The NHL recently announced a start date to begin their season. While excitement is warranted, there is some excellent hockey approaching this week which may help scratch the old itch. The 2020 World Junior Championship will begin in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on December 26th. While COVID-19 has decimated many teams and prevented some strong talent from competing, this will still be a very deep tournament of future NHL talent. Here are a few players to watch for from each country throughout the tournament.
Beniers finished in my top 10 prospects for the 2021 NHL draft earlier this month. He will have the ability to showcase to the world just how good he is. The World Junior Championship is historically a tournament where older players thrive. However, Beniers is slotted as a top-six center on this roster as an underager. Beniers is a player that does everything well and has excellent vision and passing ability. He is going to play a prominent role in the U.S. offense and is a player to watch closely given his climbing draft stock.
Arguably the best passer outside the NHL, Zegras would likely not be in this tournament under normal circumstances. Zegras is likely to compete for a roster spot on the Anaheim Ducks this season and could easily lead the tournament in scoring this year. After wowing with some incredible passes last season, Zegras will be leaned on heavily to provide offense in all situations for the U.S.
I have an insatiable love for Caufield’s game which has continued this season. After setting goal-scoring records for the U.S. National Development Program a few seasons ago, Caufield has had an excellent start for Wisconsin this season. Caufield is an absolute sniper who can rip it from anywhere. He is my prediction to lead the World Juniors in goal scoring and could easily crack the six-goal mark. The Montreal first-rounder boasts an excellent release and uncanny ability to create space for himself below the hash marks.
Like many players in this tournament, Byram would likely be in the NHL if the season was running. A 2019 first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, Byram has destroyed the WHL the last few seasons. Byram is a unique defenseman and can drive play all on his own, a rare feat for a player at his position. On a loaded Canadian team, Byram is likely to lead all defensemen in points in this tournament and see the majority of the minutes from the back-end for a loaded Canada squad.
If Dach’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he played in the NHL last season. The 3rd overall pick of the Blackhawks in 2019, Dach had a rather unspectacular NHL debut but still managed a respectable 23 points in the shortened season. The Blackhawks decided to release Dach for developmental purposes and he will play a prominent role with Canada. At 6’4, Dach’s size stands out immediately. He also has excellent vision and uses his frame well to create space for his teammates. He will be noticeable throughout the tournaments.
Byfield enters the 2020 World Juniors as the highest drafted player in the tournament. The second overall pick in the 2020 draft, Byfield is a modern power forward. He has elite, speed, and vision. Byfield played in the tournament last year and won Gold for Canada, though in a limited role. His skill set will be on full display for Canada and will likely be a dominant force.
If Rossi was on any other team in this tournament, he would be a consideration for the scoring champion of the entire tournament. However, Rossi is alone on a weak Austrian team that will be fighting against relegation. Rossi, a Minnesota first-rounder from last season, is a highly created, illusive offensive machine. He is also extremely aggressive in the offensive zone for being such a small player. He is a fun player to watch and a bright spot on a weak Austrian roster.
Mysak split last season between the OHL and the Czech Republic’s top league. While he looked overwhelmed at times playing against men, Mysak took the OHL by storm producing over a point-per-game. This season, Mysak again has played in the Czech Republic again but has struggled to put up any points offensively. Both the Czech Republic and Mysak hope he can regain some offensive form playing against his peers. Known for his speed and creativity, Mysak plays an aggressive style offensively and loves to burn by defenders. He will be relied on to lead the way offensively for the Czech’s in this tournament.
Like Mysak, Pytlick played in last year’s tournament with mixed results. Pytlick has some excellent tools and at times looks like a bonafide prospect with NHL potential. That being said, Pytlick has struggled with consistency and there are some questions surrounding his skating. On a Czech team that will struggle to score in this tournament, Pytlick will be relied on to provide offense. He is at his best when he uses his frame and strength to drive the net with consistency. He will need to do so with regularity for the Czechs to be successful.
Like Mysak, Novak is a small, skilled forward who has experience in both the Czech Republic and the CHL. Last season in the WHL, Novak averaged over a point-per-game and the Minnesota Wild snapped him up late in the 2020 draft. Novak is a fun player to watch and will play a prominent top-six role for the Czech’s as well.
Brad Lambert joins an elite group of players like Alexis Lafreniere, Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthews, and Conner McDavid to play in the World Junior Championship two seasons before their draft eligibility. While Lambert’s ceiling isn’t nearly as high as the players listed above, he is still a top level talent and a likely top top-five pick in the 2022 draft. Playing in Finland’s top league, Lambert hasn’t looked out of place at 17 years-old. He is likely to be eased into the line-up in a support role, but on a Finnish team in desperate need of scoring, Lambert has the skill set to be an impact player and could easily play a top-six role.
Lundell, the 12th overall pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2020 draft, will be Mr. Everything for the Finnish team in this tournament. If not for some injury struggles, Lundell may have been a top-ten pick last season. He missed the 2020 World Junior Championship with injury but was impressive as a 16-year-old back in 2019. With 12 goals in Finland’s top league, questions surrounding Lundell’s offensive ability are fading. He is already elite defensively and will be the top minute-muncher for the Finns in this tournament.
