Day: December 11, 2020

2021 World Junior Championship Team Canada Preview

By Josh Kim – The Hockey Writers

While it’s common knowledge that Team Canada is consistently one of the favourites heading into each World Junior Championship, this year brings with it an augmented level of excitement, as this particular tournament roster has the potential of being the best in Canada’s long and illustrious junior hockey history.

Boasting 26 first-round picks, there are currently a plethora of household names skating alongside one another in Red Deer. From last year’s returnees to a new crop of dominant junior players, the two intrasquad scrimmages over the weekend provided some insight on what the final roster could resemble.

Following a dominant showing during last year’s tournament overseas, Canada will hit the ice in search of their 19th gold medal. Already leading all other countries in regards to medal count with 32, the Canucks will be backed by the comfort of their own backyard, playing within a bubble in Edmonton. Attempting to avenge the heartbreak that occurred the last time the Canadians hosted this tournament, here are the 25 players you can expect to defend Canada’s title.

Forwards: Speed, Depth, and Goals Galore

Let’s start with last year’s returnees. Quinton Byfield (Newmarket, ON.), Dylan Cozens (Whitehorse, YT.), Connor McMichael (Ajax, ON.), and Dawson Mercer (Bay Roberts, NL.) all find themselves back with the national team following a successful tournament in Ostrava. All four have seemingly gotten better, as McMichael, Cozens, and Mercer all averaged well over a point-per-game in their respective leagues, and the Los Angeles Kings just drafted Byfield 2nd overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. Combine that with an impressive showing at selection camp, and you have four locks to make the team.

Kirby Dach (Fort Saskatchewan, SK.), Philip Tomasino (Mississauga, ON.), Peyton Krebs (Okotoks, AB.), and Connor Zary (Saskatoon, SK.) all find themselves in a similar position, as each one has exemplified a tremendously unique skill set so far. Dach, being the only one with NHL experience, is seemingly the unanimous favourite to lead Canada’s centre group, and for good reason. With elite hands and playmaking ability, his creativity alone allows him to rise above everyone else.

Dach’s NHL experience should give Canada an advantage

Krebs and Zary fill out the rest of Canada’s needs down the middle, as both have enjoyed an incredibly successful camp. Krebs can not only quarterback a power play, but his two-way ability and effectiveness at both ends of the ice is something that every team needs. Captaining the Winnipeg Ice (WHL) this past season, it’ll be Krebs’ vision and all-around ability that will lead him towards a prominent role with Team Canada.

Zary, who has the ability to shift to the wing, brings mobility and a physical presence to the team. Add an above-average scoring touch to that mix, and Zary could find himself in any in-game situation. While I originally had him on the outside looking in to begin camp, he found instantaneous chemistry with Dach and Tomasino while also contributing in his own fashion. His shot placement and his ability to find the puck at top speed make him an ideal linemate for a distributor.

Tomasino, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) standout, has also reached another level of success as selection camp draws on. Possessing a “lightning-quick first step and high-end foot speed” (Future Considerations, 2019) to go along with a dynamic release and a knack for the high-danger areas of the ice, he brings another offensively-driven threat to Team Canada’s lineup.

Krebs provides another level of depth to the Canadian lineup



 

Expect to see Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Cole Perfetti (Whitby, ON.) crack the lineup on his second attempt as well, considering he enjoyed an even more productive season with the Saginaw Spirit (OHL). While not having the most electrifying presence in Red Deer so far, the Whitby-native should bring a potent scoring touch in whatever role he’s placed in. Already having played with the national team at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Perfetti also brings a wealth of international experience.

Following an impressive rookie season with Boston College (NCAA), Alex Newhook (St. John’s, NL.) has the best chance to make the team out of the crop of NCAA players. Notching an impressive 42 points in 34 games last season, he has proven his worth at every level of hockey he’s played, and his explosive skating ability and high-octane mindset should give him the edge over other players in the main cohort.

