World Juniors preview: Meet the 10 teams looking for gold in Edmonton

EDMONTON — The World Juniors return to Edmonton for the first time since 2012 with 10 teams of the best teenage hockey players on the planet to take to the ice at Rogers Place.

The ongoing pandemic means this year’s event will look very different from previous editions, with no fans, COVID-19 safety protocols, a shortened pre-tournament schedule and a Christmas Day start for the first time since the 2005 tournament.

But the action between the boards should be the same as ever as Canada looks to defend the title it won in the Czech Republic last January. 

Scroll down or click the links below for a preview of each team as well as a star player to watch for. 

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POOL A: Canada | Finland | Switzerland | Slovakia | Germany

POOL B: Russia | Sweden | United States | Czech Republic | Austria

CANADA

  •  WJC record: 18 gold, 9 silver, 5 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: Gold – defeated Russia 4-3 in final
  •  Returning players: 6
  •  NHL draft picks: 24 / 25 (20 in first round, 7 in top 10)

As usual, Canada enters the World Juniors as among the tournament favourites, but this year’s group is being hailed as among the country’s best in a generation. The team boasts top talent across the board with 20 first rounders and multiple players who likely would be playing in the NHL if not for the pandemic. Both the blue line and forwards groups are loaded with talent. Anything less than a gold medal will be a disappointment. 

Kirby DachPLAYER TO WATCH – Kirby Dach

Captain Canada is the only Canadian player with regular NHL game experience having recorded 23 points in 64 games with Blackhawks last season, as well as 6 more points in 9 playoff games including an opening round defeat of the Oilers. The Fort Saskatchewan centre will likely shift to the wing and has the experience, strength, vision and teammates to emerge as the tournament’s star.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  •  Peyton Krebs
  •  Bowen Byram
  •  Devon Levi

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FINLAND

  •  WJC record: 5 gold, 4 silver, 6 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: 4th – Lost bronze medal game 4-3 to Sweden. Lost semifinal 5-0 to Canada
  •  Returning players: 6
  •  NHL draft picks: 17 / 25 (2 in first round, 0 in top 10)

Finland are always a medal contender and have won the World Juniors three of the last seven tournaments. Defenceman Ville Heinola brings some NHL experience with the Winnipeg Jets and the squad has good depth in goal behind presumptive starter Joel Blomqvist as well. They may lack the high-end superstar of other teams, but the Finns remain strong overall, play well as a team, and will likely be Canada’s toughest opening round game.

Anton LundellPLAYER TO WATCH – Anton Lundell

Lundell missed last year’s tournament due to injury after being a part of the gold-medal winning team in Vancouver the year before. The centre is known for his stickhandling, vision and strength and is averaging better than a point a game in Finland top men’s league. The Florida Panthers first round draft pick is a microcosm of Team Finland itself: not the flashiest player, but efficient and effective.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Ville Heinola
  • Joel Blomqvist
  • Kasper Simontaival

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SWITZERLAND

  •  WJC record: 0 gold, 0 silver, 1 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: 5th – Lost in quarterfinal 3-1 to Russia
  •  Returning players: 5
  •  NHL draft picks: 0 / 25 

Switzerland have proven to be a tricky opponent in recent World Juniors but face tough opening round matchups in Canada and Finland. There are questions about goaltending and depth as the Swiss are also the only team at the tournament without an NHL draft pick. They’ll rely on discipline and opportunism to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish.

Simon KnakPLAYER TO WATCH – Simon Knak

Many were surprised Knak went undrafted last year after a promising WHL season where he recorded 34 points in 49 games for the Portland Winterhawks. The winger had two goals in five games at last year’s tournament and is expected to lead his team in scoring this time around.

OTHER NOTABLES: 

  • Inaki Baragano
  • Ray Fust
  • Gaetan Jobin

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SLOVAKIA

  •  WJC record: 0 gold, 0 silver, 2 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: 8th – Lost in quarterfinal 8-1 to Canada
  •  Returning players: 8
  •  NHL draft picks: 2 / 25 (0 in first round)

Last year, Slovakia were outscored 28 to 9 and were overmatched in games versus Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. It could be a similar story this year, but on the upside, they return eight players from 2020, including five defenceman plus goaltender Samuel Hlavaj who’s back for his third World Juniors. The Slovaks will rely on that defensive experience while hoping their younger forward group can provide the offence to spring an upset or two.

Simon NemecPLAYER TO WATCH – Simon Nemec

Nemec is remarkable for being only 16 in a tournament typically dominated by players three years his senior. The slick defenceman is the youngest Slovak player to play in a top men’s league and recorded 35 points in 52 games as a 14 and 15- year-old in the country’s under-18 league. His age may limit his ice time, but scouts are intrigued by his skating and puck-moving abilities.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Samuel Knazko
  • Martin Chromiak
  • Samuel Hlavaj

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GERMANY

  •  WJC record: no medals
  •  2020 WJC: 9th – Defeated Kazakhstan two games to one in a best-of-three relegation series
  •  Returning players: 3
  •  NHL draft picks: 2 / 25 (1 in first round, 1 in top 10)

Germany showed flashes of potential at last year’s tournament including an upset of the host Czechs. This year’s team is a young group with only a trio of returnees but bolstered by a pair of NHL draft pick forwards. They’re also facing their toughest two matchups against Finland and Canada without the benefit of an exhibition game after eight players tested positive for COVID-19, prompting an extended team quarantine. Before that, top prospect Lukas Reichel (and three other players) didn’t make the trip to Edmonton after also testing positive for the coronavirus.

