2022 World Juniors: 10 Things to Watch For

We are nearing the start of the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championships and there are already a number of headlines to keep an eye on. Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on as a new variant has changed the original plan for the tournament.

Even though we’re wondering if the tournament will even go on, there’s still a lot of other big headlines to watch out for in this tournament. From top prospects, a star-studded goaltending battle and a preview of the next version of the Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin rivalry, here are the top 10 things to watch for during this year’s tournament.

Omicron Variant Changes State of Tournament

The 2021 World Juniors had to be played in front of a quiet and empty arena. A month ago, it looked as if things would provide some sort of normalcy with a crowd at one of the biggest junior hockey events. 

Related: THW 2022 World Junior Championship Guide

Even though we might be done with the pandemic, it isn’t done with us as the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has changed the way things will unfold at the 2022 World Juniors. The concern carries over from last year as many thought that things would be different this time around. All the pre-tournament games were re-scheduled to one per team on Dec. 23 and the status of the tournament became unclear

As a result of this fourth COVID-19 wave, there won’t be full capacity for the tournament as once anticipated. With new restrictions in place, venues will be limited to 50% capacity, masks must be worn at all times and no food or drinks will be allowed in the arena. Hockey Canada released a statement of support on the new restrictions.

To add more doubt on top of everything, the game between Czechia and Switzerland was cancelled due to a positive COVID-19 test out of an abundance of caution. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the player is now in isolation and testing happens daily for everyone involved. 

Based on everything that’s unfolded in the NHL, it’s easy to think of the worst-case scenario. But the appropriate measures need to be taken to avoid an outbreak. These moves need to be done to ensure the safety of all the teams, staff and fans to try and curtail the transmission of this new variant. As of now, things appear to be a go. Given what we’ve seen lately, things can change quickly.

The Shane Wright Show

It’s natural for all eyes to be on a potential first overall pick draft attending the World Juniors. We were glued to John Tavares, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Rasmus Dahlin during their tournaments. We can now add Shane Wright to that list as well. 

While his production may not jump off the page compared to other past names, he’s still in the top-25 in scoring as he’s above a point per game with 30 in 21games. Before leaving for Canada’s camp, he was on a massive tear in his last five games played with four goals and seven assists and 14 points in his last 10 games. He had four multi-point games and recorded three, four-point games. While the production has been average, he can easily find the scoresheet in a snap.

After dominating the World U18 tournament without playing a game in the Ontario Hockey League 2020-21, Wright showed why he was the top choice in the 2022 draft with 14 points in five games played. He displays excellent IQ and vision while being a dynamic, play-making, two-way threat every time he’s on the ice. Having that kind of skillset and work ethic is more than enough to earn you the status of top prospect. 

Shane Wright Kingston Frontenacs
Shane Wright, Kingston Frontenacs (Photo by Robert Lefebvre/OHL Images)

There isn’t any doubt that he will breakout and dominate this tournament.

Quality of Draft Talent That Follows

Behind Wright, there’s still some notable draft eligible names that everyone should keep an eye on. Many of them have the potential to be taken early in the first round of the draft.

There is a more comprehensive list here but there is a lot of quality talent available as the main headline is strong. Slovakia is well represented with Simon Nemec, Juraj Salfkvosky and Filip Mesar. Finland has two highly-touted forwards in Brad Lambert and Joakim Kemell. Czechia has a strong puck-moving and physical defender in David Jiricek. USA has a reliable two-way centre in Logan Cooley. Russia has a high flying forward in Danila Yurov and two steady defenders in Vladimir Grudinin and Arseni Koromyslov. 

Fans will be delighted with what they’re going to witness as all these players are looking to make a major impact for their team and improve their value as prospects for the draft. 

Next Wave of Slovak Stars

We all remember the days of Marian Hossa, Miroslav Satan, Pavol Dmitra, Marian Gaborik and Zdeno Chara in their primes, but it’s been some time since we’ve seen high-end talent come out of Slovakia. That is, until now.

Nemec, Slafkvosky and Mesar represent the next wave of talent to come from, each bringing their own skillset to the table. Nemec is a reliable puck-moving, two-way defender, Slafkovsky has the build of an effective power forward and Mesar is quick and crafty with the puck. 

Josef Villiam Kmec isn’t a first-rounder like the other three, but he is a very effective passer with great mobility. Rastislav Elias will look to be Slovakia’s stalwart in net and will make a case to be a top goaltender in this years draft. 

There’s also 2023 top-prospect Dalibor Dvorsky as he took everyone by surprise as a 16-year-old at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. He finished second in points (12) only to Matvei Michkov (13). Dvorsky possesses excellent speed, hands and creativity, making him extremely elusive every shift. He’s definitely going to generate even more buzz in his draft year.