Rounding out the forward group are two wild cards that Canada can interchange at will. For now, Jakob Pelletier (Quebec City, QB.) and Jamieson Rees (Hamilton, ON.) are my picks to fill in on the fourth line, as the pair have been standouts in both of Canada’s scrimmages. Pelletier, who has captained both the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL) and the Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL) while simultaneously posting impressive point totals, would be a valuable offensive talent on any fourth line. Rees, with his ability to track down loose pucks and engage in the high-danger areas of the ice, make him an ideal role player for the Canadians.

Jack Quinn (Cobden, ON.) and Samuel Poulin (Blainville, QC.) should also make the team and could find themselves in the lineup on any given night. Both present a contrasting style of play to one another and could be an effective replacement in any situation. Quinn, the 8th overall selection this past summer, is an elite goal scorer who can find the back of the net from almost any area of the ice, while Poulin, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, is a traditional power forward who exemplifies an ideal two-way game. The two haven’t been as notable through the first half of selection camp. However, their talent and potential speak for themselves.

Defense: Options in Abundance

It’s all but a guarantee that the two returning players from last year’s team will become the new go-to pairing this time around. Bowen Byram (Cranbrook, AB.) has been nothing short of outstanding over the course of selection camp, never failing to put his elite skating ability and on-ice intelligence on display. Jamie Drysdale (Toronto, ON.), who made last year’s team at the age of 17, should have an even more important role on the backend as well. Another brilliant skater, the Anaheim Ducks prospect is a complete partner for Byram on Canada’s top pairing.

At the beginning of camp, Thomas Harley (Syracuse, NY.) and Braden Schneider (Prince Albert, SK.) were favourites to make the team, and they should find themselves with a prominent middle-pairing role when the tournament kicks off in Edmonton. Both are excellent distributors and are incredibly mobile when shutting down rushes. A secure contrast compared to the Byram-Drysdale pairing, both Harley and Schneider provide a steady, more defensively inclined alternative.

Schneider was the 19th overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft

Justin Barron (Halifax, NS.) and Kaedan Korczak (Yorkton, SK.) are the leading candidates to round out Canada’s defensive core. Both have made impactful contributions during the two intrasquad scrimmages, and both provide an increased level of depth on the blue line. Barron, who enjoys jumping into the rush and creating chances offensively, should have the confidence that Korczak, who loves to “physically engage opposing forwards” (McKeen’s Hockey, 2019), has his back.



Goaltenders: Calm, Cool, and Collected

Similar to previous years, Canada’s goaltending battle has yet to crown a winner. They’ll carry three goalies into the bubble, and it remains to be seen who those three netminders will be. Brett Brochu (Tilbury, ON.), who registered an impressive .919 save percentage (SV%) and 2.40 goals against average (GAA) with the London Knights (OHL) during the 2019-20 campaign, has been nothing short of spectacular thus far, so it would be fathomable to see the 18-year-old take the starting job.

With that said, Brochu certainly wasn’t the favourite heading into camp, and Taylor Gauthier (Calgary, AB.), who has played just as much, still has a legitimate chance to command the crease for Canada. Gauthier, who saw all 60 minutes of action during the second scrimmage, put up similar numbers with the Prince George Cougars (WHL) during the 2019-20 season. He hasn’t exactly set himself apart just yet, but in terms of his competition, Gauthier is right in the thick of it.

Due to Brochu’s stellar play, it seems as though the other half of Team Red’s tandem has overshadowed Dylan Garand (Victoria, B.C.). However, let’s not forget that Garand played just as well in the first scrimmage before leaving the net in favour of Brochu. Garand holds the best numbers in the CHL out of the three frontrunners, with a .921 SV% and a 2.21 GAA with the Kamloops Blazers (WHL).

Garand is still in the hunt for Canada’s starting job



While Canada’s goaltending competition has remained unclear at best, Tristan Lennox (Mississauga, ON.) and Devon Levi (Dollard-des-Ormeaux, QC.) have not yet made as significant of an impact, separating the goaltending debate into two tiers.

In what will be an unprecedented World Junior tournament, there is still a lot that needs to be decided by the Canadians moving forward. However, with a solid projection of Team Canada’s lineup, hopefully, the excitement of the World Juniors can begin to be felt nationwide.

