With a whole nation tuning in, closely dissecting their every move, will Canada be able to lock-down another Gold medal at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships? Guest sports-writer Andy Per returns to break down the action. Go Canada Go!
RLGT Preview: 2016 World Junior Championship
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Families come together, Christmas trees are trimmed, and the holiday spirit has hit all of us, in one way or another (lowkey, though). But for many Canadian’s, Christmas means one more thing… it’s World Junior time. The final cuts have been made (check out the full roster, here), and the pre tournament games are all done so it’s time to get down to business.
What are Canada’s chances? Well to be honest, not that great. Canada brings a strong team as usual but greatly suffer from some suspect goaltending and a serious lack of experience, as only 4 players from last year’s goal medal team will make the trip this year. Jake Virtanen (loaned from Vancouver of the NHL), Lawson Crouse, Joe Hicketts, and Brayden Point bring much needed experience, while a large majority of the Canadian squad may be plagued with something that can’t be trained for – being star struck by the big stage.
Joe Hicketts will be the only returning defenseman on a big, physical defense core. A couple players to watch on the backend include both Roland McKewon and Travis Sanheim. McKewon brings a strong 2-way presence and Sanheim is a strong, carnal player who can intimidate other teams’ forwards. Together the two will either bring Canada a strong second pair on defense, or will be a major reason Canada doesn’t win Gold.
Up-front Canada is led by a dynamic playmaking center in Dylan Strome, and a point producing machine in Mitch Marner. While the two have yet to find a suitable winger to play their left side, they will be counted on as Canada’s first line and will need to produce every game in order for Canada to be successful. Brayden Point comes into the tournament as a returning player who was absolute lighting up the Western league with 43 points in 19 games. He and Jake Virtanen bring much needed experience to the team and will be looked to for leadership and strong secondary scoring support.
In goal Canada is very unsettled. Pre-tournament consensus #1 Mackenzie Blackwood is suspended for the first 2 games of the tournament leaving Mason McDonald a golden opportunity to steal the starting job as the tournament goes along. Although after an up and down performance on December 23 vs. Sweden which saw McDonald allow 6 goals – but also make some game saving stops – my faith in the goalie position is wavering at best. As in every tournament, the true fate of the team will rest in the hands of the goalies, Canada will need great games from their goalies in the medal round in order to have any fighting hope at a gold medal.
Handicapping the field:
Sweden, to me, is the team to beat in this year’s World Junior’s. With 12 returning players from last year’s team returning this year, Sweden is led by offensive dynamo William Nylander who was leading the AHL in scoring before leaving for team Sweden camp. Sweden has both the top end talent and depth to get solid defense and goal scoring from everybody in the lineup. In my eyes it is Sweden’s tournament to lose.
The host Finnish team come in with high expectations and have an outside shot at winning gold. As always the Fins will play a structured game but their hopes rest in Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrick Laine, who will both be top 10 picks in the upcoming NHL draft. Puljujarvi who is 6’3” , Laine 6’4”, add a physical element to Finland that they have lacked in previous years, when playing Canada or the USA.
The USA were my clear cut tournament favourite a month ago, but injuries, questionable decision making, and the NHL greatly hinder the States chance at a medal. Losing Jack Eichel was expected and is a loss that USA can overcome as every team usually loses their top two or three eligible players to the NHL, however, losing Dylan Larkin to Detroit was very unexpected and is a huge blow. The loss of Larkin as well as the decision not to invite 2015 team member Alex Tuch back, pretty much eliminates any hope the USA had at securing gold. Tuch has not had the strongest year at Boston College but has elite level skill that could have single-handedly won some games for the USA.
Player To Watch: Auston Matthews (Team USA)
Matthews chose to not play junior or NCAA hockey and opted to play in Switzerland this year. This decision has deprived many fans the opportunity to get a good look at the consensus #1 pick in June’s NHL entry draft. He is probably the most skilled player in the tournament and I am very excited to see him play for the next 2 weeks.
RLGT Gold Medal Prediction: Sweden
When it comes down to it, they have a sour taste in their mouth after last year and I expect the Nylander brothers (William and Alexander) to take over and dominate the tournament.
I can see Canada having a slow start to the tournament and maybe even losing on Boxing Day to the Americans, but Canada is a perennial juggernaut and will make the gold medal game to just fall short to Sweden.
The host nation finally has some serious size up front and the home crowd will propel Finland to a solid 3rd place finish.
Tournament disappointment: Russia
The Russians have great potential but I see to many good teams in the tournament to rely on a high octane, no-defense style of play to win games in Helsinki.