2021 World Junior Championship Primer: Canada seeks back-to-back golds

Canada's Bowen Byram (4) and Jamie Drysdale (6) celebrate a goal against the Russia during third period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship pre-competition action in Edmonton on Wednesday, December 23, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused the IIHF to cancel almost every single international tournament on its schedule, many feared that the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship would be next. However, the IIHF found a way to go ahead with the marquee event of the year and worked together with Hockey Canada to move the event to the NHL’s former bubble in Edmonton.

Canada enters the 2021 World Juniors as the defending champions, in a weaker Group A with Finland, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland. Canada’s roster is stacked, headlined by six returnees and 19 NHL first-round draft picks. Their biggest matchup of the round robin will be against the Finns on New Year’s Eve. A first-place finish in the group is critical for Canada, as anything lower than that will likely see them play a very difficult hockey power from Group B in the quarterfinals.

The United States, Russia and Sweden will battle in an extremely tight Group B, along with the Czech Republic and newly promoted Austria. Group B won’t be the ‘Group of Death’ that it was last year, but there could be a potential bloodbath in the round robin. Sweden will put its monumental 52-game round robin win streak to the test against the Americans and Russians.

Several teams saw COVID-19 breakouts occur, with key players and coaching staff ruled ineligible for the tournament in the weeks before travelling to Canada. After all 10 teams completed a five-day quarantine in Edmonton, the IIHF announced that eight players on the German team and two Swedish staff members tested positive, and promptly placed both teams in quarantine.

That puts both countries at a significant disadvantage, as neither team will be able to play in exhibition games prior to the tournament. However, the hope is that there won’t be any more positive tests now that all 10 teams have entered the bubble, and that the 2021 World Juniors will be played as planned.

GROUP A

Canada (2020 Finish: 1st)

Strength: Returning Champions

Canada’s recent history at the World Juniors has proven that the more returning players they bring, the better they fare. That’s especially pivotal for 2021, where Canada will bring back four forwards and two defencemen from their 2020 gold medal-winning team. On top of that, Canada will be coached by Andre Tourigny, who led this age group to gold at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, and 10 players from that team will play at the 2021 World Juniors. Canada will rely on the championship experience of returnees Dylan Cozens (BUF), Quinton Byfield (LAK), Connor McMichael (WSH), Dawson Mercer (NJD), Bowen Byram (COL) and Jamie Drysdale (ANA) to lead the country to back-to-back gold medals – and Canada’s first gold medal on home soil since 2015.

Weakness: Player Rust

Canada’s depth at this tournament every year is tough to match, but they may be at a disadvantage this year. While the American and European players have been playing fairly regularly this season, the majority of Canada’s players haven’t played a competitive game yet, including all three of the team’s goaltenders. Only five players on Canada’s roster have played games in the QMJHL or NCAA this season. Canada being forced to shut down its World Juniors camp for two weeks and cancel scrimmages because of two positive COVID-19 tests didn’t help. How quickly the 25 Canadian players can shake off the rust will be critical, because this tournament goes by so quickly.

X-Factor: Quinton Byfield (LAK)

They won’t be getting Alexis Lafreniere back, and Canada received another big blow when captain Kirby Dach (CHI) was injured in their lone pre-tournament game. However, Canada’s depth should be able to withstand the loss of Dach on the ice, and the player who should be tabbed to fill Dach’s role is Quinton Byfield. The Los Angeles Kings’ second overall pick from 2020 played a minor role for Canada at last year’s tournament, but is expected to have a larger impact this time around. Byfield’s unique package of size, physicality and skill will allow him to slide into Dach’s spot on Canada’s top line and hopefully the increased role will give Byfield the opportunity to flourish.

Finland (2020 Finish: 4th)

Strength: Offensive Weapons

Since the New York Rangers didn’t loan Kaapo Kakko for the tournament, Anton Lundell, the most recent first round pick of the Florida Panthers, will take centre stage for Finland after missing last year’s tournament with an injury. He’ll bolster the Finnish offence, along with Kasper Simontaival (LAK) and Antti Saarela (CHI). Although the Finns opted to not bring back eligible returnees Patrik Puistola (CAR) and Aatu Raty (2021), keep an eye on 2022 draft-eligible forward Brad Lambert. Lambert, an exceptional talent, debuted in the Finnish men’s league as a 15-year-old last season and is back playing there this year.