2021 World Junior Championship Team Slovakia Preview

By Jack Dawkins – The Hockey Writers

At first glance, the 2021 Tournament Outlook looks bleak for the Slovaks. Slovakia’s showing at the 2020 World Juniors was not good. Their saving grace was their 3-1 victory over fellow Group A member , Kazakhstan. This early tournament victory helped them avoid playing in the relegation matches. In their next three matches against Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, they posted a minus-16 goal differential, being outscored 21-5.

This year, there is no Kazakhstan for them to outlast. They are in Group A again, with Canada, Finland, Germany and Switzerland as their opposition. Canada and Finland are certain to have stacked teams. Germany could be a dark horse for medal contention and the Swiss haven’t faced a relegation round since 2016. This leaves Slovakia as the obvious underdog of their group. All is not lost, and the Slovaks have talent at key positions along with some youth that could help pave their pathway to creating some upsets.

Goaltending

Samuel Hlavaj will likely be the guy for his third go-round at the U20 level. It was kind of surprising to see Hlavaj go undrafted at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft after a stellar campaign with Sherbrooke of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Samuel Hlavaj of the Phoenix Sherbrooke

Unfortunately, his international campaigns have not been as stellar. Much of that could be blamed on the teams that have played in front of him and the level of competition he finds himself facing. In order for Slovakia to have any chance of making noise this time around, Hlavaj is going to have to improve drastically on his 5.37 goals against average and .851 save percentage from a year ago. In truth, Slovakia’s success in this tournament begins and ends with his ability to keep them in games against high flying offensive competition.



Beyond Hlavaj there are four other goalies invited to selection camp. Adam Beke might have the best chance to seize the backup job or make a push to get some starts. Although he has not represented Slovakia much at the international level at all, his play with HC Slovan Bratislava’s U20 team over the last two seasons has yielded good results.

Simon Latkoczy is the other goaltender I expect to make the roster. His 20-game stint with the hapless Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League last season is really hard to make any judgments against. The Capitols were simply dreadful last season in all facets of the game and it’s really hard to lay that at the goaltender’s feet. If nothing else, Latkoczy has experience playing behind a team that is often outclassed and outmatched by their opposition. Eugen Rabcan and Patrik Kozel round out the camp roster at goaltender.

Defense

Returning 2020 skater Samuel Knazko is likely expected to anchor the Slovakian back end. He was picked in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. His offensive skillset from the blue line and all-around aggressive style could allow the Slovaks to maintain some offensive zone possession. On paper, he’s the most skilled player on the defense and should be expected to take on a leadership role.

In camp are three other returning defenders from the 2020 team. Oliver Turan is 6-foot-5 but is another year along in his development. He finished out last season playing professional hockey in Slovakia and picked up where he left off to start this season. Turan is a bit of a throwback, big, physical defender without a lot of offensive upside, but his size on the blue line could prove helpful in slowing down opposing forechecks.

Marko Stacha was picked up by the Vancouver Giants (WHL) in the CHL Import Draft, but due to COVID-19 has instead played with HK Dukla Trencin of the Tipos Extraliga, Slovakia’s top men’s league. He started the season with the U20 club, but played his way onto the big club. David Mudrak similarly was picked up by the Oshawa Generals (OHL) in the import draft, but has been playing on loan with HC Kosice of the Tipos Extraliga. Mudrak led all Slovakian defenders in last year’s tournament with three points, all assists.

Marko Stacha, U17 Slovakia Nationals, 2018 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament, Dec. 12, 2018

Turan and Mudrak are both right-handed while Stacha and Knazko are left-handed. I imagine those four players will comprise the top four defenders for Slovakia. They have a tendency to bring eight defenders, so beyond those four there’s sure to be some competition for the final roster spots. Knazko, Stacha and Mudrak have all shown some capability as puck movers and contributors at both ends of the ice. Slovakia is going to need the three of them to be at the top of their games in order to shut down opposing forwards, while also holding offensive zone possessions and working in the cycle. They cannot allow themselves to play long stretches of the game in their own zone.

