Sports

What you need to know ahead of the restaged 2022 World Junior Championships

The World Junior Championship is a holiday hockey tradition like no other.

This year is an exception.

The tournament is still coming your way during peak vacation time, only now it’s happening mid-summer, rather than post-Christmas. Confused? Let’s recap.

The 2022 WJC was set to be played as usual last December. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the location was moved to Edmonton, Alberta, under restrictive “bubble” conditions. The International Ice Hockey Federation hoped strict protocols would allow the event to go off as scheduled. Spoiler: It did not.

Four days in, the IIHF was forced to call things off after the United States, Czechia and Russia each forfeited preliminary round games because of mounting COVID cases through their ranks. The IIHF didn’t know at the time whether the tournament could be rescheduled.

In April, a new plan was announced. The IIHF said it would re-stage the 2022 iteration of its event from Aug. 9-20 in Edmonton. The results from games that were played last December would be thrown out. Players born in 2002 or later would retain their eligibility to participate. And so, here we are.

When preliminary action begins (again), all eyes will of course be on the tournament’s perennial favorites from the U.S. and Canada. Those countries highlight two groups of participating nations: Group A has the U.S., Austria, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, while Group B is Canada, Czechia, Finland, Latvia and Slovakia.

Austria retained its place in a top division despite finishing in 10th place last year. Normally, it would have faced relegation, but the cancellation of various U20 tournaments altered regulations and they remain in the mix.

The top four teams from each group will play in the quarterfinals, starting on Aug. 17. That will be followed by the semifinals on Aug. 19, and the gold and bronze medal games on Aug. 20.

Before things get rolling, we’re checking in on some of the major storylines and more intriguing players populating this year’s tournament. As hockey fans know, there is no comparison for the drama the World Juniors can bring. (Editor’s note: A version of this story was posted in December ahead of the initial start of the tournament. This has been updated to account for what has changed between then and now)

Can Team USA go back-to-back?

Spencer Knight made 34 saves and Trevor Zegras recorded two points when Team USA shut out Team Canada 2-0 to win gold at the 2021 World Juniors tournament.

That marked the fifth WJC title for Team USA, along with victories in 2004, 2010, 2013 and 2017. What the U.S. has never accomplished is winning gold in consecutive years. And there’s no time like the present to give it another shot.

Head coach Neal Leaman will be behind the bench again this year, after guiding Team USA to gold in 2021. Leaman has been the men’s coach at Providence College for 11 seasons and won an NCAA title in 2015.

Team USA has four skaters returning from that championship-winning roster in 2021 in Brock Faber, Landon Slaggert, Brett Berard and Tyler Kleven, and retained 17 of the 25 players who were originally slated to be in the December tournament.

Standing prominently in the U.S.’s way of a repeat will be Team Canada, although they’ve suffered significant losses to their numbers from before. Nine players from Canada’s December roster aren’t returning this time around, including Owen Power and Kaiden Guhle. However, Canada does boast impressive goaltending depth highlighted by the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the year, Dylan Garand.

Canada was also the last team to win consecutive WJC titles, earning five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009. Will the U.S. be next to go back-to-back?

Can Connor Bedard dominate — again?

Technically, the last 16-year-old to play for Canada in the World Juniors was some guy named Connor McDavid.

In December, another Connor followed in McDavid’s footsteps — and the (then) 16-year-old Connor Bedard was off to a great start. Bedard entered Canada’s winter selection camp with an outside shot at being the team’s 13th forward. He made the final roster and proceeded to become the youngest player in tournament history to score four goals in a game during Canada’s preliminary round rout of Austria. One day later, the IIHF shut the championship down.

Bedard returned then to the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats and produced an electrifying 76 points in 38 games.

It’s no wonder then that Bedard enters this tournament re-do not only on Canada’s top line with Mason McTavish, but as the favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.

Canada’s head coach Dave Cameron said the three months of playing time that elapsed for Bedard between one championship and the next made a “huge” impact on his overall game. The center agrees, telling reporters this week he felt improved from the second half of last season, particularly when it comes to his face-off percentage. Bedard will be angling to show off those advancements on an international stage.

There’s no reason to doubt he can. Bedard has long been an overachiever, like when he became the first player in WHL history to be granted exceptional status to join the Pats as a 15-year-old. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Bedard came to last winter’s camp and was Canada’s leading scorer through exhibition play with two goals and four assists.

