As the holidays approach, the excitement for the World Junior Championships in Buffalo is on the rise.
The tournament is still a couple of weeks away –games begin on Dec. 26th – but all the competing countries have summoned their players to their pre-tournament camps this week. While the junior hockey world will have its attention focused on the games in upstate New York, what about the teams left behind?
The Western Hockey League is going to be well represented at the World Juniors and those players who end up participating will leave a hole for their league clubs to deal with over the next month. Do these absences make a difference?
Last season’s champion Seattle Thunderbirds had to navigate December and early January without Mathew Barzal and Alexander True. They went 5-4-1-0 without both players. While it didn’t hurt them in the end, it may have cost them a U.S. Division title. Seattle finished the regular season two points out of first place in their division which meant they had to face Everett on the road in the second round.
This month will have an effect on the top teams’ standings and playoff seeding.
Here is a look at three WHL teams that will the be the most impacted by the World Junior Championships:
Swift Current Broncos: Tyler Steenbergen – Canada, Aleksi Heponiemi – Finland, Artyom Minulin – Russia.
The Broncos will not only have to play without two of their top three scorers but two of the WHL’s top three scorers. Heponiemi leads the league with 71 points while his linemate, Steenbergen, is third with 61. They will still have Glenn Gawdin in the lineup and he is second in the scoring race with 63 points. Heponiemi should be a lock to make the Finland roster and the Arizona Coyote prospect Steenbergen could crack a loaded Canadian squad.
Losing a point-producing defenseman line Minulin won’t be easy but Swift Current still has blue liners like Colby Sissons and Sahvan Khaira who can pick up some of that slack.
Trailing the division leading Moose Jaw Warriors by four points, the Broncos can’t afford too much of a drop off over the next month. While they still have the top spot in mind, they are only one point ahead of the charging Brandon Wheat Kings – who will be missing two key players as well – and won’t want to slip into third place.
Luckily, the Broncos picked up Matteo Gennaro in a big trade with Calgary last month and he should help offset the loss of the big guns.
Everett Silvertips: Carter Hart – Canada
Everett is only going to be without one player, so why are they on this list? That player has been hands down the Silvertips’ MVP, and maybe the league MVP as well.
Hart has the Silvertips sizzling on a nine-game winning streak and he has been spectacular. The Philadelphia Flyers’ former second-round draft pick is coming off of four consecutive WHL Goalie of the Week awards and has posted ridiculous numbers to start the season.
He is sporting a career-best .961 save-percentage and a microscopic 1.32 goals-against. Those numbers far and away lead the WHL as Hart is carrying the Silvertips. Everett is tied for the fewest goals scored in the Western Conference, yet sits in third place in the standings. This past weekend, Hart won back-to-back games against Spokane and Portland where the Silvertips were outshot 82-45. Only one of those 82 shots found its way past Hart however.
There is little doubt that Hart will be Canada’s goalie for the World Juniors and the Silvertips will turn to rookie Dustin Wolf to replace him. The 16-year-old Wolf has only appeared in four games with Everett so far, but the results have been promising. He’s won three of those starts and has a Hart-like save percentage of .951.
Portland Winterhawks: Cody Glass – Canada, Keifer Bellows – USA, Henri Jokiharu – Finland, Joachim Blichfeld –Denmark
The potential loss of four of its top five scorers does not come at a good time for Portland. After blowing through the league early, the Winterhawks have scuffled of late. Their 4-2 victory against Spokane this past Tuesday snapped a surprising five-game losing streak where they struggled to score goals.
Glass – who was selected in the first round by the Vegas Golden Knights this June – was the only player out of the lineup on Tuesday and the real test for Portland will start now. Bellows who, after a slow start, has picked up 19 goals and 39 points for Portland will be a return player for the USA junior team so Portland can count on him being gone. It also seems that the defenseman Jokiharu (36 points) and the forward Blichfeld (30 points) will also be locks for their countries.
That leaves Glass as the lone question mark. He’s ninth in the WHL scoring race but at only 18-years-old, is not automatically guaranteed a spot. That being said, the fact that he was the sixth-overall pick in the NHL Draft and has already potted 20 goals, the chances are good that he sticks with Canada.
With those players out of the Portland lineup, Sklyer McKenzie will have to step up for the Winterhawks, as will players like over-agers Keoni Texeira and Alex Overhardt.
All the 2018 World Junior Championship Team Information:
Czech Republic — Team Preview — Roster
Russia — Team Preview — Roster
Belarus — Team Preview — Roster
Canada — Team Preview — Roster
Denmark — Team Preview — Roster
Slovakia — Team Preview — Roster
All Your THW 2018 World Junior Championship Coverage
Andrew writes about the WHL and NHL Draft Prospects. He also covers the Seattle Thunderbirds for 710 ESPN Seattle and spent two years with Sportsnet. Follow him on Twitter @andyeide.