2022 World Junior Championship Players to Watch

The World Junior Championship is among the most exciting events of the season. Like the Olympics and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the annual tournament pits the world’s best players against each other in a battle of national pride and personal glory. The fact that they’re junior-aged makes it all the more engaging, as we watch the future of the sport in action, vying for the top prize.

One of the best parts of the World Juniors is the surprise heroes that emerge every year. Who can forget Denis Godla, the Slovakian goalie who won tournament MVP in 2015? Or Jordan Eberle’s tying goal that forced overtime against the Russians, and then his shootout goal that secured Canada’s semifinal win in 2009? Or Troy Terry’s shootout heroics after serving as a fourth-line grinder for the Americans in 2017? These moments live on long after the tournament ends and turn obscure junior stars into household names. While it’s impossible to predict if any historical moments will happen in 2022, here are a few players that you should keep your eye on throughout the tournament. 

Team Canada – Owen Power

It seems like Owen Power has something to prove this season. Last spring, the Buffalo Sabres were left with a difficult decision regarding their first-overall pick. Unlike in many drafts, there was no clear-cut favourite, with as many as five different players drawing attention throughout the year. In the end, they went with Power, a gigantic defenceman from the University of Michigan. It was a safe pick for a team that needed a sure-fire NHLer, but he lacked the upside of some of the other players available.

Finally, after a year of interruptions and delays, fans get to put that theory to the test. Power will play in his first World Juniors and show what he can do against the best young talent in the world. Except this isn’t his first time playing for Canada internationally in the past year; the 6-foot-6 defender donned the maple leaf at the end of the 2020-21 season in the World Championship of Hockey, where he was one of the youngest players in the tournament. Against some players nearly double his age, he was a stand-out performer, putting up three points in 10 games as the Canadians cruised to their first gold medal since 2016.

That success undoubtedly gave Power an extra push this season. In 2021-22, he leads all NCAA defensemen with 23 points in 18 games and sits in the top-15 in scoring. Given his previous international experience and dominance at the NCAA level, the Canadians will lean heavily on him, as the team is less experienced than usual and features just three players who have played in the tournament before.

Team USA – Sasha Pastujov

The United States’ World Junior team has just six players returning from 2021 and only three forwards. That puts them at a bit of a disadvantage in their pursuit of a second straight gold medal; experience can mean the difference between earning a medal and going home early. Without Trevor Zegras and Alex Turcotte, the Americans will need to find significant offensive contributors from their cohort of newcomers. Thankfully, they have one of the best scorers in the Ontario Hockey League on their roster: Sasha Pastujov.

Sasha Pastujov Guelph Storm
Sasha Pastujov, Guelph Storm (Tim Cornett/OHL Images)

Team USA doesn’t usually feature Canadian-based players but primarily draws from the college ranks and the United States National Development Program (USNDP). However, had Pastujov stuck to his initial plan, he would have been US-based; he skated for the USNDP for two seasons and committed to Notre Dame. However, that all changed when the Anaheim Ducks drafted him in the third round of the 2021 Draft and surprisingly signed him to an entry-level contract less than a month later. That made him ineligible to play college hockey, so he opted to join the OHL’s Guelph Storm for the 2021-22 season.

Despite the surprises, Pastujov has been one of the best players in the league. In 26 OHL games, the winger has 20 goals and 35 points, which ranks fifth and 13th league-wide, respectively. He’s been arguably the Storm’s best player, helping them to first place in their division, which was expected. Coming into his draft year, he ranked just outside the first round but fell on draft day due to mobility concerns. On the World Junior squad, he has the chance to be incredibly lethal, pairing up with the highly mobile Matty Beniers or Brett Berard in the top-six.

