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World Juniors 2021 primer: A team-by-team guide to the under-20 championship

The 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship is officially set to get underway on Christmas Day as 10 countries and 250 of the top junior players in the world get set to hit the ice in Edmonton, Alta.

Things will be a little different this year as fans and some of the fanfare will be missing from the arena, but that shouldn’t stop the action-packed games from having the same intensity as usual — after all, national pride is on the line. The fire of postseason hockey wrapped up in a compact 12-day schedule, the tournament is the premier annual prospect showcase and has the same drama and shining moments as March Madness.

WORLD JUNIORS PREDICTIONS: Hockey experts pick who will win gold

This year’s tournament is different for a number of reasons, aside from not having fans, including the players themselves. As always, the rosters sport some of the biggest names expected to be called in July — and in 2022 — and players who have future star potential, but this year’s rosters also boast many who will actually crack an NHL roster when the season gets underway on Jan. 13. It’ll be interesting to see which cream rises to the top as many of the players haven’t even suited up for a game in nine months.

For now, the focus is squarely on leaving Alberta with golden memories. Who will shine on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights? Which team will play Cinderella? Who will leave disappointed? And, at the end, who will reach the podium? 

Here’s a one-stop primer for everything there is to know about the competing nations and what to watch. 

Group A

(Rob Wallator/Hockey Canada Images)

Canada

It’s been more than a decade since Canada won back-to-back gold (2005-09) but this year’s team is stacked and poised to go golden again. Six players return from 2020’s gold-medal-winning team (Quinton Byfield, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Jamie Drysdale, Connor McMichael and Dawson Mercer) and 20 of 25 on the roster were selected in the first round of either the 2019 or 2020 drafts. 

Strength:   Forwards. The Canadians’ roster possesses one of the most talented, speedy and flexible group of forwards in the tournament. Head coach Andre Tourigny loves to have guys who can play different positions — and look no further than McMichael, who did just that in 2020 and has spent time at both wing and center since the start of selection camp. McMichael and Cozens combined for 16 points last year and will be heavily relied upon in Edmonton.

Even with the reported loss of captain Kirby Dach , who suffered an injury in the squad’s exhibition game, this lineup is deep. Highly touted prospect Philip Tomasino (NSH) didn’t even play in the contest and should now slot in as the 13th forward — and that’s not a bad addition.

WORLD JUNIORS:  Canada’s complete game schedule, results

Weakness: Goaltending.  The big question mark — which, to be fair, always seems to be the case every year for Canada — is the goaltending. As with last year, the squad does not have a bonafide stopper between the pipes compared with the likes of the United States and Russia. For now, Devon Levi seems to have the edge as Tourigny’s No. 1, and he posted another shutout in the team’s exhibition game (after doing the same in the last intrasquad scrimmage). 

Key player: Quinton Byfield. The second-overall pick in October, Byfield was quiet at last year’s tournament as a 17-year-old as he only grabbed an assist in seven games. Fast forward a year later, and his teammates and coaches have been impressed with how his game has grown. As one player put it in November: “He’s a man against boys and his shot is just unbelievable.” He may be the youngest player on the roster again but his presence will be felt this year. 

After the exhibition game, Tourigny praised the forward and said “he was one of our best players” in the game.

Will they win gold? There’s no doubt that Canada is the  top contender. The team will easily make its way out of the group stage being in the weaker of the two divisions; however, whether that’s the best set-up for when the intensity rises in the playoff rounds is to be determined.

WORLD JUNIORS: Canada favorite to win gold

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (TV info)
Dec. 26 Germany 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Slovakia 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Switzerland 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 Finland 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Finland

After winning gold in 2019, the Finns skated away empty-handed last year after finishing fourth. While they’re never in the initial gold-medal chat, they usually work their way into the conversation as the tournament rolls on. Finland does have a solid roster that includes Jets prospect Ville Heinola on defense, the return of   two-way center Anton Lundell, who missed last year’s tournament with an injury, and 16-year-old phenom Brad Lambert.

Strength: Defense. Finland usually has a stingy but skilled defensive group, and this year is no different. Anchored by Heinola, who is playing in his third WJC, Finland has depth on the blue line and should once be involved in low-scoring contests. 

