Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment. Follow us on Twitter (@FacingOff_THW) and get in on the debate there too.
The puck drops on the World Junior Hockey Championship today in Montreal and Toronto, with the top under-20 prospects from 10 countries competing for gold over the next 11 days.
It’s a short tournament, but it’ll give hockey fans a glimpse into the future of the game, with most of the NHL’s biggest stars having participated in this showcase over the years.
Unfortunately, with the NHL becoming more and more of a young man’s game, the best players from this age group are already household names in the big league and won’t be loaned to the world juniors.
As a result, defending champion Finland will be without its entire top line from last year’s tournament — Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi, the 2016 MVP, and Carolina’s Sabastian Aho. All of whom are age-eligible to help defeat that title.
Canada and the United States are even more depleted this time around.
Incredibly, Connor McDavid, the NHL’s leading scorer in Edmonton, could still be playing for Canada in this year’s world juniors, along with fellow forwards Mitch Marner of Toronto, Travis Konecny of Philadelphia, Anthony Beauvillier of the Islanders, and Lawson Crouse of Arizona, plus defenceman Jakob Chychrun, also of the Coyotes.
The Americans are missing Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs and Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames up front, plus Carolina’s Noah Hanifin and Columbus’ Zach Werenski on the back end.
Other nations aren’t immune to those glaring omissions either. Russia is without Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov and Pavel Zacha of the Devils won’t be available for the Czech Republic, nor will Switzerland have Florida’s Denis Malgin.
The amount of absent talent is quite astonishing, especially when you factor in injuries like those to Canada’s Nolan Patrick, the projected top pick for the 2017 NHL draft, or USA’s Brock Boeser, one of the best collegiate snipers in some time. The Americans are also missing Christian Fischer, who strangely wasn’t loaned by Arizona’s AHL affiliate but seemingly could have benefitted from this world-class experience.
It begs the question of who would win an actual best-on-best, under-20 tournament? And also whether the NHL should be obligated to release any and all age-eligible players to increase the quality of competition and exposure for their brightest young stars?
You know, like an under-20 Olympics. That would be must-see TV. My money would be on Canada, with McDavid in the fold.
Not that this year’s tournament won’t be worth watching without those marquee names. That’s hardly the case, with plenty of elite talent still on display and the next generation of players continuing to get better and better at younger ages. Rest assured, this showcase has its share of star power.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 26, 2016
The tournament will open with a bang tonight, as host Canada takes on rival Russia right out of the gate. And, as has become tradition, Canada and the United States are matched up for what promises to be another epic New Year’s Eve clash. Let the games begin!
The Hockey Writers will be home to some of the best world-junior coverage on the world-wide-web over the next couple weeks, and Facing Off will be doing its part to hype up and promote the event as well.
At the outset of any tournament, people are always making their predictions and this week’s Facing Off features several THW contributors weighing in with their medal picks, award winners, roster snubs, players of interest and potential sleeper prospects.
I invited anyone with an opinion on the world juniors and the response was overwhelming, with no fewer than six writers wanting to have their say.
I’ll come up with a points system and crown a predictions champion at tournament’s end, but here’s who will be in the running:
Larry Fisher (myself) — at-large contributor and columnist
Jeff Langridge — Maple Leafs writer, credentialed to cover WJC in Toronto
Marcy Di Michele — Oilers writer, credentialed to cover WJC in Montreal
Andrew Forbes — Facing Off regular and THW’s lead writer for the Maple Leafs
Joseph Aleong — Ontario-based prospects writer
Dustin Nelson — news editor and Minnesota-based prospects writer
Zachary DeVine — California-based Sharks and credentialed Barracuda writer
World Juniors odds to win the tournament pic.twitter.com/doSKejISBl
— Chris Dilks (@ChrisDilks) December 26, 2016
Let’s start with the easy one, who’s going to win gold, silver and bronze? Give us your medal predictions. If you have a dark-horse in mind, give us that too.
FISHER: I’m committing world-junior treason here, but I feel the Americans are the team to beat and my favourites for gold. I’ll say Team USA beats Canada in the championship game, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Sweden in the final.
Sweden gets my bronze over Russia, with defending champion Finland falling in the quarter-finals. Those are the traditional top five, but something tells me the Czechs are going to make more noise than most expect.
LANGRIDGE: Canada wins gold, defeating Sweden in the final. USA beats Finland to take the bronze.
