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2021 World Junior Championships Preview & Open Post for the Devils Fan

Merry Christmas and the start of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championships. This year’s tourney features six New Jersey Devils prospects: Dawson Mercer, Patrick Moynihan, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Arseni Gritsyuk, Alexander Holtz, and Jaromir Pytlik. This is a WJC preview and an open post for Devils fans to discuss this year’s tourney as it happens.

2018 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament - Slovakia vs Russia
Shakir Mukhamadullin and five other Devils prospects will perform in Edmonton in the 2021 World Junior Championships.
Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

For millions around the globe, today is Christmas, one of the biggest holidays in the year. It is a day of family, tradition, gift giving, and more. For the millions of hockey fans around the globe, today is also the beginning of the 2021 World Junior Championships (WJC). It is the first of an eleven-day hockey tournament of under-20 year old hockey players representing ten countries coming together to be held in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in a bubble. The WJC is a big stage for the countries’ hockey federations, a showcase for recent draft picks and a handful of soon-to-be-drafted players, and a generally very exciting hockey tournament. Just as importantly, there will be six New Jersey Devils prospects participating in this year’s WJC. All the more reason to celebrate the Christmas season with hockey.

The Basic Information on How to Watch the 2021 WJC

The Dates: December 25, 2020 to January 5, 2021

The Broadcasts: TSN will be your go-to station in Canada and the NHL Network will be your go-to station in America. Links go to the broadcast schedule and the game schedule. Times for the start of games range from 2 PM ET to 9:30 PM ET.

The Location: Edmonton is hosting this year’s WJC. All games will take place in the Rogers Place with no fans. This is a bubble environment, similar to what the NHL did with the Return to Play effort last Summer.

The Format: As with recent years, this year’s WJC will have two groups of five teams: Group A and Group B. The top four teams in each group will move onto the Playoff.

The Playoff is a single-elimination tournament. The Quarterfinals are determined by matching up the final positions of each group. First in Group A will play fourth in Group B, second in Group A will play third in Group B, and so forth. The winners of that round will move on to the Semifinals. The winners of the Semifinals will play for the Gold medal. The losers of the Semifinals will play for the Bronze medal.

Unlike past years, there will be no relegation round. The International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the other divisions in their Under-20 tournaments. Therefore, whoever finishes last in each group this year will not play each other to avoid being relegated to Division IA.

The Group Stage will have their games start on December 25, 2020 and end on December 31, 2020. The Quarterfinals of the Playoff will take place on January 2, 2021. The Semifinals will take place on January 4, 2021. The third-place and WJC Final will take place on January 5, 2021.

As with everything in 2020, schedules are subject to change as necessary.

The Groups: Here is who is in each group:

Group A: Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany

Group B: Russia, Sweden, the United States, Czech Republic, Austria

Austria was promoted from Division IA in the 2020 WJC. They replace Kazakhstan, who was relegated.

The Devils Prospects Involved: The Devils have six prospects participating in this year’s WJC:

  • Canada - #20 Dawson Mercer
  • United States - #19 Patrick Moynihan
  • Russia - #17 Shakir Mukhamadullin, #8 Arseni Gritsyuk
  • Sweden - #10 Alexander Holtz
  • Czech Republic - #21 Jaromir Pytlik

The Reminder: This is a short tournament that will have, at most, seven games played. It is not going to be real representation of the prospect’s game or their future. So do not freak out if a Devils prospect/nation has a bad WJC and try to temper your hype if a Devils prospect/nation has a great WJC. Take the tourney as it is.

The Rules: The rules remain the rules even when the game is on and it’s an international tournament featuring some of the best under-20 year old hockey players in the world. Please keep your comments clean, legal (read: no streams, no links to streams, no asking for streams, no streams), and all about the games itself. Just as importantly, let’s respect each other. There’s no need for drama or being unwelcoming of your fellow hockey fan. Thank you for reading. Go Devils prospects and/or nation of your choosing!

Read on for more details about the teams involved.

