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2019 World Junior Championship Preview

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The Leafs have four prospects on the rosters of three teams. Get ready to watch them, plus a host of draft-eligible players, as they fight it out for the gold medal.

Canada v Sweden: Gold Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship
Can Canada repeat?

The 2019 World Junior Championships begin on Boxing Day in a long-standing tradition of hockey and the Christmas season. The medals get handed out on January 5, 2019, and in between there is a lot of hockey to watch with four Leafs prospects on three different teams.

This year, the Leafs are playing the Vancouver Canucks in Toronto on January 5, and they’ll be on the ice before the gold medals have been awarded in the Canucks home arena in Vancouver.

What we all want right now is for Ian Scott to be in net for Team Canada laying down a shutout against the Americans to take our attention away from the first period of the Leafs game. Okay, I want Sweden to be beating whoever, but I know I’m not the majority there. And there’s a lot of hockey between now and then, so there’s no guarantee Canada will be in that game. They’re one of the favourites, though, and we’ll hear a lot about Scott in the days to come.

The 2019 WJC is in Victoria as well as Vancouver this year, and as usual, the teams are split into two groups for the opening round.

Rosters have to be submitted before the tournament starts with between 15 and 20 skaters and at least two goalies to a maximum of three. Teams that leave space on the roster can add players later, but substitutions cannot be made. Some teams put three goalies on their roster for the whole tournament; however, the rules allow for emergency substitutions in the rare event a goalie is hurt.

The final rosters are largely known already, so it’s possible to get a good idea of which teams are strong and which will struggle. Elite Prospects is a very handy place to get the scoop on who is playing and what they’ve been up to this season. The official IIHF site of the World Juniors will give you the schedule, official rosters and standings and stats.

Group A (Vancouver)

Canada

I know I’m shocked that Canada’s group is playing in the bigger NHL arena in Vancouver. The defending champs have a very good team, and as always, Canada has so much depth to draw on, that some of their junior-aged stars being absent because they’re in the NHL already doesn’t hurt them as much as it will other teams.

The Leafs’ Ian Scott is the hot upstart goalie challenging Canucks pick Michael DiPietro, who has a long pedigree of success behind him. Hockey Canada set their roster days ago with only two goalies this year. Barring injuries, they will submit the full roster before the tournament begins with just those two goalies and the 20 skaters they’ve already decided on. They haven’t yet decided who the starter is, and they may end up with a de facto tandem for the opening games.

The team is strong at every position, and they have to be considered one of the top favourites this year. The biggest surprise might be that Alexis Lafreniere has made the cut. He’s draft eligible in 2020, and Hockey Canada is not even known for putting players on the WJC team who are in the next draft, far less two years away. However, Lafreniere has a late birthday, and is only a few months to a few weeks younger than the players who will be drafted next summer. Maxime Comtois is the only returning player from last year.

Czechia

Filip Kral, the Leafs draft pick who plays defence in nearby Spokane, Washington might have some fans in attendance. But many of the rest of us will get to see this player for the first time, since he missed the summer camps due to injury.

The Czechs are always a good team even if the individual level of play isn’t all that impressive on paper, and they will push hard to get into the medal round. They’ve got some spark this year with Filip Zadina and Martin Necas loaned to the team. They also have two goalies who were drafted in the third round last year.

This team is good enough to challenge the idea that the WJC has a top five, and then everyone else. The Czechs want to make that a top six, and they might be able to.

Russia

For all the Russian players the Leafs have drafted lately, none of them are on this team.

The Russians have moved to a willingness to go younger at the WJC, and they’ve gotten better as the number of 18-year-olds has grown on their rosters. There are some stars on this Russian team this year (Klim Kostin, Grigory Denisenko), but I’m not sure about their depth or their goaltending. Look for them to surge late in the preliminary round and into medal contention based on the strength of their forwards.

Switzerland

The Swiss will always be famous to me for the hit on William Nylander that knocked him out of his last chance at the WJC. It ruined his chance to outscore his father for WJC points, too. They seem to be a step behind the Czechs in general quality lately, and two steps behind this year. They can play spoiler, but likely won’t contend for anything.

Denmark

They have heart. They have the best goalie coach in hockey (Ernst Andersen) who has the best goalie in hockey for a son, and they haven’t got a hope of a medal. They often look like they are almost capable of moving up to the level the Swiss are at, but they just don’t have the depth.

Watch out for Mads Søgaard, the goalie from the Medicine Hat Tigers, who is draft-eligible and putting up Scott-like numbers this season. There’s three fellows named Andersen on the early roster, and one of them, Victor, has a very famous cousin, so cheer for him too if he makes the cut. The best forward might be Jonas Røndjberg, who plays with Pontus Holmberg on Växjö.

Group B (Victoria)

Sweden

All good and true Leafs fans should shred their Team Canada or Team USA jerseys and put on the blå tröja of Tre Kronor and cheer on Rasmus Sandin and Pontus Holmberg. Timothy Liljegren is officially out with an ankle sprain, but it’s still the defence on Team Sweden you want to keep your eyes on. The forward quality is just a bit dodgy. They’re the reverse Leafs, and they should just let the defence do the scoring. They have so many good defenders who know how to play the puck, they won’t miss Rasmus Dahlin.

This pool is tougher to call than the one dominated by Canada and Russia, and any of the top three teams could finish in first place in this one, but the Swedes are in with a good chance.

