Last year's World Juniors was one of the most fun tournaments I can remember watching. Obviously that statement comes heavy on the bias considering USA won gold. But that team was incredible to watch. Zegras dominating every time he was on the ice. Spencer Knight being an absolute menace between the pipes. And any time we get USA vs Canada in the gold medal game is epic. Just going back to re-read the live blog gets me going.
The only issue, however, is that USA Hockey has never won back-to-back gold medals before. They didn't medal at all after winning gold in '04. They won bronze after winning gold in 2010. They didn't medal after winning gold in '13. And they won bronze after winning gold in '17.
This year is certainly going to be tough with USA losing their top 5 point scorers from last year's tournament, no more Spencer Knight, and the fact that Group B is going to be a gauntlet just like it was last year. So let's get into which teams will be standing in USA Hockey's way to repeating gold for the first time ever this year.
2022 WJC Group B
- USA (2021 gold medal)
- Russia (2021 4th place)
- Sweden (2021 5th place)
- Slovakia (2021 8th place)
- Switzerland (2021 9th place)
Group B Games To Watch:
- 12/26: Russia vs Sweden @ 4:30pm
- 12/26: USA vs Slovakia @ 9:30pm
- 12/28: USA vs Switzerland @ 4:30pm
- 12/29: USA vs Sweden @ 9:30pm
- 12/31: USA vs Russia @ 9:30pm
Team USA (2021 WJC Gold)
Obviously we mentioned how much firepower from last year's team USA will be without this year. But they're still bringing just as much talent to this year's tournament as just about anybody. They have 5 players coming back from the 2021 roster and six 1st round NHL draft picks. I think the thing that is really going to work in USA's favor this year is the schedule. Slovakia is going to be a tight game to start off with but that should be a win. It should be a good win where they need to grind out 3 strong periods and get themselves in a groove. Then they get the day off, then they get Switzerland to build up some more confidence. And then they get to finish strong with Sweden and Russia. So for a team with a lot of guys, and all 3 goalies, making their first appearance at the WJC, that is probably the best way to get into it.
All 3 goalies will be playing in their first World Juniors this year. By the looks of his pads, I'd say Drew Commesso (CHI '20) is going in as the starter. He was a 2nd round pick in 2020 who could have made the team last year, but he tested positive for COVID too close to the tournament. BU isn't having a very good year this season, so his stats have been just alright. A 2.82 GAA and .900sv% through 17 games. But hopefully he can use the World Juniors to turn his year around.
Besides Commesso, there is Kaidan Mbereko who was a top 3 goalie at the U18 World Juniors last year. He's been playing with the Lincoln Stars in the USHL this year and has pretty similar stats to Commesso. Those would be the 2 I'd imagine USA goes back and forth on in this tournament but Dylan Silverstein (2022 eligible) is a prospect to keep your eye on if he gets time.
Quinn Hughes has a bronze and a silver medal at the WJC. Jack Hughes has a silver medal at the WJC. Maybe this is the year gold finally makes its way into the family trophy case with Luke Hughes (NJD '21) headlining Team USA's' blueline. Much like his brothers, his skating is as smooth as it gets and he's going to generate a ton of offense. He has 7 goals and 11 assists in 20 games this year with Michigan. And he's just one of the 4 Michigan players who were drafted in the top 5 picks of last year's draft playing in this tournament to go along with Owen Power (Canada), Matty Beniers who we'll talk about in a minute, and Kent Johnson (Canada). So obviously there will be a ton of personal pride on the line for Hughes as far as his family goes and as far as his Michigan teammates go.
Then you've got Jake Sanderson (OTT '20) who will most likely be the leader on this team. He was the 5th overall pick in the 2020 draft. He captained the USNTDP team at the U17 level, he captained the USNTDP team at the U18 level, and now he wears an 'A' at North Dakota this year where he has 6 goals and 13 assists in 15 games.
He was on the team that won gold last year. So he has that experience, he has a ton of experience wearing the 'C' for Team USA, and he has monster ears. So there's nothing to not love about Jake Sanderson. Those will be the two guys on the blueline that USA leans on the most. But other defenseman returning from last year's roster are Brock Faber (LAK '20) and Tyler Kleven (OTT '20).
Matty Beniers (SEA '21) is going to be the guy offensively for USA. He was the 2nd overall pick in last summer's draft and another one of those Michigan guys. He's crafty, he's quick as shit, he can play on both ends of the ice, and he can produce. He has 11 goals and 11 assists so far this year through 20 games at Michigan. He also has experience playing against grown ass men at the World Championships last summer with Team USA where he had a goal and as assist on the way to winning a bronze medal.
I'd love to see Mackie Samoskevich (FLA '21) get some shifts on a line with Beniers. Samoskevich was Florida's 1st round pick in last year's draft and they play together in Ann Arbor.