Group A - It’s Canada’s Group Then Everyone Else

Canada is typically a favorite at the WJC. The three major junior leagues output loads of professional hockey players. Junior hockey is a past time in the nation. They also have won the WJC more than any other nation with 18 Gold Medals. They also won last year’s WJC. All that and they are hosting it as well. Next year’s too, but that is a consolation for the fact that this year’s tourney is in a bubble without any fans. If you know nothing about the WJC, then know that Canada expects to do well in it every year and this year is no exception.

While Alexis Lafréniere - last year’s tournament MVP - is not on the team, Hockey Canada had no shortage of talent to pick from. Their entire group of forwards are all former first round draft picks. Only two of their defensemen were not first round draft picks, but they were drafted all the same. They even cut recent first round picks like Seth Jarvis and Hendrix Lapierre. Out of a massive training cap, Devils prospect Graeme Clarke was the only one to be productive in all scrimmages and they even cut him among the final ones. That is how loaded Canada is for this tournament. This is a team that will feature Dylan Cozens, Alex Newhook, Bowen Byram, Thomas Harley, Connor McMichael, and so many more to join the recently drafted Quinton Byfield, Cole Perfetti, Jack Quinn, Jamie Drysdale, Jakob Pelletier, Braden Schneider, and Kaiden Guhle. That is a loaded roster. How loaded? Kirby Dach is out of the WJC due to an injury from a warm-up game and Canada can simply slide Byfield into the first line center spot and activate Ryan Suzuki or Philip Tomasino, who were scratched from the warm-up game. That’s depth. The Canadian roster is incredible.

This also means that any ice time for any player should be seen as a plus. Dawson Mercer may end up being a utility player on this team. Were he on another country, he could slide into most team’s top two lines without much of an issue. But on Canada, you play the role that is needed. Mercer’s advantage is that he is a very smart and versatile player. Given that all teams will be playing four games in seven nights, everyone will have to contribute.

The only question mark for Canada is in net. Dylan Garand and Devon Levi were draft in 2020 in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively. While where they were picked does not matter much, that neither has played a single season game yet (Garand is in the WHL, Levi is with Northeastern) may matter. The third goalie is 19-year old, undrafted Taylor Gauthier. Like Garand, he is a WHL-based goalie and also has not seen any action outside of Canada’s camp. Compared to their plethora of drafted talent at forward and defense, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But if there is any team that overcome a questionable goaltending group, then it is this one.

Now, I think Group A is Canada’s to lose. But this is a short tourney and one bad night can flip everything on its ear.

The Finland squad will likely give Canada a really good challenge. Finland finished fourth last season, so they will not be an easy opponent to dispatch. They will be led up front by Anton Lundell and well supported by Roni Hirvonen, Kasper Simontaival, Roby Järventie, Ville Heinola, and Topi Niemelä. Finland also has a very intriguing future draft eligible on the team. No, it is not Aatu Räty. He did not make the team despite being on last year’s squad. It’s 2022-eligible Brad Lambert. He just turned 17 and has played only for JYP in the Liiga. Not their U-20 team; their actual pro team. He has 7 points in 18 games. He just turned 17. This is going to be a serious player for the future. You can get a sneak preview of him in this tourney. In any case, short of a collapse, Finland should easily make it to the Playoff round. They could even do so with just one loss to Canada. This means Switzerland, Slovakia, and Germany will battle for the two remaining playoff spots.

In recent years, Switzerland have regularly made the Playoffs and even lost in the Bronze medal game in 2019. That said, this roster does not jump off the page in terms of young talent or returning players. Based on Anton Rasegård’s list of 2021 draft eligible players at Habs Eyes on the Prize, Switzerland has four of note. Will they help elevate the team? I intend no disrespect to the home nation of Nico Hischier, but I am not sure

Slovakia finished just ahead of Kazakhstan to avoid the relegation round last year. Then they were pounded by Canada is in the But they could surprise in a short tournament to steal a win from Switzerland or Germany. Samuel Hlavaj is returning in net for a rare third straight WJC; Samuel Knazko will likely feature on their blueline; and perhaps the best U-20 Slovak forward, Martin Chromiak, is on the team. I would like Slovakia’s chances of sneaking into the Playoffs even more if Maxim Cajkovic was on the roster. However, I totally understand why he is not since he decided to throw multiple dangerous and nasty hits on his countrymen in camp.

