There's nothing better than waking up the morning after Christmas. All the chaos of the previous day has subsided. You pour yourself a cup of coffee, you plop down of your favorite part of the couch, and you know that you have a full day of international hockey to watch ahead of you.
The first puck drops at 11am ET on December 26th this year to kick off the 2023 World Junior Championship. It'll be Finland vs the Swiss to get the tournament started. Hopefully this year will be the closest thing to a normal World Juniors we've had in the past few. The 2021 WJC ruled because USA took home the gold, but the tournament was in a bubble and lacked all the pop that a rabid Canadian crowd provides to this tournament. The 2022 WJC was cancelled just a few days into the tournament due to a COVID outbreak, and the rescheduled tournament over the summer was a dud. This year won't be totally normal due to the fact that the Russian team won't be allowed to compete. It sucks and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a massive disappointment to not get to watch Matvei Michkov this week, but I guess something are bigger than sports. Even without the Russians, though, the World Juniors is always an elite tournament because you never know what can happen when you throw a bunch of the world's best 18 and 19 year old kids out there playing in the biggest tournament of their life.
Now over the years when I've done these preview blogs, I've typically gone down the line and previewed every team's roster. But there's no Russia in this tournament and there's not a crazy amount of star power on the other rosters outside of the big four of Canada, USA, Finland and Sweden. So I'm mostly just going to stick to those teams this year, with a few Czechs and Slovaks making their way into the mix when we talk about the Top 10 Players To Watch.
So let's just start with the favorites right out of the gate.
Team Canada (Group A)
- 2022 Summer WJC Gold Medal
- 9 NHL 1st Round Draft Picks
I don't know if there's ever been a World Juniors that Canada didn't come into as the betting favorite to win gold. Every year they come into this tournament with a roster loaded with high level NHL prospects. Hell, even a roster filled with guys who got cut from Team Canada would still probably contend for a medal at this tournament. And this year is no different.
This year's Team Canada isn't just loaded with NHL prospects, but they also have multiple current NHL players. Shane Wright ('22 SEA) has played in 8 NHL games this year, Brandt Clarke ('21 LAK) is making his WJC debut after already making his NHL debut. Dylan Guenther ('21 ARI) has 11 points in 21 games in the NHL this year with the Coyotes. You've got 3 guys on this roster who have spent the past few months playing in the best hockey league in the world, and now you're letting them off the leash to play in a U20 tournament.
Then you add in the fact that they could very well have the top 2 picks in this upcoming draft with Connor Bedard ('23 Draft Eligible) and Adam Fantilli ('23 Draft Eligible)? There are about 25 different reasons why the Canadians are favored to repeat as WJC champions this year. Bedard already looks like he's ready to make a mockery out of this tournament after putting up 8 points in 7 games in last summer's WJC, currently leading the WHL in points with 64 in just 28 games, and leaving his lasting mark on this stage since he'll be 30 games into his NHL career this time around next year.
They are ridiculously skilled at the forward position. They have a ton of size on the blue line. And the only defenseman on the roster who is under 6' ended up being the leading point scorer among defensemen at the summer WJC last August. Olen Zellweger ('21 ANA) had 11 points in 9 games at last summer's tournament, and currently has 28 points in 23 games with Everett in the WHL this year. So if you take a penalty against the Canadians at this tournament, you can just automatically mark him down for a point in the next 2 minutes.
Goaltending is maybe the only spot on this roster where Canada won't have a massive advantage over the rest of the tournament. But when Canada is up 5-0 before other teams get a chance to breath, you don't really have to worry about goaltending anymore.
Team USA (Group B)
- 2022 Summer WJC 5th Place
- 7 NHL 1st Round Draft Picks
I already wrote a full preview blog for Team USA yesterday, so you can read that here.
The only thing I'll add here is that the US went 4-0 in group play during the summer WJC in August. They then turned around and played an awful game against the Czechs in the quarterfinals and were bounced out of the tournament without even getting a chance to play for a medal. There's a strong chance they go undefeated in group play again this time around, so you just hope the leadership group on this team will make sure the same thing doesn't happen. I don't think anyone on this roster has ever won gold at an international tournament before, so this is the last go at it for most of these guys.
Team Sweden (Group A)
- 2022 Summer WJC Bronze Medal
- 6 NHL 1st Round Draft Picks
It's crazy to think we've gone 10 years now since the Swedes have won gold at the World Juniors. Every year they dummy their way through the group stage, and then every year they just can't get the job done. They've played for a medal in 8 out of the past 10 years, but the growing gap between Sweden and the rest of the big four is getting hard to ignore.
