It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the 2020 World Junior Classic. As of writing this post, we are just under two weeks away from the start of the tournament, this year being held in the Czech Republic. Training camps are winding down, rosters are being set, and we are once again getting set for an exciting 11 days of hockey.
For a lot of us NHL fans, this tournament is a first glimpse at some of the future stars of the league. It is also full of players we have never heard of. To have an idea of who we need to keep an eye out for during this year’s World Juniors tournament, here is a quick list of 6 players to watch!
1) Vasili Podkolzin
Vasili was one of the most divisive prospects in the 2019 NHL Draft. Some had him as a top-3 talent in the draft, but he was seen as far down as late first round in others’ draft rankings. The Vancouver Canucks ended up snagging him at tenth overall. We won’t get to see Podkolzin in the NHL for a couple more years, as he is still under contract in the KHL, so these tournaments are an excellent way to see what he can do in the meantime.
Vasili is seen as a power forward type, something his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame helps him accomplish. He is lauded as a ‘bulldog’ on the ice, utilizing an aggressive and competitive playstyle complimented by speed and quick thinking. Podkolzin is an offensive mastermind who can visualize and complete plays at all speeds. This is a trait that will be put to the test in the highly competitive pace that we see in the World Junior Classic tournaments.
Podkolzin is currently playing for St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL, and as a result of him being the youngest player on the roster, he does not see much ice time and currently has 0 points through 14 games. Vasili is going to be eager to get back on the ice and be productive. The Russian team for the 2020 World Junior Classic has a lot of returning players, Podkolzin being one of them, so he will get a major role on the team and be looked at to provide an offensive spark in all situations.
2) Raphael Lavoie
Lavoie was overlooked in the 2019 NHL Draft, falling all the way to 38th, where he was selected by the Edmonton Oilers. He was generally placed as a mid-late first round pick, but fell in part due to consistency and a production drop near the end of the season. Early on, it is looking like this could be steal for the Oilers, as he looked like he fit in during the team’s training camp, despite being sent back to Halifax early on.
Lavoie, currently with the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL, has started the 2019-20 season at an excellent pace, posting 44 points in 30 games. This, combined with a clutch performance in this year’s Canada-Russia series, has earned him a spot on Team Canada’s roster for the 2020 World Junior Classic. He is no stranger to the selection camp, as he was a late cut for the 2019 team as well.
Moving into this year’s tournament, the 6-foot-4 forward will be relied on to use his size and speed to generate offense. Raphael will be able to capitalize on how difficult it is to separate him from the puck due to his frame and build. Lavoie possesses a deadly combination of stickhandling skill and a strong wrist shot that will keep the opponents guessing. Because of his offensive IQ and vision, Raphael will be able to make incredible passes for high quality scoring chances.
The primary criticism against Raphael’s game, and one of the reasons he missed the World Juniors team last season and fell in the draft, is his defensive game. As is the case with some younger, offensive players, it takes time before the defensive side of their game develops to a serviceable level. He has made huge strides to improving this, but it does take time.
Regardless, Lavoie should be an offensive force for Team Canada and an exciting player to watch through this tournament.
3) Cole Caufield
Cole was regarded as one of the most talented players in the 2019 NHL draft, but because of his size and lack of speed, he fell to 15th overall for the Montreal Canadiens to select. Caufield is a pure scorer who possesses an unbelievably deadly wrist shot that will cause jaws to hit the floor.
He is playing his first season of NCAA hockey in Wisconsin, where he has 12 goals and 20 points through 18 games. At last season’s U18 tournament, he scored 14 goals in 7 games. Cole is phenomenal at filling the net with pucks, and based on his history of performing well when representing his country, this tournament should be no exception.
Team United States is lucky to have him around as he will be an energetic, offensive dynamo who can change the tide of a game each time he sets foot on the ice. With the United States having an almost entirely new group of forwards this tournament, they will need Caufield’s gamechanger abilities in full force. The team will be relying on stellar defense and goaltending to keep them in games, so having someone like Caufield who is always looking for ways to counterattack will keep the opponents in check so they don’t make a mistake with Caufield on the ice.
4) Justus Annunen
In this year’s edition of World Junior Classic: Finnish Goaltender, we have Justus Annunen. The third round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2018 NHL Draft has been exceptional in his rookie season in the Liiga. With 13 games played, he has posted a 1.26 GAA and .947 SV%. He currently projects to be the Finnish starter, taking over the reins from Ukko-Pekka Luukonen.
The Finns, coming off of a gold medal win in last year’s WJC, are making a strong case to be the favourites and repeat as champions. A quick look at the skaters on their roster show countless NHL prospects, draft picks and returning players from last year’s win. Despite losing a lot of high end talent from last year’s team, they have been able to stock the roster quite well once again.
Having a strong netminder, especially one coming into the tournament as hot as Annunen has been this season, is incredibly important. We’ve seen how a goalie standing on his head can take teams like Switzerland to the late stages of the tournament and in other situations, keep a team from getting thoroughly blown out, such as Denis Karayatev of Kazakhstan last year.
As he cranks up his play and becomes one of the best goaltending prospects in the NHL, look for Justus Annunen to make some magnificent saves in the 2020 World Junior Classic to put his name on the minds of hockey fans everywhere.
5) Tim Stützle
Tim is already being referred to as the next Leon Draisaitl. Which is easy to picture exactly what that means since we still have the real Leon Draisaitl lighting up the NHL this season. So, that gives us a pretty good idea of the type of talent that Stützle will be bringing to the WJC tournament.
Germany has been very quickly gaining traction in the hockey world, and another strong performance from the German team will bring them even closer to being a part of the top tier of international hockey.
As one of the top prospects eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft, Tim will be looking to improve his draft stock with a strong performance leading Team Germany. His year has started strong, with 23 points in 25 games in his first season with Adler Mannheim of the DEL. Seeing how he has excelled in a professional league against developed, older players is a promising indicator for how he will play in this tournament.
Where Stützle will shine in this tournament is in generating offense. His skating, playmaking, and shot are all elite level. It may be difficult for him against some of the stronger opponents, as we’ve seen others in similar situations (being one of very few high talent players on a World Juniors team) have difficulty standing out. But, a player of his skill level should create chances regardless, and with his ability to see the game, they should be good ones.
Germany will be in tough this year, as they are stuck in the group with Canada, Russia, the USA, and the Czech Republic. This means that the team will be relying heavily on Stützle and his likely linemate Dominik Bokk to capitalize on any offensive opportunity they can.
6) Luca Hollenstein
One of the key features of the Switzerland teams that battle their way through the round robin stages in these tournaments is an excellent goaltending performance. Luca Hollenstein may be able to provide that for the Swiss team this year. He was strong last year, backstopping the team to their two victories, including his 41 save shutout versus Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Hollenstein is coming into this tournament with a strong showing so far in the NLA. In his 8 games so far, Luca has a 2.17 GAA and .928 SV%. Although he is primarily used in a backup role so far, his numbers are rivalling the best in the league and he has played more recently due to the regular starter being injured.
The Swiss team will be, as usual, relying on their goaltending to keep them in games this year. And, I would fully expect more of this type of save from a goalie on a team with a strong track record of overperforming in international tournaments.