2023 World Juniors: A Potential Cinderella Team

The World Junior Championship (WJC) gets underway on Boxing Day, Dec 26, and with it, the annual tradition of gathering with family and friends to watch the tournament returns. Another tradition is Canada entering the tournament as a gold medal favorite. As the defending gold medal champions, it is hard not to put them in that category. Having the likes of Shane Wright, Adam Fantilli, and Connor Bedard only cements that status. 

Being the host for the second tournament in a row hasn’t caused added pressure for the Canadians, as the expectation for that team is always to win the gold medal; anything less is seen as a loss. Players, especially in Canada, set aside the pressures of their club teams and their draft aspirations as they focus on simply playing:  

“No, I don’t think so, I’m not thinking about that sort of stuff, I’m just thinking about trying to win a Gold medal. We’re too busy with practices and game to get wrapped up in that stuff.”

– Connor Bedard (on the pressure to perform in his draft year )

Which country will embrace the pressure as Bedard is doing? There are several strong hockey nations participating, but which countries could use that lack of pressure to surpass expectations and even make a run at a medal, earning the “Cinderella” tag? 

Team Austria 

Coming off of a 2022 WJC that saw them qualify for the quarterfinals, expectations are not high for the Austrian club. Led by 2023 draft-eligible defenseman David Reinbacher and Montreal Canadiens’ 2022 third-round pick Vinzenz Rohrer (who missed the first game due to illness), Austria will need to improve their offensive output of only four goals in the last WJC. Their performance in the opening game versus Sweden, where they were crushed 11-0, makes them look as though they will become the ugly step-sister and not Cinderella.   

Team Germany 

Germany lacks the star power to be considered a threat to dethroning Team Canada. However, a well-structured team can beat a skilled one, and in a tournament format, upsets can occur. Now that he is fully recovered from a fracture in his spine, Julian Lutz, an Arizona Coyotes second-round pick in 2022, will be the offensive catalyst for the Germans.  

Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship 

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The key to their success will rely on the play of their 6-foot-4, 19-year-old goaltender Nikita Quapp, a sixth-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. Quapp has a .910 save percentage in his limited time paying in the DEL, Germany’s top professional league. The expectations they place on themselves to be more than just participants is real, yet, without any star to lead them, they will rely on structure to compete. With that said, they are considered an outside hope for a medal round. 

Team Czechia 

After a disappointing end to their 2022 WJC, Czechia will be looking for redemption. However, they will have a difficult path to gain preferable seeding into the quarterfinals as they are expected to finish behind Canada and Sweden. This would set them on course to play either Finland or the United States, two favorites to earn a medal.  

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

Their ability to play a physical game will be necessary to create space for their skilled players through intimidation, but it will take far more. Czechia has a well-coached and well-structured team that can play a defensive style and keep the score low, but they do need to find consistency if they hope for that style to pay dividends. They have all the pieces necessary to be able to become a Cinderella team. But the chances Czechia can challenge for a medal and not turn into a pumpkin early like the last tournament will rest on their offense. Their offensive game will flow through Buffalo Sabres’ first-round pick Jiri Kulich and Columbus Blue Jackets’ sixth overall pick David Jiricek.  

Team Switzerland 

Switzerland may be the most suitable choice as a Cinderella. They have some underrated skills, such as Attilio Biasca, captain of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) Halifax Mooseheads; he has 27 points in 28 games played in the QMJHL. Defensively they are led by a tandem that will bring equal parts grit and mobility in Philadelphia Flyers prospect Brian Zanetti and 2022 Dallas Stars first-round pick Lian Bichsel. They will be relied upon to play a lot of minutes in all situations, and if they can do so effectively, they could be the reason Switzerland wins a medal. 

No team can remain neutral against Switzerland, especially if they want to beat them. The Swiss also showed some skill and ability to play a structured game during the pre-tournament matches and then in their opening match against Finland with an upset win in overtime on a goal by Biasca. They’ve shown early on that they can compete with one of the world’s top hockey programs. Now they will need to continue that solid play throughout the tournament if they want to advance past the Quarterfinals. But to upset Canada or the United States, they’ll also need some luck.

Whether a glass slipper gets minted or a carriage turns into a pumpkin, it won’t matter for fans as they are all enjoying a return to normal after a long two years of a pandemic that caused delays and cancellations. The 2023 WJC does have the potential to provide fans with a fairy tale ending, but Canadian fans would rather see the hometown team repeat as champions. 

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