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ICYMI: Here's Your Full 2018 World Juniors Preview Blog

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Jordie’s Note: Reblogging this for a couple of reasons. 1) Just in case anybody missed it and needs to get themselves smartened up before Tuesday’s games. And 2) because it’s the Friday before Christmas so it’s officially Mailtime. 

In just 4 more days, the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships will be underway in Buffalo. For most of the world, Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25th. But for hockey fans, we all know the true holiday starts on the 26th every year as the best U20 players in the world play in one of the most underrated sports tournaments of the year. In case you’ve never seen or heard about the World Juniors before, here’s a quick summary.

The World Juniors is a U20 World Championship. Meaning that players must be turning 20-years-old or younger in the year that the tournament ends. So even though the tournament begins in 2017, players born in 1997 are not eligible to participate given that they’ll be turning 21 in 2018. Most of the players in this tournament have already been drafted to NHL teams and are currently either playing NCAA DI hockey or in a Canadian major junior league like the OHL/QMJHL/WHL. While it’s very unusual, there are some players like Victor Mete of Canada who can be loaned by their NHL club (Montreal Canadiens) for the tournament. Mete has played 27 games for the Habs this year which means that he’s already burned through the 1st year of his ELC, but can still be sent down to play in the World Juniors. For the European players, many of them are either playing in a top league like the SHL in Sweden or the KHL in Russia. And others are playing in a Tier II league or what have you. Regardless, they’re all usually 17, 18 or 19 years old. The teams in the top division playing this year are the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark, Slovakia and Belarus.

Obviously the most important question you’re all asking yourself right now is “How can I make some money off of this tournament?”. Well for all the degenerates in the building, here are the odds and favorites for this year’s tournament, courtesy of NicerOdds.

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It’s pretty damn rare to see Canada not come in as the favorites to a World Juniors tournament. But after winning gold last year and bringing in new offensive power like Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt and Kailer Yamamoto to the roster, the United States are your favorites heading into the 2018 tournament. Canada is close behind at #2 and we’ll talk more about this later but Canada is coming into this tournament with the blueline and goaltending being the best part of their roster which is weird considering they usually bring the best crop of forwards to the group. Sweden is 3rd and they’ll also be bringing a stacked blueline to the tournament, headlined by projected #1 overall pick in the draft this summer Rasmus Dahlin. Russia is 4th and they projected #2 overall pick in the draft this summer Andrei Svechnikov at forward who has 21 points in 16 games in the OHL so far this year. And then Finland, who damn near got relegated after last year’s tournament but luckily they were able to beat Latvia to stay in the top group. The rest of the teams don’t have a chance and considering Switzerland doesn’t have somebody like Nico Hischier on the roster anymore, they’re not really worth talking about. So let’s just focus on the top 5, shall we?

Can Team USA Repeat As Champions?

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Team USA has never won back-to-back golds at the World Juniors before. After winning gold in 2004, they failed to medal in 2005. After winning gold in 2010, they won bronze in 2011. After winning gold in 2013, they failed to medal in 2014. After winning gold in 2017? Well I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Obviously the core of last year’s team is gone. Clayton Keller, Colin White, Charlie McAvoy, Jordan Greenway, Troy Terry, Jeremy Bracco. They either all moved on to the NHL or have aged out of the tournament. The team has 7 returners from last year’s team. They have 2018 team captain Joey Anderson (NJ 2016 3rd rd), Kieffer Bellows (NYI 2016 1st rd), Patrick Harper (NSH 2016 5th rd), Adam Fox (CAL 2016 3rd rd), Ryan Lindgren (BOS 2016 2nd rd), and then both goalies in Joseph Woll (TOR 2016 3rd rd) and Jake Oettinger (2017 DAL 1st rd). In case you haven’t seen these beauties yet, I don’t think we should have to worry about Jake Oettinger giving up any goals this tournament with these pads.

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While Oettinger’s American Badass pads are a welcome addition to the squad, the biggest additions will be the 3 forwards who will most likely fill the scoring void left by Keller, White and Troy Terry. Those will be Edmonton Oilers 2017 1st round pick Kailer Yamamoto, Buffalo Sabres 2017 1st round pick Casey Mittelstadt, and projected lottery pick in the 2018 draft Brady Tkachuk. Yamamoto scored 99 points with the Spokane Chiefs last year in the WHL. He was only able to put up 3 assists in 9 games with the Oilers this year but keep in mind that the Oilers were struggling as an entire team early in the season. He’s finding his stride again with Spokane this year. Mittelstadt is lethal from anywhere on the ice. Kid has hands for days but his bread and butter is his sniping abilities.

