The 2023 World Junior Championship is set to start in just a few days, and nothing is more exciting than seeing the best junior players face each other to see whose nation will reign supreme. It’s more than just winning; what makes the tournament great are the individual performances, especially from players few people have heard of before. It was at these games that Benjamin Conz, Justin Pogge, and Denis Godla captured the world’s attention, and Alex Nylander and Olli Juolevi looked like guaranteed NHL stars.
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Yes, none of them have made much progress in the NHL, but for a few weeks in December and January, the future doesn’t matter. Anything is possible at the World Juniors, allowing our minds to run wild with predictions and praise for outstanding performances. So, who has a chance to become the next World Junior star? Here are the top players to watch from each country this year.
Austria – Vinzenz Rohrer
After the 2022 World Juniors were rescheduled and relegation was paused for another year, Austria decided to leave Marco Kasper and Vinzenz Rohrer, their two best players, at home and have them rest up for a busy 2022-23 season. With Kasper now playing in Sweden, Rohrer will be tasked with keeping the Austrians in the top division for another year.
Of course, it won’t be easy, as the Austrians are almost guaranteed to end up as one of the teams in the relegation series, but Rohrer has the ability to change that. A third-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens last summer, he has been a standout for the Ottawa 67’s this season, sitting third on the team after 26 games with 11 goals and 32 points. His 1.23 points-per-game average is also notable, ranking in the top 30 in scoring pace in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
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Austria will need more than just offense to win, however, and thankfully, Rohrer is incredibly consistent, hard-working, and very smart on the ice. While not the biggest player, he is adept at using his physicality and strength to get the puck away from opponents without taking penalties. Austria will be at a disadvantage against the teams in Pool A, but if Rohrer and company can keep the puck away from them, they’ll stand a chance.
Honorable Mention – David Reinbacher. Ranked 29th by Sportsnet ahead of the 2023 Draft, he could emerge as a big part of the team’s defense after putting up 14 points in 28 games in Switzerland’s National League.
Canada – Brandt Clarke
There are always many players to be excited about on the Canadian roster, and this year is no different, with Connor Bedard, Shane Wright, Dylan Guenther, Olen Zellweger, and Adam Fantilli. But one of the most interesting players on this year’s team will be Brandt Clarke, who will be making his World Junior debut in his last season of eligibility.
It seems strange that a former point-per-game defenceman in the OHL and eighth overall selection in 2021 has never played on a U20 team, but it’s true – the last time Clarke represented Canada was in 2020-21 on the U18 squad, where he led all defenceman on the team with two goals en route to a gold medal. In an interview with The Hockey News, he said, “I feel like I would have been a top player last year, but that’s not the path they wanted to take. I made it a goal that I wanted to make the NHL team out of camp this year, and that’s what I did. I took it the right way, and now I’m back here, getting an opportunity on this stage to show what I can do, and I think I’m going to do that.”
Clarke joins the Canadians as one of three players on the team with NHL experience, and the only defenceman, giving the team a highly-skilled core to rely on in tough situations. He’s a fantastic skater and possesses an aggressiveness to his game that will make him a nightmare to play against, especially if he is paired alongside Zellweger, who was second in team scoring at last year’s tournament. If he gets rolling, look for Clarke to finish top five in scoring for Canada.
Honorable Mention – Connor Bedard. The projected first-overall pick in 2023 is already selling out crowds across the Western Hockey League (WHL) because of how exciting he is to watch.
Czechia -David Jiricek
Apart from Canada and the USA, World Junior rosters hardly ever feature players with NHL experience; most European players don’t come over to North America until their 20s, long after their World Junior eligibility has ended. Czechia will be a rare exception this year, though, as David Jiricek played two games with the Columbus Blue Jackets this season. While he didn’t register a point, it’s no surprise that he was called up. With the Cleveland Monsters, he’s scored four goals and 16 points in 17 games. Not only does he sit second in points-per-game among teenagers in the American Hockey League, but he ranks 14th among all defencemen in the league in points.
Jiricek suffered a freak knee injury at last year’s World Juniors before the tournament was rescheduled, which slowed down his season considerably and likely prevented him from playing his best at the tournament in August. But this season, he looks to be completely healthy and ready to dominate Pool A.
Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship
The Czechs will have a devastating defense with them in Halifax. Along with Jiricek, they have Stanislav Svozil, David Spacek, and Tomas Hamara, all of whom were with the team last year when they upset the Americans 2-1 in the quarterfinals. With another year of experience under their belt, they will be suffocating to play against.
Honorable Mention – Jiri Kulich. One of Peter Baracchini’s favorite prospects at the 2022 NHL Draft, the Czech forward has proven he’s capable of stardom after starting this season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans.
Finland – Joakim Kemell
Joakim Kemell is one of the most exciting Finnish prospects in years, yet he’s been on everyone’s radar for a relatively short time. It wasn’t until the 2022 U18 World Hockey Championship that he really began to draw attention, finishing the tournament with six goals and eight points in five games en route to a bronze medal. All of a sudden, he wasn’t just a potential first-round pick, but a legitimate threat to end up in the top 10.
After finishing first among rookies with 15 goals in the Finnish Liiga, Kemell went on to play at the U20 World Juniors, where he once again led the team in goals (four) and points (12), helping the Finns capture a silver medal. Not since Jesse Puljujarvi in 2016 had a draft-eligible player led Finland in scoring so dominantly, and not in the last decade has a player repeated as the team’s scoring leader at the tournament. Yet Kemell has a golden opportunity to dominate the 2023 tournament. With only six players returning from last year, his experience will be highly valued and, paired with his skill, should see him earn a spot on the top line alongside fellow returnee Oliver Kapanen.
Honorable Mention – Jani Nyman. The Seattle Kraken 2022 second-rounder has done nothing but put the puck in the net this season and currently leads the Finns in international scoring.
Germany – Julian Lutz
Like Clarke, Julian Lutz will make his much-anticipated World Junior debut after missing last year’s tournament with an injury that kept him off the ice for seven months. He’s back to full form this year, though, leading all teenagers in the DEL with six points in 13 games and on pace to hit nearly 20 by the end of the season. That’s on par with U20 alumni JJ Peterka in his draft+1 season, who now has 15 points this season with the Buffalo Sabres. While both prospects are energetic forecheckers with great speed, Lutz plays a better all-around game, making him a great option to lead the Germans in 2023.
It’s not the first time Lutz has thrived in the spotlight. Last season, he led the Germans with four points and 12 penalty minutes in four games at the U18 World Junior Championships. He also led the U18s in all international competitions with two goals. Before that, he was regularly one of the youngest players on his team; at age 12, he was already in a U16 league, and by 16, he was playing with the U20s. While the World Juniors has been called a 19-year-old tournament, the 18-year-old German is already used to handling bigger, more experienced competition.
Honorable Mention – Nikita Quapp. German goalies have stolen the spotlight recently, and Quapp’s stellar track record implies that he could follow that tradition.
Latvia – Dans Locmelis
Latvia will need to pull out all the stops to avoid relegation this year, but they could have a sneaky good team. Nearly half of their roster plays in North America, and three of their players have been drafted by the NHL. Of the latter group, Dans Locmelis promises to be the best. After 27 games, he leads the Luleå HF J20 team with 12 goals and 33 points this season, and while he hasn’t been called up to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) yet, he played two games with Luleå last season, the second youngest player to dress for the team in 2021-22. A fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2022, he will likely be paired with Latvia’s other top player, Sandis Vilmanis, to give them a fighting chance in Pool B.
Honorable Mention – Klavs Veinbergs. Now with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League, he was the only teenager to get the opportunity to suit up for Team Latvia at the 2022 World Championships.
Slovakia – Samuel Honzek
Slovakia will have a plethora of names to keep an eye on, but one of the most intriguing is Samuel Honzek. The skilled center has already put up 17 goals and 43 points this season and leads the Vancouver Giants in scoring while also sitting 11th league-wide. Along with Dalibor Dvorský, he’s one of Slovakia’s best young prospects and is currently projected to be a fringe first-round pick. However, the buzz around him has been muted, likely because he plays in the WHL, where Bedard, Zach Benson, Andrew Cristall, and Riley Heidt have taken much of the spotlight ahead of the 2023 NHL Draft.
But that could change at the World Juniors. Slovakia is set to have one of its best teams in years but also one of its youngest. Over half the roster is 18 years old or younger, and four players could hear their names called on day one of the 2023 Draft. Furthermore, the team lacks a dynamic first-line forward like Juraj Slafkovsky, who will remain with the Canadiens. That gives Honzek, who played in four games at last year’s tournament, an excellent opportunity to assert himself as the team’s top center and drive a powerful Slovak offense.