He was also on that unreal Chicago Steel team with Matt Coronato (CAL '21) who was the 13th overall pick in last year's draft, and Owen Power. And speaking of Pastujov in that tweet above, that is Michael Pastujov. But his brother Sasha Pastujov (ANA '21) is one of the very few players on this roster who aren't playing in the NCAA. Pastujov is playing with the Guelph Storm this year in the OHL and is 10th in scoring with 20 goals and 15 assists through 26 games. I'm going to be real interested in how the non-NCAA guys look with this team. It'll be Pastujov and Tanner Dickinson (STL '20) who has 33 points in 24 games with the Soo Greyhounds this year.
The only other non-NCAA guy is going to be Logan Cooley (2022 eligible) who is the only '22 Draft eligible skater on the roster. He's projected to be a top 10 pick in the draft this summer. He's played in 27 games with the USNTDP this year and has 18 goals and 20 assists.
This is going to be an exciting team that can move the puck and generate plenty of offense. We'll just see how well they do with keeping the puck out of their own net.
Sidenote: Just saw these sweaters as I was writing the blog. Nothing else matters. USA by 100.
Team Russia (2021 WJC 4th Place, 2021 U18 WJC Silver)
I'm not exactly sure what happened with the Russians last year. They came out and beat Team USA on the opening day of the tournament. Then they got shutout by the Czechs, who Team USA beat 7-0 the next day. Russia would go on to beat Sweden in overtime, then they just squeaked by Germany 2-1 in the quarterfinals before getting spanked 5-0 by Canada in the semifinals. A 4th place finish isn't terrible, but you have to imagine Mother Russia isn't too pleased with that result. Which could potentially explain why they decided to strictly take players who are playing domestically in Russian leagues to this year's tournament. There are a few Russian players out there like Daniil Chayka and Yan Kuznetsov who were on last year's team but kept off the roster this year despite still being eligible. But a lot of these players were on the team that won silver at last year's U18 WJC so clearly they're coming in as medal favorites.
Everything with Russia comes down to Yaroslav Askarov (NSH '20). He was the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and pegged to be one of the best goaltending prospects since Carey Price. Obviously Russia has a ton of great goalies with Vasilevksiy leading the way. But Yaroslav Askarov is Russia's goalie of the future. He plays for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL and he'll now be playing in his 3rd World Juniors. Obviously there is going to be a ton of pressure on him after not medaling last year. My guess is that he's an absolute stud this year, but we'll see if the pressure gets to him at all.
Shakir Mukhamadullin (NJD '20) will probably be the most dangerous defenseman on Russia's roster. He's a big boy with a monster shot. The 20th overall pick in the 2020 Draft has 3 goals and 4 assists this year playing with Salavat in the KHL. He's also one of the few players from last year's team to be making his return this year. The only other defenseman from last year's team is Kirill Kirsanov (LAK '21), but it doesn't look like he's been doing a ton so far this season.
The headliners here are obviously going to be Matvei Michkov (2023 eligible) and Danila Yurov (2022 eligible). I'm praying that we get a Canada vs Russia game at some point this tournament so we can see the top 2 prospects of the 2023 Draft class go head to head. Michkov and Bedard are going to go 1,2 in that draft but nobody is really sure what order yet. Especially since Michkov's situation might be a little tricky considering his KHL contract length.
But Michkov was the youngest player to ever suit up for the top Russian National Team earlier this year. He made his KHL debut at 16-years-old. He was the MVP of the 2021 U18 WJC where he put up an insane 12 goals and 4 assists in 7 games. He currently has 5 points in 13 games with St. Petersburg in the KHL. And he's a freak. So expect Michkov to be all over the place this tournament.
Danila Yurov is projected to be a top 10, maybe even a top 5 pick in the draft coming up this summer. There is another Russian, Ivan Miroshnichenko, who is projected to go in one of the first few picks of the draft but he was left off the WJC roster on account of "not being in the best physical shape right now". So Danila Yurov will be the best 2022 Draft Prospect for Russia at this tournament.
Those are the names you'll likely be hearing about a ton, but some other names to be on the lookout for with the Russians will be Nikita Chibrikov (WPG '20) and Fyodor Svechkov (NSH '21). Chibrikov has had a ton of success playing with Michkov at the U18 tournament. And Svechkov has gotten comparisons to guys like Patrice Bergeron and Sean Couturier as one of the best two-way prospects in hockey right now.
By the way, Svechkov was the only 1st round pick in last year's draft that wasn't either an American, a Canadian, or a Swede. Just a quick little fun fact.
Team Sweden (2021 WJC 5th Place, 2021 U18 WJC Bronze)
Last year was clearly a disappointing tournament for the Swedes. But you also have to remember that right before the tournament, they were missing their head coach and a couple of assistant coaches after testing positive for COVID. They were also missing William Eklund and a few other players who tested positive as well. So they were screwed from the jump.
But this team comes back healthy this year and I'm pretty sure they'll be the oldest at the tournament. Every player on this roster is either a '02 or a '03 birth year. So they're all 18 and 19-years-old, meaning that most of them are playing in their final WJC and would love to get the taste of not even playing for a medal out of their mouth.
I know that Askarov is the bigger name, but I think that Jesper Wallstedt (MIN '21) has a chance of being the best goaltender in this tournament. He played in 2 games for Sweden in last year's tournament. This year he has been playing with Luleå in the SHL. He has a GAA of 1.82 and a .923sv% through 17 games in the top Swedish league. Easy to see why Minnesota spent a 1st round pick on him last summer.