Oliver Fatul is an 18-year-old whom could be a good candidate to join the roster out of camp. He spent 29 games last season playing with HKM Zvolen of the Tipos Extraliga with acceptable results. He’s not as inclined towards the offensive aspects of the game, but he’s responsible in his own zone. The most exciting inclusion at camp for this Slovak team, is 16-year-old Simon Nemec. He’s not draft eligible until 2022, but Nemec is already drawing attention and turning heads, operating as a mainstay on the back end for HK Nitra of the Tipos Extraliga. He’s the youngest player to ever record a point for a men’s team in the Slovak league.

Nemec is a special case for Slovakia here. It’s very uncommon for the Slovaks to give a U20 roster slot to a player so young. However, Nemec’s individual talent is at such a high level, that it may be hard to leave him home. It’s hard to look at the talent available, in-camp, for Slovakia’s backend and not think that Nemec is among the eight best defenders. If he makes the final roster, he will be in competition with Knazko to be the best puck moving defender on the team. He also has good size and mobility. Youth aside, Nemec is truly a special talent worth keeping an eye on.

Don’t count out Nemec’s HK Nitra teammate, Martin Knizka. He has shown very well in professional league play for Nitra. Simon Groch is the only 2021 draft eligible Slovak defender to make NHL Central Scouting’s “Preliminary Players to Watch” list. Groch has looked very good with HC Olomouc’s U20 team in the Czech U20 league. If the Slovaks decide not to bring 16-year-old Nemec, Sebastian Droppa has a lot of men’s league experience in the Tipos Extraliga over the last two seasons. He doesn’t show a lot of offensive upside, but as a depth or substitute defender he could be a contributor.

Forwards

There are three forwards in camp who played for the 2020 U20 team and are likely to do so again. The rest of the camp group includes a couple players ranked by central scouting, a 2020 NHL draft pick and some other intriguing young talent.

Saint John Sea Dogs forward Maxim Cajkovic, shown in this handout image, left his QMJHL squad to join Slovakia’s selection camp ahead of the 2019 world junior championship

Maxim Cajkovic is the elder statesman of the forward group and should be one of its top players. The 2019 3rd round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning is appearing in his second U20 World Juniors. He’s a natural right wing known for his strong skating ability and powerful shot. If the Slovaks are going to have goal scoring success, Cajkovic is one of the players they’ll be counting on the most.

Also returning for their second tournament are Michal Mrazik and Dominik Jendek. Mrazik is an imposing young forward, checking in at 6-foot-4. He’s done very well for himself this season playing in the Swedish U20 league. He operates well around the net and has some experience playing internationally for Slovakia. Mrazik will need to take a big step up in his production from his lone assist across 5 games last year if the Slovaks are to avoid relegation.

2020 NHL Draft pick Martin Chromiak is also in camp for Slovakia. In the second half of last season, Chromiak was a member of one of the most dynamic lines in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kingston Frontenacs. He has shown ability time and again as both a playmaker and shooting threat. On the breakout, Chromiak is a threat to create oddman rushes and 2-on-1 situations with his speed.

Chromiak has a good slap shot, a wrist shot with some zest on it and a snap shot that is simply too quick for some goaltenders to handle. It remains to be seen if he is the type of player who can take over and drive a line by himself. He has already proven he is the type of player who can successfully line up with a star forward and be a complimentary piece, but the relative talent level of his country’s roster is going to demand that he take on a bigger role.

Beyond the aforementioned four forwards, there are likely to be eight other forward spots up for grabs. With the Slovak trend of bringing eight defenders, the twenty remaining forwards will be cut down to eight. Among the remaining names are some interesting candidates.



Robert Baco and Oleksii Myklukha are both 2021 draft eligible players that made NHL Central Scouting’s watchlist at the start of the season. Myklukha split last season between RB Hockey Akademie in Salzburg, Austria and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. His 8 points in 21 games with the Huskies doesn’t jump off the page, but Myklukha has shown that he can comfortably share the ice with top QMJHL players. He’s a natural center, with shifty moves and the ability to exploit soft spots in the offensive zone.

