This coming Friday, the day after Christmas, in Canada known as Boxing Day, marks the opener of the 2015 World Junior Championships, the most exciting underage hockey tournament on Earth. This year, the games are to be split between joint host cities Toronto and Montreal. This ramps up the pressure on the Canadian squad to medal for the first time since 2012 and to take Gold for the first time since 2009 – the last in a run of five straight titles.
While not every roster is set yet, most participants are known and we should be able to welcome the tournament with open eyes and a decent understanding of the players on display. To that end, this preview will roughly handicap expected team performances while highlighting two players per squad, one already drafted and one whose name might be called this coming June.For the sake of learning something new, players on loan from the NHL – Anthony Duclair (Canada/NYR), Curtis Lazar (Canada/Ottawa), and Mirco Mueller (Switzerland/SJ)will not be discussed here.
Team Canada is one of only teams to be utilizing current NHL players and is the only one of those with two, including captain Curtis Lazar, nominally of the Ottawa Senators. Outside of the net, there is not a weakness on the ice for the host nation, with each position player a bonafide, highly ranked NHL prospect. While the netminders are also well regarded, there are also more than a few who question the puck stopping skills of Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale, who, in spite of returning from last year’s team, may play second fiddle to Jets’ prospect Eric Comrie, who has a better statistical track record than the incumbent.
Drafted player to watch: Max Domi, F (London Knights, OHL/Arizona Coyotes). Finally on the big little stage after failing to receive a training camp invite to the national team last year, the former Coyotes’ first round pick is looked at as one of Team Canada’s top offensive threats in 2015. The son of Tie Domi has increased his OHL scoring output by close to 35%, as he currently sits at over two points per game for the Knights. Between his speed, vision in the offensive end and nose for the net, Domi will likely be one of Canada’ leading scorers.
Undrafted player to watch: Connor McDavid, F (Erie Otters, OHL – 2015 eligible). One of only two players on Team Canada not yet drafted (along with Kingston winger Lawson Crouse), McDavid is currently the odds-on favorite to be the top pick of the 2015 draft. Pay close attention when CmD is on the ice, because if you blink, you might miss him. He’s mythically fast, both in his feet and his mitts. Still only 17, this will be McDavid’s second WJC. He will have a greater impact here than in last year’s tournament in Sweden, where he put up four points in seven games.
Prediction: While less likely to win than the field, team Canada is more likely to capture the Gold than any other team. Gold Medal
The reigning WJC title holders, Finland is in tough to repeat in Canada, with much of last year’s roster having aged out of the competition. Of the five returnees, expect the netminding duo of Juuse Saros and Ville Husso to play the most important roles in their title defence.
Drafted player to watch: Julius Honka, D (Texas Stars, AHL/Dallas Stars). Selected by Dallas in the middle of the first round last season, Honka, by virtue of his status in the WHL as a loaned player, was eligible to spend his first draft year in the AHL. The undersized pointman had yet to miss a game for the reigning Calder Cup champs, while displaying a promising puck moving game as one of – if not the – youngest players in the league. Any chance for Finland to repeat as WJC champions likely rests on Honka’s shoulders.
Undrafted player to watch: Mikko Rantanen, F (TPS Turku, Liiga – 2015 eligible). Another Finnish teenager playing with men, the draft eligible Rantanen plays in the senior league in Finland. In fact, this is Rantanen’s third go round with the men, although only his first time at the WJC. A man child noted for good hands and skating abilities, the tournament could serve as a springboard to the top half of the first round for the two way forward.
Prediction: Third in Pool A, falling short in the quarterfinals.
In the months leading up to the tournament, German hopes rested on the benevolence of the Edmonton Oilers, whose third line center, rookie Leon Draisaitl, would have been eligible to suit up for his home country. Unfortunately for Deutschland, the Oilers kept Draisaitl under wraps. This might get ugly.
Drafted player to watch: N/A. That’s right. There is not a single player on Germany’s WJC roster whose rights belong to an NHL club.
