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Early Thoughts From This Year’s World Junior Championship

Rasmus Sandin is off to a great start, but Sweden could run into Team Canada in the semi-finals.

Finland v Sweden - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship
Rasmus Sandin is off to a great start on an undefeated team.
Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

If nothing else, Canada’s loss to Russia should add plenty of intrigue to this year’s World Juniors. As Mitch Marner would tell you, playing Finland in the quarterfinals is not exactly a dream matchup. Canada will have to win three tough games in order to emerge with a gold medal, while Russia and the United States will have an easier bracket.

This article will look at how each team has looked thus far, as well as what players have stood out. I haven’t seen enough of the Czechs, so I’ll have to leave them out of this.

Canada

Forwards

Following a disappointing loss to Russia, Canada will now have to beat Finland and Sweden in order to advance to the gold medal game. They would then probably have to play one of the United States or Russia, so they’ll have their work cut out for them the rest of the way. Canada still looks like the best team in this tournament, but this will be a difficult three-game winning streak to pull off.

Cody Glass (VGK) looks like the best forward in this tournament, and it looks like the Golden Knights will be adding a 60+ point centre in the near future. I’m still not sure if Barrett Hayton (ARI) has the foot speed to warrant a top-five pick, but he wins a ton of battles and is awfully crafty with the puck. Owen Tippett (FLA), who was a favourite of mine at the 2017 draft, looks like Canada’s most dangerous goal scorer. He’s big, fast, and has a cannon of a shot, so his team needs him to step up and form a lethal duo with Glass.

Nick Suzuki (MTL) can really pass the puck, and the Montreal Canadiens should run their powerplay through him someday. Morgan Frost (PHI) and Max Comtois (ANA) have both found the scoresheet often, but Jaret Anderson-Dolan (LA) needs to step up in a big way. I’d like to see the team use Joe Veleno (DET) more, as they could use his puck-carrying skill in the top nine, and help to generate more chances for Anderson-Dolan.

Defence

The back-end is led by Evan Bouchard (EDM), and while I still have some minor concerns about his skating, he’s a high-end puck mover with size and a right-hand shot. Ty Smith (NJ) offers more mobility and should dominate if he plays in next year’s tournament, and Ian Mitchell (CHI) looks like an absolute steal for the Blackhawks at 57th overall.

Josh Brook (MTL) has done well on his off-side, but I think he’s a step behind Bouchard, Smith, and Mitchell in terms of impact. These four defencemen provide Canada with plenty of depth on the back-end, even though they are spread out between three pairings, rather than forming a great top-four.

I’ve been disappointed with Noah Dobson’s (NYI) performance to-date, and Jared McIsaac (DET) is just a fine third-pairing option on a team with this much talent. I’ve always been a Markus Phillips (LA) fan, and I was shocked that he lasted until the fourth round of his draft, but he doesn’t bring a ton to the table offensively.

Goaltending and Overall Performance

Michael DiPietro (VAN) is incredibly athletic, and hasn’t done anything to lose the job thus far. I’d love to see Ian Scott (TOR), but unless DiPietro gets pulled mid-game, that’s probably not going to happen. With three tough games on the road to a gold medal, Canada might need DiPietro to steal them a game, or at least be steady in all three.

Ultimately, Canada looks strong on the back-end, while Glass, Hayton, and Entwhistle are strong up the middle. They are one line away from getting all four lines rolling, and Glass and Suzuki should be able to run an effective powerplay. I’d also like to see them use Alexis Lafreniere (2020) more. While it’s tough to use him on the powerplay on a team with Glass, Suzuki, Tippett, and Frost, he could add some offence at five-on-five, but he hasn’t been put in a great position to succeed.

Sweden

Erik Brannstrom (VGK) has been the best defenceman in this tournament, and maybe the best overall player. Adam Boqvist (CHI) and Rasmus Sandin (TOR) form an outstanding second-pairing, and Sweden’s top four effectively tilt the ice to put their forwards in a situation to succeed. I’d compare them to the Nashville Predators, as their defencemen allow the team to be successful despite not having a Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin type of duo up-front.

