Gare Joyce will be reporting on the world juniors all tournament. Here are his 10 takeaways from opening day in Helsinki.
1. Auston Matthews (U.S.)
Give the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft a B-plus, though that might be the product of unreasonable expectations. Inevitably, the anointed star-upon-arrival in the tournament will be perceived to be a disappointment—remember, last year in Montreal in the opening round when many thought that Connor McDavid was over-hyped? Matthews’s final line in the Americans’ 4-2 win, a goal and an assist in the third period, will look more impressive on paper than in the run of play on the ice.
The clinching goal was an 18-inch sitter behind goaltender Mason McDonald without a checker in sight. Still, Matthews looked like a man-child among boys, just so much bigger and stronger than anyone matched against him. The Canadians had to be mindful of where he was every second of every shift. He compared favourably with Jack Eichel’s play in a comparable situation last winter.
2. Mason McDonald or Mackenzie Blackwood (Canada)
That’s going to be an interesting call for Canadian coach Dave Lowry and his staff when we hit the money games of the tournament.
The two American goals in the third period were the by-product of bad luck on deflections and/or bad judgment to try to get a stick on a shot. It’s hard to blame McDonald on the winner credited to Zach Werenski, whose shot from the point went in off the stick of Canadian defenceman Joe Hicketts. It looked like McDonald had the shot well-covered when it caromed off Hicketts’s twig. On Matthews’s goal though, he coughed up a fur ball, letting the puck squeeze between his pads when his team desperately needed some help.
American goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic might not have cleanly stolen the game for the U.S., but he absolutely robbed Brendan Perlini in the first period—Perlini raised his stick and started to celebrate, never a good look when the other guys are skating back up the ice with the puck. Nedeljkovic was a heck of a lot busier than McDonald and the Americans have to feel more confident in the goaltending going forward than the Canadians.
3. Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner (Canada)
Along with Mathew Barzal and defenceman Thomas Chabot, Strome was Canada’s best player.
In covering the OHL final last year, I knocked Strome’s skating. Scouts said that he was much improved on that count over the start of Erie’s season and it certainly looked that way in the opener. His tally to tie the game 2-2 in the third was a sure-handed finish, closing in on the American goal and unleashing a heavy wrist shot that beat Nedeljkovic.
But shift after shift, Strome was doing positive stuff. Marner on Strome’s wing, though, struggled noticeably. Yeah, he picked up an assist on Strome’s goal but for 40 minutes it felt like he was trying to force magic to happen.
4. Alex DeBrincat (U.S.)
He’s had better games. And practically every one has been longer. Spearing Travis Konecny and taking a major plus a game in the first period could have easily cost the Americans the contest. Completely out of character. Matthews might have had a bigger impact if DeBrincat had been on his wing for 60 minutes.
5. Draft-eligibles in the showcase opener
It was easy to like American Matthew Tkachuk (London Kinights) and Canadian Julien Gauthier (Val-d’Or Foreurs).
Tkachuk is no surprise. He is the image of his father Keith, only greasier. Gauthier, though, was a revelation. In no way did he look like an underage player and he created Barzal’s goal to open the scoring. Gauthier was sliding on his knees and made a well-timed pass back to Barzal as he exploded into the slot.
It’s not hard to envision Gauthier being the marquee Canadian player at next year’s tournament (presuming Strome and some others of the 2015 draftees will have moved on to the NHL).
6. Ron Wilson (U.S.)
Nice to see Wilson back behind the bench. Okay, not really. Hopefully in the years off, he’s welled up enough humility to give full credit to his players. If he looks at the totals of legit scoring chances, he might think his team was outplayed, and maybe it was. Still, I’d bet on the zone time and possession being a lot closer, something along the lines of the final SOG numbers: Canada 27 – USA 25.
7. William Nylander and Adrian Kempe (Sweden)
Two AHLers on loan to the Swedish team from their respective NHL organizations (Toronto and Los Angeles) both took gratuitous head shots in a lopsided 8–3 win over the Swiss. Kempe seemed to come out of it better than Nylander, though both skated through heavy fog to the bench. It wouldn’t surprise if Nylander missed a game or two.
8. Dymtro Timashov (Sweden)
The Ukraine-born Leafs prospect (125th overall last June) was arguably the most effective Swedish player, picking up two goals and an assist. I was critical of his play at the Memorial Cup—like others on the Quebec Remparts, he pulled the chute in the tournament. Much more impressive on opening day. And it’s not just skill set and (lack of) size being a more favorable fit on the big ice surface. He has been dynamite in the “Q” this season.
9. Belarus and Switzerland
The former figures to be relegation game roadkill and the latter hopefully will be after its ugly loss to the Swedes. Belarus was able to hang tough against the host Finns through a period and change. Still they just didn’t have the speed and mobility to defend and play without the puck against a very tight home team. The 6–0 win was a glorified exhibition game for Finland.
They didn’t impress in the 2–1 shootout win over the Czechs in a sorta bloodless opening game, but that’s the way with Russian teams in the U20s over the years. Not to say that they sandbag but more than not they finish much stronger than they open.