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2020 World Junior Championship Tournament Preview: Which country enters the decade golden?

The best under-20 players worldwide faceoff in the Czech Republic for World Junior glory.

Leijonat on Twitter

The holidays fast approach, and so too does the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship. This year’s tournament features a ton of draft-eligible talent, as well as a plethora of first-round draft picks from last June. The World Juniors are a 19-year old’s tournament, though, so expect 2000-born players to excel and dominate for their respective countries.

Finland, the reigning World Junior champions, brings back a star-studded roster, despite missing some top talent this time around. They’ll play in Group A with a strong Swedish team, Switzerland, Slovakia, and last year’s Cinderella team, Kazakhstan.

For the first time since 2008, the Czech Republic will host the tournament. The 2008 tournament was actually the last time Canada won gold at a World Juniors hosted overseas. Can they break the 12-year drought? The two countries will play in Group B, along with Russia, the United States, and Germany. With three hockey powerhouses in the group and strong rosters from the Czechs and Germans, Group B has been labelled the ‘Group of Death’.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will have three prospects playing at the World Juniors this year — a jump from last year’s tournament where Radim Salda was their lone representative. All three prospects were 2019 draftees: first rounder Nolan Foote (CAN), and third rounders Maxim Cajkovic (SVK) and Hugo Alnefelt (SWE).

Just like last year’s preview, I broke down all ten teams’ strengths, weaknesses, and their x-factors. I also gave my final tournament predictions, based on how the 2000 age group of each country fared at the U-18 level, as well as their rosters for the tournament.

Group A — Trinec

Finland

2019 Finish: 1st | 2020 Projected Finish: 2nd | Roster

Strength: Defense & Goaltending

Finland’s blueline is stacked with returning talent this time around. Returning for them are Winnipeg’s Ville Heinola, Ottawa’s Lassi Thomson, Carolina’s Anttoni Honka, and Vancouver’s Toni Utunen. Finland’s blueline is mobile, dangerous offensively, but also capable of playing great defense. And behind them stands Colorado’s Justus Annunen, who is the best goalie in the Finnish elite league this season. He was fantastic at the World Junior Summer Showcase and hasn’t slowed down one bit to start the season. He’ll be difficult to beat, and has the ability to steal games for the Finns.

Weakness: No Anton Lundell

Fine, maybe that’s not such a big deal at first glance, but Lundell’s absence (due to a elbow injury) at this tournament really hurts the Finns, who are already missing the game-breaking presence of Kaapo Kakko this year, especially down the middle. Lundell would have filled that role perfectly and, even as a 2020 draft-eligible player, likely dominated for Finland. The defending champions will need someone to step up in Lundell’s and Kakko’s absences — like LA’s Rasmus Kupari or Carolina’s Patrik Puistola, perhaps.

X-Factor: Breaking the Pattern

Recent history has proven that Finland has a tumultuous showing at the World Juniors as the reigning champions. In 2016, they won gold. They were nearly relegated in 2017, finishing ninth. Finland also won World Junior gold in 2014 — but finished seventh the following year. This age group has a strange international track record, too. They finished sixth at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial, but won gold at the U-18s in 2018. They’re talented enough to win another medal, but Finland has been known to get in their own way. They’ve also got a new head coach behind the bench — Raimo Helminen has coached the Finns internationally before, but he’s never led them to a medal win.

Players to Watch: Ville Heinola (WPG) & Aatu Raty (2021)

Kazakhstan

2019 Finish: 9th | 2020 Projected Finish: 10th (relegated) | Roster

Strength: Chemistry & Experience

There will be a lot of returning players from last year’s Cinderella-story team, as last year’s squad was pretty young. That will help Kazakhstan greatly as they try to pull off another upset against one of the teams in group play. But this team has tasted victory at this level before, and that alone will be motivation enough to do it again.

Weakness: Cinderella Story to Could-Be-Disaster

Kazakhstan was the feel-good story of the 2019 World Juniors, but they’ll be hard-pressed to repeat it again this year. The majority of their star players have aged out of this tournament, including all five of the team’s top scorers from last year. Kazakhstan will need returning players like Andrei Buyalsky and Maxim Musorov to deliver offense for them this time around.

