Russia goalie Yaroslav Askarov (1) makes the save on Finland’s Santeri Hatakka (28) during first period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship bronze medal game action in Edmonton on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Russia goalie Yaroslav Askarov (1) makes the save on Finland’s Santeri Hatakka (28) during first period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship bronze medal game action in Edmonton on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Red Deer’s Group B loaded with future NHL talent at 2022 World Juniors

Preliminary tournament action gets underway Dec. 23, with group play starting on Boxing Day

It’s been years in the making for hockey fans in Central Alberta and the wait for the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship is nearly over.

Given, it is not exactly what the fans had hoped for, with two Canada’s two pre-tournament games in Red Deer being jettisoned earlier this week because of the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and capacity limits in place at the Peavey Mart Centrium for round-robin play.

That means about half the people who had hoped to enjoy the event live will still get a chance to watch the 2022 World Juniors, albeit without food or beverages being available inside the arena.

As round robin play gets underway on Boxing Day, some of the most exciting young hockey talents around the world will be on display over the next 11 days.

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Group B, which will be played at the Centrium features three talented teams in Sweden, USA and Russia, as well as a darkhorse in Slovakia, while Switzerland rounds out the group.

Sweden hasn’t won gold since 2012 and some combination of Canada, Finland and the U.S. has won every tournament since. Sweden could be the favourite outside Canada to return to the top of the U20 hockey world.

“It’s a bit of a weird year for Russia and U.S.A. where they have weaker teams than they have typically brought over the last few years and I would probably argue the Swedes are at the other end spectrum, with a stronger team than they’ve had in the last few years,” said Scott Wheeler, who is a national reporter covering NHL prospects for The Athletic.

“I think Sweden has the best case outside of Canada to snap that drought. Having Sweden as a compelling team, a team that could compete for a gold medal is exciting a nice change of pace, it’s going to be a fascinating group… you’ve got a ton of NHL talent and a lot of storylines to pull on.”

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Sweden’s first line of William Eklund, Alexander Holtz and Oskar Olausson might be one of the best trios in recent memory. Holtz was picked seventh overall in the 2020 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils and Eklund played nine games with the San Jose Sharks earlier this year, after being selected seventh in the 2021 draft.

“That’s got an opportunity to be the best line in the tournament. Holtz and Eklund are two of the best players in the tournament and Olausson is a phenomenal talent who I think is going to have a bit of a coming-out party playing on the left wing with those two guys,” Wheeler said.

That shouldn’t discount the Russians, who could have the best goalie in the tournament in Yaroslav Askarov or the Americans’ dynamic defence combo of Jake Sanderson and Luke Hughes.

“This is Askarov’s third tournament in net for the Russians, I think they have brought a weaker team in part because they left four North America prospects who I thought belonged on the team off,” Wheeler said.

“They’re going to be asking a lot of Askarov. He will carry them as far as he can. If he’s the best player at the tournament, which is a possibility then they’ve got a shot at a medal. If not, they’ll be in trouble.”

Of course, any discussion of the Russians isn’t complete without mentioning Matvei Michkov, one of the most exciting prospects in hockey outside North America. The 17-year-old winger might be the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, although Canada’s Connor Bedard will have something to say about that.

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“Michkov is going to develop into the story of the tournament. There’s going to be this natural Michkov versus Bedard conversation, but Bedard isn’t going to play as much or as important a role as Matvei Michkov,” Wheeler said.

“If he lights it up– say he puts up six points in seven games, that is going to be the story of the tournament and I think he’s more than capable of doing that. Wouldn’t be surprised if he leads Russia in scoring if he gets the right usage.”

Sanderson, the fifth overall pick by Ottawa in 2020, will log huge minutes with Hughes, the Devils’ fourth overall pick in 2021. Defence will determine how far U.S.A. gets in the tournament.

Of course, Calgary Flames fans will want to keep an eye on Matt Coronato with the U.S. group. Coronato was picked 13th overall by the Flames last year and should play in all situations at the World Juniors.

“He’s going to play in the top six for the Americans, he may even be their first line right wing,” Wheeler said.

“He’s having an excellent year at Havard.”

The Pesky Slovak group shouldn’t be discounted either. Wheeler said they could make some noise this year.

Defenceman Šimon Nemec along with forwards Filip Mesar and Juraj Slafkovský could all be top 10 picks in the 2022 draft and Dalibor Dvorsky is a top prospect for the 2023 draft.

“Slovakia has struggled to produce NHL talent for the last decade or so and really haven’t since the Zdeno Chára, Marian Gaborik era,” Wheeler said.

“To have three top 10 prospects in the upcoming draft on their team plus Martin Chromiak who is a top prospect for the L.A. Kings… they’re everybody’s darkhorse, the team that could upset somebody and do some damage.”

Group play for the 2022 World Juniors gets underway on Dec. 26, with Russia facing off against Sweden at 2:30 p.m. at the Peavey Mart Centrium.



byron.hackett@reddeeradvocate.com

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