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For The Kids: Here Is Your Official 2020 World Juniors Preview Blog

Previously on 2020 WJC Coverage...

2020 WJC Group A Preview: Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Kazakhstan

2020 WJC Group B Preview: USA, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany

Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. We have finally made it to the most wonderful time of the year. A week from today, the puck will drop and the 2020 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships will be underway in the Czech Republic. 

In case you're new here, the World Juniors is consistently one of the best tournament in all of sports each and every year, and anybody who doesn't watch it has a bowl of spaghetti for brains. It's essentially a showcase for the future of the NHL while also being able to get patriotic as fuck as well. Think about how loaded the NHL currently is with young talent. If you put together a team with a roster filled with guys who are under the age of 25, there's a good chance they win a 7-game series against a team with a roster filled with guys who are over 25. Kids are coming into the league more prepared than ever, and almost all of them got their careers going at the World Juniors. It's a chance to see some of the top names that'll be called during the 2020 NHL Draft for the first time. It's a chance to get a real good look at your favorite team's top prospects for the first time. And it's a chance to see the names that will be dominating the NHL for years to come for the first time. 

Plus it always starts the day after Christmas and runs until just past New Years, so it's an awesome way to kill some time during that week and a half stretch where you know you're not going to get any actual work done. 

So here's how this is going to work--today is just going to be a overall preview of the tournament in general. Big games, players to watch, some storylines, etc. On Friday I'll have a preview of Group B for this year's tournament which will be Canada, USA, Russia, Germany and the host Czech Republic. Then on Monday we'll have the Group A preview for Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan. Then on Tuesday I'll run everything back before Christmas so you know everything you possibly need to know heading into December 26th. Let's fire it up. 

Big Games On The Schedule

Now I don't want to start this blog off on a negative note but I fear I have to. Because whoever came up with the schedule for this year's tournament needs to be thrown in jail. Since 2001 there have only been 5 countries to play in the gold medal game at the WJC. They are Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland and Russia. And out of those 5 teams, four of them are playing against each other on the first day of the tournament. And they're playing at the same damn time. 

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Sweden vs Finland at 1pm ET on December 26th. USA vs Canada at 1pm ET on December 26th. Now don't get me wrong, I love that the first day of the tournament is going to have a ton of juice to it. A couple of border wars to get this tournament going? I love it. The only issue (besides the fact that the games are at the same time) is like I mentioned previously, there are really only 5 teams you need to watch this tournament. And considering Russia won't play Sweden or Finland during the round robin stage, that means there are only 2 more big games to watch for the rest of the opening round of the tournament. 

Canada vs Russia on Saturday 12/28 at 1pm ET. 

USA vs Russia on Sunday 12/29 at 1pm ET.

And what's almost even worse is the fact that there's not a single great game to watch on New Years Eve, which usually gives us at least one massive matchup every year. Here are the New Years Eve games this year. 

Sweden vs Slovakia, Russia vs Germany, Finland vs Switzerland, and Canada vs Czech Republic. I know that Switzerland is a pesky team and should be able to keep it relatively close. I know the Czech Republic will try to give Canada a tough game since they're the host country this year. But those games all stink.

So the schedule this year is pretty rough. The one saving grace is the time difference in Czech Republic. The majority of the games will either be at 9am ET or 1pm ET. You can never complain about morning and early afternoon hockey. 

By the way, the quarterfinals will be on January 2nd, the semifinals are on the 4th, and then the final is Sunday January 5 at 1pm ET. 

Storylines Heading Into 2020

We'll get to the 2020 Draft class in just a moment but I think the biggest story to watch this year is how Canada is going to respond after they got bounced out of the quarterfinals last year and finished the tournament in 6th place. This was the first time they failed to medal in a World Juniors that they hosted. I know that people are going to say that maybe the pressure is off of them now that the tournament is being played in Europe this year. Also they won't have to worry about Don Cherry screaming at them during Coach's Corner this year. But still. I know the gap is closing between the rest of the world and Canada (both USA and Finland had more WJC gold medals in the 2010 decade than Canada), but to host the tournament and get bounced in the quarters? This team is going to have a ton of pressure on them, especially the 5 guys who were on last year's roster. 

