Let the bubble juniors begin!
There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the 2021 world juniors. Will it start? Will it finish? Can Canada defend its gold medal title? How will the youngsters respond to playing in front of an empty arena?
Only time will answer these questions.
There is some certainty in the usual suspects who will contend for the championship. Canada has 20 first round picks, and the comfort of the Oilers dressing room. Finland is always tough and competitive. The Finns won just two years ago, and combined with Canada have taken six of the past seven tournaments. The Germans needed to have everyone available. Slovakia will win enough to get into the quarters, while Switzerland will give at least one opponent a fit, but isn’t likely to get past the quarterfinals.
Pool B is awesome. The Americans have the best goaltending tandem in the event, and have plenty of depth up front. The Swedes are missing a coach and at least four other impact players, but they will still be dangerous. The Russians have earned a medal in nine of the past 10 events. The Czechs are always competitive, yet haven’t medaled in 15 years. The Austrians have Marco Rossi, he’s deadly.
Aside from cheering for your favourite nation, there’s always an opportunity to see your favourite NHL team’s top prospect. Once again there is no shortage of future NHL stars at this year’s WJC. As always, there are a few draft eligibles sprinkled in, and hey, don’t forget Brad Lambert. You will hear is name mentioned along with Shane Wright once the 2022 NHL draft talk begins.
In the meantime, here’s a quick sampling of three players to watch on each team and why.
Editor’s note: since the publication of this story, Kirby Dach, who was considered one of Team Canada’s most compelling players to watch, suffered an injury and will not participate in the tournament. For that reason, only two Canadian players are listed in this section.
Bowen Byram, D: Should play north of 25 minutes per game, and love every second of it. An excellent skater, who is fearless with the puck. He possesses excellent offensive instincts, a great shot and is highly effective on the power play. This tournament may very well be a springboard to the start of his NHL career.
Quinton Byfield, C: Looks to be the fourth line centre to start the tournament. There’s no questioning his abilities, but he will have to play the Andre Tourigny way in order to elevate into a more prominent role. Puck management will be key to making that happen. Byfield will have to get comfortable playing to his potential when the spotlight is on. Once in L.A., that spotlight will get even bigger.
Anton Lundell, C: The knock on his game was that he would have limited offensive upside. And while he was great in return from injury down the stretch last season, he has shown no signs of offensive deficiencies this season. He was been a stud, fourth in league scoring with 12 goals for 20 points in just 17 games with HIFK in Finland’s Liiga.
Ville Heinola, D: Winnipeg was aggressive in trading up in the 2019 draft to select this talented rearguard. Despite being so slight of frame, Heinola managed to get into eight NHL games (five points) before returning back to the Liiga to finish out the shortened season. He started the 2020-21 season on a torrid pace and has 14 points in 19 Liiga games to date. This is his third world juniors and he claims this team is even better than the one that won gold in 2019.
Brad Lambert, RW: Dad Ross played for the Saskatoon Blades before embarking on a successful pro career in the UK. Brad’s been on the ice since birth and it shows. He played in four Liiga games at the age of 15 last year. So far this season, he’s averaging about .5 points per game. He skates effortlessly and has incredible hands.
Tim Stuetzle, C: A broken hand had him out of action from the middle of October and didn’t afford him the chance to get into any DEL games before leaving for Edmonton. By all accounts, he’ll be ready to go when Germany opens the tournament on Christmas Day. Stuetzle is an excellent skater, with amazing hands and vision. The third overall NHL Draft pick will create as much interest for his play in the tournament as he will for what happens when it’s over.
J.J. Peterka, LW: Was off to a hot start at more than a point per game on loan to Austrian team EC Salzburg before departing. A key member of Germany’s team last year (six points in seven games), he will be leaned on heavily without the likes of Kristian Reichel to complete the trio with Stuetzle. An energy player with a tireless work ethic, Peterka spent all of his draft season in the DEL and put up 11 points in 42 games with EHC Munchen before being selected by Buffalo in the second round of the 2020 draft.
Max Glotzl, D: Undrafted last year after ranking 79th on Central Scouting’s European list, Glotzl has a golden opportunity to turn heads at this tournament. He will likely benefit from Moritz Seider’s absence and will not only be tasked with big minutes, but should see some time on the power play. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds he’s one of Germany’s bigger players, but is still a more than capable skater. If he can play sound defensively and move pucks efficiently without trying to play over his head, he could put himself into draft contention.
