2019 World Junior Championship

Team Previews & Schedule

Steve Kournianos  |  12/19/2018 |  Nashville  |  

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NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The under-20 world junior championship, known colloquially as the world juniors, is hockey’s premier annual prospect event gives us the feel of playoff intensity smack in the middle of the NHL season. For many, it’s the closest thing hockey fans have to March Madness, except this tournament features kids who are locks for NHL stardom. Lebron James never played in the NCAA tournament. Kobe Bryant? Yeah, he was too cool for school. For hockey players, it’s a little different. If you’re a top prospect under the age of 20 and want to gain some traction on your climb towards an NHL career, playing at the world juniors most certainly is an implied requirement. Of course, not every notable NHLer gets a chance to represent his country for two weeks in the winter. But that’s only because they were either never invited to try out, or were cut from the team before the tournament started. Yes, it’s that big a deal. Go ahead and run down the list of hockey royalty, and they all will have a WJC merit badge on their sash. Gretzky? Check. Super Mario? Check. Lidstrom? Crosby? Ovechkin? McDavid? Check, check, check and check. Now that you’ve gotten the gist of the world juniors’ prominence, let’s take a look at this year’s 10 competing nations.

Schedule

Date
Match Group Vancouver (PT) New York (ET) Central Europe (GMT+1)
Wed, December 26 CZE vs. SUI A 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Wed, December 26  USA vs. SVK B 3:30 PM 6:30 PM 12:30 AM
Wed, December 26  CAN vs. DNK A 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Wed, December 26    FIN vs. SWE B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Thu, December 27  RUS vs. DNK A 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Thu, December 27   SVK vs. SWE B 3:30 PM 6:30 PM 12:30 AM
Thu, December 27    SUI vs. CAN A 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Thu, December 27    FIN vs. KAZ B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Fri, December 28   CZE vs. RUS A 5:00 PM 8:00 PM 2:30 AM
Fri, December 28   KAZ vs. USA B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Sat, December 29 DNK vs. SUI A 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Sat, December 29 SVK vs. FIN B 3:30 PM 6:30 PM 12:30 AM
Sat, December 29  CAN vs. CZE A 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Sat, December 29 SWE vs. USA B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Sun, December 30    SUI vs. RUS A 5:00 PM 8:00 PM 2:30 AM
Sun, December 30  KAZ vs. SVK B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Mon, December 31  DNK vs. CZE A 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Mon, December 31 SWE vs. KAZ B 3:30 PM 6:30 PM 12:30 AM
Mon, December 31   RUS vs. CAN A 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Mon, December 31 USA vs. FIN B 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Wed, January 2 Relegation (5a vs 5b) 11:00 AM 2:00 PM 8:00 PM
Wed, January 2 QF1 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Wed, January 2 QF2 3:00 PM 6:00 PM 12:00 AM
Wed, January 2 QF3 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Wed, January 2 QF4 7:30 PM 10:30 PM 4:30 AM
Fri, January 4 Relegation (5a vs 5b) 9:00 AM 12:00 PM 6:00 PM
Fri, January 4 SF1 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Fri, January 4 SF2 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM
Sat, January 5 Relegation (5a vs 5b)* 9:00 AM 12:00 PM 6:00 PM
Sat, January 5 Bronze 1:00 PM 4:00 PM 10:00 PM
Sat, January 5 Gold 4:30 PM 7:30 PM 1:30 AM

Group A

Finland Flag Canada

The Canadians may be the reigning champions, but any hope of repeating will have to be accomplished with a lineup that is dealing with injuries to key players. The news broke last week that big playmaking Gabe Vilardi (Los Angeles Kings) is dealing with back issues, while speedster Alex Formenton (Ottawa Senators) will not play due to a knee injury. The Canadians are strong at center regardless of how healthy the wrist is of Jaret-Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings), as Cody Glass (Vegas Golden Knights), Morgan Frost (Philadelphia Flyers), Nick Suzuki (Montreal Canadiens) and Barrett Hayton (Arizona Coyotes) provide them with the best collection of under-20 pivots of any team in the world. The defense is green but capable, as four of the rearguards were 2018 draftees. Led by all-world playmakers Ty Smith (New Jersey Devils) and Evan Bouchard (Edmonton Oilers), the Canadians should have no issue initiating breakouts and keeping opponent’s honest with the threat of long stretch passes. There’s no Carter Hart between the pipes this year, so the goaltending situation likely becomes a game-by-game competition between Mike DiPietro (Vancouver Canucks) and Ian Scott (Toronto Maple Leafs). Even with the injuries, this is a stacked roster with a power play that should make teams pay for their on-ice transgressions.

