WJC: Group A preview

December 24, 2017
Categories: 

We're just days away from the start of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo.

A total of 10 countries will square off against one another for the right to call themselves the best hockey nation at the under-20 level. The ten teams will be split into two groups of five, and will play four preliminary games to determine their spot for the playoff rounds. Only the top-eight teams will make it to the playoff rounds, with the two teams with the worst preliminary record having to play in the relegation round to avoid being demoted back to Division I of the tournament.

Group A will feature the two nations who competed for gold last year's tournament in Montreal. The United States and Canada will likely battle it out for the top spot in the group, as well renewing their rivalry on December 29th at New Era Field in Orchard Park. Both teams will take part in the first ever outdoor game in World Junior Championship history, adding to the list of notable games in their historic rivalry.

Also among the group is the Finland, which may arguably be the strongest defensive team in the tournament with four defenseman returning to the blue line from last year's team. The Finns are looking for a bounce back year after nearly being relegated in 2017, this after the team claimed gold on home ice in 2016.

Denmark will look to build off of a strong performance in last year's tournament, finishing second in their group behind Sweden. Denmark stunned the hockey world last season when they beat the Finnish team in preliminary play, while taking down the Czech Republic in overtime and falling just short in a shootout to the Swiss team.

Rounding out Group A is Slovakia, who will look to make a magical run just as they did in 2015 when they captured the bronze medal in Toronto.

The Buffalo Sabres organization will have two prospects playing for gold in Group A with 2017 first round pick Casey Mittelstadt competing with Team USA, and 2017 second round pick Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in goal for Finland.

Here's an in-depth look at how Group A plays out:
 

  • United States

Team USA will look to repeat as world champions for the first time in program history, and will look to claim their fifth every championship in the tournament. The U.S. has never won the gold medal on home-ice in five tries since the tournament became official in 1977, but they are hoping that the home-ice advantage will help them defend the gold.

This year's team has seven players returning from last year's gold medal team in Canada, as well as four players who captured the gold medal last season with the Under-18 team in Slovakia.

Leading the charge for the United States is New Jersey Devils prospect Joey Anderson, who will serve as captain for this year's team. Anderson played on the gold medal team in 2017, registering two assists in seven games for the Americans. The third round pick of the Devils (73rd overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft plays with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the college ranks, and will likely serve as a top-six forward for this U.S. squad. 

Forward Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders), and defensemaen Adam Fox (Cagary Flames) and Ryan Lindgren (Boston Bruins) will serve as alternate captains for the United States. All three of them played in last year's tournament, as well as forward Patrick Harper (Nashville Predators), and goalies Jake Oettinger (Dallas Stars) and Joseph Woll (Toronto Maple Leafs).

In net, the U.S. will rely heavily on Oettinger and Woll to take up a majority of playing time, with Bruins prospect Jeremy Swayman primarily serving as the third string goalie. Oettinger never played in last year's tournament, but Woll got to play in two games and registered a 1.50 goals-against average and a .935 save-percentage.

The blue line is made up of players this year with a nice blend of size and mobility. They should be able to defend well in their own zone, while contributing in the attack with some speed and good puck movement.

At forward, there will be plenty of speed and skill to go around with a good amount of big, physical bodies to make this U.S. sqaud a tough team to match up to.

Here is a look at the entire U.S. roster:


Goalies:

Jake Oettinger, Jeremy Swayman, Joseph Wall


Defense:

Mikey Anderson, Adam Fox (A), Quinn Hughes, Ryan Lindgren (A), Andrew Peeke, Scott Perunovich, Dylan Samberg


Forwards:

Joey Anderson (C), Kieffer Bellows (A), Logan Brown, Trent Frederic, Patrick Harper, Max Jones, Will Lockwood, Casey Mittelstadt, Josh Norris, Ryan Poehling, Brady Tkachuk, Riley Tufte, Kailer Yamamoto


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: Casey Mittelstadt

Buffalo's first round pick (8th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft is one of the highly touted players on the U.S. roster this year, and will be heavily watched with him being Sabres property. The 19-year old put on a show in the two pre-tournament games against Belarus and Sweden, scoring twice and adding four helpers in the two games combined. Some have considered Mittelstadt to be the best offensive player on the U.S. roster this year.

In 19 games with the University of Minnesota this season, Mittelstadt has produced well with five goals and 17 points as a freshman.

Look for Mittelstadt to play as a top-two center throughout the tournament for the U.S., and there could be a chance he finishes the tournament as one of the highest scoring players overall.
 

