The World Junior Championship gets underway on Wednesday, with the first of four matchups on the day getting started at 1:00 pm PST. It’s the best way to celebrate the holiday season: kick back and watch some non-stop under-20 hockey action featuring prospects from all your favorite teams.
If you’re looking to spend your Boxing Day with the WJC, here’s a preview of day one of the tournament.
Czech Republic vs. Switzerland (1:00 pm PST)
This game features not one but two of the league’s readiest prospects, both playing for the Czech Republic. Most fans will remember Filip Zadina, the promising, dynamic forward who was seen as a steal when he fell to sixth in this past year’s draft. He’s spent most of the year in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins, but now he’ll get a chance to impress at the WJC, perhaps even earning a call-up in the process.
But don’t overlook Zadina’s teammate, Martin Necas, the 19-year-old center who has performed even better than Zadina this season in the AHL. He’s one of the league-readiest prospects yet to play in the NHL, and he could tear up the tournament and earn a call-up. Zadina and Necas will be very hard to handle, and they should take care of a Swiss team that isn’t deep on talent behind Valentin Nussbaumer, a potential second or third round pick.
Favorite: Czech Republic
Players to Watch: Filip Zadina and Martin Necas (CZE), Valentin Nussbaumer (SUI)
United States vs. Slovakia (3:30 pm PST)
The U.S. team this year will be led by a pair of brothers who should shine in the NHL for years to come. There’s Quinn Hughes, the defenseman who was picked right behind Zadina at the draft and has been dominating with the University of Michigan this season. And then there’s his brother, Jack, who will be a household name in the hockey world very soon if he isn’t already, as the presumptive first overall pick in the 2019 draft.
The Hughes brothers won’t have to shoulder the entire load by themselves, though, as the U.S. roster is loaded with talents. The team is full of players that have already been drafted into the league, and they’ll be backstopped by one of the best goaltending prospects in recent memory, Spencer Knight, who projects to be a middle first round pick this summer.
Slovakia doesn’t have an especially threatening team this season, though they do have Maxim Cajkovic, a possible first round pick in 2019. Still, the U.S. should have no trouble handling them, and will need a decisive win if they want to make waves in the tournament.
Favorite: United States
Players to Watch: Jack Hughes, F, and Spencer Knight, G (USA); Maxim Cajkovic (SVK)
Canada vs. Denmark (5:00 pm PST)
Team Canada, unsurprisingly, is probably the best team in the tournament. They are absolutely loaded with center prospects who will be in the NHL before long, with Morgan Frost from Philadelphia, Nick Suzuki of Montreal, Barrett Hayton of the Coyotes, and Cody Glass of the Vegas Golden Knights, among others.
They also have one of the most promising prospects of the future, with Alexis Lafrenière. He has 54 points in just 31 games with the Rimouski Océanic in the QMJHL and is expected to be the number one overall pick in the 2020 draft. It will be fascinating to see how Lafrenière adjusts to playing with older competition, but his skills should shine despite the opposition.
Denmark will look to hold off the explosive Canadian squad with the help of its net minder, Mads Søgaard. The 6-foot-7 goalie has been one of the better backstops in the WHL this year, posting a .931 save percentage and a 2.39 goals against average, which puts him top ten in both categories. Søgaard is a solid prospect, who may go in the second or third round in 2019. He could be the one thing that keeps Denmark in this game.
Players to Watch: Cody Glass, C, and Alexis Lafrenière (CAN); Mads Søgaard (DEN)
Finland vs. Sweden (7:30 pm PST)
The marquee matchup of the evening seems to be the most even on paper, with Finland and Sweden squaring off. Both Scandinavian hockey powerhouses, Finland may have a slight edge, but it’s much closer than any of the other games on day one.
Finland boasts the game’s top prospect in Kaapo Kakko, the only player who might potentially unseat Hughes as the top pick in 2019. Kakko has 20 points in 27 games playing in Finland’s top league with adult competition, and he’s only 17. For purpose of comparison, Patrik Laine had 33 points in 46 games in that league in his draft year, so Kakko is on an even better pace. Finland also has the net minder with maybe the most delightful name in the tournament, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who has almost single-handedly made the Sudbury Wolves relevant in the OHL this year.
Sweden isn’t without its talent, though. They have one of the better defensive corps in the Championship, with Adam Boqvist of the Blackhawks and Rasmus Sandin of the Maple Leafs. Those two will be supplemented by Philip Broberg, whose stock is continuing to rise as a first round pick this year. The game will come down to whether the tough Swedish defense can handle the offensive potency of Finnish players like Kakko and Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville’s top prospect.
Players to Watch: Kaapo Kakko, F, and Eeli Tolvanen, F (FIN); Adam Boqvist, D, and Rasmus Sandin, D (SWE)
The WJC is a chance for young players to showcase their talents, either as prospects entering the draft, or as hungry young draftees hoping for a call-up. The players you watch over the next few weeks in British Columbia will be the players who light up the NHL in seasons to come. Be sure to tune in if you want to catch a glimpse of the future before it arrives, and be sure to check back with the Hockey Writers for all your WJC coverage needs.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.