This year's Team Sweden will be a little different than what we're used to seeing. Normally with the Swedes you see a team full of kids who grew up idolizing players like Nick Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson. They're always loaded with defensemen who can move the puck and fill up the scoresheet. This year they don't have any 1st round NHL draft picks on the blue line outside of Axel Sandin Pellikka ('23 Draft Eligible) who could go late in the 1st round of the upcoming draft.
This team will run through the forward group, led by Fabian Lysell ('21 BOS) and Isak Rosen ('21 BUF). Both guys have been having really strong seasons in the AHL. Much like the group of Canadians who already have ton of pro experience, having guys who have spent the full season playing against men in one of the best leagues in the world is going to make a U20 tournament feel at least 3 gears slower for those guys. The game looking slower to a guy like Lysell is bad news to whoever he's out on the ice against.
But the most skilled player out of the group has to be Leo Carlsson ('23 Draft Eligible) who is looking to play his way into being a top 3 draft pick in the upcoming draft. Without Matvei Michkov playing in this tournament, this is a great time for Carlsson to go off and prove he deserves to be right up there with Bedard and Fantilli in this draft class. He has 3 goals and 11 assists through 25 games this year with Örebro HK in the top Swedish league. He's a 6'3, 194 lb 17-year-old. Big size, big skill, he's going to be a problem out there this tournament.
Team Finland (Group B)
- 2022 Summer WJC Silver Medal
- 2 NHL 1st Round Draft Picks
The Finns have played for a medal in each of the last 4 World Juniors. They won gold in '19, finished 4th in '20, a bronze finish in '21, and then lost in overtime to Canada in the gold medal game last summer. Not a bad little bounce back after playing in the relegation round in 2017.
The two biggest names coming back to Team Finland this time around are Brad Lambert ('22 WPG) and Joakim Kemell ('22 NSH). I swear to god this feels like the 5th tournament we've been watching Brad Lambert. He first came onto the scene for the Finns a year before his draft year. He hasn't produced a ton at this stage, and hasn't necessarily been lighting the world on fire with Manitoba in the AHL this year, but it always feels like he's just one good shift away from completely breaking a game open.
The same can be said for Joakim Kemell. He has 8 goals and 2 assists through 24 games so far this season in the top Finnish league. He didn't stand out much yesterday in the pre-tournament game against the US. But he had 4 goals and 8 assists at last summer's tournament, so he's just one confidence boost away from being a weapon. Speaking of weapons, the young man can fucking unload one of the most lethal shots in the tournament.
Give the man some space to tee one up and there's going to be a faceoff in the next few seconds.
Big Games To Watch
The loss of Russia in this tournament means that there's really only going to be one certified MUST WATCH day at these World Juniors. Not to say that Slovakia and the Czechs aren't going to provide some close games throughout the tournament. Heck, we even saw Latvia pull off a huge upset at the tournament over the summer. But the majority of this tournament comes down to one day. The best day. New Years Eve.
12/31 // 4pm // USA vs Finland
12/31 // 6:30pm // Canada vs Sweden
Jordie's Top 10 Players To Watch
I've always been biased towards draft year players at this tournament. It's one of my favorite reasons to watch because for the most part, I don't get a chance to watch most of these kids play before their names get called on the draft stage. So getting a chance to watch them for 2 weeks straight at the World Juniors is a nice little treat. Especially when my Philadelphia Flyers are absolute dog shit and we'll hopefully end up with a top 3 pick in the upcoming draft. So just prepared to see a bunch of draft year names here.
1) Connor Bedard (CAN) // Top Prospect 2023 Draft
There's not much to be said about Connor Bedard that hasn't been said already. There's a good chance that he's the most skilled player not currently playing in the NHL. The only thing I've been starting to see is a little chatter about whether or not he's a true consensus 1st overall prospect. I think that's more of The Shane Wright Effect than anything. Don't get me wrong. Michkov, Fantilli and Leo Carlsson are all studs. But if there's one thing Connor Bedard can do at these World Juniors, it's to slam the door shut on any of those conversations. He can make this tournament his bitch and leave no doubt that he'll be the first name called in June. He leads the WHL in scoring. He was one of the best players on Canada's team that won gold over the summer. One more monster WJC performance for him and he'll cement his legacy.