Honorable Mention – Simon Nemec. After debuting as a 16-year-old in 2021, the New Jersey Devils’ 3rd-overall pick in 2022 will look to assert his claim as one of the best defensive prospects in the world.
Switzerland – Lian Bichsel
Whenever Lian Bichsel steps onto the ice, it will be hard not to notice him; the towering defender is one of the biggest players at the tournament, standing 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds. He’s more than just big, though, which is why the Dallas Stars selected him with their first-round pick in 2022. He is a brilliant skater, which makes him a suffocating presence defensively, but he’s also not afraid to add a little flair to his game. But the best part for the Swiss this year is his ability to change the pace of the game with his physicality.
Bichsel has looked right at home in the SHL, going toe-to-toe with seasoned veterans despite his young age. The points haven’t come yet – he has just two assists in 26 games – but he has the potential to become a top-four defenceman in the NHL. At the World Juniors, however, he’ll be a challenge for even the best players to handle, giving the Swiss a secret weapon they can use in any situation.
Honorable Mention – Tim Muggli. The undrafted 19-year-old leads Switzerland’s U20 league with 28 goals and 47 points in 30 games.
Sweden – Leo Carlsson
The 2023 draft class looks like it will be one of the deepest in years. While Connor Bedard has a comfortable grip on first overall, the top-five players are a bit of a jumble at the moment. That may change at the World Juniors, as several of them are expected to play games with their home countries, which gives Leo Carlsson a fantastic opportunity to assert his claim as the second-best player available.
Although he’s just 17 years old, Carlsson is tied for first among all teenagers in the SHL with 14 points in 25 games and sits in the top 10 among players 23 or younger. He also leads Sweden’s U20 international squad with seven goals and 11 points in six games. Given his success at every level he’s played, some have said he’s the most NHL-ready prospect available for the draft. To me, he plays somewhat like Austin Matthews, blending superb puck handling and offensive instincts with a solid 6-foot-3 frame that just can’t be knocked away from the puck.
Sweden has been much more open to using younger players in their lineup after bringing Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Liam Ohgren to the World Juniors last year. Seeing how Carlsson has played in the SHL, he could become one of Sweden’s best players at the tournament. The Swedes will employ a heavy offense this year, and few players are as adept as him at putting the puck in the net or changing the pace of the game to fit his ability.
Honorable Mention – Isak Rosen. Both Carlsson and Lekkerimaki will need someone to feed them the puck, and Rosen has been one of the best rookie playmakers in the AHL this season with 12 assists in 25 games.
USA – Lane Hutson
Luke Hughes could be one of the best defencemen at the tournament, but he may still be overshadowed by his teammate, Lane Hutson. A second-round pick by the Canadiens and a freshman at Boston University, he is fourth in goals scored and sixth in points among defencemen in the NCAA. His blistering pace could set an NCAA record, too, for the highest point-per-game pace of any freshman defenceman; in the past 25 years, only Adam Fox sits higher than Hutson’s current 1.13 points per game.
Size will always be a concern for Hutson; the diminutive defender stands just 5-foot-8, which is small even in today’s game. But he still manages to make a big impact. Few players are as skilled, agile, and aggressive as him, and combined with excellent vision, he already looks like a modern version of Paul Coffey or Phil Housley, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. While Hughes may be a better all-around player, Hutson will be very difficult to handle for even the best defensive players at the World Juniors and should make the Americans a medal contender again.
Honorable Mention – Tyler Boucher. The Ottawa Senators took some heat for selecting him 10th overall in 2021, but he’s been demonstrating some serious skill in the OHL this season (when he’s not suspended).
A Tournament Like No Other
There is truly nothing like the World Junior Championship. Yes, other international tournaments feature some of the best players in the world, where Stanley Cup players offer some of their best performances. But at the World Juniors, anything seems possible because it’s happened before. Team Canada, a perennial powerhouse, has finished without a medal, while Slovakia has stunned fans by stealing a bronze. Even Kazakhstan, who were relegated in 2020, captured the hearts of fans in Victoria after their Cinderella-like run. No other tournament offers the highs and lows that the World Junior does, making it a must-see event every year.