By Josh Kaskinen | Image: IIHF WJC
It’s time once again for one of the most exciting events of the annual hockey calendar: the IIHF World Junior Championship. This annual event features some of the best young players (under 20 years of age) in the world, representing ten nations in a tournament that is very similar in structure to the Olympic hockey tournament or the FIFA World Cup.
Many of the players you will see in this tournament have either recently been drafted by an NHL club, or will be eligible for the upcoming NHL draft. For these players, this tournament gives them a chance not only to represent their country at an extremely high level of play, but it also brings them exposure and a chance for scouts to see how they perform against top level talent.
The 2020 edition of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s annual junior championship will be held in Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic. The ten nations competing in the top division have been divided into two groups, where they will play in a round-robin format group play. Three points will be awarded for a win in regulation, two points for a win in overtime or shootout, and one point for a loss in overtime or shootout. The top four teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals, while the last place team in each group will face each other in a best-of-three series to determine who gets to remain in the top division next year, and who will be relegated to Division 1A.
The newly promoted team to the top division this year is Germany, who had a stellar performance last year, winning Division 1A with 14 points. The Germans will be replacing Denmark, who find themselves in the lower division after two losses to Kazakhstan in the relegation round last year.
While each team consists of the best young players in the country, some teams are more full of talent than others. Some teams will have multiple future NHLers on their rosters, while others might not even have a single NHL draft pick. Nations that are traditional hockey hotbeds, such as Russia, Canada and the United States often do well in this tournament, while nations like Kazakhstan, Germany and Slovakia will do everything in their power just to avoid relegation.
For the average hockey fan, this tournament is a great time to get to know some of the players that will become future household names in the NHL. Most of the players in this tournament are already playing at a high level, be it in Canada’s major junior leagues, NCAA Division 1, the AHL, or professional leagues in their home countries. While some teams will have several players that fans should know, here is a brief look at just one player from each team of which every fan needs to be aware:
Finland- Rasmus Kupari
Though Finland lacks some of the star power that helped them to win this tournament a year ago, as players like Kappo Kaako and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will not be returning, they are still a talented group who could be capable of returning to the medal round this year. One player who will need to step up on offense is 19 year old centerman Rasmus Kupari, who will be making his third appearance in this tournament. Kupari made solid contributions during Finland’s gold medal run last year, with one goal and four assists in seven games. The 2018 Los Angeles Kings first round pick has been playing in the AHL this season, where he has six goals and two assists through 27 games for the Ontario Reign.
Switzerland- Luca Hollenstein
The Swiss had some unexpected success in last years World Junior Championship, nearly defeating Canada in group play, and upsetting the Swedes in the quarterfinals on their way to a 4th place finish. Repeating or improving upon that feat this year won’t be easy, but there are some solid players who could help them out. While defense will likely be Switzerland’s strong suit, it will be up to Hollenstein to carry the team to victory. The 19 year old goaltender is a bit undersized, but he has been playing well in the top Swiss league this season, and his experience in this tournament a year ago (including a 4-0 shutout against Denmark and 2-0 shutout of Sweden in the quarterfinals) should pay dividends for a Swiss team with high expectations in 2020.
Sweden- Rasmus Sandin
This Swedish team is an interesting group, and the nation has a long history of success in this tournament, even if the gold has eluded them in recent years. There are plenty of talented forwards who are capable of scoring, including Jonatan Berggren (Detroit), Samuel Fagemo (Los Angeles) and Lucas Raymond (likely top 10 pick in 2020). They also have solid goaltending with the likes of Erik Portillo (Buffalo/Dubuque-USHL) and Hugo Alnelfelt (Tampa Bay). But I would be doing a huge injustice to the Tre Kronor if I did not highlight a defenseman here, as the Swedes have probably the strongest, deepest group of blue liners in the entire tournament. It was a question for awhile if the Toronto Maple Leafs would allow Sandin to compete at World Juniors, but since they are, he immediately becomes one of the strongest players on the team. Sandin had two goals and two assists in five games at World Juniors last year- a very respectable mark. He is a playmaker and a solid defender. In 19 games this year with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Sandin has two goals and ten assists. Look for him to be a leader and a difference maker on an already incredible Swedish defensive group.
