While this time of year is filled with family gatherings and holiday cheer, for hockey fans who love to focus on the future of the game, the best present will be opened on Dec. 26. The IIHF World Junior Championship always provides a great look at the potential top stars of tomorrow. The rosters will feature a good mix of players already drafted and some high-rated prospects for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.
The Chicago Blackhawks will have four recent draft picks competing in this tournament hosted by Edmonton and Red Deer; three for the United States and one for Czechia.
Drew Commesso, G, United States
Commesso was drafted 46th overall at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft with the pick the Blackhawks acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Robin Lehner trade. The young goaltender was in line to compete for a World Juniors roster spot last year, but a positive COVID test ended any hopes of playing. Team USA went on to win the gold medal behind an incredible performance by Florida Panthers’ prospect Spencer Knight in goal.
“I remember last year I was getting my bags packed and got the call that I was in close contact and had to head into quarantine instead,” Commesso recently told NHL.com. “It was one of the most devastating times of my life. But I knew that everything happens for a reason, and there was a bigger plan for me. I’ve been looking forward to this chance since last season.”
After a great 2019-20 season with the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), Commesso had a good freshman year at Boston University. In 11 games, he posted a 6-3-1 record with a 2.99 goals-against average (GAA) and a .915 save percentage (SV%). His numbers have taken a dip this season with a 2.82 GAA and .900 SV% in 17 games. However, the team in front of him in Boston has not done him many favors.
He will be playing behind an excellent defensive team in Alberta. This roster has a deep defensive corps and several excellent two-way forwards, making life easier for the young netminder. Commesso will be the American’s top goaltender. On Thursday night, he played the first two periods of Team USA’s pre-tournament game versus Finland and stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced during his 40 minutes of action.
Landon Slaggert, LW/C, United States
Slaggert is back for his second straight World Junior Championship. Last year, he did not find the scoresheet but played in all seven games in Team USA’s gold-medal run. The 2020 third-round draft pick is enjoying a successful sophomore season at the University of Notre Dame. He has five goals and 10 points in 17 games, with two goals and six points in his last 10 games.
His experience in last year’s tournament earned him a letter this year as he will serve as an alternate captain. Jake Sanderson (Ottawa Senators) will be the team captain, with Matty Beniers (Seattle Kraken) and Brock Faber (Los Angeles Kings) also serving as alternates.
Slaggert plays the game like an old-fashioned power forward. He will use his body all over the ice to throw a big check, win a board battle, and get to the ice’s dirty areas. He will be one of the defensively sound forwards that will help limit the chances Commesso faces.
Wyatt Kaiser, D, United States
Kaiser is the third member of the Blackhawks’ 2020 draft class representing the United States. He was selected just two picks after Slaggert (81st overall) in the third round. The speedy defenseman will give Team USA some offense and mobility on the back end.
With players like Sanderson, Faber, and Luke Hughes playing ahead of him on the depth chart, Kaiser will have a chance to play well against opponents’ bottom-six forwards and third defensive pairings. He has the hockey smarts and puck-moving ability to be a dangerous player when he’s on the ice and can be trusted in all three zones.
Michael Krutil, D, Czechia
The fourth and final Blackhawks prospect in Alberta is Krutil, the team’s fourth-round draft pick (110th overall) in 2020. Fans of the Rockford IceHogs are familiar with the 19-year-old defenseman as he’s played 28 American Hockey League (AHL) games over the past two seasons. With taxi squads and players at a premium, Krutil played 21 games last season and picked up three assists. He’s had a hard time cracking the lineup this season, and minor injuries have limited him to just seven games with no points.
While he has struggled with the speed and strength of the AHL, you must remember that Krutil is still just a teenager and adjusting to life in North America. He was one of the most noticeable Czech defensemen at last year’s tournament. He can move the puck effectively and use his creativity to be a weapon on the power play. He should look much more comfortable playing against players his own age than the veterans of the AHL.
The puck drops on the World Junior Championship this Sunday (Dec.26) with four games. All four Blackhawks prospects will be in action on the first day, with Czechia taking on Canada (6 pm CT) and Team USA opening up versus Slovakia (7:30 pm CT). Czechia will play Germany (Dec. 27, 6 pm CT), Finland (Dec.19, 1 pm CT), and Austria (Dec. 30, 3:30 CT). The United States gold medal defense will include group play games versus Switzerland (Dec. 28, 2:30 pm CT), Sweden (Dec. 29, 8:30 pm CT), and Russia (Dec. 31, 8:30 pm CT). Be sure to follow The Hockey Writer’s team coverage over the next few days.