Eklund and Holtz Should Spark Sweden

If there’s one thing that’s on Team Sweden’s mind, it’s to avenge last year’s disappointing finish and early quarter-final exit at the hands of Finland. Being known for their dominance in the group stage and struggles in the elimination round, things may have caught up to them last year. Then again, they did miss a number of players due to COVID-19. 

Related: 2022 World Junior Championship Team Sweden Final Roster

One of them was San Jose Sharks seventh overall pick in 2021, William Eklund. He would love to get a crack and take the tournament by storm with his play-making and high-end pace. Sweden got a great gift as the Sharks sent him back to Djurgardens of the SHL, making him eligible for the tournament. 

Alexander Holtz, New Jersey Devils
Alexander Holtz, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On top of that, the New Jersey Devils loaned 2020 seventh overall pick Alexander Holtz to play in the tournament after finding success in the American Hockey League with six goals and 10 points in 11 games. Both him and Eklund are going to be spear heading the offense as Sweden has excellent depth up front. 

There isn’t any doubt that both Eklund and Holtz are going to do some damage during the tournament. With Eklund’s vision and ability to make high-end passes and shooting, and power from Holtz, these two experienced players are going to be relied on heavily. Add Colorado Avalanche 2021 first rounder Oskar Olausson into the mix and this has the makings to be one of the dangerous top lines in the tournament

The combination of the speed, skill and smarts is definitely going to be a nightmare for many teams to try and contain this line.

Exciting Goaltender Battle

Once again, fans are going to be treated to an exhilarating display of top notch goaltending in this tournament.

While his 9-8-0 record with Luleå HF this season may not reflect a whole lot, Jesper Wallstedt’s (Minnesota Wild, 2021, 20th) numbers are right where they should be. He has the second-best goals against average in the league at 1.82 and his .923 save percentage has him fourth overall. He tracks the puck extremely well and has great confidence and poise in the crease. After getting a taste of the tournament last year, expect him to be one of the reasons why Sweden has the ability to go far this time around. 

There been much criticism of Yaroslav Askarov’s (Nashville Predators, 2020, 11th) play at this tournament. There was a lot of pressure on him as a 17-year-old in 2020 and he did look better in 2021, but still some questions remain. Could the third time be the charm for Askarov to put on a show for everyone to witness? Asakrov’s record and numbers this season are good, but there’s nothing that stands out. In the KHL, he owns a 1-1-2, 2.01 GAA, .904 SV% and a 2-2-1, 2.20 GAA, .913 SV% in the VHL. 

Team Russia Yaroslav Askarov
Russia’s goalie Yaroslav Askarov in action during Euro Hockey Tour between Russia and Czech Republic on February 14, 2021 (Photo by ANDREAS HILLERGREN/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)

Askarov didn’t get much help in last year’s tournament as Russia’s defense wasn’t nearly as strong as it was compared to past tournaments. Without steady defenders like Daniil Chayka or Yan Kuznetsov, Askarov may not have the support in front of him and may be faced with a heavy workload to try and vault his team to victory. If the pre-tournament game against Canada gave any insight, it might be a tough tournament for him.

astian Cossa (Detroit Red Wings, 2021, 15th) has been absolutely dominant in net with the Edmonton Oil Kings this season. He’s tied for first in the Western Hockey League in wins with 15 and has the fifth best GAA in 2.26 and fourth in SV% with .924. It should be noted that he’s battling with Dylan Garand (New York Rangers, 2020, 103rd) to be the top goaltender in the WHL. 

Cossa has excellent mobility and movements in the crease and when things get dangerous, he has a quick reaction to locate and recover to get into position and make the save. Standing at 6-foot-6, 209 pounds, and with a steady reliable defense in front of him, it’s going to be difficult for anything to get by him.

While it seemed that Cossa may be the starter, Garand looked confident and poised in the crease for Canada against Russia. This should make Canada’s goaltending battle even more interesting, as their depth in net is one of the best in the tournament. 

Canada’s Second Chance in Alberta

It seemed like everything was going right for Canada, despite no fans and losing their captain Kirby Dach to injury before the tournament started. They had a relatively easy path to the gold medal game and it was an intense battle from start to finish against Team USA. Unfortunately, Canada fell short of their goal to win gold on home ice. 

With the tournament back in Canada and with fans in the arena, albeit half capacity, could this fuel the Canadian squad even more and give them the extra boost of motivation at a chance of redemption? It’s very possible.

