2023 World Juniors: Award Contenders

If you’re the type of hockey fan who looks forward to the holidays as much for the World Juniors as anything else, then you must be ecstatic that we’ve been granted the once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity of two World Junior tournaments in four months. It feels like just yesterday the teams met in Edmonton and Red Deer for the unique experience of a midsummer tournament, rescheduled after the original was postponed due to multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 in December 2021. 

2023 World Junior Championship Award contenders Connor Bedard (CAN), David Jiricek (CZE), and Kaidan Mbereko (USA)
Connor Bedard (CAN), David Jiricek (CZE), and Kaidan Mbereko (USA)

Most of the tournament predictions will be centered around the medal winners, but teams can’t win medals without the players that get them there. So, in this piece, we’re going to have some fun and make some predictions for the individual award winners, and perhaps we’ll even revisit my picks at the end of the tournament and compare them to the actual winners. Here are some contenders to keep an eye on throughout the festivities. 

Top Forward 

Canada: Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, Shane Wright, Logan Stankoven, Dylan Guenther

United States: Logan Cooley, Cutter Gauthier, Jimmy Snuggerud, Chaz Lucius, Rutger McGroarty

Sweden: Fabian Lysell, Liam Ohgren, Isak Rosen, Jonathan Lekkerimaki, Leo Carlsson

Finland: Brad Lambert, Joakim Kemell, Jani Nyman 

Czechia: Jiri Kulich, Matyas Sapovaliv

Slovakia: Filip Mesar 

While not official rankings, after combing through the roster of each team, these are all of the players who I believe can make enough of an impact for their respective teams to contend for top forward. Some will undoubtedly have better odds than others, but they all contend. And above all of these players, my prediction came down to one.

PREDICTION: Connor Bedard, Canada 

Connor Bedard Team Canada
Connor Bedard, Team Canada (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Simply put, there is nobody in the tournament more explosive than Bedard. The projected first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft already has a standout tournament to his name, with eight points in seven games at this summer’s tournament, and he’s been putting up video game numbers in the Western Hockey League (WHL), with an absurd 64 points in 28 games this season. The more responsibility Canada gives him, the more damage he’ll do. Simple as that. 

Top Defenseman

Canada: Olen Zellweger, Brandt Clarke, Kevin Korchinski 

United States: Luke Hughes, Lane Hutson

Sweden: Adam Engstrom, Ludvig Jansson 

Finland: Aleksi Haimosalmi, Otto Salin, 

Czechia: David Jiricek 

Slovakia: Simon Nemec

It’s important not to count anything (or anyone) out when considering the contenders for this award, but my best guess would be that one of these defensemen will take home best-of-tournament honours. Sweden is missing a contender, with Simon Edvinsson turning down his invitation to remain in the American Hockey League (AHL), where he’s been playing very well and could earn a call-up to the NHL at some point. USA’s Lane Hutson and Canada’s Brandt Clarke, who’s making his tournament debut, are both players I could see taking the award, but I landed on somebody different for my final pick. 

PREDICTION: David Jiricek, Czechia 

David Jiricek Team Czechia
David Jiricek, Team Czechia (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

I like Czechia’s odds as a potential upset candidate this year, and I think Jiricek is going to be a big part of that. The sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft is off to a monster start in the AHL, with 20 points in 19 games for the Cleveland Monsters, the affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets. I also considered Slovakia’s Simon Nemec, given the pro experience both players have, but Jiricek will have better forwards to help him out than the 2022 second-overall pick will. 

Top Goaltender 

Canada: Thomas Milic, Benjamin Gaudreau 

USA: Kaidan Mbereko 

Sweden: Carl Lindblom

Finland: Niklas Kokko 

Czechia: Daniel Kral 

Germany: Nikita Quapp

The top goaltender is probably the hardest award to predict, seeing that one goaltender standing on their head for seven games is likely enough to earn him the honours. It seems that there isn’t really a standout goaltender this year like there has been in years past, with prospects like Jesper Wallstedt, Spencer Knight, and Yaroslav Askarov. This tournament winner is entirely up in the air to me, but here’s who I think will pull through. 

PREDICTION: Kaidan Mbereko, United States

Kaidan Mbereko Team USA
Kaidan Mbereko, Team USA (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Although he’s both undrafted and undersized by goalie standards, at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Mbereko looks like he might have the best chance at taking home the top goaltender award, at least as long as his team shows up to support him. He was 3-1-0 last season with a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.76 and a save percentage (SV%) of .921, and he’s been stellar for Colorado College of the NCAA in 2022-23, sporting a 2.26 GAA and a .927 SV%. Bottom line is, if the team shows up, he should as well. 

Top Scorer 

There are lots of players who could be considered for top scorer, and it’s usually a strong possibility that the top forward of the tournament is the one who scores at the highest clip until their team is eliminated. In this case, I think this theory will hold true, and until the draft prospect who’s scoring at a pace of over two points per game in his league convinces me otherwise, I have no reason to believe he’s not going to lead the tournament in scoring. 

PREDICTION: Connor Bedard, Canada 

Most Valuable Player

Connor Bedard, Regina Pats
Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller)

It’s not all that often that a player has such a strong tournament that they sweep top scorer, best at their position, and most valuable player, but it happens every few years. Canada’s Mason McTavish did it last year, and before that was Casey Mittelstadt in 2018. I know it’s boring to guess the same player over and over, but until he gives me a reason not to choose him, I think we’re going to see a clean sweep for the second year in a row.

PREDICTION: Connor Bedard, Canada 

All-Star Team 

Forwards: Connor Bedard, Canada; Joakim Kemell; Finland, Logan Cooley, United States

Defensemen: David Jiricek, Czechia; Brandt Clarke, Canada

Goaltender: Kaidan Mbereko, United States

Bedard, Jiricek, and Mbereko will finish on the all-star team if my predictions hold true, and I’ve already explained why I think they’ll be there. Kemell already has an all-star team nominee to his name and can only improve with another year of experience, and I think there’s lots of room for Clarke to step up and have a big tournament after being left off the roster in 2022. Cooley, on the other hand, I can see taking a major step forward to give the Americans a boost. But, again, what makes the World Juniors so great is that there’s always an unlikely hero, so it will be exciting to follow the tournament and see how much of this will hold up.

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