Wake up, it’s Boxing Day. (And sorry for the lateness, I blame outside illnesses for that.) That may not mean much outside of Canada. For the hockey fan, it is the beginning of the annual tradition: the International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-20 Championships. Also known as the World Junior Championships (WJCs). This short tourney pits 10 teams of the recently drafted (and a few of the soon-to-be drafted) to compete in a high-impact, high-intensity situation for medals and national pride. This tournament is always a blast to watch. With the tournament in Gothenburg, Sweden, prepare to spend your mornings and early afternoons with hockey.
The Tournament: The 2024 World Junior Championships a.k.a. The 2024 World U-20 Championships
The Locale: Gothenburg, Sweden. This means international-sized rinks; a big change given that the last 3 WJCs were in Canada. Do not fret, Canada, it is coming home to Ottawa in 2025.
The Dates: December 26, 2023 to December 31, 2023 for the Group Stage. January 2, 2024 to January 5, 2024 for the Medal Tournament.
The Times: Games are scheduled from noon to 6:30 PM local time in Sweden. This works out to 6 AM ET to 1:30 PM ET. Fortunately, the IIHF website has a schedule with time zone conversions.
The WJC Tourney: There are two stages: the Group Stage and the Medal Tournament.
In the Group Stage, there are two groups of five teams each. Everyone plays each other once. Winners in regulation get 3 points, winners in a shootout or overtime get 2, losers beyond regulation get 1, and losers in regulation get 0. Overtime is a 3-on-3 situation for five minutes. The final standings of the Group Stage will determine the seeding for the Medal Tournament: First in Group A plays fourth in Group B, second in Group A plays third in Group B, and so forth.
Finishing last in each group will send the team to the Relegation Game where they will face each other. The winner will stay for the 2025 WJCs. The loser will get sent down to Division I, Group A for 2025 and replaced by Kazakhstan, who won Division I, Group A earlier this month.
The Medal Tournament is a simple knock-out tournament. One game in each round. Winners in the quarterfinal are guaranteed to play for a medal. Losers of the semifinals will play for the Bronze on January 5. The tourney will end with the Gold Medal Finals on January 5.
The Devils, or The Players You Probably Care the Most About: The New Jersey Devils have two prospects in this year’s tourney. In theory, it could have been three. But Simon Nemec is a NHL player; he is beyond this tourney even if he would really boost a really good on-paper Slovakian team.
United States - Defenseman Seamus Casey. Casey was drafted out of the USNTDP in 2022 by the Devils in the second round of that draft. He went to Michigan and immediately showed his offensive skillset. On a team that boasted a lot of talent (Luke Hughes! Adam Fantilli! Mackie Samsokevich! Rutger McGroarty!), Casey put up eight goals and 29 points as a freshman. Not an easy thing to do on a national championship-contending squad. As a sophomore, Casey is on pace to best that. In fact, he currently leads the Wolverine in points with 23 in 18 games with multiple players with the United States in this tournament. He is great on the puck, he makes good decisions on offense, and his defensive work has been adequate in the tough world of college hockey.
Casey is making his WJC debut, but as a member of the dominant USNTDP, this is not his first major tourney. He was part of the Under-18 team that took silver in 2022 along with several other American players on this roster. While Lane Hutson may end up being the main offensive threat from the back, Casey will be called upon to play significant minutes. If you’re watching America at this tourney, then you will notice Casey.
Finland - Forward Lenni Hämeenaho - The return of Will Scouch and Scouching (hooray) has led to this WJC preview show between Scouch, Tony Ferrari, Mikael Holm, Sam MacGilligan, and Scott Wheeler. Five people who follow prospects closely. They agreed that Finland may be in a down-year on paper and they are missing multiple names that could give them an edge. They also agreed that it may not matter because Finland plays such a structured game at the international level that their rosters are often more than the sum of their parts. That said, Wheeler in particular highlighted the Devils draft pick from 2023. He pointed out that Lenni Hämeenaho has been doing really well with Ässät and with the roster the Finns are bringing, he could be playing in all situations.
