The preliminary round of the 2016 World Juniors came to an end on Thursday. Russia and Sweden won their groups, drawing an easier opponent for the first round of the knockout stage. Switzerland and Belarus will play in the relegation game, hoping to come back next year and give it another shot.
In today’s standouts, there are, again, a bunch of 2016 draft eligibles making a strong case for their talent. (And I even left out Auston Matthews this time.) I also toss in a pair of goaltenders and sneak in a few extra mentions of some players who deserved more love than I given them during the group stage.
Alexander Georgiev, Team Russia
My lists haven’t given a ton of love to Russian players so far. It’s accidental and I’m just noticing it. The Russian team has been very good. So this is both a make-up call and completely legit for Thursday’s game.
Georgiev wasn’t really thought to be the guy who was going to carry Russia through the tournament. The job was thought to be that of 2015 1st round draft pick Ilya Samsonov. But Georgiev got the first start of the tournament and never let go of the job.
He turned in another quality performance on Thursday, showing that he’s the obvious choice for the next phase of the tournament. There’s been good team defense, but he’s been there to answer the bell after any lapse, helping Russia to a 3-1-0-0 record, first place in Group B.
In three starts, he’s allowed just six goals with a .923 save percentage. That’s third among tournament goaltenders who played at least two full games. (Sweden’s Linus Soderstrom is first, with the United States’ Alex Nedeljkovic in second.)
Ivan Provorov probably deserved a little more love in this series as well. He’s been very good and a key piece of the team’s success.
Sebastian Aho, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, Team Finland
Yes, they are on here again. Simply put, there has been no one better in this tournament than Puljujarvi. If you had to push for a player who was close, the first players you’re talking about is probably his linemates, Laine and Aho. (With Auston Matthews in the mix as well.)
Finland had another come-from-behind win on Thursday, this time coming back on the Czech Republic for a 5-4 win, led by Aho’s line. Puljujarvi scored twice, igniting a rally in the third while the team played with just five defensemen due to injury and illness.
That brings Puljujarvi’s four-game preliminary total to a tournament-leading 12 points (5-7-12). Aho sits in second place with nine points (3-6-9). Laine is tied for third, after a goal in Thursday’s win, with eight points (4-4-8). If they can keep this kind of production going through the knock-out stage it’s going to be a historic tournament for all three of these guys. Hell, if Finland gets knocked out in the quarter finals, it’s still an incredible tournament for this trio.
Matthew Tkachuk, Team USA
The 2016 draft eligible finished Thursday’s win over Denmark with two assists and three shots. He completes the preliminary round tied for sixth overall in points with seven in four games.
Most notably, he played his style of game throughout Thursday’s match, dominating along the boards and behind the net. He’s a skill player who plays a very physical game. The Danes gave the U.S. team more of a run than they expected for sure, but Tkachuk was a big part of igniting the U.S. team.
Adrian Kempe and Alexander Nylander, Team Sweden
Kempe was good on Wednesday. He was even better on Thursday. Though the game was kind of meaningless, with both Sweden and Canada locked into their knockout round matches, they both played as though their pride was on the line. Kempe and Nylander both stepped up with Joel Eriksson Ek and William Nylander out of the lineup.
Kempe plays a well-rounded game that Kings fans are going to learn to love. That’s been on display the whole tournament, but he showed something else against Canada, playing with passion and fire. He scored a goal and an assist, taking a team-high 10 shots.
Alexander Nylander continued to show off his skill. He’s dynamic and smart and is just undeniably full of high-end talent. He finished with a goal and an assist, bringing him to eight total points in the prelims, tying him with Matthews and Laine for third place overall in the tournament.
The Swedes just played a solid game all around and bounced back well after Canada wrestled control of the game from them in the second. Gustav Forsling also turned in a notable performance (and earned player of the game honors for the Swedes) and goaltender Linus Soderstrom continued to have an outstanding tournament.
Nick Schmaltz and Sonny Milano, Team USA
These two linemates had been looking better and better in each successive game, for very different reasons and looked like they found themselves on Thursday.
Milano was fast, carrying the puck with confidence to create strong, controlled zone entries for the U.S. early in the game when they looked a little rough. He also managed to get his first goal of the tournament by playing a little more physical and getting to the net after he served a bench minor for too many men on the ice.
Schmaltz has played a physical game all over the ice, somewhat reminiscent of a Zach Parise. He will plant himself in front of the net, he battles in the corners and he drives the net when he gets the puck. He wasn’t rewarded with a point on Thursday, but his game is looking solid.
Auston Matthews was good again for the U.S. as well, with two points, as was captain Zach Werenski, who may be the team’s best player overall through the first four games.
Mathias Seldrup, Team Denmark
Seldrup has had a rough tournament for a team that many expected to face relegation. He’s been strong in some of the team’s toughest games, even if the scoreboard didn’t always show it.
Seldrup was at his best early in this game, just as he was against Canada, allowing Denmark to stay in the game. Against Canada, he allowed just one goal on 19 shots in the first period. Against the U.S. on Thursday, he allowed just two goals on 28 shots in the first two periods.
It wasn’t easy either. The U.S. had a lot of high quality opportunities. He got run and had his head bashed against a pipe, took a slapshot to the stomach that doubled him over and in the third took a Chad Krys slapper off the side of his helmet and looked a little rattled afterward. Seldrup was a fighter.
He ultimately didn’t get the net for Denmark’s historic win over the Swiss, which will have them back in the tournament next year, but he deserves just as much credit as Thomas Lillie for driving Denmark to a very respectable performance this year. A performance that may end on January 2 when they draw Russia as their first match of the next stage.
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Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.