For all the complaining I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks regarding the IIHF’s handling of the 2021 World Junior Championship, it would appear that nine countries are set to arrive in Edmonton tomorrow barring any last unforeseen circumstances. Testing has been done, the players and staff who have plane tickets booked are COVID-free, and they navigated selection camps to be included in these charter flights booked for Sunday. My opinions on the IIHF aside, it seems that the tournament is set to begin on December 25 at this point, and a whole new set of challenges will begin at that point.
We’ve seen several high-profile players step back and choose not to participate in this tournament while others have been sent home prematurely after positive coronavirus test results. In knowing that, it will be exciting to watch Germany’s Tim Stutzle, Finland’s Anton Lundell, Sweden’s Alexander Holtz, and the player everyone did a double-take on in this year’s draft in Russia’s Yegor Chinakhov as all of these players will make their way to Canada tomorrow. Of course, Canada, Russia, and the US look like the favorites to be playing for the gold medal, but we’ve seen surprises in other years as well.
If there’s one player who I’m very anxious to watch as often as I can, it’s Russia’s equalizer between the pipes, Yaroslav Askarov. Askarov looks like a bonafide star netminder for the Russians, and he very could this tournament’s MVP if Russia can capture the gold medal. Askarov is 4-3-0 with SKA St. Petereburg this season in the KHL, but those numbers can be deceiving considering he’s allowed just six goals-against for a 0.96 GAA and a .962 save percentage. Playing against men who have decades more experience than Asakarov hasn’t shaken the goalie, it seems, and with him backstopping a pretty solid Russian team I expect them to finish first in Group B, just ahead of the Americans.
Canada seems to be the odds-on favorite in Group A as the defending champions, but there is a concern that Quinton Byfield was far too quiet in the selection camp considering what he showed at the OHL level last season, prompting the Los Angeles Kings to take him with the second-overall pick in this summer’s draft. Chemistry on lines has to be found quickly in a tournament such as this, and Byfield looks like he hasn’t found it yet. The Canadian coaching staff does have Kirby Dach and Dylan Cozens to lean on, but getting Byfield going would help Canada solidify that top position in Group A with Finland just behind them.
If you’re a Jets fan, you’ll want to keep an eye on Finland as they’ll feature both Ville Heinola and Henri Nikkanen. Canada will also skate Jets prospect Cole Perfetti on the wing for the team, and we’ll see how that suits Perfetti when it comes to scoring. Both Heinola and Perfetti look to be locks on the Jets roster in the near future, but Nikkanen could see his stock rise in the eyes of the team that drafted him with a strong performance in Edmonton.
It becomes a waiting game now as teams will participate in a couple of warm-up games before the tournament kicks off on December 25. With no teams being relegated this season since no IIHF Division-1 tournaments were played, I expect to see teams like Germany, Austria, and Slovakia to throw caution to the wind and push a little harder since there’s no worry of being relegated. Maybe we see an upset or two if these teams come in and play relentless hockey – something this tournament could really use for interest’s sake – but we’ll have to see what those countries come up with in their game plans.
I guess all that’s left to say is “Welcome to Canada, kids!”
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!