The IIHF World Junior Championships begin on Boxing Day, December 26, as is tradition. As is also tradition, you never know ahead of time who the breakout star will be, you can only guess at how the players and the teams will do.
This year, the tournament is in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre and in Montréal at the Centre Bell. Aside from giving the Leafs a nice long road trip, this means we get to see some of the stars of the future up close.
There are ten teams this year, split into two groups.
Group A - Montréal
- FIN - Finland
- SWE - Sweden
- CZE - Czech Republic
- DEN - Denmark
- SUI - Switzerland
Last year’s champion headlines Group A in Montréal. They are not a team stacked with top-end talent this time, but they are a mature team with a lot of 19 year olds and a few very highly rated 2017 draft-eligible prospects. Watch out for Eeli Tolvanen, Kristian Vesalainen and Urho Vaakanainen, all tagged to go in the first round of the draft by most scouts.
Jesse Puljujärvi is not on the team, and of course Patrik Laine is also a little busy. Returning from last year’s winners are defenders Olli Juolevi and Julius Nättinen as well as goalie Veini Vehvaläinen, so that experience may help them overcome some of the weakness up front.
No one is expecting much from this team, and sometimes that opens doors.
This is the stacked team in group A. They have one of last year’s top goalies in Felix Sandström plus Filip Gustavsson, who is playing well in limited starts in the SHL at only 18.
On defence they have a top-notch group, and they left two very good prospects at home, they have so much depth. Oliver Kylington and Jacob Larsson are the most well known names on defence.
Up front are Alex Nylander, Joel Eriksson Ek and of course, the most important man on the team to Leafs fans, Toronto’s own Carl Grundström who was named assistant captain to Eriksson Ek.
Watch out for top draft prospects Lias Andersson and Elias Pettersson who played on a very effective line with Grundström in preliminary games. Not here is Timothy Liljegren, who is expected to go very high in the draft. He was judged not ready to play after being ill for a few weeks. Rasmus Dahlin, who has been turning heads in the SHL, but is only 16 may make the final cut, but then the job begins to just get ice time ahead of seasoned pros.
Team Sweden is not making their cuts until Sunday and one defender and two forwards are likely to get a very unpleasant Christmas present.
The Czechs are never a top-flight team, but they can be spoilers with excellent team play and good overall quality of skill. They also have Daniel Vladar, a goalie who has made six starts in the AHL and put up very good numbers.
Watch for Martin Necas, a draft prospect centre who may go in the first round.
The classic Cinderella team is back again. They don’t know the meaning of the word quit, and that has carried them to repeated upset wins and near misses in past tournaments.
There are not likely to be any future stars on this team, and they may end up in the relegation round, but they might also beat someone when we all least expect it.
Usually on a level about half a notch above the Danes, the Swiss have one star at this year’s tournament and he is the man to watch on this team. Nico Hischier has 48 points in 31 games with the Halifax Mooseheads of the OHL, and he is ranked by McKeen’s Hockey right now as number one. No one else has him that high, but a good WJC can do wonders for the draft ranking. Despite his prowess, the Swiss are unlikely to be in a medal round game.
One other interesting player to watch is Philipp Kurashev, a 2018 draft eligible player who is also playing in the QMJHL right now and doing well. If he makes the cut to the final team, he will be one of very few players that young in the tournament.
Group B - Toronto
- RUS - Russia
- USA - United States
- CAN - Canada
- SVK - Slovakia
- LAT - Latvia
The Russians are a tough team to handicap because their biggest strength is goalie Ilya Samsonov. He plays for the Gagarin Cup Champions, Mettalurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL, and he had a good save percentage last year for them in a backup role. He has a better one this year, and he laid down a .956 in two games in the WJC last year. He is a bona fide NHL goalie of the future.
In front of this behemoth (and he is 6’3” all game long), is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, with most players already 19, and there are some very good players in the mix. If they pull it together, they could be the sleeper favourite for a top finish. Again.
Watch out for Alexander Polunin, the small, undrafted linemate of Yegor Korshkov. If Polunin has a good tournament, NHL scouts will come calling.
The USA team is also strong in net with Leafs prospect Joseph Woll the one to watch if he can kick Tyler Parsons out of the net long enough to get a start.
In front of that good goaltending is an experienced team full of last year’s draft stars and none of this year’s eligibles. In the mix is Jeremy Bracco who finally had his point streak broken in the OHL just a few days ago. He comes into the event with 51 points in 27 games. Alex Debrincat has him beat with 60 points in 28 games, but that wasn’t enough to keep him from being cut. The NCAA stars will have to carry the day for the USA.
This team has a bunch of Tampa Bay Lightning prospects on it and not much else of note. Of course they are likely the top team in the tournament even without any Maple Leafs prospects—Mitch Marner is a bit busy. You can read all about the Red and White machine here.
Another possible contender for the relegation round, Slovakia can also be surprisingly good due to cohesive team play. Their top player is likely Sarnia Sting forward Adam Ruzicka who is draft-eligible this year.
Almost certain to end up near the bottom of the standings, Latvia is notable for the presence of Toronto prospect Martins Dzierkals. He’s good enough to make the men’s national team for Latvia, so he should be one of the better players on the team if he recovers from injury in time to play.
The tournament is two separate round-robin series where teams play within their own groups. The top four teams in each group go on to the playoff round, and the fifth team in each group play off in the relegation round.
The relegation round is a best two out of three format and the loser moves down to the lower division in 2018, making way for the this year’s winner, Belarus, to move up.
The playoff format is single elimination crossover quarterfinal games where teams play against opponents from the other group for the first time. The semifinals and finals are also single elimination games. The bronze medal is decided by a game between the losers of the semifinals and is played on the last day before the gold medal game.
The games begin on Boxing Day and the medals are decided on January 5. We will have daily schedule and recap posts to keep you up to date on all the Leafs prospects and news of note from the event.