Ahead of this tournament, Germany could be expected to have their best ever WJC in the country’s history this year. They made it to the WJC last year and prevailed over Kazakhstan in the relegation round. With a possibly weaker Swiss team and a Slovak team that was not that all that strong to begin with, it was not impossible to see the Germans finish third or fourth in Group A. But the Coronavirus has rocked the team. Lukas Reichel is out due to a positive CoVID-19 test. Just yesterday, another player tested positive and, per Bob McKenzie, the team may have only two goalies, five defensemen, and nine forwards available for their first two games. Sure, those games are against Canada and Finland; but with just four games to play in the group stage, every game matters. Even if they had a full lineup, a lot is going to be carried on the backs of Tim Stützle and John-Jason Peterka. As both will likely have great futures in the NHL, they are just two players. It will take a team effort for the other Germans to do their part from goaltender Florian Bugl to forward Josh Samanski to defenseman Luca Münzenberger among others. It will be a challenge for a shorthanded German squad to avoid finishing last in Group A.

Group B - Three Sharks and Two Smaller Fish

Russia, Sweden, and the United States each have arguments to win Group B outright based on their talent and approach to the game. Each has a top-tier goaltending prospect that could lead a nation to a medal on their own if they get hot enough. However, only one can prevail. The Czech Republic will need to find an upset to not finish fourth and an upsetting loss to Austria could send them to fifth.

I will begin with Russia as they have two Devils prospects in Shakir Mukhamadullin and Arseni Gritsyuk. A prospect making the roster for a team that will, at most, play seven games is the real achievement. It shows that the federation believes they are good enough to represent the country at a major tournament. That stated, as a fan, you like to see prospects also play key roles for their country and the signs are good that will be the case for Russia. Mukhamadullin led Russia in minutes at the Karjala Cup and Gritsyuk played in Russia’s top nine as a winger. Yes, Russia sent a U-20 team to the Karjala Cup and won all their games against the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland national teams. Russia’s offense will certainly be interesting as it will feature Rodion Amirov, Vasili Podkolzin, Yegor Chinakhov, and Marat Khusnutdinov. The defense has two 2021 Draft eligible players in Daniil Chayka and Kirill Kirsanov. Chayka in particular has received some buzz as a potential first rounder. Of course, the biggest concern for Russian opponents will be in net. Yaroslav Askarov is expected to start and he is looking for revenge after a not-so-good 2020 WJC. Askarov has been incredible for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL this season. I think he can get it. And a goaltender as talented as Askarov getting hot in a short tournament like this one can make the Russian team an incredibly difficult opponent to beat. Although, Russia typically has been an incredibly difficult opponent in these tourneys. They do business in their way and given that they are second only to Canada in total medals in WJC history and lost only to Canada in the Finals in 2019 is evidence of their success. Expect them to contend again.

Of course, Russia is not the only team with a goaltender who was or is a “Don’t draft a goaltender high in the NHL Draft except for this guy” goaltender. The United States is bringing a talented squad to this year’s WJC. Which is to be expected as the whole point of the USNTDP is to develop players to do well in tournaments like this one. This squad has several players returning from the ridiculously-talented 2019 team: Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield, Bobby Brink, Matt Boldy, Cam York, and Spencer Knight among others are all on this roster. Jack Hughes was eligible, but he’s not going. (Aside: Which was the right call; he has nothing to prove at the U-20 level and the risk of an injury is massive - which is what just happened to Dach.) They join a group featuring Arthur Kaliyev, 2021 NHL Draft eligible Matthew Beniers, goaltender Dustin Wolf (who has been incredible for Everett in the WHL), and the recently drafted Jake Sanderson, Brett Berard and Brendan Brisson. It is a very strong group. And it appears that USA Hockey looked to secure some role players, which explains Devils prospect Patrick Moynihan playing in their bottom six. Say what you want, but for a short tourney like this, you need people in all kinds of roles to succeed. Especially in a group with Russia and Sweden. Additionally, the U.S. may have a chip on their shoulder after getting bounced out of last year’s WJC in the Quarterfinal round. The team could medal on paper. Now they just need to prevail in Group B, which is a lot easier said than done given Russia and Sweden.