I will point out that Hämeenaho has been performing even better than that suggested. Remember that he had 9 goals and 21 points with the Liiga squad in his draft year. So far this season, he is Ässät’s leading goal scorer with 11 goals in 26 games and his 17 points is the second most on the Porin-based squad. Being able to go from a solid regular as an 18-year old to a top scorer as a 19-year old is excellent growth. Should Wheeler be right and Hämeenaho gets big minutes in this tourney for Finland, then he could really have a breakout tourney. And for Finland to go to the podium this year, he may have to have a huge WJC performance. Which would be more reason to be excited about arguably the best Finnish prospect the Devils drafted since...um...Ari Ahonen and Tuomas Pihlman. Which is not a high bar to clear. But still.
What the WJCs lack in quantity for Devils prospect, it is made up for in quality. Keep an eye on these two.
The Rules: Site rules apply. No bad words. No illegal streams. Must stay on topic with the WJC and the national U-20 teams.
Go Casey and Hämeenaho!
The Groups & Thoughts on Each:
Group A: Canada, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Germany
Group B: United States, Slovakia, Czechia, Switzerland, Norway
Germany & Norway: Their goal is to try not to get wrecked too badly. I guess. The Norwegians got promoted from Division I, Group A last year and Germany avoided relegation in 2023. But unless Germany can beat Latvia (and I don’t think it will happen), I think these two are going to play for the right to not get replaced by Kazakhstan in Ottawa. At least Norway has what could be their highest drafted player in a long, long time in 2024 draft eligible defenseman Michael Brandsegg-Nygård. Whether or not he will be able to do much beyond chasing the U.S., Slovakia, Czechia, and Switzerland is another question.
Latvia: I think they can beat Germany on December 30. I do think that will just give them right to be sacrificed to whoever wins Group B on January 2. Which is still better than relegation. Look for Eriks Mateiko, who has been one of the top scorers for Saint John in the QMJHL.
Switzerland: As long as they do not get upset by Norway, they are safe. But this roster is missing Lian Bischel, a secure goalie unless you believe in Evan Huet (yes, Cristobal’s kid), and a lot of offensive punch among the the forwards, who I think would be led by Miles Müller - who has been producing regularly for Moncton in the Q. Like the Latvians, I think their fate is getting wrecked by the Group A winner on January 2.
Czechia: They stunned many by taking silver last year. A lot of that was on the strength of goalie Thomas Suchanek and a hot offense. That hot offense does have some returning players like Jiri Kulich of Buffalo (he debuted in the game the Devils blew out Buffalo in) and Matyas Sapovaliv. Getting Tomas Hamara and Ales Chec on the back end will help, and 2024 draft prospect Adam Jiricek will be one to watch. Still, goalie Michael Hrabal is going to be asked to do a lot. If the offense is not so hot and the goaltending is not so good, then I do not think they are finishing better than third in the group. Or beating Group A’s second place team.
Finland: This team will be annoying to play against and give some fits to their national rivals in Sweden as well as a Canadian WJC team that may not be the best group Hockey Canada put together. As much as I want Hämeenaho to shine - and he may need to - this team is screaming for a talent like Joakim Kemell to give them an edge. They are coming in without Aron Kiviharju and Jesse Nurmi. Unless goalie Niklas Kokko or 2024 draft eligible center Konsta Helenius glows up real fast, this team may need to use their structure and grind to get results. This makes them a tough opponent. But a medal winner? No. Too bad they are not in Group B. I think they would have a shot at second there instead of being set for third in ‘A.’
Slovakia: If only they had Nemec! Or Slafkovsky. But this Slovakian team could really push for a semifinal spot in the Medal Tournament. Goalie Adam Gajan was great in the 2023 WJCs, he has been good in a tougher USHL this season compared to the NAHL in 2022-23, and he knows what it takes here. Filip Mesar, Dalibor Dvorsky, Samuel Honzek, and Adam Sykora will lead a tantalizing forward group. If a largely undrafted (yet) blueline outside of Maxim Strbak can pull it together, then this team could shine. I think they can take second in Group A should they prevail over their national rivals in Czechia.