Heinola will play huge minutes for the Finns as he eyes a chance to make the NHL jump next season. Last season, Heinola was the surprise of the NHL early on. He cracked the Winnipeg Jets roster and showed flashes of brilliance in a short audition. After playing in three leagues last season, Heinola has been putting up big points in Finland’s top league as a 19-year-old. He projects as a two-way, top-four defender who can play in all situations. Heinola will do so in this tournament.
Last season, Stutzle solidified his top prospect status with a stellar World Junior tournament. Stutzle’s blazing speed and drive with the puck were on full display, even as an under-aged player. In this tournament, Stutzle’s expectations are sky-high. On a weak German squad, he will once again be relied on to drive play and lead the offense. Stutzle may find himself in the NHL early on for the Ottawa Senators who took him 3rd overall in the 2020 draft. He is certainly a player to keep an eye on throughout the tournament.
In the 2020 World Juniors, the Germans boasted a strong line that consisted of Stutzle, Chicago Blackhawk first-rounder Lukas Reichel (who is out of the tournament with COVID-19), and now Buffalo Sabres’ second-rounder J.J. Peterka. Peterka had a strong tournament last year as an underage player as well, scoring 4 goals and a total of 6 points. He struggled last season to put up points on a regular basis in Germany’s top league but has shown better this year in Austria’s top league. Peterka will attempt to build off of last season’s success, especially in the goal-scoring department.
Russia heads into the tournament with a stacked forward group and the best goaltending prospect in years: Yaroslav Askarov. Askarov is a technically sound, highly athletic goalie who is already playing in the KHL, Russia’s top league. Somehow, Askarov has a .962 save percentage so far this season, and an overall obscene statistic, further showing the elite talent Askarov possesses. Askarov started the World Juniors last year as Russia’s number one. However, he struggled early on and found himself on the bench for some games as well. The Russians are hoping that Askarov can be consistently elite in this short tournament and lead them to a medal.
Russia is known for developing elite offensive talent (see Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeni Malkin for a few examples). Amirov is attempting to join this group after a strong start to his KHL season. Amirov, the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft and Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect, has elite hands and offensive instincts. He uses his speed and agility to elude defenders with regularity. He hasn’t looked out of place in the KHL this season and is likely to play a top-six role for Russia in this tournament.
Russia’s captain for the tournament, Podkolzin will be a stand-out for the Russians in this tournament. Podkolzin plays a brash brand of hockey, using his strength to drive the net and creating scoring opportunities. He plays a highly physically engaging brand of hockey. Podkolzin also has an excellent shot and great offensive instincts. The Vancouver Canuck’s 2019 first-rounder could be in competition for tournament scoring leader and will play in all situations.
The Slovaks only have two drafted NHL prospects and Chromiak is the best of them. He is also one of my favorite sleeper prospects. The Los Angeles’ Kings 5th round pick in 2020 has shown the ability to drive play and put up points wherever he plays. Had Chromiak played a full season in the OHL last season, he may have been in consideration as at least a second-round pick. Slovakia will be competing to prevent relegation and Chromiak will play huge minutes for the squad. He is likely to be their leading scorer and lone stand-out.
Raymond is a name that is somewhat familiar to hockey fans due to his high international success and as the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft by the Detroit Red Wings. He is a highly-skilled offensive forward and was arguably the best one-on-one player in the 2020 draft. The biggest question surrounding Raymond was if he could put up points consistently, even with his high skill set. He has shown improvement this season in Sweden’s top league and is likely to continue that trend at the World Juniors. He will be relied on heavily for offense on a Swedish team that has been decimated by COVID cases heading into the tournament.
Holtz was the best goal scorer available in the 2020 draft when the New Jersey Devils snapped him up with the seventh pick. He has had an exceptional season in Sweden’s top league and will likely dominate the World Junior championship. Holtz will challenge for the scoring lead and if Sweden does well, he could easily be in the conversation for tournament MVP.
He may not win the starter’s role, but Jesper Wallstedt is a goalie to keep an eye on in this tournament. For the third draft in a row, there is likely to be an elite NHL goalie available in the top 20 of the draft. Wallstedt is that player and may see some time playing for Sweden. Wallstedt is highly athletic and has excellent anticipatory instincts. 19-year-old Hugo Alnefelt may be the default starter, but don’t be surprised if he falters that the reigns will be given to Wallstedt.
Knak went undrafted last season, which was somewhat surprising. Knak played last season in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks and managed decent assist numbers as a WHL rookie. This season, Knak has put up okay numbers in Switzerland’s top league. He has shown he can produce at any level he has played in and is easily Switzerland’s best player in this tournament. Without a single drafted NHL player on their roster, the Swiss will be trying to prevent relegation. Knak will have to produce big-time for that to be a reality.
Overall, the 2021 World Junior Championship will be a tournament of highly entertaining hockey and will give fans a glimpse of future NHL stars. With the deepest prospect base in recent memory, all games are worth watching and the players above are just a few worth keeping tabs on.