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The 2019 World Junior Championships Preview for the Devils Fan

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Tomorrow starts the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships, the best under-20 hockey tournament in the world. New Jersey Devils prospects Ty Smith, Fabian Zetterlund, Aarne Talvitie, and Akira Schmid will be there; a handful of potential players for the 2019 draft; and exciting hockey are reason enough for the Devils fan to pay attention the 2019 WJCs.

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NHL: NHL Draft
Ty Smith is in the 2019 WJCs! Go watch him (and others)
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Merry Christmas! My gift to you is a preview of the 2019 World Junior Championships! And yes, my fellow New Jersey Devils fan, you should pay some attention to this annual tourney through the holiday season. Brian’s regular prospect update will return next week.

The Official Title: The 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships

The Host Cities: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

The Dates: December 26, 2018 through January 5, 2019

The Teams: This is an international tournament for players under the age of 20.

Group A: Canada, Czech Republic, Russia, Denmark, Switzerland

Group B: Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Sweden, United States

The Tournament Format: There are two groups of five teams each. They will play in a round-robin format from December 26 through to December 31. Winning in regulation earns three points, winning in overtime or in a shootout earns two points, losing in overtime or in a shootout earns one point, and losing in regulation earns no points. The top four teams in each group in points will move on to the tournament itself.

The tournament is a single game elimination playoff. The quarterfinals will be played on January 2. The seeding crosses each group for the quarterfinals. The top team in Group A will play the fourth-place team in Group B; the second-place team in Group A will play the third-place team in Group B; and so forth. The semifinals will be played on January 4. The losers on January 4 will play for the Bronze Medal on January 5. The winners will play for the Gold Medal on January 5.

The bottom team in each group will play each other in a best-of-three series for relegation. The winner stays on for the 2020 World Junior Championships. The loser will move down to Division IA and will be replaced in next year’s tournament by Germany, who won the 2018 World Junior Division IA Championships earlier this month.

Vancouver will host half of the quarterfinals, the semifinals, the finals, and the relegation games. Needless to say, a lot of eyes will be on Team Canada.

Why Should You, the Devils Fan, Care: The WJCs is a tournament for under-20 year old players. The top prospects from the 2018 (and some of 2017) drafts will play. This is an excellent platform to see how they are measuring up. For some, even making it to the selection camp or the tournament roster itself is the bigger achievement as it speaks to how well they have performed among their peers. There are four New Jersey Devils prospects expected to take part in the WJCs. How they perform should help (or hurt) your hype for the future of those four prospects.

Additionally, there are a number of prospects for the 2019 NHL Draft who will be performing in this tournament. As the Devils are not a good team this season and are likely going to be a part of the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery, there is value to identifying who is here. While I would caution against putting a lot of weight on how a player performs in this one-and-half- week tourney, I would agree that a good performance should drive someone to give a prospect a closer look. A great example is Nico Hischier. He saw his draft stock rise with a good performance with Switzerland back in the 2017 WJCs. This caused more people to pay attention to what he was doing in Halifax, which was impressive enough to force the larger consensus to being a decision between him and Nolan Patrick, the consensus pick for much of 2016-17, for first overall in 2017. As we know, the Devils made the right choice. A potential player for the 2019 draft class could very well be in this tournament, so it is important to be aware of who they may be and what they have done.

This is also a tournament for international hockey organizations to gauge how they are performing and what they plan to do for other competitions in the future. It is not a coincidence that the men’s level features lots of players who have participated in these youth tournaments. USA Hockey, in particular, has made it such a priority that they have their own program for the purpose of grooming their national team of the future: the United Stated National Team Developmental Program. So if you have any interest in the international game, then this tournament is worth your attention.

Lastly, this is just a very exciting tournament to watch. The teams are all young and with it comes lots of speed, emotion, and just some impressive skill on display. From what I have seen in the past, the games are entertaining regardless of whether you have a viewing interest or not. Besides, the Devils’ performances have not been consistently competitive this season. I do hope the Devils turn it around to be more watchable and successful in the coming days. However, if you’re looking for an alternative or just more hockey to watch, the WJCs are an excellent choice.