Even still, Bedard wasn’t projected to play a huge role for Canada. That’s changed quickly. Expectations are now sky-high for what Bedard can produce on a squad hungry to get back on top.

Same goes for the USA’s Logan Cooley. He was part of the team’s original WJC roster, tallying an assist in one preliminary round game before the COVID shutdown. Leman thought Cooley made great plays in that match against Slovakia and expected he’d rely on Cooley more from there.

That should be especially true now, given all that’s happened for Cooley since. He returned to the US National Team Development Program and had a terrific year with the U-18 squad, collecting 75 points in 51 games. That translated to Cooley being drafted third overall by Arizona in last month’s NHL Entry Draft. Confidence boost? You bet.

Cooley wants to go pro quickly but is committed to play at Minnesota next season. The World Juniors should be an ideal segue into his freshman year. The Pittsburgh native is a highly skilled center who can take on a top-six role for the USA and be toe-to-toe with Bedard and other elite skaters in this tournament.

Where’s Russia?

This is the first time ever that a World Junior championship won’t include Team Russia.

They’ve been involved since the tournament’s outset in 1974 and claim the most medals (37) of any participating nation. Russia was also part of the championship taking place in December. But in February, the IIHF ruled all teams from Russia and Belarus were suspended from competing in any IIHF-sanctioned events. The verdict was made amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of the Ukraine.

“The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine,” IIHF President Luc Tardif said in a statement at the time. “We nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must therefore do all we can to ensure that we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program.”

So, with Russia out, Latvia is now in. This will be Latvia’s first appearance in the tournament since 2017, and its seventh trip overall. Latvia earned its spot by placing second in the tournament’s Division 1A competition in December. Belarus finished first and would normally take Russia’s spot in this instance, but Belarus is also banned.

Will new faces emerge?

All players from the tournament in December could have returned for this summer showcase. Naturally not all of them will be, requiring some reinforcements on just about every roster.

Say hello to (a few of) the new guys.

William Dufour, F (Canada)

Dufour didn’t made Team Canada the first time he tried out. But that was then. The New York Islanders’ prospect put together a tremendous 2022 season with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, leading the league in goals (56) and finishing second in points (116). It was good enough to earn Dufour the QMJHL’s Michel-Briere trophy as league MVP — and he didn’t stop there. Dufour earned another MVP title when he led the Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup championship this spring, tallying the most goals (7) and points (8) in the tournament. Dufour has the goal-scoring prowess that Canada needs and should be a lock for big minutes at even-strength and on the power play.

Sean Behrens, D (USA)

Technically, Behrens isn’t totally new here. He did make Team USA’s roster in December but couldn’t travel to the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19. The defenseman has another crack at playing now and will be coming into this championship on a high. The Colorado prospect just wrapped up a sensational freshman season at the University of Denver, producing 29 points in 37 games and helping guide the Pioneers to a national title. Behrens is a talented overall skater with great puck-moving ability that will make him especially fun to watch in Edmonton.

Thomas Bordeleau, C (USA)

This opportunity has been a long time coming for Bordeleau. He was supposed to play for Team USA in both 2021 and last winter but was thwarted by COVID-19 protocols on both occasions. The 20-year-old did get to play a small role for the U.S. during the men’s World Championship this year. He should have a bigger role at the Juniors. Bordeleau projects to be a top-six center, using his creativity and high-end skill set to generate plenty of offense for the U.S. A San Jose Sharks draft pick, Bordeleau signed his entry-level contract with the team at the end of last season.

Jonathan Lekkerimaki, F (Sweden)

Keep an eye out for this Vancouver Canucks draftee. Lekkerimaki has had a great international season for Sweden already, notching a tournament-high 15 points in the U18 World Championship (where he won gold) and five goals at the Hlinka tournament. Add to that a seven-goal performance back in the Swedish Hockey League and there is little surprise the 18-year-old is generating some big buzz — and expectations — about how he’ll help lead Sweden’s offense in this championship.

Aatu Raty, F (Finland)

This season was a real turning point for Raty. The Islanders’ prospect got off to a poor start with the Finnish League’s Karpat, registering little ice time through the team’s first six games. Raty was then traded in October from Karpat to Jukurit, where he played under head coach (and former NHLer) Olli Jokinen. It was a perfect match, and Raty excelled in his new quarters putting up 13 goals and 40 points in 41 games. After being left off Finland’s roster entirely last year, he’s now centering their top line with Roni Hirvonen and Joakim Kemell and could end up being the tournament’s top scorer. Talk about a glow up.

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