X-Factor: Winning When It Counts

The most encouraging thing for Kazakhstan is that they’re not in the group of death this year. That means their matches against Switzerland and Slovakia hold a lot of weight in a mediocre group. They’ll need a win against at least one of those teams (because it will take an unlikely miracle to beat Finland or Sweden) to help their chances at a quarter-final berth. Otherwise, they’ll be battling either the Germans or the Czechs in relegation.

Players to Watch: Maxim Musorov (UD) & Dias Guseinov (UD)

Slovakia

2019 Finish: 8th | 2020 Projected Finish: 8th | Roster

Strength: Not in the Group of Death

That’s basically Slovakia’s only strength. They’re pretty much guaranteed a quarter-final berth if they can beat Kazakhstan. It’s hard to see them advancing past the quarter-finals at all, but stranger things have happened. Honestly, this group just doesn’t have a successful track record — Slovakia was relegated out of the U-18 top division last May, and a lot of those players will be playing at this tournament. If they can beat Kazakhstan, they’ll avoid being relegated at a second straight international tournament in less than a year.

Weakness: Zero Returning Forwards

Every forward at the 2019 World Juniors was a 1999-born player, which means Slovakia doesn’t have a single forward available to them this year who played last year. Slovakia will have to rely on the likes of undrafted left-winger Oliver Okuliar and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Maxim Cajkovic. Both are playing in the CHL this season. Okuliar has 42 points in 32 games in the WHL. Cajkovic has been having a solid season in the QMJHL, with 22 points in 16 games. He was cut late from the team last year, so expect him to be motivated and raring to go. The two were on the same line (on the wings) during pre-tournament games and should be relied on for offense for the Slovaks.

X-Factor: Goaltending

Samuel Hlavaj returns for Slovakia this year. He had a rough tournament in 2019, finishing with an .872 save percentage in four games. However, Hlavaj has had a better start to his regular season in Sherbrooke, with a .925 save percentage in 22 games for the Phoenix (who are one of the best teams in the QMJHL). If he can continue the success he’s had in the Q, Slovakia could surprise more than a couple of teams in this tournament,

Players to Watch: Maxim Cajkovic (TBL) & Oliver Okuliar (UD)

Sweden

2019 Finish: 5th | 2020 Projected Finish: 5th | Roster

Strength: Offense & Healthy Terror Twins

For a hot second, it was looking like Lucas Raymond was going to miss the entire tournament with a viral infection. Then Alexander Holtz was banged up in a game. Fortunately, both players have been cleared to join Sweden for the tournament (and Swedish and draft fans alike breathed a sigh of relief). The 17-year olds were responsible for Sweden’s first gold medal win at the U-18s last May and have lethal chemistry together. Other offensive weapons include LA’s Samuel Fagemo, Winnipeg’s David Gustafsson, and Vancouver’s Nils Hoglander.

Weakness: Uncertainty in Goal

Performance-wise, Tampa Bay’s Hugo Alnefelt is the clear choice in goal. He’s the only one of Sweden’s three goalies playing in a men’s league right now (SHL), and he has a .920 save percentage in eight games. Plus, he backstopped Sweden to gold at the 2019 U-18s. Erik Portillo has a .912 save percentage in 15 USHL games, while Jesper Eliasson has a .906 save percentage in 14 games in Allsvenskan. But with no returning goalies from last year’s team, does Sweden put the 18-year old Alnefelt in goal over the two other nineteen year olds?

X-Factor: The Blueline

Almost all of Sweden’s stacked blueline returns from last year’s team. Adam Boqvist won’t be loaned by Chicago, but they did get Rasmus Sandin from the Leafs. He’ll join recent 2019 first rounders Philip Broberg (EDM), Victor Soderstrom (ARI) and Tobias Bjornfot (LA), Adam Ginning (PHI) and Nils Lundkvist (NYR). On paper, last year’s blueline was ridiculously deep, but they didn’t perform (they were also ravaged by the flu mid-tournament). They’ll need to rebound for this year’s tournament if Sweden wants to break their medal-round curse.

Players to Watch: Lucas Raymond (2020) & Alexander Holtz (2020)

Switzerland

2019 Finish: 4th | 2020 Projected Finish: 7th | Roster

Strength: Returning CHL talent

Returning for Switzerland (in much larger capacities) are Shawinigan Cataractes forward Valentin Nussbaumer and Oshawa Generals defenseman Nico Gross. Nussbaumer is putting up solid numbers in the QMJHL, with 25 points in 31 games. Gross has been dominant for the Generals, well on-pace to obliterate his OHL-best point and assist totals. He’s put up four more goals than he did last season. The Swiss will rely on Nussbaumer and Gross to lead the way at this tournament.