Sweden could have been a lot stronger than what they may be. The Coronavirus has kept Sweden’s U-20 coach out of the bubble and four players off the roster: 2021 Draft eligible and Alexander Holtz’s linemate at Djurgårdens William Eklund, defenseman William Wallinder, pest Albin Grewe, and forward Karl Henriksson. However, the Swedes that are in Edmonton are very, very good. Devils prospect Alexander Holtz will lead the offense alongside Lucas Raymon, Noel Gunlar, Theodore Neiderbach, and Zion Nybeck. The blueline will feature Philip Broberg, Victor Soderstrom, and Tobias Bjornfot. The most frightening part about Sweden is in net. Hugo Alnefelt was a star in last year’s WJC that saw Sweden narrowly beaten by Russia in the Semifinal but took Bronze. Not only is he back, but there is a newer face that could be even better. 2021 Draft fans, get ready for Jesper Wallstedt. Like Knight and Askarov before him, he is the goaltender that is the exception to the common draft rule of do not draft goaltenders high. Wallstedt turned 18 in November and has been fantastic for Luleå of the SHL. No, not their junior team, their professional team. It will be interesting to see how the time is shared between the WJC-experienced Alnefelt and the incoming Wallstedt. It will be difficult for opponents to beat either of them if they are on their respective games. And that, plus the contributions of Holtz, Raymond, etc. can help Sweden get over the proverbial hump and perhaps aim higher than Bronze this year.

Those are the sharks. What of the Czech Republic and Austria? The Czech Republic does not have much in the way of premier talent. Sure, they have several drafted players such as the Devils-picked Jaromir Pytlik; the Blackhawks-selected Michal Teply; and the Montreal-drafted Jan Mysak. But without certainty in net and a defense that is young - featuring two 17-year olds in Stanislav Svozil and David Jiricek, it will be a tough time for the Czechs. The Austrians are new to this year’s WJC as they were promoted from Division IA last year. Austria features Marco Rossi, Marco Rossi, Marco Rossi, multiple other Austrians, Marco Rossi, and this amazing quote from Luis Lindner per this IIHF article by Chris Jurewicz:

“We want to play our best and then everybody should know... Austria is not where the kangaroos are at,” says Lindner. “That’s the biggest thing I want to achieve. I want to know that people know where Austria is. They don’t mess it up with Australia. I want the people to know, Austria is where Vienna is at and we can play hockey.”

Austria is indeed not where the kangaroos are at. Maybe they will surprise someone and get a result. If they do, then I would expect Marco Rossi to be involved.

The Be Strong, Be Wrong Predictions by Someone Who Isn’t Really That Knowledgeable About All This

In short: I think this is Canada’s tournament to lose. Here is how I see it break down.

Group A Standings: Canada, Finland, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany

Group B Standings: Russia, United States, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria

Slovakia’s experience combined with Switzerland’s roster not being impressive and Germany being shorthanded may get them to third. You can flip the order of the three teams in Group B how you wish, but I think it will go in this order in very close games among them. Alas, there is no relegation round this year as a short series between Austria and Switzerland would be fascinating to watch. Oh, well.

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

No real surprises other than Sweden beating Finland - which is not much of one depending on who you ask. Sweden’s superior goaltending and the power of Holtz should see them through.

Semi Finals: Canada over Sweden, United States over Russia

Sorry, Sweden, but you will not get over the WJC hump in Edmonton against this Canadian team of all Canadian teams. I think the U.S. will get revenge over Russia from the group stage.

Bronze Medal: Russia over Sweden

In what will be a goaltender’s duel, I think Russia edges out the Swedes.

Gold Medal Final: Canada over United States

As an American, I wish it were not so, but this is Canada’s tourney to lose and so the US falls to Canada at the end.

Thank you for reading.