Team Sweden – William Eklund

No player is more primed for the 2022 World Juniors than William Eklund. He was one of several Swedes to miss the tournament after contracting COVID-19, robbing him of his U20 debut. Undoubtedly disheartened, he returned to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), finishing his first full season in the league with 23 points in 40 games, the second-highest total for a U20 player. That made him a favourite to go in the top-five of the NHL Draft, yet somehow he fell to seventh overall, where the San Jose Sharks snapped him up. They couldn’t have been happier with the result, as the talented Eklund made the Sharks right out of camp, registering a point in each of his first three NHL games. 

It looked like Eklund was going to stick in the NHL for the full 2021-22 season, meaning he would not participate in the World Juniors yet again, but the Sharks decided he would be better off playing in Sweden. He was subsequently returned to Djurgårdens IF, where he put up three assists in his first two games and had two multi-point games before joining the U20 team. The team’s poor performance despite his efforts has forced him into a leadership role, something else the Sharks hoped he would gain from his reassignment.

Related: Sharks’ Eklund Looks to Lead Sweden to World Junior Gold

With NHL experience under his belt and an increased leadership role, Eklund is ready to leave his mark on the World Juniors. He’s the kind of player who makes those around him better thanks to his elite intelligence and vision, and he was likely the missing piece that might have boosted Sweden’s fifth-place finish. Watch for him to replace Lucas Raymond on the top line, and if he can mesh with Alexander Holtz, the team will be nearly impossible to contain, especially against a young American team and a fully European-based Russian squad. 

Team Finland – Brad Lambert

Finland will bring two highly-touted 2022 draft-eligible prospects to Edmonton later this month, who will be under intense scrutiny from the international community. Many will be excited to get their first glimpse of Joakim Kemell, who has torn up the Finnish Liiga this season as a 17-year-old, but more will be curious to see how his JYP teammate Brad Lambert will fare. Once thought of as a potential first-overall pick, he has plummeted down the draft rankings after an average 2021 World Junior appearance and pedestrian numbers in Finland’s top league.

Brad Lambert, JYP
Brad Lambert, JYP (Mandatory Credit: Jiri Halttunen)

It’s been a rough fall from grace for Lambert, who now ranks outside the top-10. But that could change in an instant, especially with the hockey world watching. He has all the skills to be a key player for the Finns this year; he’s one of several returning players from last year’s bronze-medal-winning squad and will likely be given a bigger role than he had before. He is also familiar playing with Kemell, Samuel Helenius – who also returns from the 2021 team – and defenceman Ville Ottavainen, who all were selected from JYP. The biggest thing for Lambert is the connections he made with the Finnish team in the bubble last year and will play a big part in his and his team’s success in 2022.

“The things I remember most from last year’s tournament are the great group — players, coaches and staff — we had, how well everyone got along and how much fun we had together on and off the ice.”

Brad Lambert recalling his time at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton

But there’s another aspect to his game that will make Lambert a potential top player for Finland, and that’s his physicality. Only Helenius and Rubin Rafkin have more penalty minutes in the Liiga than Lambert. He can use his strong upper body to force opponents to cough up the puck, allowing him to activate his intense speed and create scoring chances. Playing against players much older and bigger than him has prevented him from fully utilizing that, but against his own age group, he could run wild.

Team Russia – Matvei Michkov

It’s always exciting to debate the merits of two highly-skilled players who are up for the top pick of the draft. Last year, it was Tim Stützle and Quinton Byfield battling for the honour of the second-overall pick, and the pair went head-to-head as Germany took on Canada in the round-robin. The score was incredibly lopsided, but the two ended the contest fairly even; Stutzle did all he could to keep the COVID-depleted Germans above water, while Byfield was relegated to a depth role, where he picked up one assist. However, it’s rare for this debate to rage two years before their draft year. Yet, that’s exactly what will happen at the 2022 World Juniors, with Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov set to face off at the end of the month. 

Bedard is the favourite to go first overall in 2023 for those who have seen him tear apart the Western Hockey League this season as a rookie with the Regina Pats. That’s why Michkov will be watched so closely at the tournament; fans have heard the name and the hype but have little to base it on. Like Bedard, Michkov is playing against opponents far above his age, as the young Russian is one of the few U18 players in the KHL this season. However, he’s also one of the best, sitting with five points in 13 games, which places him second among all U20 players in the league.

