World Junior Championship: a player to watch for all 10 teams after the international break

With the completion of the international break, we’ve got a clearer look at what each of the 10 teams will look like at the World Junior Championship this winter. Let’s look at a player from each country that made noise over the past week.

For the second time this season, the IIHF’s international break presented hockey-playing nations around the world to participate in tournaments at every level imaginable and with the World Junior Championship little more than one month away, this past weekend served as the final opportunity for 10 of the top countries to showcase their stars prior to training camp.

Three major U-20 tournaments, in particular, highlighted the action. Sweden took gold at the Four Nations tournament in Helsinki, Finland, with Russia, Czech Republic and Finland rounding out the top four. Over in Piestany, Slovakia, Germany eked out Slovakia and Switzerland in a three-way tiebreaker, with Division IA team Norway rounding out the field without a point in three games.

But unlike those two competitions, the CHL’s Canada-Russia Series is still active, with London playing host to Game 4 of the six-game tournament before Russia heads out west to play the WHL. With the nation’s top players split across three teams across the two-week tournament, Canada has won each of the first three games and is one victory shy of earning the tournament victory. Of note, Russia had two teams in action over the weekend, with the stronger unit playing in Canada while a younger, more experimental roster battled it out in Helsinki.

Now that we’ve got a clearer look at what each of the 10 teams will look like at the World Junior Championship this December, let’s look at a player from each country who made noise over the past week:

Canada: The fight for spots on the wing is heating up for Canada, and Raphael Lavoie (EDM, 2019) is going to make the decision even more difficult for the Canadian braintrust. Lavoie scored the overtime-winning goal in Game 1 of the Canada-Russia series before potting two goals in Game 2, making him the top Canadian forward after the first leg of the tournament. A strong start to the NCAA season for Alex Newhook makes competition for one of the final right-wing spots much tougher, but Lavoie, a 6-foot-4 power forward with ample skill, is among the best forwards in the QMJHL and his stock has only risen after the Canada-Russia series.

Czech Republic: Forward Jan Sir (2020) had somewhat of a breakout tournament over the weekend after failing to record a single point in 14 games with the U-19 team last season and just three points in 36 international games prior to this campaign. Sir had both of the Czech Republic’s goals against Finland in a 2-1 overtime victory on Saturday and put his nation within one of Russia midway through Sunday’s contest. He still faces an uphill battle in his search to secure one of the four center spots on the Czech Republic roster, but his goal-scoring performance against Europe’s top nations surely helped him heading into December’s training camp.

Finland: Finland scored just three goals in three games, but a pair of excellent performances from goaltender Justus Annunen (COL, 2018) resulted in a string of 2-1 losses. Annunen stopped 49 of the 53 shots he faced and continuously kept Finland in the fight despite the country coming dead last in the four-team event. The big goaltender, listed at 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, has been one of the hottest goalie prospects in the world this season, recording the longest shutout streak in Finnish Liiga history at 302 minutes and five seconds, beating the previous record by about 42 minutes. He’s set to contend for the top goaltender honor at the World Junior Championship.

Germany: Goaltender Hendrik Hane (2020) has the upper hand in Germany’s net this year, and he was easily the best goaltender in Piestany last week with a .926 save percentage and a 1.50 goals-against average through two games. Hane made a couple of grade-A stops against Switzerland in particular, leading the Germans to a surprising 3-2 victory. Germany does have a solid group despite being recently promoted, and it’s unlikely the Germans will sit Hane often as they’ll have very few opportunities to avoid the relegation round.

Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan doesn’t compete in U-20 events during the season, largely because much of the team is made up of players from two different MHL clubs. But so far, Dias Guseinov (2020) has been absolutely lights out, recording 26 points through 26 games with the MHL’s Snezhnye Barsy Astana. A depth player with Kazakhstan last year, Guseinov’s game has really picked up this season. He’ll be the national team’s top center on a line with Vladislav Saiko and Maxim Murosov at the world juniors. Kazakhstan is still going to need a few miracles along the way to secure their spot in the 2021 tournament.

Russia: There are a few players who really stood out. Dmitry Zavgorodniy (CGY, 2018) has been tremendous during the Canada-Russia Series, his three goals and five points through two games tying him for first in both categories. With 37 points through 20 games, Zavgorodniy sits fourth in QMJHL scoring (third on Rimouski). On paper, Russia appears to be one of the strongest rosters heading into the World Junior Championship. Zavgorodniy, a small but speedy winger, is set for a third-line role.

Slovakia: He registered only two points, but Martin Chromiak’s (2020) debut with the U-20s was impressive. The 2002-born forward led the tournament with a plus-5 rating and was one of just two players to record 10 shots in Piestany, finishing one behind Germany’s Yannik Valenti (11) for the tournament lead through three games. Chromiak has been the top U-18 player in the Slovakian league this season and should fit into the team’s top six despite a lack of experience at the U-20 level.

Sweden: Nils Hoglander (VAN, 2019) saw his stock drop drastically last season , but his showing at the Four Nations tournament in Helsinki was outstanding. Hoglander tied for the tournament scoring lead with two goals and three points on the team’s top line and he almost successfully pulled off what would have been one of the greatest goals ever seen in international play. Hoglander, drafted 40th overall by the Canucks last June, has received considerable attention in the early campaign and Vancouver may have a gem on its hands.

Switzerland: He’s projected to be a bottom-six forward at this point, but Gian-Marco Wetter (2020) gave it his all over the weekend, netting four points and leading all scorers at the tournament in Piestany. The HC Davos prospect was effective in limited minutes in the first two games before earning a top-line role against Germany, skating 18:13 in the contest. He’s not expected to have a big role at the World Junior Championship, but his performance likely cemented his spot on the team.

USA: Like Kazakhstan, the Americans didn’t take part in any international tournaments over the weekend, but a few NCAA players are making waves. He may have a mere three points in 10 games, but defenseman Ryan Johnson (BUF, 2019) has adjusted well to the NCAA game, playing mostly second-pairing minutes and getting utilized against top competition. Johnson is a skilled defender who uses his speed to win battles. He was impressive at the World Junior Summer Showcase and should be a key contributor at the World Junior Championship.

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