Draft Eligible prospects: Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes

The Tkachuk name is all-too familiar name in the hockey world with Keith being an 18-year veteran of the NHL with more than 1,200 games played, and his son Matthew who currently plays for the Flames.

However, there is a new Tkachuk in the mix that may make some waves before the 2018 NHL Draft this year in Dallas, Texas.

18-year old Brady Tkachuk is Keith's youngest son, but has been looked at as potentially being the best of the Tkachuk players. Brady currently player at Boston University with four goals and 14 points in 19 games played, and has been thought to be more offensively gifted than his older brother with that same chippy edge to his game.

At the Under-18 World Championship last year in Slovakia, Tkachuk scored a goal and registered six assists while leading the Americans to a gold medal performance.

Tkachuk will likely be a nice second or third line scoring winger for the Americans, while bringing his physical edge that may make him a monster to play against every night.

On the blue line, 18-year old Quinn Hughes will look to be a top-four defesneman for this U.S. squad and bring his offensive style of play to the table.

Hughes has put up some decent production at the University of Michigan in his freshman year, scoring a goal and adding nine assists in 16 games played. He may not be the biggest of defenseman, standing at just 5' 10" and 174-pounds, but he brings speed to the back-end while his puck moving abilities can get the U.S. on the attack and in good transition from defense to offense.

Both players will likely play big roles for this United States team as they continue to push towards the top of this year's NHL Draft class. Expect both Tkachuk and Hughes to be top-10 picks in this year's draft.

 

  • Canada

The Canadians are seeking revenge after last year's loss in the gold medal game to the United States, and what better way to do so than with a win just over the border in Buffalo?

The last time the tournament was held in Buffalo, Canada made it to the gold medal game at KeyBank Center, only to be up-ended by a highly talented Russian team. This time around, Canada will hope to feel the love of the red and white again with Buffalo being so close to the border, just like they did seven years ago.

This year's Canada squad will have seven players returning from last year's tournament, led by defenseman Kale Clague (Los Angeles Kings) and forward Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay Lightning) who both registered six points in seven games last year. Dillon Dube (Clagary Flames) also returns to this year's squad, and will serve as team captain. Dube registered two assists in seven games last season for the Canadians. The others returning from last year's team includes goalie Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers), defensemen Jake Bean (Carolina Hurricanes) and Dante Fabbro (Nashville Predators), and forward Michael McLeod (New Jersey Devils).

Hart will likely be the main back-stop in goal for the Canadians, with Colton Point behind him for support. The Flyers' second round pick (48th overall) played in four games last year registering a 2.38 goals-against average and a 3.06 save-percentage. This season with the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League, Hart has been outstanding with a 1.32 goals-against average and a .961 save-percentage.

The defensive group is made up of quality puck moving and skating players who can beat most anyone with their speed and offensive playmaking abilities.

At forward, like the U.S., the team is made up of good speed and skill with plenty of size to go around.

Here is a look at the entire Canadian roster:


Goalies:

Carter Hart, Colton Point


Defense:

Jake Bean, Kale Clague (A), Dante Fabbro (A), Cal Foote, Josh Mahura, Cale Makar, Victor Mete (A), Conor Timmins


Forwards:

Drake Batherson, Maxime Comtois, Dillon Dube (C), Alex Formenton, Jonah Gadjovich, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk, Jordan Kyrou, Michael McLeod, Taylor Raddysh, Sam Steel, Tyler Steenbergen, Robert Thomas


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

  • Finland

After an extremely disappointing World Junior Championship in Canada last year, the Finnish national team is re-loaded and locked in on making a good run at this year's tournament in Buffalo.

The Finns are very strong on the blue line with their top-four defensemen returning to the team from last year's squad. Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars), Juusso Valimaki (Calgary Flames), Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks) and Urho Vaakanainen (Boston Bruins) all come back to play their second straight tournament, and will be pivotal to shutting down the opposition while also chipping in and providing support on the attack.

The Finns also have a good group of forwards returning to the team as Janne Kuokkanen (Carolina Hurricanes), Kritian Vesalainen (Winnipeg Jets), and Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators) will be the staples to their offensive success. Tolvanen and Vesalainen are putting up some exceptional numbers this season in their respective pro leagues in Europe, while Kuokkanen can use a tournament like this one to get him really rolling.

In goal, Finland will be relying upon three young goaltenders who will be taking part in their first World Junior Championship. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has had success in net for the Finnish national team in past events, and he will likely get a majority of the workload this tournament.

