What To Expect From The Red & Blue Maple Leafs at the World Juniors

It’s a great time of the year to be a hockey fan. The 2017 World Junior Hockey Championships are finally upon us, and the first day of the tournament is jam-packed with four games, including the exciting Group B matchup of Canada versus Russia.  This year, the tournament’s round robin will split time between Toronto and Montreal, with the medal rounds being played at the Bell Centre. Canada’s preliminary round will be played in Toronto.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have four prospects participating in the tournament this year, including Sweden’s Carl Grundstrom, Latvia’s Martin Dzierkals, and Team USA’s Jeremy Bracco and Joseph Woll.  

Bracco is projected to be a huge part of Team USA’s success this year, and Dzierkals is a key player for Latvia as they attempt to avoid relegation. Leafs management has plenty to watch at this year’s world juniors, as do fans of the team. The Leafs prospects will have ample opportunity to shine with their respective teams, with two having a very real chance of winning a medal.  Here is a brief preview of who you should keep an eye on this tournament, as well as what each player has to offer to their country:  

Carl Grundstrom – Team Sweden (LW)

Grundstrom, a 2016 second round Leafs pick, will wear a letter this year for Sweden as one of the team’s alternate captains.  Grundstrom joins Sweden’s U20 team for the second year in a row; he had 1 goal through 7 games at the 2016 WJHC and played on the team’s third/fourth line and penalty kill.  He will likely play a bigger role for them this year as one of eight returning players for Sweden.  
Grundstrom, currently playing in the SHL, has 13 points in 27 games for Fröulanda this season.  As a two-way forward, he plays a very Canadian-style of hockey. Grundstrom will bring a very nice touch of physicality to an ultra-skilled Swedish team.  
Expect Grundstrom to distinguish himself as an elite second or third line forward for Sweden. He likely won’t out-perform the team’s other superstars like Alex Nylander or Joel Eriksson Ek, but he is certainly capable of demonstrating that he is a valuable prospect, as well as a potential future top-6 forward.

Martin Dzierkals – Team Latvia (LW/RW)

A 2015 third round pick, Martin Dzierkals will pull on the jersey for Team Latvia this year as the team faces off in the tournament’s top division for the first time since 2013.  Dzeirkals will play for the Latvian team for the third straight year at the U20 level, but for the first time in the top division; he also played a crucial role in Latvia’s successful promotion.

Dzierkals has 27 points in 22 games for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL, and is having a pretty fantastic season. He is a fearless, energetic player who uses his skill and speed to carry the puck and create offense.
Dzierkals is one of Latvia’s top players at this tournament, and he will likely play a significant role on his team as a top-line winger.  Latvia will be playing to avoid relegation, and if they are to have any success, Dzierkals will have to come up big. 

Jeremy Bracco – Team USA (RW)

If you were to pick one Leafs prospect to follow at this year’s World Juniors, it should be Jeremy Bracco. The 2015 second round pick is having a phenomenal season in junior, scoring 51 points through 27 games and currently sitting at 5th in OHL scoring. Bracco has a lot of experience with USA hockey and has been training with the USNTDP since 2013-14. Though the Americans made a few questionable cuts this year (and yes, I’m talking about Alex DeBrincat), the team is a medal favourite heading into the 2017 tournament.  
Bracco is an ultra-skilled forward and will mesh well with the offensive talent on team USA. This will be Bracco’s first year at the U20 level, but despite his lack of experience, Bracco is capable of being a stand-out player for the USA amidst a very skilled and deep group of American forwards.  

Joseph Woll – Team USA (G)

Joseph Woll, one of two American goalies this year, joins Team USA as a potential starter heading into the tournament.  The Leafs 2016 third rounder will be up against Jake Oettinger, a 2017 draft eligible goaltender who has had a pretty good showing in the NCAA for Boston University this season.  Woll, a NCAA freshman, has played 17 games for Boston College, earning a 0.917 SV% so far this season.  
Woll has been with the USNTDP since 2014-15 and has performed very well at the international level.  He had a fantastic showing at the U18 tournament last year for team USA – Woll had the tournament’s best save percentage (0.947%) and goals against average (1.34), as the USA finished third and earned a bronze medal.  

Woll is certainly capable of starting in goal for the Americans this year, and will have ample opportunity to differentiate himself from Oettinger in net.  Expect Woll to succeed in net for the States, as the young goaltender is most certainly skilled enough to steal a few games for his team.   

Bonus round: A little bit of Canada

The tournament’s host team seems fairly stacked at first glance with several high-round draft picks gracing the roster, including the likes of Dylan Strome, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Tyson Jost.  The team will be missing the projected 2017 first overall pick, as Nolan Patrick cannot participate due to injury.  With the exception of Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro in the NCAA, all of Team Canada’s players currently play in the CHL.  
The team has a fair amount of depth, but the talent is evenly distributed throughout the entire lineup.  Any of Canada’s forward lines could break out and differentiate themselves as the team’s top line.  Two players that impressed me in particular during Canada’s pre-tournament games included Taylor Raddysh, the OHL’s current leading scorer, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 2016 fourth overall pick, who I believe are capable of creating a significant amount of offense this year.  
With only 5 returning players, Canada does not have experience on its side.  There are mixed reviews on Canada’s goaltending this year, as Connor Ingram and Carter Hart will split the net for the Canadians.  The two CHL netminders are having respectable seasons for their respective teams, but Canada’s goaltending has been below average in recent years.  The goaltenders will need to differentiate themselves as difference makers if Canada is to have any success this year.  The team also need to draw upon the momentum of the home crowd, similarly to how they did in 2015, in order to bounce back from a disappointing sixth-place finish at last year’s tournament.  
The 2017 World Junior Hockey Championships will certainly make for some exciting hockey.  The tournament is personally one of my favourites, and it’s a great way for both fans and teams to scout out current/future prospects, as well as enjoy some energetic and fantastic hockey games.  I’m fairly sure the Leafs brain trust will be keeping a close eye this year, as they will have a pristine opportunity to evaluate a few of their recently-selected prospects. 
The tournament continues through January 5th, with games nearly every day until then. In case you care, here are my tournament predictions for this year, and I encourage you all to comment yours/belittle my choices in the comments:  

Stay tuned for more #WJHC2017 coverage on TLN!