2019 World Junior Championship Tournament Preview: It really is the most wonderful time of the year

The best U20 players faceoff in Vancouver and Victoria in search of World Junior gold

To the general public, December 26th is Boxing Day. For hockey fans, it’s the first day of the World Junior Championships. And for this particular writer, it just so happens to be my favourite day of the year. This is the first time I’m doing such comprehensive World Juniors coverage, and I’m really excited about it.

For the first time since 2006, the World Juniors are back in Vancouver (and Victoria). That year, Canada won gold over Russia, and the Finns defeated the Americans for bronze. Thirteen years later, we’re looking at another tournament with five or six teams in medal contention. And thanks to the way the groups were divided, we could see maximum levels of chaos in quarter-final matchups.

Big shoutout to Elite Prospects for their World Juniors webpages, it made compiling this preview a lot easier, and they have a ton of interesting information on teams, players, and previous tournaments.

I broke down each country’s strength, weakness, and what it will take for them to win gold. Hope you enjoy it, and happy reading!

Group A

2018 Finish: Gold | Predicted 2019 Finish: 1st | Roster

Strength: Strong in all areas
Head coach Tim Hunter wanted this year’s team to be the fastest Team Canada ever, and they’ve certainly not deviated from that. They roll four lines with ease and every line can score. The blueline isn’t afraid to join the rush because they’re quick enough to get back to defend in time. Goaltending has always been an issue for Canada in the last eight years, but their tandem of Michael DiPietro (Vancouver) and Ian Scott (Toronto) will be their best one in a long time. Physicality might have been in question prior to pre-tournament games until Maxime Comtois (Anaheim) made it his personal mission to bowl over every opposing player.

Weakness: Forgetting the game plan
Yes, there’s only one returning player (Comtois) and they’ve faced some injury adversity (Alex Formenton, Gabriel Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Brett Leason), but Canada isn’t weak in one specific area necessarily. I only noticed this because I watched them play 6 games in lead-up to the tournament (hey, no one else broadcasted any other country’s games, sorry), but Canada has a tendency to forget their game plan halfway through a period or the game. That may fly against weaker teams, but it’s going to bite them hard when they have to play Russia or the US. When they use their speed to overwhelm opponents, they look unstoppable. It’s when they fall asleep halfway through the game where the trouble starts.

Also, their goal song is no longer ‘Hey Baby’, which is definitely not upsetting at all.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): The chemistry clicks
Canada won last year because the team just came together. It was one of the most evenly-spread out offenses in the country’s history at the World Juniors. All 13 forwards scored and only one player finished with zero points. Everything just clicked, and that’s what needs to happen this year. The forward lines looked all right in pre-tournament games, but the defense pairs need to get more comfortable with each other. Canada found lightning in a bottle with their top line of Comtois, Owen Tippett (Florida) and Cody Glass (Vegas). The rest of the lineup may need some shuffling. If they can find combinations and pairs that work, we may be looking at back to back Canadian championships.

Player to Watch: Jack Studnicka (BOS, 2017)
Draft Eligibles: Brett Leason (undrafted in 2017 & 2018, but projected first-rounder in 2019), Alexis Lafreniere (2020)

Czech Republic
2018 Finish: 4th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 3rd | Roster
Just here me out before you go jumping down my throat about predicting a Czech bronze medal, all right? First, all Tampa Bay Lightning fans should want the team’s only World Juniors representative (Radim Salda) to come away with a medal. Second, I can’t justify the Czechs winning gold or silver over the United States or Canada. Third, the Czechs almost medalled last year but ran into the offensively outrageous Americans in the bronze medal game. (Salda is still with the team as of Boxing Day, but wasn't listed as a registered player on their official lineup.)