Weakness: New Coach & Offense

This is more sad than anything else, but famous quote machine Christian Wohlwend will not return to coach the Swiss at the World Juniors this year, as he’s coaching in the Swiss men’s league now. Instead, Thierry Paterlini will take over — can he get his players on the same page and replicate the success Wohlwend has had? Swiss scorer Philipp Kurashev is too old to return, so the responsibility to produce offense falls solely on Nussbaumer and Gross. They don’t really have anyone else known for helping out in that capacity, so if Nussbaumer and Gross falter, the Swiss are in trouble.

X-Factor: Goaltending

Luca Hollenstein returns for Switzerland, still without NHL rights. He was largely responsible for Switzerland’s surprising fourth-place finish last year, as he shut-out Denmark in the round robin and Sweden in the quarter-finals. New Jersey Devils prospect Akira Schmid also returns in goal, but he’s struggled in the USHL this season and had an up-and-down World Juniors last year. Playing in the weaker of the two groups will help, but Switzerland will need stellar goaltending performances from whoever is in net against Finland and Sweden to keep them in the hunt for medals.

Players to Watch: Valentin Nussbaumer (ARI) & Nico Gross (NYR)

Group B — Ostrava

Canada

2019 Finish: 6th | 2020 Projected Finish: 4th | Roster

Strength: Depth, Experience & Returning Players

There’s no denying that Canada has a deep roster. They essentially have four first lines. Their entire bottom-six and half of their top-six can kill penalties for them. They’ve also got a wealth of returning players. Last year, I think a lack of experience was ultimately the team’s downfall (though it wasn’t their only issue) — they had just one returnee. In 2020, Canada will have five returning players from the disappointing sixth-place team: Alexis Lafreniere (2020), Ty Smith (NJ), Joe Veleno (DET), Barrett Hayton (ARI), and Jared McIsaac (DET). They also have an additional five players who were late cuts at last year’s selection camp: Calen Addison (PIT), Jacob Bernard-Docker (OTT), Ty Dellandrea (DAL), Liam Foudy (CBJ), and Raphael Lavoie (EDM). Plus, 11 players on the Canadian team won gold at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Hopefully the experience those players bring to this year’s team will help Canada avoid another early and disappointing tournament exit.

Weakness: Offensive Capabilities

Why Canada has a tendency to overthink their roster every year, I have no idea, but they left a lot of talent and offense behind in North America. Cutting Colorado’s Alex Newhook after selection camp shocked pretty much everyone. Although Cole Perfetti (2020) was a long-shot to make the final team, it was kind of ironic that Canada wanted to be better in shootouts and left their best shooter back home. Their forward group is deep, but it doesn’t scare or threaten like the Americans, Russians, or Swedish forwards do. Sure, they have Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield (2020), and Tampa Bay’s sharp-shooting Nolan Foote, but unless they’re planning on relying on only them, and Smith, Bowen Byram (COL) and Jamie Drysdale (2020) to put up points from the blueline, it may just not be enough in the long run.

X-Factor: Goaltending

The eight times that Canada has won gold overseas at the World Juniors, their goalie has been named the top goalie of the tournament. I honestly don’t have too much confidence that the Canadian offense can drag them to wins, so if Canada is going to win a medal, it’s going to be because of a complete effort from the skaters and a perfect tournament from whoever is their starting goalie. They haven’t figured out which goalie is going to start for them on Boxing Day, but it looks like it will either be undrafted Nico Daws or St. Louis prospect Joel Hofer. With talented goalies like Justus Annunen (FIN), Spencer Knight (USA), and Yaroslav Askarov (RUS), it’s going to be extremely difficult for a Canadian goalie to steal the tournament, but if he can, maybe Canada can pull it off.

Players to Watch: Alexis Lafreniere (2020) & Quinton Byfield (2020)

Czech Republic

2019 Finish: 7th | 2020 Projected Finish: 6th | Roster

Strength: Goaltending

The Czechs may have struggled last year, but it wasn’t because of goaltending. In fact, Lukas Dostal will return in goal after posting a .957 save percentage in four games at the 2019 tournament. Dostal has a .923 save percentage in 23 games for Ilves in Liiga this season, which is fourth-best in the league. He will have to be perfect against Germany, because that is an absolute must-win for the Czech Republic. If they can do that, a quarter-final upset isn’t out of the question.

