After months of anticipation, and weeks of mounting concern about the fate of the tournament, we are finally on the eve of the 2022 World Junior Championship. And despite the rising fears about COVID-19 in the era of the Omicron Variant, this year’s tournament will hopefully look about as normal as any sporting event can look right now, at least to the spectator. After last year’s fan-free bubble tournament, Edmonton and Red Deer will finally get to share the hosting responsibilities for a star-studded tournament full of the world’s best players under-20.
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As with years previous, we at The Hockey Writers will provide previews of each day’s action, highlighting important storylines and key players to watch. Day 1 of the tournament features several lopsided matchups, at least on paper, but does have one potentially juicy showdown between European powers. Without further ado, let’s look at the matchups (all times listed are Eastern).
Finland vs. Germany (Edmonton, 2:00 PM)
Finland: Team Preview
Germany: Team Preview
Last season, Germany proved that they weren’t anyone’s “blowoff” opponent, battling to third place in Group A and making the Russians earn their 2-1 victory in the tournament’s quarterfinal. But they might be facing a tougher challenge this year, as top NHL pick Tim Stützle has a permanent place with the Ottawa Senators, and fellow skilled forwards and high picks John-Jason Peterka and Lucas Reichel will also not be joining the WJC team. As Stützle and Reichel finished in a tie for third in scoring in last year’s tournament, that leaves a significant deficit to makeup. Florian Elias, who trailed them by one point last year, will lead the charge, alongside the leading U-20 scorer in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), Alexander Blank. If Germany is to survive another year, they likely will need support from their two returning goalies, Arno Tiefensee and Florian Bugl.
Germany won’t be getting an easy introduction to the tournament, debuting against one of the favorites for a medal behind the U.S. and Canada, and a powerhouse of the last decade-plus of WJCs, Team Finland. As is becoming commonplace, Finland will bring multiple top-10 NHL Draft prospects to the tournament, especially Joakim Kemmell and a player who had been projected as high as the top three before his current rocky season, Brad Lambert. And Aatu Raty, another player once projected as a very high pick, will be looking to prove wrong those that overlooked him as he plummeted all the way to the #52 pick in 2020.
Finland isn’t just attack-first, though. They’ve produced some strong defensive prospects in recent years, and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemala is no exception. He’ll headline a stout defensive core in front of Penguins prospect Joel Blomqvist, who will be the primary option between the pipes. Finland has all the makings of a serious medal threat and a possible surprise gold medal team. If Germany do somehow come out on top, it will be a shocking upset and a huge statement about their place on the international stage.
Players to Watch: Florian Elias (GER); Brad Lambert, Joakim Kemell (FIN)
Russia vs. Sweden (Red Deer, 4:30 PM)
Russia: Team Preview
Sweden: Team Preview
This matchup between Russia and Sweden is the most even of the day’s slate on paper. It was Russia who finally snapped Sweden’s jaw-dropping 54-game round robin winning streak last year, a record that almost certainly will never be broken. Sweden went on to suffer a quarterfinal loss to Finland, and are looking for redemption in their return to Alberta. This matchup also features probably the two best goaltenders in the tournament, Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th-overall pick of the Nashville Predators in 2020 who draws immediate comparisons to the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Sweden’s Jesper Wallstedt, who went to the Minnesota Wild at pick 20 in 2021. First-round goalie selections are rare enough as it is, so this matchup between top prospects should be a real treat.
Related: The Top 10 NHL Goalie Prospects
Of course, neither team is defined exclusively by their goaltending. Russia looks to be continuing its tradition of producing dynamic forwards with the rise of Matvei Michkov, a star in the making at SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). He won’t even be draft eligible until 2023 (and will be contracted with his KHL team for two seasons beyond that), but he has the kind of impressive offensive skill that has NHL scouts salivating already, ranking him as a potential top-three selection.
On the Swedish side, all eyes will be on William Eklund, the 7th overall pick from the 2021 Draft who started the season with the San Jose Shark before returning to Europe after nine games. With the Detroit Red Wings keeping Calder Trophy favorite Lucas Raymond out of the tournament, Eklund will look to reimagine last year’s “Terror Twins” duo with the returning Alexander Holtz, whom the New Jersey Devils are allowing to attend. It’ll be a tough task to beat Askarov, but, then again, Michkov and his colleagues’ job isn’t any easier.
