Like any sporting event conducted this year, the upcoming world junior championship will certainly be different than any other edition in tournament history.
Germany and Sweden are both facing multiple COVID-19 cases among its players and staff, respectively, while the idea of hosting a tournament featuring the best under-19 talent in the world in perilous conditions doesn’t seem to be sitting easy with everyone.
This is not what you came here for, however, and ignoring the off-ice conditions for a second, it’s a tournament loaded with top-tier talent, with several players who would’ve ordinarily contested for a NHL roster spot in normal times.
Without further ado, here are the nine most intriguing players in this year’s tournament — which doesn’t always connote the best, per se, but this is a loaded group — along with a few honourable mentions.
Rodion Amirov, W, Russia
When the Maple Leafs selected Rodion Amirov with the 15th overall pick this summer, it was generally regarded as a smart move, although some fans desperately wanted Toronto to take a defenceman irrespective of the talent available. General manager Kyle Dubas and his staff may know a thing or two more than the pundit class (myself included!) and so far, Amirov has shown flashes of future stardom throughout the summer.
Amirov posted five goals and eight points in 23 KHL games, numbers that may not pop off the page, but in the world’s second-best league, Toronto’s first-round pick is carving out a lane for himself. An elite skater, Amirov’s ability to take advantage in transition has to have Maple Leafs fans excited about the future.
Short side. Top corner. 19-year-old Rodion Amirov is not messing around. pic.twitter.com/MvMke66gcW
— KHL (@khl_eng) November 25, 2020
During this summer’s Karjala Cup — a four-team international tournament — Amirov scored three goals in three games and was named the tournament’s best forward. The video below is just one shining example of what he can do on international ice. If this summer is any indication of his potential, against players around his own age, Amirov could very well end up as one of the stars of the tournament.
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 5, 2020
Cole Caufield, W, United States
Cole Caufield’s game often renders him into a human highlight reel and Montreal’s 2019 first-round pick has usually dominated at international tournaments. Notably, on a line with Jack Hughes, Caufield posted 18 points at the 2019 world under-18s, which is why it was sorely disappointing when he could only account for a goal and an assist during last year’s world juniors. This year, even among a stacked U.S. forward core, he’ll be counted upon to drive the offence.
Caufield can be rotated throughout the U.S. lineup, but in a short tournament, his penchant for scoring in bunches may paid dividends. Currently averaging over a point-per-game at Wisconsin, the diminutive sniper could end up as the tournament’s top goal-scorer.
Brad Lambert, C/W, Finland
It’s rare for a 16-year-old to make any team’s roster, but Brad Lambert provides a glimpse of what lies ahead for the 2022 NHL Draft class. I have Lambert ranked second behind Shane Wright, a generational goal-scorer, although this way-too-early ranking is subject to change, and Lambert could very well pull ahead with a strong showing.
Lambert has recorded four goals and seven points in Finland’s top-flight league and the professional experience could translate early, even at his young age. It might be too early to consider Lambert’s draft prospectus, but the race between him, Wright (cut from Team Canada) and Matthew Savoie of the Alberta Junior Hockey League has already started, and it will be a North American audience’s first glimpse at the potential top pick.
Jamie Drysdale, D, Canada
Jamie Drysdale is one of my favourite prospects in this year’s tournament and last year, I favourably compared him to Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis for his skating ability and power-play quarterbacking. Last year, Drysdale started the tournament as Canada’s seventh defenceman and quickly ascended through the ranks, logging heavy minutes in the medal round and playing his best game of the tournament in Canada’s gold-medal win against Russia.
One of six Canadian returnees, Drysdale will be paired with Colorado Avalanche top prospect and fellow returnee, Bowen Byram, on the team’s top pair. Selected sixth overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2020 NHL Draft, this very well could be Drysdale’s last tournament with Canada before he graduates to the NHL. He will be counted upon heavily to defend the gold medal.
Yaroslav Askarov, G, Russia
Yaroslav Askarov emerged as the best goaltending prospect of the past decade, and was eventually selected 11th overall by the Nashville Predators this past summer. Prior to last year’s world juniors, Askarov had made a habit of dominating international tournaments, posting a a 5-0 record at the 2018 under-17 tournament with a .948 save percentage. Askarov followed up with a 4-0 record and a .960 save percentage at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, winning gold both times.
During his draft-eligible year, however, Askarov failed to make much of an impact at the world juniors. He was unable to wrestle the starting job away from Amir Miftakhov, recording a .877 save percentage with a 2-1 record and 2.71 goals-against average, and didn’t see the ice in the medal round.
Askarov has recovered nicely with a sparkling .962 save percentage through seven games with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL this season. Traditionally, goaltenders haven’t been able to steal tournaments by themselves but with last year’s disappointing performance still fresh in the minds of scouts and observers, Askarov could elevate his team and walk away with another international gold medal.
Lucas Raymond, W, Sweden
Lucas Raymond notched two goals and four points during Sweden’s bronze-medal winning effort last year, and this year he’ll carry a significant load as one of the team’s two returnees. Selected fourth overall by the Detroit Red Wings, Raymond has a chance to elevate his own game and show why he’s one of the building blocks of his franchise’s long-term developmental period.
Sweden’s camp is already compromised due to COVID-19. Here’s to hoping Raymond stays healthy, because if so, he is easily one of the tournament’s most dangerous playmakers, with the NHL beckoning shortly.
Trevor Zegras, C, United States
Trevor Zegras is a top-level playmaker and was one of the lone bright spots for the United States last year, with nine assists in five games. Although the lines haven’t been cemented yet, Zegras is poised to lead the United States in scoring and can fluctuate throughout the lineup as needed.
During a pre-tournament game against Finland, Zegras was the best player on the ice, even after shaking off what looked like a potentially serious injury after getting boarded by Anton Lundell. Just look at this pass! Zegras will try to thread the needle like this several times per game, and may be the most fun player in the dance, with a real shot at MVP.
👀 Trevor Zegras pic.twitter.com/DcyPFfYcq8
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 23, 2020
Ville Heinola, D, Finland
Ville Heinola didn’t look out of place often during his eight games with the Winnipeg Jets last year, recording five points before being re-assigned. This is Heinola’s third world juniors and he’s arguably the most defensively sound player in the tournament.
In recent years, we’ve come to expect Finnish squads with high-end firepower across all four lines, but this year Heinola’s rock-steady presence on the back end will be needed for a team that isn’t expected to outgun the top medal contenders. Although scoring isn’t a primary function of Heinola’s game, don’t be surprised if his professional experience and quick maturation allows him to create more high-danger chances than expected.
Quinton Byfield, C, Canada
Quinton Byfield didn’t have the best tournament last winter. Alexis Lafreniere further distanced himself from Byfield for the No. 1 overall pick, although Byfield was rightly selected No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Kings, and we should expect him in the NHL next year.
Currently on a line with Connor Zary and Phil Tomasino, Byfield should be able to shake off the nerves of last year and merely play his game. His combination of speed, size, shooting power and accuracy, combined with his innate hockey sense, should translate to a dominant tournament, if he lets the game come to him and doesn’t try to do too much. Byfield could ascend through Canada’s lineup and we’d be shocked if he’s Canada’s 13th forward this year.
Honourable mentions: Tim Stützle (Germany), Anton Lundell (Finland), Mikko Kokkonen (Finland), Vasily Podkolzin (Russia), Yegor Chinakhov (Russia), Philip Broberg (Sweden), Cameron York (United States), Arthur Kaliyev (United States), Cole Perfetti (Canada), Ryan Suzuki (Canada)
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