With Team Canada getting closer to their final exhibition game and preparing for their first game against the United States on Boxing Day, there are a lot of names that stand out at both the forward and defense positions.
Related: THW’s 2020 WJC Coverage
With returning players like Barrett Hayton being loaned from the Arizona Coyotes and the future star potential of Alexis Lafreniere, to the mobility of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale, this team is not short on talent. From the selection camp until now, there have been a few players that have stood out more than others. Here are six players that fans should keep an eye on during the World Junior Championship.
6. Kevin Bahl, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
If there’s one defenseman that stood out the most during the selection camp, it was the Ottawa 67’s towering defender Kevin Bahl.
Some players have an issue with their mobility because of their size. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, Bahl’s height and size don’t affect him at all. He has a strong and fluid stride with good speed for someone his size. In addition, his defensive presence is the reason why Bahl feels he got noticed by Hockey Canada.
“Just the big size, mobility and ability to shut down,” Bahl said. “I love to play against top guys, I think it’s rewarding to know that you shut down a guy or your team won by a goal. I think they really liked that and I take that to heart.”
Bahl’s play was definitely noticed during the first game against U Sport, scoring once and providing the steady defense he’s known to bring. He likes to model his game around multiple players, an example being Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Coyotes.
“He’s really good defensively, when he’s winning the battles he’s always low and engaged. It’s little things that I can implement in my game.”
His ability to use his size in a shutdown role will be key if Canada has any chance at a gold medal. In the past, they have been one of Canada’s reasons for success and Bahl might just be one of the pieces of a winning squad.
5. Nico Daws, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Nico Daws was literally an unknown heading into the selection camp. He was passed over in the 2019 Draft, didn’t attend the Summer Showcase and he was 1-1-3 in the first five games with the Guelph Storm. However, he went on a massive hot streak heading into camp with a 12-2-1 record and a 2.06 goals-against average.
During the selection process, Daws was by far the best goalie and he proved it by showing his resiliency and work ethic. “Not getting drafted, never playing for Team Canada, not going to any NHL camps… it’s nice to play good and prove people wrong,” Daws said in a report on TSN. “I’m trying to stay in the moment. I’ve got a lot of work here.”
Daws didn’t let anything get the best of him during the tryout process, especially during the first game against U Sports. He was very composed in net and was able to locate the puck without any difficulty. Whether Daws gets the starting job or not, fans should be familiar with his name from here on out.
4. Bowen Byram, Vancouver Giants (WHL)
If we thought the Colorado Avalanche struck gold with Cale Makar from the 2017 NHL Draft, then Byram just made the Avalanche even more successful in finding another top defender.
Selected fourth overall by the Avs this past June, the steady and mobile blueliner comes as advertised and could be the missing piece for a solid top defense pairing for the future. While his puck-moving abilities are high-end, his ability to play defense and provide strong coverage in his own end will be what Canada is looking for when the tournament starts. He isn’t afraid to lay the body when he needs to.
After Makar dazzled everyone with his puck-moving abilities and won gold at the 2018 World Juniors, the same could occur with Byram. He could be heavily relied on in a top-four role in what is already a deep defensive unit for Canada. He played a key role on Canada’s blue line winning gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018 and he’ll look to replicate that success this year.
3. Jamie Drysdale, Erie Otters (OHL)
Despite having a 2002 birth year, Drysdale didn’t look out place at all during the selection camp and pre-tournament games. The Erie Otters defenseman has been an outstanding presence on his team’s defensive unit, despite a less than stellar record. The offensive production is there and that’ll benefit the Team Canada that wanted to have a mobile and smart defensive core.
He put up 40 points as a rookie defender with the Otters and he’s on pace to surpass his point and goal totals from last year. Drysdale captained Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this past August, recording four assists in five games en route to a silver medal. His defensive play was also visible, not panicking when the puck was in his zone and was calm under pressure.
Drysdale came into camp looking for some motivation after coming close to gold in the summer. “I think any time you come out with silver, you want to redeem yourself and get that gold medal,” Drysdale said. “I’d love to get another crack.”
During the tournament, Drysdale provided excellent smarts, great puck movement and steady play in his own end. While offense is a big part of his game, he’s also able to provide strong defense, locating pucks, moving the play up and being quick with transitions. From his minor hockey days in AAA with the Toronto Marlboros to now, Drysdale continues to keep getting better while gaining more responsibility as a defender. The next step is being one of Canada’s key defenders at the tournament this year.
2. Quinton Byfield, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
The projected second overall pick in this year’s draft is definitely a must-watch for everyone. Another player born in 2002, Byfield is the typical power-forward that every team would love to have. His speed mixed with his ability to get in on the fore-check and use his size to his advantage is what makes him so fascinating to watch. He truly is the complete package.
His Canadian teammates, especially those that see him on a consistent basis in the Ontario Hockey League, have noticed his remarkable skill. “He’s an ox. That’s the best way to describe him,” said Ty Dellandrea of the Flint Firebirds. “He’s strong on the puck and he’s got it all. It’s hard to play against a guy that’s so tall and use his body so well and can finish and has got the hands.” To prove this, here’s his between the legs goal at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
After putting up 61 points in 64 games in his rookie season, the Newmarket, Ontario native is already four points behind his season total from last year. TSN’s Craig Button has even compared his hands to that of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin. With a comparison like that, you know that he’s bound to have a strong tournament and successful career.
1. Alexis Lafreniere, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Was there any doubt that the best player in the 2020 draft class is the No. 1 player to keep an eye on? As simple as it may be, Lafreniere is the reason why many should watch the tournament.
After a disappointing finish and scoring only once last year, Lafreniere is using that learning experience for this year’s tournament. “It was hard to lose in the quarter-finals,” Lafreniere said, “We wanted to go as far as we can. We’ll use that experience for this year.”
In the 153 games he has played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Lafreniere has tallied 255 points, a 1.67 points per game average. Lafreniere’s elite level skill and vision are what separates him from the rest of the crowd. He’s a dynamic winger with the ability to find any open space on the ice and drive to the net.
Lafreneiere’s skillset will be on display for all to see like it was during the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. Everyone will now be able to see what Lafreniere can accomplish as an offensive threat on the ice.
Honourable Mentions: Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge Hurricanes, WHL), Nolan Foote (Kelowna Rockets, WHL), Raphael Lavoie (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL), Ty Dellandrea (Flint Firebirds).
Do you agree with this list? If not, who are you keeping a close on eye this year?
Hockey has been a big part of my life since watching my first Leafs game to currently coaching minor hockey. I previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. Aside from hockey, I also enjoy drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.