The Four Devils Prospects at the 2019 WJCs: In order of how I think they should be seen:

1. Ty Smith, Defenseman, Canada, Devils’ 2018 first rounder, currently with Spokane of the Western Hockey League

Canada is an annually stacked team. Making their camp is an achievement. Making their roster is another one. Smith has an opportunity to make an impact on their roster, which speaks volumes of what he is capable of. Smith had a long stay in the Devils’ training camp back in September but was returned to juniors. Given the Devils’ struggles as a team and their crowded blueline, this was the right call. In Corey Pronman’s article about every Canadian player on the roster at The Athletic ($) noted that Smith is arguably the best defenseman in the WHL. Per Brian’s last prospect update, Smith has been remarkably productive with 39 points in 28 games. He also noted that he was skating as a left-sided defenseman with the Canadian roster. I would expect to see him in that spot and, hopefully, get some power play work. I think his skillset could shine there; he He even scored in Canada’s final tune-up game before the tournament.

A good showing in the 2019 WJCs would be another sign of his growth as a player and perhaps fuel hopes that he is a New Jersey Devil in 2019-20.

2. Fabian Zetterlund, Right Wing, Sweden, Devils’ 2017 third rounder, currently with Färjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League

Zetterlund’s numbers do not seemingly jump off the page. He only has two goals and an assist in 13 appearances with his SHL team as well as an average of less than 11 minutes of ice time. However, he is playing with men in Sweden’s top league; he has not been loaned to a second division team or relegated to juniors. However, he is one to watch for on Sweden’s roster if only because he has something not common at this tournament: experience. Zetterlund is a returning member of the 2017 WJC team that lost to Canada in the Gold Medal game last year. While he only had two goals in seven games in last season’s tournament, he did put up five additional goals and four assists in eight other U-20 games with Sweden per Elite Prospects. He should be one of the forwards they will rely on. In fact, he lined up next to Isac Lundestrom on a top line in Sweden’s final pre-tournament game on Saturday per this tweet by Corey Pronman. Perhaps that combination continues into group play? We’ll see. Still, expect him to shoot from the wing and be used in offensive situations for Sweden.

3. Aarne Talvitie, Center, Finland, Devils’ 2017 sixth rounder, currently with Penn State of the Big 10 Hockey Conference.

The Devils already have found some NHL players in later round draft picks in Wood, Bratt, and (to a point) Seney. There is reason to believe that Aarne Talvitie may be the next one. The Finnish center was a point machine with Espoo Blues’ junior team in 2016-17. While he appeared in 17 games in U-20 situations and was a past captain of the U-18 team at the World U-18 tourney in 2017 as per Elite Prospects, he did not make Finland’s WJC roster last year.

He has since made a move to college hockey and now plays for Penn State. He has put up 17 points in 16 games in his freshman year, the most among freshmen Nittany Lions. His performances have been good enough to warrant selection to camps and, most of all, their U-20 roster for the biggest U-20 tournament of the year. He was in the lineup in Finland’s final pre-tournament game against Canada with many of Finland’s top players (Kupari, Tolvanen, Kakko, etc.) per this tweet by Sami Hoffren. And he was the captain of the team in that game. While Finland will not make their final cuts until today, I think he is a safe bet to represent the blue and white in Vancouver and Victoria. He’ll likely play more in a bottom-six forward role on what is a strong looking Finland roster. The “C” speaks volumes to how he is regarded in the Finland set-up even if he was not selected to last year’s roster.

4. Akira Schmid, Goaltender, Switzerland, Devils’ 2018 fifth rounder, currently with Omaha of the United States Hockey League.

It’s been a tough 2017-18 for Schmid. He moved to Canadian major junior hockey as a member of Lethbridge in the WHL. He gets shelled in one appearance and was surplus to their roster, so he was waived. He then went to Corpus Christi of the North American Hockey League, which isn’t anywhere near the WHL level of play. He did quite well in two appearances and then was transferred to Omaha of the USHL as an emergency call-up. Schmid has played in 11 games for the Lancers and seemingly has done OK. His overall save percentage of 90.5% is one of the better ones in the league so far this season. Schmid is now set to suit up for Switzerland at the WJCs.

Per Elite Prospects, Schmid was a member of last year’s team but he did not make an appearance. He was the third-string goalie behind Philip Wuthrich and Matteo Ritz. According to Switzerland’s roster camp invites at the IIHF website, Schmid was one of three goalies brought in, so he should be set to be on the 2019 roster. The other goalies are 18-year old Luca Hollenstein and Gianluca Zaetta, who both play for EC Zug’s academy team in Switzerland’s second league and posted sub-90% save percentages in NLB so far. I hope for his own sake that Schmid gets minutes over both.

Were Any Devils Prospects Snubbed?: An argument could be made for American defenseman Reilly Walsh, who is currently with Harvard. He was not invited to the United States camp. Mike Morreale tweeted out an explanation by USA National Junior Team GM, John Vanbiesbrouck. There were three defensemen selected for camp that were not members of the USNTDP or the United States’ 2018 Bronze Medal-winning roster. It appears the powers that be at USA Hockey just liked those three - Jack St. Ivany of Yale (who did make the final WJC roster), Michael Callahan of Providence, and Joey Keane of Barrie - more than Walsh. Such as it is.