The fact that this tournament is being played in Buffalo and Mittelstadt is a Buffalo draft pick who should be with the Sabres next season? Look for him to have a breakout performance. And then, of course, there is Brady Tkachuk. Most scouts have him as a top 5 pick in this year’s draft. As you can tell by his last name, he’s not afraid to muck it up a little bit out there on the ice. He’s a tough kid and probably has a little more skill even than his brother Matt. Considering he’ll probably have to go up against other top guys in his draft class like Dahlin and Svechnikov at some point either in the quarters or semis or final game, we’ll see if he has the ability to perform when the stage is set for the underaged guys to take over.

While I think this USA team can put up enough goals in this tournament to win the majority of their games, we need to talk about the animal that they’re going to be up against with Canada.

Can Team Canada Shut Down The Entire Tournament?

Sweden v Canada: Semifinal - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship

In recent years we’ve seen Team Canada bring a Studs Only group of forwards to the World Juniors. Last year was Mathew Barzal, Dylan Strome, Pierre-Luc Dubois. 2016 had Marner and Konecny and Lawson Crouse. 2015, of course, had Connor McDavid plus Sam Reinhart and Robby Fabbri and Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and Brayden Point. While this team still has some returning forwards like Dillon Dube (CAL 2016 2nd rd), Taylor Raddysh (TBL 2016 2nd rd) and Michael McLeod (NJ 2016 1st rd), it’s clear that they’re going to win the majority of their games this tournament by holding every other team to as few goals as possible.

That starts with Carter Hart (PHI 2016 2nd rd) returning as the team’s starting goaltender. I wrote all about Hart last week and you can read that right here. Hart may have lost in the gold medal game to Team USA in a shootout last year. But he’s currently being talked about as the best Canadian goalie prospect since Carey Price and has won 4 straight “WHL Goalie of the Week” awards. He’s coming into this tournament hot and he’ll have plenty of help on the blueline to make his job even easier. Dante Fabbro’s (NSH 2016 1st rd) health is still up in the air right now and he may not be ready to go for the tournament. But the Canadians still bring Jake Bean (CAR 2016 1st rd), Kale Clague (LAK 2016 2nd rd), Cale Makar (COL 2017 1st rd), Cal Foote (TBL 2017 1st rd), and Victor Mete (MTL 2016 4th rd) to Buffalo. Never mind the fact that Canada is bringing a Kale, Cale and Cal to the tournament. That is four 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, and a 4th round pick who has played 27 games in the NHL this year. Sooooo yeah. This blueline is unbelievable and that is going to help them out a ton throughout this tournament. Especially in the outdoor game against USA on December 29th when you never know how the weather is going to impact your offense.

Speaking of team’s who will be relying on their blueline to win the tournament…

What To Expect From Rasmus Dahlin And The Swedes

Sweden v Russia - Bronze Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship

Every year the World Juniors is a great place for the top prospects in the draft class to showcase their skills. Whether it’s Eichel vs McDavid in 2015. Or Matthews vs Laine in 2016. Or last year when Nico Hischier completely took off and climbed all the way up to the top of the draft board with his performance for Switzerland at the World Juniors. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Rasmus Dahlin won’t be the #1 overall pick in the 2018 draft this summer and you should only expect his performance in this tournament to solidify that. Dahlin is 17 years old and he’s been playing in the top league in Switzerland right now. As a 17-year-old playing defense against men in one of the best leagues in the world, he currently has 5 goals and 11 points through 26 games. Coming to the World Juniors is going to be like taking the doughnut off of his bat. Grinnelli wrote a nice little piece about Dahlin the other week and this is what I’ve said about him for the last year or so. If Rasmus Dahlin grew up in any other country, he’d still be the projected #1 overall pick in the draft this year but he’d probably go in there as a center. It’s just that growing up in Sweden, young hockey players grow up idolizing guys like Nick Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson, all of the best players in that country want to play defense. So Dahlin has the skill of a #1 overall draft pick forward, but he plays defense. That should scare the shit out of everybody.

The Swedes finished 4th in last year’s tournament after losing to Russia. Aside from Dahlin, key players who will likely return from that team are Elias Pettersson (VAN 2017 1st rd) who currently has 11 goals and 25 points playing for Vaxjo in the SHL. And then potentially Alex Nylander (BUF 2016 1st rd) could be loaned by Rochester in the AHL to play for Sweden in the tournament. A lot of people probably thought that Nylander would be up with the Sabres at this point. Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to crack the lineup yet and only has 6 points in 14 games with Rochester this year. But considering the tournament is in Buffalo, I’m sure that he’ll have all the motivation he needs to put on a show in front of his future hometown crowd. Nylander had 12 points in 7 games in this tournament last year and had 9 points in 7 games in the 2016 tournament as a 17-year-old. Considering Sweden has back-to-back 4th place finishes and this will be Nylander’s last crack at it, look for the Swedes to play with a ton of intensity in the medal rounds.