Weakness: Goaltending

Neither Justus Annunen (COL) nor Jasper Patrikainen are eligible to return for this year’s tournament, so Finland will be in tough to replace both – especially Annunen, who was one of the best goaltenders of the 2020 tournament. Finland’s likely goaltending tandem will be Kari Piiroinen, who was the team’s third goalie last year, and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Joel Blomqvist, who has experience representing his country on the international stage but will be a World Juniors rookie. Whether or not either of them can replicate Annunen’s success remains to be seen, but whoever takes over his reins in goal will need to be at their best for Finland.

X-Factor: Ville Heinola (WPG)

Five of the eight defencemen Finland brought to the World Juniors last year have aged out. Winnipeg Jets top prospect Ville Heinola is still eligible to return, and he will likely take on the role as Finland’s number one defenceman. Heinola was the highest scoring defenceman on Finland at last year’s tournament and is expected to have a similar offensive impact. It will be up to Heinola to lead the way for what will be a relatively young and inexperienced blue line, as Finland attempts to better their disappointing fourth-place finish from 2020.

Germany (2020 Finish: 9th)

Strength: Returning Stars

Though Dominik Bokk (CAR), Germany’s leading scorer last year, is too old to return, Germany still has offensive weapons at its disposal. Ottawa Senators third overall pick Tim Stuetzle will lead the offensive charge alongside Buffalo Sabres prospect J.J. Peterka. Though they will be without Lukas Reichel (CHI) because he tested positive for COVID-19, Stuetzle and Peterka can shock defences. If they can get off to a fast start, Germany could do some real damage in the round robin.

Weakness: No Moritz Seider

Germany was able to avoid relegation from the top group last year, but if they want to better their finish in 2021, they’re going to be without top defenceman Moritz Seider (DET). Seider, who captained Germany last year and is still eligible for the 2021 tournament, made the decision to remain in Europe this year. While the Germans still have the offensive weapons to make certain games interesting (especially against Slovakia and Switzerland), losing Seider is a tremendous blow to their blue line. It will take a total team defensive effort, especially against Canada and Finland, as it will be next to impossible for Germany to replace a player of Seider’s calibre.

X-Factor: Tim Stuetzle (OTT)

Though Stuetzle finished the 2020 tournament a point-per-game player, he couldn’t find the back of the net at all last year. That should change in 2021. Stuetzle will be relied on heavily to produce most of Germany’s offence. The biggest question is how quickly Stuetzle will recover from having surgery on a broken hand back in October, and how effective he will be. Stuetzle will need to be the team’s most dominant player whenever he is on the ice, especially for Germany’s games against Slovakia and Switzerland.

Slovakia (2020 Finish: 8th)

Strength: Draft-Eligible Talent

Slovakia struggled mightily at the 2020 World Juniors and the expectations aren’t much higher for the 2021 squad. What might give Slovakia an edge is their draft-eligible talent. 2021 draft-eligible forwards Oleksii Myklukha and Robert Baco, and 2022 draft-eligible Juraj Slafkovsky will lead the offensive charge. However, Slovakia’s star might just be on the back end. 16-year old Simon Nemec (2022) is the youngest player to ever record a point in Slovakia’s men’s league, and blends size and mobility with poise and creative vision. Goaltender Samuel Hlavaj will return for his third World Juniors after being passed over yet again in the 2020 draft. A strong showing at this year’s tournament could mean he’s drafted in 2021, and Slovakia will benefit greatly from his experience in between the pipes.

Weakness: No Maxim Cajkovic

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Maxim Cajkovic would have been a lock to make the Slovak team in 2021. As a returnee from last year, Cajkovic was one of Slovakia’s best players and the team would have counted on his experience. However, he was released from the team’s training camp after concussing one of his teammates in a scrimmage. It was a decision the Slovak national team had to make, but Cajkovic’s blend of offensive production and physicality was unique, and it will be difficult for Slovakia to replace him.

