The 2018 world junior championship from Buffalo opened with four games and featured an upset, a close battle of two medal hopefuls, and a couple blowouts by superpower nations over hockey minnows.
This year’s WJC will display four of the top five prospects for the 2018 NHL Draft, and a few more who may get picked soon after, plus a wide variety of players already selected and working their way towards the ultimate goal of one day being on an NHL roster.
After each day, Sportsnet will provide you with a collection of takeaway thoughts that cover all of the games played and point out noteworthy performances. Here are our notes from the Boxing Day wins from the Czech Republic, Sweden, Canada and the United States.
• Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin and Russia’s Andrei Svechnikov have gotten most of the attention when it comes to 2018 NHL Draft eligibles in this year’s WJC, but Czech forward Filip Zadina stepped into the spotlight on the first day of the tournament.
The second-highest scorer in the QMJHL with 46 points in 32 games (as a rookie, too), Zadina got an assist on the first goal of the game and added a power-play marker in the second period that gave the Czechs a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Fans of the Halifax Mooseheads know all about Zadina’s tremendous talent already. But with performances like this in a very tough test right out of the gate, talent evaluators may come out of the WJC wondering if he can push Svechnikov for No. 2 overall consideration.
• Scary moment for Czech (and New York Ranger) fans when Filip Chytil attempted to throw a hit and took Alexei Polodyan’s helmet square to the face, which left him bloodied on the ice and forced him to leave the game for a bit.
But after returning, Chytil scored a goal off a rebound, adding to his assist from earlier in the game. The Rangers pick, 21st overall in 2017, looked great overall and figures to be a huge contributor for what could be an upstart Czech team after this upset win. Chytil started the season in the NHL and played two games, but has spent most of the season in the AHL, where he has 12 points in 15 games.
• Everyone was wondering how much we’d see Svechnikov, the projected No. 2 overall pick in 2018. Russia tends to lean on its 19-year-olds and away from the guys playing in North America at these events. But with Svechnikov’s explosive offensive talent, he would be someone to turn to when chasing the lead.
Overall, the Russians rolled four lines at even strength through most of the game. But as they trailed late and were on the power play, Svechnikov was noticeably kept on the bench. This may be a trend that continues through the tournament, which would mean Svechnikov won’t get the same exposure as Dahlin or Zadina. He could be a game-breaker if called upon. He missed significant time with the OHL’s Barrie Colts because of an early-season hand injury, but the six-foot-three, 184-pound winger has 21 points in 16 games this season. He was pointless with one shot on goal against the Czechs.
• The headlining Swedish forward coming into the WJC was Elias Pettersson, the Vancouver Canucks draft pick scoring at an historic pace for an under-20 player in the SHL who said he wanted to dominate every game at this year’s tournament. And while he did score the first goal and added an assist later, Lias Andersson reminded us of the impact he should have on this team.
Andersson was picked two slots after Pettersson (seventh overall) by the Rangers in 2017 and scored two goals in the Day 1 win over Belarus. While Andersson isn’t having the historical SHL season his WJC teammate is, it’s worth noting Andersson has been in Sweden’s top pro league for three years now, whereas Pettersson is a rookie. The Rangers draft pick has shown significant growth in his game, too, as he’s just five points shy of equalling his 19 from all of 2016-17, in about half as many SHL games.
Between Andersson, Pettersson, and projected No. 1 pick Dahlin, the Swedish power play has a ton of star power and will be a force throughout the WJC.
• How did Dahlin look in his first 2018 WJC game? Nothing short of excellent.
He played in last year’s tournament, but as a 16-year-old he wasn’t given too much ice time even though he flashed excellence when he was out there. This year the reins are off as Dahlin started by leading Sweden with 20:50 of ice time. He was the main guy on the point on the power play and moves with the fluidity and confidence of a future NHL stud. He finished Sweden’s 41st consecutive preliminary round win with two primary assists.
• Goaltending has been the most consistent area of weakness on many recent Team Canada WJC teams, but this year Carter Hart has the potential to become team MVP.
The 19-year-old Flyers draft pick (48th overall in 2016), has been unbelievable in the WHL this season with a league-leading .961 save percentage that is 30 percentage points higher than anyone else. He stopped 29 of 31 shots against a Finnish team bound to bounce back from a ninth-place finish last year and leave an impression in 2018.
Colton Point is expected to start against Slovakia on Wednesday, but with Hart standing behind a solid and experienced defence the rest of the way, goaltending looks like it will be an area of strength for Canada this year.
• Just last year the Tampa Bay Lightning featured a few excellent Canadian prospects at the WJC when Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli starred as point-per-game players for a silver medal squad. And this year Steve Yzerman’s team has sent another stack of stars. The 2018 entry of Team Canada includes four players drafted by the Lightning: defenceman Cal Foote and forwards Taylor Raddysh (a returning player who scored five goals in 2017), Brett Howden and Boris Katchouk.
Katchouk stood out most on Day 1. A hard-working player and a terrific skater, Katchouk needed to be a difference-maker on offence for a roster that lacks a marquee name and came out firing with a goal and an assist. On the helper, he did all the work to get the puck down the ice and set up Raddysh for a tricky knuckle-puck goal. Katchouk nearly scored a second of his own, too, hitting the goal post on another great chance.
Tampa Bay is currently first place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division, nine points clear of second place Toronto. While the Lightning have top-end draft talents in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, their strength has come from players like Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point who were picked later on. The present is bright for the Lightning, and there’s tons more help on the way in the near future.
• It was a good win for Canada to start the tournament, but it gave up six power play opportunities to the Finns, which is a trend that absolutely cannot continue. Thanks to great goaltending, Finland converted on only one of those chances. The Canadians won’t continue to be so lucky against other top notch competition through the rest of the WJC if they give up this many power play opportunities. Keep an eye on this part of their game when they take on the heavy underdog Slovaks in Game 2.
• Very hard to learn anything about a loaded American team in such a one-sided game, but the Buffalo crowd must have enjoyed watching Casey Mittelstadt have an instant impact for a gold-medal contender.
The University of Minnesota’s second-highest scorer got on the board with two first-period goals. The Sabres nabbed Mittelstadt with the eighth overall pick in 2017 and he moved freely and powerfully with the puck through a porous Denmark defence. More complete teams are waiting for Mittelstadt and the Americans. But before Denmark’s spirit was crushed, he was a leader on offence and continued to buzz all over the ice with the puck through the rest of the lopsided win.
• This Unites States roster has nine players already taken in the first round of the NHL draft and two others, Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes, who are projected to go in the top half of the first round in 2018. Tkachuk, like his brother Matthew, is a tough-as-nails competitor who can create offence. Of the two draft eligibles on this year’s American team, he’s projected to go first.
But against Denmark we got a glimpse of a defence pairing that could prove to be an excellent duo throughout the WJC. Adam Fox, a Calgary third-rounder from 2016 was paired with Hughes, who Sam Cosentino ranked eighth in his most recent draft rankings. Hughes is known for his poise with the puck and leads all Michigan Wolverines blueliners with nine assists in 16 games this season. Fox and Hughes together as a dominant unit against the Danes.
Granted this isn’t going to be their toughest test, but they passed it easily and are a duo to watch closely as the Americans set off in their quest to defend gold.