• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

IIHF World Junior Championship: Top players, teams to watch


Dec 28, 2023 #Sports


We’ve reached Boxing Day, and that can only mean one thing (in hockey circles, anyway): It’s time for the IIHF World Junior Championship.

This annual tournament was reinstated to its rightful post-Christmas scheduling last December following a pair of pandemic-disrupted versions. The well-received return pleased players and fans alike who’ve reliably turned up each year for a showcase of the sport’s brightest young stars.

Before diving into details of the 2024 event, let’s take a look back at what happened in 2023.

Originally set to be hosted in Novosibirsk, Russia, the tournament was moved to the Canadian cities of Moncton, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia after the International Olympic Committee called for Russia to be stripped of its international hosting rights amid its invasion of Ukraine.

In the end, it was the new host country defending its title with a 3-2 over win over Czechia to claim a second straight gold medal (and 20th tournament gold overall). That silver medal earned by Czechia was its first since 2005. Future 2023 No. 1 overall draft pick Connor Bedard led the tournament in scoring with 23 points and was named MVP.

Who might be the Bedard of this year’s event? Glad you asked. Because we’re about to break down everything you need to know before the 2024 tournament officially opens.

This year’s version takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden, where all 10 countries competed in pre-tournament action last week. Group A is comprised of Canada, Sweden, Finland, Germany and Latvia; they will compete in round-robin play Dec. 26-31 in Scandinavium, Gothenburg. Group B — containing Czechia, the United States, Slovakia, Switzerland and Norway — will play in Frolundaborg, Gothenburg for their round-robin action through those same dates.

The top eight teams will move to quarterfinals beginning Jan. 2. Semifinals take place Jan. 4, with the bronze medal and gold medal games to follow Jan. 5.

There you have it: The World Junior Championship roadmap. Now, what should we be paying attention to along the way? Let’s flesh out what’s to come — and answer a few questions — that could define this season’s tournament.

Can Macklin Celebrini cement his place as the No. 1 draft prospect?

Good — or bad — performances at World Juniors won’t make or break a player’s NHL draft prospects.

But hey, it can’t hurt to stand out. And that’s exactly what Canada’s Macklin Celebrini will try to do.

The 17-year-old forward is among a handful of players in the mix to go No. 1 this coming June. A native of North Vancouver, British Columbia, Celebrini committed to Boston University for the 2023-24 season, where he’s produced 10 goals and 25 points in 15 games thus far. That’s in follow up to him collecting 46 goals and 86 points for the USHL’s Chicago Steel in 2022-23 and a top-tier showing for Canada at the under-18 championship earlier this year (he scored 15 points in seven games).

This will be Celebrini’s first World Junior Championship experience, and he’s already created some drama. Celebrini was ejected from Canada’s pre-tournament game against Switzerland on Friday for checking forward Leo Braillard into the boards from behind. That drew Celebrini a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding; Braillard also left the ice and wouldn’t return as Canada went on to win, 6-3.

Dangerous hit aside, Celebrini’s overall potential will be monitored closely as Canada rolls through the tournament. While he might not be on Bedard’s level, Celebrini is a dynamic, fast-paced player in his own right, with goal-scoring and playmaking ability. Celebrini has been able to shine early on from his second-line perch alongside Fraser Minten and Jordan Dumais, all three of whom scored in Canada’s 8-0 win over a under-25 team from Denmark last week.

Given the other possible top picks Celebrini will be going against — including Cole Eiserman of the United States and Finland’s Aron Kiviharju — the next couple weeks are a perfect opportunity for him to start separating from the pack.

Can the United States strike gold again?

The United States hasn’t landed atop a World Junior podium since 2021.

Is it likely to get there again this year? You could say that.

The United States’ roster is stacked with 10 first-round picks from recent drafts, including Cutter Gauthier (fifth overall in 2022, by the Flyers), Team USA captain Rutger McGroarty (14th in 2022, Jets) and Sam Rinzel (25th in 2022, Blackhawks). Those are also three of the seven returning players the United States has on board (compared to just one returnee — Owen Beck — for the defending champion Canadians) and there’s ample international and domestic experience in their ranks.

Gauthier, for example, is coming off an impressive seven-goal showing at the IIHF’s men’s world championship last spring. And he’ll be supported at this year’s event by six of his Boston College teammates, including forward Will Smith (who was selected fourth overall by San Jose in 2023 and paced the most recent under-18 world championship tournament with 20 points).