Tim StuetzlePLAYER TO WATCH – Tim Stuetzle

The third overall selection in last year’s draft, Stuetzle is known for his slick stickhandling, speed and playmaking ability. The Ottawa Senators prospect recorded 34 points in 41 games in Germany’s highest league last year. 

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • J.J. Peterka
  • Max Glotzl
  • Jan Nijenhuis

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RUSSIA

  •  WJC record: 4 gold, 10 silver, 9 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: Silver – lost final 4-3 to Canada
  •  Returning players: 3
  •  NHL draft picks: 18 / 25 (5 in first round, 1 in top 10)

Coached by Hall of Famer Igor Larionov, Russia has talent across the board and remains a strong medal contender. Larionov has said he emphasizes the link between defence and forwards in an effort to create rolling five-man units. The Russians have an inexperienced defence but a skilled forward group that includes 11 NHL draft picks. Returning goaltender Yaroslav Askarov is looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2020 World Juniors 

Vasili PodkolzinPLAYER TO WATCH – Vasili Podkolzin

The Vancouver Canucks prospect is an aggressive power forward returning for his third World Juniors. Podklozin registered four points in seven games at last year’s event and will be counted on as team captain to lead the offence along with fellow returnee Maxim Groshev. “I expect him to be a top guy and a guy to go and lead the way,” Larionov said of Podkolzin.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Maxim Groshev
  • Rodion Amirov
  • Ilya Safonov

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SWEDEN

  •  WJC record: 2 gold, 11 silver, 6 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: Bronze – won bronze medal game 3-2 over Finland. Lost semifinal in overtime 5-4 to Russia
  •  Returning players: 6
  •  NHL draft picks: 18 / 25 (6 in first round, 3 in top 10)

Sweden was shaping up to be a strong medal contender with depth and skill at all positions, But, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the squad: sidelining four players, a team manager, and the head coach. The Swedes are strong at the back with good goaltending and three returning players on defence, including Oilers prospect Philip Broberg returning for a third tournament. Forwards Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond are both top-10 NHL draft picks who will be counted on for scoring. With the absences forced by COVID-19 the Swedes depth will be tested against stronger opponents.

Hugo AlnefeltPLAYER TO WATCH – Hugo Alnefelt

Alnefelt starred at last year’s tournament, making a number of highlight reel saves and winning five of his six starts. He’s hailed as a future star in the making and has spent the last two seasons in Sweden’s top men’s league. He’s also going to be pushed by backup Jesper Wallstedt.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Philip Broberg
  • Alexander Holtz
  • Lucas Raymond

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UNITED STATES

  •  WJC record: 4 gold, 2 silver, 6 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: 6th – lost in quarterfinal 1-0 to Finland
  •  Returning players: 7
  •  NHL draft picks: 23 / 25 (9 in first round, 3 in top 10)

Team USA returns as a medal contender with strengths at both ends of the rink. Goaltender Spencer Knight is a first round pick who emerged as a college hockey star last season. At forward, Trevor Zegras finished tied for sixth in scoring at last year’s tournament despite playing only five games. The team’s inexperienced defence will be tested but it’s a strong roster for the Americans who are looking for their fifth medal in six years.

Cole CaufieldPLAYER TO WATCH – Cole Caufield

A 2019 first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, Caufield is undersized at five-feet-seven-inches tall but is a prolific scorer and playmaker. He’s averaged at least a point per game in parts of two seasons at the University of Wisconsin and is looking to make amends for a quiet 2020 World Juniors. 

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Spencer Knight
  • Trevor Zegras
  • Alex Turcotte

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CZECH REPUBLIC

  •  WJC record: 2 gold, 0 silver, 1 bronze
  •  2020 WJC: 7th – lost in quarterfinal 5-0 to Sweden
  •  Returning players: 9
  •  NHL draft picks: 9 / 25 (0 in first round)

The Czech Republic are a step below the major contenders having not won a WJC medal since 2005 and coming off a disappointing tournament on home ice last year. While the goaltending calibre is uncertain, the team has strong offensive talent, a sizable returning core group and nine NHL draft picks.

Jan MysakPLAYER TO WATCH – Jan Mysak

A versatile forward and veteran of last year’s team, Mysak is known for his play at both ends of the ice. The second round Montreal Canadiens draft pick can play as a centre or winger and is a likely top line player for the Czechs.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Stanislav Svozil
  • Jan Bednar
  • Pavel Novak

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AUSTRIA

  •  WJC record: no medals
  •  2020 WJC: Finished first in Division I, promoted to top division
  •  NHL draft picks: 1 / 25 (1 in first round, 1 in top 10)

Austria returns to the tournament for the first time since 2010 and just the third time in its history. It’s a big step up in competition from Division I and they lack the speed, skill and goaltending depth of the more experienced countries they’ll face in Edmonton. On the upside, Marco Rossi is a potential superstar and, with no relegation this year, the Austrians are assured of returning for 2022.

Marco RossiPLAYER TO WATCH: Marco Rossi

Selected 9th in the 2020 NHL draft by the Minnesota Wild, Rossi is Austria’s top prospect in a generation. He tallied a whopping 120 points last season with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s and his scoring tough will be counted on to keep Austria’s head above water.

OTHER NOTABLES:

  • Senna Peeters
  • Tim Harnisch
  • Luis Lindner

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