With the 2023 World Junior Championship (WJC) just around the corner and selection camps opening this week, I figured it’s time to look ahead and make some predictions before the tournament starts in full. This tournament is always filled with surprises and excitement and this year will be no different.
Last year we saw Team Czechia pull off the upset against Team USA in the quarterfinals and Mason McTavish making a ridiculous defensive play to rob Team Finland of the gold medal in overtime. Junior hockey is unpredictable so gathering 10 teams of the best junior-aged players in the world means this tournament is pretty tough to predict.
I’m going to try my hand at predicting some of the biggest news of the tournament before it begins, and I’ll even throw in a bonus, way-too-bold prediction for each entry to increase the likelihood that I’m wrong. Let’s get speculating!
1. Connor Bedard Leads the Tournament in Scoring
Connor Bedard has made the Western Hockey League (WHL) look like a semi-organized beer league this year, scoring 64 points in 28 games, only going pointless once, in his first game of the season. His performance last season for the Regina Pats of 51 goals and 100 points would have been an impressive draft year, but Bedard has somehow leveled up his production and play, becoming the most dangerous offensive player in his league. On pace for well over 100 points this year, Bedard will most likely be the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
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He has experience with the WJC as well, already making the cut for the U20 tournament as a 16-year-old last December and then again in the re-scheduled August tournament. In a combined nine games Bedard has scored 13 points in this tournament and is only going to get better. I expect he’ll get some time on the first line with one or both of Shane Wright and Adam Fantilli, a potential superstar caliber line
Bonus Prediction: Bedard will score more goals in a single tournament than anyone has managed since 2000. Max Friberg has the record with nine goals in six games back in 2012. The all-time record for goals in a single tournament is held by Markus Naslund who scored 13 in 1993.
2. Austria Avoids Relegation, Even Without Marco Kasper
Austria hasn’t historically been one of the powerhouses of the hockey world, but they’ve made some huge steps of late. Marco Rossi became just the second Austrian player drafted in the top 10 of the NHL Draft, followed shortly by Marco Kasper who was drafted eighth overall in the 2022 Draft. Unfortunately for Team Austria, neither of these players will be on their team this year.
Rossi has aged out of the tournament, but Kasper is still eligible for the 2023 and 2024 WJC tournaments. He also captained Austria in the original 2022 tournament last December as a 17-year-old where he was expected to lead the team on and off the ice. Kasper has been playing a big role for his team in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this year, so he has decided to stay in Sweden to compete against men rather than joining a junior tournament.
You might think this dooms Austria to the relegation game as the bottom team in their group, but fortunately for Austria they have another great prospect on their team this year who I think could be a real difference maker.
David Reinbacher is a right-shot defenseman with great skating and a remarkable defensive game that leads me to believe he’s a no-doubt first round talent in the 2023 NHL Draft. He is playing big minutes this year in the top Swiss league where he’s scoring a lot more than I expected him to despite playing against tough competition on a nightly basis.
I think Reinbacher is good enough to drag Austria into competition and keep them in the top division of the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Bonus Prediction: Austria is going to win their game in the Round Robin games against Germany in regulation and avoid the relegation game altogether.
3. Luke Hughes Win Top Defenseman in the Tournament
Luke Hughes is one of the best drafted prospects in the world, and has been one of the best players in the NCAA from the moment he first set foot on college ice. Following in his brothers’ footsteps, Hughes has an incredible offensive game and has scored 57 points in 61 NCAA games.
At last August’s tournament, he was second in points-per-game amongst defensemen despite playing through an injury for the final few games. I highly doubt Team USA will lose out in the quarterfinals again this year so he should have more than five games to put his stamp on this tournament.
With most of his stiffest competition either aging out or opting out of this year’s tournament, Hughes has very little serious competition for the Top Defenseman award. His two-way play and offensive dominance put him in a league of his own and the only players who might give him a run for his money are Czechia’s David Jiricek, or one of Brandt Clarke/Olen Zellweger from team Canada.
Jiricek has the best chance in my mind as a two-way defenseman who has shown decent offense at the AHL level this year, while Clarke and Zellweger both play a game that’s significantly tilted towards offense. I believe that Hughes could succeed in the NHL right now (he’ll likely play a few games at the end of the season), so having him to lead your d-corps will be a huge boon for Team USA at this tournament.
Bonus Prediction: Hughes will break the record for single tournament scoring by an American defenseman, shared by Tom Pederson and Erik Johnson who each managed 10 points.