X-Factor: Martin Chromiak (LAK)

Chromiak was a surprise snub from last year’s roster, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He decided to join the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs while the tournament was being played and proceeded to light up the league playing alongside exceptional wunderkind Shane Wright (2022), who was cut from Canada’s camp. Slovakia will rely on Chromiak to both set up and score goals, especially off the rush. Although his role will be larger than expected, Chromiak has the potential to step into the hole left by Cajkovic and prove that he can lead the team.

Switzerland (2020 Finish: 5th)

Strength: Defence

The Swiss will have to replace almost their entire blue line heading into the 2021 World Juniors, but that might not be as tall a task as one might think. Having returnees Bastian Guggenheim and Rocco Pezzullo will help, but it will likely be Inaki Baragano leading the defence corps. The late cut from last year’s camp got off to an excellent start in Switzerland’s junior league this year, with 16 points in 22 games. He’ll likely play on the top pair with Giancarlo Chanton, whose name sounds almost like a certain New York Yankees slugger. Chanton and Baragano have both played in the CHL, and that experience will serve them well.

Weakness: Best Players Aged Out

Switzerland hasn’t played in the relegation round since 2016. Although the relegation round won’t be played this year, there is a chance that the Swiss find themselves at the bottom of Group A. Most of their top players from last year’s tournament have aged out this year, including six of their eight defencemen and all three goaltenders. Although Switzerland should be able to replace the blue line without much issue, the uncertainty and inexperience between the pipes will likely be a big issue against all of Canada, Finland and Germany. Given the strength of the German team this year, Switzerland’s youth and inexperience could mean a fight against Slovakia to avoid finishing last in Group A.

X-Factor: Simon Knak (undrafted)

It was surprising to many when Knak went undrafted in 2020, but the returning forward should drive the bulk of the Swiss offence after only scoring two goals through five games last year. Knak put up 34 points in 49 games last year with the Portland Winterhawks. With the WHL on pause until after the tournament, Knak has returned to Switzerland and is playing consistently in their top men’s league, one of the few members of the Swiss World Juniors team to do so. Knak will wear the ‘C’ for Switzerland at this year’s tournament after captaining U-16, U-18 and U-20 teams throughout his junior career.

The Big Show
Previewing the 2020-2021 World Junior Championship
December 23 2020

GROUP B

Austria (2020 Finish: Promoted from Division 1A)

Strength: CHL Talent

Although defenceman Thimo Nickl (ANA) was ruled out of the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test, the Austrians are still bolstered by forwards Marco Rossi (MIN) and Senna Peeters, both of whom played in the CHL last season. Rossi spent the last two seasons with the OHL’s Ottawa 67s and Peeters played last season with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads. Both are expected to lead the Austrian forwards in a tough Group B. Although the team looks bound for last place in Group B on paper, with Rossi and Peeters, Austria won’t be a pushover in group play.

Weakness: Uncertainty In Goal

Neither Luca Egger nor Alexander Schmidt can return for the 2021 World Juniors, the tandem that helped get Austria promoted out of Division 1A last year. Austria has many options to replace them in goal, but there isn’t a clear-cut favourite to be the tournament starter, and the group doesn’t have much international experience. Their most likely starter is Sebastian Wraneschitz, who represented Austria at the U-18 Division 1B level back in 2019. However, Jakob Brandner has experience playing in Finland and could be a dark horse candidate between the pipes as well. Whoever ends up taking the reins as Austria’s starting goaltender will face a monstrous task: to stop the offences of Russia, Sweden and the United States.

