The day everyone is eagerly anticipating is just a couple weeks away: December 26th.
No, that’s not a typo. Everyone is eagerly anticipating Boxing Day, not Christmas. Literally everyone.
That’s because Boxing Day is when the World Junior Hockey Championships kick off, including a couple marquee matchups: Finland/Sweden and Canada/USA. As everyone says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Literally everyone says that. Literally.
With the World Juniors right around the corner, each country is naming their preliminary rosters or selection camps. Those are two different approaches: a preliminary roster names players that will be on the team with room to add more in the future, while a selection camp names too many players, and will make cuts to get down to an actual roster.
Among the players named to World Junior rosters are four Canucks prospects, all of whom are expected to be on their respective teams when their countries finalize their rosters in the coming weeks. That includes the Canucks’ first-round pick from the 2019 draft, Vasili Podkolzin, who is expected to play a major role for Russia.
There are no real surprises here. In fact, the lone surprise is who wasn’t named to a World Junior camp: Jett Woo. After the young defenceman didn’t get invited to Canada’s world junior camp last year despite a strong season, it was thought that he would get a chance this year. A slow start on a new team, however, sunk that dream, as Canada simply has too much defensive depth.
Woo still has plenty of potential and he could use this World Junior snub to fuel him. He has already responded with a highlight reel overtime goal, going coast-to-coast and roofing the puck on the backhand.
It’s worth noting: last season, before he was left off Canada’s World Junior camp roster, Woo had 16 points in 21 games. After the snub, Woo put up 50 points in 41 games, nearly half-a-point per game better. Perhaps Woo will see a similar boost throughout the rest of this season.
Let’s take a look at the players actually on World Junior rosters.
First up is Podkolzin, who is once again getting bounced around the various Russian leagues. It’s a frustrating aspect of drafting Russian players. Podkolzin has spent the season in the SKA St. Petersburg organization, with 14 games in the KHL, 16 games in the VHL, and 2 games in the MHL, Russia’s top junior league.
In the KHL, Podkolzin hasn’t had much opportunity, averaging just 5:30 in ice time per game. He’s had as many games under one minute in ice time — three — as he’s had over 10 minutes. In other words, it’s hard to gauge how well he’s doing from his 0 points in 14 games.
A league below, in the VHL, Podkolzin is having a much better time. He has 8 points in 16 games in the VHL, while averaging 15:30 in ice time per game.
There’s a reason Podkolzin has played just two games against his peers in the MHL: he’s way too good. He’s tallied 4 points, all assists, in the MHL this season. He also played against his peers in the Junior Super Series with the Russian U20 team, where he was noted as one of the standout players for Russia, despite tallying just one points in six games.
That’s a continuation of a theme from last year: Podkolzin will seemingly dominate a game and then be nowhere to be found on the scoresheet. For some reason, his impact on the ice isn’t followed by bushels of goals and assists. He drives puck possession and creates chances, but the points don’t follow.
Podkolzin is a lock for Russia’s World Junior team — he was on the team as an 18 year old last season and played a significant role — so we’ll see if he can break out during the tournament.
Höglander, on the other hand, has had no issues scoring in the SHL, including a filthy Zorro-goal that had the entire hockey world buzzing.
Beyond that unreal highlight-reel marker, Höglander has picked up some more mundane points to go with it. His 6 goals are tied with Samuel Fagemo for the most among junior-aged players in the SHL and he had a total of 9 points in 19 games. Höglander has been particularly hot in recent weeks. He’s riding a five-game point streak, with three goals and two assists.
Beyond counting stats, the SHL has added some advanced stats this season. Those paint an even rosier picture of Höglander, who leads all junior-aged SHL forwards in corsi percentage at a lofty 57.18%.
Höglander should play a significant role for Sweden at the World Juniors, either on the first or second line. With his silky mitts and smooth skating, he should be a delight to watch for Canucks fans.
Utunen is having a much quieter season in the Finnish Liiga, though that’s not unusual for the steady defenceman. He has matched his point total from last season in far fewer games, though that means he has 3 points in 14 games.
To be fair, Utunen is averaging just 12:19 per game, around the same ice time he received last season. He doesn’t get any power play time, but has filled in on the penalty kill. In other words, he’s playing as a 6th or 7th defenceman. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing — some teams don’t give junior-aged players a lot of opportunity.
Perhaps a bigger cause for concern is Utunen’s 46.6% corsi, despite getting sheltered with the highest percentage of offensive zone starts on Tappara. Liiga is a difficult league, so it may just mean the 19-year-old defenceman needs time to develop, but it’s worth noting.
Perhaps against his peers at the World Junior tournament, Utunen will have more of a chance to strut his stuff. Utunen has 4 points in 7 games with the Finnish U20 team this year in preparation for the World Juniors, and scored a backbreaker of a goal at last year’s tournament to eliminate Canada in the quarterfinals.
Finally, there’s Plášek, who played for the Czech Republic at last year’s World Juniors, with one point in five games. Another year older, Plášek will look to improve on that performance on home ice.
With the tournament hosted in the Czech Republic, the home team will be looking to have a stronger tournament than last year, when they finished third in the preliminary round, then lost to Team USA in the quarterfinals. Plášek has performed well with the U20 team in pre-WJC tournaments, with five points in six games, and should be a mainstay on the second power play unit.
In the Czech Extraliga, Plášek has just 4 points in 22 games and has been loaned to the second-tier Czech league. It’s not the best post-draft performance, but there are some positive signs. Plášek’s scoring chance differential is eighth on HC Kometa Brno, at 51.46%, and the team has outscored their opponents 10-6 with Plášek on the ice at even strength, the best differential on the team.
All four of these prospects should make their team’s final rosters for the World Juniors, so Canucks fans will get a chance to see each of them in action.