After suffering a shocking loss in the gold medal game of the 2021 World Junior Championship (WJC) at the hands of a Trevor Zegras led Team USA, Team Canada has come back swinging. When the 2022 tournament was played in August of 2022, Canada made the most of it, winning their first gold medal at the World Junior Championship since their 2020 WJC victory over Russia. Now Canada looks to be the first team to win back-to-back gold medals since they won five straight from 2005-09.
Team Canada often has some of the most exciting young players in this tournament and this year is no different with multiple players who boast experience in the NHL this season and two of the very best prospects in the 2023 NHL Draft all being a part of the team. Let’s look at few of the potential difference makers who hope to lead Canada to gold once again.
I’m sure most people out there have already heard of Connor Bedard, but just in case that name isn’t familiar to you yet (it will be someday soon), Bedard has been one of the most hyped draft prospects in the NHL since Connor McDavid and was one of the best players at last August’s WJC where he scored eight points in seven games as a 17-year-old.
Related: Guide to the 2023 World Junior Championship
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Bedard is known for his remarkable stickhandling and elite goalscoring ability. His shooting ability would stand out in the NHL today even though he’s just 17 years old and 5-foot-10, so it will really pop at a U20 tournament like this. Bedard has already begun to run away with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) scoring title, scoring an astounding 64 points in just 28 games, currently sitting more than 15 points above the second highest scorer.
This will be the first time that a lot of hockey fans will see Bedard play and I expect that the hype around the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery will only increase as a result of his and Canada’s play in this year’s tournament.
What to Watch for: Look for Bedard to shoot the puck. A lot. He could very well be one of the top scorers in the whole tournament so expect to hear his name a lot when Canada gets a power play.
Olen Zellweger was incredible in August’s tournament, scoring 11 points as a defenseman, making him the seventh defender to ever score 11 or more points in a single WJC tournament for any nation. His skating and playmaking vision made him absolutely deadly on Canada’s power play where he feasted on the opposition.
Zellweger was anchored last year by defensive specialist Donovan Sebrango so it will be interesting to see how he does with a new partner this year. He has scored 10 goals already this season which nearly matches his previous WHL career high of 14 in less than half the games so expect him to be shooting from the point a lot more this year as well.
What to Watch for: Look for one of the smoothest and most agile skaters you’ll ever have the pleasure of watching. He’ll lead tons of rushes out of the defensive zone with unwavering control.
Logan Stankoven narrowly missed the cut at the Dallas Stars’ training camp in September, nearly jumping straight from the WHL to the NHL. Instead, he is one of only two players averaging over two points per game in the WHL with Bedard being the only other one. Stankoven is also the captain of the Kamloops Blazers this year as they hope to compete for the CHL’s Memorial Cup.
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In last year’s tournament, Stankoven endeared himself to teammates, coaches, and fans alike with his hard-working, physical, possession focused game. He won faceoffs at an absurd rate, scored 10 points in seven games, and was one of Canada’s most physical players despite his 5-foot-8 frame. His size was the reason he was drafted in the second round of the 2021 NHL Draft instead of the first, and it’s clear that he won’t let it stop him from having a remarkable professional career.
What to Watch for: Look for Stankoven to earn tons of minutes in difficult situations. He will be relied on to win every important faceoff and to bully the other team into giving up the puck even if he loses the faceoff.
Adam Fantilli is the 2023 Draft eligible prospect with the best chance of catching Bedard in the race for first overall on draft day. There is still a significant gap between the two in my mind, but Fantilli has already done some great work to shrink it over the course of his remarkable freshman season in the NCAA. Fantilli is currently the third highest scorer in college hockey with 26 points in 16 games.
His skating, pro-ready frame, and his awareness in all three zones have made him a dominant player for a University of Michigan team loaded with talent. Some people look at Fantilli and see the ideal NHL player, a 6-foot-2 center who excels at just about everything with no obvious weaknesses in his game, and it’s hard to fault them.
Fantilli will be a great addition to Team Canada’s top-six forward group because he can be the triggerman if paired with some playmakers, or he can share the puck if he plays with snipers. The WJC tournament is always a great opportunity for prospects to show what they can do on the world’s stage, so this will be Fantilli’s best chance to show NHL teams that he could be as good or better than Bedard.
What to Watch for: Look for Fantilli’s constant shoulder checks, peeking over his shoulder to gauge where his teammates and opponents are. He’s also likely to slide a perfect no-look pass to a wide-open teammate because he knows exactly where everyone is on the ice at all times.
The NHL Loaners (Brandt Clarke, Dylan Guenther, and Shane Wright)
Each of these players have made it into NHL games this season, a feat that few players in this tournament have matched. Unlike players competing in the CHL or the NCAA, players in the NHL need to be loaned by their NHL team in order to participate in the WJC, so adding three such players is going to be massive in Canada’s gold medal bid this year.
Brandt Clarke was left off of Team Canada at both the cancelled and then the re-scheduled 2022 tournaments despite the excellent season he had in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last year, so it had to feel good that Hockey Canada had to get his NHL team to sign off on him joining the tournament this time around. Clarke is a dynamic offensive defenseman who should give Canada a formidable push from the defense at both 5v5 and even strength.
Dylan Guenther was a player that I didn’t expect to be loaned to Team Canada because he has been playing quite well for the Arizona Coyotes so far this season, scoring 11 points in 21 NHL games. The 6-foot-2 winger will be one of the best shooters in the tournament, already capable of beating NHL goaltenders. Guenther is great at finding open space to get his shots off from as soon as a teammate sends the puck his way.
Shane Wright has excelled in the AHL (four goals in five games) this year but struggled to earn regular NHL minutes (only nine games played). This tournament should be a great opportunity for him to play a ton of minutes as one of the go-to players in all situations for Canada. Wright will likely begin the season as Canada’s first-line center, meaning he will be trusted to play some tough matchups against the best competition available. He excels at some of the finer details like off-puck skating, offensive positioning, and creating space for teammates before passing to them.
What to Watch for: Look for Clarke to lead tons of rushes into the offensive zone with his smarts and skill. Guenther will be paired with at least one great playmaker to make the most of his great shot, he’ll also score a ton of goals. Wright will make lots of great subtle plays that save and extend offensive possessions.
Team Canada Should Be the Most Fun Team at the Tournament
This year’s version of Team Canada is absolutely loaded with talent including three players with NHL experience and two of the very best prospects in the upcoming NHL Draft class. Canada’s defensive corps is certainly better suited for offense with the likes of Clarke, Zellweger, and Kevin Korchinski, so it will be important that even their offensively tilted defenders play hard on defense.
The World Junior Championship is a very short tournament (at most seven games), so having an efficient power play is one of the biggest factors when it comes to winning gold. Canada could have players like Brennan Othmann, Stankoven, and Fantilli on their second power play unit! That’s how many gifted offensive players Canada has.
This should be a very fun team to watch, partly because they don’t have the best defensive group or goaltenders so they will likely play a few high scoring games. Bedard and Fantilli both aim to be in the NHL this time next year, so make sure you take this chance to watch them against Junior aged competition before they begin what are sure to be world-class NHL careers.
Will Canada be able to repeat as gold medalists at the WJC? Who will lead Canada in scoring this year? Who will be more impressive, Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli? Sound off in the comment section below!