The World Juniors are once again slated to take centre stage in the hockey world. They will be once again staged in Edmonton and Red Deer, but this time with one key difference; there will be fans in the stands. At least for the time being, a full capacity crowd is expected, that is unless the new Omicron variant continues its destructive path, but that’s a conversation for another day.
They always say that junior hockey is one of the hardest things to predict, but I’ve never been one to let it get the better of me. I have once again come out with my best bet for a variety of things, including the gold, silver, and bronze winners at this year’s tournament. Let’s get into it.
Jake Sanderson Will be Tournament’s Best Defenceman
The hype surrounding Ottawa Senators’ first-round pick Jake Sanderson has been exceptional. Senators fans have talked about him like he is the saviour of their blue line, and while that still might be a little bit away, he does have a chance to step up in a big way for the Americans at the World Juniors.
While Sanderson remains unsigned by the Senators, he has spent the past two seasons with the University of North Dakota where he has impressed time and time again. It has been at both ends of the ice for the young American, and it has earned him the honour of wearing the ‘A’ on his chest at the collegiate level. Through 15 games this season, Sanderson has scored six goals, already surpassing his previous high of two and has added another 13 assists, bringing him to well over a point per game.
Sanderson was rather dormant offensively at last year’s tournament, but he was a defensive stand-out with the Americans, who would eventually go on to win gold. He will play a large role on the American blue line, and his focus will likely be on his own end of the rink first, but this year, I’m expecting him to produce on the offensive end as well. His ability to do a little bit of everything will be the reason he can very possibly be the best defenceman at this year’s World Juniors.
Mason McTavish Will Do Big Things
The Anaheim Ducks are currently sitting in second place in the NHL’s Pacific Division with 40 points in 32 games. Why is that relevant? That is because it’s the team that Canadian forward Mason McTavish was drafted third overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. McTavish likely could have stuck with the Ducks after scoring two goals and three points in his first nine games, but he was sent back to the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to continue his development, and perhaps more importantly, save another year on his entry-level contract.
His first game after being sent back to Peterborough reminded everyone around the OHL what McTavish is capable of doing. In his return to the Peterborough Memorial Centre, he scored three goals on 10 shots and led the lowly Petes to victory over the white-hot North Bay Battalion. He was a massive piece added to the puzzle for the Petes, and the scoring would continue to the tune of five goals in his first four games back. He was suspended for a check from behind in his last game before leaving for Canadian Selection Camp, and it may have also served as his final game in the maroon and white.
Coming into the World Juniors, McTavish is exactly the kind of player that head coach Dave Cameron loves to have. Of course he is a talented player offensively who can score goals and create chances, but away from the puck, he’s prepared to do the little things to win games. No one would describe him as the most physical player they have ever seen, but he won’t shy away from battles and he is determined to win every loose puck. He’s exactly the kind of player that Cameron will want to send over the boards in tough situations, so no one should be at all surprised if/when he puts up numbers and scores some key goals this Christmas.
Askarov Finally Lives Up to the Hype
Yaroslav Askarov is back for a third tour at the World Juniors, something that is exceptionally rare. He has been billed as an elite goaltender, even being called the next Carey Price, but those expectations have fallen short both times he has been on the world stage. With this being the last chance for the Nashville Predators’ first-round pick to make an impression at the U20 level, I’m expecting him to finally live up to those lofty expectations and give the Russians a chance to win.
The first time that Askarov played at the World Juniors in 2020 was somewhat disappointing. Last year, he was much better, but there were still some moments where he didn’t quite live up to his lofty expectations. Now at the age of 19 and in his third and final World Juniors, he should be well up to speed and ready to take the next step.
When he is on his game, he’s a very mobile goaltender who always seems to be in the right spot to make the save. His rebound control is good and he can make life really easy on himself by directing the puck to the corner. Part of what made the Americans so good last year was Spencer Knight and him standing on his head in the gold medal game. This Russian team might not be quite as good in other areas, but if the goaltending that Askarov gives them is at an elite level, they could surprise some people and find a way to earn themselves a medal.
Sweden Wins Bronze
How about this one? We’re kicking off the medal predictions with the winner of the bronze, and I’m backing the Swedes for this one. Last year, I picked them to end their long gold medal drought, but that didn’t happen. In fact, they didn’t win a medal at all. With some of the other teams competing at this year’s competition, some might not pick them to medal. At least two of the Canadians, the Americans, the Russians, the Swedes, and the Finns will not medal this year of course, and it’s hard to decide who that will be, but Sweden sticks out as a team who will be able to bounce back and make things happen this year.
