Team Previews *These previously appeared in an article for Sporting News on Dec. 24, 2019.
Werk Arena, Trinec, Czech Republic
The defending champs are deep enough up front to stomach the graduations of Kaapo Kakko, and keep in mind that they took home the crown last year with top center Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the NHL. The bigger hit to this roster is the loss of two-way center Anton Lundell, a top 2020 draft prospect who was injured a few weeks back. Lundell likely would have been a top-six center and strong penalty killer. A serious strength for the Finns will be on the wing. They have several fast-skating goal scorers like Sampo Ranta (COL), Eemil Erholtz, Matias Maccelli (CAR), and Joonas Oden. Their best player in crunch time will be center Rasmus Kupari (LAK), who should anchor the top line and lead the power play.
The defense is on the smaller side but features a trio of elite playmakers — Anttoni Honka (CAR),Ville Heinola (WIN)and Toni Utunen (VAN). Lassi Thomson (OTT), a first rounder of Ottawa’s in 2019, is a high-volume shooter who also skates with the puck with confidence. What the group lacks is a physical presence or crease clearer, and the lack of size may result in unnecessary stick fouls.
In goal, the Finns likely will rely on Justus Annunen (COL)as their primary starter, with Jasper Patrikainen and Kari Piiroinen relegated to backup roles. The Finns won gold with marginal goaltending in 2016, but it will be tough for Annunen to replicate last year’s dominant performance by Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. To his credit, Annunen was huge for Finland at the 2018 U18 world championships when he bested Spencer Knight and the United States in the gold medal game.
If they handed out gold medals for preliminary round play, the Swedes would have the most successful junior program in tournament history. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to carry their winning ways from group play into the medal round. They’ll be looking to erase the memories from last year’s QF loss to Switzerland, and the good news is the only tradition power they’ll have to deal with in Group A will be the rival Finns, who they open with on Dec. 26.
The strength of Sweden’s 2020 group lies within its blue line — it boasts a tournament-best five first-round picks, beginning with 2018 draftee Rasmus Sandin,who played briefly for the Maple Leafs this year and has been one of the best defenseman in the AHL. Additionally, there is a trio of top-31 picks from the 2019 draft in two-way beasts Philip Broberg (EDM), Victor Soderstrom(ARI), and Tobias Bjornfot (LAK). The most impressive defenseman of the group in terms of puck skills, however, is righty Nils Lundkvist (NYR), one of the most prolific under-20 scorers in SHL history. Head coach Tomas Monten will have plenty of flexibility when it comes to manning his points on the power play.
The forward group lacks a superstar, although 2020 draft prospects Lucas Raymond andAlexander Holtz have the potential to dominate this tournament the same way they did in leading the Swedes to gold at the last under-18 world championship. The question is whether they are ready to impose their will as 17-year-olds. If the youngsters struggle to deliver, the onus likely falls on the shoulders of Vancouver prospect Nils Hoglander,gifted goal scorer Samuel Fagemo (LAK), and two-way centers Jacob Olofsson(MTL) and David Gustafsson (WIN).
Goaltending is usually a strength for the Swedes, and all signs point towards 2001-born backstop Hugo Alnefeldt (TB) serving as their primary starter. He was between the pipes when the Swedes downed Askarov and Russia in the gold medal game at last year’s U18 worlds.
If there’s one team who could surprise one of the favored nations in group play, it might be the Slovaks, who have more than a handful of dangerous forwards, a goalie capable of stealing a game, and several offensive-minded defensemen who have played well on the international stage.
In goal, Samuel Hlavajwil be called upon to thwart the high-powered offenses of both Sweden and Finland in Group A. He had a rough draft year in 2019 while playing for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, but he’s since moved to the QMJHL and has been stellar for the Sherbrooke Phoenix. At 6-foot-4, Hlavaj covers a lot of net and has quick reflexes, and his strong push to the far side is far more controlled than it was a season ago. He has proven to withstand a high number of shots in succession.
The forward lines for Slovakia are solid. They have a centerpiece in sniping winger Maxim Cajkovic (TBL), who had a strong training camp for the Lightning and has parlayed that into an improved season with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs. A probable candidate to join him on the Slovaks’ top line is left wing Oliver Okuliar, a sturdy draft-eligible forward with sharp hockey sense who can deliver the puck with accuracy from anywhere in the offensive zone. They also have 2000-born center Kristian Kovacikis an exciting playmaker with a quick stick who should see time on special teams and play solid in his own end.
One of their most noticeable defensemen should be swift puck mover Samuel Knazko, a 2020 draft prospect who is one of the top scoring defensemen Finland’s Jr. A SM-Liiga and an excellent power-play quarterback.
Every year the prevailing opinion on the Swiss at the world juniors is that they are always good for pulling off at least one upset, or at least come close to it. Last year, they used some timely scoring from Yannick Bruschweiler and solid goaltending from Luca Hollenstein to upend the favored Swedes in the medal round before bowing out in the semifinals and the subsequent bronze medal game. Much like last year, this 2020 group doesn’t have a superstar it can lean on, but they do have a handful of quality two-way forwards and mobile defenseman who can handle physical play.