Weakness: Secondary scoring. The captain Lundell is expected to shoulder the load and was between Roby Jarvetie and Kasper Simontaival for the exhibition game. But beyond that top line, there’s not much oomph when it comes to the Finns up front. They do have some offensive-minded defensemen, such as Heinola, who could provide some support.

Key player: Brad Lambert. The youngster’s name is already being tossed around as the top guy in 2022. He’s got speed, skill and enters the tourney having posted four goals and three assists in 18 games for JYP against men in Finland’s top professional league.

Will they win gold? Tough to say. It’s doubtful they get gold but bronze is not out of the question. Asked by TSN’s Ryan Rishaug during the team’s exhibition game on Tuesday night how this year’s team stacks up to his two other WJC teams, Heinola said, “I think this is the best.” Never count the Finns out.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (TV info)
Dec. 25 Germany 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Switzerland 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Slovakia 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 Canada 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Switzerland

Every year the prevailing opinion on the Swiss is that they’re always good for pulling off at least one upset or giving a scare to a top contender. Last year, they did just that by finishing second in Group A. But that was last year, and this year’s team has some major weaknesses that it may not be able to overcome.

Strength: No pressure. With a spot in 2022 guaranteed, the   Swiss won’t be gripping the sticks and worrying about being relegated.

Weakness: Talent. Unlike last year, the 2021 edition does not have any NHL prospects and lacks the skill level other countries brought to the bubble.

WORLD JUNIORS: Rosters, NHL draft status, jersey numbers for all 10 teams

Key player: Simon Knak. The Swiss captain, who is a returnee from the 2020 squad, will play a critical role not only as a leader but as a winger on the team’s top line. He went undrafted in October — he had a “C” ranking — and it left many scratching their heads. A member of the Portland Winterhawks, he’s been playing for HC Davos while the WHL’s season remains in flux.

Will they win gold? No. They do have a good chance of winning a game or two in group play, but that’s about as far as they’ll go.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (TV info)
Dec. 25 Slovakia 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Finland 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Canada 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Germany 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Slovakia

The Slovaks are one team that could take advantage of a weak bottom half of the group. While they continually make the quarterfinals and then lose, this may be the year they make it out of the first round of the bracket.

Strength:   Goaltending. Why could they make it out of the bracket? Two words: Samuel Hlavaj. The netminder posted an impressive .915 save percentage and a league-best GAA (2.25) in 39 games for Sherbrooke (QMJHL) last season. He may not have been impressive the past two trips to the World Juniors (.861 in 2020 and .872 in 2019), but he’s also another year older and spent last year playing against some of the top junior talent in the game. At 6-3, he covers a lot of net and has quick reflexes, which will be needed against the likes of Finland and Canada.

Weakness:   Goaltending.  Hate to say it, but it comes down to Hlavaj again if he cannot replicate what he’s done in the QMJHL and falls back to his old World Junior ways. Slovakia needs him at the top of his game to advance deeper.

Key player: Hlavaj.  See above.

Will they win gold? No, but they could make some noise and advance to the semifinals for the first time since winning bronze in 2015.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (TV info)
Dec. 25 Switzerland 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Canada 6 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 28 Germany 9:30 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Finland 2 p.m. ET (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Germany

The Germans lost a few players because of COVID-19, including top-winger Lukas Reichel, who combined with John-Jason Peterka and Tim Stuetzle for 16 points last year. Reichel skated with Nino Kinder over the summer, but he too was ruled ineligible. And then, there’s the team’s top defenseman Moritz Seider, who was not released to play. Pieces are missing for the Germans, but they still have two guys who light the lamp in Peterka and Stuetzle.

Strength: Stuetzle and Peterka. The two 2020 draft picks are studs. They’ll carry the offense, which is Germany’s strength. As NHL Network’s Dave Starman told Sporting News: “The one thing that Germans do now that they have never done really at an international competition is they score.”

Weakness: Depth up front. Beyond the pair of NHL prospects in Stuetzle and Peterka, there isn’t much sure-fire firepower for the Germans. Question marks also circle Senators prospect Stuetzle, who missed time this season for Adler Mannheim because of a fractured hand and subsequent surgery.

Key player: Stuetzle.  All the pressure is on the third-overall pick in October, not only from his country but from Senators fans watching from afar.

