Beginning Christmas Day, the best under-20 hockey players from around the world will face-off in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The tournament was originally set to take place in two host cities— Red Deer and Edmonton— but has since been moved to just Edmonton in order to create a bubble similar to the NHL Playoffs hosted in the same city back in September of 2020.
COVID-19 threw a major wrench into tournament prep and for a while it was unclear if it would even be held after players at Hockey Canada’s selection camp tested positive for the virus. A few members of Team Sweden tested positive after arriving in Canada but the IIHF reports they have since tested negative and will be eligible to play on December 27th. If the IIHF made one thing clear, it’s that the show must go on.
Scheduling and Format
All Team USA games will be broadcast on NHL Network starting December 25th with a highly contested matchup against Russia.
Tournament play is divided into two groups of five teams for the round-robin style preliminary round of games. The top four teams from each group are then matched-up against those from the other group according to placement in the preliminary round. The first place team will face the fourth place team and second place will face third place for a spot in the semifinals. This way, it’s possible that two teams from the same group are in the championship game. Usually, the two bottom finishing teams will play a final game to avoid relegation, but the IIHF announced no teams will be relegated this year.
Team Canada, the defending 2020 World Junior Champions, headlines Group A along with Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Germany. Team USA, Russia, Sweden, Austria, and the Czech Republic make up Group B.
A Note on International Play
The International Ice Hocker Federation abides by a different set of rules than the NHL. Most notably, there is no national anthem from either team before puck drop. Only the national anthem of the winning team is played post game. Essentially, teams play to hear their country’s national anthem.
Seeding for the semi-finals is based off of placement in the group, goals for and against in the preliminary round, and seedings coming into the tournament, giving Team Canada a slight advantage.
The tournament will follow a three point system where three points are awarded for a regulation win, two points for a an overtime or shootout win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss, and zero points for a loss in regulation.
Similar to the NHL, IIHF rules call for a five minute three-on-three overtime in the preliminary round. However, if games go beyond regulation in the elimination rounds, only one 20 minute period of five-on-five overtime will be played before heading to a shootout. If you’re unfamiliar with World Juniors it may surprise you to know that champions have been decided in a shootout. Back in 2017 Team USA’s shootout skills won them a spot in the championship game after beating our Russia and also won them the championship title after coming back from a 4-2 deficit and beating Canada in a shootout. Unconventional, maybe. Exciting? Definitly.
Some other rule differences to note:
- Five player shootout format
- Offensive player puts their stick down first in a face off
- Play is immediately stopped if an offensive player violates the goal crease and the face off is outside the zone
- Hits from behind result in a two minute minor plus a 10 minute misconduct or a five minute major and a game suspension
- No minor penalty option for a hit to the head, automatic match penalty if it results in an injury
- No fighting
World Juniors are always exciting because the tournament allows for such a unique show of talent since players are not quite professionals but also represent the future of a country’s talent pool. NHL fans get to see their team’s prospects compete at a high level against elite competition and hopefully get them excited about what’s to come. It’s also interesting to see players from the CHL, NCAA, and European leagues matchup.
As the defending champs and host of this year’s tournament all eyes are going to be on the Canadians. Canada has a reputation for dominating virtually all international play at every level, but in recent years they’ve faced some tough competition from the United States and Finland.
They claimed Gold with their CHL/OHL heavy roster in 2020, proving the deep talent pool Canadian leagues develop, but in 2019 as tournament hosts, they failed to medal. It was practically unheard of for Team Canada to end the tournament empty handed, especially when it’s on home turf. With six returning players and 20 (yes, 20) first round draft picks on the roster, they’re an easy favorite for tournament champions.
Kirby Dach, a third overall section for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and Team Canada captain, is one of the few players in the tournament with NHL experience. Dach skated in 64 games with the Blackhawks last season, recording eight goals and 15 assists for an astounding 23 points. He’s not only skilled, but experienced, claiming gold with Team Canada last year, knowing what it takes to win.
Team Canada expanded their roster to the NCAA this year, selecting Wisconsin’s Dylan Holloway (F), Boston College’s Alex Newhook (F), and Northeastern’s Devon Levi (G). Both Holloway and Newhook are first round selections taken 14th and 16th overall, respectively. Holloway only competed in two games with Wisconsin this season before heading to Hockey Canada’s section camp, but recorded a goal in each game. Usually a center, Holloway will likely play on the wing for Team Canada where he could potentially be a deadly scorer.
With the amount of talent on their roster, this tournament is Cananda’s to loose.
USA Hockey has been hit hard by COVID. They were forced to pass up on Michigan’s John Beecher after a positive COVID test during their selection camp in Plymouth, Michigan. Three players from Boston University including Robert Mastrosimone, Alex Vlasic, and Drew Commesso were unable to even attend USA Hockey’s selection camp due to COVID exposure. Nonetheless, Team USA still has some talented stars on their roster.
Despite not making the team last year, Matthew Boldy stood out among college freshmen, notching 26 points with Boston College. As Minnesota Wild first round pick, Boldy will add some depth and skill to USA’s roster.
Team USA also has arguably the best goaltender in the tournament, Spencer Knight, another member of the Boston College Golden Eagles. Knight is no stranger to international play having represented Team USA at USA Hockey’s NTDP for two years and winning bronze at the 2019 U-18 World Championship. This year will mark his third appearance in the World Juniors tournament. Those familiar with his play know Knight is extremely reliable and consistent in net and uses his height to his advantage, providing a lot of confidence for Team USA on the back end.
Cole Caufield, also a returning player, is known for his ability to score at razor thin angles with his incredible shot. He’s a player you can’t afford to give any space and must shut down on the ice or chances are it will cost you. In 10 games with the Badgers this season, Caufield scored 6 goals and 6 assists for 12 points. In light of a short roster due to injury and COVID, he also proved his ability to be a physical player on the ice and win those little battles that may not be reflected on the scoreboard.
Iaroslav Askarov is also one of the top goaltenders of the tournament, drafted 11th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. He’s posted an insane save percentage of .962 in the KHL. He struggled in his appearances last year at World Juniors but will likely be a key part of Team Russia this upcoming tournament.
If you can’t wait until the 25th for World Junior hockey, you’re in luck because pre-tournament play starts tonight!
Let me know your predictions and thoughts on the tournament by tweeting me @claraboudette on Twitter!