We’re entering our second World Juniors tournament during a global pandemic, and as a result, players who may have been household names or burgeoning stars on the junior circuit may be relatively anonymous heading into the big dance.
Not to worry, however. We’ve watched the games, the highlights, read the scouting reports and kept tabs on things for you. Without further ado, here are the eight players you’ll want to keep an eye on during this year’s event.
Shane Wright, Canada
Wright has been the presumptive favourite to go first overall in the 2022 NHL Draft for as long as his cohort has been tracked. That would be reason alone to put him on this list. Wright has been subject to a unique, harrowing process as a top prospect during a global pandemic, losing a key developmental year to league stoppages.
But there’s more to it than that. Wright is expected to be a major component of Canada’s offence, and I’ve likened him to Steven Stamkos for his release and playmaking ability. If you haven’t got your first look at Wright yet, there’s never been a better time.
Connor Bedard, Canada
Bedard is truly generational in every sense and he is just the seventh player to make it onto Canada’s roster at age 16.
A wizard with the puck who can beat multiple defenders in tight spaces, Bedard was asked to prove why he’s better suited for a role in Canada than players three years his senior, and he responded with six points in two pre-tournament games. Not too shabby.
It may be somewhat irresponsible to project this much on a 16-year-old kid, but Bedard could be the player of the tournament, and it could send his national profile into household name territory.
And yet, he could still be outdone.
Matvei Michkov, Russia
It feels a bit too early to conjure up an Ovechkin-Crosby-esque rivalry, but Michkov and Bedard are vying for the top spot in the 2023 NHL Draft and are worth tanking for.
Michkov is a dazzling talent — and he knows it too, boasting supreme confidence on the ice to try plays that most players wouldn’t dream of. Just look at him pulling off the Michigan on a whim, against Sweden at the Karjala Cup in November!
This may be one of the best lacrosse goals ever scored. Typically these goals are planned. They’re a player, with time and space, executing slowly. Michkov catching that rolling puck and improvising when it’s on its edge — with the dexterity to pull it off — is something else. https://t.co/O8Od4FueFC
— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) November 13, 2021
Michkov was named tournament MVP of the 2021 World U-18s, besting Bedard for the honour — although the Canadian led his team to gold. I’ve written twice about the Michkov-Bedard rivalry before, and the 2022 World Juniors may be an inflection point of a showdown between hockey’s two brightest prospects.
Yaroslav Askarov, Russia
Askarov has been on this list twice before, billed as the best goaltending prospect of the past decade. But now, we don’t have to look too deep into the future: Askarov is far and away the best goalie in this tournament, and could lead Russia to victory if he gets hot.
Selected 11th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Draft, Askarov has drawn comparisons to countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy, and now entering his third tournament for Russia, he knows exactly what to expect from the competition.
Askarov is the second-youngest goalie to ever start a KHL game and he may not be too far from the NHL, either. In a tournament where goaltending variance means so much, Askarov is one of the few constants, and for that, he’s on the list.
Topi Niemelä, Finland
So, how is this about the Maple Leafs? Enter Topi Niemelä, who was named best defenceman at last year’s tournament, after posting two goals and eight points in six games.
Niemelä, selected 64th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2020, has recorded six goals and 24 points in 31 games for Karpat of the Finnish Elite League. There are few candidates — the pair of Americans below him, perhaps — that should be able to knock Niemelä off his perch.
As for the Maple Leafs? They’re expecting greatness, too.
“I think the challenge is to elevate from even where he was last year,” Hayley Wickenheiser, the Leafs’ senior director of player development, said to Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star. “Can he bring his game to another level now and really showcase himself as a top defenceman in the world at that tournament?”
Jake Sanderson, United States
Sanderson appears to be on the verge of graduating to the Ottawa Senators, who selected him fifth overall in 2020.
One of six returnees from last year’s gold-medal winning outfit, Sanderson has been named captain and headlines the best defensive corps in this season’s tournament. He’s an excellent skater who is very sound defensively and is a leading candidate to win the Hobey Baker Award, given to the NCAA’s best men’s player.
Although he didn’t register much in the scoresheet with just two assists last year, Sanderson will be an unimpeachable force this year, a pro-ready player whose recovery ability and gap control will fluster the overwhelming majority of his opponents. He’ll be in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Luke Hughes, United States
The youngest brother from the vaunted Hughes family, Luke will now try to accomplish a rare feat that Jack and Quinn couldn’t: lead the United States to a gold medal.
Much like his brothers, Hughes boasts top-end offensive ability, will likely serve as USA’s power-play quarterback, and owns an inherent sense of when to join the rush. Critics have pointed to defensive holes in his game, but Hughes isn’t a complete liability in his own end, and he’ll almost certainly be in the NHL next year with the New Jersey Devils.
Hughes and Sanderson could team up to form the best pair in the 2022 event, a development the United States will be counting on if it is expected to repeat as champion.
Alexander Holtz, Sweden
This is Holtz’s third World Juniors, and he’s shown flashes of why the Devils selected him seventh overall in 2020 in previous years. If Sweden is expected to knock off Canada, United States and Russia as the presumptive favourites, it will be on Holtz and William Eklund to drive a commanding offence.
Holtz has spent the 2021-22 campaign in the AHL, averaging just under a point per game. He spent six games in the NHL with the Devils and like Hughes, he’ll almost certainly be on the big club next year.
It’s been clear Holtz is a top prospect, but his ability and high-end offensive skill have only sporadically translated during the World Juniors. If Holtz can lead Sweden past one of the major powerhouses outlined in a year where it is lacking offensive depth, it will be because of his excellent shot release and accuracy.
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