The biggest competition in their group?

Will The Russians Be Able To Restore Glory To The Motherland?

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Make no mistake about it. This tournament is going to mean everything to Russian hockey. With Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics and Russian athletes being forced to compete as “Olympic Athletes From Russia”, this is the biggest tournament than an actual Russian National Team is competing in. That may sound like a bit of a stretch but I can assure you that it’s not. The national team means everything to Russian hockey players and if they can’t win gold at the Olympics as Russia, they sure as shit are going to do everything they can to win the World Juniors.

What we’ve seen over the last few years with team Russia is more and more kids moving out of the Russian system and playing in either Canada or the United States. One of those players is Andrei Svechnikov who will likely be the 2nd name called in the draft next summer after Rasmus Dahlin. He has 21 points in 16 games with the Barrie Colts in the OHL this year and has put up more than a point per game in pretty much every tournament or league he’s ever played in. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a ton about this Russian team this year. But I do know that German Rubtsov (PHI 2016 1st rd) will be one of the team’s best returning forwards from last year. After last year’s tournament, Rubtsov was able to get out of his KHL contract and came over to Canada to play in the QMJHL. Since leaving Russia, he has put up 47 points in 41 games in the Q. Between Svechnikov, Rubtsov, Mikhail Maltsev (NJD 2016 4th rd) and Klim Kostin (STL 2017 1st rd), the Russians should have more than enough scoring capability to get them to a medal game.

Can The Finns Get Over The Embarrassment Of Last Year?

Czech Republic v Finland - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship

Finland won the World Juniors in 2016 with Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Kasperi Kapanen, Mikko Rantanen and Jesse Puljujarvi. Last year, they had to play against Latvia in the relegation round. Now obviously when you lose that amount of skill from one year to the next, there’s going to be a drop off. But the fact that Finland dropped so far off that they were almost relegated from the top division was a catastrophe.

This year they have a much better roster and it all starts with a couple of studs on defense. Olli Juolevi (VAN 2016 1st rd) is the only defenseman on the team who was on that gold medal winning team in 2016. He scored 42 points in 58 games in the OHL last year with the London Knights and scored 42 points in 57 games 2 years ago with London. This year Juolevi moved back to Finland and is playing with TPS in the Liiga. Next up is the 3rd overall pick from last year’s draft, Miro Heiskanen (DAL 2017 1st rd). Heiskanen is another skilled 2-way defenseman and has been playing in the Liiga as a 17-year-old last year and now as an 18-year-old this year. Both of these guys playing in Finland’s top league is huge for their development from last year to this year. I don’t think that teams like Denmark or Slovakia or Switzerland or Belarus will be able to have an answer to those guys on the blueline so at the very least, the Finns shouldn’t have to worry about relegation this year. They also have Eeli Tolvanen (NSH 2017 1st rd) who has put up 32 points in 39 games for Jokerit so far this season in the KHL. I wrote about Tolvanen earlier and the year and he’s been keeping up his pace ever since.

So Now That We Know The Contenders, What Are My Predictions?

In my 2017 World Juniors preview blog, I had Canada over USA in the Gold Medal game and Sweden over Russia in the Bronze. I had the matchups right in both but I also had the winners wrong in both. Hopefully we can go 4-for-4 this year.

Gold – Canada (again, it hurts to write but that defense is too good)

Silver – USA

Bronze – Sweden

4th Place – Finland

A couple of border games for medals never hurt nobody.

Games To Watch:

- USA vs Canada | Friday, December 29th | 3pm

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Obviously USA vs Canada is always the best game in the group stage. It’s best when the game is New Years Eve but this year it’ll be even more important with the two teams playing in the first ever World Juniors outdoor game at the Ralph.

- Russia vs Sweden | Sunday, December 31st | 8pm

Dahlin vs Svechnikov. #1 pick vs #2 pick. Obviously if you’re somebody interested in the future of the NHL, you’re going to have your eyes all over this game. Especially if you’re a Sabres or Coyotes fan.

– USA opens their tournament on Tuesday December 26th against Denmark at 8pm.

– Canada opens up their tournament on Tuesday December 26th against Finland at 4pm.

– Sweden plays Belarus on the 26th at 2pm and Russia plays the first game of the tournament on the 26th at 12pm against Czech Republic.

Full Schedule Here

I’ll do my best throughout the tournament to find streaming options for all the games. And as always, I’ll have the live blog going for all of the Team USA games.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @BarstoolJordie for streaming info, updates, and live blogs.

And finally….. USA HOCKEY IS DO OR DIE!!!!

@BarstoolJordie