Previously on World Juniors Preview Blogs…
As I mentioned a couple of times in the Team USA preview, Group B in this tournament is going to be a bloodbath. Sweden won the silver medal at last year’s World Juniors. Team USA won the gold medal the year before that. And the year before that, Finland won the 2016 World Juniors gold. And in last year’s World U18 tournament Finland won gold, USA won silver and Sweden won bronze. So these are the top 3 teams from the U18 tournament from last year who have all had plenty of success at the U20 World Juniors recently, all playing in the same group this year. Even though Canada is going into the tournament as the favorites, I’d say these are the next best 3 teams. So considering we have a lot to get through here, let’s get right to it. Starting off with the 2018 silver medalists…
I know that I’ve been starting off with the forward groups for each team so far throughout these previews. But if there’s one thing that Sweden does the best, it’s put out elite level puck moving and skating defensemen. Which makes sense. I mean think about some of the biggest names to come out of Swedish hockey. You’ve got Nicklas Lidstrom, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman. All of those guys are Norris Trophy winners. So if you’re a young kid growing up in Sweden playing hockey, you grow up idolizing guys like that. So typically what you’d see here in the United States is all the best players want to be the next Patrick Kane or Auston Matthews so they all want to play forward. But if you grow up idolizing Lidstrom and Karlsson and Hedman, a lot of your best players are all going to want to play defense. So when you take a look at this defensive group for Sweden, you’ll understand why they’re so loaded.
Now keep in mind that Sweden’s best U20 defenseman isn’t even on this roster considering 2018 1st overall pick Rasmus Dahlin is currently tearing it up with the absolute wagon of a squad in Buffalo. But out of this group right here, Sweden has five 1st round picks, two 2nd round picks, a 3rd round pick, and a projected 1st round pick in the upcoming 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Adam Boqvist (2018 1st, CHI) came over to North America this year from Sweden to play for the London Knights in the OHL. He has 9 goals and 25 points in 23 games this year. Erik Brannstrom (2017 1st, VGK) is also over in North America for the first time. He’s been playing with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL and has 20 points in 24 games. Timothy Liljegren (2017 1st, TOR) is now in his 2nd year playing in the AHL with the Marlies and he won a Calder Cup with Toronto last year. Not a big deal or anything considering Biz won a Calder Cup too, but still. Rasmus Sandin (2018 1st, TOR) is playing with Liljegren this year with the Marlies in the AHL so they’ll clearly have some chemistry together out there. And then Nils Lundkvist (2018 1st, NYR) rounds out the current 1st rounders on Sweden’s blue line though I’m pretty sure the Rangers just picked him up in the 1st round because of his last name. But yeah, 5 out of the 9 defensemen listed on the preliminary roster were all snagged in the 1st round of their draft and Philip Broberg (2019 Draft) will be the 6th come June. I think at this point already most people have Broberg pegged in as a lottery pick in the 2019 draft put depending on how he plays in this tournament, he could potentially solidify himself as a top 5 pick. From everything I’ve read it seems like he does a little bit of everything well out there. He’s not necessarily the best at any one specific aspect of the game but can skate, can shoot, has vision and can defend. Jack of all trades.
Now the forward group is where things start to get a little tricky for the defending silver medalists. There is only one returning player from last year’s team at forward for Sweden and that’s Fabian Zetterlund (2017 3rd, NJD). Out of all of their forwards who have been drafted, none of them were 1st rounders. They have a few 2nd rounders and Nils Hoglander could potentially be a late 1st round pick in the 2019 draft or a very early 2nd round pick. But this team just lacks that super star talent at the forward position. Which is a shame because you look at some of the names they’ve had at forward over the last few years. Guys like Elias Pettersson, Lias Andersson, William Nylander, Alex Nylander, Joel Eriksson Ek, Adrian Kempe. They’ve always had those great puck moving defensemen but then they also had an elite group of forwards to go along with them. Obviously some of these guys can come out and surprise everybody, and I think all they have to do is just go to the net with the amount of shots being produced by that blue line. But I think if you’re going to medal in this tournament, you need 1st round talent all across the ice and Sweden is just missing that firepower at the forward position.