Most of my confidence in this team stems from their goaltending. Jesper Wallstedt is back for a second crack at the tournament, and was solid in the Team Sweden goal last time around. Great goaltending wins games, but with Askarov in the Russian crease and Leevi Meriläinen in goal for Team Finland, you will need more than just goaltending. Sweden has that.
They have some firepower up front, anchored by four first-round picks in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. William Eklund, Isak Rosén, Fabian Lysell, and Oskar Olausson will all play key roles for the team in yellow, but one of their most important pieces will be Alexander Holtz, currently of the Utica Comets. With their goaltending and firepower on offence, Sweden should be more than capable of capturing a medal, even if it is only bronze. Their path wont be easy, especially not with their biggest rivals looking to medal for a second consecutive year.
USA Wins Silver
In 2021, the Americans beat a Canadian team that looked dominant throughout the tournament and many expected to take home the gold. On the back of Spencer Knight, the Americans shocked a nation and stole gold from the waiting hands of the Canadians by a score of 2-0. Thanks to players like Trevor Zegras, Arthur Kaliyev, Alex Turcotte, and Matthew Boldy, the Americans captured their fifth gold medal at the tournament and they come back in 2022 looking to win their second consecutive and sixth overall.
As you can tell, I’m predicting that they won’t secure that sixth gold medal, at least not this year. That being said, this team is going to be scary good. Defensively, they are bringing Sanderson, of course, who has already been talked about here. On top of that, they have names like Tyler Klevin, Luke Hughes, and Brock Faber. They will have the ability to once again shut down attacks, but it might not be quite as effective as it was a year ago. Without Knight, the Americans are turning to Drew Commesso between the pipes. No matter how good he is at this tournament, it would be nearly impossible to fill Knight’s shoes after what he did at last year’s tournament.
There’s another big piece missing offensively compared to last year’s team, too. That of course is Zegras who has been making highlight-reel plays with the Ducks this season. They still have plenty of firepower, however. They will need their only returning forward, Matt Berniers to step up and have a big tournament, but around him, they will have Matt Coronato and Sasha Pastujov, two players who are capable of creating plenty of offence. They certainly could repeat if things go their way, but there is another juggernaut who will have something to say about that.
Canada Wins Gold
Remember when the Americans brought out that barrel (garbage can) with the Hockey Canada logo on it last year when they beat Canada to win gold? It’s possible that you may have forgotten, but I can guarantee that there is one group of people who haven’t; anyone involved with Hockey Canada.
Say what you want about this whole situation. Whether it was a barrel or a garbage can has little relevance, actually. This is a lot like we have seen in the National Football League recently where teams dance on the mid-field logo before the game and the opponent comes out feeling like they have to defend their pride. No matter how you shake it, the Canadians will have felt disrespected by what the Americans did, and that should provide them with plenty of motivation.
It’s probably unlikely that the Canadians need any extra motivation to play against the Americans, but either way, they have gotten some. With this roster, they have all the talent they could ever need to take home gold for the 19th time. It’s headlined by a couple of young stars in Shane Wright and Connor Bedard who were both granted exceptional status in the Canadian Hockey League one year after the other. They will also have some extremely dangerous options including Cole Perfetti, Ridley Greig, Kent Johnson, McTavish as spoken about earlier, and Jake Neighbours. Everyone on their forward group is capable of contributing offensively, but they can also play additional roles.
People questioned leaving Brandt Clarke off of the Selection Camp roster and it’s hard to blame them for that, especially when they don’t have a single right-hand shot on the blue line. Even without Clarke, however, they boast one of the more threatening groups with Owen Power headlining things. He looks to join a small group of players who have won a World Championship before winning the World Juniors. Alongside Power, the Canadians will have options like Ryan O’Rourke, Kaiden Ghule, Donovan Sebrango, and Carson Lambos. With a goaltender standing at 6-foot-7 in Sebastian Cossa and backups including Brett Brochu and Dylan Garand, this team will be difficult to score on.
With all of the extra motivation and talent on this roster, they should be expected to take home the gold medal. If there are fans in the stands by the time the tournament gets going, they will also have the boost of the home crowd. It seems like gold or bust for the Canadians.
All Your THW 2022 World Junior Championship Coverage
Currently a journalism student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, I have always had a passion for the OHL and the Ottawa 67’s in particular. I have been attending games since I was young, and being involved with sports has always been a dream of mine. Sports writing fits perfectly into that. You can also find me talking and writing other sports (primarily Canadian football) on my website 13thmansports.ca!