Strength: Return of their best players
Fourth, all of their best players from last year are back! Filip Zadina (Detroit), Martin Kaut (Colorado) and Martin Necas (Carolina) were a lethal line for the Czechs last year and they’re back with a vengeance. Along with Jakub Lauko (Boston), the depth the Czechs have up front is as strong as its ever been even without getting Filip Chytil from the Rangers. The blueline will be bolstered by returnees in Salda and Toronto’s Filip Kral, and goalie Jakub Skarek will play in his third World Juniors. He didn’t have the best showing last year, but Skarek has played extremely well in Liiga this season, coming into the tournament with a .921 save percentage in 16 games as a nineteen year old.

Weakness: Quantity over quality on the blueline
Salda and Kral will headline the defense corps but beyond them, the Czech blueline lacks skill. Their depth will serve them well against teams like Denmark and Switzerland, but they may have a harder time defending against Canada and Russia. They’ll really miss former Bolts prospect Libor Hajek, and don’t have a marquee name on the blueline. The team will need a collective effort on the back end to stop stronger offenses and feed pucks to their forwards.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): Their depth comes through
This will be the Czech Republic’s best chance to medal since their bronze in 2005. Sweden and Russia aren’t as strong as they were in past years, their goaltending is stronger, and they have the offensive talent other countries are lacking. Their odds were probably better before Finland got a bunch of NHLers loaned to them, but their chances are still strong. This is a team that can generate offense across their lineup, and if they can get everyone scoring and following the game plan, it could be a surprising finish for the Czechs when it’s all said and done.

Player to Watch: Filip Zadina (DET, 2018)
Draft Eligibles: Petr Cajka (2019)

2018 Finish: 9th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 9th | Roster
Denmark is probably the weakest team in Group A, but they’ve proven that they have what it takes to stay up in the top division. Since being promoted back in 2015, we’ve seen some pretty remarkable performances from the Danes, bolstered by players like Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand (both now flourishing in the NHL). It may be difficult for Denmark to avoid playing in the relegation round, but this is a country you can never count out at this tournament.

Strength: Experience and size
11 players eligible to return from last year will be critical to the Danes’ success. For a weaker team at the World Juniors, experience can be what leads to exceeding expectations. Denmark will bring a couple of NHL prospects to Vancouver: winger Jonas Rondbjerg (Vegas Golden Knights) and defenseman Malte Setkov (Detroit Red Wings). Rondbjerg plays against men in the SHL and led Denmark in scoring last year. This will be one of the bigger bluelines Denmark brings to the tournament in recent memory, as five of their defensemen are 6’3 or taller.

Weakness: Missing Danish stars
I mentioned past Danish World Junior heroes like Ehlers and Bjorkstrand from 2015. The Danes had Alexander True for 2016 and 2017. Last year, Denmark went without a true NHL talent in their lineup, and barely avoided relegation. It took a shootout victory over Belarus to return this year, and unfortunately, they’re without a star again this year. It will take a total team effort to make a fifth straight World Juniors in 2020.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): Sogaard dominates
The Danes have options in goal, but they should go with Mads Sogaard. The 6’7”, 2019-draft eligible goaltender plays for Medicine Hat in the CHL and has a .931 save percentage in 19 games this season. Despite his age, Sogaard’s calm presence and size afford him the ability to steal games, which is exactly what Denmark needs from their goalies at this tournament. All it takes is one upset for the Danes to vault into the medal round and send an unsuspecting favourite to the relegation round instead. And Sogaard can do just that.

Player to Watch: Mads Sogaard
Draft Eligibles: Jonathan Brinkman (2019), Gustav Green (2019), Mads Sogaard (2019)

2018 Finish: 5th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 6th | Roster
It was a shocking opening day 5-4 loss to the Czechs which pushed Russia down to third in the group last year, and an unfavourable quarter-final date with the Americans. After a bronze medal finish in 2017, the Russians bowed out in the quarters last year. They’ll be looking for a better fate this year. Russian head coach Valeri Bragin favours older players at this tournament, which means it is rare to see Russian draft-eligible players at the World Juniors. It also means that there are few returning players every year, and 2019 is no exception. With Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina, only St. Louis’ Klim Kostin and Edmonton’s Dmitri Samorukov will return from last year’s team.

