When Christmas arrives, the hockey world knows the IIHF World Junior Championship is just around the corner. This year, Christmas Day actually marks the start of the competition.
Ten teams head to a bubble to compete for national pride and bragging rights while setting their sights strictly on a gold medal. There are a few big differences this time compared to prior tournaments and some fresh ice-related storylines to keep an eye on as the puck drops on the tournament.
Here’s a quick look at the top four things to watch.
Top four storylines for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
How will COVID-19 impact the tournament?
One of the biggest storylines before anyone even headed to Edmonton, Alta., was how COVID-19 had impacted a number of teams. Germany, the United States, Canada and Austria all lost key players while the Swedes not only lost players but the majority of their coaching staff. Then when the Germans and Sweden got to the bubble they had to extend quarantines resulting in a shift of the exhibition schedule as both teams were not eligible to play.
Sweden is out of the bubble and has had a few practices under their belt — even one was run by the team doctor when the majority of the team had to stick to their individual hotel rooms. However, the Germans have been crushed and as a result will only have 14 skaters (nine forwards and five defensemen) and two goalies for at least the first two games of the tourney. Great for beer league but for an international tournament … yikes. Those two games were already a tall task as they’re set to face off against the top two teams of your group, Finland and Canada, in a back-to-back.
Can the Canadians push past the loss of Kirby Dach?
Hockey Canada skated in its only tune-up for the world juniors when they met Russia on Wednesday. Everything was going great in the 1-0 win against a top contender for gold until captain Kirby Dach collided with a Russian in the neutral zone and left the game — and subsequently the tournament — with a wrist injury.
Dawson Mercer on the Kirby Dach news: “It’s obviously horrible news for us w/ Kirby. I think he’s an unbelievable player but that can happen whenever. I think we have a lot of leaders & guys who can step up in the room. We’re going to do whatever we can. We got to move past it.”
— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) December 24, 2020
It’s a big-time loss for the Canadians as Dach is a bonafide NHLer after spending the 2019-20 season (and then bubble hockey) with the Blackhawks. He was slotted on the top line and was expected to be a key cog in the team’s offensive machine.
So how will Canada respond? The roster is incredibly deep with, now, 19 of 24 players having been drafted in the first round but Dach was also a leader on the bench and in the locker room for head coach Andre Tourigny.
Canada does not have a tough group stage so the loss of Dach may not be felt until New Year’s Eve when they face Finland or in the playoffs. Time will tell how’ll they respond.
Will Cole Caufield put the ghosts of 2020 behind him and dominate?
Cole Caufield had a rough trip to the Czech Republic last year. Expectations were high for the American to dominate the competition. Instead, he notched just two points in five games as Team USA was knocked out in the quarterfinals.
According to NHL Network’s Dave Starman, Caufield has been primed for redemption since last January and he looked pretty ready to go in the team’s exhibition game.
How he goes is how USA Hockey will go for the next 12 days. One of eight returnees from last year’s disappointing squad, all eyes will be on him to showcase the skill he brings to the University of Wisconsin and one day the Montreal Canadiens. For now, a little drive to prove the naysayers wrong is never a bad thing.
Who will be the young star of this year’s tournament?
A number of youngsters will be looking to make their mark and showcase their high-end talent for NHL scouts (who will be watching, like fans, from afar). Finland has a young stud in forward Brad Lambert who is already considered a top pick in 2022.
As for the draft coming up in just seven months, keep your eyes on the American Matthew Beniers, Swedish netminder Jesper Wallstedt — who is looking to following a long line of top netminders from Scandanavia like Henrik Lundqvist — and the Czech Republic’s solid defenseman Stanislav Svozil.
Which player will rise to the top and turn the draft on hits head is always a fun side note to the tournament.
World Juniors 2021: Latest news
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