In three days, the best junior-aged hockey players in the world will kick off one of the most exciting international tournaments around. Teams from the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovakia, and Switzerland will do battle at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Red Deer and Edmonton, Alberta.
Today all ten teams were supposed to play their lone pre-tournament tune-up games, but the match between Czechia and Switzerland was canceled due to COVID protocols. Bob McKenzie of TSN tweets that one player from that game (it is unclear from which team) has tested positive for coronavirus and will be immediately isolated. The other games are still scheduled to proceed.
The U.S. lost their pre-tournament match against Finland today after Red Savage was given a five-minute major and match penalty in the third period. Savage will likely have to serve a suspension when the tournament begins, though that has not yet been determined. They also lost Ty Smilanic to injury, as Corey Pronman of The Athletic relays he will likely to miss some games.
Both those teams would be considered contenders for the gold, as they’re littered with NHL prospects at every position.
For the Americans, it’s Jake Sanderson and Matty Beniers’ team. The former was the fifth-overall pick by the Ottawa Senators in 2020 and will log huge minutes in all situations for Team USA. Sanderson was named captain this week and has the skating ability to dominate a tournament like this. Beniers meanwhile was the second-overall pick in 2021 by the Seattle Kraken and is the kind of lynchpin center that you can build an entire forward group around. Both were part of the team that won gold at last year’s tournament.
The Finns meanwhile took home the bronze in last year’s event and several of those names are back for revenge. Topi Niemela, a Toronto Maple Leafs third-round pick was named the tournament’s best defenseman in 2021 and is back for more. Another Maple Leafs pick is captaining the group; Roni Hirvonen showed exactly why he’s the leader as he ended today’s match in overtime with a blistering wrist shot. But don’t forget about draft-eligible Brad Lambert, who could go as high as second overall in 2022 if he has a strong stretch run.
As always, Canada is a medal favorite once again after winning silver a year ago. The Canadians are so loaded this time around that Owen Power, the first-overall pick in 2021, isn’t even one of the captains. The “C” will be on Kaiden Guhle’s chest instead, as he returns to lead this group after last year’s defeat. With Power, this group could have three first-overall picks as Shane Wright (projected first for 2022) and Connor Bedard (2023) are both on the team.
Bedard isn’t the only contender for that spot though, and Russia also heads to Red Deer with their 2023-eligible superstar. Matvei Michkov has been breaking junior records set by Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov as he prepares for his spotlight moment in Alberta. The MVP at the U18 tournament last year, Michkov put up 12 goals and 16 points in just seven games. Russia has had trouble on defense internationally for the past few years, but New Jersey Devils prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin will try to change that. He’s already in his third year as a regular in the KHL, so taking advantage of some players his own age shouldn’t be an issue.
And then there’s Sweden, who have two forwards on the roster who played in the NHL this season (Canada has three). William Eklund and Alexander Holtz are both still looking for their first NHL goals, but they won’t have to wait long to score in this tournament considering their history. Holtz has already played in this event twice before but he’s looking for his first gold.
So which team will actually take home the top prize? The two groups can be found here. Things kick off on December 26 when Finland takes on Germany.
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