When it comes to the World Junior Championship, it doesn’t take a lot to get most Canadians excited. It is a holiday tradition and something that is far more popular in this country than everywhere else combined. That’s thanks in large part to the marketing done by TSN to turn it into the high point of their annual ratings, but the other significant factor is that every year Canadians go into the tournament believing that they are the favorites to win the tournament. Whether true or not, Canadian hockey fans expect a gold medal and anything else feels like a failure.
That being said, Canada doesn’t win gold nearly as often as it feels. Since the amazing run of five straight that ended in 2009, Canada has won only four medals, with the only gold coming last year on home ice at the Air Canada Centre. The road to a repeat beings on Saturday against the United States, but it is not going to be very easy – this 2016 IIHF U20 tournament is one of the deepest in recent memory. Canada is likely not the favorite to win, and will have a tough road ahead to secure a medal of any color.
Luckily for Leafs fans, this year’s tournament goes well beyond the results for the home country – let’s take an in-depth look at the future of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey, and the Leafs prospects that will be taking part in this tournament…
Maple Leaf Prospects Wearing the Maple Leaf
For the first time since 2003, Team Canada is going to feature two Maple Leafs prospects. Fourth overall pick Mitch Marner was a lock for a top-6 winger spot from the second he arrived at camp, but when the final roster was announced Sunday, Travis Dermott and the Leafs were very excited to see his name as one of the team’s seven defencemen. When asked about Dermott’s inclusion on the team Mark Hunter had nothing but praise for the development of the young defender this season, “He’s a young man that’s leading their team in Erie. He plays every other shift. The growth of how to play every game when you know you’re going to get 30 minutes is important. We’re hoping that someday he will be a top-four defenceman for the Leafs. And all top-four defenceman play 25 minutes…We see that growth in him at the junior-A level and the team is winning. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how he’s handled the ice time.”
Dermott was likely a long shot to make the team going into the season but with a great month of November in Erie and injuries to Vince Dunn and Jake Walman (who were likely above him on Team Canada’s depth chart when camp invitations were sent out) Dermott played his way onto the team. It’s hard to tell just how big a role Dermott will have with the team but if Sunday’s pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic is any indication, we might see him playing on the second pair and getting his fair share of powerplay time.
While it is still unclear how big a role Dermott will play with the team, it is no mystery how super-prospect Mitch Marner will be used by head coach Dave Lowry. Since the camp this past summer, Marner has been a mainstay on Dylan Strome’s wing, but the question is who will be the third member of that line? There’s a good chance that Marner, Strome and Lawson Crouse will serve as the team’s 1b line behind a 1a of 19-year olds Jake Virtanen, Brayden Point and Brendan Perlini. Marner will be one of the offensive leaders on the team and will have Leaf fans dreaming of the day when he has a different colored maple Leaf on his chest. But make sure to temper expectations and remind yourself every time Marner makes a highlight reel play that once upon a time Kyle Wellwood did this at the world juniors:
Dust Off Your Mats Sundin Tre Kronor Jersey
While it’s always a given that Canada is the team to watch and the cheer for whether there are Maple Leaf prospects in the lineup or not, fans in Leafs Nation this year will likely be adopting Sweden as their second favorite team. While they had a very disappointing tournament in 2015, Sweden comes into the 2016 WJC as one of the favorites and William Nylander is the main reason for that. The AHLs leading scorer will look to dominate a tournament that he probably should be able to dominate. He’s playing this season at a higher level than almost everyone else and if the Maple Leafs were not in the middle of this “proper rebuild” he would likely be in the NHL and not even be available to Team Sweden. Sure, Nylander is nice and all, and would probably be enough to get Leaf fans on board with Sweden, but this year we get a little more.
Dmytro Timashov of the Quebec Remparts is likely to be a big factor for Sweden as well. The ultra-skilled winger that has been a mainstay on QMJHL highlight reels this season and will likely find himself on a secondary scoring line for Sweden and could fall into the clichéd of “How did he fall to the 5th round” narrative as the tournament goes on. Timashov has the explosive skills to take advantage of the bigger ice surface and may have a tournament that shows the world that the Leafs might have a diamond in the rough. It seems that the Leafs front office is as interested to see what Timashov can do on the big stage as the fans are, Mark Hunter let the Toronto Media know yesterday that he is going “really interested in how he does because I think he can be the sleeper of the bunch in this tournament. He could surprise a lot of people.”
“What Did We Get For Phil Kessel?”
The final Maple Leafs prospect taking part in this year’s World Juniors was the key piece coming this way in the Phil Kessel trade.