Emil Bemstrom (CBJ) has stepped up in a major way offensively, but Isac Lundestrom’s (ANA) two-way game makes him his team’s best forward. Lucas Elvenes (VGK) is having a good tournament as well, but the Swedes generate almost all of their offence from their defencemen, and these forwards are going to have to continue their strong scoring production if they want to get by Canada or Finland in the semi-finals.

Boqvist is among the shots on goal leaders in this tournament, and Sandin’s passing has given him plenty of time and space to create chances. Boqvist is the favourite to win defenceman of the tournament if he plays in next year’s event, while Leafs fans have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from Sandin as a puck-mover.

Sweden needs a few more forwards to step up, or a hot powerplay or goaltender, if they want to win gold. While they’ve out-chanced their opponents thus far, they have a chance to mimic the Carolina Hurricanes and fail to capitalize on their chances.

USA

Quinn Hughes (VAN) is one of my favourite prospects to watch, and I had him at #3 on my draft board, but he’s been too mistake-prone thus far. Still, he’s fast enough to take over any game, and he creates a ton of scoring chances for his team. He’ll be a damn good NHL player someday. Mikey Anderson (LA) is playing well, but this blueline can’t move the puck like Sweden can.

Offensively, they have two good two-way centres in Ryan Poehling (MTL) and Josh Norris (OTT). Jason Robertson (DAL), Joel Farabee (PHI), and Tyler Madden (VAN) are also having a strong tournament, but their depth will be thin until Jack Hughes returns to the lineup.

Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI) is a talented goal-scorer, and he could really use a playmaker like Jack Hughes (2019) to set him up. If Jack Hughes gets back into the lineup and starts clicking with Wahlstrom, look out. If not, this team will have a tough time getting by Russia in the semi-finals.

Finland

Eeli Tolvanen (NSH), Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), and Rasmus Kupari (LA) have five points between the three of them. They better step up and get hot on the powerplay if they want to go anywhere in this tournament. Tolvanen can score in bunches if you set him up well, but they need Heponiemi to dominate, and he just hasn’t done that thus far.

Henri Jokiharju (CHI) leads the back-end, and this team has the defence and goaltending to potentially steal a game or two. The real story though is Kaapo Kakko (2019), who looks incredible. Kakko is a beast with the puck, makes plenty of defenders miss, and is strong on the forecheck. He’s going to be dominant in terms of shot-attempt differential at the NHL level, and looks like the “1B” prospect of this upcoming draft. Habs prospect Jesse Ylonen is a favourite of mine, but even with a few good secondary scoring options, this is a team that will probably need a bounce or two in order to get by Canada.

Russia

Vitali Kravtsov (NYR), Klim Kostin (STL), and Grigori Denisenko (FLA) form a strong first line, and you do not want to take penalties against them. With Pavel Shen and Kirill Slepets also firing on all cylinders, scoring certainly hasn’t been an issue thus far. Nevertheless, this is too much of a one-line team for my liking, and I think you can beat them with a high-end shutdown line.

There’s always questions on the back-end for any Russian team, but Alexander Romanov (MTL) and Alexander Alexeyev (WSH) have stepped up in a major way. They’ve also received great goaltending thus far, but it’s tough to call them a top-three team on paper.

Ultimately, they are good enough to give the U.S. team a run for their money in the semi-finals, and they’ve already proved that they could steal a game from a team like Canada if they can get to the finals.

Final Thoughts

Canada was probably not the best team on paper at last year’s tournament, but they had an easier path to the finals, and were only a slight underdog in the gold medal game against Sweden. Russia and the United States will now try to do the same thing Canada did last year, and even the Czechs could surprise if Martin Necas (CAR) and Filip Zadina (DET) get on a roll.

Canada looks to be the strongest team this time around, but there’s no easy games remaining on their schedule. DiPietro will need to be steady for three straight games, and they need Anderson-Dolan’s line to get going. The odds to win gold this year is much more spread out than usual, and this should make for a great tournament going forward.