Weakness: Lacking Star Power

Last year’s Czechs underwhelmed in a huge way, with offensive dynamos Filip Zadina, Martin Kaut, and Martin Necas struggling to produce offense. All three are too old to play this year, which means the Czechs need players to step up. They don’t have the marquee names or high-end talent of last year’s forward group, but there are still some solid options up front. Jan Jenik has shone for Hamilton in the OHL this season. Matej Pekar and Jakub Lauko are always difficult to play against. Michal Teply could provide secondary offense, but if the offense falls quiet again, it could be a long tournament for them — especially in the Group of Death and against offensively-loaded Germany.

X-Factor: The Blueline

The Czechs will have to replace their entire blueline from last year, but the replacements might actually be better. Washington’s Martin Hugo Has and the undrafted Libor Zabranksy will provide mobility on the back end, which could help the forwards generate offense. 2020 draft-eligible defender Simon Kubicek, who has a respectable 15 points in 28 games with Seattle in the WHL, could provide some secondary offense as well. Whether this blueline can withstand the onslaught from annual powerhouses in the group remains to be seen.

Players to Watch: Jan Jenik (ARI) & Lukas Dostal (ANA)

Germany

2019 Finish: Promoted from D1-A | 2020 Projected Finish: 9th | Roster

Strength: Star Talent

Moritz Seider. Dominik Bokk. Tim Stutzle. Lukas Reichel. JJ Peterka.

Stutzle, Reichel, and Peterka are all 2020-draft eligible players. Seider went sixth overall to Detroit last June. Bokk is a Hurricanes prospect, dealt from St. Louis in the Justin Faulk trade. Seider and Bokk were instrumental in getting the Germans to the World Juniors at the Division-1A tournament last year, and Bokk led the tournament in scoring with eight points. Seider was right behind him, contributing seven points from the blueline — and was named the tournament’s best defenseman. Remember these names — Germany’s ability to develop and funnel elite talent is on the rise, and these five players will be key in leading the charge.

Weakness: Playing in the Group of Death

Poor Germany. They’ve got all this incredible, young talent, and they’re stuck in the Group of Death at the World Juniors. If they were playing in Group A, I’d feel more confident in their chances a quarter-final berth. But they’ll have to go up against powerhouses USA, Russia, and Canada in the round robin. Their big opportunity to avoid playing in relegation is to defeat the Czech Republic, which makes their game against them on December 28th an absolute must-win for them.

X-Factor: Their Stars Come Through

Germany’s biggest challenge is to beat not only the Czech Republic, but one of USA, Russia, and Canada. Although a monstrous task, it isn’t impossible — they just need their big guns to come through for them when it counts. Goalie Hendrik Hane was fantastic for Germany at the D1-A tournament last year, and they’ll need him to deliver multiple mistake-free performances as well. Otherwise, they’ll be fighting to avoid relegation.

Players to Watch: Moritz Seider (DET) & Tim Stutzle (2020)

Russia

2019 Finish: 3rd | 2020 Projected Finish: 3rd | Roster

Strength: Offense Weapons (from the ‘Q’)

The weapons that Russia has at their disposal this time around will rival those of the United States and Canada (which is critical, as they’re all in the same group). Vancouver’s 2019 first-rounder Vasili Podkolzin returns from last year’s team. He always shows up for tournament play. They are missing Dmitri Zavgorodniy because of injury, but the QMJHL trio of Nikita Alexandrov, Yegor Sokolov, and Alexander Khovanov will step up in his absence. Add in excellent offensive players like Florida’s Grigori Denisenko, Blue Jackets pick Kirill Marchenko, and Vegas’ Ivan Morozov, and Russia looks extremely dangerous up front.

Weakness: No Big Names on the Back-End

It’s not an overly impressive or ‘big-name’ blueline by any means, but it should be enough to get the job done. Russia tends to stack their team with older players, and this is an all-19 year old blueline. Keep an eye on Montreal’s Alexander Romanov and Colorado’s Danila Zhuravlyov. Both are returnees from last year’s bronze medal winning team and will be responsible for leading Russia’s blueline.