Image result for Cody Glass Getty Images

Team canada center Cody Glass (Getty Images)

Finland Flag Russia

Russia’s streak of seven consecutive years with a WJC medal ended in 2019 via a quarterfinal loss to the Americans. But the team they send to Vancouver appears more confident and capable of smothering any nation’s attack. North American-trained wingers like Dmitry Zavgorodniy (Calgary Flames) and Ivan Chekhovich (San Joe Sharks) are dynamic offensive wingers, and slippery Kirill Slepets gave Canada fits at last month’s Canada-Russia Super Series. Russia ended up taking the tournament, which is viewed by both nations as a pre-WJC tune-up. The performance against the Canadian Hockey League’s elite was the best of any Russian entry in the 15-year history of the annual competition, and it was accomplished without the presence of flashy scorers Vitaly Kravtsov (New York Rangers) and Grigory Denisenko (Florida Panthers), who will both join the team in Vancouver. With four lines full of two-way forwards and playmakers, plus a mobile, physical defense and the goaltending tandem of Pyotr Kochetkov and Amir Miftakhov, there’s good reason to count Russia as a legitimate candidate for gold.

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Lokomotiv winger Kirill Slepets (MHL.ru)

Finland FlagCzech Republic

A recent knee injury suffered by left wing Filip Zadina may have put a bit of a damper on the Czechs’ medal hopes, but a formidable team they’ll ice nonetheless. No announcement has yet been made if the Rangers and Hurricanes will release Filip Chytil and Martin Necas, respectively, as the former is a key top-nine player in the NHL level; the latter one of the AHL’s hottest scorers. All three were part of the Czech under-18 team that won the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Tournament that showcased most of the world’s best 1999-born prospects. If it’s a worst-case scenario and none are made available, the Czechs will lean the quick pads of goalie Jakub Skarek (New York Islanders), who some consider the best goalie prospect to come out of the Czech Republic since Dominik Hasek. One area that shouldn’t be a concern for the Czechs is physicality, as their roster will feature strong forwards with size, such as Martin Kaut (Colorado Avalanche), Krystof Hrabik, Ostap Safin (Edmonton Oilers) and Jachym Kondelik (Nashville Predators). Lastly, keep an eye on speed burner Jakub Lauko (Boston Bruins) to make up for some of the scoring if Zadina can’t make a go of it. One thing to consider is that 15 of the 27 camp invites are playing on North American rosters this season. A full contingent and you might see the Czechs win their first WJC medal since they took home bronze in 2005. 

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Carolina prospect Martin Necas (Hokez.cz)

Finland Flag Switzerland

The Swiss have a reputation for either pulling off a round-robin upset, or at least coming pretty darn close to it. This year’s group will have its traditional uphill climb, but they’re in the same group as Denmark and the Czech Republic – two teams the Swiss beat in the preliminary round in 2017. Granted, the bulk of that roster has moved on, but most of the players the Swiss should send to Vancouver have either North American experience or are NHL draft picks, or both. Forwards Philipp Kurashev (Chicago Blackhawks), and 2019 draft prospects Nando Eggenberger, Valentin Nussbaumer and Kyen Sopa are the more notable skill players up front and should see most of the time on the power play. Defense will be strong in this particular year, as NHL draftees Nico Gross (New York Rangers), Tobias Geisser (Washington Capitals) and Tim Berni (Columbus Blue Jackets) will each be appearing in consecutive world juniors. Towering goaltender Akira Schmid (New Jersey Devils) has spent the last year in North America and has several upsets under his belt at the under-18 level, including one against Team USA at the Five National Tournament in 2017.

