Can anyone challenge Canada on their revenge tour?
The 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC) is nearly upon us, and this year’s tournament is shaping up to be another classic. The annual contest among hockey’s best prospects will be hosted in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta beginning on Sunday, December 26. While last year’s tournament was held in a bubble due to COVID-19, this year is different.
Fans are expected at the 2022 WJC, but the ever-evolving pandemic is rapidly changing plans. Yesterday, Hockey Canada announced that the schedule of pre-tournament games has been amended to take place on just one day (December 23) with all ten teams in action. There is currently no plan to limit fans once the WJC begins on Sunday.
With that out of the way, I’m back to give a full preview of this year’s tournament broken down by group. We’ll start with medal favorites Canada and Finland, hopefuls Czechia and Germany, and Austria.
The perennial favorites in whichever group they’re in, Canada will look to dispatch the Finns and Czechs quickly en route to potentially avenging their gold-medal loss in 2021. With the strongest paper roster in the tournament, Canada hasn’t escaped the pre-tournament punditry without criticism.
Hockey Canada didn’t even invite Kings prospect Brandt Clarke to their selection camp (leaving them with zero right-handed defenders on the roster), and a flurry of tough roster cuts sent dominant forwards like Luke Evangelista (NSH) and Hendrix Lapierre (WSH) packing. Aside from Evangelista’s snub, Nashville prospect Zachary L’Heureux was not invited to the team’s selection camp.
The goalie position may be the most interesting for Canada heading into this tournament. Dylan Garand is the only one of the three returning from 2021 and is gunning hard for the starting job, but 2021 first-round pick Sebastian Cossa will have something to say about that.
On the blue line, Canada is only returning Kaiden Guhle and first-overall pick Owen Power, who’s having a can’t-miss season at the University of Michigan (23 points in 18 games). The latter should have no trouble stepping up as the team’s best defender in his second WJC. Olen Zellweger and Carson Lambos are also players to watch down the lineup.
The forward group is littered with talent, but returnee Cole Perfetti will be without Peyton Krebs, Quinton Byfield, Dawson Mercer, and Dylan Cozens. Joining Perfetti—who’s lighting up the AHL with 15 points in 17 games—as the team’s top scoring threats will be a slew of 2021 picks: Dylan Guenther, Kent Johnson, and Mason McTavish.
London Knights goalie Brett Brochu went undrafted in 2021 and will likely serve as the third-string netminder unless injury strikes.
In the top-12, Canada will be bringing two young stars: Shane Wright (2022) and Connor Bedard (2023). Bedard, born in 2005 (!!!), has made a huge mark on the WHL at 16, scoring 14 goals and 24 points in 24 games for a struggling Regina team. It remains to be seen how Canada will deploy him at the WJC.
Wright, on the other hand, has faced some doubts this season as to whether he’s still the 2022 draft class’ top prospect. It’s a ridiculous thing to suggest for someone who’s scored 30 points in 22 OHL games, but the expectations he set in his 14 and 15-year old season (66 points in 58 games) were sky-high. Wright won’t leave the tournament with the most highlight-reel plays, but Canada will be counting on him to be a middle-six engine who can score and distribute with relative ease.
Do Canada’s roster decisions come back to haunt them, particularly on defense, and will anyone be able to slow them down after the group stage?
Hoping for a repeat of their 2021 medal performance, the Finns received a big blow to their chances earlier this month as a COVID outbreak on his Liiga team is forcing Aatu Räty to miss the WJC. Already without an ineligible Anton Lundell, the Finns should still be relatively fine in the group stage, and an all-tournament performance from Joel Blomqvist could propel them to the gold-medal game.
Pittsburgh’s Blomqvist will start in net for Finland, and he’ll be counted on to give the Finns a chance against Canada and potentially Sweden or the U.S. in the playoffs. On defense, Topi Niemelä should make a case for defender of the tournament; the Maple Leafs prospect has an impressive 24 points in 31 Liiga games this season. He’ll be joined by Aleksi Heimosalmi, Kasper Puutio, Eemil Viro, and Ruben Rafkin (undrafted) to complete a nightmarish blue line for Finland’s opponents.
With Räty out, 19-year old forwards Samuel Helenius, Roni Hirvonen, Roby Järventie, and Kasper Simontaival will make up the Finns’ scoring committee; Hirvonen has six goals and 16 points in 28 Liiga games this season. I’m also curious to see what Hurricanes prospect Ville Koivunen can do at his first WJC.
In an unusual (but unsurprising) development, Finland’s top scoring threats may be their two draft-eligible forwards: Joakim Kemell and Brad Lambert. The latter was an offseason favorite to be a top-five pick at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, but a disappointing season has tanked his draft stock. Even with just six points in 24 Liiga games, Lambert was impactful at the 2021 WJC with four points in seven games for Finland. If Lambert can utilize his impressive motor and filthy hands at this year’s tournament, Finland will be firmly in the medal conversation (and he’ll pick up a big boost to his draft-year confidence).
Kemell, on the other hand, has done nothing but impress this year. The 5’11” winger didn’t quite come out of nowhere for scouts, but his torrid start to the Liiga season has been the story of the draft class. In 21 games for JYP, Kemell has looked outright dominant at times, scoring 12 goals and 18 points. He recently returned from an injury that derailed his campaign, but he should be ready to lead Finland with his unmatched scoring prowess and shooting talent.
