The IIHF World Junior Championships is my favorite hockey tournament of the year, bar none—and that includes the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Imagine March Madness meets the World Cup, and you get a taste of what this tournament means for the hockey world.
The tournament starts on December 26 and will showcase the best under-20 talent hockey has to offer. This year’s edition will include three Caps prospects seeking to prove they are among the best in the world.
The World Juniors are known mostly as a proving ground for NHL prospects. Much of the fun is watching and analyzing the stars of tomorrow’s NHL. This is the tournament where, in 2010, Caps fans first got to know John Carlson through his legendary OT game-winner for the USA to capture gold.
In 2012, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who dazzled Caps fans with his silky smooth hands and incredible cellys en route to being named tournament MVP. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and most of our favorite players once dominated the World Juniors. The Caps have three prospects in this year’s tournament: Switzerland’s Tobias Geisser, Slovakia’s Martin Fehérváry, and Russia’s Alexander Alexeyev. All three are big defensemen known for their mobility and two-way play.
Geisser, a 2017 4th round pick, will see major minutes for the Swiss. In his first season in North America, Geisser has adjusted well with the minor league Hershey Bears. We’ll get a chance to see how he handles defending against top players his own age, particularly when Switzerland plays tournament favorites Canada December 27.
Fehérváry, a second round pick in 2018, will similarly play a big role for Slovakia. He has struggled to put up points this year playing in the top Swedish professional league, but dropping down to play against players his own age again may spur Fehérváry’s production and give him some confidence going into the second half of his season.
Alexeyev, on the other hand, will play slightly more sheltered minutes for a deeper Russian team. A 2018 first round pick, Alexeyev is the most highly touted prospect of the three and the most offensively inclined, with 31 points in 30 games in juniors this year. All three prospects are a few years away from any NHL action, but the next couple weeks will give the Caps organization and fans a lot more information about how good they can be.
The other thrill of the World Juniors is the perennially strong American team. It’s essentially a college all-star team (though only with players under 20), which no other college sport gets to assemble, let alone send to compete against the world’s top competitors.
Team USA will hope to repeat its 2017 gold medal after a disappointing tournament ending in a bronze last year. This year, the USA brings a decidedly less talented team than last year’s, which boasted an astounding 12 first round picks. The Americans will not enter the tournament as favorites, but certainly have a real chance if the team plays to its potential.
The Hughes brothers, Quinn and Jack, headline the American team. Quinn, in his sophomore (and probably last) season at Michigan, was drafted 7th overall in 2018 and will anchor the defensive corps after posting 3 assists in 7 games at last year’s tournament. Jack joins an elite legacy of 17-year-olds to play for the USA in the World Juniors (the most recent was Auston Matthews) and is the runaway favorite to be selected first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. American sports fans will want to remember the name Jack Hughes.
The US has a number of other skill players who will need to shine if they hope to win gold. Oliver Wahlstrom, a New York Islanders first rounder, has struggled in college hockey against older competition, but he’s looked excellent in pre-tournament games, scoring three times in two games. A pure sniper who says he models his game after Alex Ovechkin, Wahlstrom will need to score goals.
Other key players include Penn State sophomore Evan Barratt, college hockey’s leading scorer, and 2018 first rounder Joel Farabee (Boston University) and 2017 first rounder Ryan Poehling (St. Cloud State). The USA also has three solid options at goalie, if not a clear star to steal the tournament.
It promises to be an exciting tournament, and if Team USA wins, it’ll be hard not to feel patriotic watching their post-game celebrations.