Add it all up, from formidable forward depth to a smart, solidly built blue line to a No. 1 goaltender (Trey Augustine, a Red Wings pick in 2023) projecting to be vastly improved over last year’s disappointing semifinal loss, and the United States looks poised for greatness.

Time will tell if that translates into a sixth golden finale for the USA, though. And we know Canada won’t be dethroned without a fight, especially after the Boston Bruins recently sent top rookie Matt Poitras to boost Canada’s roster further.

Will another underdog emerge?

It happens every year.

There’s a team we don’t necessarily see coming that bursts through to wreak havoc on all those early prognostications.

The Slovakians did it last year when they topped the U.S. in a pre-tournament game and then narrowly avoided eliminating Canada altogether with a 4-3 overtime loss during the quarterfinals. (Who could forget the stellar, 53-save performance by current Blackhawks prospect Adam Gajan in that one?)

If anything, that success put every other country in the field on notice that Slovakia could attempt to play spoiler again. Ditto for Czechia.

Its road to a silver finish last year — which doubled its all-time medal count after a bronze medal showing in 2005 — was unexpected, and propelled by its unmistakable offensive prowess. Jiri Kulich (the 28th overall pick of the Sabres’ in 2022), Adam Jiricek (a top defensive prospect competing for that No.1 overall slot in 2024) and Tomas Galvas (also draft-eligible in 2024) should lead a hungry group of Czech skaters eager to show their success in 2023 was no fluke.

The big question here is who will replace Tomas Suchanek in net? Suchanek was one of the best goalies in last year’s tournament, and it’ll be Michael Hrabal (a second-round draft choice by the Coyotes in 2023) looking to fill his skates this time around.

Is Sweden ready to soar?

Ah, yes, the always competitive — and frequently baffling — host country.

It’s hard to call the Swedes underdogs. But they do have a hasty habit of failing to thrive when the round robin ends, and knockout rounds begin. Sweden has won gold only twice — in 1981 and 2012 — and its most recent result was a 2-1 overtime loss in last year’s quarterfinal matchup against Czechia. Sweden has appeared in back-to-back bronze medal games, losing there last year to the United States.

A similar outcome this year would be disappointing for the Swedes, particularly on home ice, and they’ve got the personnel in place to avoid such a fate. Frankly, it looks like Sweden could be one of the top teams to beat.

Granted, there will be no Leo Carlsson for the Swedes this year, as the 2023 No. 2 overall pick remains with the Ducks rehabbing a sprained MCL. But Sweden does have enviable depth regardless.

Head coach Magnus Havelid has already recognized that by splitting up Sweden’s three best forwards — Liam Öhgren (the 19th pick in 2022, by the Wild), Noah Ostlund (16th in 2022, Sabres) and Jonathan Lekkerimäki (15th in 2022, Canucks) — to give the top six more punch. Those skaters previously dominated with Djurgårdens IF in the Swedish Hockey League, and now Sweden is so saturated with skilled players internationally it allowed Havelid to maximize their contributions by moving Öhgren to the second line.

Sweden will also have Axel Sandin Pellikka (17th in 2023, Red Wings) manning the blue line and Filip Bystedt (27th in 2022, Sharks) helping generate offense up front, just two of the other top talents who can drive Sweden back into contending mode right off the hop.

Assuming, of course, the Swedes are ready to take flight.

What’s up with the Norwegians?

There’s always one seat left open at the World Juniors Championship table, to be filled by whichever international squad impresses in a second-tier tournament the year prior.

This season, that team is Norway. It won all five games while appearing in the World Juniors Division 1A tournament in 2023 to earn this spot at the next level for the first time since 2014. Norway has now flipped positions with Austria, who were pushed out of the World Juniors field following a relegation loss to Latvia last winter.

Avoiding relegation themselves would be a massive victory for Norway if it can pull it off — and that’s a large if. Norway does have one top-level prospect to lean on in forward Michael Brandsegg-Nygard. The winger is a strong two-way player who’s excelled with Mora IK of Hockey Allsvenskan — producing six points in 22 games this season — and he will headline Norway’s group heading into the games ahead.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Brandsegg-Nygard is also eligible for this season’s draft and carries first-round potential. It would surely benefit Brandsegg-Nygard — and the Norwegians at large — if he went on a heater at this tournament. It’s not often skaters from Norway are selected to NHL squads — defenseman Emil Martinsen Lilleberg was the most recent pick, No. 107 overall by the Lightning in 2021 — and Mats Zuccarello remains the only active Norwegian-born skater currently in the league.

Could Brandsegg-Nygard be their next big thing?


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