Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship appears to be a wide-open contest. Each top country has an aspect of their team that’s better than the rest, but also at least one obvious weakness they will have to mitigate to win gold. Picture it like a kind of hockey experiment to see which strength will be most successful and bring home the championship for their country. Let’s break down the bests of the best, starting with the team with perhaps the two best players in the tournament, Sweden.
The Best Players:
Hockey fans should recognize this name by now. There hasn’t been a Swedish defenseman with this much hype in his draft year since Victor Hedman, and there’s only been one Swede to go first overall in NHL draft history. Rasmus Dahlin will be the second on that list, and it’s easy to see why:
Dahlin started out as a centerman, but was inspired by Erik Karlsson’s style of play and made the transition to defense at age 13. Three years later, he began dominating one of the best hockey leagues in the world playing against men twice his age and seems to have a highlight reel play on a weekly basis. He alone is enough reason to watch Sweden at this year’s tournament, but he will be the leader of a strong blue line that features two other first-round picks Timothy Liljegren (TOR) and Erik Brannstrom (VGK).
Not to be lost in the shadow of Dahlin, Elias Petterson is another player worth the price of admission for the Swedes. He is a household name amongst Canucks fans, but Petterson is about to make the whole hockey world take notice. Drafted fifth overall last June, Petterson might soon as emerge as the best player from his draft class. He is doing unprecedented things in the Swedish Hockey League for a player his age and doesn’t seem to be slowing down:
He is threatening a record that is over 40 years old, and well ahead of other Swedish no-names like Forsberg, Naslund, Sedin, and Backstrom. Those are godly numbers, even if he slows his pace slightly at the end of the season. People who are tuning in to watch Rasmus Dahlin will take notice of Petterson, and he plans to stand out:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Canucks?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Canucks</a> prospect Elias Pettersson: "I want to dominate every game" at the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/WorldJuniors?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#WorldJuniors</a>. (<a href=”https://twitter.com/RoryBoylen?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@RoryBoylen</a>)<a href=”https://t.co/1IDvFXtkKc”>https://t.co/1IDvFXtkKc</a> <a href=”https://t.co/yb7CeUj81d”>pic.twitter.com/yb7CeUj81d</a></p>— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Sportsnet/status/943688751313838080?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>December 21, 2017</a></blockquote>
Add another Scandinavian to the list, as Eeli Tolvanen deserves some recognition for his performance to date in the second-best hockey league in the world. Like Petterson, Tolvanen’s numbers to date are among elite company for a rookie at his age in the KHL.
Due to an illness, Tolvanen fell in the draft last June but has been making up for lost time and looking to be a steal for the Nashville Predators at pick 31. Along with their elite defense, Tolvanen is a big reason why Finland should be considered one of the favourites this holiday season.
The Best Offense
USA – Mittelstadt – Brown – Yamamoto
While the Scandinavian countries boast some of the best individual talents in the tournament, the defending champs might have the most lethal combination of forwards. The Mittelstadt – Brown – Yamamoto line was put together in the summer showcase and combined for 13 points in three games, with Casey Mittelstadt leading the way.
All three are former first-round picks with Yamamoto and Brown already getting their feet wet in the NHL. They have the perfect combination of size, skill, speed, creativity and finishing ability that should give the opposing defense nightmares. Reports from camp are that U.S. coach Bob Motzko has split up the trio to spread out the offense, but I would put good money on these three being reunited before the tournament begins.
This line is just the tip of the iceberg for an extremely deep and potent American offense that features other top talents like Ryan Poehling (MTL), Kiefer Bellows (NYI) and eight other first round picks. Don’t sleep on Adam Fox (CGY), who is among the best offensive threats from the blueline in the tournament.
The Best Defense
Finland – Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki, Olli Juolevi, Henri Jokiharju, Urho Vaakanainen, Eemeli Rasanen, Robin Salo
These names might be foreign to most of us in North America, but this might be the best blueline ever iced by Finland in international play. The last few years have been a renaissance for Finnish hockey with elite talents like Laine, Barkov, Rantanen, and Granlund all taking the NHL by storm. However, their weakness has always been on the back-end, though this trend looks to be a thing of the past. Five of these defenders are former first-round picks, highlighted by Heiskanen and Juolevi at pick number three and five, respectively. In fact, six(!) of these defenders were chosen in the first two rounds of last year’s draft the 2017 draft, with Valimaki being taken ahead of the much talked about Timothy Liljegren and will wear the ‘C’ for the Finns this holiday.
When you consider their D corps, forward talents like Tolvanen, Vesalainen, and Kuokannen, and combine it with a country that is known as a goaltending factory, it’s hard not to see Finland as one of the favourites to win gold.
The Best Goaltending
Canada – Carter Hart, Colton Point
This tournament is the bizarro world for Team Canada. Lacking their usual top-end forward talent (Jordan Kyrou might have something to say about that), while also sporting a defense that isn’t the usual envy of the tournament, Canada does reign supreme in one category: goaltending. Returnee Carter Hart will take the lead as Canada’s number one goalie and will give the team a chance to win every night. In his 17 starts for the Everett Silvertips this season, Hart has allowed a measly 22 goals to go along with five shutouts. That accounts for a 1.32 GAA and a 0.961 save percentage. Are you kidding me? You would have more luck shooting against a brick wall.
If the worst happens and Hart struggles or gets injured, not all hope is lost with Colton Point waiting in the wings. The towering 19-year-old has put up some astounding numbers in his second year in the NCAA, posting a 1.90 GAA and 0.938 save percentage for Colgate. Knowing they can rest easy no matter who is in goal is a refreshing shift from the norm for Canadians, especially in such a short competition. When a goaltender gets hot, he can steal games by himself, and that just might be the golden remedy for team Canada.