Today is Christmas. This kicks off a season for giving, family, forgiving (maybe?), and preparing for some of the most exciting hockey in the world. Yes, it's the time of year for the annual International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships. It's a short international tournament featuring the most of the best hockey players under the age of 20. This is a big stage for the recently drafted, some of the top prospects for the 2016 Draft, and possibly for a few that were overlooked one year - but won't be now.
The 2016 WJCs are in Helsinki, Finland. All games will either be played at the Hartwall Arena or the Helsinki Ice Hall. As with recent WJCs, there will be ten teams split up into two groups for round robin play. Everyone will play each other at least once. These games will begin on December 26 through December 31. The top four teams in each group will move on to the championship tournament. These games will run from January 2 through January 5, which is when the finals will be played. The final is for the gold medal. The semifinal losers will play a bronze medal game on the same day as the gold medal final. The last place teams in each group will play each other in a best-two-out-of-three regulation round with the loser being bumped down to Group A of Division I, a tier below this one. The winner stays for the 2017 World Junior Championships.
All games are listed at GMT+2 time, the local time zone for Helsinki, per the IIHF's site. From what I understand,
14:00 16:00 there is 9:00 AM EST, 20:00 there is 1 PM EST, and so forth. Your best bet for watching these games locally will be through the NHL Network. Here's a list of all of the games they will air in the group stage. Most are live, but a few will be on tape delay. I believe they will air all of the tournament games as well.
This is a New Jersey Devils-centric preview of the tournament as the Devils have three prospects playing in this year's WJCs. The other games will certainly be worth your while. The action is generally fast, fierce, and fun to watch. That the games are in Finland means you can wake up and spend your early afternoon watching hockey before there is a Devils game. Plus, there will be plenty of players eligible for the 2016 Draft. The Devils probably won't get a shot at a top pick, but it's educational to see these players ahead of time. This is a short international tournament, so I wouldn't put a lot of stock into how well or how poorly a young player does here. A bad WJC or a great WJC doesn't make for a bad or a great NHL player. That said, if someone you're not aware of does well or does poorly, then I do think it would be reasonable cause to take a closer look at the prospect.
The Teams With Devils Prospects on Them
Team #1: Canada - Group A (w/ U.S., Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland)
The Devils' Prospects: Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, forward John Quenneville.
The Word: Blackwood has been so good that Canada initially planned to only bring two goaltenders to the tournament. Then Blackwood savagely slashed Danny Desrochers in a Barrie-Sudbury game. The OHL issued him an eight-game suspension, which does carry over into tournaments like this one. Therefore, Blackwood will sit out of the team's first two games: 12/26 against the U.S. and 12/28 against Denmark. Per this Globe and Mail article by John Chidley-Hill, Canada has brought in a third goalie as a backup to Mason McDonald, who will have to start the team's first two games. Blackwood has been used in camp, so I would think he'll get a game or two. The 12/29 game against Switzerland is the mostly likely. He's eligible to return and I don't think there's a need for Canada to use McDonald back-to-back. As well as he has played this season, an off night could relegate him to #2 status very quickly. A short tournament like the WJCs leaves little room for error and with a team as competitive as Canada, it's not as if Blackwood is indispensable. That said, if he continues his 2015-16 form when he does play, then he could easily be the starter. In short, he's the most exciting goalie prospect the Devils have had in a while.
John Quenneville was the team's first round pick in 2014, a first rounder they weren't originally planning on having. Like Blackwood, this is his first WJC experience. It should be an exciting one for Quenneville. Especially if he's put on an offensive line. Should he line up with Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome, then he could have a big role in Canada's attack. He may have to considering the talent level and the amount of minutes they may get. A good tournament here would help the perception that he's an offensive forward with future a little bit. Not a lot, but a little.
The Others on Canada: Here is their roster. Gee, where does one begin? Canada is traditionally a very strong team in these tournaments. This year is no different. Brayden Point was recently named their captain. This brings to mind my frustration that the Devils passed on him three times in June 2014. He'll certainly be one to watch given he's been lighting up the WHL. Again, he could have been a Devil. There is one player who has not been drafted: Julien Gauthier. He's a big guy already at 6'4" and 212 pounds and he's been an outstanding goal scorer with Val d'Or. 29 goals in 30 games! 29 out of 37 points are goals! I don't know how he'll be used in the tournament, but the Devils may be in the mix to pick him in 2016. If there's a player to scout out other than Blackwood (when he can play) and Quenneville, then it's him.
