Each year during the holiday season, the eyes of the hockey world turn to the World Junior Championship (WJC), which kicks off on Monday on the Eastern seaboard of Canada. With Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick, hosting a tournament originally scheduled to be in Russia, everyone is hoping this year’s competition will be free of other unexpected surprises that have plagued recent contests. This year’s tournament will be overflowing with the game’s top young stars, including prospective first and second-overall picks Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli. And the first day of the tournament will feature both of the contest’s presumed favorites, the United States and Canada. So, without further ado, let’s preview Day 1 of the 2023 WJC.
Finland vs. Switzerland (11:00 AM ET)
Finland: Final Roster
Switzerland: Final Roster
In the past decade, Finland has moved from a nation on the fringes of hockey power to one of the countries firmly entrenched as a hockey powerhouse. That evolution includes three WJC wins since 2014, as well as a silver medal finish just a few months ago in the rescheduled 2022 tournament. They will enter the 2023 tournament with lots of momentum and several stars who dominated the 2022 affair. Forward Joakim Kemell, 17th overall pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2022 Draft, dominated the last tournament, trailing only Mason McTavish in scoring with 12 points (four goals, eight assists). He and the ever-mercurial Brad Lambert will be the presumptive stars of the tournament for Finland. Lambert in particular, will need to step up to replace Aatu Räty, who, after scoring 10 points at last year’s tournament, is now scoring goals in the NHL.
Switzerland has not evolved into a powerhouse at this tournament, but you can’t ignore them. One player will be playing especially close to home: Swiss forward Attilio Biasca is captain of the Halifax Mooseheads, whose Scotiabank Centre arena will be one of the two host venues for the tournament. It will be interesting to see whether the familiarity gives him a boost in the early going. On Switzerland, the top player to watch will be Lian Bischel, a towering defenseman drafted 18th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2022. Unlike many teams in the WJC, first-round talent is not a given for Switzerland, so Bischel will need to be a major factor if he hopes to lead his team to great things.
Finland will still be heavy favorites entering this first game. They have all the pieces to reach the final again, and will be a very tough challenge for Switzerland to overcome.
Players to Watch: Joakim Kemell [NSH], Brad Lambert [WPG] (FIN); Attilio Biasca, Lian Bischel [DAL] (SUI)
Sweden vs. Austria (1:30 PM ET)
Sweden: Final Roster
Austria: Players to Watch
Sweden has been Finland’s opposite in many ways in recent years. A traditional powerhouse team, they have struggled to bring home gold medals. In fact, they have only won gold twice ever — in 1981 and 2012. But they have the second-most silver medals, at 11, behind only Russia. A few months ago, they claimed bronze. So they will enter this tournament with some momentum.
Sweden has become most notable for their ridiculous 54-game preliminary round winning streak, which was finally snapped by Russia in 2021. But they are still a quality team with a lot of poise. And they will be a tough challenge for Austria. Sweden will also be bringing some new firepower in the form of Leo Carlsson, a 17-year-old center projected as a top-10 pick in the upcoming loaded 2023 Draft. He will be looking to add some much-needed charge to a Swedish offense that struggled to score all tournament over the summer.
Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship
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Austria, for their part, will simply be looking to represent themselves better than they did this summer when they lost all four games and were outscored 21-4. But they do have some talent, including David Reinbacher, a defenseman who Sportsnet currently has inside the top 32 prospects for the upcoming draft. Ian Scherzer is another player with hopes of being drafted in 2023. Even with a few draft prospects, Austria will be severely shorthanded in almost any game they play, and this matchup against Sweden is no exception
Players to Watch: Leo Carlsson, Fabian Lysell [BOS] (SWE); David Reinbacher, Ian Scherzer (AUS)
Latvia vs. United States (4:00 PM ET)
Latvia: Final Roster
United States: Final Roster
Latvia’s one goal at this tournament: avoid the relegation round. The nation has never lasted longer than two consecutive years at the top level of the WJC, and now that relegation has returned from its pandemic pause, they are hoping to finally break that streak. If they are going to succeed, they’ll need a lot of help from their three NHL-drafted forwards: Dans Locmelis of the Boston Bruins, Klavs Veinbergs of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Sandis Vilmanis of the Florida Panthers.
With that said, they don’t have a very easy entry into the tournament. They’ll face an American team determined to erase the embarrassment of last summer’s tournament, which saw them eliminated by Czechia in a shocking quarterfinal upset. They’ll retain several of their big stars from that summer tournament — including third-overall pick Logan Cooley and star defenseman Luke Hughes — but they’ll add firepower up and down the lineup, like lethal scoring winger and St. Louis Blues draft pick Jimmy Snuggerud.
The Americans will have every intention of winning gold this time around and making the memories of their upset over the summer a thing of the past. Bluntly, they’ll look at this matchup against Latvia as little more than a tune-up game. But they should not look past Latvia entirely. As their quarterfinal loss proves, there are no pushovers at this tournament.
Favorite: United States
Players to Watch: Dans Locmelis [BOS] (LAT); Luke Hughes [NJD], Logan Cooley [ARI], Jimmy Snuggerud [STL] (USA)
Czechia vs. Canada (6:30 PM ET)
Czechia: Final Roster
Canada: Final Roster
Speaking of the team that upset the United States several months ago, Czechia was unable to turn that upset into a medal in 2022. But the fourth-place finish was a big achievement for them, and they’ll enter this tournament with plenty of confidence. They’ll continue to rely on David Jiricek, the sixth-overall pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who is a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League and has the makings of a future NHL star. But his assignment in Game 1 will be incredibly challenging.
As ever, Canada enters the tournament loaded with talent and the clear favorite to take home a gold medal, as they did over the summer. Bedard, the presumed first-overall pick in the upcoming draft, will be back with his team, and Fantilli will be making his debut with the team. McTavish, who dominated last year’s tournament, has moved on, but there will be no shortage of firepower for the Canadians this year (as any year).
Canada will enter this game as the clear favorite, but Czechia has proved that they are not a team to be overlooked. Expect this to be closer than many prognosticators will project.
Players to Watch: David Jiricek [CBJ] (CZE); Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli (CAN)
The Best Day on the Sporting Calendar
The day after Christmas, also known as “Boxing Day,” is one of the best days on the sporting calendar all year, and the start of the World Junior Championship is a major reason why. Day one features all of the tournament’s presumptive favorites and a lot of star power from Game 1 to Game 4. This year’s tournament is a long-awaited return to normal after the pandemic. Hopefully, the action on the ice is as good as ever.