Happy holidays, everyone. And by holidays I mean World Junior Championship season. All the others are insignificant, aren't they?
While for Leafs fans, a medal for a young prospect is better than any gift this holiday season. It's special for the fans of any team, a snapshot into the future. But for a nearly 30th place team it means something different, something bigger.
And for a rare change, the Leafs have five prospects with a chance at wearing three different medals when they return home at the end of the first week of the New Year.
In fact, were it not for the omission of Jeremy Bracco from Team USA's roster, the Leafs would have been represented by prospects from, arguably, the four medal favourites in the 2016 tournament.
The Americans are good, maybe gold medal good. Despite camp omissions that range from Bracco (the national program's all-time leader in assists) to Conor Garland (the QMJHL's leading scorer), Denis Yan (another QMJHL standout), Alex Tuch (a member of last year's team), or a pair of Winnipeg Jets first round picks in Jack Roslovic and Kyle Connor, Team USA should be a force. It's hard not to be when you can still ice a crop of forwards that included 2016's near-certain first overall pick, Auston Matthews, alongside the likes of Arizona's Christian Dvorak, Vancouver's Brock Boeser, and Columbus' Sonny Milano. You can find some of my comments on their roster here.
But there's no clear favourite at this year's World Juniors and the single-elimination medal round will be anybody's to win. It just so happens that the Leafs will be well-represented on the team's capable of giving the Americans a run.
|Group A||Group B|
Last year's tournament saw a marvellous run from Team Slovakia on route to a Bronze Medal Game win, in large part thanks to impressive Montreal Canadiens prospect Martin Reway. As a result, this year's WJC has two lopsided groups with three tournament favourites seeded into Group A.
Four Leafs prospects will play out of the dominant group, split between Team Canada (Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott) and Team Sweden (Dmytro Timashov, William Nylander), while Kasperi Kapanen will represent Finland -- the tournament's host -- as they seek to outplay the Czech Republic and Russia in Group B.
Let's take a look at the three teams with some Leafs flair.
Alex Nylander (2016) - William Nylander (Leafs) - Joel Eriksson EK (Wild)
Dmytro Timashov (Leafs) - Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (Bruins) - Carl Grundström (2016)
Lukas Vejdemo (Canadiens) - Rasmus Asplund (2016) - Frederik Olofsson (Blackhawks)
Anton Karlsson (Coyotes), Jens Looke (Coyotes)
Andreas Englund (Senators) - Gustav Forsling (Blackhawks)
Sebastian Aho - Jacob Larsson (Ducks)
Adam Ollas Mattsson (Flames) - Marcus Pettersson (Ducks)
Gabriel Carlsson (Jackets), William Lagesson (Oilers)
These lines are as of Sweden's final pre-tournament game and are subject to change.
After icing one of the youngest teams in last year's World Juniors, Team Sweden has 12 returning players in 2016. Among them, the team's entire first powerplay unit from the 2015 tournament has returned, featuring four forwards and Forsling on the point with Nylander.
Sweden's experience, and the additions of Nylander and Kempe in particular make them a team to fear at this year's tournament, led by probably the best top-6 in the tournament. Kempe, like Nylander, has thrived in the AHL this season with the Ontario Reign. As a rookie, he has registered 16 points in 21 games as the low-scoring AHL team's second leading scorer.
Meanwhile, Nylander, in his own right, will be expected to lead the highly gifted Swedish offence. At his best, Nylander should compete for the tournament's top forward honours. If Sweden goes deep, it will likely be because Nylander is playing at a tournament MVP level, or close.
After a two-point night on zero sleep in Sweden's pre-tournament win over Slovakia, it appears Nylander has settled in ahead of the tournament. After a three-assist, player of the game performance in the game against Slovakia, it appears that Timashov will also play an important role on Sweden's third line and second powerplay unit. Amid reports that Timashov will be dealt to a contending team by his Quebec Remparts when he returns to the QMJHL and waives his no-trade clause, the young Swedish playmaker could be among the first to move up the lineup if the group's top-six forwards struggle. He and Nylander have played together in the past with MODO's development program and it wouldn't be surprising to see them reunited at some point in the tournament (they played together for parts of the third period against Canada).
Ultimately, if Sweden's youth (they've brought three 2016 NHL Draft prospects) can add to the team's depth, they could very well win Group A. And Sweden's youth won't be bothered by the physicality of the older talent.
Grundstrom is a gifted 6-0 winger who has played the better part of the last two years in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Internationally, Grundstrom has stood out among older players too. At the 4 Nations Cup, he proved himself to be an athletic force who loves to move in and out of the slot from behind the net for one-touch shots and passes. Similarly, Rasmus Asplund (my 40th ranked prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft in my November top 60 with McKeen's Hockey) has excelled internationally as Team Sweden's captain at multiple tournaments, while William's younger brother Alex (my 6th ranked prospect for 2016) has played his way onto the team with a dominant rookie season with the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads (you can read more about Alex and his journey from my story here).
After battling back against Canada in pre-competition action, don't be surprised if Sweden is in the gold medal game come January 5.
Beauvillier/Chartier - Mathew Barzal (Islanders) - Julien Gauthier (2016)
Lawson Crouse (Panthers) - Mitchell Stephens (Lightning) - Travis Konecny (Flyers)
Ex. John Quenneville (Devils)
Thomas Chabot (Senators) - Joe Hicketts (Wings)
Haydn Fleury (Hurricanes) - Brandon Hickey (Flames)
Travis Dermott (Leafs) - Travis Sanheim (Flyers)
Ex. Roland McKeown (Hurricanes)
These lines are malleable because we haven't seen the completed roster in action due to Brayden Point's nagging soreness/injury.