Strength: The older, the better
However, 19 year olds flourish at the World Juniors, so it won’t matter for Russia how few returnees they have. This year’s Russian squad is big, strong, and can skate. Led by power wingers Vitali Kravtsov (Rangers) and Kirill Marchenko (Blue Jackets), Russia will give smaller teams a hard time. And while Russia may use their size to create offense, this is a skilled team as well up front and on the blueline. However, Ivan Chekovich (Sharks) suffered a back injury in training and will miss the tournament entirely, which is a tough loss for the Russians’ offense.

Weakness: Defense first, offense later
There’s nothing wrong with a defensively responsible group. In fact, it may prove to be an advantage. But Russia could find it difficult to score against teams with better bluelines, namely the US and Sweden. Alexander Alexeyev (Capitals) will generate offense from the back end, and Kravtsov up front, but Russia is better suited for a stingy defense and shutting teams down. That strategy will work in their favour in the preliminary games, but once Russia gets to the medal round, they’ll need generate to offense.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): By sticking to their game
I know I hinted at Russia needing to focus on offense, but the truth is that if they continue to physically push opponents off the puck, there is enough talent in their lineup to score. Games will be physically demanding and taxing, and Russia can use their size to their advantage with smaller teams (like Finland and Sweden). They can still use the same strategy against bigger teams like Canada and the United States. While they’re evenly matched in terms of size, Russia can hamper their speed and cycle with their physicality.

Player to Watch: Vitali Kravtsov (NYR, 2018)
Draft Eligibles: None

2018 Finish: 8th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 8th | Roster
There is no country greater at stumping perennial favourites at the World Juniors than the Swiss. This year’s team looks no different. After giving Canada a scare in a pre-tournament game by climbing back from a 4-1 deficit. Switzerland lucked out by landing in the same group as Denmark, because their odds are better to avoid relegation. But the Danes have beat the Swiss before, so they can’t take them for granted. Plus, head coach Christian Wohlwend’s interviews (especially against tougher opponents) are extremely entertaining. All the more reason for us to want Switzerland to advance to the medal round.

Strength: CHL talent
Switzerland has three players in the CHL who will be key to the country’s success. Chicago Blackhawks draftee Philipp Kurashev has been excellent for the Remparts in the QMJHL, amassing 43 points in 33 games this season. Valentin Nussbaumer has 18 points in 30 games as a draft-eligible centre with the Shawinigan Cataractes. Defenseman Nico Gross will play in his third World Juniors, and his experience will help guide a younger blueline. The New York Rangers prospect only has 12 points in 30 games with the Oshawa Generals this season, but can contribute offensively and move the puck well.

Weakness: Wishing on a star
When Switzerland has a top talent like Nico Hischier or Nino Niederreiter playing at this tournament, they can wreak havoc on teams. Unfortunately, that’s rare and they don’t have a player of that calibre this season. There isn’t anything particularly impressive about this group of Swiss players, but flashy talent won’t matter as long as they can get the job done. It would just give them an extra edge.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): Saved by goaltending
Goaltending has always affected Switzerland’s do-or-die outcome. A good year of goaltending pushes the Swiss into medal contention. A rough performance usually sinks them down into relegation. New Jersey Devils prospect Akira Schmid will be Switzerland’s goalie of choice. He’s played nearly every international tournament but is still searching for support from his teammates to be successful. Schmid will have to stand on his head for Switzerland to win in the medal round and hopefully his teammates can help him out.

