The 2022 World Junior Championship is right around the corner, beginning on Dec 24 and finishing up on Jan 5, 2022. For Team USA, they have taken the biggest step ahead of their first game against Slovakia on Dec 26, selecting their final roster. With the list of 25 highly-skilled players announced, here is a look at the top five players to watch at this year’s tournament.
Matthew Beniers , Center
Beniers is the clear choice for the top spot on our list. Among six returning players from last year’s tournament, he recorded three points in seven games in 2021, helping Team USA capture the gold medal. This year, he will look to play a far bigger role offensively while maintaining his defensive responsibilities. Often compared to longtime Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, Beniers has the ability to match up against the opponent’s top line and possesses the offensive firepower to produce on the other end. As a sophomore at the University of Michigan, he has already racked up 22 points in 20 games.
Beniers has already made history in his young career after being selected second overall by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. With the selection, he became the first draft pick in Kraken history. Not only will his country look to him to produce on the ice, but he is also the most likely candidate to wear the “C’ on his crest, representing the captain of Team USA.
Sasha Pastujov, Winger
Pastujov was another key member of the 2021 gold-medalist team, tallying five goals and three assists in just five contests. The 2021 Anaheim Ducks pick has dominated in the Ontario Hockey League this season, scoring 35 points in 25 games for the Guelph Storm. The winger has the balanced ability to find teammates with his passing and finish the puck when he gets his chances.
At just 18 years old, he has done nothing but impress in his young career. During the 2020-21 season, the Bradenton, Florida native racked up 65 points in 41 games for the U.S. Development Program. Pastujov will have some big shoes to fill as fellow Ducks draft pick, Trevor Zegras was the team’s best offensive player at last year’s tournament. He will get the chance to prove his ability, likely finding himself on the wing on the top line throughout the tournament for Team USA.
Luke Hughes, Defenseman
Another of the three Michigan Wolverines on this squad, Luke Hughes will be the top candidate for the top defensive pairing this year. Drafted fourth overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2021, Hughes joins his brother Jack, who was the first pick in the 2019 Draft.
Currently in his first season at Michigan, Hughes has impressed in all aspects of his game, providing offense with 18 points in 20 games as well as solidifying the Wolverines blue line defensively with an overall plus-13 rating on the season. Overall, his greatest aspect is his skating. Using his effortless stride, the 6-foot-2 defenseman is able to speed all over the ice, consistently playing the game at full speed.
Jake Sanderson, Defense
Another returning player from last year’s tournament, Jake Sanderson, will look to take the next step in his development this year. After providing a solid defensive game and a plus-7 rating in the 2021 tournament, he has shown a much improved offensive side of his game this season at the University of North Dakota.
In 15 games, Sanderson has tallied 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) as he continues to grow offensively. The first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators should provide a solid two-way game for Team USA and could fit nicely on the top pairing alongside Hughes. Sanderson has also shown some leadership qualities that are vital to the success of any team, especially at the international level. He has a history of serving as a captain and currently plays the role of alternate captain for North Dakota this season.
Logan Cooley, Center
Last but not least, the youngest player on the roster for Team USA, Logan Cooley. At just 17 years old, Cooley will look to provide an offensive spark at this year’s tournament. While he will be among the youngest in the field, his skillset is undoubtedly elite. So far this season, he has recorded 30 points in 20 games for the U.S. Development Program. It seems the sky is the limit for the 5-foot-10 center, who is projected to be selected in the first round of the 2022 Draft. The University of Notre Dame commit has the potential for a breakout tournament if he plays his game and is not intimidated by the older and more experienced players.
There you have it, the top players to watch for Team USA at the 2022 World Junior Championship. This team is loaded with talent as they look to go back-to-back as gold medal winners.
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Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!