1. Michael Spacek, Team Czech Republic
Spacek was easily the best player on the ice in the first game of the tournament. The Czech forward put the first puck in the net, but it was disallowed due to goaltender interference. But a breakaway opportunity later earned him a penalty shot that wound up being the Czech’s only goal of the game.
He was everywhere on the ice. Any time the Czech Republic was putting Russia on their heels, it was because Spacek was pushing them into a corner. He took a team-leading six shots in the shootout loss, with the closest teammate being defenseman Alex Rasner, who was the only player on the team to take three shots.
If the Czechs can get that kind of performance out of Spacek each game on top of getting David Pastrnak after the NHL roster freeze ends, they could find themselves more competitive than expected.
2. Dylan Strome, Team Canada
Strome had a very strong game for Canada to start the tournament. He helped set the pace in a match where the first 30 minutes looked like the game was being played in honey.
Strome finished the night with a goal and three shots.
The goal was a snipe that showed some vision and leadership when the pressure was on. It came in the third period just minutes after U.S. captain Zach Werenski put the U.S. up 2-1. Strome’s power play marker put life back in the Canadian squad and made it look like they were going to yet again rally from behind to beat the U.S. That didn’t happen, but Strome made his mark in his first game of the tournament.
3. Louie Belpedio, Team USA
The U.S. alternate captain had the game-winner and played well throughout the game while logging some big minutes.
Though the first Canadian goal came off a Belpedio turnover, he was one of the U.S.’s more noticeable players. He was making great exit passes and read plays well in the offensive zone. Strategic dumps, holding the blue line, knowing where guys were going to be before they seemed to know, that was what we saw from the Miami, Ohio blueliner in his first World Junior Championship game.
For Team USA, Colin White also deserves some love, but he was player of the game, scored the first goal and had plenty of praise sent his way already. Belpedio was under-appreciated in the game.
4. Jesse Puljujarvi, Team Finland
One of the top rated prospects for the 2016 NHL draft, Puljujarvi’s stock looks like it’s only going up. The 17-year-old was a leader for the Finnish club in a weird game.
After two periods, the Finns were outshooting Belarus 21-7, but their only goal came late in the second from Puljujarvi, with an assist to Sebastian Aho, who also had a nice game.
Puljujarvi wound up with two goals and an assist in the game, as Finland wound up grabbing a 6-0 win against Belarus. Puljujarvi came as advertised. He’s dynamic, his hands and speed should be feared and he looked great skating with Aho and fellow 2016 draft prospect Patrik Laine.
5. Dmytro Timashov, Team Sweden
If I told you before the tournament that a Maple Leafs prospect from the Swedish team would be on this list, you probably aren’t guessing Timashov despite the narrow definition.
Timashov was all over the ice, controlling the puck around the perimeter and getting the Swedish attack rolling. His passes in the offensive zone were igniting their offense.
He wound up earning player of the game honors after scoring two goals and an assist. He was one of three players with three points on the night, but the only one to grab a pair of goals. He also tied with Joel Eriksson Ek for a team-leading five shots. Sweden needs a player or two to step up with all the injuries the team has suffered already.
6. Alex Nedeljkovic, Team USA
Put simply, the U.S. doesn’t win Saturday’s game without Nedeljkovic playing the way he did. The shots between the U.S. and Canada look even on the scoresheet, but Canada had much better opportunities, putting more pucks on net from the home plate area.
Nedeljkovic is going to make it difficult for the U.S. to put their plan of giving both goalies some action early in the tournament difficult. You can’t bench a guy who is playing like this.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.