DI MICHELE: It’s going to be difficult for them no question, but I can see Canada winning gold on home ice. Sweden will take silver, and the USA will beat Russia for bronze.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 14, 2016
FORBES: Like Larry, I have a strong feeling that the Americans are the ones to beat in this tournament. With guys like Jeremy Bracco, Colin White and Kieffer Bellows (among others), this is going to be a tough team to beat.
Canada will be better than last year as they are at home and should get a boost from the Canadian fans.
From there, it’s more wide open. While the Russians will be good and the Czechs might be the most underrated team in the tournament, the Swedes, being led by Joel Eriksson Ek and Alexander Nylander, should finish third (or even higher).
ALEONG: It seems this is the popular opinion before every world-junior tournament, but I really think Canada has to be the favourite for gold if they can get a better goaltending performance out of Carter Hart than they did from MacKenzie Blackwood last year.
Sweden has the potential to either contend for that gold or falter in the semis, simply due to how stacked they are in net with Filip Gustavsson playing lights-out in the Swedish League and Felix Sandstrom playing at the top of his game as well.
USA is always a strong contender, but I don’t think they have the scoring punch they need to contend for the gold this year. I can definitely see their familiarity with each other playing a big role in the tournament and capturing bronze.
Russia could be right up there with them with some top-tier talent at all positions. Switzerland could make some noise, considering how well Nico Hischier has adapted to North American ice.
For the record, that is Canada for gold, Sweden for silver and the U.S. for bronze.
NELSON: I think the Czechs are the dark-horse team to watch. There’s more talent on their roster than they’ve had in a while. But I’ll still take Sweden over the U.S. in the championship, and Canada over Russia for the bronze.
DEVINE: Gold — Sweden. Deepest goaltending, excellent defense, many weapons up front.
Silver — Canada. Hart will make that defense look better than it is, loaded forward group.
Bronze — USA. Clayton Keller will pile up points, Jake Oettinger will be steady in goal, but defense is a concern.
Dark-Horse — Czech Republic. Underrated defense and if goaltender Daniel Vladar can get hot, they could make noise.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) December 26, 2016
Who’s going to win the tournament MVP, top scorer, top defenceman and top goaltender? Give us your award predictions.
FISHER: If the Americans wind up winning, as per my prediction, I’d bet on Jack Roslovic being the tournament MVP and Keller the top scorer. Team USA boasts the best offence and it’ll run through those two. I foresee them finishing 1-2 in tournament scoring.
The top defenceman should be a battle between two top-10 picks from this year’s NHL draft, Finland’s Olli Juolevi and Russia’s Mikhail Sergachev, but Charlie McAvoy of the U.S. and Canada’s Thomas Chabot could be in that conversation too. I like Sergachev’s chances if Russia does indeed go further than Finland.
Top goaltender is a real toss-up, but I have confidence in Hart for Canada. He could win that award even in defeat. Don’t rule out Vladislav Sukhachyov, a little guy with big game, if Russia starts him over Washington Capitals first-rounder Ilya Samsonov.
LANGRIDGE: Tournament MVP — Dylan Strome. He should be highly motivated and demolish this tournament. He will lead the tournament in scoring.
Top Defensemen — Juolevi. There’s no reason that he shouldn’t head back to London without this reward.
Top Goaltender — Hart. He has to be nearly perfect for Canada to return to championship form.
DI MICHELE: If Canada does win, Tyson Jost gets the MVP. But Keller of the USA will be the top scorer. Top defenceman goes to Juolevi. Canada will resume its run of boasting top goalie en route to gold, so it will be Hart.
FORBES: For me, I think the American offence will be driven by Keller. I think he’ll win both awards. While I’d like to be wrong — and see the Canadians top the world — I expect the likes of Bellows, Bracco and Keller to top the scoring charts.
Juolevi is my top defenceman and I think his confidence and swagger brings a lot to the table for the Finns.
In net, I’m going to go off the board. He’s small, he’s not the top goalie going into the tournament, but Canada’s Hart is going to steal the show.
ALEONG: I’m a big fan of Keller, and I could definitely see him capturing the top scorer award as the U.S. has a tendency to dominate games against lesser opponents, giving him a chance to rack up some big numbers.
There’s no clear frontrunner for top defenseman, but Sergachev is a physical beast and will need to lead the Russians from the back end if they want to improve on their lackluster defensive play from recent years. I think he was the best defender in last year’s draft and he’s been simply dominating his OHL competition since being sent down by Montreal in October.
