In just two more sleeps, the first round-robin games of the year’s most exciting hockey tournament will begin. Boxing Day is almost as (if not just as) highly-anticipated as Christmas Day for hockey fans around the globe, who enjoy seeing both their countries vie for gold medal glory and their favourite team’s top prospects strut their stuff on the world stage.
The Winnipeg Jets have just two prospects representing their countries at the 2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic, but both will play huge roles for their respective squads.
Heinola Will Be Big Part of Finnish Blue Line
Team Finland’s back-end fortunes lie largely with Jets’ recent first-rounder Ville Heinola. Expect the 20th-overall pick to play big minutes in all situations on a stellar Finnish squad that could very well repeat as gold medallists, including as the quarterback on the top power-play unit, on the penalty kill, and plenty of time at even strength on the top defensive pairing.
A returnee to Team Finland, the left-handed 18-year-old put up a goal and an assist at last year’s World Junior Championship in Vancouver/Victoria and earned a gold medal.
Related: 2020 WJC Team Finland Final Roster
He’s just one of many NHL-drafted D-men Team Finland has at their disposal: they’ve also got returnees Anttoni Honka (Carolina Hurricanes, 83rd overall, 2019) and Toni Utunen (Vancouver Canucks, 130th overall, 2018), and newcomer Lassi Thomson (Ottawa Senators, 19th overall, 2019.)
Heinola’s Busy Season Has Him Well-Equipped
Heinola has succeeded on three different teams already in 2019-20 despite being one of the youngest players on all of them. He’s played against men all season long, so he should have no trouble excelling and shutting down opponents his own age.
Heinola played eight games for the Jets earlier this season, cracking the roster despite long odds partially due to an outstanding training camp and partially due to a Jets’ defensive corp that was reeling after offseason departures, a number of injuries, and Dustin Byfuglien’s leave of absence.
Related: Jets Have Much Uncertainty at Regular Season’s Outset
Heinola impressed in ever-conceivable ways with intelligent, cerebral reads, good speed, and slick puck-moving ability. He tallied a goal and four assists while skating an average of 18:04, but the Jets opted not to burn a year of his entry-level contract and sent him down to the Manitoba Moose.
The Honkajoki product played three games there, registering one assist, before the team opted to send him back to Liiga’s Lukko Rauma in early November.
The decision was controversial: some believed he’d be better off and get more opportunity with his club team, while others felt it would be more beneficial for him to spend the rest of his season in the AHL, so he could learn the North American game and be monitored by Jets’ brass more closely.
While he hasn’t ripped it up with Lukko Rauma — in 11 games, he recorded just one assist — he’s logged heavy minutes, averaging 18:37, and is a plus-one. His NHL experience, in which he played with aplomb against many established stars, has him well-prepared to face anything Group A opponents throw at him.
Returnee Gustafsson Joins Leadership Core
Also competing in Group A on the team perhaps most well-equipped to best Heinola and Team Finland will be David Gustafsson on Team Sweden.
Related: 2020 WJC Team Sweden Preview
The Swedes left a spot open specifically for the 19-year-old, 60th-overall 2018 pick. He recorded three assists in last year’s tournament.
Like Heinola, Gustafsson earned an NHL spot out of camp. He played 22 games on the fourth line with Logan Shaw and Joona Luoto, scored a beauty of a first NHL goal, skated an average of 6:09, and won 54 percent of his face offs. He’ll log more minutes than that in the upcoming days as part of the leadership group and will see time on the power play as well.
Gustafsson Given Well-Deserved Chance to Shine
Gustafsson found himself a healthy scratch after the Jets acquired Nick Shore off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs and retooled their fourth line, so their decision to loan him to Sweden was undoubtedly the right one. After the tournament, it’s believed he will spend the rest of the season with the SHL’s HV71, where he played 36 games and logged 12 points in 2018-19.
“We liked the idea that David was preparing for his role in the role that he was given, even on short minutes. At the same time, we became very mindful of those minutes,” head coach Paul Maurice said on Dec. 14. “This is some really high-level hockey, albeit amateur, but the best players in the world. It will be a great test for him. He’ll improve in that time.”
Crave WJC Coverage? You’ve Come to the Right Place!
Getting caught up on Jets’ prospects at the WJC is just the start. If you want to learn more about all 10 teams and their players before puck drops on Boxing Day, we at The Hockey Writers have a terrific team covering the tourney from all angles.