Biggest questions ahead of the 2023 World Junior Championship

Sports

The IIHF World Junior Championship has become ubiquitous — in hockey circles at least — with the Christmas holiday season. And the tournament returns this year to its usual place of honor.

That’s after the 2022 championship was shuttered in December 2021 amid a spike of COVID-19 cases within the Edmonton “bubble,” which was serving as the tournament’s venue. The event was ultimately restaged there in August, with Team Canada beating Team Finland 3-2 in overtime to claim gold.

So, if you’re feeling some déjà vu — “wait, didn’t they just crown a World Junior champion?” — you’re not wrong; Canada hasn’t had long to lord its victory over others. Them’s the breaks.

Because Canada — along with nine other nations — is back to battling for another WJC top prize. Pre-tournament action was underway earlier this week and gives way to preliminary round games starting Monday.

The 10 participating teams exist in two groups at two different locations: Group A features Canada, Sweden, Czechia, Germany and Austria playing at Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, while Group B has the United States, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia at Avenir Center in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Organizers didn’t intend for Canadian cities to host the tournament again so soon after Edmonton’s back-to-back turn. In 2018, the IIHF announced Novosibirsk, Russia (for Group A), and Omsk, Russia (for Group B), would share duties for 2023. But those plans changed in February because of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, which the IIHF condemned by not only stripping Russia of its hosting rights but suspending teams from Russia and Belarus from international hockey indefinitely.

And so, the World Juniors return to Canada for a third consecutive year. Once the playing field has been whittled down in separate locations, the top four teams from each group move onto the quarterfinals, starting Jan. 2. The semifinals follow on Jan. 4, and the bronze and gold medal games pop up on Jan. 5. The bottom-ranked teams from each group will play a best-of-three series in relegation.

Before all that fun begins, let’s go over major storylines to monitor and highlight key players to keep an eye on. If history has taught us anything, there’s always something unexpected ahead when the game’s best young talent squares off.


Can Adam Fantilli outshine Connor Bedard?

There are no guarantees when it comes to the NHL draft rankings and results. Just ask Shane Wright.

This time last year, there was zero question — or so it seemed — that Wright would be the No. 1 overall pick in July. Instead, Montreal went way off script by selecting Juraj Slafkovsky in the top spot and Wright fell to Seattle at No. 4.

Now, it’s Canada’s Connor Bedard who’s on track to be taken first in June. His teammate Adam Fantilli would like to be the Slafkovsky-like spoiler.

But it won’t be easy.

Bedard has an impeccable résumé. In 2020, he became just the seventh player (after the likes of Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad) to be granted “exceptional status” by Hockey Canada to appear in the Western Hockey League at just 15 years old. The pandemic interrupted Bedard’s debut campaign with the WHL’s Regina Pats, but the center finished 2021-22 with 100 points in 62 games. He leads the WHL this season with 64 points in 28 games.

Bedard, 17, is more than just a scoring threat, though. The North Vancouver, British Columbia, native is also an enviable playmaker and silky skater, possessing an incomparably wicked shot and mind for the game that moves so quick, he’s constantly one step ahead on the ice. He could be the total package.

Fantilli forged a different path than Bedard through his junior career. The Toronto-area product spent two seasons with the USHL’s Chicago Steel from 2020 to 2022, where he produced 110 points in 103 games. Fantilli graduated from there to the University of Michigan, and is midway through a successful freshman campaign (26 points in 16 games).

So, where might Fantilli have an edge over Bedard? In size, for one. The 18-year-old comes in at 6-foot-2 to Bedard’s 5-foot-10. Fantilli has potential as a power forward who’s tenacious on the forecheck and can outduel opponents in front of the net. He’s fast and skilled and could be an eventual No. 1 center for an NHL team.

Scouts will see Fantilli and Bedard sharing a sheet for the next few weeks. It’s an opportunity for both players to showcase the best they have to offer. Could one tournament make or break a franchise-altering decision? Likely not. But Team Canada’s stars will draw a spotlight regardless. What they do with that attention? We’ll be watching to find out.


Can Team USA get back on top?

Team USA entered the 2022 tournament as reigning gold medal winners following a triumph over Canada the previous winter. They wound up leaving Edmonton (Part II) with a disappointing fifth-place finish. Two years ago, the USA came in sixth.