X-Factor: Marco Rossi (MIN)

Austria hasn’t been at the World Juniors’ top level since 2010. Though there is no true relegation this year, if the Austrians are to avoid being blown out by the hockey powers of the world, Rossi will be the reason why. The Minnesota Wild’s ninth overall pick from 2020 lit up the OHL in his draft season, finishing atop the league with 39 goals and 120 points in just 56 games. Rossi is and will be Austria’s most dynamic and important player. Rossi can and will likely have to put the Austrians on his back in order for them to shock more than one team in the round robin and earn a stunning quarterfinals berth.

Czech Republic (2020 Finish: 7th)

Strength: Defence

The Czech Republic brought a very young blue line to the 2020 World Juniors that fared pretty well, allowing the fourth-least amount of goals in the entire tournament. Four of the six defencemen will return for 2021, older, stronger and tested. However, the Czech blue line will be pushed to their limits as they work to prevent the Americans, Russians and Swedes from wreaking offensive havoc. On top of the four returnees, an intriguing name to watch is Stanislav Svozil, who is a projected first round pick in 2021. The 17-year-old’s instincts and awareness make him an excellent defender, and he could very well be the Czechs’ best defenceman by the time the tournament is over.

Weakness: Lacking Offensive Catalysts

The Czech Republic lacked an offensive driver last year and it may be their undoing again in 2021. Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michal Teply led the team with five points last year, and he will return. However, the team will have to replace the goal scoring that Libor Zabransky provided last year, as the defenceman is too old to return. Look for returnee Jan Mysak (MTL) and newcomer Jaromir Pytlik (NJD) to add some offence up front. Simon Kubicek and Martin Hugo Has (WSH) will likely be pegged to fill Zabransky’s role on the blue line, but as a whole, the Czechs don’t really have the offensive catalysts to compete in a heavy group or to pull off upsets this year.

X-Factor: Jan Mysak (MTL)

The Czechs will rely on Teply for most of their offence, but the versatile Mysak has the potential to take over the reins in the scoring department. After joining the Hamilton Bulldogs following last year’s World Juniors, Mysak racked up points at a torrid pace, finishing his brief OHL rookie season with 15 goals and 25 points in 22 games. Though he only had two points at the 2020 World Juniors, Mysak was named captain of the Czech team and is expected to take on a more prominent offensive role this year. If he heats up, the Czechs could surprise in the round robin, and should be able to advance to the quarterfinals.

Russia (2020 Finish: 2nd)

Strength: Depth Up Front

Although the team only has two returning forwards in Vasily Podkolzin (VAN) and Maxim Groshev (TB), Russia’s offensive depth will be on display at this year’s tournament. Joining them will be CHL players Yegor Afanasyev (NSH), Mikhail Abramov (TOR), and Vasily Ponomaryov (CAR), and 2020 first round picks Rodion Amirov (TOR) and Yegor Chinakov (CBJ). Rounding out that offensive depth is the undersized yet speedy Marat Khusnutdinov (MIN), who will likely play on Russia’s top line with Podkolzin and Amirov. Russia’s forwards will be both physically taxing to play against and difficult to stop from scoring, and they’ll be a tough out in the medal round.

Weakness: Aged Out Defence

Russia will have to replace their entire blue line from 2020, which they usually aren’t strangers to doing. But it will be very difficult for the team to replace the likes of Alexander Romanov (MTL), Daniil Zhuravlyov (COL) and Yegor Zamula (PHI). 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin (NJD) will likely be tabbed to fill Romanov’s role. Semyon Chistyakov (NSH) and 2021 draft-eligible Daniil Chayka should help ease some of the load on Mukhamadullin, but there really isn’t a true number one defenceman on this Russian team in the way that Romanov was last year. If Russia does struggle, it will likely be the result of their blue line being unable to keep the puck out of their own end.

X-Factor: Yaroslav Askarov (NSH)

If there’s one solace to a weak Russian blue line, it’s that the team will have a metaphorical wall between the pipes. Askarov, the first goaltender selected in the 2020 NHL Draft, struggled as Russia’s starting goalie last year and was benched for the gold medal game. However, Askarov should return to his usual perfect form the second time around. Through seven starts in the KHL this season, Askarov has posted a remarkable .962 save percentage and a 0.96 goals-against average. Russia will need Askarov at his best, especially with a very lacklustre blue line in front of him. In the very unlikely event that Askarov struggles, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Artur Akhtyamov should be able to pick up the reins. But when Askarov is dialled in, he’s incredibly difficult to beat.