Does Lambert get his season back on track, and will Finland’s two draft-eligible forwards produce enough to outmatch potential playoff opponents like Sweden or the United States?
After a tough group draw in 2021 that saw the Czechs face the U.S., Russia, and Sweden, they’ll be hoping for an easier path to a medal game at this year’s tournament. They should be able to dispatch Germany and Austria in the round-robin portion, but Canada and Finland will be tough tests. A second-place group finish is unlikely but not impossible.
At goalie, the Czechs will be without 2021 starter Nick Malik but will lean on Jan Bednar to replace him. The Detroit prospect will look to kickstart the second half of his QMJHL season with a standout WJC performance.
On the blue line, returnee Michael Krutil will team up with Stanislav Svozil to lead a very solid defensive corps that will frustrate opponents with their stability, stinginess, and ability to move the puck.
Last year’s captain, Jan Mysak, will be the Czech’s go-to offensive catalyst alongside Wild prospect Pavel Novák. If the former—who scored just twice in five games at last year’s tournament—is going, then this team could make some games interesting. For secondary scoring, look to Jakub Brabenec and Martin Rysavy to translate their strong QMJHL and WHL seasons (respectively) to international ice.
In terms of draft-eligible players, one of the tournament’s most exciting skaters might just be David Jiricek. The 6’3” defender has been a regular in Czechia’s top league the past two seasons and returns from the 2021 WJC squad. He projects to be a stellar disrupter and transition defender who will be a first-round pick at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
Joining Jiricek is forward Jiri Kulich who has seven goals and 11 points in 30 top-league games this year. Kulich may struggle to adjust to WJC competition, but he could also make an impact as a middle-six forward who generates some offense and makes plays on the forecheck.
Will Jan Mysak elevate his goal-scoring enough for the Czech’s to leapfrog Finland in group play, and does David Jiriceck end up leading the blue line in ice time?
Without some of their nation’s best young talent, Germany will likely struggle to keep pace with the heavyweights of Group A. J.J. Peterka (BUF) and Lukas Reichel (CHI) have been excelling in the AHL this year and were consulted before being left off the Germans’ WJC roster. The rest of the lineup is full of experience but lacks star power. Nonetheless, the Germans will come prepared to pull off a potential upset and will likely avoid relegation.
In net, Germany is returning with Florian Bugl who (somewhat) salvaged last year’s WJC after some horrendous performances from Arno Tiefensee (against Canada and Finland granted). But I’m curious to see if Hurricanes’ prospect Nikita Quapp gets time in the net; he’s been okay playing for Krefield in the DEL this season.
Münzenberger—a teammate of Isak Walther’s at the University of Vermont—will anchor an older, bigger blue line that’s returning Maksymilian Szuber and Maximilian Glötzl.
While the Germans have no first-time draft-eligible players on their roster, undrafted skaters like Glötzl, Justin Volek, and Florian Elias will be looking to make a splash and catch the attention of some scouts. You can count on Elias and Volek to lead the way offensively with some help from Alexander Blank and Jakub Borzecki.
Who will take over the net for the Germans, and can they grind their way to a surprise playoff win?
Despite finishing last in the 2021 tournament, promotion and regulation were scrapped due to COVID-19, keeping Austria in the top division for this year’s event. With their first-ever set of consecutive appearances at the WJC, Austria will be fighting hard to make it three in a row but will face an uphill battle to do so.
A win over Czechia or Germany could be possible, but it’s likely Austria will be sent to the relegation round by the tournament’s end.
With Marco Rossi no longer eligible, Austria has no NHL-drafted prospects to rely on. At forward, they’ll likely be led by Senna Peeters—an undrafted center playing with the Halifax Mooseheads. Peeters was crucial in getting Austria promoted in 2020 with six points in five games at the Division 1A WJC, and he’ll be counted on to anchor their top line this time around.
Though they’re without any NHL prospects, the Austrians will be rolling out an interesting trifecta of draft-eligible skaters: Marco Kasper, Vinzenz Rohrer, and Luca Auer. Kasper made the team last year as a 16-year old and has already skated in 24 SHL games this season, scoring four goals and six points. He’ll be a first-round pick at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
Rohrer—who’s eligible for the next draft by just six days—has been a delight to watch with the Ottawa 67’s this season. He’s a smaller forward but tenacious all over the ice and has added 22 points in 28 OHL games this year.
Auer is likely the least known of this trio, but his numbers in the AlpsHL should catch anyone’s attention: 27 games, 17 goals, and 40 points. He’s avoided the scoresheet in seven ICEHL games (Austria’s top league), but that’s unsurprising for a 17-year old. A good tournament could do wonders for his draft stock.
Without a game-breaker like Rossi and a blue line that leaves much to be desired, can Austria piece together enough of a balanced attack to avoid relegation or make the playoff round? And how much of an offensive impact can Kasper or Rohrer register against steeper competition?
Projected Group A All-Star Team
Forward: Cole Perfetti (Canada)
Forward: Kasper Simontaival (Finland)
Forward: Mason McTavish (Canada)
Defender: Owen Power (Canada)
Defender: Topi Niemelä (Finland)
Goalie: Joel Blomqvist (Finland)