4. Team Sweden Misses out on the Medal Round
Team Sweden won the bronze medal at last year’s tournament, so why shouldn’t they be able to make it past the quarterfinals this year? Sweden always arrives with a competitive team, and I don’t expect that to change, this just doesn’t feel like the kind of roster that can do any serious damage.
Jesper Wallstedt has aged out of the tournament after being named the best goalie in the tournament last year. While Carl Lindom could be one of the better goalies in the tourney, he doesn’t instill nearly the same level of confidence that Wallstedt did. Sweden will also be without Red Wings prospect Simon Edvinsson as he opted out of the tournament to continue playing in the AHL. Edvinsson would have been a huge addition for this team and his loss will be felt on defense.
Not only is Sweden without Edvinsson, but they have lost both Elias Salomonsson and Mattias Havelid to injuries, players who would have likely been on the top defensive pairing in Edvinsson’s absence. Without those three, Sweden’s defensive depth is looking like it has been scraped pretty thin.
Regardless, Sweden has an excellent forward group this year, led by 2023 Draft eligible prospect Leo Carlsson, that could push them into the medal round regardless of my defensive questions.
Bonus Prediction: They lose to Czechia in the quarter finals and have no response for Jiri Kulich
5. Joakim Kemell Named to Media All-Star Team . . . Again
After leading Team Finland in scoring last August, Nashville Predators first rounder Joakim Kemell is looking to keep that momentum going this year. Kemell was last tournament’s second leading scorer with 12 points in seven games, behind only Mason McTavish of Team Canada.
He will have some solid teammates as well with young Finns like Brad Lambert and Roni Hirvonen joining him on the attack. Kemell has played one and a half seasons in the Finnish Liiga so far and has scored 33 points in 63 games over two seasons. Not too shabby for a prospect who doesn’t turn 19 for another four months!
I was blown away by Kemell’s offensive abilities in August and I truly expect him to make another run at leading the tournament in scoring, while being a very safe bet to lead Finland in scoring. After losing to Team Canada in the gold medal game by a couple of inches in last year’s tourney, Finland is looking for a better result this time around and a great offensive performance from Kemell will go a long way for Finland as they try to upgrade their medal.
Bonus Prediction: The media all-star team will be made up of the following players: Connor Bedard (CAN), Joakim Kemell (FIN), Noah Östlund (SWE), Luke Hughes (USA), Olen Zellweger (CAN), Carl Lindbom (SWE)
6. Canada Wins the Gold Medal
At this point, anything but Gold is a disappointment for Team Canada, and the sheer level of talent on their roster this year means that they could still be considered disappointing even if they win it. This team is absolutely stacked on offense, has one of the most solid defensive corps front-to-back, but will struggle to keep goals out of their net with no clear starting goaltender.
Canada’s top-six forward group is absurd at this point with the likes of Bedard, Fantilli, Shane Wright, Logan Stankoven, and Dylan Guenther. Three of those players attended NHL training camps this year (two of them made their NHL team’s roster), and the other two are likely going to be drafted 1st and 2nd overall in the 2023 NHL Draft. There is a mix of elite skating, goalscoring, effort, and size all mixed into just their top-six, with plenty more talented players filling out the third and fourth lines.
The defensive group also provides some confidence with Zellweger, Brandt Clarke, and Kevin Korchinski providing tons of offense from the back end and Ethan Del Mastro, Nolan Allen, and Tyson Hinds bringing the size and defensive ability. Zellweger is the only defender on Canada who comes in under 6-foot-2 which shows that this team was built with a big and heavy defensive line in mind to help insulate whichever goalie they have in net.
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Goaltending will be the biggest wild card for Canada this year with no clear-cut favourite to earn the starter’s net. Benjamin Gaudreau and Thomas Millic certainly earned their roster spots but aren’t on the same level as guys like Devon Levi or Carter Hart that we’ve seen in recent years.
Team Canada will live and die by their goaltending this year which is why their bottom-six forward group and their defensive corps are made up of lots of defensively minded players that can help keep the puck out of Canada’s net. I think Canada has a good chance at sweeping their games in the round robin stage and then will go on to win Gold once again.
Bonus Prediction: Fantilli scores the gold medal winning goal, set up by Bedard, and we have a fun conversation about how Fantilli could go first overall in the 2023 Draft.
Another Exciting World Junior Championship
This tournament is one of my favourite events on the hockey calendar each year and I can’t wait for this year’s tourney to start up on December 26. It’s shaping up to be some great tv for the next two weeks or so with some great drafted and undrafted talent prepared to show the world what they can do.