In a tournament where 19-year-olds dominate, it’s rare to see such young players. That’s especially true on the Russian roster, who almost exclusively ice 18 and 19-year-olds. But Michkov has earned his spot on the team, and while he likely won’t earn top-line minutes, he’ll be given an opportunity to play at least a few games. Like Bedard and McDavid or Ovechkin before him, he’s an incredibly intelligent player, and this year will only serve to boost his reputation.

Team Czechia – Jan Mysak

The Czechs have had a rough go at recent World Junior tournaments. They haven’t won a medal since 2005, and since then, finished fourth once. It’s not like they’ve been deprived of talent; the Czech’s have featured players like Martin Necas, David Pastrnak, Tomas Hertl, Vitek Vanecek, Petr Mrazek, and Libor Hajek during their medal drought, yet none have managed to propel their team past one of the big four (Canada, the United States, Finland, or Sweden). If this year’s team manages a breakthrough, however, it will likely have a lot to do with Jan Mysak.

Jan Mysak Hamilton Bulldogs
Jan Mysak, Hamilton Bulldogs (Josh Kim / The Hockey Writers)

Mysak is entering his third World Junior tournament, joining Yaroslav Askarov, Simon Knak, Holtz, Samuel Knazko, and Marko Stacha as the only players this year to do so. That experience alone gives Czechia a leg up on their competition in Pool A, which features Canada, Germany, and Finland, simply because those players have a level of comfort that can only come from seeing this before. But the Czech star will also have another secret weapon up his sleeve, which he acquired from playing with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.

“I feel comfortable because I’ve been playing this season on the same ice as the tournament. I think it will be really good.”

Jan Mysak to EP Rinkside

He’s been very good for the Bulldogs, too, putting up 17 goals and 31 points in 25 games and helping them claim first in their division before ceding it to the Kingston Frontenacs. But Mysak is more than an offensive force – he’s also a leader, recognizing his role both in the OHL, where he’s served as an alternate captain this season, and at the international level; he was Czechia’s captain at the tournament last year. He’s expected to return as captain, but even if he’s not, he will make sure that everyone is adequately prepared to handle the biggest tournament of their careers so far. That makes him one of the most important players on his team, and if he can stay consistent and on his game, then the rest of his team will likely follow.

Team Germany – Florian Elias

No one could have guessed that one of the top scorers at the 2021 World Junior Championship would be a 5-foot-8 undrafted German winger, but that’s what happened. After five games, Florian Elias had nine points, the sixth-highest total of any player at the tournament, including Payton Krebs, Arthur Kaliyev, and Cole Perfetti, all of whom have since played games in the NHL. While he was helped by teammates Tim Stutzle and John Peterka, it takes a special talent to keep up with those players, and that’s what Elias is, special.

Despite his size, Elias has been one of Germany’s best young forwards since he made his Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) debut in 2020-21. That season, he put up eight points in 34 games, which may not seem like a lot, but he ranked fifth among all U20 players and earned Rookie of the Year honours. He’s been equally effective in 2021-22, scoring four points in 21 games for Adler Mannheim.

Without Peterka and Lukas Reichel, who chose to stay with their clubs during the World Juniors, Germany will surely struggle to score against the other teams in Pool A. But they’re not completely weaponless, as Elias is set to return to Edmonton and assume the role of the team’s top forward. He was named team captain after the roster was announced, and after his wildly successful 2021 tournament, he’ll look to build on that success and propel the Germans to their best finish yet.

Team Switzerland – Lorenzo Canonica

Smaller nations, like Switzerland, rarely have many top-tier junior players to select from to create their World Junior rosters. That often means young players get more opportunities to play a bigger role than they would with a nation like Sweden or Finland. That was the case for Lorenzo Canonica, who was selected to the Swiss U20 team last year as a 17-year-old. After putting up 19 points in 20 games in the Swiss U20-Elit, he journeyed to Edmonton, where he scored a single assist in four games, one of only nine players to record a point for his team at the 2021 tournament.