Here is a look at the complete Finnish roster:

 

Goalies:

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Lassi Lehtinen, Niilo Halonen


Defense:

Miro Heiskanen, Robin Salo, Eemeli Rasanen,  Juuso Valimaki, Olli Juolevi, Urho Vaakanainen, Henri Jokiharju, Kasper Kotkansalo


Forwards:

Juha Jaaska, Janne Kuokkanen, Otto Koivula, Kristian Vesalainen, Joona Koppanen, Eetu Tuulola, Eeli Tolvanen, Markus Nurmi, Aapeli Rasanen, Joni Ikonen, Aleksi Heponiemi, Jere Innala, Rasmus Kupari


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Buffalo's second round pick (54th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft has had some considerable success with the Finnish national team in past tournaments. He got a good amount of workload over the past two Under-18 World Championships, and has won a gold and silver medal in those tournaments. Luukkonen combined for a 2.45 goals-against average and a .908 save-percentage in nine combined games in the Under-18 tournament.

So far this season with Leki in Finland's second-tier professional league (Mestis), Luukkonen has posted a 2.78 goals-against average and a .914 save-percentage in 18 games played.

Expect the big 6' 4" and 196-pound goalie to get a good portion of the games in Buffalo this tournament. If he puts up some good performances for the Finns this tournament, there's a good chance Finland could make a deep run.
 

Draft Eligible prospects: Rasmus Kupari

Kupari is a swift skating, playmaking forward who certainly has top-10 potential in this summer's NHL Draft in Dallas. The 17-year old is having an eye-opening season in Finland, and is quickly rising up the draft rankings.

In 19 games played with Karpat in the Finnish Liiga this season, Kupari has three goals and an assist. It may not seem like much, but for a 17-year old playing in Finland's top professional league, that is impressive.

Eyes will remain on Kupari as the tournament rolls along for Finland, and look for him to contribute in the offensive attack and be another scoring juggernaut.

 

  • Denmark

Denmark will look to put up another good performance at this year's World Junior championship after an impressive performance in preliminary play last year.

Denmark finished second in their group last year with six points, before suffering a 4-0 loss in the quarterfinal round to Russia.

Returning to the 2018 roster includes Joachim Blichfeld and Nikolaj Krag, who led the team in scoring last tournament with four points. All together, Denmark will have eight players returning to the lineup from last year's World Junior team.

Although the defense is all relatively new from last year, Kasper Krog returns to the net for the Danes after putting up a 3.27 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage in three games played.

Here's a look at the entire Danish roster:
 

Goalies:

Mads-Emil Gransoe, Kasper Krog, Mads Sogaard


Defense:

Rasmus Birk Heine, Lasse Carlsen, Jakob Jessen, Christian Larsen, Oliver Joakim Larsen, Malte Setkov, Jeppe Mogensen,


Forwards:

Andreas Grundtvig, Asger Petersen, Christian Wejse Mathiasen, Christoffer Gath, Daniel Baekhoj Nielsen, David Sogaard Madsen, Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup, Joachim Blichfeld, Jonas Rondbjerg, Lucas Andersen, Magnus Molge, Nikolaj Krag, Oliver True, Phillip Schultz, Valdemar Ahlberg


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

  • Slovakia

Slovakia barely avoided relegation last year in Canada after beating Latvia for their only win of the tournament. Other than that, the Slovaks were shut out twice in preliminary play, and lost their other matchup to the United States, 5-2. In the quarterfinal round, Slovakia was dominated by Sweden in an 8-3 loss.

Slovakia only has six players returning to the lineup this year after finishing as one of the lowest scoring teams in the tournament last year. If Slovakia will want to have any chance of competing in this year's tournament, they need to find some ways to put the puck in the net while getting some clutch goaltending like they did in 2015.

Here's a look at Slovakia's roster:
 

Goalies:

Roman Durny, David Hrenak, Jakub Kostelny


Defense:

Martin Bodak, Martin Fehervary, Samuel Fereta, Tomas Hedera, Michal Ivan, Marek Korencik, Dusan Kmec, Andrej Lesko, David Matejovic, Vojtech Zelenak


Forwards:

Samuel Bucek, Viliam Cacho, Niki Jasko, Milos Kelemen, Filip Krivosik, Peter Kundrik, Adam Liska, Patrik Marcinek, Milos Roman, Adam Ruzicka, Erik Smolka, Samuel Solensky, Marian Studenic, Alex Tamasi, Vladimir Vybiral


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

Projections:

  1. United States - 3-1-0-0 (11 points)
  2. Canada - 3-0-1-0 (10 points)
  3. Finland - 2-0-0-2 (6 points)
  4. Slovakia - 0-1-0-3 (2 points)
  5. Denmark - 0-0-1-3 (1 point)*

* - Plays to relegation round

READ MORE READ LESS