There haven’t been many things to celebrate in 2020, but you already knew that.
Some leagues have started and stopped globally, the NHL has been out of commission for a few months and, more importantly, we’re still dealing with a global pandemic. The World Junior Championship could be the first chance many people have followed hockey since the Stanley Cup playoffs concluded over two months ago and the annual Christmas tradition could have extra meaning in a year with very little joy.
Should the tournament occur as planned, the two-week U-20 event will be hosted in Edmonton, Alberta starting on Christmas Day. For Canada, a shot at consecutive gold medals is looking great, on home ice nonetheless – even if that’s practically meaningless this year.
Canada announced its final cuts on Friday afternoon, finalizing a 25-man unit before heading to Edmonton for quarantine in the coming days. Even without Alexis Lafreniere or 2022 phenom Shane Wright, Canada appears to be one of the tournament favorites once again. Sure, it helps that other teams will be missing stars due to COVID-19, but if you’re Canadian, there’s a good reason to get excited about this crop of players.
There’s a reason to watch all the players this year, but here’s 10 you should keep a close eye on:
Kirby Dach, C (Chicago Blackhawks)
Before the pandemic, there was no way Dach was going to play for Team Canada. The Hawks elected to keep him in Chicago last year despite struggling in the NHL, but the team believed it was best to keep him against the best competition in the world on a nightly basis. It paid off and Dach had an explosive playoff run, but now he’s got a chance to win gold for his country. Dach led all players in camp with seven points and was up for the challenge the minute camp started in mid-November. Having a year of NHL action under his belt will be huge. Is Dach the best player on Canada’s roster? Yes, and he may be the best in the tournament, too.
Philip Tomasino, C/RW (Nashville Predators)
You can’t have Dach on this list without including Tomasino. Tomasino was Dach’s go-to passer in the early stages of training camp and trailed Dach by one point for the lead in scoring through four intrasquad contests. Considered a sleeper Calder Trophy candidate for the upcoming season by Ryan Kennedy, Tomasino is a jack-of-all-trades forward with and without the puck and he’s absolutely fearless on the ice. Dach played well with Dylan Cozens and Connor McMichael during the end of camp so Tomasino might not get a chance to link up with him again, but you can’t help but love how he played in Red Deer regardless.
Bowen Byram, D (Colorado Avalanche)
Is Byram the best defenseman at the World Junior Championship in 2021? He’ll be in tough company, but Byram could be the best of the bunch. There may not be a guaranteed spot for him in Colorado right now, but Byram has the skill that could translate to a full-time job quite soon. But for now, it’s all about winning gold again and Byram was one of Canada’s best players a year ago – that won’t change in Year 2. Gifted with the puck and so smart in his own zone, Byram is exactly what you want to see out of a modern-day defenseman and will be a leader on Canada’s blueline both offensively and defensively.
Quinton Byfield, C (Los Angeles Kings)
Byfield’s performance last year left a lot to be desired – just one assist in a bottom-line role that didn’t give him the chance to show what he’s capable of. But now, the No. 2 pick at the 2020 draft will be an integral part of Canada’s shot at consecutive championships and he won’t play idle this time around. A dominant player in the OHL, Byfield added 10 pounds this off-season and feels more confident playing a physical game, one of the biggest weaknesses of his overall package. If you only watch prospects at the World Junior Championship, you’re about to see why Byfield is considered to be one of the best teenagers in the world of hockey.
Dylan Cozens, C (Buffalo Sabres)
Buffalo Sabres fans have been clamouring for Cozens’ eventual debut, but they’ll get a closer look at what he’s capable of soon with Canada. Cozens already has two 84-plus point seasons to his credit with Lethbridge in the WHL and doesn’t have much more to prove at the junior level. If the world juniors prove to be his last hurrah against his age group, he’ll be ready for the challenge. Cozens has been one of Canada’s best players at every international tournament he’s played in, highlighted by a nine-point run a year ago en route to gold. Whether it’s creating goals or scoring them, Cozens’ well-rounded ability will serve him well in Edmonton this winter.
Connor McMichael, LW (Washington Capitals)
Over the past three seasons, McMichael’s 91 goals were good for eighth among all OHLers – and he would have forced himself into the top three had he gotten a proper shot at year No. 4 in London. McMichael returns after a dominant five-goal, seven-point effort a year ago in the Czech Republic and he’s always found a way to keep himself relevant on the goal sheet internationally for Canada. McMichael can play with just about anyone, but keep an eye on him to play a top-six role alongside Cozens at the bare minimum.
Alex Newhook, C (Colorado Avalanche)
Newhook was a surprising omission from the team a year ago. Many believed he had a strong camp in Oakville and very few players have dominated Canadian Jr. A like Newhook did in Victoria. But Newhook was a standout rookie at Boston College with 42 points last year, and while he only got into two of the four exhibition games this time around after having to quarantine, Newhook was a no-brainer to make it. Newhook has explosive speed that will treat him well and holding the puck comes easy for him. Consistency is not an issue for Newhook, who joins Dawson Mercer as the only Newfoundland-born players to make Team Canada over the past decade, and the first time that two have made it since 1992.
Thomas Harley, D (Dallas Stars)
With Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and John Klingberg already patrolling the blueline in Texas, adding Thomas Harley to the fray in the near future is just unfair to the rest of the Central Division. Harley was cut from Canada’s team a year ago but he’ll be a big contributor on a true 2001-heavy blueline this time around. The Mississauga Steelheads prospect can control a power play and his quick footwork and ability to move the puck at a high rate makes him tough to defend against. Canada’s blueline is all about speed and skill and Harley has that in spades.
Jamie Drysdale, D (Anaheim Ducks)
Drysdale was a surprise addition to the tournament last year as a 2002-born defender in a year dominated by 2000s, and he didn’t disappoint. From playing a bigger role when Byram missed time to simply being solid in any role asked of him, Drysdale did as well as you could have expected. He’s a year older now, and Ducks fans will finally get to see what made him so coveted ahead of the 2020 draft. only William Villeneuve (0.45) had a better even strength primary-points-per-game average than Drysdale (0.41) among draft-eligible defense prospects with at least 25 games played, regardless of league. He’s on the small side of 5-foot-11, so Drysdale’s skating is a big plus – think Cale Makar’s foot speed, but more like a Dan Boyle-type of player overall.
Dylan Holloway, LW (Edmonton Oilers)
A cut from the 2020 team, Holloway looked fantastic in two games with Wisconsin before heading off to quarantine. Like Newhook, Holloway didn’t participate in main camp until the resumption earlier this week but coach Tourigny mentioned him as one of Canada’s top performers on a line with Newhook and Jakob Pelletier late in camp. He’s a coach’s dream: Holloway gives it his all every shift, he’s got the size to push players around when needed and he’s superb on the backcheck. Even when he doesn’t record a ton of points, Holloway makes his value known elsewhere and that’s what Canada will be looking for.