X-Factor: Yaroslav Askarov

Whether or not Valeri Bragin starts a 17-year old in net for Russia remains to be seen, because it’s incredibly rare for him to take any draft-eligible players, let alone play one in goal. However, it would be a huge mistake if he didn’t give Yaroslav Askarov the starting job. Yes, Amir Miftakhov was on last year’s team, and both he and Daniil Isayev are both 19, but starting Askarov in games will give Russia the wins they desperately need playing in the Group of Death. Askarov is a game-breaking goalie. He backstopped Russia to gold at the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. He has a .922 save percentage in 16 VHL games this season, and in his one start in the KHL, he had a .920 save percentage. If Askarov gets the opportunity to play, he will run with it. It’s up to the coaches as to whether they give it to him. Russia’s chances at bringing home a medal will skyrocket if he’s in net — though Miftakhov and Isayev have what it takes to get the job done, too.

Players to Watch: Vasili Podkolzin (VAN) & Yaroslav Askarov (2020)

United States

2019 Finish: 2nd | 2020 Projected Finish: 1st | Roster

Strength: Offense & Goaltending

So, the other eight teams at this tournament should be worried if they have to face the United States (Russia will be fine if they start Askarov against USA on December 29th). The Americans can score at will (see: Cole Caufield, who had a four-goal game in the pre-tournament) and can overwhelm opponents with offensive weapons on all four lines. If (and that’s a big if) their offense does falter, they’ve got a literal brick wall in goal with Spencer Knight. As a NCAA freshman, Knight has a .940 save percentage in 15 games, and is tied-1st in the entire country with four shutouts. He’s been phenomenal for Boston College this season and if he can carry that success over to this tournament, watch out. And if he falters, likely American backup Dustin Wolf is the best goalie in the WHL this season, with a .941 save percentage in 24 games. USA will be just fine in goal.

Weakness: Talent Left Behind

Before it was announced he was being loaned to the American team, Oliver Wahlstrom would have been mentioned here, but he’s going, which is great. USA is going to be without Jack Hughes and Joel Farabee, as both are excelling in the NHL, and it doesn’t look like the Isles are loaning Bridgeport defenseman Bode Wilde to the American team, either. Yes, Hughes’ and Farabee’s absences hurt USA’s center depth, but they have a plethora of talent to draw from down the middle, and it shouldn’t negatively affect their tournament sucess.

X-Factor: Defensive Play

There is no doubt that the Americans are absolutely stacked offensively, but they are going to have to play defense as well. They’ve got a defensive genius in Scott Sandelin behind the bench, whose Minnesota-Duluth teams have been known for shutting down opponents’ offense with their stingy defensive play. Can Sandelin recreate that with an American team that loves to drive offense and constantly rush up the ice? If he can, USA will be tough to beat — and they’re already the team to watch.

Players to Watch: Cole Caufield (MTL) & Spencer Knight (FLA)

Tournament Predictions

In case it was difficult to see my tournament predictions in the above format, here are my tournament predictions:

Group A:

1 — Finland
2 — Sweden
3 — Switzerland
4 — Slovakia
5 — Kazakhstan

Group B:

1 — USA
2 — Russia
3 — Canada
4 — Czech Republic
5 — Germany

Relegation (best-of-3)

Germany def. Kazakhstan

Quarter-Finals

Finland def. Czech Republic
Canada def. Sweden
USA def. Slovakia
Russia def. Switzerland

Semi-Finals

Finland def. Canada
USA def. Russia

Final Standings

Gold: United States
Silver: Finland
Bronze: Russia
4th: Canada
5th: Sweden
6th: Switzerland
7th: Czech Republic
8th: Slovakia
9th: Germany
10th: Kazakhstan

Countdown To Boxing Day

NHL Network will once again broadcast the games in the United States, and TSN (always) has the tournament rights in Canada. The tournament kicks off with four games (and some big rivalry matchups) on Boxing Day.

9:00am ET — Switzerland vs. Kazakhstan
9:00am ET — Czech Republic vs. Russia
1:00pm ET — Sweden vs. Finland
1:00pm ET — Canada vs. USA

We’ll have daily recaps up every morning on Raw Charge, just like last year! Enjoy the holiday season, everyone!

Rosters, statistics and tournament information from Elite Prospects and Wikipedia.