Center is not a position of strength for the Slovak team this year. Myklukha’s time in the QMJHL could prove invaluable to this team, having already played against some of the tougher competitors that Slovakia is likely to face. Of the players in selection camp, Myklukha’s quality of competition faced is among the highest and is on par with Chromiak and Cajkovic. If he were to make the team, I expect to see him centering one (or maybe both) of those potent wingers.

Baco put up 23 points in 31 games with a Czech U20 team last season and hit the ground running this season to the tune of 6 points in 9 games. His 6-foot-3 size should also help him assert himself in camp. He’s got a powerful shot and can work well in the cycle. He has also shown some good skill in tight around the grinding for loose pucks and trying to jam in rebounds and tip-ins. In spite of being 2021 eligible, both Baco and Myklukha have shown talent that should see them compete for a roster spot.

There’s three players playing junior hockey outside of Slovakia that seem like good candidates to make the final cut. Simon Jellus played 7 games for Slovakia in the U18 World Juniors in 2018-19. Last season he had respectable production in the Swedish U20 league to the tune of 7 goals and 22 assists in 43 games. This season he has 6 goals in 18 games. He has found a bit of scoring touch at a respectable junior hockey level.

Juraj Slafkovsky has done something similar with TPS U20 team in Finland. Slafkovsky is another 2022 draft eligible player with immense size. The 16 year old checks in at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He has also played some time at the center position for Slovakia internationally. In 2019-20 Slafkovsky played with the U16, U17 and U18 team in international competitions and totaled 9 points through 10 games. If he had had a good camp, it would be hard to ignore Slafkovsky’s history of solid center-play and point production in spite of his young age.

Lastly, Michael Drabek has 9 points in 6 games with his Czech U20 club. These players are playing against tougher competition than they would likely have faced had they stayed in Slovakia to play their junior hockey and it could give them a competitive edge towards winning a roster slot.

From inside Slovakia, Lukas Skvarek looks like a contender. The 6-foot-3 center/wing had 15 points in 5 games at the junior level for HK Nitra’s U20 team before he was bumped up to the big club where in 10 games he scored 2 goals. This is a player who thoroughly dominated junior hockey in Slovakia at the age of 18. Center, Maros Jedlicka accomplished a similar feat with HKM Zloven. He had 5 points through 2 junior games before playing 8 with the big club.

Mammoth-sized Center, Dominik Sojka did not start the season in juniors at all. The 6-foot-6, 220 pound 19-year-old started this season with HC Banska Bystrica, where he had finished up last season. Sojka is not a point scoring dynamo by any stretch of the imagination, with only 2 points in 40 games of Tipos Extraliga experience. He does, however, have 40 games of Tipo Extraliga experience spread across 3 seasons. Sojka has a big man’s body and has experience playing a man’s game. It’s really hard to quantify what kind of value that might have. These players all bring varying degrees of professional experience but they have each had some degree of success in that realm.

The Final Word

There’s some real talent in this player pool if Slovakia is willing to field them. Beyond the three players already drafted by NHL teams (Knazko, Chromiak, Cajkovic) some of the best talent available to Slovakia is going to come in the forms of younger players like Nemec, Myklukha and Slafkovsky. It’s really a question of whether or not these kids show well in selection camp and if the Slovak coaching staff is willing to take a chance on them for the tournament.



The cruel truth is that Slovakia simply does not have the talent pool of some of their opponents in their group. Covid-19 has presented a unique situation where Canada, Finland and Germany are going to be able to field obscenely potent rosters. On the surface it appears as though it’s going to be a tall order for Slovakia to avoid playing in the relegation round, let alone even sincerely think about competing for a medal. However, if they field some of the younger dynamic talent available to them, they could surprise some people. Slovakia has some defenders that are capable puck movers and they have some forwards that are capable offensive producers.

The big questions is going to be, “can they put it all together?” If they are able to battle through this tournament and avoid relegation, they could come out the other side of this with some valuable experience for their younger players going forward. If their top players show up and perform up to their potential, they could steal a few games. Chromiak, Cajkovic, Hlavaj and Knazko are going to have to lead the way and be the best players on the ice game in and game out. If they can do that and outplay supposedly “better” competition, truly anything is possible.