Player to Watch: Phillipp Kurashev (CHI, 2018)
Draft Eligibles: David Aebischer (2019), Valentin Nussbaumer (2019)

Group B

2018 Finish: 6th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 4th | Roster
It has not been a fun stretch for Finland since their dominance at the 2016 World Juniors. They were nearly relegated in 2017 and stomped on by the Czechs in the quarter-finals last year. Admittedly, they haven’t brought the same calibre of talent to the last two World Juniors compared to 2016 (Patrik Laine, Kasperi Kapanen, Sebastian Aho, and Mikko Rantanen, just to name a few). Until a week ago, it was looking like the Finns would face the same problem they did in 2017: too many eligible players playing in the NHL. Fortunately for them, three NHL teams decided to fix that.

Strength: NHL Boost
The Finnish national team management should send Christmas gifts to the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and Nashville Predators for loaning Henri Jokiharju, Urho Vaakanainen, and Eeli Tolvanen to the tournament. If they hadn’t, Finland was probably facing another quarter-final exit. With those loans, they turned into medal contenders overnight. Tolvanen had a quiet tournament last year, but should be leading the offensive charge for Finland this time around. Meanwhile, returnees Jokiharju and Vaakanainen (who was cleared to play after a concussion) solidify what would have been a very shaky and inexperienced blueline.

Weakness: Lack of centre depth
With Jesperi Kotkaniemi in Montreal, the Finns are shallow (at best) down the middle. Aleksi Heponiemi (118 points in 57 games with Swift Current last season) will provide scoring, but it gets murky behind him. Rasmus Kupari showed offensive potential at the Summer Showcase. Beyond that, Finland can’t expect much offense from their centres. Thankfully, their wingers will fill that void. Keep an eye on Kaapo Kakko (projected top-3 pick in 2019). He may play right-wing, but maybe he’s picked up some centreman skills from Kotkaniemi through playing with him over the years.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): Luukkonen continues his OHL success
I know it’s getting a bit redundant with nearly every country’s x-factor being goaltending, but it’s crucial for Finland. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Buffalo Sabres) returns as the team’s starter. He wasn’t bad last year, but Finland will want a stronger performance from him this time around. Luukkonen has a .923 save percentage in 26 games with Sudbury in the OHL this season, so if he can put up the same numbers with Finland, it should be enough to push them into medal contention.

Player to Watch: Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA, 2017)
Draft Eligibles: Kaapo Kaako (2019), Ville Heinola (2019), Anton Lundell (2020)

2018 Finish: Promoted from Division 1A | Predicted 2019 Finish: Relegated | Roster
Let’s face it, this will probably be a one-and-done for Kazahkstan at the top division. The last time they were here was back in 2009, when Victor Hedman was playing for Sweden. On the whole, the team lacks the talent and depth of the other countries, and teams like the United States and Sweden should walk all over them. If Kazahkstan is to be this year’s Cinderella story, it will take a standout goaltending performance from Denis Karatayev, who led his country back to the top junior level last year and flourishes in high-pressure games.

Strength: Experience
Kazahkstan fought to the bitter end to finish atop Division 1A last year, and it was likely their shootout win over Latvia that sent them to the top division. Although the team won’t have any NHL draft picks, there are 10 returning players from last year. Four of Kazahkstan’s six scoring leaders are back from last year, and they have a comfortable tandem in net.

Weakness: The curse of the promoted team
A promoted team hasn’t avoided relegation since Denmark in 2015. Before that, it was Switzerland in 2010. It’s been the same nine countries for three years, and based on the trend, it would take a miracle for Kazahkstan to return to the World Juniors for 2020. Plus, relegation is now a best-of-three series, so they would have to win two games against likely Denmark or Switzerland, which is a tall task.

X-Factor (how they’ll win - or avoid being relegated): A New Year’s miracle
I’m not being cynical. Kazahkstan was placed in a group with the United States, Sweden, and Finland. Kazahkstan would have to beat Slovakia on New Year’s Eve to avoid playing in the relegation round. It’s happened before, but they’ll need everything to come together on the last day of the year for the hockey gods to tilt the game in their favour. But winning one game is easier than two in relegation, and nothing is impossible.