Sweden (2020 Finish: 3rd)

Strength: Goaltending

Sweden will bring a strong team to the 2021 World Juniors, and that starts in goal. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Hugo Alnefelt will return to the crease after backstopping Sweden to bronze last year with a .941 save percentage in his final game. If Alnefelt falters, Sweden will turn to 2021 draft-eligible Jesper Wallstedt, who has posted a .930 save percentage in eight SHL games this season and is the undisputed best goalie available in next year’s NHL draft. Alnefelt and Wallstedt are one of the strongest tandems Sweden has brought to this tournament in recent memory, and they’ll give Sweden their best chance to end their eight-year gold medal drought.

Weakness: COVID-19 Absences

This will be a fairly young group of Swedes expected to contend for a medal. On top of that, the team announced in mid-December that forwards Karl Henriksson (NYR), William Eklund (2021), Albin Grewe (DET) and defenceman William Wallinder (DET) would miss the tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. Four of Sweden’s coaches, including head coach Tomas Monten, also tested positive and were ruled out of the tournament. Though they were able to find enough replacements before making the trip to Edmonton, it was a tough blow for the team. Sweden’s inexperience and youth could prove to be an issue as they play deep Russian and American teams in the round robin before heading off to the medal round. This could be the year that Sweden’s undefeated round robin streak comes to an end.

X-Factors: Lucas Raymond (DET) and Alexander Holtz (NJD)

Neither Samuel Fagemo (LAK) nor Nils Hoglander (VAN) will be able to return for Sweden this year, so the responsibility to lead the forward group falls on 18-year-old ‘Terror Twins’ Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Both now first round picks of the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, Raymond and Holtz have proven offensive chemistry from the U-17s and U-18s and will be relied on heavily to produce for Sweden. If they can replicate the dynamic offence they produced at those tournaments, Sweden should roll towards another medal finish.

United States (2020 Finish: 6th)

Strength: Loaded Forward Group

Last year, the American offence completely dried up in their quarter-final game against Finland and the United States was sent packing. This time around, USA will bring back five returning forwards, led by 2019 first round picks Cole Caufield (MTL), Alex Turcotte (LAK) and Trevor Zegras (ANA). USA will miss Nick Robertson, who wasn’t loaned by the Maple Leafs, and John Beecher (BOS) and Thomas Bordeleau (SJ), who were ruled out of the tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. However, USA will be bolstered by two new additions: Minnesota’s 2019 first-rounder Matthew Boldy, whom many viewed as a snub from last year’s team, and the top American eligible for the 2021 draft, Matthew Beniers. This will be a hungry American group seeking redemption from an early exit last year, and they’re going to be firing on all cylinders.

Weakness: Inexperienced Blue line

The United States’ Achilles’ heel might be their blue line again this year, as Cam York (PHI) is the only returning defenceman from 2020. For three of their defencemen, the 2021 World Juniors will be their first time representing the United States on the international stage. Aside from recent fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson (OTT), whose only experience representing Team USA was back at the U-17s two years ago, the defence group may struggle against faster opponents. Brock Faber (LAK) and Ryan Johnson (BUF) will provide mobility and potential offence, but because the U-18s were cancelled last spring, USA’s blue line will be fairly inexperienced this year.

X-Factor: Spencer Knight (FLA)

Knight didn’t necessarily struggle at last year’s World Juniors, but he was far from his usual self, especially as USA barely escaped with an overtime win against the Czech Republic in the round robin. However, Knight has been on a tear to start the season with Boston College, and left the Eagles on a two-game shutout streak and a .955 save percentage through four games. USA will need Knight on his game right away, as the team faces Russian wall Askarov to begin the tournament on Christmas Day. With a weaker blue line in front of him, Knight’s performance will likely dictate how far USA advances this year, and whether they can redeem themselves from a sixth-place finish in 2020.

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