Senators Prospects to Watch at the World Junior Championship

After its untimely cancellation back in January, the U-20 World Junior Championships (WJC) are about to get underway again. With the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) confirming that this is a full restart, and not a continuation, fans will get a full tournament’s worth of competition. As the offseason transactions slow down and with another two months before regular-season play, here are the teams where you can catch some Ottawa Senators prospects.

Team Canada

Ridly Greig (Center)

The highest-profile prospect for the Senators in this tournament is definitely Ridly Greig. He was one of the Senators’ first-round picks in 2020. Since the draft, he’s continued to play an absolutely key role for his junior team. As an alternate and then captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Greig scored at a torrid pace, racking up 63 points in 39 games. He managed this while playing with an extreme edge, landing himself 92 penalty minutes. He joined up with the Senators affiliate Belleville Senators during their 2020-21 season, picking up three points in seven games.

Brandon Wheat Kings Ridly Greig
Ridly Greig of the Brandon Wheat Kings (Brandon Wheat Kings)

Greig is, by most accounts, the prospect in this tournament closest to making a full debut in Ottawa. This season will likely see him in Belleville full-time, with the chance to make an impression with the main club in the event of injuries. Having participated in the rookie camp this year, he’s certainly on management’s radar, who might need to inject some extra peskiness into the bottom two lines this season.

Zack Ostapchuk (Left Wing)

The Vancouver Giants captain Zack Ostapchuk will be joining Team Canada this time around. After not being on the roster for the initial tournament start, Ostapchuk strengthened his case off the back of strong playoff play in which he scored nearly two points per game. Clocking in with 23 points over 12 games, he was instrumental in the success that the Giants had, despite the team falling short in their pursuit of a championship. As captain, he led the team with his brand of physical, but intelligent, play. He’s skilled at using his size not only for getting physical, but using his reach with hands that are softer than most of his contemporaries.

Related: Senators 2022-2023 Lineup Boosted by Summer Arrivals

For a team like the Senators where the prospect pool is replete with big bodies, Ostapchuk isn’t the next in line for a spot on the team. Tyler Boucher and Greig will likely earn the roster spots ahead of him. However, if he’s able to showcase some of his higher-level playmaking skills throughout this tournament, he could convince management to give him a real shot this season. Watch for him to have some pretty serious drive during this tournament.

Team USA

Tyler Kleven (Defenseman)

The lone player on Team USA from the Sens’ prospect pool is Tyler Kleven. Another University of North Dakota alum, Kleven has made his mark as a shut-down defender. Not the type of defenseman to rack up points, the 6-foot-4, left-shot defenseman excels in using his reach to stop zone entries and break up the rush. As a second-round pick in 2020, he’s stuck with his college team and has committed for another season in North Dakota. The Senators have a relatively healthy defensive prospect pool, but lack a true shut-down defenseman.

Tyler Kleven USNTDP
Tyler Kleven, USNTDP (Credit: Rena Laverty)

As Kleven will play this upcoming season in college, the team will need to wait another season to sign him. But, as defensemen tend to be late bloomers, there’s no issue with some extra development with both international play and his upcoming season. With the US national team for this WJC being heavy with puck movers and crafty defenders, it’s likely that Kleven will play a big role on key defensive matchups. Expect to see him out on the penalty kill and late-game defensive zone draws. With former teammate Jake Sanderson on the rise, Kleven will be fighting to not be far behind.

Team Czechia

Tomas Hamara (Defenseman)

The only Senators pick from this draft who will be participating in the WJC is Tomas Hamara. After going in the third round, Hamara looks to be an important piece of an upstart Team Czechia. Though initially projected to go in the second round, the Sens wasted no time signing him once he was selected. For many, this will be the first real chance to see Hamara in action. He played a big role on the U-18 teams and now fans will see if he can step up to the increased competition for the U-20 tournament. He’s a classic two-way defender who can control the rush but still make plays on his own when given the chance and even he says he’s tried to model his game after Thomas Chabot.

He’s generally more of a pass-first player, but when he activates his shot, he does so with good accuracy, even if the release is a little bit slow. Hamara had good success playing in the U-20 league in Finland, but didn’t quite see the same success when he stepped up to Liiga. This will be his first taste of high-level competition since being drafted. It’s not entirely clear why he fell all the way to 87th in the draft, but surely he’ll want to use this chance to prove that he was a steal. While most eyes will be on David Jiricek, the sixth-overall pick, Hamara will still be heavily relied upon during the tournament.

Team Finland

Leevi Meriläinen (Goalie)

The real question mark of the Senators’ goalie prospects, Leevi Meriläinen, will be suiting up for Team Finland with much to prove. Early on he was considered a goalie who could rise to the occasion, even as finicky as goalie development can be. But the move from the Finnish leagues to the Kingston Frontenacs has had a negative impact on his numbers. Meriläinen, while a fan favourite in Kingston, has not been able to replicate the success he had overseas. In a small sample size at the canceled tournament, he looked outstanding. Once he returned to the Frontenacs it was a different story.  

Leevi Merilainen Kingston Frontenacs
Leevi Merilainen, Kingston Frontenacs (Frankie Benvenuti / The Hockey Writers)

What should have been a dominant season for the Frontenacs saw them struggle in a number of areas, and unfortunately goaltending was one of them. His numbers got even worse once they went into the playoffs, ultimately exiting early with a 3.69 goals-against average and a .888% save percentage. The Senators will look to Anton Forsberg to hold the net for the next few seasons, but Meriläinen is running out of runway to showcase his talents as Mads Søgaard looks better and better with Belleville. Meriläinen will be the starter as Finland’s best option in net, and with a strong defensive core, he should post decent numbers regardless of personal performance.

Roby Järventie (Left Wing)

As a scoring left winger, Roby Järventie will need to provide a lot of offense for the Finnish squad. After going early in the second round in 2020, he has continued to improve and had a very good season with Belleville last season. As one of just two natural left wingers on this year’s roster, he could wind up on the first line, possibly playing with Brad Lambert and Joakim Kamell. Playing with teammates at that level could translate to a nice points total for the tournament for Järventie, and the experience should help him back in Belleville. He’s big, he can skate, and he can score. Now the only question is whether or not he has the drive to get to that next level.

Left wing is getting a little bit busy for the Senators, so any chance to make an impression is an important one. If Järventie wants to prove himself capable, now’s the time. With a good international showing followed by continued improvement in Belleville, he could find himself with a depth spot sooner rather than later. But that being said, he remains locked in a battle with Greig to take on a future roster spot. If he has a good tournament, Järventie could see himself in a spot to succeed.

While this rescheduled tournament may not be around the holidays, we all get the gift of summer hockey. This year the stakes are seemingly higher as players could play their way onto a new spot in the roster before the season starts. With just two short months to go before the NHL gets underway, the Senators have a lot of scouting to do before they make their next moves to cap off a spectacular offseason.

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