It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
The 2020 World Juniors are on the horizon in the Czech Republic, with Canada squaring off against the United States in a tantalizing matchup between two of the favourites to win the tournament.
This year’s edition features a mix of players who should star in the NHL immediately, along with a host of younger prospects that will be on every scout’s radar for future drafts.
We assess the key storylines entering this year’s showcase and offer up some predictions.
Can Finland repeat?
Finland has established itself as a veritable powerhouse at the World Juniors, having captured gold in 2014, 2016 and again in 2019 (defeating the United States). It should no longer be a surprise that the nation has become a perpetual contender and this year should be no different. Perhaps it’s because we admittedly have a greater insight into North American players that Finland has been afforded to slip under the radar, but no more.
This year’s team doesn’t necessarily have a Kaapo Kakko or Sebastian Aho-type — with the exception of Aatu Raty, who has emerged as the way-too-early favourite to go first overall in 2021. Finland’s forward group is relatively inexperienced, although it returns Los Angeles Kings prospect Rasmus Kupari (18th overall in 2018) who is playing in his third tournament and could light the scoresheet up.
Finland should be almost impenetrable on the defensive end, with a deep and loaded corps. Ottawa Senators prospect Lassi Thomson (19th overall, 2019) captains this year’s group, while Ville Heinola started the year with the Winnipeg Jets and didn’t look out of place. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Anttoni Honka (83rd overall, 2019) and assistant captain Toni Utunen return from last year’s gold medal outfit, and should be poised to handle any scenario thrown at them.
It is somewhat unfair that Finland appears to be the lone super power in Group A — with all due respect to their arch-rival Sweden, standing as its lone competition in the division. Finland ought to feast on Slovakia, Switzerland and Kazakhstan before breezing into the playoff round while Canada, Russia and the United States duke it out in a hotly contested Group B.
Everything is shaping up for Finland to repeat, but heavy is the head that wears the crown.
How does the U.S. respond to heartbreak?
The United States were a minute and a half away from forcing the 2019 gold medal game into overtime before Finland’s Kaapo Kakko broke their hearts. Although the core of the team is likely putting last year’s disappointing finish out of mind, it will motivate this year’s deeply talented group that ought to be back in the mix for the gold.
Cole Caufield simply can’t stop scoring and the Montreal Canadiens prospect is making scouts look silly for letting him drop to 15th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft due to his diminutive stature. Oliver Wahlstrom has been loaned to the United States from the New York Islanders, while Arthur Kaliyev — the Ontario Hockey League’s leading scorer — returns for this year’s tournament. These three forwards make up the core of a deep American team and it’s a dangerous proposition for their opponents as Caufield might be the NCAA’s best forward while Kaliyev boasts arguably the best shot in the tournament.
Between the pipes, the States have the best goaltender in this year’s tournament in Spencer Knight (13th overall, 2019). The Florida Panthers prospect is a calming influence, dominating the World U-18s earlier this year with a sparkling .936 save percentage.
K’Andre Miller (22nd overall, 2018), meanwhile, is an electrifying skater and will be featuring with the New York Rangers sooner than later, while Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cameron York (14th overall, 2019) is a prototypical offensive defenceman. He may lack size, but can score in bunches and take over the tenor of a game.
It’s a deep, talented United States team once again and they may have the best roster on paper in the entire tournament — although Canada and Finland would gladly contest this notion. We’ll see if their combination of experience, high-end talent and motivation from heartbreak will put them atop the podium.
Outside of the contenders, who should I keep an eye on?
A pair of Russian forwards lead this list. Florida Panthers prospect Grigori Denisenko (15th overall, 2018) led the 2019 tournament in scoring and will be counted upon to do the same amongst a thin group. Vasili Podkolzin, meanwhile, was taken 10th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2019. This duo’s offensive ability might be enough for Russia to surprise in Group A.
If this tournament is taken over by the 2020 draft class, then all eyes might be on Sweden’s Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond. Averaging over a point-per-game at the World U-18, Holtz and Raymond could continue to skyrocket up the draft board with strong tournaments and prove why Sweden’s U-18 gold medal performance wasn’t an outlier amid a tightly-contested field.
Germany’s Moritz Seider was selected with the sixth pick in the 2019 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings and although his team will almost certainly be outmanned, he’ll be given another showcase to prove why he’s considered one of the most promising defensive prospects in the game.
Goaltender: Spencer Knight, United States
Defence: K’Andre Miller, United States
Defence: Rasmus Sandin, Sweden
Forward: Alexis Lafreniere, Canada
Forward: Barrett Hayton, Canada
Forward: Cole Caufield, United States
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