The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship begins Tuesday morning at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is the first U.S. city to play host for a second time to the event–they also hosted in 2011.
The tournament will feature the best young talent from ten countries split into two groups of five. Teams will play four preliminary games to determine their spot for the playoff rounds. Only the top-eight teams will make it to the playoffs round. The two teams with the worst preliminary record will have to play in the relegation round to avoid being demoted back to Division I of the tournament.
The Buffalo Sabres will have four players representing their respective countries. Two prospects will play for gold in Group A: Casey Mittelstadt on Team USA and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen for Finland. In Group B, the Sabres will have Alex Nylander and Marcus Davidsson on Team Sweden, and Vojtech Budik on Team Czech Republic.
Here’s a little primer for the five players and their teams:
Casey Mittelstadt / Team USA
Mittlestadt was chosen with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. As a freshman with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, he has 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 19 games.
Some consider the 19-year-old forward to be the best offensive player on the U.S. roster this year. In two pre-tournament games, against Belarus and Sweden, he tallied two goals and had four assists. He will attract a lot of the spotlight, especially from a local crowd. He will center one of the first two lines for the U.S.
Team USA Outlook
Team USA will try to repeat as world champions for the first time in program history. The United States is 0-for-5 when going for gold on home ice, dating back to 1977, when the tournament became official. This year’s team has seven players returning from last year’s gold medal team in Canada. It has four players who captured the gold medal last season with the Under-18 team in Slovakia. Team USA is captained by New Jersey Devils prospect Joey Anderson.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen / Finland
Luukkonen was the Sabres’ second-round pick (54th overall) in 2017 NHL Entry Draft. This season, playing with Leki in Finland’s second-tier professional league (Mestis), he has a 2.78 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in 18 games.
The large, 6-foot-4 and 196-pound goalie is no stranger to international play. In the previous two Under-18 World Championships, he’s won a gold and silver medal. Luukkonen combined for a 2.45 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in nine combined games in the Under-18 tournament. He should get the majority of starts in this year’s tournament. If he catches fire, Finland, a very strong defensive team, could go deep.
Team Finland Outlook
The Finns were nearly relegated in 2017, but claimed gold in 2016. With their top four defensemen returning from last year’s team and a talented group of forwards, they should make a serious run this year.
Marcus Davidsson / Team Sweden
Davidsson was the 37th pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year-old forward has been playing in the Swedish Hockey League with the Djurgårdens IF Ice Hockey Club. In 25 games, he has five goals and eight assists. He’s a very solid two-way player with quick feet and good hockey sense. Davidsson usually occupies a bottom-six role, and is versatile on the power play and penalty-killing units.
The Swede represented his country at the international level in 2016, winning the silver medal at the Under-18 World Championship in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He lit the lamp twice and added an assist in four games played.
“He’s a smart kid,” said Sweden’s coach Tomas Monten of Davidsson. “I think it was good for him that he had to struggle a little bit in the beginning because he made sure he didn’t do anything half. He made sure he did everything full. He’s really strong. I think he’s one of the best-conditioned players we have and he can carry big minutes for us.”
Alex Nylander / Team Sweden
Nylander was chosen with the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The dominant forward missed a few months of this season after an injury at the Prospects Challenge. After a longer-than-expected rehab, he has since returned to the Rochester Amerks and has scored two goals and six points in 14 games. “It took a lot longer than I thought but now I feel really good,” Nylander said of his injury. “I’ve been playing a couple games with Rochester and got into the rhythm now of game action. I feel really good right now.”
This is his third straight appearance representing his homeland and he’s hungry for a medal. Last year, Nylander tallied five goals and 12 points in seven games at the U20 World Junior tournament. Sabres General Manager, Jason Botterill, is hopeful will elevate Nylander’s game and boost his confidence.
“I want to help get the team going,” said Nylander. “I’m sort of the older guy here, so I’m going to try and bring all the stuff that I’ve learned and help the young guys out as well.”
Team Sweden Outlook
Team Sweden is favored to finish first in Group B and is led by Rasmus Dahlin, the consensus No. 1 pick at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He’s a poised skater who moves the puck well. Last year, Dahlin had only 10:25 of ice time at the World Junior Championship and had a goal and an assist.
Vojtech Budik / Czech Republic
Budik was chosen by the Sabres in the fifth round (130th overall) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. In 27 games this season with Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League, the defenseman has a goal and five assists.
The 6-foot-1, 203-pound defenseman is looking to make his second appearance at the World Juniors, playing in two games last year in Canada with the Czech Republic. In those two games, Budik was held pointless while playing as the team’s extra defenseman.
Team Czech Republic Outlook
After a somewhat disappointing sixth-place finish last year, the Czechs were eliminated by Canada in the quarterfinal round. This year may prove to be different. Team Czech Republic could contend for a meal this year with a top line of consisting of center Martin Necas (property of the Carolina Hurricanes) and right winger Ostap Safin (Edmonton Oilers). Their last medal was a bronze in 2005.
The First Outdoor Game
On Dec. 29 at 3 p.m. EST, Team USA and Team Canada will take part in the first-ever outdoor game in World Junior Championship history at New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills.
The stage is set at @newerafield 🙌
— WJC 2018 in Buffalo (@WJCinBUF) December 24, 2017
These two teams have a historic rivalry between them, including a match for gold in last year’s tournament, won by Team USA, 5-4 in overtime. The game will likely determine the winner of Group A.
The Growth of the WJC
The popularity of the World Junior Championship has grown exponentially through the years. It’s now a premier stage for talent to showcase what they can do.
“It’s a big deal. Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s how most people get into this league,” said Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who played for Sweden in 2011. “National teams are pretty much the channel to being on the radar for the NHL and to getting drafted. It’s an honor to play for your country and it’s opportunity to show yourself off to scouts and have a better chance.”
Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill is the first and only player in Canadian history to win three straight gold medals in the World Junior Championship (1994-96).
All the 2018 World Junior Championship Team Information:
Czech Republic — Team Preview — Roster
Russia — Team Preview — Roster
Belarus — Team Preview — Roster
Canada — Team Preview — Roster
Denmark — Team Preview — Roster
Slovakia — Team Preview — Roster
All Your THW 2018 World Junior Championship Coverage
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”