2021 World Juniors: Players to Watch in Group A

Despite everything, it’s <em>that</em> time of year again.

The World Juniors have always been a fascinating tournament to watch. It’s usually the best-on-best international tournament that gets the most attention of hockey fans, and fans of the Ottawa Senators have been spoiled in recent years with the amount of players receiving prime roles in the high-pressure situation. This year’s tournament has much of the same intrigue, but a whole host of additional talking points to discuss given the social context in which everything is going to take place... literally.

We’re still surprised that the International Ice Hockey Federation is somehow  going ahead with the 2021 World Juniors. As of November 2020, 28 international tournaments had been cancelled since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the news in the two weeks leading up to the Edmonton-based U20 tournament has been marked with positive test results from two teams, including Germany. This tournament shouldn’t be happening, and the IIHF have already failed to protect their players from potential long-term health consequences that COVID-19 could bring.

Nevertheless, the games will go on. The usual World Juniors caveats apply: it’s a small-sample tournament that features extra uncertainty this year, especially given that most teams are coming in with expanded lineups with many players’ roles in question due to the lack of proper training camps and pre-tournament matchups. This could end up being one of the only instances of high-end international hockey for the 2021 draft class, so it’ll be fascinating to follow the draft-eligible players to gauge the impact of their performance on their draft stock.

Like we did last year, we’ve put together a companion piece of draft-eligible players that you might want to keep your eye on. The players will be sorted by team, and if you’re looking to watch, you should know the groups for the round-robin play:

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

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

Today’s post will feature the players from Group A, while part two on Thursday will highlight draft-eligible players in Group B.

Team Canada

Death, taxes, and Team Canada being a favourite at the World Juniors. There’s never a shortage of top young talent for them to choose from, which often means that draft-eligible players get left to the sidelines, barring an exceptional talent. There’s unfortunately no Alexis Lafrenière or Quinton Byfield — goaltender Taylor Gauthier is the only undrafted prospect on the team, in his third year of eligibility. Devon Levi (FLA) and and Dylan Garand (NYR) are the two other sharing the crease, but at the moment, Gauthier seems to have the inside track on the starter’s role.

Team Finland

The 2010s were surely the decade where Finland announced itself to the hockey world with victories in major international tournaments. While this year’s squad doesn’t feature some of the high-end offence from the Granlund, Teravainen, Aho, Rantanen, Laine, Kakko years, there’s some intriguing talent outside of top centre and 2020 draft pick, Anton Lundell.

Down the middle, we’re excited to watch 2021-eligible Samuel Helenius log a ton of minutes in tough situations. The November-born centre is 6-foot-6 and will feature on the team’s penalty kill in addition to taking key defensive zone draws. Helenius likely won’t be counted on for offence, but does have a surprising eight points in 18 games with JYP in the Liiga this year. Double-overager Petteri Puhakka also has one more shot of draft-eligibility, and will do his best to showcase his trademark speed and hockey sense in a complimentary role.

Finally, we’re intrigued to see the role that Brad Lambert will play on this squad. A top contender for the first overall pick in next year’s draft, Lambert has seven points in 18 games with JYP this season and looks to be slotted in on the second-line and top powerplay at this year’s tournament. He’s likely going to be overpowered a bit — the same way Alexis Lafrenière was in his pre-draft tournament — but he’ll likely get a chance to score a couple of points. Lambert, like other offensive stars, is learning to bulk up to better protect the puck against older opposition while rounding out his defensive warts and ability to play with deception.

On defence, the one name we’ll be watching is 2020-eligible defenceman Ruben Rafkin. The right-shot blueliner put up a respectable 31 points in 59 games last year with the Windsor Spitfires, and features a solid toolkit to support a team in transition. He’s a supportive defender in all three zones, and has not looked out of place against men in 10 games with TPS this season. While Finland’s blueline features a number of drafted players, expect Rafkin to feature in a complementary role among the bottom-four.

Team Germany

With the graduation of Moritz Seider and Dominik Bokk, and the exclusion of Lukas Reichel because of a positive COVID-19 test result before the team flew to Edmonton, make no question about it: this is Tim Stuetzle’s team. While second-round pick and common linemate JJ Peterka will be supporting our budding superstar, there are some other names that you’ll likely get familiar with over the next two weeks.

