By Adam Kimelma & Mike G. Morreale – NHL.com
Canada coach Tim Hunter is looking for one attribute more than any other as his team prepares for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“We’re going to try to be the fastest World Junior team yet,” Hunter told TSN. “And we have a lot of work cut out for us, but that’s the goal and that’s the identity we’re going to have.”
And it’s not just skating speed. Hunter wants his team to play fast and think fast.
“It’s being fast in every aspect of the game, with and without the puck,” he said. “Off face-offs, on your forecheck, tracking back. I’ve studied that really hard over the last two years and talked to some great hockey minds and got some great opinions on it so we’ll implement a lot of the stuff. I’ve used it with my own team in Moose Jaw (Western Hockey League) this year. We’ve had a lot of success with some of the things.”
he 2019 WJC begins Wednesday and runs through Jan. 5, with games at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, and Rogers Centre in Vancouver. Canada, the defending champion, is in Group A along with Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia and Switzerland, and will play its preliminary-round games in Vancouver.
Here’s a look at each Group A team, in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Tim Hunter
2019 NHL Draft watch: Brett Leason, F, Prince Albert (WHL)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Denmark (8 p.m. ET; TSN, NHLN [joined in progress]); Dec. 27, Switzerland (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Czech Republic (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Russia (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: The defending champions will have one player returning from last year’s team, Anaheim Ducks forward prospect Max Comtois, but remain one of the tournament favorites. Canada’s size and skill at forward could be its strength, led by a projected first line of Comtois (6-foot-2, 207 pounds), Vegas Golden Knights prospect Cody Glass (6-2, 178) and Florida Panthers prospect Owen Tippett (6-1, 216). One player to watch is high-scoring forward Alexis Lafreniere, who will become the seventh 17-year-old to play for Canada at the WJC (Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Lindros). He’s projected as the No. 1 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Canada’s chances of success could hinge on the play of Michael DiPietro (Vancouver Canucks), the favorite to start in goal after Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers) backstopped runs to the championship game the previous two tournaments.
Coach: Valeri Bragin
2019 NHL Draft watch: Vasili Podkolzin, F, SKA St. Petersburg 2 (RUS-JR)
Schedule: Dec. 27, Denmark (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 28, Czech Republic (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 30, Switzerland (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Canada (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: Russia will have two players back from the team that finished fifth at the 2018 WJC, ending its run of seven straight tournaments with a medal. Forward Klim Kostin (St. Louis Blues) and defenseman Dmitri Samorukov (Edmonton Oilers) are back and each has North American experience. Samorukov is in his third season with Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League, and also played five games with Bakersfield, the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate, last season. Kostin has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 28 games in his second season with San Antonio of the AHL. Russia’s most intriguing player could be Podkolzin (6-1, 190), an A-rated player for the 2019 draft. He helped Russia finish second at the 2018 World Junior A Challenge, which ended Dec. 16, and tied for the tournament scoring lead with eight points (three goals, five assists) in six games. Russia always is well-coached and aiming to return to the medal stand.
Coach: Vaclav Varada
2019 NHL Draft watch: Martin Has, D, Tappara Jr. (FIN-JR)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Switzerland (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 28, Russia (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Canada (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Denmark (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: Martin Necas (Carolina Hurricanes), who tied for the tournament scoring lead with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) and led Czech Republic to a surprising fourth-place finish at the 2018 WJC, will be back to help the Czechs try to win a medal for the first time since finishing third in 2005. Necas has two points (one goal, one assist) in seven games with the Hurricanes this season, and has 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 26 games with Charlotte of the AHL. Also returning from last year is forward Filip Zadina (Detroit Red Wings) who tied for second at the tournament with seven goals. Goalie Jakub Skarek (New York Islanders) had an .848 save percentage in five games at the 2018 WJC and could start the tournament as the No. 1, but Lukas Dostal (Anaheim Ducks) could push him for time.
Coach: Christian Wohlwend
2019 NHL Draft watch: Valentin Nussbaumer, F, Shawinigan (QMJHL); Nando Eggenberger, F, Oshawa (OHL)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Czech Republic (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 27, Canada (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Denmark (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 30, Russia (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: Switzerland is hoping experience makes up for a lack of top-end talent, with 13 players from the 2018 WJC returning. Among them is goalie Akira Schmid (New Jersey Devils), who was the third goalie at the 2018 WJC and has a 2.73 GAA and .905 save percentage in 11 games with Omaha of the United States Hockey League this season. Defenseman Tobias Geisser (6-4, 201), a Washington Capitals prospect playing with Hershey in the AHL, will anchor the defense. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (Chicago Blackhawks) and Valentin Nussbaumer, a B-rated prospect for the 2019 draft playing with Shawinigan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, could be the leaders up front. It’s been more than 20 years since Switzerland won its only WJC medal, a bronze in 1998; the goal for this year is to beat Denmark and avoid the relegation round.
Coach: Olaf Eller
2019 NHL Draft watch: Mads Sogaard, G, Medicine Hat (WHL)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada (8 p.m. ET; TSN, NHLN [joined in progress]); Dec. 27, Russia (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Switzerland (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Czech Republic (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: Denmark remained in the top division of the WJC after defeating Belarus in two games in the best-of-3 relegation round in 2018, and will be hard-pressed to avoid going through that again. Much of the responsibility for avoiding relegation could fall on Sogaard, the third goalie on the 2018 team who is a B-rated prospect for the 2019 draft. He has a 2.39 GAA and .931 save percentage in 19 WHL games with Medicine Hat. Also returning is forward Jonas Rondbjerg (Golden Knights), who led Denmark with seven points (two goals, five assists) in six games. Denmark reached the quarterfinals at the 2017 WJC, but with Canada, Russia and Czech Republic looking strong, their best bet for tournament success will be a win in the preliminary round against Switzerland.
