It’s that time of the year again. Time for the family to gather around the fireplace and watch some junior hockey. As Andy Williams said, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” We get to sit down and see which country has the best U20 hockey players. For a draft nerd like myself, it is great to have all the worthwhile prospects not in the NHL in one tournament to see. The greatest part of World Juniors is how it can bring lesser known names to national relevance. Last year’s tournament was the story of shootout wizard Troy Terry. I wonder who will be the hero this year?
Here is a power ranking of each team’s preliminary roster. Things could change between now and the actual tournament but as they stand as of writing this-this is how I have them ranked.
The Finns are coming off an incredibly disappointing showing at last year’s World Juniors which saw them playing in the relegation tournament. It was a catastrophic failure for a team that was coming off of a gold medal.
This year they are back. They are bringing in the best blueline of the tournament led by Miro Heiskanen (DAL) and Oli Joulevi (VAN). At forward they might have the best player at the tournament in Eeli Tolvanen (NAS).
Their supporting cast around their studs is what makes them scary. Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA) has been tearing up the WHL this season. You also have Kristian Vesalainen (WPG) and Joni Ikonen (MTL) at forward who are both extremely skilled. There is also the wild card in how well projected 2018 first round pick Rasmus Kupari plays. The rest of the d-core contains two more former first rounders in Juuso Valimaki (CAL) and Henri Jokiharju (CHI). That is a top four consisting of entirely of first round picks. I don’t think any team can match that pedigree except for Canada but I think Finland’s group is more talented.
The weakness comes at the goaltender position. It killed them last year and could very well kill them again. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF) should be the starter and has had a mixed career in international play, to say the least.
The Finns overall are extremely talented. I could see Tolvanen taking over the tournament the same way we say Patrik Laine dominate two years ago. The best group of defensemen in the tournament should hopefully help out Luukkonen. Finland has an impressive combination of top end talent as well as depth at every position.
Canada will always be a projected medal team until the day we die. They have the largest pool of talent to choose from. Coming off a heartbreaking loss on home soil to the U.S in the final of last year’s tournament they are certainly looking to break their two-year gold drought in Buffalo.
Canada can go a lot of different directions with their roster and I think it comes down to how they handle their defensemen. They could very easily have the most mobile unit in the tournament if they decide to leave off Logan Stanley (WPG) and Cal Foote (TB) in favor of Connor Timmins (COL) and or Cale Makar (COL). The locks are probably Kale Clauge (LA), Dante Fabbro (NAS), and Jake Bean (CAR). Three highly touted defensemen who can shoulder the brunt of the minutes. It comes to how they want to build around those three. Physical with Foote and or Stanley? Or skilled with Timmins and Makar? I personally think Makar makes the team because of how good he has been internationally. I think Timmins should get the nod as well as on the wide ice you need defensemen who can move the puck and transition to offense. I’d leave Logan Stanley at home, just isn’t fast enough.
Canada’s forwards are great as usual. Michael Mcleod (NJ), Dillon Dube (CAL), and Taylor Raddysh (TB) return from last year’s silver medal-winning squad. Sam Steel (ANA) will be a key addition as he has dominated the WHL over the past year and a half. Robert Thomas (STL) and Jordan Kyrou (STL) are two OHLers who could make a big impact on this roster.
Carter Hart (PHI) returns as the team’s starting goaltender. He has been the best goalie in the CHL for two years so I expect a big tournament out of him. If he does falter you have Michael Dipietro (VAN) backing him up who is more than capable of winning a game on his own.
Canada appears to be as strong as ever. They don’t have the elite forward like a Connor McDavid or a John Tavares but they have formidable depth and a strong goaltender who has been there before. Anything is possible for Canada this year.
Coming off of a gold medal win it is tough to peg the Americans as the third best team, especially on their own soil. They have the talent to potentially repeat but they are certainly coming at this year with a much younger squad.
The United State’s strength comes from the forward group. Joey Anderson (NJ), Patrick Harper (NAS), and Kieffer Bellows (NYI) returning from last year’s team. The most skilled forward on this team is Casey Mittelstadt (BUF). The freshman Minnesota Gopher has had a strong start to his NCAA career and has an elite offensive toolbox to work with. The U.S could try to recreate the magic of the Mittelstadt-Logan Brown (OTT) -Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) line that dominated the World U18 last spring.
On the blueline the United States took an interesting approach. They appear to have favored puck skills and skating over traditional defensive defensemen. They are still bringing in players like Ryan Lindgren (BOS) who are responsible in their own end but the inclusion of players like draft eligible Quinn Hughes and especially Reilly Walsh (NJ) show that they are trying to build a team that can push the puck up the ice and create offense on the rush. Couple this with the fact that a powerplay quarterbacked by Adam Fox, Hughes, and Walsh would be deadly and the U.S might be on to something here.
The United States might have the best goaltending duo in the tournament. Joseph Woll (TOR) was excellent when called upon last World Juniors. Jake Oettinger (DAL) is coming off of a tremendous year at Boston University. He is an excellent back up who could very well usurp Woll if Woll’s play ever dips.
This team is very strong. They could come out of the gate as the best skating team in the tournament. Their defense and forward combination could prove very hard for other teams to keep up with. To go along with their offensive firepower the U.S has key role players who can play in their own end effectively as well as kill penalties. I really like the United States this year and it was a toss-up between them and Canada for the second and third spots.
Sweden is the Capitals and Dodgers rolled into one. For all of their outstanding success in pool play, they have not won a gold medal since 2012. They are looking to finally be rewarded for their efforts this year.
Sweden is bringing an extremely skilled forward group this year but their most interesting player has to be returning draft eligible, Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin is projected to go first overall in the upcoming draft and is playing in his second World Juniors. He has shown against men in the SHL that he can dominate a game from the back end. He has elite offensive skills to go along with a strong grasp of the defensive game. He is definitely the player to watch from Sweden this year.
Adam Boqvist was left off of the roster despite being one of Sweden’s most promising defensive prospects. The draft-eligible is a projected top-five pick but was left home in favor of veterans. I would have liked to see Boqvist at this tournament.
At forward the Swedes bring some interesting names. Elias Pettersson (VAN) and Lias Andersson (NYR) return. Pettersson has put up some big numbers this year in the SHL and looks to be one of the most skilled players to come out of last years draft. Lias Andersson has settled into his role in the SHL nicely and will be one of Sweden’s most dependable centers at his tournament. Joining these two will be players like Marcus Davidsson (BUF), Jesper Boqvist (NJ), and hopefully Alex Nylander (BUF) if he is released from Rochester in time for the tournament.
Sweden has the top tier talent to compete with anybody in this tournament. It all comes down to depth for them and I think the three teams listed above them are all more impressive across four lines and three pairings. Sweden has players who could very well take over this tournament. They will certainly be tough to play against with their mix of skill, skating, and defense but I feel that there are three more talented teams.