After some uncertainty and adjustment, the puck is about to drop at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship on Christmas Day. Over the course of 12 days in Edmonton, Alberta, 250 of the top junior players from 10 countries will take to the ice with the sole goal of winning gold.
With the 2021 NHL season now set to begin on January 13, this year’s tournament not only presents some of the brightest prospects for the upcoming draft, but also a number of players who will break through the opening night rosters of the NHL. For now, however, their eyes are on national pride and future dressing room bragging rights. It will be an all out fight until the medals are awarded.
Sporting News has asked some of the game’s top experts to choose which players to watch / X-Factors, tournament MVPs and which three teams will skate with shiny new medals on January 5.
Who should you watch out for?
|EXPERT||X-FACTOR / PLAYER TO WATCH||TOURNAMENT MVP|
|Jackie Spiegel, Sports News||Yaroslav Askarov (Russia)||Kirby Dach (Canada)|
|Mark Masters, TSN||Cole Caufield (United States)||Dylan Cozens (Canada)|
|Chris Johnston, Sportsnet||Yaroslav Askarov (Russia)||Kirby Dach (Canada)|
|Mike Morreale, NHL.com||Anton Lundell (Finland)||Spencer Knight (United States)|
|Scott Wheeler, the Athletic||Matt Bernier (United States)||Kirby Dach (Canada)|
|Aaron Vickers, FC Hockey||Yaroslav Askarov (Russia)||Kirby Dach (Canada)|
|Steven Ellis, The Hockey News||Yaroslav Askarov (Russia)||Kirby Dach (Canada)|
|Cam Robinson, elite prospects||Jake Sanderson (United States)||Spencer Knight (United States)|
|Ryan Pike, Nation of the Flames||Cole Caufield (United States)||Dylan Cozens (Canada)|
|David Alter, TSN||Cole Caufield (United States)||Dylan Cozens (Canada)|
Spiegel explains why Askarov is his X factor: The Russian goalkeeper is a star in the making. The 18-year-old dominated the KHL – a 0.96 goals-against average and a mind-blowing .962 save percentage in seven games – before making it to camp. If he can do that in the second best hockey league against older players, some of whom are twice his age, then imagine how it will play out against his peers. Plus, he didn’t have the best game last year and could look to prove himself on the international stage.
Vickers explains why Askarov is his X factor: There’s a reason Askarov was the best drafted goalkeeper of 2020 with a fair margin and widely regarded as the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price. His incredible start to the season with SKA St. Petersburg is proof of this and his ability to carry Russia into this tournament.
Modify why Caulfield is its X factor: I expect Cole Caulfield to thrive in a tournament where speed and skill will be showcased early on. With the players having been isolated, it is reasonable to expect that it will take a few games before the defensive structures are established. In the meantime, Caulfield would have to light the lamp at will. He scored six goals and six assists in 10 games with the Wisconsin Badgers before heading to camp and looks to be better than ever.
Spiegel explains why Dach is his MVP: Already an NHL player, Dach is a highly skilled forward with a powerful body who can play the key role when needed. With nine games of bubble hockey (after a 64-game NHL season) under his belt, Dach knows how to thrive in what will be a tough and calm environment.
Vickers explains why Dach is his MVP: It’s hard not to imagine Dach playing a pivotal role in what many are planning to be a gold medal-worthy entry. Dach has the tools and the NHL experience to stand out.
Explain why Cozens is his MVP: A gifted playmaker with the ability to move up and down the ice with speed, Cozens is the perfect blend 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 beat his two goals and seven assists in seven games last year.
Which teams will finish on the podium?
|Jackie Spiegel, Sports News||Canada||United States||Russia|
|Mark Masters, TSN||Canada||United States||Russia|
|Chris Johnston, Sportsnet||Canada||Russia||Sweden|
|Mike Morreale, NHL.com||United States||Canada||Sweden|
|Scott Wheeler, the Athletic||Canada||United States||Russia|
|Aaron Vickers, FC Hockey||Canada||United States||Sweden|
|Steven Ellis, The Hockey News||Canada||Russia||United States|
|Cam Robinson, elite prospects||United States||Canada||Sweden|
|Ryan Pike, Nation of the Flames||Canada||Sweden||Russia|
|David Alter, TSN||Canada||Russia||United States|
On their podium choices:
Spiegel – It has been a while since the Canadiens won back-to-back gold medals (2005-09), but this year’s squad has built-in experience with six returning players from the Gold team. last year. This will help balance the nerves. While Canada’s goalkeepers are the big unknown, the squad is packed with talent up front who can run a deep run and get the big goals when needed.
Ellis – The United States and Russia are so close. Pure talent at every position. However, I give Russia the advantage between them, because I think Askarov is quite simply the best goalkeeper in this tournament. If he plays as planned he will make a difference, but it could come down to his performance on Christmas Day (against the United States); the winner of this match could win group B.
Pike – Canada, Sweden and Russia are the class of this tournament. Canada’s goaltenders may be their weakness, but they are strong and deep everywhere else.
Robinson – Why the USA? I go over the skills a lot here. We envision one of the few years when a team can match the Canadiens up front. They are pretty much tied on the blue line and have a huge net advantage. I like them to get in trouble and count on Knight to shut the door.
Canada are too good not to win, but I have a feeling they can’t overcome the flaws in the goal. The easy side of support won’t set them all up very well for the medal rounds, but it’s tough to bet against this team.
Sweden’s incredible round robin streak comes to an end this year, but they’ll find a way to beat Russia’s top team in third place after regrouping against a list exhausted by COVID. As for the Russians, I might as well have put them first; they have the competence and they have Askarov. He’s as big an X-factor as there is, but they will lose in the semi-finals and lose interest in the bronze medal.