Overall, the Americans have enjoyed ample success at past World Juniors though, capturing four gold, one silver and three bronze medals since 2010. And they’ve already gone 2-0 in pre-tournament action to date.

If Team USA wants to add more hardware, it will need continued performances from its veteran skaters.

Enter Luke Hughes.

Team USA’s captain and defensive scoring leader had six points in five games at the 2022 WJC and has put together a nice season so far at Michigan (18 points in 20 games). The 19-year-old — brother to NHLers Jack Hughes and Quinn Hughes — will be looked to for leadership on and off the ice, to anchor the American blue line and to bolster special team units. Hughes is a terrific skater who was impressive in pre-tournament action scoring a game-opening goal for the U.S. He’ll likely be at the forefront of any American success to come.

Then there’s the forward group, headed by Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud. Cooley was just drafted third overall by Arizona in July and wields a sharp two-way game and blistering wrist shot. Getting some experience during his freshman season at the University of Minnesota (25 points in 19 games) should only have helped Cooley mature and make him reliable and dangerous in every situation.

Snuggerud is Cooley’s teammate at Minnesota (second in NCAA scoring, with 27 points in 20 games thus far). While this is his WJC debut, Snuggerud appears unfazed by a big stage. He was strong in the early games, boasting a size (6-foot-2) and skill that can complement anyone he’s playing with.

Cutter Gauthier — already on Team USA’s top line with Cooley and Snuggerud — is another player to watch. Ditto for Sean Behrens on the back end and Kenny Connors in the bottom six rotation. What should set Team USA apart is its depth. On paper — and by the looks of those two games in the books — there’s potential for this to be a multifaceted foe any opponent would fear.

If the Americans can avoid hurting themselves via unforced errors and careless penalties, and there’s solid goaltending ahead from Kaidan Mbereko, especially, Team USA has to like its chances of being in the top-three mix again in January.


Can a certain Swede raise his stock?

You know Bedard. And Fantilli. And how they are likely to be the top two prospects in this year’s draft (as of now).

Now say hello to Leo Carlsson.

The Swedish forward is a projected top-five choice in 2023 who could push his way up a few draft boards with a successful World Juniors showing. What could that look like for the 17-year-old? It starts from the foundation he’s already built.

Carlsson’s been honing his skills the past two years with Orebro HK of the Swedish Hockey League, facing high-end competition that’s helped rapidly mature his game. The center has consistently produced points this season — 14 in 25 tilts to date — but Carlsson’s impact goes beyond scoring goals. He’s a play-driving forward, is good in transition and gets to the net and creates for linemates. An October video of Carlsson deftly stickhandling through a crowd quickly turned heads and showcased what sets him apart from other skaters his age.

Another defining Carlsson quality is his preternatural calm that leads to confidence. The teenager appears unaffected by added pressure, which bodes well for Carlsson’s potential to pierce the NHL ranks sooner than later once he is drafted.

Sweden took home bronze at last season’s WJC and earned five other medals — including one gold and three silver — since 2012. It is a motivated bunch again this year, and it’s the ultimate opportunity for Carlsson to make his case as a top-three selection come June.

It’s worth noting that another player gunning for similar consideration won’t be on display the next couple weeks — at least not in this tournament. Matvei Michkov would be highlighting a roster for Team Russia if there was one. Some have already anointed the 18-year-old forward a future face of Russian hockey. But instead of representing his country right now in Canada, Michkov has inked a deal to suit up for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL through 2025-26.

Michkov’s draft potential is complicated. Given the talent and high hockey IQ Michkov flaunts, NHL clubs will still be interested in securing his rights for down the line — Kirill Kaprizov was drafted in 2015, but didn’t make his NHL debut until the 2020-21 season. But will Michkov come off the board before or after Carlsson? And if the Swedish standout does enough at World Juniors, can he gain the inside track on Michkov? Oh, the drama.


Can an underdog contender emerge?

Now, “underdog” is a relative term here, used mostly to describe “not Canada or the United States.”

We already know those North American squads are expected to excel and are routinely considered the ones to beat. So, who might be up to the task?