Will they win gold? No. Considering the lost talent on the roster, it’ll be difficult for them to just get out of the group.

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 25 Finland 6 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 26 Canada 6 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 28 Slovakia 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Switzerland 6 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

Group B

(Getty Images)

Russia

It’s always an unknown what the Russians will bring to the World Juniors, but backstopped by generational talent Yaroslav Askarov, Igor Larionov’s (yes, that Igor Larionov) team is poised to make another medal run in 2021. Up front, the team is led by Canucks top prospect Vasily Podkolzin, the Maple Leafs’ Rodion Amirov and the Wild’s Marat Khusnutdinov. The three dominated the Karjala Cup in November, with Podkolzin scoring five points (goal, four assists) in three games and Amirov being named the top forward after potting three goals.

Strength: Yaroslav Askarov.  Put a big circle around that name. In Russia’s lone tune-up for the tournament against Canada, the netminder kept the Canadian high-powered offense off the board and was named the team’s best player — despite only playing two periods. He enters 2021 looking for redemption (.877 save percentage in 2020) and has been on fire this season in the KHL. At just 18, he posted a 0.96 GAA and .962 save percentage in seven games in hockey’s second-best league before heading to camp.

WORLD JUNIORS: Breakdown of every NHL teams’ prospects

Weakness: Defense.  The blue line is a young and inexperienced one for Larionov. Devils prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin, Flames future D-man Yan Kuznetsov (who plays college hockey at UConn) and Predators draft pick Semyon Chistyakov are expected to carry the load. But when you have Askarov behind them, the load won’t matter.

Key player: Askarov.  The Russians are expected to win their group, and if he’s on his game — like he was against Canada — it’ll be lights out for 12 days (including the playoffs) and ending in some shiny new hardware on Jan. 5.

Will they win gold? As stated, Russia has a good chance to capture the top prize with Askarov and that top line that can bury the puck at will.

Schedule

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 25 United States 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Czech Republic 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Austria 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Sweden 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Sweden 

To steal a UEFA Champions League term, Group B is a “Group of Death” as three of the “Big 5” are together and will be battling it out for points and playoff positioning. Where Sweden will land is TBD, but if the previous preliminary round means anything the Swedes will be right in the thick of it. Why? The country has not lost a round-robin game since Dec. 31, 2006.

But they are in a tough group this time and have also seen their line-up heavily affected by COVID-19, losing key players and head coach Tomas Monten.

Strength: Defense. The Swedes return some heavy hitters in Victor Soderstrom (ARI), Tobias Bjornfot (LAK) and captain Philip Broberg (EDM). The trio are all first-round picks and can play the game both ways. 

Weakness: Bench.  There’s not much in this group when you look at the depth up and down the line-up. Probably the biggest weakness is behind the bench considering Joel Ronnmark was only named head coach on Dec. 11. He was the assistant coach before Monten was ruled ineligible and has served as an assistant before, but the coaching staff has been decimated — the team doctor led at least one practice for the few players allowed to practice in Edmonton.

MORE: HOW COVID-19 has impacted Sweden, the tournament

Key player: Hugo Alnefelt. At last year’s tournament, he backstopped his country to a bronze medal with a 5-1-0 record and a glistening .924 save percentage. This year, the Lightning prospect has a respectable .901 in Sweden’s top league. Here’s the kicker, though: If by some chance Alnefelt falters, Sweden does have 2021 draftee Jesper Wallstedt waiting in the wings.

Will they win gold? Despite posting a ridiculously perfect 52-0 in the round-robin since the 2007 tournament, Sweden doesn’t always put it together when it counts. Whether they can now is anyone’s guess, as they’ve been through a lot as a group and lost some high-end talent. Then again, adversity builds character and could be a motivating force.

Schedule

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 26 Czech Republic 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 28 Austria 6 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 30 Russia 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 United States 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

(USA Hockey)

United States

The 2020 squad left the Czech Republic not only empty-handed but with a bitter taste in its mouth when it was knocked out, and shut out, in the quarters by Finland. Well, in 2021 eight players return and the Americans have one thing in mind: burying the ghosts of the past with a gold medal. They should be able to do that with depth all over the place.

