The 2020 World Junior Championship was filled with upsets and excitement, making it one of the more memorable tournaments in recent years. It began with wild speculation about the ‘Group of Death’ – the nickname given to Group A that included Canada, Russia, USA, the Czech Republic and newcomer, but certainly no pushover, Germany. Many of the predictions were correct when, after two games, every team was tied with a win and a loss apiece. Adding to the tension was Canada, who arrived as a medal hopeful but suffered their worst defeat in tournament history (6-0) at the hands of the Russians.
The playoffs were no less exciting, with the Finns upsetting the stacked American squad 1-0 in the quarterfinals, sending them home without a medal for the first time in five years. Russia kept the frustrated Swedes, who now boast a record 52-game preliminary win streak, out of the gold medal game, defeating them 5-4 in overtime to book a rematch with Canada for gold. However, the Canadians came out on top this time, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win 4-3. It was a roller coaster ride from start to finish.
With the highs and lows still fresh, here’s a look back at some individual performances. The Ottawa Senators watched three of the organization’s best junior prospects represent their countries on junior hockey’s biggest stage, and they have much to be excited about. All three players took positive steps forward despite not being their team’s biggest star. If the World Juniors are any indication of future success, the Senators are in good hands.
Jacob Bernard-Docker – Canada
As one of the Senators’ top prospects, all eyes were on Jacob Bernard-Docker when he was selected to Canada’s team. He nearly made the roster in 2019, but ended up being the final cut when Canada trimmed their defense to seven players. He was indispensable in 2020, putting up 14 points in 18 games with the University of North Dakota this season and helping his team ascend to the top of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
With top prospects like Bowen Byram and Jared McIsaac already slotted in as Canada’s top defense pairing, Bernard-Docker was assigned to a depth shutdown role with Kevin Bahl. In his team’s first game against the USA, last year’s silver medalists, he logged over 19 minutes – the third highest on the team. Only Ty Smith logged more time among defensemen, and both he and Bernard-Docker were instrumental in the opening win against the Americans.
Related: Ottawa Senators’ Prospect Pyramid
After that, it didn’t take long for Bernard-Docker to move up the depth chart. By the gold medal match-up with Russia, he was playing on the top pairing with Byram and logging big minutes on the penalty kill. He scored a single goal, in Canada’s 6-1 win over Slovakia, but was hailed as one of the team’s steadiest defensemen, if not one of their best. The tournament proved that Bernard-Docker can play both ends of the ice effectively, which should make the Senators very happy.
Shane Pinto – USA
Many were disappointed when Shane Pinto was selected 32nd overall by the Senators in 2019. With top prospects like Arthur Kaliyev, Bobby Brink and Raphael Lavoie still on the board, who many had projected as first-round selections, the relatively unknown college commit was considered a wasted pick. As the 2019-20 season progressed, the selection didn’t look any better, especially as Kaliyev rocketed to nearly two points a game in the OHL.
Yet, Pinto was the biggest star of the bunch at the 2020 World Juniors. On a stacked American squad, which included Brink and Kaliyev, he was the team’s second-highest scorer with seven points, and tied for the lead in goals with four. Although the Americans left the tournament without a medal, thanks to a stellar performance by Finland in the quarterfinals, it was a no-brainer to name Pinto one of the team’s three best players.
One of his best performances was in the opening game against Canada. Centering the first line with Nick Robertson and Oliver Wahlstrom, Pinto scored the USA’s first goal three minutes into the game, assisted on Robertson’s goal that brought them within one, and scored the goal that tied the game at four. A quick retaliation by Canada’s Alexis Lafrenière and an empty-net goal put a stop to Team USA’s comeback, but Pinto’s performance did not go unnoticed, earning him Player of the Game honors.
Lassi Thomson – Finland
Finland had a tough World Juniors. After losing their top center Anton Lundell to an injury before the tournament, they also lost Rasmus Kupari, a Los Angeles Kings’ first-round pick playing in the AHL this season, after just one game. Deprived of their two biggest stars, the Finns had their work cut out for them in order to repeat as gold medalists. It was up to the defense and their depth players to step up and transition to a slower, grinding style, rather than the high-flying offense many thought we would see again.
Much of the responsibility rested on Lassi Thomson, the Finnish captain and member of last year’s gold medal team. Like Bernard-Docker, Thomson is an offensive defenseman, and has six goals in Finland’s Liiga this season. He also wasn’t a very popular selection by the Senators in 2019, taken 19th overall despite being ranked as a late-first/early-second round pick. But when tasked with a bigger role on a weakened team, he rose to the challenge, playing tight defense and with a physical edge despite his smaller (6-foot-0) stature.
In the end, the team just didn’t have enough gas in the tank, falling 5-0 to Canada in the semifinals and losing to Sweden in the bronze medal game. Thomson, despite playing the most minutes of any Finnish player, was unspectacular, finishing with just three assists. Still, Senators general manager Pierre Dorian was happy with what he saw, saying, “He’s one of the players that has played the most minutes and he’s one of their leaders…we anticipate he’ll start his North American pro career next year,” (from ‘GARRIOCH: GM Pierre Dorion impressed with Senators prospects at world juniors’, Ottawa Sun – 1/13/20).
Although the Senators had just three prospects at the 2020 World Juniors, each were key members of their team and showed promise. It’s important to remember that this tournament is not a guarantee of success, nor is it a death sentence if it goes poorly – just think of gold-medalist goaltender Justin Pogge or Sean Couturier, who ended his only tournament with three points in seven games. The World Juniors offers a brief snapshot of a player in some of the highest pressure games he’ll ever play, and the Senators can take comfort in the fact that when placed in that situation their prospects performed their best.