Samuel Hlavaj, G: His numbers in this tournament last year (5.37, .851 SV%) didn’t jive with the numbers he put up with with Sherbrooke (2.25, .915), the CHL’s top team from a year ago. Named the QMJHL’s top defensive rookie, Hlavaj possessed the league’s best GAA (2.25) while being named a second team all-star. Some of his failures last year had to do with a weaker Slovakian team, but Hlavaj did not look his confident self. At his best, he’s extremely athletic, patient and competitive. He plays the puck well and that may be something we see more of in this event.
Martin Chromiak, RW: He came over from Slovakia to join the Kingston Frontenacs after last year’s tournament and was immediately put on a line with Shane Wright and Zayde Wisdom. It wasn’t long before the trio became one of the best in the OHL, if not the CHL. Chromiak used excellent skating ability and edge work and combined that with creativity to put up 11 goals and 33 points in 28 games. While many, myself included, thought he was a lock to go in the top two rounds, he slid all the way to Round 5, where he was picked up by the L.A. Kings. He will need to show an ability to play inside the dots as he progresses towards an NHL career.
David Mudrak, D: The 6-foot-1, 185-pound right shot defenceman is back for his second and final tournament. Last year, he lead all Slovak blueliners in ice time (18:43/game). His 15 shots lead the team, while he had three assists in five games. Upon completion of the WJC, he is expected to suit up for the Oshawa Generals.
Noah Meier, D: Is listed as a ‘B’ prospect on NHL Central Scouting’s players to watch list. One of the older players in this year’s draft class, Meier missed the cutoff date from last year’s draft by just nine days.
Joel Salzgeber, C: Missing out on Switzerland’s final game due to injury last year, Salzgeber made the most of his limited minutes, finishing with a goal and an assist while playing under 10 minutes per game. In his lone game playing for Langnau in the U20 league, he had four points.
Simon Knak, RW: Hard worker who demonstrates details in his game. Portland’s up-tempo system suited Knak perfectly. He put up nine goals and 34 points in 49 games, making for a successful rookie season. Knak scored twice in last year’s tournament, and with another year of growth, should be one of Switzerland’s top producers.
Yaroslav Askarov, G: Last year’s experience at the WJC has been the only valley in his game over the last two-plus seasons. Reluctant to play younger players, last year’s coach Valery Bragin has been replaced by Igor Larionov. Add to that another year of growth both mentally and physically and the added bonus of continued KHL play, and Askarov projects to be one of the top goalies of the event. Through seven KHL games, Askarov has a .962 save percentage and a 0.96 GAA.
Vasily Podkolzin, RW: A rarity in that he will participate in his third WJC. At his best, Podkolzin plays a physical, straight line game, using his size and power to get to the net, where his hands take over. He hasn’t had a breakout to this point in the KHL, but is poised to flourish under Larionov.
Yegor Chinakhov, RW: The surprise pick of the 2020 NHL Draft lit up the first part of his KHL season in Omsk. Through 27 KHL games, Chinakov has eight goals and 15 points. He caught fire in late September, recording five goals and six points in the five games before being taken 21st overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This is hilarious. pic.twitter.com/WOS4fm5kk8
— NHL Canadian Division Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) October 7, 2020
Trevor Zegras, C: Led this tournament in assists last year with nine. Zegras was a threat every time he touched the puck. With deft skill and amazing creativity to his game, Zegras is never afraid to make even the hardest of plays. A great skater, who was taken ninth overall by Anaheim in the 2019 draft, Zegras will embark on his final event before turning pro once the tournament is over.
Cole Caufield, RW: He’s coming in hot. Caufield started pre-bubble life with 12 points in 10 games for the University of Wisconsin. Goal-scoring has always been his calling card, be it with the USNTDP two years ago, through a 19-goal rookie year in Wisconsin, and to his hot start this year. This diminutive pure sniper should be comfortable immediately as he will be reunited with several of his USNTDP teammates from two years ago. It wasn’t long ago when he dominated the world U18’s with a 14-goal performance.