Russia has had some fantastic goaltending performances in recent years, but Samsonov has shown he’s got the ability to be the best of them all. Gustavsson could also steal the show if he’s handed the Swedish starting gig, and Hart has carried over his strong play from his CHL Goaltender of the Year season last year.
NELSON: With Nylander joining Sweden, it’s easy to see how he’s a big force in the tournament. I’ve got Sweden winning the tournament, so I think the MVP goes to Nylander or Swedish captain Eriksson Ek. Top scorer is either Nylander or Strome. The latter has something to prove. Last year was a huge disappointment for Canada, but he was very good through most of the tournament.
Juolevi is the favorite for top defender, but my dark-horse is the undrafted Jack Ahcan from St. Cloud State. He was solid at August’s evaluation camp for Team USA and could find himself in a position to succeed playing under Bob Motzko, who is also his coach at SCSU.
Canada’s Hart is the favorite for the top netminder. It’s a safe pick, but the heaps of attention are coming for a reason.
DEVINE: MVP — Jost
Top Scorer — Keller
Top Defender — Sergachev
Top Goaltender — Sandstrom
Looking at the rosters for the 10 teams, were you surprised by any of the cuts or snubs?
FISHER: I was shocked that no NHLers were loaned, not only for Canada but for any team. I still like Canada’s team on paper, but I’d like it more if the two Sams had made the cut — Sam Steel and Samuel Girard.
As much as I like Dillon Dube, I would have kept Steel on the roster over him, but I probably would have taken them both over Anthony Cirelli, who I wasn’t as familiar with. To their credit, Dube and Cirelli were noticeably impressive in the pre-tournament games to earn their keep.
With Girard, my guess is Hockey Canada felt he was too high-risk — too much like P.K. Subban — but Girard could have been a power-play ace. He’s as good of a quarterback as there is in the Canadian Hockey League, and I think his presence will be missed by tournament’s end — especially when we see what Adam Fox does for the Americans. I don’t know who I would have cut in order to keep Girard — maybe Kale Clague, maybe Jérémy Lauzon, maybe even Jake Bean or Dante Fabbro, but somebody. Definitely somebody.
Outside of Canada, I think we were all stunned to see the Americans cut Alex DeBrincat, who could have been their most dangerous scorer in the absence of Boeser.
DeBrincat seemed a lock — with 60 points, including 30 goals, in just 28 OHL games this season, and with two 100-point campaigns already under his belt in Erie — but USA Hockey has always been partial to NCAA players over those opting for the major-junior route.
That bias is holding true this year, with fellow OHLer Logan Brown also getting cut instead of lesser-known collegiate prospects like Troy Terry and Tanner Laczynski.
I wasn’t a fan of those decisions or the politics at play there, but fortunately for the Americans, they should still have enough firepower to overcome their roster-building blunders for this tourney — unlike at the World Cup of Hockey — which speaks volumes on how stacked their forward group is going to be.
I just think those two — DeBrincat and Brown — could have formed a dynamic duo and helped make Team USA unbeatable. I mean, if they make up two-thirds of your team’s fourth line, the opposition wouldn’t stand much chance in my opinion. And there’s no chance that an NHL team would trade DeBrincat and Brown for Terry and Laczynski, so I can rest my case.
LANGRIDGE: Covering the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, I know Will Bitten was hoping to be part of Team Canada. It’s not much of a snub since I never heard anything about him being close to an invitation to the team, but I’m sure he’s disappointed.
DI MICHELE: I was surprised the Oilers didn’t release Puljujarvi to Finland, considering he’s been spending a lot of time in the press box. I suppose they don’t want to risk injury with him playing in the tournament, but at least he would have seen the ice.
I thought that Brett Howden and Victor Mete would be on Canada’s final roster, but they’re deep at both positions.
FORBES: I’d have to say some of Canada’s cuts surprised me the most. Steel. Girard. Even Zach Senyshyn got snubbed in my opinion. I think he’s incredibly underrated and should’ve been considered a little more moving forward. I’m a little surprised the Islanders didn’t loan Beauvillier, and that Cliff Pu wasn’t even given a chance to try out, but he would’ve been in tough with that roster anyways.
From the Americans’ standpoint, guys like DeBrincat and defenceman Chad Krys shocked me. How does a player go from being on the roster last year to getting cut from the roster this time around? Is their team that good that a player of DeBrincat’s skill level is left off? I guess we’ll see.
ALEONG: The biggest snub for me was Steel, by far. He’s leading the WHL in scoring and has the speed and two-way ability to play anywhere in the lineup, the type of versatility Canada has preached in the past few years.