Who Are Notable Players that Could Be Drafted in 2019?: Since the Devils are likely headed to the draft lottery given their current season, their luck may give them a chance at the current-consensus picks for first and second overall in the 2019 draft: Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko.

Both will be key members for their respective nations in this tournament. Despite his small stature, Hughes has been seen as the #1 prospect simply because he just produces a ton at every level he has performed at. He was the MVP of the 2018 World U-18 tournament. He will be leaned on at this one. A strong tourney will further solidify projections that he will be a top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, if not the top pick.

Kakko has been big deal with TPS in the SM-Liiga. He’s second among all rookies with 20 points (9 goals and 11 assists); his 20 points ranks in the top 50 among all players in the league. He’s averaging over 17 minutes per game, which is rare for young players to get in most European leagues. Kakko’s Corsi for percentage is 54.5%, the second highest on TPS. He’s also larger and playing against professionals regularly. Do not be surprised that a strong tourney from Kakko makes the conversation for #1 more contentious.

Outside of those two big names, fans may want to look elsewhere for some interesting future prospects.

  • One prospect may jump into the Hughes/Kakko argument: Vasili Podkolzin of Russia. In Steve Kournianos’ last ranking of the 2019 draft class, he put Podkolzin second. In his first attempt at a mock draft, he had Podkolzin going third. Point is: he’s a dude to know if you’re interested in the top guys. He’s in the SKA St. Petersburg system and has already earned a small look at the KHL while primarily playing in the VHL and MHL. He has been a big producer at the U-18 level for Russia. Assuming he makes the Russian WJC roster, he’ll be worth a look. Who knows? If he stands out, you may have to add #DroppinForPodkolzin to go with #LoseForHughes and #CrappoForKakko to your hashtag list.
  • Slovakia may be good enough to avoid the relegation round. They are worth checking out to see how winger Maxim Cajkovic performs. He was the first overall selection of the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft and he’s currently tied for first on Saint John (and tenth in rookies in the QMJHL) in points with 20. How he performs here may help his stock for the 2019 draft and draw a few more eyeballs to the Sea Dogs.
  • Sweden will not have defenseman Timothy Liljegren. That should make it a lock for defenseman Philip Broberg to represent his nation. Broberg plays for AIK in Sweden’s second league, the Allsvenskan. He’s 17 and averaging over 16 minutes per game, which is not bad given how European leagues tend to give very limited minutes to young players. Per his Elite Prospects profile, he has represented Sweden at younger levels and was a part of the team that came in second at the 2017-18 Hlinka-Gretzky tournament. Praise has been given for his skating to go with his large (6’3”, 198 pound) frame. The left-handed defender may get some more love with a good performance at the WJCs this year - assuming he makes the cut.
  • While you may care about Switzerland for Schmid, you may want to check out Valentin Nussbaumer. The forward made the jump from Swiss hockey to Canadian major juniors this year, being a part of a really bad Shawinigan team in the Q (he’s currently fifth in scoring on said team). He’s notable because he could be among Switzerland’s best attackers. Nussbaumer should get plenty of attack time and favorable offensive situations. While his team may have it hard, a good showing of his talents may give him an edge for those looking for potential second round forwards.
  • Since goaltending has become a need in the Devils’ system, I’m sure there will be plenty of eyes on Danish goaltender Mads Søgaard. He’s not just big at 6’7” but he’s also earned plenty of minutes at goalie for Medicine Hat of the WHL. His 93.1% save percentage in 19 games is best among WHL rookie goalies and ranks fourth in the whole league. It’s way better than the other Tigers goalie, Jordan Hollet. Denmark may be seeing a lot of pucks and the relegation round, so Søgaard will likely see a lot of action. While he may not see a lot of action at all, Spencer Knight on the United States is a 2019 eligible pick on that roster who wasn’t passed over in previous drafts. Knight has done well with the USNTDP so far; the future Boston College Eagle may be worth a look deeper into the draft. Any minutes he gets in this tournament will be of interest.

What About 2020?: There are not many 16 or 17 year olds eligible for the draft after the one coming up in June in this tournament. However, there are two:

Canada has named Alexis Lafrenière to their roster. It is not common for 17-year olds to make Canada’s U-20 roster for the biggest U-20 tournament in the world. He is not a common player. He put up 80 points with Rimouski as a 16 year old. He’s currently on pace to beat that as a 17 year old this season. He’s earned his spot on Canada and could very well be in their top six when the games start. Get used to that easy-to-misspell last name for 2020.