Mason McTavish Peterborough Petes
Mason McTavish of the Peterborough Petes (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Canada’s roster has ample depth from top to bottom at every position. While there were some question marks about players who didn’t attend camp, this is still a very dangerous roster. Though, they may be lacking in veteran depth with only Kaiden Guhle and Cole Perfetti returning, they have players with a great amount of skill, intensity and work ethic that make them a contender for a gold medal. Let’s not forget the likes of Kent Johnson, Mason McTavish, Xavier Bourgault, Jake Neighbours, Dylan Guenther, Owen Power, Carson Lambos and Wright.

From the onset of training camp, this team looks to be more determined than ever.

Can Team USA Win Back-to-Back Gold Medals?

The talent that Team USA had on their roster in 2021, whole heartedly deserved to win gold. Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev, Matt Boldy, this team was deep. Leading the way was Trevor Zegras as he finished with 18 points in seven games who was named tournament MVP.

While they won’t be back, the Americans have strong veteran depth as they have six returning players from last year’s squad, notably Jake Sanderson and Matty Beniers. This team does have the depth up front and on defense to repeat as gold medalists. Having strong names like Luke Hughes, Brock Faber, Sasha Pastujov, Chaz Lucius, Matthew Coronato, Matthew Knies, Brett Berard and Mackie Samoskevich are definitely going to be relied on throughout the tournament to be difference makers. 

Matthew Beniers, Michigan Wolverines
Matthew Beniers Michigan Wolverines (Photo Credit Michigan Photography)

However, the biggest x-factor will be if they can get strong goaltending. They don’t have Spencer Knight or Dustin Wolf returning and compared to some of the other names in this tournament, they lack the depth. Drew Commesso looks to be the go-to in net, but his numbers this season with Boston University aren’t eye-popping as he’s 6-7-3 with a 2.82 GAA and .900 SV%. They do have Kaidan Mbereko, who looked good at the U18’s in April and 2022 draft-eligible Dylan Silverstein, but that may not be enough.

The goaltending looked strong enough in their pre-tournament game against Finland, but a five-minute major ended costing them the game as Finland stormed back to win in overtime.

If their depth on the blueline and forward units can shut things down in their own end, that might relieve some of the pressure on their goaltenders. This position is always important in a short tournament like this and the Americans are going to be in a tough spot if the goaltending isn’t up to par.

Bedard vs Michkov: The Sequel

Even though they aren’t eligible until the 2023 NHL draft, fans will be treated to another early battle between the top-two prospects for that class, Connor Bedard and Michkov.

Both have the potential to be elite, game-changing prospects for whichever team ends up drafting them. Bedard is a dynamic centreman with elite level skating, hands and IQ. Michkov is an offensive powerhouse with an NHL-like shot, power and accuracy.

Connor Bedard, Regina Pats
Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller)

They both took over the U18 tournament by storm as they were both in the top-three in scoring– Michkov being first with 16 points and Bedard tied for second with Wright for 14 points. Michkov might see more meaningful minutes as Bedard was seen as the 13th forward for Canada, but that can change instantly if he continues to shine like he did in camp.

In their pre-tournament game, Canada had a strong start against Russia and managed to hold them in check as they started to push back. Michkov displayed his elite scoring abilities with two goals and one assist, while Bedard managed to find the back of the net for Canada’s sixth goal of the game.

There isn’t any question that this will be the next best rivalry since Crosby and Ovechkin.

Can Niemela Repeat as Top Defenseman?

Last year, Finnish defender Topi Niemelä took the tournament by storm, by leading all defenders in points with eight in seven games. He was second only to Anton Lundell in scoring on the team. A steady, all-around defenseman that excels in all aspects of the game, he was a key factor for Finland as they ended up winning a bronze medal. As a result, he won the top defenseman award.

It’s extremely rare to see any player win an award in back-to-back years at this tournament. The last defenseman to win this award in consecutive years was Vyacheslav Fetisov in 1977 and 1978. It’s possible that Niemelä can repeat and earn the award a second time, but there’s a great amount of competition this time around. GOOD***

Canada’s Owen Power, USA’s Jake Sanderson and Sweden’s Simon Edvinsson are all capable of dethroning Niemelä. All three have the ability to play exceptional defense in their own and can lead a rush and contribute offensively. They’ll all play crucial roles to their team’s success, making a case for them to win the award. Could Slovakia’s Nemec be this year’s surprise to challenge for the award as well? It’s very possible.

Now that the anticipation has built up, let the tournament begin!

Team CanadaPlayers to WatchRoster
Team USAPlayers to WatchRoster
Team AustriaPlayers to WatchRoster
Team CzechiaPlayers to WatchRoster
Team FinlandPlayers to WatchRoster
Team GermanyPlayers to WatchRoster
Team LatviaRoster
Team SlovakiaRoster
Team SwedenPlayers to WatchRoster
Team SwitzerlandPlayers to WatchRoster

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