Group A is going to be extremely competitive and Canada is going to need its best players to show up. That will mean Mitch Marner, largely quiet despite a few flashy plays in pre-competition, will need to be better (particularly at even strength). Marner created effectively on the powerplay in Team Canada's pre-tournament games but he took a few minor penalties of his own and he and Strome have yet to really mesh with a left wing. As is the case with Nylander, if Canada is going to go for gold, Marner will likely need to be in the mix for the tournament's best forward.
Dermott, paired with budding star Flyers prospect Sanheim, will be relied on to play a regular shift at 5-on-5 and chip in on Canada's powerplay units. Through pre-tournament action, Dermott played on the first and second powerplays. He's a gifted puck mover who will have to be positionally sound on international ice to make up for average speed and play an effective role for Canada. You can find some comments from Dermott's Erie Otters teammates and coach here.
More important to Canada's success, though, will be the play of their goaltenders. Mason McDonald (Flames), the team's likely starter for the first two games of the tournament with Mackenzie Blackwood (Devils) serving the end of an eight-game OHL suspension, will need to be better than he was throughout pre-tournament play if Canada is going to pick up a Boxing Day win against the United States. Once Blackwood is back, Canada will likely need to rely on the OHL standout into the medal round if they're going to be successful.
Without the star power of a Matthews or a Nylander, scoring will also need to come by committee and the likes of 18-year-olds Konecny, Crouse, Beauvillier will have to become game-to-game offensive threats.
Juho Lammiko (Panthers) - Roope Hintz (Stars) - Kasperi Kapanen (Leafs)
Jesse Puljujarvi (2016) - Sebastian Aho (Hurricanes) - Patrik Laine (2016)
Jonne Tammela - Virta Kalapadus - Patrik Virta
Kasper Bjorkqvist - Miska Siikonen - Sebastian Repo
Villi Saarijarvi (Wings) - Miro Keskitalo
Olli Juolevi (2016) - Niko Mikkola (Blues)
Sami Niku (Jets) - Eeto Sopanen
Joni Tuulola (Blackhawks)
These lines are malleable as players like Mikko Rantanen (the team's captain) work into the lineup. Lines are as of Finland's final pre-competition game against Team USA.
Unlike Team Sweden, Finland will be hugely reliant on their youth. All of Puljujarvi (ranked 3rd in my top 60), Laine (ranked 5th), and Juolevi (ranked 10th) will be counted on among a handful of key players for Finland in all situations. Thankfully for the host team, they aren't your average draft eligible players. Both Puljujarvi and Laine are big players (6-3 and 6-4 respectively) already in their second years of pro hockey where they have played top-six roles in Finland's Liiga.
Kapanen, after struggling in last year's World Juniors, will be counted on to come up big as a leader on Team Finland in his final crack at the tournament. After a relatively slow start that included disappointing shot generation with the Marlies after getting sick and losing some weight to begin his first season with the Marlies, a dominant World Juniors may be just what the highly-skilled Finn needs to get going. Through 17 games in his first AHL season, Kapanen has registered 10 points and five goals on 20.8 SH%. Joining Kapanen, Puljujarvi, and Laine up front to provide the bulk of the offence is Rantanen (ranked 9th in my final 2015 draft ranking), who is off to a more impressive start in his first AHL season with 26 points in 22 games after starting the season in the NHL.
Don't let a 3-2 loss to Team USA in pre-competition -- without some key players in the lineup -- fool you, Finland is capable of competing for a medal if their best players perform. While they don't have the NHL depth in their pool of draftees that a Canada or a Sweden have, Finland has some of the tournament's best high-end talent. In a single-elimination event like that World Juniors, that talent can take you deep.
Not the tournament favourites, Finland is still a team that screams upset in the medal round. Especially with the home crowd behind them.
More than in last year's tournament, the 2016 World Juniors are any team's for the taking. Canada, with Dermott and Marner, will need to score by committee and could get exposed in net without Mackenzie Blackwood early on. Sweden, with Nylander and Timashov, shouldn't struggle to score but will need to rely on some key defensemen if their going to defend effectively enough to get out of Group A on top. Finland, in a weaker group than Canada and Sweden, is capable of taking on the Czech Republic and Russia in Group B.
Russia, having cut the likes of Nashville Predators prospect Yakov Trenin, will ice a lineup that includes heavy-shooting winger Denis Guryanov, Flyers star defensive prospect Ivan Provorov (arguably the tournament's best defensemen), and highly skilled big man Evgeny Svechnikov as their marquee talents. If they're going to return to the gold medal game, they'll also need streaking AHL rookie Vladislav Kamenev and Calgary Hitmen leading scorer Radel Fazleyev to come up big. In their favour, they'll likely have excellent goaltending on their side from Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov, last year's U18 WJC Best Goaltender.
The Czehcs, having not medaled since their bronze in 2004, are looking to play spoiler. After cutting a surprising number of top Canadian Hockey League (CHL) prospects last year, the Czechs will need to rely on the likes of OHLers Pavel Zacha and Dominik Masin, QMJHL's Jakub Zboril and Filip Chlapik, and the WHL's Michael Spacek and Simon Stravinsky, among others, to compete for a medal in 2016. They're icing one of the better Czech rosters of the last decade, though they're weak down the middle.
Regardless of the outcome for Nylander, Timashov, Kapanen, Marner, and Dermott, it's going to be an exciting tournament for Leafs fans, highlighted by a big matchup between Sweden and Canada at 1:00 p.m. ET on New Year's Eve and a potential medal round rematch in the semis.
For more information on the 2016 tournament and the Leafs prospects participating, you can listen to my segment Sportsnet 590 The FAN with Roger Lajoie.