Image result for turnier zuchwil schweizer Nico Gross

Defenseman Nico Gross is a New York Rangers draft pick

Finland Flag Denmark

Denmark was the surprise of the 2017 tournament thanks to round-robin wins over Finland and the Czechs before bowing out to the Russians in the quarterfinals. Last year, however, nearly was an unmitigated disaster, as the Danes were bailed out in the relegation round by a Belorussian meltdown to avoid getting bumped to the lower division. Never say never, they say, but it’ll be tough for Denmark to match its futility from a year ago, where they went 0-4-0 in the prelims and outscored by a 26-2 margin. This year’s crew is pretty beefy in terms of size and strength, led by a couple of NHL draftees in winger Jonas Ronbjerg (Vegas Golden Knights) and massive defender Maltke Setkov (Detroit Red Wings). The biggest name (literally and figuratively) might be goalie Mads Sogaard (2019 Draft), a 6-foot-7 standout for Medicine Hat of the WHL. Considered to be one of the elite goaltending prospects for the upcoming draft, Sogaard’s quickness, reflexes and post-save recovery certainly will be tested in a group that will pit the Danes against the vaunted attacks of Canada, Russia and the Czechs.

Image result for turnier danmark mads sogaard

Mads Soogard is a top goalie prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft

Group B

Finland Flag Finland

The title run of 2016 that was fueled by current NHL stars Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine will be a tall order to repeat in 2019, as two of Finland’s best eligible forwards – center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Montreal Canadiens) and winger Kristian Vesalainen (Winnipeg Jets) — will not participate. The Finns still have the benefit of a one-two punch that features center Rasmus Kupari (Los Angeles Kings) and winger Aleksi Heponiemi (Florida Panthers) — two of Europe’s most productive teenagers playing adult-age competition. Plus recent additions of super-sniper Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators) and power-play quarterback Henri Jokiharju (*Chicago Blackhawks) give the Finns two of the NHL’s top prospects. One tournament side story will be the play of elite forward Kaapo Kakko (2019 Draft), whose current scoring pace in the Finnish SM-Liiga is ahead of what current NHLers like Mikko Rantanen and Aleksander Barkov did in their respective draft years. Not only is Kakko expected to be a key cog in Finland’s attack, but the battle for first overall in the June draft may come down to a New Year’s Eve meeting between Kakko and Team USA’s Jack Hughes. The Finns always seem to have several gifted puck-moving defensemen, and there will be no shortage of them in Vancouver, as 2019 draft hopefuls Anttoni Honka, Mikko Kokkonen, Ville Heinola and Lassi Thomson all were invited to camp and can scoot and distribute the puck with precision.

Image result for Kakko liiga

Finland winger Kaapo Kakko is a difference maker and a top draft prospect

Finland Flag United States

Team USA won’t make its final roster announcement until after their final camp exhibition games against the Czechs on Dec. 22. But you can pencil in consensus top draft pick Jack Hughes to center their top line, with 2018 first rounders Oilver Wahlstrom (New York Islanders) and Joel Farabee (Philadelphia Flyers) expected to flank him. Although the trio will be on the youngish side by WJC standards (all three are under 19 years old), they were dynamite for the NTDP last year and have familiarity with one another. Naturally, most of Team USA will consist of collegians with NHL affiliations, beginning with Jack’s older brother, defenseman Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks) and continuing with his former NTDP teammate Evan Barratt (Chicago Blackhawks), a Penn State sophomore who leads the NCAA in scoring. Like Sweden, the Americans have a pair of terrific 200-foot centers in Ryan Poehling (Montreal Canadiens) and Josh Norris (Ottawa Senators), and hulking defenseman K’Andre Miller (New York Rangers) is the top point producer among college freshman blue liners. In 2016, Cayden Primeau (Montreal Canadiens) came within a hair of carrying the Americans to gold at the 2016 Hlinka, and his penchant for big-game play helped his Northeastern Huskies win their first Beanpot in 30 years. Remember, the U.S. settled for bronze on their home turf in Buffalo last year after winning gold in hostile Canada in 2017. They look primed to medal again, with Hughes leading the way on offense. 

Image result for rena laverty jack hughes
Center Jack Hughes will draw a lot of attention in Vancouver both on and off the ice.