Holmberg played at the 1C in at least one pre-tournament game, but that seems unlikely to be the final structure of the team. He has, however, a big opportunity to prove himself on a team he wasn’t expected to make last summer. If this is your first time seeing him in action, you want to look for the structure of his game, as he’s not a guy who will wow you with flash. Sandin might just wow you with flash, however, and seeing him against his peers instead of in the AHL should be a lot of fun. He’ll get to do some things Sheldon Keefe frowns on.

If you get bored watching the Leafs draft picks, check out Samuel Fagemo a draft-eligible player getting some buzz. Unfortunately, Nils Höglander was cut late, and won’t be there.

One note on Sweden: They will suffer a small amount from the suspensions that got handed out last year over the whole throwing away the medal debacle. While Lias Andersson, the main culprit, is busy playing for the Rangers now, and the coaches had their suspensions overturned, goalie Olle Eriksson Ek still has two games to serve. The Swedes have three goalies, and Eriksson Ek hasn’t nailed down the starter’s job anyway, so it might be Adam Åhman getting the nod early.

USA

The USA is likely to be a very good team, and they are expected to be the Jack Hughes show. The most likely first overall next summer will be the one to watch, and his brother Quinn Hughes, a Canucks pick, is no slouch either.

They have strong players at all positions, and how far they go might come down to how strong Finland and Sweden are as much as their own ability. They could be in the gold medal game, they could never make it past the crossovers.

Finland

Finland looked early on like they would suffer from their top players like Miro Heiskanen being so good they’re in the NHL. They got three late additions of Eeli Tolvanen, Henri Jokiharju and Urho Vaakanainen which gives them an elite shooter who could be the best in the tournament if he’s lucky, and two very good defenders. They have a nice mix of youth and experience, forward and defensive strength, and they look like they have the edge in this pool, but goaltending can decide so much. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has to be a star for them.

Interesting players to watch for on Team Finland are Linus Nyman, the successful, yet small player, who has yet to be drafted, and Anttoni Honka, brother of Julius, who is also draft eligible this summer. Of course, you should also watch Kappo Kakko, a draft-eligible forward, but he’ll be out of the Leafs’ reach for sure.

The Finns have some final cuts to make yet.

Slovakia

Slovakia is going to be Czechia’s little brother again this tournament, and they’ll play the same role in this pool as Switzerland in the Group A. They just need to be better than last place to count it a win.

Kazakhstan

They’ll be a total mystery to most of us, but it’s fun to see this team show up at this level. Most of the players are from the MHL, the junior league attached to the KHL. The players may have a little more familiarity with each other than is usual at these tournaments as most of them play on the Kazakh teams together.

The format for this tournament pits the eventual last-place team in each group against each other in a set of best-of-three games to decide who is relegated to the next level down for next year. Germany already won that tournament this year to move up. Kazakhstan and Denmark are the likely suspects for the relegation games this year.


Format

This tournament is an IIHF event, and they use IIHF rules, some of which have changed recently. The IIHF is moving to the new overtime formats that are limiting shootouts in meaningful games. For this year, the WJC is only going halfway there, so the structure is as follows:

In the preliminary round there is a five-minute three-on-three overtime immediately after the end of the game, and then a shootout if necessary.

In any relegation, crossover or medal game not the gold medal game, there will be a 10-minute four-on-four overtime after a short intermission. In the gold-medal game, that overtime period with be 20 minutes after a full intermission. In all cases, after the one overtime period, the game will go to a shootout if necessary.

Clear? The bottom line is that teams need to have a strategy for three-on-three and four-on-four both. Yes, that’s silly. Next year it will be all different.

Rules

All IIHF events are fun at first as players have to learn the crease rules. The blue paint really means something in international hockey, and teams that are used to crowding the goalie to create traffic in front will get whistled for crease violations.

The IIHF has made some new rules for this season as well. One that should be interesting to watch is the new late hit rule:

This one is going to catch out some players from “finish your check” cultures. In this brave new world, that’s not defined by national boundaries so much as by play in Canadian junior hockey or the AHL, so it’s not just Canadians who might be surprised when a normal hit gets whistled for a minor penalty.

Boarding has also been changed to the same rules as checking from behind, and carries an automatic 10-minute major penalty along with the two-minute minor.

Also new is this rule:

i. In cases where a skater is fouled in a manner that warrants a penalty shot, any skater on the team who was not about to be penalized can be named by the coach to take the shot.

This rule needs to migrate to the NHL right now, but if the WJC coaches realize it, they can take advantage of this change to get their best shooter on the ice for the penalty shot.

In one other interesting change, the phrase “kicking motion” has been removed from the rule book, and the decision on good goal or not is to be made on a judgement of intent. Any accidental deflection off a skate counts as a goal.

Goaltenders can also get a 2-minute minor for freezing the puck outside the crease when they aren’t under pressure. The IIHF has added this rule to try to speed up the game action and avoid stoppages to create a faceoff as a game tactic.

Schedule

While the WJC is in the Pacific time zone, there are a lot of late afternoon starts by Toronto time. The gold medal game begins at 5 p.m. Toronto time, and there’s usually only one 10:30 p.m. start per day in the preliminary week.

The late New Year’s Eve game is USA-Finland, so you can watch the Canada-Russia game that begins at 8 p.m. and then go chastely to bed before midnight.

We’ll have a more detailed post with times and how to watch information, but until then, it’s best to just get extra sleep so you can stay up to cheer for Sweden on Boxing day as they open the tournament in the late game against the Finns.

Who’s Who and Where?

  • Ian Scott (G) on Team Canada
  • Pontus Holmberg (C/W) and Rasmus Sandin (D) on Team Sweden
  • Filip Kral (D) on Team Czech Republic