.
Storylines abound among the European teams in the tournament this year. Sweden is coming off a run to the tournament final, in which their only loss was to Canada in the gold-medal game. Finland narrowly missed being dumped into the relegation round last year and will look to bounce back this season. And a familiar face will look to improve on the Czechs’ fourth-place finish last year.
Players to Watch:
Martin Necas – Czech Republic – Carolina Hurricanes/Charlotte Checkers
I, for one, was happy when Carolina decided to send Necas to the WJC’s as I’m a firm believer in a prospect getting as many chances to dominate and gain confidence in their own game as possible. That’s exactly the type of opportunity that Necas has here, as he will be among the best players at the tournament. Alongside Detroit prospect Filip Zadina, the Czechs will be an extremely tough matchup for whoever lines up against them in the tournament.
Henri Jokiharju – Finland – Chicago Blackhawks
Given where Chicago currently resides in the standings, management made the decision to release Jokiharju to the Finnish team where he will immediately draw in as one of the best blueliners in the tournament. He’s an incredibly deft skater, with the offensive tools to control a game from the blueline whether it be through rushing the puck, or moving it up ice to a teammate. You’ll be seeing Jokiharju on the ice a ton if you are tuning in to watch the Finns.
Erik Brannstrom – Sweden – Vegas Golden Knights/Chicago Wolves
As the 15th overall selection in the 2017 draft, Brannstrom brings a first-round pedigree to the Sweden defense corps. The 19-year-old has been solid in his first season on North American soil, posting nearly a point-per-game rate in the AHL. Along with Jokiharju, he should be among the best blueliners in the tournament.
Vitali Kravtsov – Russia – New York Rangers/Traktor Chelyabinsk
It’s understandable why an eyebrow may be raised when a top-10 pick from six months ago is listed among the breakout performers portion of this column, but that’s exactly what Kravtsov has been this season. After bouncing around all levels of Russian hockey a year ago, the young forward has solidified himself as one of the top prospects in the KHL in 2018-19. He’ll play a top-six role for the Russians, and will be relied upon to put points up at even strength and with the man-advantage.
Kaapo Kakko – Finland – 2019 Draft Eligible/TPS (Liiga)
Kakko has had a cult following among prospect geeks that was solidified by his performance at the U18’s. The 17-year-old has the opportunity to push for top billing in the 2019 draft, and will need to show well in this tournament if he is to begin to make that move. Kakko has been tremendously productive in Liiga this season, and could be the next in the line for the mantle of top young Finnish player.