Finland Flag Sweden

It’s hard to count the Swedes out when it comes to the world juniors, especially since they’ll enter the tournament riding a 44-game winning streak during round robin play. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2007 and an overtime loss to the U.S. to find the last time Sweden was defeated during group play (they play the Americans on Dec. 29). Although it may look like Group B is slightly weaker than a Group A that features defending-champion Canada, Russia, the Czechs and the pesky Swiss, you simply can’t overlook Sweden’s skill. Still, this squad will lacking a go-to guy like the previous editions that had Elias Pettersson or Rasmus Dahlin. Defenseman Tim Liljegren (Toronto Maple Leafs) likely misses the entire competition with a high-ankle sprain, so the onus will fall on puck movers Erik Brannstrom (Vegas Golden Knights) and Rasmus Sandin (Toronto Maple Leafs) to initiate and create from the back end. Up front, two-way centers David Gustafsson (Winnipeg Jets) and Jacob Olofsson (Montreal Canadiens) are capable of shutting down top players, while wingers Oskar Back (Dallas Stars) and Fabian Zetterlund (New Jersey Devils) could form a playmaker-sniper combo that provides the Swedes with legitimate scoring threats. Goal scorer Samuel Fagemo (2019 Draft) was passed over at last year’s draft but is dangerous on the power play and is one of the SHL’s top scoring teenagers. He’s playing for a draft call, and a solid showing in Vancouver should lock one up for him. 

Image result for ishockey svenska oskar back
Sweden’s Oskar Back is an excellent playmaker

Finland Flag Slovakia

Lucky for the Americans that the Slovaks graduated goaltender Roman Durny and forward Samuel Bucek – the duo who combined to shock the world with a 3-2 win over Team USA in last year’s preliminary round. While the goaltending of newcomer Juraj Sklenar (2019 Draft) isn’t too shabby, it’ll take a massive effort on his part to replicate the WJC heroics of previous Slovakian netminders like Durny, Adam Raska in 2016 and the bronze medal-winning performance of Denis Godla in 2015. Slovakia’s 1999 age group was one of its best in recent years, led by a trio of Calgary Flames prospects in Adam Ruzicka, Milos Roman and Martin Pospisil. All three currently are playing in North American leagues, and Ruzicka and Roman are appearing in their third straight WJC. While those players can provide two-way play and carry the load in critical situations, the Slovaks have a notable 2019 draft prospect in finesse winger Maxim Cajkovic, who can excite and put pressure on opposing defenses thanks to cannon of a shot. Throw in a hard-working winger like Adam Liska, who played with the Guelph Storm last year, plus current Seattle Thunderbirds center Andrej Kukuca, and the Slovaks, at least on paper, can ice a formidable top six. The defense is led by the big and mobile Martin Fehervary (Washington Capitals) and 2019 draft overager Michal Ivan, but how the team fares in Vancouver should depend mostly on the ability of its forwards to support in defensive-zone coverage when the ice gets tilted against them.

Image result for hokej turnaj Cajkovic
Sniper Maxim Cajkovic could use a strong WJC to overcome a sluggish start to his season

Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs will be playing in their first world junior championship since 2009, so there’s always the chance a happy-to-be-here attitude leads to crooked numbers on the scoreboard. It would have been nice to see them placed in the same group as Russia, since most of Kazakhstan’s roster came from Barys Astanya in the MHL, the junior league that either provided or developed most of Team Russia’s players. Nevertheless, they open against Finland on the tournament’s second day, which is after the Finns play the hated Swedes on Dec. 26. The offense should be paced by speedy wingers like Artur Gatiyatov, who is an outstanding playmaker and performed quite well against some the MHL’s best Russian-born prospects, and Muratov Batyrlan also has speed and likes to shoot the puck from the circles on the power play. The player expected to draw the most attention is mobile defender Valeri Orekhov, a 1999-born offensive defenseman who can skate his way out of most jams. Opposing teams likely know this, so he should expect to face a physical forecheck similar to what he sees against adults in the KHL. Kazakh goalies Demid Yeremeyev and Denis Karatayevhave both have good size, are athletic, and will stop the bulk of the shots they see. The issue they’ll face will be whether or not the Kazakhstan defenders will be strong enough to keep the low slot clear and swat away second chances.

Image result for Орехов Валерий
Two-way defender Valeri Orekhov is the star of Kazakhstan’s defense corps