At last, it’s time for the tournament of teenagers which will cement hockey opinion of certain players for years to come (and for some, be completely useless so far as predictors go).
I kid, mostly. The World Junior Championship is great, a wonderful tradition of
controversial Team USA cuts seeing some of hockey’s future stars play against one another. And while Jets fans won’t be tuning into Team Canada games to see any of the organization’s prospects, that doesn’t mean this year’s tourney is bereft of them.
And now, today’s schedule:
Game 1: Sweden vs Denmark
According to KatyaKnappe of Pension Plan Puppets, "if everyone stays on script, the Swedes are looking at a trip straight to the semifinals." It's not a surprising conclusion, given Group A's composition of Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland.
Team Sweden boasts an impressive collection of players this year. They have an SHL goaltender in Felix Sandström, one of nine Philadelphia Flyers prospects at the tournament. The 19-year-old has a solid .919 Sv% in 11 games with Brynäs IF, which is particularly impressive considering he's one of just three U20 netminders who have seen action.
The d-corps in front of Sandström & Co. includes NHL prospects in Jacob Larsson (ANA), Oliver Kylington (CGY), David Bernhardt (PHI) and Gabriel Carlsson (CBJ), not to mention 2018(!!) draft eligible phenom Rasmus Dahlin, who is already receiving Erik Karlsson comparisons. The forwards aren't no names either, with Carl Grundstrom (TOR), Rasmus Asplund (BUF), Alexander Nylander (BUF), Joel Eriksson Ek (MIN), Jens Looke (ARI) and Jonathan Dahlen (OTT) making for what should be an entertaining mixture of skill and two-way talent.
It's not simply quality of competition which should pave Sweden's way to the semifinals.
As for Denmark, the country is a little beyond "just happy to be here", but remains a work-in-progress. Red Deer Rebels goaltender Lasse Petersen can expect to face a good number of shots on a nightly basis, while NHL prospects Nikolaj Krag Christensen (STL), Mathias From (CHI) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJS) will look to stand out.
Game 2: USA vs Latvia
On the other side, Group B features Canada, Russia, Slovakia and this game's combatants, Team USA and Latvia. Though the Americans made headlines with a controversial cut, Jets fans will likely pay little mind to that with Winnipeg prospects Jack Roslovic and Erik Foley not only on the squad, but potentially the same line as well.
@307x well using last night as a guide— Jake Baskin (@baskincase) December 22, 2016
Even without Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat (a cut for which there is an articulate, sensible argument to be made), this is not a smash and grind only kind of USA roster. Clayton Keller (ARI), Colin White (OTT), Foley/Roslovic linemate Jeremy Bracco (TOR) and others provide genuinely exciting scoring talent, while for a defence featuring players such as Adam Fox (CGY) and Charlie McAvoy (BOS), "Puck retrieval and distribution are the most important traits".
For Latvia, "the goal of Latvia is simple: do not finish last and get regulated again". It's not a roster I'm going to pretend to know much about, though forwards Roberts Blugers (undrafted) and Mārtiņš Dzierkals (TOR) are my players to watch. And the question on everyone's mind: who is the next Kristers Gudlevskis?
Game 3: Czech Republic vs Finland
The Czech Republic provides Jets fans their one other organizational player to watch, in Red Deer's Michael Spacek. Selected 108th overall in 2015, the 19-year-old C/RW posted 54 points in 61 games last season, and leads the 2016-17 Rebels with 42 points in 30 games. It's early going, but Spacek looks like an intriguing skilled player for down the road.
The forward corps also features Rebel captain Adam Musil (STL), who should provide a stout two-way presence, as well as Charlottetown Islanders leading scorer Filip Chlapik (OTT). Goaltender Daniel Vladař (BOS) has the potential to steal a game or three for the Czechs, while a d-corps including Vojtech Budik (BUF), Libor Hajek (TBL), Filip Hronek (DET) and Jakub Zboril (BOS) should be a reliable (if unexciting) strength.
The reigning champs in Team Finland no longer have Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi to power the offence, although Olli Juolevi (VAN) does return to serve as captain. Finland still has plenty to be excited about despite the aforementioned trio's absence. For starters, Juolevi is joined on defence by Juuso Välimäki, a 2017 draft eligible LHD (**coughdrafthimChevycough**) with 35 points in 32 games for the Tri-City Americans, while up front, 2016 second round steal Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) is joined by a couple top 2017 prospects in Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen.
Even if 2017 ends up being a step back from last year, it'll be an exciting tournament for the future of Finnish hockey.
Tolvanen-Nättinen-Palmu, Vesalainen-Borgström-Kuokkanen, Ruotsalainen-Räsänen-Koivula, Björkqvist-Mattila-Luoto, Väyrynen #U20fi— Sami Hoffrén (@shoffren) December 26, 2016
Game 4: Canada vs Russia
Team Canada's strength flows from the net out, with Everett's Carter Hart (PHI) the proud owner of a .928 Sv% over 24 games. In front of him, 2015 first round selection Thomas Chabot (OTT) is joined by undrafted NHL prospect Philippe Myers (PHI) on the top pairing, and the rest of the defence aren't slouches either.
Up front, keep an eye on Mitchell Stephens (TBL), the Saginaw Spirit captain who may ride shotgun on the top-line alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois (CBJ) and Dylan Strome (ARI). For a player whose hockey IQ and two-way acumen are top-notch, it's an exciting opportunity to flex some offensive muscle as well.
The Canadians will have to deal with Ilya Samsonov (WAS), who has an astounding .936 Sv% over 19 games with the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Those who would like to imagine this as the future of the Philadelphia - Washington rivalry are free to do so. In addition to Mikhail Sergachev (MTL) and Sergei Zborovsky (NYR), the d-corps in front of Samsonov features a number of KHL and MHL players I wouldn't know from Adam. Up front, Minnesota Wild fans will get a glimpse at KHL star and 2015 draft selection Kirill Kaprisoz, a fifth round pick who has 30 points in 37 games with Salavat Yulaev Ufa.