The Swiss are returning several key forwards from last year’s group, led by NHL draftee Valentin Nussbaumer (ARI). One aspect of the roster that should not be overlooked is how many players have experience in North American leagues. Nussbaumer plays for Shawinigan in the QMJHL, in addition to 2020 draft prospect Simon Knak (WHL) and 2000-born wingers Gilian Kohler (WHL),Kyen Sopa (OHL), and Matthew Verboon (ECAC). The Swiss won’t face Canada or the United States in group play for the second time in three years, and it won’t hurt that their lineup is full of prospects who are used to either the bigger or smaller sheets of ice, in addition to having familiarization with the contrasting styles of play between Europeans and their hockey brethren across the pond.
Both Hollenstein and Akira Schmid (NJD)will be back in nets for the Swiss, with the smaller, quicker Hollenstein expected to be the primary starter. Each goalie will have the luxury of a sound, crease-clearing defense to their front, as Nico Gross (NYR) and Tim Berni (CBJ) are returning after playing critical roles for last year’s group.
After avoiding relegation with a pair of wins over Denmark following a winless preliminary stage, Kazakhstan has a puncher’s chance to win their first game in group play since beating Switzerland on Dec. 30, 2007. They open this year’s tournament against the Swiss, followed by a meeting with Slovakia. By avoiding the heavily favored Finns and Swedes until the latter portions of the preliminary round, the Kazakhs might be able to make more noise than expected. For starters, most of their roster was taken from the club team Snezhnye Barsy, which plays in Russia’s top junior league. Although they own one of the worst records in the circuit, they shouldn’t have any issues with chemistry.
Kazakhstan has several interesting players to watch, and the majority of their team leaders are 2001-born prospects. Center Dias Gudeinov is a skilled minute eater who is used in every situation and takes all the big faceoffs, and he anchors Snezhnye Barsy’s top line with playmaking winger Oleg Boiko on the right side and aggressive speed merchant Maxim Musurovon the left.
Boiko certainly is one to watch, as he’s an excellent stickhandler who excels in the cycle and can run the power play from the half wall.
Kazakhstan’s defense is nothing short of physical and toes the line between dirty and legal hits. The duo of Artyom Korolyov and Danil Butenko eat up most of the minutes as a top pairing at the club level, and they will look to establish a physical presence very early in matches. This development may prove costly, however, as they are prone to stick fouls and high hits that won’t go unnoticed by the whistle-happy IIHF referees.
Goaltending is far from a strength for the Kazakhs. They have a big-bodied 17-year-old in Maxim Pavlenko, who has been leaking goals in league play, and the smaller Valdislav Nurek, who also plays in the MHL but has seen far more rubber and played for the national team in each of the last three years.
Last January, the Americans game within one goal of winning their second gold medal in three years, thus reinforcing their standing as the dominant junior power in North America and setting the stage for another run at a gold medal in 2020. The only thing different about this year’s squad? It’s young, but understandably so. The 2001 birth year had long been considered the most talented group in the country’s history, and NHL team’s validated it by taking a record nine players from their National Team Development Program in the first round of the 2019 draft. Ten players on the current roster were born in 2001, making it their biggest group ever with another year of world juniors eligibility. In comparison, only seven of their 23 players a year ago had another year before the age cutoff, and in 2018, that number was six.
This group has two major strengths — goaltending and goal scoring. Between the pipes, the likely starter from wire to wire is Florida Panthers first rounder Spencer Knight,who has been next to unbeatable for Boston College and has had plenty of success at the international level. Backing him up will be two capable netminders in Isaiah Saville (VGK) and Dustin Wolf (CGY); each with experience on the international stage.
Up front, the offense will be paced by centers Trevor Zegras (ANA) and Alex Turcotte (LAK) — two first-round picks from last year and both on the younger side of all the American roster players. Expect to see each anchor their own scoring line, with a combination of snipers like Arthur Kaliyev (LAK), Cole Caufield (MTL), Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI), and Bobby Brink (PHI) to flank them. As far as sleepers go, diminutive puck magician Nick Robertson (TOR) has terrorized the OHL and nearly carried the Americans to Hlinka gold in 2018.
The defense offers the standard mix of speedy playmakers like Cam York (PHI) and Zac Jones (NYR), and physical two-way types like Mattias Samuelsson (BUF). The most important member of Team USA’s blue line is towering Rangers’ prospect K’Andre Miller (NYR), who should be their stopper and matched up against top lines.
If it were possible to earmark a favorite to win a highly competitive Group B, then Russia would have to have a slight advantage. Not only do they boast the best goaltending tandem in the tournament in Yaroslav Askarov and fellow 2020 draft eligible Amir Miftakhov, but their projected top two scoring lines consist of premier NHL prospects who gave opposing defenses fits at several U20 tournaments leading up to the world juniors.