Finland won the gold medal at the 2016 World Juniors and it might have been the most stacked roster the world has ever seen. Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Kasperi Kapanen, Jesse Puljujarvi, Olli Juolevi. That team was LETHAL and they did it in their home country as well. 2016 was a power year for Finnish hockey. They won the U18 World Championships that year and also won silver at the IIHF World Championships. Finnish hockey was not fucking around in 2016. But then in 2017, the Finnish team finished last in their group and advanced to the relegation round where they fortunately beat Latvia to stay in the top division. They had a decent bounce back last year finishing 3rd in their group but they lost in a shootout to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals round. However, this could be the start of another big year for Finnish hockey and it starts with a pretty young squad here rounded out with some legitimate NHL caliber talent.
Now before we start to talk about the names you see on that list right there, the biggest name for Finland has just been added to the roster this morning with Eeli Tolvanen (2017 1st, NSH) being made available for the tournament by Nashville. Now Tolvanen hasn’t necessarily been lighting the world on fire ever since he came back to North America. He would have won the KHL’s rookie of the year award last year but the KHL has some bizarre rule about only giving out Rookie of the Year to a Russian citizen. But he had 19 goals and 36 points in 49 games in what some people could argue is the 2nd best league in the world. He also happened to score a hat trick in his KHL debut. Like I said, he hasn’t been doing too much scoring so far this year between Nashville and Milwaukee, but you have to imagine that after playing against that level of competition combined with the fact that this will be his 3rd World Juniors appearance, Tolvanen will be making a mockery out of this tournament. Oh yeah, and he also represented Finland at the Olympics last year and was named to the Olympic All Star Team as an 18-year-old after scoring 3 goals and 9 points in 5 Olympic games.
While Eeli Tolvanen might be the best player on Finland’s roster, the majority of the eyes are going to be on Kaapo Kakko who is the projected 2nd overall pick in the upcoming 2019 Draft. Obviously the biggest game of the preliminary round is going to be 10pm on New Years Eve when we have projected 1st overall pick Jack Hughes going up against projected 2nd overall pick Kaapo Kakko. So far this year Kaapo Kakko has 9 goals and 20 points in 27 games playing for TPS in the Finnish Elite League. Here are some of his highlights from this season.
I know that the SM-Liiga isn’t quite the same level as the KHL or the Swedish Elite League. But Kakko is still playing professional hockey against some grown ass men right now. Not taking anything away from Jack Hughes or anything but it’s just a big difference between playing in the SM-Liiga and playing for the US National Team Development Program in the USHL. Now I don’t know how many times Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes have played against each other head-to-head before but in the gold medal game of the 2018 U18 Worlds, Kakko had a goal while Hughes was held off the scoresheet, so I’m sure they have a decent little rivalry building up already that will only get better on New Years Eve.
Outside of Tolvanen and Kakko, some names to watch at forward for Finland will be Aleksi Heponiemi (2017 2nd, FLA) who has 26 points in 29 games playing for Kärpät in the Finnish league. And then his teammate in Kärpät, Rasmus Kupari (2018 1st, LAK) who has 23 points in 28 games.
Similar to the forwards and Eeli Tolvanen, the biggest name for Finland on defense has just recently been added with Henri Jokiharju (2017 1st, CHI) being loaned to Finland for the tournament. Now our good pal Barstool Chief wrote a blog the other day saying that he’s not a huge fan of Jokiharju getting pulled from the NHL to play in this tournament. You can read that blog right here. But as somebody who loves the World Juniors, I couldn’t possibly love this decision any more. Jokiharju had 71 points as a defenseman last year in the WHL playing for the Portland Winterhawks. This year he’s spent the entire season so far up with the Chicago and Chief says he’s been the Blackhawks’ 2nd best defenseman. 11 points in 32 games, averaging about 20 minutes of ice time per night as a rookie defenseman. I mean this guy has been playing against Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Sidney Crosby, etc. etc. He’s been playing against the best hockey players in the world and now he’s going to be playing in a junior tournament. It’s going to be a joke.
