‘Twas the morning after Christmas and hockey fans around the world were preparing for Day 1 of the World Junior Championships. The annual hockey tournament that pits the best and brightest players under 20 years old begins this morning in the Czech Republic, and The Hockey Writers have you covered with all the analysis you need.
Every day, we will preview the action for the day ahead, starting today with Day 1. Today’s matchups feature the debut of the host team and two of the biggest hockey rivalries in the world.
Kazakhstan vs. Switzerland (9:00 AM)
Kazakhstan: Team Preview
Switzerland: Team Preview
The first matchup of the tournament may seem like two underdogs facing off, but don’t write either team off just yet. Yes, Kazakhstan did play in the relegation games last year, but they ultimately dominated Denmark in those games by an aggregate score of 8-3. And while Switzerland, led by goaltender Luca Hollenstein and New York Rangers prospect Nico Gross, may not be a classic hockey power, they are riding the wave of recent WJC success. They shocked tournament-favorite Sweden with a 2-0 victory in the quarterfinals last season, thanks to Hollenstein’s 41-save shutout.
Kazakhstan’s hockey program will be looking to make major strides in 2020, the first time it has featured in consecutive WJC tournaments for over a decade. Unfortunately, they’ll be doing it without last year’s biggest threat, Artur Gatiyatov, who finished in a tie for third in tournament scoring with eight points. This season, they’ll be looking to Oleg Boiko and Andrei Buyalsky to pick up the slack, but they will still be heavy underdogs in every game they play until they establish more credibility.
Players to Watch: Luca Hollenstein, G, and Nico Gross, D [NYR] (SUI); Oleg Boiko, F (KAZ)
Czech Republic vs. Russia (9:00 AM)
Czech Republic: Team Preview
Russia: Team Preview
The host country comes into the 2020 WJC off a quarterfinal loss in 2019 to the United States. They will be looking for their first medal since 2005. And if they’re going to make it, a lot of their strength will need to come from goaltending. Lukáš Dostál will likely return to primary netminding duties, after dominating the 2019 tournament with a .957 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.25 goals against average (GAA) in four games. Those skills convinced the Anaheim Ducks to spend a third-round pick on Dostál in 2018.
The Russian team will be returning to the WJC after a somewhat-disappointing Bronze Medal in 2019. They will also be coming without top talents like Vitali Kravtsov and Klim Kostin, who have aged out of the tournament.
But elite prospects are never in short supply for the Russian squad, and they will be bolstered offensively by 2019 10th-overall pick Vasily Podkolzin, as well as Grigori Denisenko, the Florida Panthers’ 2018 first-round selection.
The Russian team will be loaded from top to bottom, but if they have a shortcoming, its in net. If any of their goalies emerge as a stalwart, Russia will be a top contender in the tournament. Either way, they should be a heavy favorite in this game.
Players to Watch: Lukáš Dostál, G [ANA] (CZE); Vasily Podkolzin, F [VAN], Grigori Denisenko [FLA] (RUS)
Sweden vs. Finland (12:00 PM)
Sweden: Team Preview
Finland: Team Preview
Sweden will look to live down their embarrassment last season at the hands of Switzerland, and they’ll start that attempt against archrival Finland. Sweden is bolstered by probably the stoutest and most dynamic defensive corps in the tournament, with every single member of that corps already drafted by an NHL team. This group is headlined by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin and Arizona Coyotes draftee Victor Söderström.
Speaking of the Coyotes, Finland will feature 2019 fifth-round pick Aku Räty. But more eyes will be focused on his younger brother Aatu, who is considered a potential number one overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. The defending WJC champions will look to make it back-to-back, and as always will be led by strong goaltending, including Colorado Avalanche prospect Justus Annunen. They’ll enter this matchup and maybe the tournament as a whole as favorites, but take nothing for granted in a rivalry matchup like this one.
Players to Watch: Rasmus Sandin, D [TOR], Victor Söderström, D [ARI] (SWE); Aatu Räty, F (FIN)
Canada vs. United States (12:00 PM)
Canada: Team Preview
United States: Team Preview
The top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will likely be playing for Canada in this matchup either in the form of Rimouski Océanic forward Alexis Lafreniere or Sudbury Wolves forward Quinton Byfield. With Byfield’s size and Lafreniere’s high skill level, they provide contrasting skillsets that should make them a dangerous duo.
Canada’s strong defensive corps will be centered on this year’s fourth overall pick, the Avalanche’s Bowen Byram. But questions remain about their unproven goalie tandem of Oliver Rodrigue (Moncton Wildcats, Edmonton Oilers), Joel Hofer (Portland Winterhawks, St. Louis Blues), and Nicolas Daws (Guelph Storm, 2020 Draft Eligible). Canada needs one of them to claim the net and have a strong tournament.
The United States will be trying to replace the powerful duo of Quinn and Jack Hughes, who have both moved onto the NHL. But they have no questions in net, with 2019 13th-overall pick Spencer Knight between the pipes. The Yankee defensive corps, like Sweden, will exclusively feature NHL-drafted prospects, including K’Andre Miller and Zachary Jones of the Rangers and Cam York of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The crown jewel of the United States team will be its forward corps. It features eight forwards drafted in the first two rounds of the 2019 Draft:
- Alex Turcotte (5, Los Angeles Kings)
- Trevor Zegras (9, Ducks)
- Cole Caufield (15, Montreal Canadiens)
- John Beecher (30, Boston Bruins)
- Shane Pinto (32, Ottawa Senators)
- Artur Kaliyev (33, Kings)
- Bobby Brink (34, Flyers)
- Nick Robertson (53, Maple Leafs)
With the New York Islanders giving the all-clear for 2018 11th overall pick Oliver Wahlstrom to join his nation, they’ll have some experience, too. The United States tied Finland as the only nations to win gold thrice during the last decade. If they want to start the next decade on the same foot, they’ll need strong performances from Knight and these forwards against their archrival.
Players to Watch: Bowen Byram, D [COL], Alexis Lafreniere, F, Quinton Byfield, F (CAN); Spencer Knight, G [FLA], Oliver Wahlstrom, F [NYI] (USA)
Day 1 Summary
The first day of the 2020 WJC will be electric, with two of hockey’s greatest international rivalries taking center stage at high noon on the East Coast. The day will feature the top three prospects for the 2020 Draft in Lafreniere, Byfield, and Sweden’s Alexander Holtz.
Don’t sleep on the first two games, though. Russia and the Czech Republic should be an interesting matchup, and while Kazakhstan and Switzerland seem to be a mismatch, surprises are always a possibility at the WJC.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.