Strength: Forwards.  The Americans are locked and loaded up top with a group of forwards that can score at will. Led by a trio of California draft picks — Arthur Kaliyev and Alex Turcotte are Kings and Trevor Zegras is a Duck — this team has four full lines that are speedy and skilled. 

Weakness: Defense.  Speaking of weakness, there’s a big ol’ question mark next to head coach Nate Leaman’s blue line. There are some studs — looking at you, Jake Sanderson — but having only one returnee from last year in Flyers prospect Cam York means there could be some nerves early on. But, really, it doesn’t matter who is defending when you have Spencer Knight and Dustin Wolf standing between the pipes. The duo may just be the best 1-2 combo in the entire tournament.

Key player: Cole Caufield. He looked like a man possessed in the team’s exhibition game when he scored two goals, the second on a backhander that would probably make Sidney Crosby blush. He knows he did not meet expectations last year with just a goal and an assist in five games; according to Starman, the Wisconsin star and Canadiens prospect put in the work and is ready to make some noise in 2021. 

Will they win gold? A number of experts have penciled in the Americans to win gold and this team looks sharp early on. It’ll be a tough opener against the Russians, with the winner of that game most likely snagging the group. A win in that game would set the U.S. up for an easier quarterfinal match-up, and if they can get advance this time, there’s no telling how far they can go.

WORLD JUNIORS:   Team USA’s complete game schedule, results

Schedule

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 25 Russia 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 26 Austria 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Czech Republic 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 Sweden 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Czech Republic

It’s been a long, long, long while since the Czechs did anything at the World Juniors — like they-won-the-bronze-in-2005 long. They’ve never finished higher than fourth, outside of that bronze, since winning back-to-back golds in 2000 and 2001. In 2021 things don’t get any easier with Russia and the U.S. in their group

Strength: Returning players.  Like a lot of the teams, the Czechs have a number of players returning to their roster from last year’s squad. The experience will be key as they face a tough round-robin with three of the “Big 5” in their grouping. Jan Mysak (MTL), who was named captain and is expected to carry the offensive load, is joined up top by Michal Teplý (CHI) and Jaromir Pytlik (NJD) and Martin Hugo Has (WSH), one of four returnees, on the backend.

Weakness: Putting it all together.  Can they? This team has a bunch of guys who were passed over in the 2020 draft — chips on the shoulders? — along with some top NHL draft picks. In between the pipes, there is a steadiness regardless of which of the three goalies will be there. But after back-to-back quarterfinal exits, is this the year they can go deeper?

Key player: Stanislav Svozil. Did you see this play he made in the exhibition game? The 17-year-old defenseman has impressive skills, a good head on his shoulders and a strong hockey sense. A top prospect for the July draft, Svozil has experience playing with older players after spending time in the Czech Republic’s top league this year — and in 2019-20 at just 16 — and may be called upon often by head coach Karel Mlejnek.

Will they win gold? Because of the tough road ahead — if they finish third or fourth in the group they’ll likely play Canada or Finland in the quarters — it’s doubtful, but that doesn’t mean they can’t surprise a team.

Schedule

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 26 Sweden 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 27 Russia 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Czech Republic 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 Austria 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

(Getty Images)

Austria

Third time’s the charm? It’s been a while since the Austrians have played in the World Juniors — 11 years to be exact. In 2021, the country makes its third-ever appearance.

Strength: Care-free. Like the Swiss, there’ll be no worrying about relegation if they don’t do well here. A team without anything to lose is always dangerous, but it’s doubtful it’ll balance things out for them against the likes of the U.S., Russia and Sweden.

Weakness: Talent. Like Switzerland, this team just does not have the talent to compete with the other teams in the tournament. There was a considerable difference in tempo when watching their exhibition game against the Swiss and they could be due for a few blowouts considering who is in their group.

Key player: Marco Rossi. As TSN’s Craig Button said during the team’s exhibition game: You’ll hear a lot about this player. Rossi is a star — 120 points in 56 games for the 67’s last year — and before he cracks the Wild’s roster in a few short weeks he’ll be the driving force behind the Austrian offense. 

Will they win gold? No, but that doesn’t mean they can’t scare a team or two.

Schedule

Date Opponent TV info
Dec. 26 United States 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 28 Sweden 6 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 29 Russia 9:30 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)
Dec. 31 Czech Republic 2 p.m. (NHLN, TSN)

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