Kasperi Kapanen is going to get a chance to make a significant contribution to Team Finland’s attempt to do what Canada did last year and win gold on home ice. The Marlies forward, who had an underwhelming tournament last year, will look to play a veteran role on a Finnish team that will have a lot of firepower. With skilled offensive forwards like Mikko Rantanen and draft eligible prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, Kapanen won’t necessarily be leaned upon to carry the load offensively, but he will definitely be a key piece on a team that should definitely be counted among the favorites to win gold.
Remember These Guys in June
This year’s tournament will feature a lot of high-end draft-eligible talent that will be relied on heavily but a couple of the contending teams. Eight of the top 12 prospects on my 2016 draft list will be present in Helsinki. In a tournament that is usually dominated by 19-year-olds, the United States and Finland in particular are going to need a big effort from their draft-eligible players if they hope to win a medal. Team USA head coach Ron Wilson (yes, that Ron Wilson) has put together a line of Auston Matthews centering Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat – a group that will be as offensively potent as any other in the tournament. All three should hear their names called in the top15 of the draft this summer and any of them could finish the tournament leading their team in scoring. Along with the big-3 draft prospects up front, the USA will also look for Chad Krys and Charlie McAvoy to contribute to a blue line that is probably viewed right now as the team’s weakness.
Along with the USA, Team Finland is the other contending team that will likely rely the most on their younger draft eligible prospects. Their two top-5 prospects Puljujarvi and Laine both have game-breaking ability and defender Olli Juolevi of the London Knights is a name that many might not know but should. Through half a season in the OHL, Juolevi has been under the radar due to his non-flashy play, but he’s the kind of player that scouts drool over.
Beyond the USA and Finland, the presence of another Nylander is something that will likely pique the interest of Leaf fans who want to daydream about a pair of Swedish brothers dominating for a decade (that would be new to the NHL right?). Alex Nylander is viewed as a sure-fire top-10 pick and will get a chance to skate alongside his brother on Sweden’s top line. The Mississauga Steelhead is a tremendously skilled winger that may be even flashier than his brother. William claims that his younger brother is the more skilled of the two and this will be an opportunity for scouts to see for themselves. After missing out on the medals last year, Team Sweden is hoping that the Nylanders will be more than just the best two Twitter handles in the tournament.
— William Nylander (@snizzbone) December 7, 2015
From a Canadian standpoint, Julien Gautier is the lone draft-eligible player on the team. He has been skating on the fourth line at practice but has also seen some time on the second powerplay unit. He won’t be counted on to be a major factor for Canada, but he has looked very good in pre-tournament games and has enough ability that he might just force his way up the lineup.
Don’t Forget the Name…
Roope Hintz. The Dallas Stars second round pick isn’t one of the players mentioned often when it comes to Team Finland. He can play all three forward positions, but he has been practicing as the team’s first line center and is poised to open some eyes. Hintz is a big player who has great speed and intelligence and is the kind of player that may not get the credit he deserves for making his teammates better. Think of him as the Finnish Christian Dvorak.
Obscure Players to look out for…
If you’re the kind of person who is interested in hockey for the sake of it and don’t mind watching games like Switzerland vs Denmark and Belarus vs Slovakia, here are a couple player to keep an eye out for.
Samuel Solensky – Slovakia
The undersized left winger that broke onto the international scene as a 16-year-old at last year’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament Solensky has the ability to do what Martin Reway did for Slovakia last season and put up a big time point total for a team that isn’t among the big boys. While he is eligible for this summer’s NHL draft he doesn’t register on many (if any) scouting lists as he is playing the Czech junior league, a league that didn’t see a single player drafted into the NHL last season.
Stepan Falkovsky – Belarus
On the other end of the spectrum is the 6’8 225lbs defender who is in the middle of his rookie season with the Ottawa 67s. Foregoing a chance to play in the KHL, Falkovsky came to the OHL this year in hopes of being noticed and drafted by an NHL team in his second year of eligibility. He has had a pretty good year in Ottawa playing in the team’s top-4 and while we won’t be expecting much from Belarus if Falkovsky can have a good showing in their preliminary games against Russia and Finland it could be enough to get him noticed and onto the draft board of a couple NHL teams.
How Will the Tournament Play Out
This year is likely one of the most wide-open World Junior tournaments in recent memory. It would not be surprising if any combination of Canada, USA, Finland, Sweden or Russia ended up with the medals. Having the best goalie in Europe in Ilya Samsonov, Russia can’t be counted out but bringing a very young team they would have to catch lightning in a bottle to win it all. Depending on how the round robin plays out, we could see the North Americans in one semi-final and the Scandinavians in the other. When it all comes down to it betting on a gold medal winner would be a bad idea this year but if forced to the depth of Team USA might make them an attractive pick to beat out the host team in the finals leaving Leafs Nation’s two favorite sons Mitch Marner and William Nylander to battle it out for bronze.