This coming Saturday, as is the tradition on the day after Christmas, the puck will drop on the 2016 World Junior Championship tournament. The games will be hosted in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Last year the tournament ended with Canada celebrating the gold medals on its home ice in Toronto.
As always, the eyes of the hockey world are directed on the tournament. Dozens of world’s most coveted prospects will play numerous games against each other in the event, which makes it probably the most interesting annual international event in ice hockey.
While the battle to be the world champions is obviously the central point of the tournament, this preview focuses more on the individual prospects in the tournament.
Canada will be icing a very interesting group of players in this year’s tournament. Four players from last year’s gold medal winning team are present again this year in Joe Hicketts (Det), Jake Virtanen (Van), Lawson Crouse (Fla) and Brayden Point (TB). Last year Canada could rely on two NHL loaned players in Curtis Lazar and Anthony Duclair. This year the only player with NHL experience is the aforementioned Virtanen, who incidentally will be playing in his father’s homeland.
Drafted player to watch: Mitchell Marner (London Knights, OHL/Toronto Maple Leafs). Marner was the 4th overall selection is last summer’s draft. The Maple Leafs pick has scored at a pace of over two points per game in the OHL this season and will be one of Canada’s top scorers in the tournament. Marner is a very quick and skilled skater which can prove to be a very useful skill in the bigger international ice.
Draft eligible player to watch: Julien Gauthier (Val-d’Or Foureurs, QMJHL – 2016 draft eligible) There isn’t very much to choose here. Val-d’Or Foreurs’ 18-year-old winger Gauthier is the lone undrafted player in the Canadian squad. The nephew of former NHLer Denis Gauthier is a hulking power forward with good speed for a player with his size. He has scored nearly one goal per game this season in the QMJHL and is projected to be a top-ten pick in next summer’s draft.
Prediction: As always, Canada starts the tournament as a front runner to win the gold medal. Although their latest championships from Europe dates all the way back to 2008 in the Czech Republic, Canada’s team is definitely the best on paper. Top of group A and a gold medal.
Last year, the Danes surprised everyone – likely including themselves – when they gathered points from three of four games in the group stage and advanced to the playoffs. They were pretty badly beaten in the quarter finals by the soon-to-be champions Canada, but in the end they managed to show the hockey world that they are a hockey nation that should not be underestimated.
Drafted player to watch: None. There are no drafted players in the Danish WJC roster.
Draft eligible player to watch: Mathias From (Rögle BK, SHL – 2016 draft eligible). From is undisputedly the most talented player of his age group in Denmark. He has already debuted in the SHL and has been racking up points in every junior league he has played so far.
Prediction: 2015 in Toronto saw the Danes surprising Switzerland and taking fourth place in the group leaving the Swiss to the relegation round. While they obviously aim to do the same in Finland, it might prove to be a bit difficult this time. Last in group A but escaping.
The last two World Juniors have ended disappointingly from the Swedish perspective. Last year in Canada they lost the bronze game against Slovakia. In 2014, Sweden’s eastern neighbours from Finland defeated them in the final game of their home tournament. While last year’s team was a bit young and inexperienced, this time Sweden will strike with many players that have played in the WJC before.
Drafted player to watch: William Nylander (Toronto Marlies, AHL/Toronto Maple Leafs). A son of former NHLer Michael Nylander is playing his second season in the AHL and is scoring points with a never-before-seen pace from a 20-year-old.
Draft eligible player to watch: Alexander Nylander (Mississauga Steelheads, OHL – 2016 draft eligible). William’s younger brother is playing his first season in North America and is already leading his team in points. A very dynamic skater equipped with a very skilled pair of hands, he will probably be taken in the first half of the first round in next summer’s NHL entry draft.
Prediction: The Swedes have played in the semifinals every year in the last nine championships, and this year will not be an exception. Sweden will take the second place in group A and make it all the way to the final just to lose to Canada. Silver medal.
Switzerland will be the team with the most returnees from last year’s tournament. In all, ten players from last year’s squad will be representing Switzerland again this year. The Swiss team also has over 500 combined games of experience in the Swiss National League A.
Drafted player to watch: Timo Meier (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL/San Jose Sharks). The Nashville Predators did not release Kevin Fiala to the WJC this year, so last summer’s #9 overall pick Meier is the biggest star on the Swiss team. As a very strong and versatile player, Meier will probably be used a lot in all situations from the penalty kill to the power play.
Future Draft eligible player to watch: Nico Hischier (SC Bern, NLA – 2017 draft eligible). With the likes of Timo Meier, Kevin Fiala and Nino Niederreiter being selected in the first round in recent years, 16-year-old Hischier is aiming to continue the line. Hirschier is the second youngest player in the tournament – only one day older than Dane Jonas Røndbjerg.
Prediction: Last year the Swiss were sent to the relegation round against Germany even though they beat the Czech Republic in the group stage. Their game of fate will again this year be the one against the Danes. Team Switzerland advances to the quarter finals but lose there.
Last year in Canada the Americans were defeated in the quarter final by the Russians. Team USA will have a very competitive team, but they will have a hard time getting to the final four. Three players from last year’s team that would have been eligible for this year’s tournament were not released due to holding down important roles for their respective NHL teams.
Drafted player to watch: Sonny Milano (Lake Erie Monsters, AHL/Columbus Blue Jackets). The skilled winger represented the USA last year in Canada where he contributed four points in five matches. He is in the middle of his first year as a pro and will play a big role for Team USA in Helsinki.