Slovakia- Samuel Hlavaj
With one win in group B in 2019, Slovakia did enough to avoid the relegation round, but not much more, losing to Russia 8-3 in the quarterfinals. They’ll need to play better than that this year in a tough group A to remain in the top division in 2021. For this young Slovak team, a player that will need to come up big is another netminder, Samuel Hlavaj. Hlavaj is playing very well in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this year for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, being a league leader in several statistical categories, including wins, goals against average and save percentage. Hlavaj kept it close last year against the Americans in a 2-1 loss.. Slovakia is a young team in a tough group. A game one win against Kazakhstan will be huge if they hope to avoid the relegation round.
Kazakhstan- David Muratov
For Kazakhstan, just being in the top division is a huge accomplishment, and they will have to have a great tournament in order to stay there. It’s unlikely that there are any future NHL draft picks on this roster, so the Khazakhs will rely heavily on experience in order to stay in the top division for the third year in a row. Muratov is a big defenseman at 6’4”, 180 lbs. Don’t expect him to do much on offense, but if he can play his position well, he will make life a little bit easier for his goaltenders. Playing in the same group as the Swiss and the Slovaks should help to give Kazakhstan a chance at avoiding relegation.
United States- Cole Caufield
A year ago, Caufield was setting scoring records with the U.S. National Development Team and refusing to be defined by his small size. In 64 games, Caufield netted 72 goals and earned 28 assists for a total of 100 points with the USNDT. That scoring prowess paid off in a big way, as he was drafted number 15 overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Entry Draft. This year, Caufield has picked right back up on his scoring ways as a freshman for the Wisconsin Badgers. He has 12 goals and 8 assists in 18 games played, only a single goal behind the national goal-scoring leaders. This will be his first time playing in the U20 tournament, so he will get a chance to show head coach Mike Hastings (Minnesota State University) what he can do. If Caufield can score, and score often, the United States could very well be on their way to a medal in 2020.
Russia- Vasiliy Podkolzin
Taken with the 10th overall pick in last summer’s NHL entry draft, Podkolzin joins a nice core group of young players and prospects that the Vancouver Canucks are building their future around, including Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes. Podkolzin was somewhat limited on offense in last year’s WJC, notching only three assists in seven games played during Russia’s bronze medal run. At 18 years old, he should play more of a key role this time around.
Canada- Alexis Lafreniere
If there’s one player in this tournament that all fans should become familiar with, it’s Alexis Lafreniere. Lafrienere is almost certainly going to be the number one overall pick in this summer’s NHL draft. He is a highly skilled forward that is certain to boost whichever team ends up drafting him, be it the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils or some other lucky lottery team. He is currently lighting the QMJHL on fire, leading all skaters in points (70) and assists (47) and is 4th in goals scored (23) through 32 games played. The young Quebec native did appear in this tournament a year ago, but at only 17 years old then, he wasn’t needed as an offensive leader for team Canada, and he scored only one goal in five games. He should play a much larger role this year on a strong Canadian team looking to get back to the podium after a disappointing quarter final exit to eventual champion Finland a year ago.
Czech Republic- Lukas Dostal
Dostal, the third and final goalie on this list, returns for his second U20 WJC this year. The 2018 Anaheim Ducks third round draft pick was one of the top goaltenders in the 2019 tournament, posting the best save percentage numbers at 95.65% and the second best goals against average of 1.25, behind only Michael DiPietro of Canada. The Czechs were eliminated in the quarterfinals last year, losing to the United States, 3-1. If they are able to make it farther this year, Dostal will be a huge reason why.
Germany- Mortiz Seider
Steve Yzerman surprised many people in the hockey world last summer when his Detroit Red Wings selected Seider with the 6th overall pick. The 18-year-old defenseman has good size at 6’4”, 207 pounds and playmaking ability, which he has shown with his 11 assists so far as a rookie with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. Seider was a captain for Germany last year in Division 1A, and his play helped them to earn promotion to the top division. Seider should continue to play well this year, and he will hope to help the Germans avoid relegation.
There’s plenty of intrigue in this year’s World Junior Championship. There are several strong teams who could contend for a bronze, silver or gold medal. The ten players listed above are just a small sample of the talent that can be found at this event. The tournament runs from December 26 to January 5, with games being broadcast on NHL Network on TSN.