Team #2: Czech Republic - Group B (w/ Belarus, Finland, Russia, and Slovakia)
The Devils' Prospect: Forward Pavel Zacha
The Word: Zacha was the team's first round pick, sixth overall in 2015, and the first in the GM Ray Shero era. Zacha has been described as a player with a tantalizing amount of tools; all he would need to do is to put them together. What better way to show off his progress than a tournament against the best of his peers in the world? Andrew Zadarnowski previewed the team at Habs Eyes on the Prize and he noted that Zacha will likely start on the team's top line. He's turned it up for Sarnia in recent weeks per Brian's awesome weekly posts. There's a chance he could make a lot of good noise over the next week or so. Let's hope he does.
The Others on the Czech Republic: The Czech Republic has not been known for top players in years. The country that has given the world such talents like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec, Dominik Hasek, and many, many more just has hit rough patch in terms of top level prospects. Zacha was the first Czech to go in the top ten in a draft since Jakub Voracek in 2007 and only five other Czechs were first rounders between 2007 and 2015. That said, the times could be changing for the better. There are many draft eligible players on the roster, including Simon Stransky, Tomas Soustal, and Jiri Smejkal. As Zadarnowski posted, those three are playing in Canada's major junior leagues so they should have been receiving more attention than the other Czech prospects. A tournament like this one can only help them get more notice and help return the nation to be a regular source of NHL talent.
Some of The Other Teams Without Devils Prospects on Them that You Should Pay Attention To
The other eight teams in the tournament do not have Devils prospects on them. Many do have players that we could be talking and/or hoping the Devils pick in June 2016. The United States is a good place as any for future talent. Whereas Canada only has one player on their roster that was not drafted, the U.S. has eight. Three weren't drafted and five are available for 2016. Three of those five are expected to be top picks in June. Auston Matthews has been on another level. He'll lead the team and could very well be supported by other top prospects, Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat. While I doubt the Devils will have a shot at Matthews - we can dream - the other two are a little (possibly a very little) more likely. The scouts should keep an eye on the draft eligible players on defense, Chad Krys and Charlie McAvoy. While defense isn't exactly a need for the system, picking up potentially good players is usually a positive and they could see how they do in a higher-pressure environment here in the WJCs.
The host team Finland will certainly look to impress their local fans. Draft devotees will certainly make the time to catch their games if only to watch two of their players. Forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine could both be top-ten picks months from now. They're already pro players in Finland and they've been contributing in their own ways: Puljujarvi's numbers and Laine's numbers. Both have made their presence felt in other Finnish U-20 games and they will relish wanting to do in their homeland for the next week and a half. As both are 17, the future is very bright for both of them. Check them out if you can.
Much to chagrin of Finnish fans, one cannot bring up Finland in a hockey tournament without bringing up Sweden. They're in Group A so we won't see a Sweden-Finland game until the tournament part begins. They also bring back a very experienced team and someone who could easily be the top player in the whole thing. William Nylander is crushing it in the AHL right now. Not a junior league. Not a professional European league. The league right below the AHL, filled with other hopefuls, long-shots, and veterans of the minors. Nylander above a point per game there; he should make an impact against his age-peers. Of course, he's not the only Nylander to look for. His brother Alexander Nylander is a 2016 draft eligible player and he's been doing very well in the OHL. He's a similarly touted prospect for 2016 and this tournament could help cement the possibility that the Nylanders will make a mark in the big leagues one day. William is surely close, Alexander won't be too far behind.
The Open Post
Please use the comments to discuss any and all things 2016 World Junior Championship related. Talk about the games, the Devils prospects, the non-Devils prospects, and everything in between. Again, the NHL Network is your best to watch the games locally and most of them will have start times ranging from 9 AM to 1 PM for the next week and a half. It should be a fun tournament. It usually is. Have fun in the comments. Thank you for reading.