Scout’s Analysis: Why USA dominated and other thoughts from the WJC

Team USA's Isaac Howard (22) celebrates his second goal of the game on Sweden goaltender Hugo Havelid (not shown) with teammates during second period gold medal hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (CP)

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — The 2024 World Junior Hockey Championship is in the books. Heavily favoured Team USA defeated tournament hosts Team Sweden by a score of 6-2 to win gold on Friday. The bronze medal went to Team Czechia after it defeated Team Finland, 8-5.

Take a bow, Gothenburg

The WJC felt very similar to last year’s tournament in Halifax and Moncton. The city of Gothenburg embraced the event. Restaurants around the rink were packed every day and local sports bars carried all of the games on their screens. An event like this clearly gives the economy a nice boost to start a new year. Fans who were new to the European way of cheering on their teams were greeted with drums, flags and songs being belted from the stands. It’s unique to Europe and it’s something any die-hard sports fan should experience at least once in their lifetime.

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 American depth

Team USA had, by a wide margin, the deepest team in the tournament. American hockey has been on the rise for several years. The U.S. National Development Team Program, based in Plymouth, Michigan, has been churning out NHL draft picks at an exceptionally high rate. The Team USA roster had 10 NHL first-round picks, six second-rounders, four third-rounders and one fifth-rounder. All but four of those players had graduated from the USNTDP. 

Team USA has a good thing going in Plymouth. The structure of USA Hockey, from the grass roots all the way up to the NHL, is having noticeable results. Hockey has taken hold across the country and, by population alone, the Americans are stocking their cupboards with exceptional talent.

Standouts

Montreal Canadiens second-round pick (62nd overall in 2022), Lane Hutson, is one of my favourite players to watch develop. The undersize, power-play quarterback and transitional defenceman impacts the play every time he hits the ice. He’s widely recognized for his offensive skillset, but he also never backs down from a challenge defensively. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to Hutson. He’s programmed differently than some other skill players: He never shies away from contact or engaging along the wall and out front his net.

Hutson was selected to the tournament All-Star team. He didn’t score a goal, but he chipped in with six assists. Hudson averaged over 26 minutes in time on ice. He was used in all situations and finished with a plus-8.

Sooner or later, the Buffalo Sabres are going to have to give forward Jiri Kulich a long look at the NHL level. Buffalo selected Kulich 28th overall in 2022. Before arriving at the WJC, he had 16 goals and six assists for 22 points at the AHL level with the Rochester Americans. Kulich played to his strengths and produced six goals and six assists for 12 points in seven games for the Czechs to be the overall scoring leader at the world juniors.

Kulich is a pure shooter. He wants the puck on his stick on the power play and puts very little thought into what happens next. He rips pucks from the weak-side flank, or walks to the middle to open up a shooting lane. His three-zone game will need more detail as he matures at the NHL level, but his goal-scoring element is elite.

Here’s an example of what Kulich provides on the power play:

Jonathan Lekkerimaki was excellent for Team Sweden. The Vancouver Canucks’ first round-pick (15th overall in 2022) received plenty of deserved, positive recognition at the tournament. He was named the tournament MVP after scoring seven goals and adding three assists in seven games for the Swedes.

Lekkerimaki, like Kulich, has the ability to beat goalies from long range with a lethal one-timer. The Canucks have to be excited about Lekkerimaki’s development and trajectory. He suffered through some setbacks last year, including injury, but has clearly worked hard to put himself in a position to be a potential NHL player in Vancouver, maybe as early as next season.

Quick hits

Fraser Minten (Toronto second round, 38th overall, in 2022) was the captain of Team Canada. He averaged between 15 and 20 minutes of time on ice and was deployed in all situations. Minten scored one goal and added two assists in the tournament, with all his points coming in games versus Latvia and Germany.

Minten is a much better player than he displayed at this event. He, like a lot of Team Canada’s players, never seemed to get in a groove and play to their strengths. I had no issues with his compete, but his thought process and execution were off compared to what I have viewed back home at the junior and pro levels.

Another Leafs prospect, Easton Cowan (first round, 28th overall in 2023), generally skated in a middle / bottom-six role for Team Canada. He scored only one goal in the tournament, an empty-net tally versus Germany, but generally played an energy / checking role.

Cowan’s ice time hovered around 15 minutes per game. He was used at even-strength and the penalty kill. Cowan worked hard and played quick. He will be better for this experience. He’s eligible to return to Team Canada next year in Ottawa.

Defenceman Elias Pettersson from Sweden (Vancouver’s third-round pick, 80th overall, in 2022) was a workhorse throughout the tournament. He averaged close to 20 minutes every night. All of his ice time came at even-strength and the penalty kill. Pettersson was tasked with matching up against top opponents and did a fantastic job in the role. He’s a bit of a throwback — I appreciate his occasional nastiness.

Another Canucks prospect, defenceman Tom Willander (first round, 11th overall, in 2023) was steady for Team Sweden. He was thrust into a variety of roles. The bulk of his ice time came at even-strength and the penalty kill. The smooth-skating Willander continues to impress with his elite skating and ability to escape pressure in the defensive zone. Willander finished the tournament with one goal and two assists. He was an impressive plus-9 defensively.

Winnipeg Jets first-round pick (14th overall in 2022) Rutger McGroarty was the captain for Team USA. He did it all for the American squad.

McGroarty skated between 17 and 19 minutes every game. He was used in all situations. His three-zone detail (plus-8), physical presence and offensive contribution (five goals and four assists) were excellent. The fact McGroarty can be slotted into a role, up and down the lineup, and thrive is a bonus for the Jets. He’s not a one-trick pony.

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Draft eligibles

Observations on three draft-eligible prospects from the WJC:

Although Team Canada didn’t advance out of the quarter-final round, top prospect Macklin Celebrini still finished 16th in scoring (four goals and four assists) despite playing two fewer games than his competitors.

Celebrini played to his identity. He was creative with the puck on his stick, a threat off the rush and uber-competitive in the trenches trying to win pucks. Celebrini’s primary element is his offensive skill, but his three-zone effort and detail are very reliable for a scorer.

Team Czechia defenceman Adam Jiricek suffered a knee injury in the opening game of the tournament versus Team Slovakia. Early reports indicated the injury could keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the season. It’s a tough blow for the projected first-round pick. Jircek is a six-foot-two, 170-pound right-shot D who plays a two-way game and quarterbacks the power play as a distributor more than a shooter.

Smooth-skating forward prospect Konsta Helenius didn’t score his first goal until the bronze-medal game, but he will be better for the experience overall. Team Finland’s coaching staff wasn’t shy about putting Helenius in scenarios to succeed. He averaged over 17 minutes TOI and was deployed at even-strength and the power play. I’m sure Helenius would have liked to score more than one goal and one assist at the tournament, but it was a heavy lift for the young player. Expect his name to be called in the top of the first round in Vegas.

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