Players to Watch: Matvei Michkov, Yaroslav Askarov [NSH] (RUS); William Eklund [SJS], Jesper Wallstedt [MIN] (SWE)
Czechia vs. Canada (Edmonton, 7:00 PM)
Czechia: Team Preview
Canada: Team Preview
The Czech Republic, now asking to be known as Czechia, certainly won’t have an easy debut in the 2022 WJC. They’ll face the host nation, who beat them 3-0 in their quarterfinal loss last season. Jan Myšak, a 2020 second-round selection of the Montreal Canadiens who has 31 points in 25 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) this season, will be returning, and leading the team on attack. Beyond him, they’ll need strong play out of Jan Bednar, a 2020 4th round selection of the Detroit Red Wings, between the pipes. That is, as long as he holds off Nick Malik, who is having an outstanding season in Finland, for the starting job.
More ink is spilled about Team Canada than any other WJC team by far, and it’s not hard to imagine why. They’ll be entering the tournament with the first overall pick from the 2021 NHL Draft (Owen Power), along with the projected first overall picks of the 2022 Draft (Shane Wright) and the 2023 Draft (Connor Bedard) all on the roster. Team Canada cut Wright last season, and given his high probability to make the NHL as a gamechanging rookie next season, this is likely his only chance to capture WJC gold. For his part, Power has an opportunity to make history by becoming the first player to ever win WJC and World Championship gold before making his NHL debut, after helping Team Canada accomplish the latter feat this summer.
There’s no sugar-coating this: Canada will be the heavy favorites in every game they play, and will be hungry after an embarrassing shutout loss in the gold medal game last year against the archrival Americans. Czechia may be best served simply keeping their head down and waiting for game 2.
Players to Watch: Jan Myšák [MON] (CZE); Shane Wright, Owen Power [BUF] (CAN)
United States vs. Slovakia (Red Deer, 9:30 PM)
United States: Team Preview
Slovakia: Team Preview
Czechia’s former cohort, Slovakia, likely won’t fare much better in their first matchup against the defending gold medalists, the United States. If Slovakia is to stand any chance in this rematch of their 5-2 quarterfinal exit from 2021, they’ll need shining performances from two projected 2022 first-round picks. Juraj Slafkowsky is considered a possible top-10 pick due to his combination of size, speed, and skill. He’s playing among men in Finland’s Liiga this season, and holding his own for a 17-year-old. Filip Mesar is a creative playmaker expected to go later in the first round or early in the second. And behind them, the young Dalibor Dvorsky joins Bedard and Michkov as potential top selections in the 2023 Draft.
No one should overlook a rejuvinated Slovakian offensive group, but one wonders whether the defense and the goaltending can keep up with the defending champs. The Americans have two blue chippers on the blue line, with both Jake Sanderson and Luke Hughes playing in what is likely to be their final WJC (Hughes will be eligible next year, but could be playing full-time with the Devils by then). Gone are the heroes of last year’s tournament, Trevor Zegras and Spencer Knight, but replacing them are a beavy of top picks from recent and future drafts.
The first-ever draft selection of the Seattle Kraken, Matthew Beniers, will factor heavily in the American attack. And Logan Cooley, the top-rated American player entering next season’s draft, will look to demonstrate his upside for scouts. He’s a strong two-way player, but some question whether he has the offensive dynamism to truly be a star at the next level.
Slovakia vs. the USA might be closer than many expect, but the defending gold medalists will certainly enter the game as the heavy favorites. If Slovakia does score the upset, it will be with the help of a few young players who want to change their nation’s reputation as an underdog at the WJC.
Players to Watch: Juraj Slafkowsky, Filip Mesar, Dalibor Dvorsky (SVK); Luke Hughes [NJD], Jake Sanderson [OTT] (USA)
Canada’s Path Back to Gold Starts Tonight
All eyes will be on the host nation in primetime on Day 1, as they are the heavy favorites to bring home gold entering the tournament. With fans finally in the stands, and the bitter taste of last year’s disappointment lingering in their mouths, they’ll be a tough team to reckon with as the tournament moves forward. But there is more talent across all 10 teams than there has been in recent seasons. No one on Day 1 is a total pushover, and teams like the United States and Finland had better be careful not to take their opponents too lightly.
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Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.