Draft eligible player to watch: Auston Matthews (ZSC Lions, NLA – 2016 draft eligible). The consensus 1st overall pick for next summer has been racking up points against men in Switzerland’s National League A. The big and talented center will be the number one star for Team USA in this tournament.
Prediction: The Americans have lost two quarter finals in a row, and getting to the semifinals will be a tough challenge this year, too. Third place in the group and a loss to the hosting Finns in the QF.
Belarus makes a return to the World Juniors top level after an eight-year absence. With that in mind, Belarus’ main goal will be to beat whichever team faces them in the relegation round. Most of the Belarussian players play in their own league which is not of very high quality.
Drafted player to watch: None. No Belarussian players have been drafted since 2012.
Draft eligible player to watch: Stepan Falkovsky (Ottawa 67’s, OHL – was also 2015 eligible). A huge two-way defenceman at 6’7″ and 225 lbs, Falkovsky is the only player in the team to play in a major North American junior league. He will no doubt play as much as he wants and can.
Prediction: Belarus has a small chance to rob a point from the Czech Republic or Slovakia, but the likeliest outcome from the group stage is still zero points. The relegation round will be about life and death for the Belarussians. Relegated.
Once a constant favorite to medal in any international event, the Czech Republic’s player production has been fading slowly in recent years. The Czechs haven’t achieved a spot in the semifinals for a decade. They do have a few high NHL picks on their roster this year, but the overall quality of the team still lacks that special something.
Drafted player to watch: Pavel Zacha (Sarnia Sting, OHL/New Jersey Devils). Zacha was picked sixth overall last summer by the New Jersey Devils. He is a large and dynamic pivot with speed, strength and the skill to be dominant at the junior level. The Czechs’ offence will rely heavily on Zacha.
Draft eligible player to watch: Simon Stransky (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL – 2016 draft eligible). One of only two 2016 draft eligible players on the squad, Stransky has been making a name for himself in the WHL by scoring at over a point per game pace. A younger brother of Dallas Stars prospect Matej Stransky, Simon will likely play wing alongside Pavel Zacha.
Prediction: The Czechs will have no trouble getting themselves into the quarter finals, but they will probably face one of Canada, Sweden or the US there. A loss in the quarter finals – once again.
This year’s hosts have medaled only twice in last ten tournament, with the 2014 gold being the most recent example. There are no players left from that roster, but the Finns do still bring a very interesting group of players to the tournament with as much as three possible top-ten picks for next summer’s draft in their roster. As always, goaltending is one of Team Finland’s biggest strengths this year.
Drafted player to watch: Mikko Rantanen (San Antonio Rampage, AHL/Colorado Avalanche). Rantanen, who led the Finns in goals and points last year with four of each, has been tearing it up recently in the AHL. 25 points in 21 games as a 19-year-old rookie would be unheard of if it were not for the exploits of Sweden’s William Nylander. Rantanen will captain Team Finland and play a huge role in their offence.
Draft eligible player to watch: Patrik Laine (Tappara, Liiga – 2016 draft eligible). The towering forward has been described as the most talented sniper Finland has produced since Teemu Selänne. At 6’4″ and 209 lbs, Laine has a lethal shot and a very high hockey IQ. He has developed his skating significantly recently and is one of the top prospects heading into 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Prediction: On paper, Finland battles their neighboring Russia for top spot of the group B. With many of their key players still being underaged, the pressures of a home tournament may turn out to be too much. Place two in the group stage and a bronze medal.
The Russians have finished with a medal every time but one in the last ten years. With the majority of the players playing against top grown-up competition in the KHL, their goal cannot be anything other than in a spot in the championship. The team features quite a few high NHL draft picks and there is no denying that the Russians are once again one of the most skilled teams in the tournament.
Drafted player to watch: Ivan Provorov (Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL/Philadelphia Flyers). One of the most talented offensive blueliners from Russia in recent years, Provorov will quarterback the Russian powerplay with his smarts and smooth hands. He is also a very good skater who can defend well with his intelligent positioning.
Draft eligible player to watch: Alexandar Georgiyev (TPS, Liiga – 2016 draft eligible – was also 2015 eligible). Half Bulgarian, half Russian, Georgiyev took an unorthodox route with his career and moved from Russia to Turku, Finland to hone his skills. He has proven to be capable of winning games in a top European league and battles Ilya Samsonov for the starting gig in the tournament.
Prediction: Russia will win group B, advance easily to the semifinals, but lose to the Swedes in the final four and then to the Finns in the bronze medal match.
Last year goaltending phenomenon Denis Godla backstopped the Slovaks to their first World Juniors medal of the 21st century. Godla is no longer with the team, but again Slovakia will rely heavily on their goaltending with Adam Huska taking the torch. With only four NHL drafted players in the team, Slovakia will probably face another quarter final loss after last year’s visit to the semis.
Drafted player to watch: Erik Cernak (Erie Otters, OHL/Los Angeles Kings). The Kings’ 2nd round pick from last summer, the big defenseman will lead the Slovaks’ defence at both ends of the rink.
Draft eligible player to watch: Filip Lestan (HV71, SHL – 2016 draft eligible). Lestan is the only 2016 first time draft eligible player on Team Slovakia. The hulking 6-5” winger has already debuted in the SHL and will be one of the more interesting players in the scouts’ eyes during the tournament.
Prediction: The Slovaks are clear favorites to advance to the quarter finals over Belarus, but getting to the semis would require another miracle. A loss to Canada in the QF and an 8th place finish.