With starting goaltender Tobias Ancicka missing the tournament, the situation in goal is wide open for Germany. Of the three netminders, 2020-eligible Florian Bugl stands out. Playing in the Red Bull Hockey Akademie in Austria — the same energy drink provider that also funds the now-powerhouse RB Leipzig team in the German Bundesliga — Bugl leads the Italian-Austrian-Slovenian Alps Hockey League in save-percentage this year, and has consistently stopped pucks throughout this career.

On defence, we were surprised that talented blueliner Maximilian Glötzl wasn’t drafted last year. The country’s next best young defender, the left-shot Glötzl will be highly depended upon in this year’s tournament to provide defensive stops with his 6-foot-2 frame, and break the puck out to his hard-working group of forwards. Glötzl’s got a decent top gear to him as well, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see him jump into the rush every now and then to provide another layer of attack. The country’s top 2021-eligible defender is November-born Luca Münzenberger. The 6-foot-2 blueliner is the captain of his U20 club based in Cologne and should be the league’s top defenceman this season.

With Reichel and last year’s second-line pivot Nino Kinder absent, it’ll be a battle to see who steps up alongside Filip Reisnecker to take some pressure off of Stuetzle group. Two names we’re watching are Mannheim boys Florian Elias and Jan-Luca Schumacher. The 5-foot-8 Elias tore up the country’s U20 league last season, and brings a ton of pace to his game. He doesn’t quite have Reichel’s two-way ability, but can beat defenders one on one if he has a chance. Schumacher led that same league in scoring as Elias’ centre and team captain, and while featuring a similar frame, might be given the green light to just run with it this year.

Team Slovakia

If history is any indication, we can expect Slovakia to get through as the last team in the group stage, only to bail out in the quarterfinals against one of the powerhouses. It’s exactly what has happened in the last five World Juniors, and unlike Germany who boasts a couple of top-end forwards this year, it’ll likely be another year of the Slovaks trying to hang on.

Their biggest chance may come in net, with twice-undrafted Samuel Hlavaj leading the way. He’s been invited to the Arizona Coyotes’ training camp, after slipping through the 2020 draft despite being one of the QMJHL’s top netminders in his D+1 year. A standout WJC performance could be the boost he needs to be selected in 2021.

Building out from the back, overager Marko Stacha may be a player to watch on their blueline, but the most exciting storyline will be seeing 2022-eligible Simon Nemec take to the U20 international stage for the first time. He’s played above his age group for years now, already getting regular minutes in the Slovakian pro league at 16 years old.

It’s a similar story with the forwards, as the 2022 kids carry more hype than the 2021-eligibles, Filip Mesar and Juraj Slafkovsky, both of whom could be thrust into large roles. The 2021 player I’ll be keeping my eye on most is Oleksii Myklukha — born in Poland, but is eligible to play internationally for either Ukraine (division 1B) or Slovakia. He’s been game-breaking force in Slovakian junior league for a while, moving over to the QMJHL just under a year ago. Now he plays for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, looking to step things up a notch for his draft-eligible season.

Team Switzerland

While lacking in any kind of star talent, us draft-watchers are given a bit of a treat this year with Switzerland. Their top player is arguably 2021-eligible Lorenzo Canonica, a point-per-game scorer in the Swiss U20 league last season, now stuck in the same league before he’s expected to transfer to the QMJHL for the rest of the season. Depending how things go, his skillset could potentially earn him a selection in the second or third round. A strong WJC performance could do a lot to change that, facing competition stronger than Switzerland’s juniors.

There’s a few others in a similar boat, albeit held in a bit less high regard by scouts. Centre Attilio Biasca is in a similar predicament where he’s committed to transfer to the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads, while defencemen Giancarlo Chanton and Noah Meier are playing on loan in Switzerland’s second tier pro league. Chanton has some recognition from spending last season with the Niagara IceDogs, although some sub-par performances currently place his odds of being a top prospect lower than his counterpart in Meier.

Are there any players you’re watching in Group A? How do you think they’ll finish in terms of standings points? Let us know in the comments below!

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