2) Shane Wright (CAN) // 2022 4th Overall (Seattle)
For most of the time leading up to the draft, Shane Wright was considered to be the best player in his class. Then between a combination of his dominance dropping a little and Juraj Slafkovsky having a monster draft year, Shane Wright fell to the 4th overall pick at last summer's draft. This tournament will be a great time for him to remind everybody of why he was once considered to be a lock for the top pick in 2022. He has NHL experience under his belt, though it's been a shaky start to the year for him in Seattle. He already had a confidence boost putting up 4 goals in 5 AHL games, but this tournament could really be what he needs to get his career going while wearing the 'C' for Team Canada.
3) Logan Cooley (USA) // 2022 3rd Overall (Arizona)
Logan Cooley has been on fire lately at Minnesota. I doubt Arizona is going to waste much more time before he signs his ELC, and that could definitely end up happening once the Gophers season ends this year. So for Logan Cooley, this should end up being his last trip to the World Juniors. He had a decent performance over the summer, but this should be a great tournament for him to really make a name for himself before he joins the 'Yotes. Should be pretty easy for him to get himself going playing with his buddies Snuggerud and Gauthier.
4) David Jiricek (CZE) // 2022 6th Overall (Columbus)
David Jiricek has been playing like a sick bastard so far this year in Cleveland. He has 4 goals and 12 assists through 16 games in the AHL, as a defenseman. He had a decent tournament at the World Juniors last year, and also suited up for Czechia at the World Championships. He's on pace to be a top tier 1D in the NHL, and I'd expect him to look every bit of it at these World Juniors.
5) Adam Fantilli (CAN) // Top Prospect 2023 Draft
Adam Fantilli has been having one of the best freshmen seasons in recent college hockey history. 11 goals and 15 assists through 16 games so far with Michigan. He was also one of the best players in the USHL leading up to this season playing with the Chicago Steel. He's been skyrocketing up the draft boards. And this tournament will be a great opportunity for him to prove that all the hype is worth it. He's exactly what any team should be looking for out of a power forward. The type of talent you can build around and can be a true cornerstone to an NHL franchise. I still don't think I'd take him over Bedard, but this tournament could keep those debates open.
6) Leo Carlsson (SWE) // Top Prospect 2023 Draft
Leo Carlsson has spent the year playing against grown ass men. To be fair, he's also a grown ass man at 17-years-old with a 6'3" 194lb frame. He's put up 3 goals and 11 assists so far this year playing with Örebro in the top Swedish league. He can produce at a pro level. He has the size for the pro level. And now is his opportunity to really set himself apart from most of the kids in his draft class. Much like Fantilli, this is a big tournament for him to put himself in those conversations with Bedard. And considering the uncertainty about Michkov's future, a chance to cement himself getting his name called ahead of the Russian.
7) Luke Hughes (USA) // 2021 4th Overall (New Jersey)
This will be the last time we see one of the Hughes brothers suiting up for Team USA at the World Juniors. So far, none of them have been able to win gold. Jack and Quinn both won silver in 2019. This would be a great way for him to get some bragging rights over his brothers. Especially when wearing the 'C' for the Red, White, and Blue.
8) Simon Nemec (SVK) // 2022 2nd Overall (New Jersey)
I'll put the two Devils defensive prospects together. Both Nemec and Hughes are studs, and New Jersey fans should be fully horned up watching these World Juniors. The Devils are in 1st place in the Metro. Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt are both point-per-game guys. And then they have Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec coming up through the pipeline. Nemec has spent the year playing in the AHL. Last year he suited up for Slovakia at the World Championships and the Olympics. If Slovakia is going to pull off any upsets at this tournament, it's going to be because Simon Nemec decided to go off.
9) Joakim Kemell (FIN) // 2022 17th Overall (Nashville)
I already mentioned his shot above. Finland needs at least one of Joakim Kemell or Brad Lambert to step up in this tournament for them to find the same level of success they've had in the past few years. Kemell at least has the track record of producing big time at this tournament (4G, 8A last year). So I'd keep my eye on him for the Finns.
10) Dalibor Dvorsky (SVK) // Top Prospect 2023 Draft
Dalibor Dvorsky is the 4th best 2023 prospect this tournament has to offer. He's been playing most of this season in the 2nd tier Swedish league HockeyAllsvenskan. He has 4 goals and 4 assists through 21 games in that league with AIK. Not bad at all for a. 17-year-old. A couple summers ago he had a monster tournament at the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he led the tournament in goals with 8 along with Matvei Michkov. But he also had the benefit of playing with Juraj Slafkovsky at that tournament. These World Juniors will be a great chance for him to produce as the #1 guy on his team and lock his way into a top 5 pick in the upcoming draft.
Final Medal Predictions
- Gold - Canada
- Silver - USA
- Bronze - Sweden
- 4th Place - Finland