Undrafted player to watch: Dominik Kahun, F (EHC Red Bull Munich, Germay – 2015 eligible). This is a bit of a stretch, as the 2015 draft will be Kahun’s third shot, but Kahun is now playing with adults after two seasons with Sudbury of the OHL. He’s undersized, but a strong skater and scored at a point per game rate for team Germany in the 2014 tourney. To avoid relegation, Kahun will need to at least match those totals.
Prediction: Last in Pool A and relegated to Division I, Group A.
While they should be safe from the relegation game (thanks to Germany), a fate they had to deal with in seven of the last ten tournaments, Slovakia is a long-shot this year. They enter the tournament with a mostly home-cooked roster, as only seven players currently play their club hockey outside of the nation’s borders.
Drafted player to watch: Peter Cehlarik, F (Lulea HF, SHL/Boston Bruins). Scoring at nearly a point every other game in his third season in the Swedish men’s league, this Bruins’ prospect plays a strong game appropriate with his frame. Expect to find him near the opposition crease when Slovakia has the puck with Cehlarik on the ice.
Undrafted player to watch: Erik Cernak, D (HC Kosice, Slovakia – 2015 eligible). A stay at home blueliner, Cernak is coming into his own in the premier Slovakian league in his second go round on the circuit. A B-rated prospect in CSS’ pre-season rankings, Cernak will have a chance to solidify his draft status against the North American squads at the tourney.
Prediction: Likely to enter the December 30 game against Germany without a victory to their credit. It says here they win that game to avoid relegation matches. Fourth in Pool A.
Much like Team Canada, the American team is loaded with NHL prospects, with the only difference being a few more underage age players suiting up in the Red, White and Blue. As ever, expect a very competitive team representing USA, although a medal may be a stretch. This team looks solid from top to bottom, although the health of blueliner Steve Santini may play a heavy role on their chances.
Drafted player to watch: Sonny Milano, F (Plymouth Whalers, OHL/Columbus Blue Jackets). An offensive force, Milano is renowned for both his skating speed and sublime stickhandling skills. Milano hasn’t missed a beat since transferring from the USHL to the OHL after being drafted by Columbus in the first round, thereby foregoing NCAA eligibility. Expect to see Milano drive the American possession game when he is on the ice.
Undrafted player to watch: Jack Eichel, F (Boston University, HE – 2015 eligible). 1B to McDavid’s 1A, Eichel would be the favorite for 1:1 in many draft years. As it is, he still has a chance, as a big bodied, skilled pivot with top notch hockey sense. With 27 points in his first 16 collegiate games, Eichel is tied for the leading point getter in the entire NCAA, making the prodigy an early front-runner for the Hobey Baker Award.
Prediction: Second in Pool A, and a place in the tournament semi-finals.
Undergoing a national hockey renaissance, the Czech program produced two NHL first rounders in 2014 and looks to add to that total this year. This may be Czech’s best team since the back to back champions at the turn of the millennium.
Drafted player to watch: Jakub Vrana, F (Linkopings HC, SHL/Washington Capitals). Selected with the 13th pick in last year’s draft, Vrana is on his third WJC, although his first with the burden of leadership on his shoulders. One of the top teenaged scorers in the SHL, the speedy Vrana along with David Pastrnak have the potential to make up one of the most dynamic forward lines of the entire tournament.
Undrafted player to watch: Pavel Zacha, F (Sarnia Sting, OHL – 2015 eligible). The first overall pick of the 2014 CHL Import Draft, Zacha has scored close to one point per game in his first go round with the Sting. Already sporting NHL size, many prognosticators are looking at Zacha as a potential top ten pick next June.
Prediction: Runners-up in Pool B and a tournament Semi-finalist.
In the Scandinavian nation’s third ever appearance in the top level World Junior Championship, this year sees Denmark with a strong chance to avoid relegation for the first time. The Danish chances rest primarily with their forwards, a talented group with several prime NHL prospects.