Many anticipate Jack Hughes of the United States being the most-watched player at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“Jack is a special player wherever he plays, on any team,” U.S. general manager John Vanbiesbrouck said about the 17-year-old center who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. “The uniqueness is he’s a young player and now a potential first-overall pick and we don’t want to be bashful about it or shrug the story off, but we have to manage it, and manage him.
“It’s not that hard to do when a guy like that has the puck on his stick a lot and controls the play. He’ll receive a lot of the attention and that gets tough for one player, so we have to help him absorb some of that, but he’s got a bit of a runway here, and it’s a good tournament for him to launch.”
The 2019 WJC begins Wednesday and runs through Jan. 5 at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, and Rogers Centre in Vancouver. The Group B bracket includes Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States.
The last time the WJC was held in Canada was 2017 and the United States defeated the host country 5-4 in a shootout to win the gold medal at Bell Centre in Montreal. Only three countries have won the WJC on home ice: Canada (1991, 1995, 2006, 2009, 2015), Finland (1998, 2016) and the Soviet Union (1983).
Here’s a look at each Group B team, in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Mike Hastings
2019 NHL Draft watch: Jack Hughes, C, USA U-18 (USHL); Spencer Knight, G, USA U-18 (USHL); Sean Dhooghe, C, Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Slovakia (6:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 28, Kazakhstan (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Sweden (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Finland (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: The United States is looking to win a fourth straight medal after winning gold in 2017 and bronze in 2016 and 2018. In addition to being fast and creative on offense, and strong on defense, the United States also has depth at the goalie position with Cayden Primeau (Montreal Canadiens), Kyle Keyser (Boston Bruins) and Knight (2019 NHL Draft-eligible), who received an A rating in NHL Central Scouting’s Players to Watch list in November. There are five returning players: defensemen Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks), Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg Jets) and Michael Anderson (Los Angeles Kings); and forwards Josh Norris (Ottawa Senators) and Ryan Poehling (Montreal Canadiens).
Coach: Tomas Monten
2019 NHL Draft watch: Philip Broberg, D, AIK (SWE); Nils Hoglander, LW, Rogle (SWE)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Finland (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 27, Slovakia (6:30 p.m. ET; TSN); Dec. 29, United States (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Kazakhstan (6:30 p.m. ET)
Outlook: Sweden ended a three-year medal drought when it earned silver last year, falling to Canada 3-1 in the gold-medal game. Sweden will have a different look this year but will still be a hard-working, fast-skating team with quick transitions that plays to the inside. It has a solid nucleus, particularly with defensemen Rasmus Sandin (Toronto Maple Leafs), Nils Lundkvist (New York Rangers), Erik Brannstrom (Vegas Golden Knights) and Adam Boqvist (Chicago Blackhawks). Defenseman Timothy Liljegren (Toronto Maple Leafs) is out because of an injury so Broberg, an A rated skater in NHL Central Scouting’s Players to Watch list, may play a significant role.
Coach: Jussi Ahokas
2019 NHL Draft watch: Kaapo Kakko, RW, TPS (FIN); Lassi Thomson, D, Kelowna (WHL); Mikko Kokkonen, D, Jukurit (FIN); Ville Heinola, D, Lukko (FIN); Anttoni Honka, JYP (FIN)
Schedule: Dec. 26, Sweden (10:30 p.m.ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 27, Kazakhstan (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 29, Slovakia (6:30 p.m. ET); Dec. 31, United States (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: Since winning a gold medal in 2016, Finland has finished ninth (2017) and sixth (2018). One area that has proven troublesome is goal scoring, as Finland placed last in the 10-team field with a 5.31 shooting percentage (12 goals on 226 shots) in 2017, and ninth in shooting percentage (8.57) in five games in 2018. Finland hopes to resolve that issue with some high-energy performers on this year’s roster, including forwards Rasmus Kupari (Los Angeles Kings), Aleksi Heponiemi (Florida Panthers), Sampo Ranta (Colorado Avalanche), Aarne Talvitie (New Jersey Devils) and Kakko, who is projected to go among the top five picks in the 2019 draft. Buffalo Sabres goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen could receive most of the starts. Defenseman Urho Vaakanainen (Boston Bruins), who has two assists for Providence of the American Hockey League in six games, will represent his country for a third straight time at the WJC.
Coach: Ernest Bokros
2019 NHL Draft watch: Samuel Hlavaj, G, Slovakia U20 (SVK)
Schedule: Dec. 26, United States (6:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 27, Sweden (6:30 p.m. ET; TSN); Dec. 29, Finland (6:30 p.m. ET); Dec. 30, Kazakhstan (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN)
Outlook: One player to keep an eye on for Slovakia is defenseman Martin Fehervary (Washington Capitals). The 6-foot-2, 194-pound left-hand shot, who will represent the Slovakia National Junior Team a third straight year, has one goal and two assists in 23 games for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League. Hlavaj (6-3, 187) of the Slovak Under-20 team is a B rated goalie on NHL Central Scouting’s Players to Watch list.
Coach: Sergei Starygin
2019 NHL Draft watch — None
Schedule: Dec. 27, Finland (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 28, United States (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 30, Slovakia (10:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN); Dec. 31, Sweden (6:30 p.m. ET)
Outlook: Kazakhstan is back in the top level at the WJC for the first time since 2009 after winning the Division I Group A tournament in December 2017. Kazakhstan returns many players from that championship group, including left wing Artur Gatiyatov, who was named the best forward of the tournament with seven points (four goals, three assists) in five games. Kazakhstan is the fifth nation in six years to get promoted from Division I, joining Norway (2013), Denmark (2014), Latvia (2016), and Belarus (2015, 2017).