It’s the most wonderful time of year: the World Junior Hockey Championship is back! The tournament begins on Boxing Day.
A highlight for Canadian hockey fans, the World Juniors pits the best under-20 players from around the world against each other in a high energy, drama-filled, two-week tournament. This year it is being held in Helsinki, Finland after being held in Toronto and Montreal last year. Even though it is on being held on the other side of the world, all of Team Canada’s round robin games begin at 10 am, a reasonable hour for hockey fans in North America.
As usual, Team Canada is a favourite to win gold, but as we’ve seen in recent years, it no longer is a slam dunk. Russia, USA, Sweden, and Finland are now producing high-end talent that rivals Team Canada. Although this results in some heartbreak for Canadians, it makes for some fantastic hockey throughout the entire tournament.
As always there are 10 teams that are broken into two groups for the World Junior Championship. Four teams from each group will advance to a single-game elimination quarterfinal, while the two countries who do not qualify for the quarters will play a playoff series where the loser will be relegated to the B division next year. Latvia won the B division this year, so they will be moved up for the 2017 tournament.
Canada, USA, and Sweden should all easily advance to the quarters, with Switzerland as the favourite to be the fourth team to advance from Group A.
In Group B, Russia, Czech Republic, and Finland are locks to move forward, and it’s safe to assume Slovakia will be able to advance over Belarus.
Team Canada captured gold last year, with a 5-4 victory over Russia in the gold medal game. This year’s team has considerable depth and skill throughout the lineup, due to Team Canada changing their selection process before last year’s tournament:
“It’s such a shift because traditionally we were two skilled lines, a third line that was two-way, a fourth line that was that energy — Jordin Tootoo,” Director of Player Personal Ryan Jankowski said. “What happened was our third and fourth lines weren’t good enough. The other countries are too good, and when we’re leaving off our skilled players, we’re playing right into their hands.”
It obviously worked with Canada last year, ending a five-year gold medal drought. Jankowski also suggested that other countries are closing the talent gap that allowed Canada to dominate the tournament throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
This year’s team follows that same thought process with skilled, offensive players throughout the lineup.
Here’s how Canada lined-up in their final exhibition game against Sweden:
|John Quenneville||Dylan Strome||Mitch Marner|
|Brandon Perlini||Matthew Barzal||Jake Virtanen|
|Lawson Crouse||Mitchell Stephens||Travis Konecny|
|Rourke Chartier||Anthony Beauvillier||Julien Gauthier|
|Thomas Chabot||Joe Hicketts|
|Haydn Fleury||Brandon Hickey|
|Travis Sanheim||Travis Dermott|
|Mason MacDonald / Samuel Montembeault|
If there is one weakness to Team Canada’s lineup, it is their lack of size. Their lineup is dominated with high-end offensive players who are on the smaller side, so their few players with size like Jake Virtanen and Lawson Crouse may be the key to success. Hopefully those two can use their big frames to create space and allow the smaller players to use their creative skill-sets.
Canada has done well so far in their exhibition games this past week, defeating Belarus 7-1 and Czech Republic 1-0. They play Sweden on Wednesday to conclude their exhibition games before beginning the tournament on Saturday.
The Vancouver Canucks have three prospects participating in the tournament this year, including a couple of former first round draft picks in Brock Boeser (2015) and Jake Virtanen (2014).
Brock Boeser is expected to play on the wing in a third line role with his linemate from University of North Dakota, Nick Schmaltz. The US team looks to be very fluid on the wings, so if things don’t go well in the top-six, Boeser may quickly move up the lineup.
Jake Virtanen was an unexpected, but still a very welcome addition to Team Canada after the Canucks decided to loan him for the tournament. Virtanen, a winger, will play a top-six role and will likely start on the first power play unit. Look for Virtanen to be a leader offensively and use his size and speed to create space for some of the smaller Canadian players.
The undisputed number one pick in next June’s NHL Draft, Matthews will lead the United States offensively this year. Matthews represented the US at last year’s tournament in a depth role, and was still able to put up 3 points in 5 games.
This year, he will be their first line centre and should be a treat to watch. He has elite hockey sense, puck handling, and quite a shot
— Ryan Biech (@ryanbiech) December 9, 2015
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 8th overall selection in 2014 was downright dominant last year, putting up 10 points (3-7-10) in 12 games. This year he is joined by his younger brother Alex, who is expected to be a top-10 pick at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, and a plethora of depth throughout the Swedish lineup. Sweden will be an interesting team to watch, as they are not the deepest team on defence but have elite offensive forwards and very good goaltending.
Philadelphia’s first round pick last June is an offensively gifted defenceman who is extremely agile and fleet of foot. He will control Russia’s transition game and power play with these strengths. Provorov is an all-around elite defenceman that all teams covet and he’ll hope to lead Russia to the medal rounds.
Clear the couch because you won’t want to miss any of the action this year. The World Juniors is one of the best annual tournaments for all hockey fans and this tournament shouldn’t disappoint!