Drafted player to watch: Nikolaj Ehlers, F (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL/Winnipeg Jets). One of the top skaters in amateur hockey, Ehlers can make something from nothing, giving Denmark a fighting chance against any team whenever he is on the ice. He is not Denmark’s sole scoring threat, but he is the most potent.
Undrafted player to watch: Alexander True, F (Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL – 2015 eligible). What Denmark has in high end forwards, it definitely lacks in team depth. There are few first time draft eligibles among the team roster, but True has the capacity to be of interest. Between his impressive size, his blood relationship to Ehlers and his decent showing in the WHL, True could turn some heads over the next two weeks.
Prediction: Last in Pool B, but good enough to beat Germany in the relegation match.
As the recent Subway Super Series showed, the Russians, as always, have game. They may be outshot with regularity, but they know how to capitalize on the shots they do have, as they will pass the opposition into R.E.M. Beyond their puck moving, they have very strong netminding, with either of Igor Shestyorkin or Ilya Sorokin, both recent NHL draft picks, able to steal a match or two.
Drafted player to watch: Nikolai Goldobin, F (IFK Helsinki, Liiga/San Jose Sharks). A mesmerising stickhandler left the OHL this past offseason to join Helsinki, where he is more than holding his own playing with men in Finland. One of the most creative passers around, his style should mesh well with the Russian game.
Undrafted player to watch: Alexander Dergachyov, F (SKA-1946 St. Petersburg, MHL – 2015 eligible). A man child in the Russian junior ranks, Dergachyov was mightily impressive during the Subway series, showcasing all the prerequisite strength to go along with his frame, as well as the ability to skate and protect the puck from tight checking. His power game is very North American.
Predicition: Third in Pool B with the makings for a phenomenal quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic.
Coming off the disappointment of a loss on home ice in the 2014 WJC finals, team Sweden has once again put together a strong roster with designs on a sixth medal in seven years. Talent abounds up and down the lineup and opponents will need to be on their game for the full 60 minutes to hope for an upset.
Drafted player to watch: William Nylander, F (MODO, SHL/Toronto Maple Leafs). A late cut from the Maple Leafs roster in pre-season, Nylander returned to Sweden to score at a point per game pace. He has incredible offensive awareness and can steal a shift on his own. Although young enough to compete at the WJC again next year, there is a good chance that he is not afforded the opportunity.
Undrafted player to watch: Oliver Kylington, D (Farjestad Karlstad, SHL – 2015 eligible). A tremendously mobile blueliner, there are some who believe that he would be discussed among candidates for the top of the draft in a normal year. As it is, he is still expected to be selected in the top 10, with a top five slot well within the realm of possibility. Expect to see Kylington receive a regular shift whenever Sweden has the man advantage.
Prediction: Although they will be heavily challenged by Russia and the Czech Republic, Sweden should emerge at the top of Pool B and should once again medal. As we have already picked the host nation to take the Gold, that leaves Silver once again for Team Sweden.
Always an underdog, there is more than enough talent on the Switzerland roster that an upset or two would not be shocking. If the goaltending holds up, they should be able to score enough to make most games interesting.
Drafted player to watch: Kevin Fiala, F (HV71, SHL/Nashville Predators). A dynamic offensive force who carries the full scoring toolkit, Fiala is one of the top players in Switzerland, regardless of age. After contributing five points in five games at the last WJC, the Predator prospect will be hunting for more this time to give his teammates a greater chance at a second medal in Swiss WJC history.
Undrafted player to watch: Timo Meier, F (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL – 2015 eligible). A teammate of Ehlers in Halifax, the Denmark-Switzerland game on December 30 will be a great chance to see how the two teenagers stack up when separated. Meier is a physical player, taking advantage of his man-sized body to get to the net and the dirty areas of the ice. An A-rated prospect I the preseason by CSS, a strong tournament may help the Moosehead winger follow Fiala as a Swiss first rounder.
Prediction: While an upset would not shock, the roster’s lack of depth suggest fourth place in Pool B to be the most likely outcome.