Canada: When in doubt, pick the Canadians in the WJC. But this year’s roster has left some heads scratching. The sheer amount of talent in Canada could have Hockey Canada pick two legitimately talented WJC rosters. Yet, questions abound for the defending Gold Medal winners. Only one player - Owen Beck - returns from the 2023 WJC team. Of course they were not going to get Bedard, Fantilli, Korchinski, and Wright. But to leave Jagger Firkus and Denver Barkey home were curious given their energy and skills. While Matthew Savoie and Brayden Yager are great talents, this roster is asking a lot of 2024-draft eligible Macklin Celebrini for offense. Ditto for Connor Geekie. Sure, they got Matthew Poitras from Boston but I do not think he moves the needle enough. The blueline has beef and defensive acumen, but they lack that top end leader or offensive contributor. And, once again, the goaltending is a question mark where, once again, one of Scott Ratzlaff, Mathis Rousseau, and Samuel St-Hilaire have to prove themselves. This is more than acceptable in the group stages. But I think Sweden clears this team and Canada gets to play for a bronze this year.
Sweden: They are not just the host nation. They have oodles of talent on the blueline and up front. The defense will be led by Axel Sandin-Pellikka, who was a boss at the World U-18s earlier this year. Tom Willander, Mattias Hävelid, and Elias Pettersson will provide speed, coverage, and offensive activation from the back. The forward group is stacked to a point where someone like Filip Bystedt may end up on a third line. David Edstrom and Otto Stenberg were great at the World U-18s. The potential top line of Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Liam Öhgren, and Noah Östlund could be one of the best in the tourney. In fact, Ostlund has a real shot at being the player of the tournament. While the goaltending is not as impressive, Hugo Hävelid has been great when representing the country. Sure, Sweden has fouled up in big moments in recent WJC history. But with the WJCs at home and a roster this good, I think they win Group A outright and they can go all the way.
United States: I did not write a love letter to the USNTDP for no reason. I agree with the experts that state this team is the most talented out of the ten in Sweden this year. To take another page from Scouch’s WJC preview panel, the United States has three first-lines this year. Pick your poison, opponents. Do you want to deal with Cutter Gauthier, who not only returns to the WJCs but scored 7 goals in the men’s World Championships? Or Will Smith, who smacked the World U-18 tourney upside the head with 20 points in 7 games? Or Rutger McGroarty, who put together a lot of plays last year? Or Jimmy Snuggerud, who has been a force with University of Minnesota as well as last year’s WJCs. Or Ryan Leonard, who can body up guys and put up points? Or Gabe Perreault, who can finish plays and just keep getting on the scoresheet? Or the speedy Gavin Brindley? Or the shooting of Isaac Howard? Or the Wolverine-like play of Frank Nazar III? Mind you, America can mix and match these guys in multiple ways, thanks to the USNTDP experience. Good luck matching up against an American forward group with all of this WJC experience and talent to burn, world.
Then there’s the rest of the team. The defense could have Seamus Casey on a second pairing and Casey is rather good! Lane Hutson and Ryan Chesley are just that impressive. Zeev Buium is not just some young guy getting blooded at this tourney; he has been a rock for the University of Denver as a freshman. He can be one here too. Goaltending is not a question for the Americans as they know and trust Trey Augustine as well. They are also bringing USHL ace Jacob Fowler, who is unsurprisingly doing well in college now. The back end and the net is as strong as can be, which is impressive given how many defenders could make this WJC their own.
Honestly, if the team maintains composure and plays to their level, I think the Americans take gold. Even over Sweden in a pro-Sweden arena. Call me biased, but the USNTDP-driven USA Hockey roster is just that loaded.
My Be Strong, Be Wrong Prediction: United States, Sweden, Canada. I will not be cheeky and pick Finland or Slovakia ahead of Canada. Oh, and let’s say Germany gets relegated for kicks.