On one line, they can deploy two dual-threat wingers in Grigory Denisenko (FLA) and Pavel Dorofeyev (VGK)with either two-way center Ivan Morozov, big-bodied Dmitri Voronkov (CBJ) or sublime set-up man Alexander Khovanov (MIN) between them. The next unit likely features a combination of hulking goal scorer Egor Sokolov , two-way speedster Kirill Marchenko (CBJ) and abrasive winger Vasily Podkolzin (VAN). These players seem to complement one another, and their adherence to defensive zone coverage makes it difficult for opposing attacks to gain momentum.
The defense is mobile and plays physical, so outside of Alexander Romanov (MTL), don’t expect much playmaking and end-to-end rushes from them. Two of their more complete blueliners are Egor Zamula (PHI),who plays for the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL, and Daniil Misyul (NJD),who is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the tournament. The Russians haven’t won the gold medal in 2011, but this is the best group they’ve sent since.
If Team Canada is getting tired of the criticism for not winning as many medals as previous generations of junior-age players, they should at least take comfort in the fact that other competing nations over the last decade have worked extremely hard at building teams specifically designed to mirror the Canadians’ aggressive style.
This year’s addition seems bigger and more skilled up front, while they opted to fill the blue line with quicker playmakers like Ty Smith (NJD), Calen Addison (PIT), and Jamie Drysdale (2020 Draft) who can work together in solving last year’s woes with the power play.
The forward ranks are loaded with centers who are accustomed to shifting to wing from previous international tournaments. The biggest prize for the Canadians was landing Arizona Coyotes phenom Barrett Hayton, the fifth overall pick in 2019 who can bring NHL experience to the lineup. He can center a host of elite multi-threat forwards who can play down the middle or on the flank, namely speedster Joe Veleno (DET), Akil Thomas (LAK), and Dylan Cozens (BUF). One of the biggest surprises for the Canadians this year is their inclusion of four first-year draft eligibles who are 18 or younger – winger Alexis Lafreniere, centers Quinton Byfield and Dawson Mercer, and defenseman Jamie Drysdale. All are expected to go high in this year’s draft.
In net, Team Canada doesn’t have a bonafide stopper with the pedigree of a Spencer Knight or a Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov. But that also was the case during most of their run of five consecutive gold medals the previous decade. Joel Hofer (STL) of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks appears to be the favorite to take the No. 1 job, and he has a lot of experience facing a high number of shots per game, albeit in Canadian major junior and without any international experience. Expecting to back him up are Olivier Rodrigue (EDM), who has played in IIHF events before, and double-overager Nico Daws (2020 Draft), who was the surprise addition out of camp.
This year’s hosts are desperately trying to end nearly two decades worth of world juniors’ futility. Outside of a bronze medal in 2005, the Czechs have never finished higher than fourth, which is surprising considering they won the 2016 Ivan Hlinka and have produced multiple first-round picks in recent NHL drafts. This year’s group will feature multiple prospects with NHL affiliations, plus two potential first-round picks in 2020 in forwards Jaromir Pytlik and Jan Mysak. They have excitable playmakers and breakaway threats throughout the lineup, specifically speedster Jakub Lauko (BOS), two-way forward Jan Jenik (ARI), and winger Karel Plasek (VAN).
If the Czechs do end up breaking their medal skein, they’ll probably have their goaltending to thank for it. The duo of 2019 world juniors hero Lukas Dostal (ANA) and able backup Lukas Parik (LAK), who was fantastic at the last U18 worlds, are expected to provide the Czechs with consistency and the ability to steal a game or two from a favored superpower.
The defense will have to contribute on a committee basis since it lacks a legitimate No. 1 or stopper. The lone NHL draftee is righty Martin Hugo Has (WAS), who has size and plays physical, but also skates well and can be used on the power play. There are two WHL-trained rearguards with promise, and both are first-year draft eligibles in 2020 — Simon Kubicek of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Radek Kucerik of the Saskatoon Blades.
The new addition to this year’s group by way of winning the Division 1A U20 world championship last December, the Germans are not going to have it easy in the mincing machine known as Group B. What they lack in depth and experience is balanced out by an excellent upper-tier of prospects, led by defenseman Moritz Seider (DET), winger Dominik Bokk (CAR), and premier 2020 draft prospect Tim Stutzle, who should be centering the top line, Adding some depth to Germany’s forward ranks are a pair of dynamic 2002-born left wings in Lukas Reicheland J.J. Peterka. The lines don’t necessarily thin out from then on either. Sherbrooke Center Taro Jentzsch, who was invited to Vegas’s camp in the offseason, is versatile for all situations and should man the second line. Joining him on one wing could be Justin Schutz (FLA), a strong two-way type with very good speed and a powerful stride who can stickhandle in a phone booth or explode into open ice for a finish near the net.
The defense and goaltending will be put through a significant amount of stress. Although Seider has proven to be able to carry a defense corps and play upwards of 30 minutes a game, he’ll have to get help from poised puck movers like the Winnipeg Ice’s Simon Gnyp, who captained the U18 team last year, as well as Leon Huttl and physical two-way defenseman Maximilian Glotzl, all three of whom are eligible for the 2020 draft. Tobias Ancicka was one of Europe’s top-rated goalies for last year’s draft and should get the lion’s share of minutes between the pipes.