The 2021 World Junior Championship is finally upon us. The tournament is taking place under unique circumstances but will surely be can’t-miss TV once the puck is dropped.
Team Canada captured gold at the 2020 world juniors, defeating Russia 4-3 in a thrilling final. Which nation will climb to the top of the podium in 2021?
Here are five key storylines to watch for heading into this year’s annual holiday event.
Navigating the pandemic
We can’t ignore the obvious. This year’s pandemic-altered tournament is going to be different in various ways, and everyone involved must do their best to ensure the event can be completed with integrity.
With the added layer of COVID-19 protocols, things can change in an instant, as Germany quickly learned one week ago. Eight players on the German roster tested positive upon arriving in the Edmonton bubble, so the team had to quarantine until Thursday and forgo their tuneup games. With the tournament being played over a short period of time, a positive test would spell the end of the event for a player and potentially for the entire team.
However, the Edmonton bubble worked seamlessly during the NHL playoffs, as no positive tests were returned. As was the case then, players at the world juniors will receive daily testing and be subject to several other protective measures in an attempt to prevent exposure.
Another effect of the pandemic will be the lack of fans in attendance. The world juniors – especially in Canada – usually draw electric crowds to create some of the most intense environments in all of sports.
NHL’s delay brings increased talent pool
Two favorable quirks resulting from the pandemic are the expanded rosters and the volume of star talent that would otherwise be playing in the NHL during the tournament.
Unfortunately for Team Canada, captain Kirby Dach is reportedly out for the tournament after suffering an injury during exhibition play. Dylan Cozens and No. 2 pick Quinton Byfield, however, are two other premier talents who are available for Canada due to the NHL delay. For Team USA, Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, and several other former lottery picks would’ve had a strong chance to crack their respective NHL clubs.
Perhaps the biggest win for world junior fans will be the chance to watch 2020 No. 3 selection Tim Stuetzle suit up for Germany. The Senators’ blue-chip prospect recorded five points in five games at least year’s event and likely wouldn’t have returned had the NHL season begun in the fall.
Sweden’s remarkable unbeaten streak in jeopardy
Dec. 31, 2006 – that’s the last time Sweden dropped a game during the preliminary round, losing in overtime to Team USA. Tre Kronor have won a remarkable 52 consecutive round-robin contests, but that world junior record could be at risk this year after the team suffered a few key last-minute setbacks.
Four Swedish players – including a trio of NHL prospects in William Wallinder, Karl Henriksson, and Albin Grewe – along with head coach Tomas Monten were deemed ineligible to participate last week after returning positive COVID-19 tests. Sweden also faces a tough schedule with matchups against the Czech Republic, Austria, Russia, and the United States.
The nation’s round-robin dominance hasn’t quite translated to the medal rounds. Sweden has just one gold medal (2012) since the streak began and has lost in the championship game five times.
3 nations look to continue domination
For the last several decades, the big five at the world juniors has included Canada, Team USA, Russia, Sweden, and Finland, but only three have experienced sustained success in recent years. Either the Canadians, Americans, or Finns have won the last eight tournaments and 15 of the last 17, largely thanks to Canada’s five straight golds in the second half of the 2000s.
Russia and Sweden have each enjoyed a ton of success during the preliminary stage, but neither has been able to get it done when the lights shine brightest. The nations have combined for six silver medals and five bronzes since the last time either won gold (Sweden, 2012). Russia, which has finished on the podium on all but two occasions since 2005, has just one championship (2011) over that span.
Goaltenders poised to put on clinics
The world juniors typically present a strong crop of young netminders, but this year’s group is elite.
Yaroslav Askarov became Russia’s highest-drafted netminder ever when the Nashville Predators selected him 11th overall in October, and he’s good enough to single-handedly lift the country to the top of the podium. The 18-year-old phenom owns a .962 save percentage and has allowed just six goals through seven games with the KHL’s SKA Saint Petersburg. He’ll be aiming to bounce back after his shaky world juniors debut in 2020.
Team USA’s tandem of Spencer Knight and Dustin Wolf may be the best one-two punch the program has ever had. Knight is one of just three netminders (with Askarov) to be selected with a top-15 pick in the last 10 years. The Florida Panthers prospect owned a .931 save percentage through 33 games in his freshman season at Boston College, while Wolf was named CHL goaltender of the year for his phenomenal 2019-20 campaign with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.
Finland’s Joel Blomqvist has also shown boatloads of promise during his young career overseas. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2020 second-rounder is incredibly athletic and impressed during a pair of starts this season in Finland’s top league.
Swedish youngster Jesper Wallstedt is unlikely to start but is currently the top-ranked goaltending prospect for the 2021 NHL Draft and could be Sweden’s next big netminder on the international stage. The starting role will likely be Hugo Alnefelt’s to lose, however. The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect was one of the top puck-stoppers at last year’s world juniors, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.12 goals-against average over six starts.