Finland may have forward Anton Lundell. Per Elite Prospects, Lundell is already a professional player with HIFK in the SM-Liiga, with ten points in 20 games already. While he is 17 like Kakko, his October 3, 2001 birthdate means he’ll have to wait until 2020 to be drafted. That he’s possibly able to make the Finland WJC team now means he’s got game. Finland will announce their roster today and this was written before today so we’ll see.

My Be Strong, Be Wrong Predictions by Someone Who Isn’t Really That Knowledgeable About International Hockey Much Less the World Junior Tourney:

Group A (in order): Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark

Group B: Finland, United States, Sweden, Slovakia, Kazakhstan

Relegation: Denmark over Kazakhstan (Denmark survives relegation twice in a row)

Quarterfinals: Canada over Slovakia, Finland over Switzerland, United States over Czech Republic, Sweden over Russia

Semifinals: Canada over United States, Finland over Sweden

Third-Place Game: United States over Sweden

Finals: Canada over Finland

Here are some thoughts on the big teams:

Canada should be seen as the clear favorites. While they may not be as dominant looking on paper, they are at home, the rinks are North American-sized rinks, and they know how to handle this tournament. They won Gold in 2018 and have made it to the Final game five times since 2010. If this tourney was in Europe, then I may see Finland edging them but not here. Of course, there will be a lot of pressure on Canada as the hosts - anything less than Gold may be seen as unacceptable.

Finland have plenty of experience and they received Eeli Tolvanen, Urho Vaakanaheinen, and Henri Jokiharju back for this tourney. If Canada somehow stumbles, they should be favored. They’ll have a tough time with the United States and Sweden in Group B, but I think they’ll prevail. A potential rematch with Sweden in the semifinals will definitely be a hot contest, but I think they should pull through only to fall to the hosts at the end. It’ll be an improvement over last year’s early exit from the playoffs.

The United States should be seen as medal contenders. The USNTDP program continues to churn out players of all kinds and the North American rinks should favor them. While they will not have to deal with Canada until the group stages, I think they’ll see them in the playoffs. If this game wasn’t going to be in Canada, I’d say the U.S. could do it. Not in Canada, though. Still, this could be a big stage for great performances by the Hughes brothers. A lot of eyeballs will be on Jack as much as they will be on his challenger for the #1 spot in 2019: Finland’s Kaapo Kakko.

Sweden and Russia should be seen as serious challengers. I don’t think Sweden is all that impressive on paper this year and several of the players that were crucial in their Silver Medal finish are not returning. Namely IIHF Directorate’s selections for best goaltender, Filip Gustavsson, and best defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin. That said, in a short tourney, a surprise or two is not out of the question. Their forwards can be quick and if they catch fire, then they could score their way to wins. Russia, in theory, could contend for the Gold every year and they are frequently on the medal platform in this past decade. But their roster selection may not be ideal and they do not have lot of players familiar with the tourney. I could see (and I predict) Sweden dumps them in the quarterfinals. I could be dead wrong and Russia marches on to the end. We’ll see soon enough.

OK, How Can I Watch These WJC Games?: If you live in Canada, then coverage is going to be through TSN and their many networks. Here is a full schedule.

If you live in America, then you need the NHL Network. They will cover most games (the relegation games and some of the group stage games are not covered) and all of the United States games. They typically use the TSN feed. Here is the schedule through NHL.com.

Are There Other Previews?: Of course.

Habs Eyes on the Prize has a stream of previews for each nation. I’d start there for a team-by-team look.

Adam Kimelman wrote this team-by-team preview of Group A at NHL.com. For the other group, Mike Morreale has this team-by-team preview of Group B, also at NHL.com.

For those more interested in prospects, Pronman previewed Canada player-by-player, the United States player-by-player, and select European players all at The Athletic ($). Steve Kournianos has a list of 10 players to know at The Sporting News, including some passed over from 2018’s draft that could be picked in 2019. Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey has a preview of players in Group B and a preview of players in Group A to look forward to.

If you want something to listen to, The Hockey News had this podcast about the WJCs ahead of the final rosters being selected.

Your Take: The 2019 World Junior Championships start tomorrow; there will be an open discussion post for it up then too. Are you excited for it? Who do you think will medal? Who do you expect to standout? Who among the four Devils prospects will have the best tourney? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2019 WJCs in the comments. Thank you for reading.