Adding Jokiharju was pretty important for Finland heading into this tournament because their blueline is very young right now. They have 4 guys on defense who are 2019 draft eligible. Both Anttoni Honka and Mikko Kokkonen are considered top 50 prospects coming up here and could work their way up to the 1st round. Honka has gotten some time in the Liiga this season and so has Kokkonen who has 11 points in 28 games as a draft year defenseman playing professional hockey. The one defenseman aside from Jokiharju who is currently playing in North America is Lassi Thomson who has 22 points in 34 games for Kelowna in the WHL. So the talent is definitely there, but they’re just a young group of defenseman. Fortunately they have an NHL-er in Jokiharju to lead them through the tournament. Also, we’ve already talked about the top 2 goalies in the the OHL with Michael DiPietro for team Canada and Kyle Keyser for Team USA. The 3rd goalie in that mix is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017 2nd, BUF) playing for the Sudbury Wolves. Luukkonen is currently 3rd in the OHL in GAA with a 2.49 through 26 games so far this year. He’s also 2nd in the OHL in save percentage, just edging out DiPietro with a 0.923.
So Finland has proven star power at the forward position in Eeli Tolvanen. They have future star power at the forward position with Kaapo Kakko. They have legitimate NHL talent on the blue line with Henri Jokiharju. They are young at defense but at least it’s a talented young with a few potential 1st rounders in the mix. And they have a goalie who is on par with Canada and USA. I’d expect a big tournament out of Team Finland.
Slovakia only has one player on their roster who has been drafted to the NHL and that is Martin Fehervary (2018 2nd, WSH). This will be his 3rd World Juniors appearance and he currently plays for HV71 in the Swedish Elite League. That’s the 3rd best league in the world so it’s no joke, but he has just 3 points in 23 games so far this year. I know he’s a defenseman but Slovakia is going to be needing to get some offense somewhere and I don’t know if he’ll be the guy to provide it. Also–I know that Europeans are pretty heavy on the left-handed shooters but 8 lefties and 1 right handed shot doesn’t seem ideal.
Similar to the defense, I just really don’t know anything about these forwards for team Slovakia. Pavol Regenda is playing in Sweden but it’s for the U20 Växjö Lakers team so it’s not like he’s getting any pro reps right now. The one draft year player they have is Filip Cenka but he doesn’t even pop up in any prospect rankings.
It’s just kind of a shame what has happened to Slovakian ice hockey over the years. I mean you look at some of the names that nation produced. Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Zdeno Chara, Ziggy Palffy. Even some younger guys who came into the league with some hype around them like Tomas Tatar and Marko Dano. But they just don’t produce many NHL players anymore. It’s a shame but just because it’s a shame doesn’t mean that they won’t still give USA some trouble in their opening game of the tournament. They upset Team USA last year. I don’t think it’ll happen again this time around but considering it’s the opening game of the tournament, it could definitely be closer than USA would want it to be.
I mean… what do you want me to say? Actually, the one thing I will say is that I’m glad they’re in this tournament because now I know how to spell Kazakhstan correctly on the first try after spelling it so many times doing these previews. Kazakhstan comes into the World Juniors after going undefeated in the Division I tournament last year. Their top 2 scorers from that tournament are still with the team this year. I mean they’re not going to win a game at this tournament but at least we can all root for them to score a goal or two. Kind of sucks that they have too play in Group B but just is life.
This is definitely a little harder to predict than Group A. But I do think that Team USA’s schedule is going to help them in this tournament. They start off with Slovakia. Then get a tune up game against Kazakhstan. Then they play Sweden the next day. And then they get to end with Finland on New Years Eve. So in terms of difficult their schedule goes 3-4-2-1, as opposed to Finland and Sweden who have to play a Border Wars on the opening day of the tournament. So with the schedule in mind…
3. Sweden (Defense wins championships but offense wins tournaments)
Big Games To Watch For:
Sweden vs Finland | Wednesday December 26 | 10pm EST
United States vs Sweden | Saturday December 29 | 10pm EST
Finland vs United States | Monday December 31 | 10pm EST
Hope you don’t mind staying up late for Group B.
Thanks to everybody who has been following along with all of these previews so far. Tomorrow I’ll have a final predictions blog on medal winners and leading scorers. Can’t wait for this tournament to get underway. Always the best time of the year. And in case you missed anything…