Timothy Liljegren is supposed to be one of the top young defenders Sweden has to offer, so it’s questionable why they wouldn’t even invite him to their camp. I understand he was injured earlier in the season, but he has the skill to dominate games and Sweden could use some offensive punch from their blue line.
"This could have been his coming out party." My column on Nolan Patrick and Timothy Liljegren missing World Juniors https://t.co/NDUMcWRT0D
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) December 24, 2016
NELSON: Some of the biggest roster surprises are from Russia. Klim Kostin getting cut because the coach doesn’t think he’s “explosive” was a big surprise. I also think, even if he was a longshot, Andrei Svechnikov could have aided the cause, especially after his record-setting performance at the World Junior A Challenge.
DEVINE: Sweden not taking Liljegren was a surprise. He’s played in the SHL the last two years, and while having a rough start to the 2016-17 season, still is a player I think should have cracked the roster.
Which player(s) are you most excited about and looking forward to watching this year?
FISHER: I want to see whether Strome can rise to the occasion as Canada’s captain and be a man among boys in this year’s tournament. He should look like an NHL player out there.
I’m expecting Nylander to be on another level too, considering he was arguably Sweden’s best player already last year when big brother William went down with a concussion.
Henrik Borgstrom, Florida’s off-the-board first-rounder who is flourishing as an NCAA freshman, is such an intriguing talent to me — given the meteoric rise of his draft stock. Tage Thompson of the U.S. deserves a shout-out too, for the same reasons, but to a lesser degree. Both have big upside and I’ll be watching them as close as anyone.
Along with all of the under-age draft-eligibles — it’ll be interesting to see if any of them can stand out amongst older competition the way Laine and Puljujarvi did last year.
As mentioned, Patrick isn’t playing for Canada (due to injury), so this is a great opportunity for others to challenge his status as the top prospect.
LANGRIDGE: Strome should be playing with the Arizona Coyotes right now and not in Erie. It’s a case of too good for the OHL and Canada’s opposition will be punished because of it.
Being a Leafs writer, I want to see how Bracco does for the U.S. after being snubbed last year. He’s one of the best players in the OHL and will be looking to impress Leafs management playing in Toronto. I also hope Joseph Woll gets into at least a game, with Tyler Parsons the likely starter for the Americans.
DI MICHELE: I’m excited to see all the games live at this point. To me, there isn’t really a standout this year like a McDavid or Laine.
FORBES: There’s a number of players that will be exciting to watch this tournament. Nylander and Eriksson Ek for Sweden should be good to see just how strong their play is heading into a possible NHL season next year. But after years of questioning the Canadian goaltending, I truly am most excited to watch Hart play in net. Can he steal some games for the red and white?
ALEONG: For me, I’m most excited to see some of the top prospects from outside the top five hockey nations. Switzerland is going to live and die by Hischier’s play, and he could rise even further in the 2017 NHL Draft rankings if he has a great tournament.
Martin Necas of the Czech Republic was extremely impressive in leading the Czechs to their first Ivan Hlinka gold earlier in the season, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry over that momentum to the world juniors.
Keller is one of the most exciting prospects in the world, with a style of play reminiscent of Mitch Marner. He’s dominated at almost every international competition he’s played in and could be the difference for the U.S. squad in such a short tournament.
Nylander is also having an impressive rookie season in the AHL and is undoubtedly Sweden’s offensive leader. He has a rocket of a shot and is deadly on the power play — he’s a player Sweden needs to show up big-time in order to have a chance at the gold medal.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 19, 2016
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 23, 2016
NELSON: I love seeing players who have been struggling use the tournament as a springboard into the second half of the season. Beacuse of that, I’m watching Bellows. He can reach another level and has been struggling in his freshman campaign at Boston University.
DEVINE: Necas — Playing against men in Extraliga, he has some serious skills and is effective against much older and bigger competition. Playing against similar-aged players will be interesting to see.
Timra Line — Team Sweden features three players from Allsvenskan’s Timra IK in Jonathan Dahlen, Elias Pettersson and Jens Looke. Instant chemistry line with gobs of skill. I expect this to be a big tournament for Elias Pettersson, who’s been a threat every time he’s on the ice for Timra. He’s in my early top 10 for the 2017 draft.
Finland’s young defense — Four Finland defenders are eligible for the 2017 NHL draft and all four are pushing for first-round status: Urho Vaakanainen, Robin Salo, Juuso Välimäki and Miro Heiskanen. I like all their skill-sets coming out of the Finland defensive factory.