This is going to be a huge tournament for the top few picks of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Obviously this year's tournament is going to be headlined by Alexis Lafreniere. He's been the consensus 1st overall pick for this upcoming draft since like 2005. But there are a few more prospects you're going to want to keep an eye out for, especially if your favorite NHL team is dog shit this year. We'll talk more about these guys later but just to get their names out there now. There's Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond on Team Sweden. Both of these guys are projected to be top 10 picks in the 2020 Draft, and some people have Raymond at #2. Playing with Lafreniere on Team Canada will be Quinton Byfield (also projected by some to be the 2nd overall pick) and Jamie Drysdale. Drysdale would be just the 7th defenseman to make the Canadian team at a 17-year-old. Then you've also got the best goalie coming up in the 2020 Draft with Russia's Yaroslav Askarov, who is also projected to go in the top 10. 

The one player from this draft class that we'll really be missing is Anton Lundell. He's ranked #4 right now by the International Scouting Service. He won a U18 WJC gold medal with Finland in 2018, and then was on the Finnish team that won gold at last year's World Juniors. He was injured in late November and most likely won't be ready for the tournament. But speaking of the Finns...

How will Finland bounce back after losing so many studs from last year's gold medal team? You might remember that after winning gold in 2016, Finland shit their pants and came in 9th place in 2017. Almost relegated the year after winning gold. Yikes! And from last year's team they'll no longer have Kaapo Kakko, Eeli Tolvanen, Aleksi Heponiemi, Henri Jokiharju, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and then Lundell like I mentioned above. To be fair, they'll have some guys coming back from last year's team who also won the 2018 U18 gold like Rasmus Kupari, Sampo Ranta, Lassi Thomson and Ville Heinola. But I don't think they have a legitimate superstar on this year's team.

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And one last storyline before we get to talk about my favorite players in this year's tournament...

Quick shoutout to old man Nico Gross who will be playing in his fourth (4th!!!) World Juniors this year. That has to be some sort of a record. He was 16-years-old his first go around in 2017. He was drafted in the 4th round by the Rangers in 2018. And now here he is playing in the World Juniors for his final time. What's crazy is that in order for this to happen, you need to be one of the best young players in your country but also at the same time, not quite ready to join an NHL roster full time. Most kids who play in the WJC at 16 usually end up playing in the NHL by age 18. Granted, it's a little different for Switzerland but still. What a legend. 

Jordie's Top 10 Players To Watch 

Alright so just to be clear, this is in no specific order. But in terms of guys who I think will make a significant impact on this tournament as well as just being fun as hell to watch, here are my top 10. 

(You'll notice its mostly USA, Canada and Sweden. But that's because it's easy to find out about North American players. And Sweden won the 2019 U18 WJC so they're coming into this tournament completely stacked. Also they're mostly forwards but that's because that's what this tournament is all about)

Alexis Lafreniere - Team Canada - Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

Lafreniere has been projected to go 1st overall in the 2020 Draft since forever. And that's not going to change once June 26 gets here. He currently leads the QMJHL in points with 70 (23, 47) in just 32 games. Keep in mind that he had 105 points in 61 games last year and was named the QMJHL MVP as well as the 2019 CHL Player of the Year. So yeah, he's on pace to be even better than the best player in junior hockey he was last year. 

Speaking of being better than last year, he has to be better in this year's WJC than he was in last year's. I know he was only 17 last year but he had just 1 goal in 5 games for Team Canada in last year's tournament. So considering the fact that he'll be the best player at this year's tournament plus he has to make up for a rough performance in 2019, I'm expecting complete and total domination. 

Cole Caufield - Team USA - Wisconsin (NCAA)

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Maybe it's because I'm a short guy myself and I have a soft spot in my heart for 5'7" Cole Caufield. But I'm gonna go out and say that he's going to be the most exciting player in this tournament to watch. And it's not like I really need to go out on a limb to say that considering he was the MVP of the 2019 U18 WJC. So against the majority of the kids who will be playing in this year's tournament, he had the best showing at least year's U18 tournament. 14 goals and 4 assists in 7 games to go along with the bronze medal that Team USA won. 