Player to Watch: Artur Gatiyatov
Draft Eligibles: Artyom Korolyov (2019) David Muratov (2019), Oleg Boiko (2019), Dias Guseinov (2019), Maxim Musorov (2019)

2018 Finish: 7th | Predicted 2019 Finish: 7th | Roster
Whoever scheduled this year’s tournament really had it out for Slovakia. They open the tournament with back-to-back games against the Americans and Swedes. Then they play Finland, and end with Kazahkstan on New Year’s Eve. Honestly, that’s Slovakia’s most important game. If they want to avoid relegation, they have to win (at least) once, and their game against Kazahkstan provides them with the best chance to do that.

Strength: Talented up front
Calgary prospect Adam Ruzicka returns for his third and final World Juniors. If Slovakia makes waves this year, he’ll be a big reason why. The power centre has 35 points in 33 games with the Sarnia Sting (OHL). Fellow Flames prospect Milos Roman has 29 points in 30 games with Vancouver in the WHL. Both three-year World Juniors veterans will be counted on for offense, and they are capable of providing it. Slovakia also has 2019-draft eligible prospect Maxim Cajkovic, who starred at the World U-18s with 11 points in five games. He developed great chemistry with Olivier Okuliar (8 points in 5 games), and they have been reunited on a line at the World Juniors, so they could do some damage.

Weakness: Shallow blueline
The Slovak blueline took a severe beating against Canada in pre-tournament action. There were two instances where Slovak players collided with each other, and two injuries blocking shots (though not too serious). They don’t have the depth on the back end to survive any significant injuries (so they should maybe stop throwing themselves in front of every slapshot or one-timer). Washington Capitals prospect Martin Fehervary will be the veteran on the back end. Although he won’t contribute too much offensively, he will be the imposing presence on the Slovak blueline.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): A lights-out goaltending show
Remember Denis Godla, who singlehandedly dragged the Slovaks to a bronze medal in 2015? That’s what it’s going to take, and they don’t need a household name in net, either. Whichever goalie they choose to run with this year, if he can stand on his head like Godla did, there’s no telling how far Slovakia can go (especially with their ability to score).

Player to Watch: Adam Ruzicka (CGY, 2017)
Draft Eligibles: Andrej Golian (2019)

2018 Finish: Silver | Predicted 2019 Finish: 5th | Roster
Last year, Sweden took a nineteen year old heavy team to Buffalo en route to a second place finish. They won’t have that luxury this time around, especially with Rasmus Dahlin flourishing in the NHL. In a tough group with the United States and Finland, there’s a very good chance Sweden’s 44-0 record in eleven straight World Juniors preliminary games could come to an end. That might not be such a bad thing, though. In the 11 straight years Sweden has gone undefeated in group play at this tournament, they only have one gold medal (2012).

Strength: Best blueline
Sweden has the strongest, deepest, most offensively-capable blueline in this tournament. The country is known for producing top-end defensemen, but the 1999 and 2000 classes of Swedish defensemen are particularly elite. Vegas’ Erik Brannstrom and Chicago’s Adam Boqvist will lead the way. Even though Toronto’s Timothy Liljegren will miss the tournament with an injury, Leafs 2018 first rounder Rasmus Sandin will make his World Juniors debut. Adam Ginning (PHI) and Nils Lundkvist (NYR) will round out an extremely strong skating group. With Liljegren’s injury, the Swedes named Philip Broberg, projected top-15 pick in the 2019 NHL draft, as his replacement.