Hischier — Still not getting the proper credit he deserves. He’s been a beast for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, and he will be the straw that stirs the Swiss drink, but he doesn’t have much help. Top-five pick in the 2017 draft.
Any sleeper prospects we should be aware of heading into the tournament? Is there a potential breakout player we aren’t talking about that we should be? Speak up now, so you can say ‘I told you so’ afterwards.
FISHER: Jost no longer fits the bill here, but I think his role is going to steadily increase as the tournament progresses and that he’ll be a go-to guy for Canada come the medal round. He could be one of those tournament all-stars who doesn’t immediately come to mind ahead of time.
Kirill Kaprizov is a better example, a Minnesota Wild fifth-rounder who still isn’t a household name — at least not in North America — but could be after this tournament if he leads Russia in scoring as I suspect he might. Kaprizov, who will serve as Russia’s captain, is putting up impressive numbers against men in the KHL, so look for him to light it up against his peers.
I mentioned Fox already, an undersized American defenceman who will likely quarterback their power play. I’m a big fan and felt he was a first-round talent, but Fox fell to the Calgary Flames in the third round of this year’s draft. The other 29 teams will be kicking themselves for passing on him sooner than later.
Lastly, a bit of a homer pick here, but keep an eye on Calvin Thurkauf. His team, Switzerland, probably won’t do much damage, but Thurkauf could experience a coming-out party of sorts and make a bigger name for himself. He was on fire when he left the Kelowna Rockets, winning WHL player of the week honours on his way out. The Columbus Blue Jackets stole Thurkauf in the seventh round this year, and now he’s captaining the Swiss. He’s a big body with a heavy shot and a real power game, and I really think he’s going to be a big-league player down the road.
LANGRIDGE: Again, as I cover the Hamilton Bulldogs, I’m definitely interested in the one player they have participating at the tournament. Marian Studenic of Slovakia was taken in the import draft this year and is in his first season in North America. With 13 points in 28 games so far with the Bulldogs, I’m interested in seeing what he can do on the bigger stage. Hopefully he can have a good tournament and bring that level of play back to the Bulldogs.
DI MICHELE: Eeli Tolvanen might be this year’s Laine. Necas won’t get a ton of press playing on the Czech team, but he’s definitely one guy to keep an eye on.
FORBES: Like Larry, Fox, Kaprizov and Thurkauf should be good to watch. Luke Kunin should be a guy to keep an eye on as well. The Americans can really make a name for themselves in this tournament, and I think if Bracco can have a good showing, he can push his way into the conversation with a growing young Maple Leafs franchise.
ALEONG: There are a couple 2017 prospects who I think could open some eyes in the tournament. I already mentioned Hischier and Necas, but Tolvanen is the one I think is a safe bet to have a successful tournament. The Finns were led on offense last year by two draft-eligible players (Laine and Puljujarvi) but will need someone to step up and fill that void. Tolvanen is among the USHL’s leading scorers and is a dangerous sniper, and showed in the WJC Summer Showcase he could trade punches with older players after putting up points against Canada, USA and Russia.
Rasmus Dahlin may not get much of a role as the youngest player in the tournament, but we’ve all seen some of his impressive highlights from the Swedish Elite League and he could use this tournament as a breakout party in his quest to be picked first overall in 2018.
NELSON: He was overshadowed in a good performance last year, but Kaprizov is dynamic and is having one of the best U20 seasons in the history of the KHL. Ahcan is an exciting undersized defenseman for the U.S.
Also, Dhalin has been good in domestic play. I want to see him rise to the occasion at the world juniors. Similarly, Tolvanen was outstanding at evaluation camp in August and could be the tournament’s unexpected star.
DEVINE: Ahcan is a small defender who skates like the wind and has a very high hockey IQ and vision. He was good for Team USA at the NJEC, is nearly a point-per-game player as a freshman at St. Cloud State this year, and he could surprise.
Michael Spacek is tearing up the WHL with the Red Deer Rebels. Jets fans are well aware of him, but he should be a big part of the Czech Republic’s offense. He’s a capable two-way player as well.
He isn’t a real sleeper or even eligible for the draft until next year, but I think this will be a coming-out party for Dahlin. He’s an elite talent already playing in the SHL with Frolunda. The highly talented forward group for Sweden will highlight his skill. He’ll be among the top-scoring defenders in the tournament.
Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want us to face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.