After some uncertainty and a few tweaks, the puck is set to drop on the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship on Christmas Day. Over the course of 12 days in Edmonton, Alta., 250 of the top junior players from 10 countries will hit the ice with the single-minded focus of winning gold.
With the NHL’s 2021 season now set to begin on Jan. 13, this year’s tournament features not only some of the brightest prospects for the upcoming draft but also a number of players who will crack NHL opening night rosters. For now, though, their sights are set on national pride and future locker room bragging rights. It will be an all-out slugfest until medals are handed out.
Sporting News asked some of the top experts in the game for their picks for players to watch/X-factors, tournament MVP and which three teams will be skating off with shiny new medals come Jan. 5.
Who should you keep an eye on?
Spiegel on why Askarov is her X-factor: The Russian netminder is a star in the making. The 18-year-old was dominating the KHL — a 0.96 goals-against average and a mind-blowing .962 save percentage in seven games — before heading to camp. If he can do that in hockey’s second-best league against older players, some of whom are twice his age, then imagine how it’ll go against his peers. Plus, he didn’t have the best go of it last year and could be looking to prove himself on the international stage.
Vickers on why Askarov is his X-factor: There’s a reason Askarov was the highest-drafted goalie in 2020 by a fair margin and widely regarded as the top goaltending prospect since Carey Price. His incredible start to the season with SKA St. Petersburg points to that and his ability to carry Russia in this tournament.
Alter on why Caulfield is his X-factor: I expect Cole Caulfield to thrive in a tournament where speed and skill will be on display early. With players having been kept in isolation, it’s reasonable to expect that it will take a few games before defensive structures are established. In the meantime, Caulfield should light the lamp at will. He had six goals and six assists in 10 games with the Wisconsin Badgers before heading to camp and appears to be better than ever.
Spiegel on why Dach is her MVP: Already an NHL player, Dach is a highly skilled, big-bodied forward who can make the key play when needed. With nine bubble-hockey games (after a 64-game NHL season) under his belt, Dach knows how to thrive in what will be a tough — and quiet — environment.
Vickers on why Dach is his MVP: Hard not to imagine Dach playing a pivotal role on what many are projecting to be a gold medal-worthy entry. Dach has the tools and NHL experience to be an absolute standout.
Alter on why Cozens is his MVP: A gifted playmaker with the ability to move up and down the ice with speed, Cozens is the perfect mix of discipline and offense that should be a catalyst for Canada’s offense. Playing in his second World Juniors, Cozens’ experience with the winning team from 2020 will be an asset and he should easily best his two goals and seven assists in seven games from last year.
Which teams will finish on the podium?
On their podium picks:
Spiegel — It’s been a while since the Canadians won back-to-back golds (2005-09), but this year’s squad has built-in experience with six players returning from last year’s golden team. That will help balance out the nerves. While Canada’s goaltending is the great unknown, the team is loaded with up-front talent that can lead a deep run and get the big goals when needed.
Ellis — USA and Russia are so close. Pure talent at every position. I’m giving Russia the edge between them, though, because I think Askarov is simply the best goaltender at this tournament. If he performs like expected, he’ll be a difference-maker, but it could come down to how he performs on Christmas Day (against the U.S.); the winner of that game could win Group B.
Pike — Canada, Sweden and Russia are the class of this tournament. Canada’s goaltending is arguably their weakness, but they’re strong and deep everywhere else.
Robinson — Why USA? I’m going big on skill here. We’re looking at one of the rare years where a team can match the Canadians up front. They hold about even on the blue line and then own a massive advantage in net. I like them to score themselves out of trouble and then rely on Knight to shut the door.
Canada is too good not to win, but my feeling is they can’t overcome the flaws in goal. The easy side of the bracket won’t prepare them all that well for the medal rounds but it’s hard to ever bet against this team.
Sweden’s incredible round-robin streak will end this year, but they’ll find a way to beat the better Russian team in the third-place tilt after banding together in the face of a COVID-depleted roster. As for the Russians, I could have just as easily put them first; they have the skill and they have Askarov. He’s as big an X-factor as there is but they’ll lose in the semis and lose interest in the bronze.
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