Finland

Only Canada, the U.S. and Finland have won gold at the past 10 World Juniors. And Finland was one overtime marker away from topping Canada on the podium in August. Months later, Finland is primed to make another strong push in the tournament.

Finland’s team philosophy works from the defense out, so Aleksi Heimosalmi and Otto Salin should be setting a tone on the blue line that extends everywhere else. Even though skaters like Joakim Kemell and Niko Huuhtanen can score (and the Finns are hopeful Brad Lambert starts showing up on the scoresheet, too), defense is Finland’s first priority. If it can stick to its script, Finland has a good chance of getting a medal.

Czechia

The plucky group finished fourth in last season’s tournament, a wild ride that included losing to Latvia and then eliminating the undefeated Americans. It was Tomas Suchanek’s incredible performance in net that delivered the latter outcome, and Suchanek has returned to backstop Czechia. He might not be an elite netminder, but Suchanek works hard and plays behind a defense led by David Jiricek. The Columbus Blue Jackets‘ prospect has had a terrific season in the AHL, averaging a point per game and is supported by Tomas Hamara and Stanislav Svozil.

Up front, it’s Buffalo Sabres‘ prospect Jiri Kulich — who has 16 points in 24 AHL games this season — and New York Rangers‘ selection Jaroslav Chmelar — a standout freshman at Providence College — challenging opponents. All in all, Czechia’s got real potential to surprise.

Sweden

Recently, Sweden has failed to turn excellent preliminary round performances into gold-medal game appearances; it hasn’t been to that stage since 2018. The Swedes’ mission to return starts with the previously mentioned Carlsson and extends to several key players showing up.

Goaltender Carl Lindblom takes over for Jesper Wallstedt, and there’s high hopes for what the Golden Knights’ prospect can bring given the great season he’s having in the Swedish professional league, HockeyAllsvenskan. Sweden’s biggest weakness might be its lack of top-tier defensemen, so the forward group will be relied on even more to drive Sweden’s success. It has Carlsson there, along with Filip Bystedt (a first-round choice by San Jose in 2022) and Fabian Lysell (a 2021 first-round choice by Boston).

The question mark is Vancouver prospect Jonathan Lekkerimäki, who hasn’t produced a point in the SHL since November, but has game-changing potential when he’s going. He’ll have something to prove at this tournament and that could be a huge boost for Sweden.


Can Austria sidestep relegation?

What is relegation? Glad you asked!

At the end of the WJC’s round-robin, the two last-placed teams will play a best-of-three series. Whichever team wins will be allowed back at next year’s tournament; the loser is relegated to Division 1 Group A.

How does Austria avoid this fate? Another good question!

Austria has injected some fun into the WJC since reaching top-tier status in 2021. That hasn’t resulted in further success. The IIHF removed relegation the past two seasons, so Austria didn’t have to worry about slipping back there (and given Austria was 0-4 and outscored 28-1 in no-relegation 2020, it truly dodged a bullet). But there’s no such luck this time around.

Unfortunately, Austria won’t have its biggest name in Marco Kasper. The Detroit Red Wings prospect opted to continue working on his game with the SHL’s Rogle BK. Bummer for Austria. Also not around is goaltender Sebastian Wraneschitz, who made 119 saves in two games during the 2021 tournament that might have actually resulted in a win if he’d gotten any goal support.

There’s still hope for Austria, though. Forward Vinzenz Rohrer has been lighting up the OHL with 32 points in 26 games for the Ottawa 67’s, and 2023 draft-eligible Ian Scherzer can build off a strong showing in last summer’s tournament with another two-way performance here. On the back end, keep your eyes peeled for David Reinbacher. He had two assists through four games at the last WJC, and has collected 14 points in 28 games with the Swiss league’s Kloten HC this season. A dual threat like Reinbacher immediately improves his country’s odds.

It’ll be tough, though. Austria has Sweden, Czechia and Canada to face. It’s Austria’s final game against Germany that could tell the tale. If Austria hasn’t earned any points and neither has Germany, there’s a chance Austria doesn’t slide into a relegation matchup that likely pits it against Latvia. Stars will need to align for Austria, but otherworldly showings from Scherzer, Reinbacher and Rohrer could help get them there.

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