Weakness: Mediocre forward group
There should be no concerns with the Swedish blueline, at least on paper. Where they should be worried is up front. Gone are the likes of Elias Petterson, Lias Andersson, and Alex Nylander. Sweden’s struggles were evident at the World Juniors Summer Showcase and the Four Nations tournament last month. They couldn’t buy a goal in most games. Anaheim (thankfully) loaned Isac Lundestrom from the San Diego Gulls, but he is Sweden’s only first-round pick among their forwards. This is one of the weaker forward groups Sweden will bring to the World Juniors in a long time. The old saying may dictate that defense wins championships, but if Sweden can’t score, they won’t win.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): It’s all about timing
I could just parrot what I’ve written for every other country’s x-factor (goaltending), but for Sweden, that won’t do it. The blueline must pick up where the forwards cannot. It’s very likely Sweden’s defensemen will outscore their forwards. If it falters, they will have to rely on scoring up front, which is a tall task. Sweden’s defense is good enough that it could just do everything, but we’ve seen bluelines falter at this tournament before. If the blueline can contribute offensively and the forwards shore up team defense, Sweden has a very good chance to win their first gold in seven years. And it probably goes without saying that Sweden would take a loss in the preliminary round if it means they go undefeated in the new year on route to gold.

Player to Watch: Olle Eriksson Ek (ANA, 2017)
Draft Eligibles: Philip Broberg (2019)

United States
2018 Finish: Bronze | Predicted 2019 Finish: 2nd | Roster
Man, did the United States ever have a strange tournament last year. They beat Canada in the outdoor game making it four straight defeats over their rivals, but lost to Slovakia in the preliminary round. Then, Sweden rolled over them in the semi-final including scoring two shorthanded goals, so the US settled for bronze. Last year’s team had all the makings of a repeat championship squad, but it didn’t work out. Luckily, the Americans bring an even stronger, more talented team to Victoria this year, and they could make it a second straight gold medal on Canadian soil.

Strength: Wealth of forward talent
Jack Hughes. Ryan Poehling. Joel Farabee (Philadelphia). Josh Norris. Oliver Wahlstrom (New York). Jason Robertson (Dallas). The list goes on, but the American forwards will pick up right where last year’s finished. The group can create offense, disrupt defenses, and overwhelm opponents with speed. The United States is particularly strong up the middle with Hughes, Poehling (Montreal), and Norris (Ottawa) and boasts the best centre depth of the tournament in terms of talent and offensive capability. And yes, I say this as a Canadian. The Americans can score — and we should see them dominate offensively.

Weakness: Unbalanced blueline
The United States has three returning defenseman: Quinn Hughes (Vancouver), a dynamic skater and offensive catalyst, a reliable puck-handler in Mikey Anderson (Los Angeles), and Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg), who plays a harder and physical game. The rest of the blueline features solid depth players, all of whom are intelligent and good skaters. Unfortunately, the US only brought two right shots to Victoria, and won’t play a game with this blueline until Boxing Day. Even though it probably won’t matter much further in the tournament, there will be an adjustment period as one or two players will have to slide to their off-side. All that being said, it’s probably the easiest weakness of all ten teams in the tournamenr to overcome.

X-Factor (how they’ll win): Goaltending
The Americans got stellar goaltending from Tyler Parsons in 2017, and he was a large reason why they won gold. Unfortunately, neither Joseph Woll nor Jake Oettinger were able to replicate Parsons’ success last year  with neither goalie finishing with a save percentage above .900. If the United States wants to get back into the gold medal game, they’re going to need Kyle Keyser or Cayden Primeau to be near the top of the tournament in save percentage. The difference between the US and other countries whose x-factor is goaltendingis that the Americans won’t need Keyser or Primeau to steal games. They just need to be better than last year’s goalies.

Player to Watch: Josh Norris (SJ to OTT, 2017)
Draft Eligibles: Jack Hughes (2019), Spencer Knight (2019)

Let The Games Begin...

NHL Network will broadcast tournament games in the United States, and it will be TSN broadcasting games in Canada. We will have daily recaps up every morning here at Raw Charge for the next two weeks, so keep your eyes out for that, and feel free to debate my predictions in the comments. Enjoy the tournament, the holiday season, and may the best team win!

All statistics are from Elite Prospects and Wikipedia.