He was the 15th overall pick in last year's draft to Montreal. Caufield had 72 goals last year for the National Team Development Program, which was a single season record. He also has the most career goals for the USNTDP with 126. Other guys on that list are Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews. Notta big deal. 

This year he has 12 goals and 8 assists in 18 games with Wisconsin. So if you're looking for guys who are going to snipe the shit out of goalies next week, Cole Caufield is your guy. 

Barrett Hayton - Team Canada - Arizona Coyotes (NHL)

Getting Barrett Hayton back for this tournament is going to be huge for Team Canada and also huge for Barrett Hayton. He was the 5th overall pick in 2018 to Arizona. This year he's playing in his first NHL season but only has a goal and 3 assists in 14 games. So not only does Team Canada get back a 19-year-old, but maybe Hayton can build up some confidence during this tournament before he goes back to Arizona.

He obviously has a ton of skill. You don't get selected with the 5th pick for no reason. He also had 26 goals and 40 assists last year in the OHL. But he just hasn't translated his game to the NHL yet. With that being said, he still has that little NHL experience so the competition at the WJC is going to be so much slower and easier for him now. 

Alexander Holtz - Team Sweden - Djurgårdens IF (SHL) 

I mentioned earlier that Sweden is coming in to this tournament with a ton of young talent after winning the 2019 U18 tournament last year. Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond headline that wagon of a roster. 

This year Holtz is playing in the Swedish Elite League so his numbers aren't necessarily going to jump off the page at you. He has 5 goals and 3 assists in 21 games. But he's a 17-year-old playing against a bunch of grown ass men in the 3rd best league in the world. Now that he's going to be back to playing against kids his own age at this tournament?

Well it'll look a lot more like last year when he had 47 points in 38 games in the top junior league in Sweden. Holtz is going to be a top 5 pick in this year's draft so we'll see how close he gets to that 2nd spot during this tournament. 

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Lucas Raymond - Team Sweden - Frölunda HC (SHL)

I have a feeling that either one of these Swedes is going to end up being the 2nd overall pick in 2020 and depending on how this tournament goes, you might even get some people to start talking about whether or not the 1st overall is up for grabs. It absolutely won't be but the conversations will be fun anyway. 

Just like Holtz, Lucas Raymond is a 17-year-old playing in the Swedish Elite League. He has 3 goals and 2 assists so far this year through 16 games. But pretty much just like Holtz, he had 48 points in 37 games last year in the top Swedish junior league. So you put these guys together on a line and they are going to be a goddamn force. 

The one thing to keep in mind heading into the tournament is that Lucas Raymond had an infection that he wasn't medically cleared to play from until this week. So I'm not sure how much he's been playing over the last few weeks, and how much that infection took out of him. But you saw the skill in that clip right there. Even if that sickness is lingering, he's still going to be one of the best players in this tournament. 

Oliver Wahlstrom - Team USA - Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL)

Like Barrett Hayton, Oliver Wahlstrom getting loaned for the World Juniors is going to be huge for Team USA and also huge for Wahlstrom. He played his 9 games in the NHL this year with the Islanders but wasn't able to get much done. Then he's played 20 games so far in the AHL and has 3 goals and 6 assists. Not bad at all but this is a kid with a ton of skill and would probably like to be more of a goal scorer. 

So playing in the World Juniors for a 2nd go around? After playing 29 games of professional hockey already this season? This is where he's going to get himself going. He's had plenty of success with Team USA already in his career. A U18 WJC gold in 2017, a U18 WJC silver in 2018 and a WJC silver in 2019. So now he gets a chance to add to his collection, and also has a lot to prove to show that he belongs back up with the Islanders soon. 

Quinton Byfield - Team Canada - Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

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Quinton Byfield is another player in the 2020 Draft Class who has a chance to get his stock up at this tournament. The thing about this kid is that he's fucking massive. 6'4", 214 lbs, and he's a 2002 birth year. 17-years-old and he's already one of the largest humans in this tournament. But with all that size also comes all that skill. 

