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2021 World Junior Championship Preview

Canada has not won consecutive gold medals at the World Juniors since their run of five in a row between 2005-2009. They will be looking to do just that this year in Edmonton at the 2021 tournament and when you look at this team on paper, it’s easy to see why a gold medal is the expectation. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about this group but at the same time, there are some reasons for Canadian hockey fans to be a little concerned. This tournament is never a cakewalk and this year won’t be any different.

Let’s start with the positives. This year’s team includes an incredible 20 first-round picks. Skill won’t be an issue. The forward group will be led by Kirby Dach, who just a few months ago was going head-to-head with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid in the NHL’s Return To Play Qualifying Round. Not that you need me to remind you of that series. Dach along with Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens will drive the forward group and the two are expected to play on a line with Jack Quinn, who was taken 8th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2020 NHL Draft and is coming off a 52 goal season in the OHL. 

The depth on this team is incredible as well. At one of their last practices before entering the bubble, Dawson Mercer was listed as an extra forward which is crazy considering he was on last year’s gold medal-winning team and Quinten Byfield was centring the fourth line. Head Coach Andre Tourigny will have plenty of options when it comes to putting together his lines. 

Canada’s blueline is strong as well. The left-side really stands out to me with Sherwood Park product Kaiden Guhle, and 2019 4th overall pick Bowen Byram and Stars prospect Tomas Harley. On the right side, Rangers first-rounder Braden Schnieder and returning defenseman Jamie Drysdale should both play big roles as well. Their blueline won’t be an issue and honestly, they’ll likely need it to be a real strength because the one area where this Canadian does not appear to be very strong is between the pipes.

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Dylan Garand (WHL), Taylor Gauthier (WHL), and Devon Levi (NCAA) are the three goalies on Canada’s roster and like the group they had last season at the World Juniors, they aren’t exactly household names. That wasn’t a problem last season and all three of Canada’s goalies had really good numbers in their respective junior leagues last season. Calling any part of Canada’s roster a weakness is probably a little unfair, but their goaltending is definitely not their strength heading into this year’s tournament.

Canada is considered the favourite at this year’s event, but this tournament is always close and this year will be no exception. Like I said at the top of the article, there are some reasons to be a little concerned.

The biggest red flag when it comes to Canada’s team is simply the fact that their players mostly haven’t played a lot of hockey recently whereas a lot of players on the European teams have half a season under their belts already.

The good part for Canada is that their group isn’t particularly strong. They’ll play Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Germany in the round-robin. Finland will be a fairly tough test, but they aren’t as strong as they’ve been in recent years and Canada won’t play them until New Years Eve. Even Germany, who look like a team that can surprise this year, have ran into COVID-19 issues after they entered the bubble. Unless some tests start coming back negative, they could be missing up to eight players.

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Considering the level of competition they’ll face in the round-robin, Canada will have plenty of time to get shake off any rust they might have before the medal round. Still, you have to think that teams like Russia, Finland, and Sweden will have a bit of an advantage simply because they’ve been playing a normal schedule since the fall.

The Russian team looks like a very good group. Like Canada, they have plenty of offensive firepower with players like Vasili Podkolzin and Rodion Admirov expected to lead the way offensively. I’m also expecting to hear a lot about Yegor Chinakhov and Yegor Afansyev.

The one area where they have a clear advantage over Canada is between the pipes where Russia will have Nashville Predators’ first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov. He wasn’t great at last year’s tournament but he has some incredible numbers through seven KHL games this season. He’s good enough to almost single-handedly win them games.

Team USA will be in the mix, as they always are and even though Sweden has lost some key pieces, like expected first-line centre Karl Henriksson and their Head Coach Tomas Monten, but they’re still going to be very dangerous. Not only do they have a pair of first-rounders leading their forward group with Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz but they also have one of the best bluelines in the tournament and Jesper Wallstedt between the pipes, who is expected to be the first goalie taken at next years NHL Draft.

On paper, I still think Canada has the best team in the tournament but considering most of their players haven’t played real games in a long time and they’ll be playing in an empty Rogers Place, I have a hard time saying they’re a lock to win gold at this year’s tournament. Regardless, when you look at the talent at this years tournament, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the 2021 World Juniors become an instant classic.

 

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OILERS PROSPECTS TO WATCH

There are just two Oilers prospects competing at this year’s tournament but they are two of the organizations best. Dylan Holloway will play for Team Canada and Phillip Broberg will suit up for Team Sweden. Both players are expected to play pretty big roles with their respective teams.

For Holloway, he’s rather unique when you compare him to the other forwards on Team Canada. He’s definitley one of their best skaters and while he’s skilled, he has a physical edge and that will allow him to stand out. He’ll likely be relied on to kill penalties as well. Towards the end of training camp Head Coach Andre Tourigny had him on a line with Jakob Pelletier and Alex Newhook, both of them are also really strong skaters. That line will be flying up and down the ice.

As for Broberg, he’s going to be a part of one of the best bluelines in the tournament and he’s going to be a very important member of that group. They’ve had to battle through some adversity but they should still be a very exciting team to watch. As for Broberg, I think we’ll see him used in almost every situation. He’ll log heavy even-strength minutes, probably have to kill a lot of penalties, and I could see him being used on their second powerplay unit.

 

THE SCHEDULE

Canada was supposed to kick off their pre-tournament schedule on Monday against Team Sweden but it’s currently unclear if that’s going to happen after Sweden had a pair of executives test positive for COVID-19. Regardless, Canada is expected to play another tune-up game against Russia on December 23rd. After that, their round-robin schedule will begin with a matchup against Germany on Boxing Day. You can find the full schedule HERE.