Calle Clang (PIT '20) hasn't been having quite as killer of a season in the SHL this year, but he'll most likely be seeing some action in this tournament as the backup.
The Swedes are always known for having some smooth skating, puck moving defensive prospects. And typically when that's the way to describe defensemen, they're more like forwards just playing defense. But if you want to watch an elite defenseman in its truest form at this tournament, then Simon Edvinsson (DET '21) is your guy to watch.
The 6th overall pick in the 2021 Draft. This kid is huge. He's listed at 6'5", 207. He's rangy, he breaks up passes just as good as anybody you'll see, he can bring the body, and he has 11 assists in 24 games playing for Frölunda this year in the SHL. He's a special player.
The only returning defenseman from last year's team is Emil Andrae (PHI '20). He's a little smaller and isn't playing in the top Swedish league this year. But he has 16 points through 21 games, so I'm sure he'll provide some offense from the point in this tournament.
Alexander Holtz (NJD '20) is the guy. This will be his 3rd World Juniors and if I had to guess, I'd say he's probably a little disappointed that he's still playing in this tournament. The past couple of seasons it was Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond as the young studs to watch out for on Sweden's roster. But this year his buddy Lucas Raymond has been tearing it up with Detroit and has 27 points in 30 NHL games. He's obviously a little too busy for this year's tournament. But Holtz is still here. He had 2 assists in 6 games played with the Devils this season. He also has 6 goals and 4 assists in 11 games playing with the Utica Comets in the AHL. So yeah, I'd expect this will be like going back to your elementary school as an adult for Holtz.
Another guy who already has NHL experience on this roster will be William Eklund (SJS '21).
The 7th overall pick in the 2021 Draft played his 9 games with the Sharks this year before having to burn a year off his ELC. He had 4 assists in those games, and is now back in Sweden playing with Djurgårdens in the SHL. He has 5 assists in 9 games there. He was also the SHL Rookie of the Year in 2020-21 so I'm sure it'll just take him a little while to get adjusted again in Djurgårdens before he starts owning that league again. Considering he had to miss last year's tournament due to COVID, I'd expect him to come out on fire trying to make up for lost time this year.
Other forwards to watch on Sweden will be a couple of guys who are currently playing in North America. First up there is Oskar Olausson (COL '21) who is returning from last year's team. He was the 28th pick in the draft and has been playing with the Barrie Colts in the OHL. He has 25 points in 22 games. And then for all you Bruins fans out there, I feel like I'd get murdered if I don't mention Fabian Lysell (BOS '21). The 21st pick in last year's draft has 28 points in 23 games playing with the Vancouver Giants in the WHL.
Silky silky silky.
Team Slovakia (2021 WJC 8th Place)
Slovakia didn't have a strong tournament last year. And I wouldn't expect them to have a massive tournament this year either. HOWEVER…things look like they're turning around for Slovakia. Or at least for the short term future. Because this team is going to be headlined by a few guys who will most likely be going in the 1st round of the 2022 NHL Draft, or at the very least very early into the 2nd round. So while this team might not have many familiar names, they're not going to be a team you'll be able to just roll over. A lot of these guys also just won Silver at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August. So maybe not a medal this year, but I think this team gets GOOD for 2023.
Goalies and Defense:
The first of the top '22 prospects to talk about here is Simon Nemec.
Nemec is playing in the top Slovakian league this year for HK Nitra. He's played in 22 games and has 13 assists. Like the tweet above said, he's 17 and playing in a pro league. Pretty sick numbers for a defenseman. He was also the team's leading point scorer in last year's tournament.
Offensively Slovakia has a few guys playing in North America right now who have been doing damage. Martin Chromiak (LAK '20) is playing with Shane Wright on the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL. He has 32 points in 23 games over there. Then there is Jakub Demek (VGK '21) who is top 10 in points in the WHL with 32 points in 27 games playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings. This will be a home tournament for him so I'd expect a solid showing.
But then we get to a few of the young guys. We'll start off with Juraj Slafkovsky (2022 eligible).
He's been playing with TPS in the Liiga this year. He still just has that one goal but that's a very strong league for a 17-year-old to be playing in. He's projected to be a top 10 pick in the draft. Then we head back to the Slovakian pro league for Filip Mesar.
5 goals and 4 assists through 20 games with HK Poprad this summer. A top 20 prospect. I think this Slovakian team could very easily take one of either USA, Sweden or Russia by surprise and win a huge game in the preliminary round.
Team Switzerland (2021 WJC 9th Place)
I gotta be honest. This preview is already long enough and there's really nobody on the Swiss team you're going to know about or really care about. So let's just hope they have fun this tournament.
And that'll do it for your 2022 WJC Group B preview. If it weren't for those USA sweaters that just came out, I'd be very nervous heading into this tournament. This group is stacked with Russia, Sweden and Slovakia. Absolute gauntlet. But those threads are too fucking crispy to not dominate in. USA Hockey is Do or Die.
See everybody on Monday for the final full tournament preview blog.