Spencer Knight/Dustin Wolf, G: Best goaltending tandem in the tournament and if the tournament plays out like it has the past few years, both will be needed. A hot goalie, or goalie tandem can take you straight to the gold medal game. The US is much more than that. Knight is Florida’s first-rounder from the 2019 draft. He’s got size, he moves well and plays with an air of confidence. Wolf waited until the final round to hear his name called in that draft, but he’s been a rockstar since taking over for Carter Hart in Everett. His numbers are off the charts and he’s a battler, who’s always been told he’s too small.
Head coach Joel Ronnmark: OK so this is not a player, but what he does will impact lots of them. A fixture behind the Swedish U20 bench, Tomas Monten will not participate due to COVID-19 restrictions. An attempt to put Daniel Alfredsson and Kitchener’s Andreas Karlsson behind the bench also failed, leaving Ronnmark as Sweden’s bench boss. Ronnmark is the head coach of Vaxjo’s U18 team and was tasked with taking the lead after four of Sweden’s coaches failed to make it through COVID-19 protocols. The Swedes have not lost a preliminary game in 13 years and that will be the first order of business. With a strong defensive core, and excellent goaltending, the Swedes are missing some firepower up front. But there’s still Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond to deal with. Without a doubt, the Swedes will be the most fascinating team to watch in this event.
Alexander Holtz/Lukas Raymond, RW: For years these “unofficial twins” have been mentioned in the same vein. It happened most recently at the 2020 draft where Raymond was selected fourth overall by Detroit, while Holtz was taken three picks later by New Jersey. Raymond is a gifted playmaker who was elevated to the top six and first power play unit status in the SHL before joining the national team. Holtz is a shooter, who can score from anywhere. He’s a responsible winger with some size and grit to his game. Expect both players to put up similar numbers atop the Swedish team table.
Philip Broberg, D: Will have a chance to get used to his surroundings in Edmonton and he may very well end up staying there after the tournament ends. The eighth overall pick in the 2019 draft has Oilers fans drooling. Broberg’s ascension to the top 10 of that draft started at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup played, you guessed it, at Rogers Place. A big, rangy defender who skates like the wind, he surprised everyone with his numbers last season and now he has become the talk of Sweden’s deep and experienced defence corps.
Marco Rossi, C: The CHL’s top point getter from a year ago was taken ninth overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2020 NHL Draft. A workaholic, Rossi should lead the way and be amongst the tournament’s top producers. Rossi is strong on his skates, he’s extremely intelligent and will score and make plays. He should help out plenty in the face-off circle, which is key for a team not expected to have the puck much.
Senna Peeters, RW: A product of Red Bull Academy, Peters spent the 2019-20 season with the Halifax Mooseheads and put up 23 goals and 33 points in 57 games. He started this season playing for Rogle’s U20 team and had over a point per game in nine contests. Not taken in the 2020 draft, Peeters played a key piece in Austria being promoted to the top group as Division 2 gold medalists last year. Peeters is an excellent shooter, with a quick release and deft accuracy. He can one-time the puck well, and with his size, he’s able to protect the puck, too. He will take is game to the interior, and Austria will need him there and hope Rossi can get him the puck in good areas.
Fabian Hochegger, C: Got into 56 games with Drummondville in the shortened 2019-20 season. A smaller, worker-bee type player, Hochegger put up eight goals and 19 points for the Volts. A productive participant for both the U18 and U20 teams two years ago, Hochegger did not play for the team that earned the promotion into the top group.
Jan Mysak, C: Selected by the Montreal Canadiens with the 48th pick in the 2020 draft, Mysak has started the year in the Czech Extraliga. Not long after the 2020 tournament, Mysak showed up on Hamilton’s doorstep and immediately took off. With a good handle on the English language it didn’t take long for Mysak to assimilate into the Bulldogs plans. He came to the rink with a smile on his face and showed tremendous work ethic en route to putting up 15 goals and 22 points in 25 games played.
Max Cajkovic, RW: A sneaky pick by Tampa in the third round of the 2019 draft, Cajkovic is loaded with speed and skill. Transitioning to North America three years ago, Cajkovic put up 22 goals in his rookie season. He returned last year and put up over a point per game. While the offensive abilities have always been present, Cajkovic has shown inconsistencies and, at times, indifference to defensive play.
Jaromir Pytlik, CY: You have to watch Pytlik often to appreciate his game. While nothing jumps off the page, he possesses a great blend of skill and will. A versatile, two-way game, Pytlik can make plays. He’s demonstrated some goal-scoring ability, but his value is in playing a solid 200-foot game.