Last year Byfield was the OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year. He had 61 points (29, 32) in 64 games with the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL. So far this year, he's followed that up with 57 points (22, 35) in just 22 games. He's 3rd in the OHL right now in points. The only 2 players ahead of him are Arthur Kaliyev who will be playing with Team USA, and this his Canadian teammate Connor McMichael. But both of those guys are at least a full year older. 

He'll be a force for sure. 

Nils Höglander - Team Sweden - Rögle BK (SHL)

Alright so far we've talked about guys that are either going to be top 5 picks in the upcoming draft, or guys who have already played in a few NHL games. This is where we're going to get a little spicy though. Because some of you may remember Nils Höglander from this goal he scored back in October. It was the same day that Svechnikov pulled off The Michigan for the first time in the NHL. 

Now if you look at that celebration from Höglander, you can tell he's impressed with himself but not necessarily surprised. It's more of a "Are You Not Entertained?" as if this is just the norm for him. The thing is…well it kind of is. Because this is a goal he scored last year in the Swedish Elite League that won him the SHL Goal of the Year. 

2 years in a row the kid pulls this move off. If you don't think at the very least he's going to attempt the Michigan at the World Juniors this year, then I don't know what to tell you. 

By the way, Höglander was a 2nd round draft pick by the Vancouver Canucks this past year (40th overall). So it's not like he's just a kid with a saucy set of paws but nothing else. He has 6 goals in 19 games so far this year in the SHL but when he scores, he makes it count. Filthy bastard. 

Yaroslav Askarov G - Team Russia - SKA-Neva St. Petersburg (VHL)

We're going to close this out by talking about the best 2 goalies in this year's tournament. First on deck is Yaroslav Askarov. Many people think he's going to be the next great goaltender in the NHL. He's projected to be a top 10 pick in the 2020 Draft. The last time a goalie was drafted in the top 10 was back in 2005 when Carey Price went 5th overall (Jonathan Bernier went 11th in 2006 and Jack Campbell went 11th in 2010). So right off the bat, you have a Carey Price comparison to Yaroslav Askarov. 

This year as a 17-year-old, he played in his first KHL game. He's been spending the majority of the year in the VHL which is pretty much the AHL equivalent to the KHL. He has a .921 sv% and a 2.37 GAA through 31 games so far this season in the Supreme League. Again, that would be like a 17-year-old goaltending in the AHL so those are some pretty solid numbers. 

Last year he won silver at the U18 WJC and was named the 2019 U18 WJC Best Goaltender. He won that award over the next guy who we're about to talk about, who happened to have the best GAA and Sv% in that tournament. The only difference is that Askarov held on to beat USA in a shootout in the semis, and Spencer Knight lost. Askarov and the Russians also won gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup earlier this year. 

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Spencer Knight G - Team USA - Boston College (NCAA) 

Like I just said, Spencer Knight had the best GAA and Sv% at the 2019 U18 World Juniors. And so far this season as a freshman, Knight has the 6th best GAA and Sv% in the NCAA. He's currently working with a 1.73 GAA and a .940sv% through 15 games with BC this year. 

He was on the 2019 World Juniors team last year that won silver, but was backing up Primeau and Keyser so he didn't see any game action. With that being said, he has the most career wins in USNTDP history with 59. So the kid is a winner and he was also the 13th overall pick in last year's draft to the Florida Panthers. So up until Yaroslav Askarov gets drafted this upcoming summer, he'll be one of the highest draft picks for a goalie in a while. 

Obviously there are plenty more players to look forward to seeing in this year's tournament but we'll get to them during the Group Previews on Friday and Monday. So for any of you Bruins fans out there who are pissed off that I'm not talking about John Beecher, that's on the way. For any of you Maple Leafs fans out there who are pissed off that I'm not talking about Rasmus Sandin, that's on the way. But for now, this is everything you need to know heading into the 2020 World Juniors. 

One week away people. It's about to get saucy. 

@BarstoolJordie