Canonica decided to remain in Canada after the tournament, joining the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Shawinigan Cataractes, where he finished the 2020-21 season with 16 pints in 20 games, plus another four points in five playoff games. It was a solid performance, but not enough to catch an NHL team’s eye, and he was undrafted. This year, however, he’s been one of the Cataractes’ best forwards, scoring 27 points in 29 games. The Swiss won’t have a lot of great offensive options behind Knak, but with the young center, they have a chance to be a bit more dangerous.

Team Slovakia – Simon Nemec

It may be surprising that the tournament’s most impressive resume doesn’t come from Canada, the United States, or Sweden but Slovakia. Not yet 18 years old, Simon Nemec has already secured the title as arguably his country’s best defender since Zdeno Chara and doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. He made his professional debut as a 15-year-old in Slovakia’s top league with HK Nitra and then led his team in scoring among defencemen as a sophomore. That same season, as a 16-year-old, he made his World Junior debut, where he led the Slovaks in scoring with four points in five games, as well as his World Championship debut, registering an assist in five games.

Related: Team Slovakia Players to Watch at the World Juniors 2022

This season, Nemec has continued to dominate Slovakia, ranked second among all U20 players in scoring with 13 points in 22 games, and was one of the players selected to the Slovakian Olympic Qualifying team. There’s no question that he should be a top-five pick in the upcoming NHL draft, but that could be boosted by a strong outing at the 2022 World Juniors. He’s a fantastic two-way defender with high-level intelligence that can lead a power play or penalty kill with ease. He’s reminiscent of a top-tier quarterback or point guard, controlling the play from the back end. On a young Slovakian team, his skill will be invaluable. 

Team Austria – Marco Kasper

At the 2017 World Junior Championship, Switzerland wasn’t expected to do much. They finished the 2016 tournament without a win and were forced to fight for their spot against Belarus in the relegation series, and a similar fate awaited them against Latvia. Yet after two wins over the Czech Republic and Denmark and two close games against Finland and Sweden, the Swiss were in a playoff spot and set to face off against a powerful American squad and nearly won. Much of their success was thanks to a young, draft-eligible center named Nico Hischier, who cemented his claim as the best prospect heading into the 2017 NHL Draft.

A similar situation may play out for Marco Kasper and Austria this year. One of the best prospects heading into the 2022 draft, the 17-year-old center has been a regular in the Swedish Hockey League this season, scoring four goals in 22 games with Rögle BK. He’s also led his U20 national teams with the highest point-per-game pace, scoring four points in three games. Like Hischier, this is his second World Juniors, after suiting up for the Austrians last year as a 16-year-old.

Kasper is a prototypical power forward, using his body to protect the puck, and isn’t afraid to dig for the puck in front of the net for a dirty goal. While some scouts see him as a middle-to-late first-round pick, there’s a chance, much like Hischier, that a strong tournament could elevate his draft status. However, there’s also the risk that he ends up like Marco Rossi, who was practically invisible last year with Austria despite leading the Canadian Hockey League in points. Kasper is worth keeping an eye on, and how he performs should dictate how Austria finishes.

Anything Can Happen at the World Juniors

When the best players in the world are pitted against each other, it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Hockey is becoming a more global sport – look no further than the ascension of Team Germany, who has produced the NHL’s top scorer in Leon Draisaitl and won a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics. While many fans would prefer Canada or the United States to claim another gold, we can all admit that growing the game is far more important. So, tune in to those matches that don’t feature one of the big five nations and watch for an underrated star to emerge. Will it be the draft-eligible Kasper or Nemec, or maybe Elias will reclaim his spot in the top-10 scorers? Anything can happen, and we’ll have to watch and find out how it all ends.

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Team SwitzerlandPreviewRoster

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