The World Junior Championship is among the most exciting events of the season. Like the Olympics and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the annual tournament pits the world’s best players against each other in a battle of national pride and personal glory. The fact that they’re junior-aged makes it all the more engaging, as we watch the future of the sport in action, vying for the top prize.
One of the best parts of the World Juniors is the surprise heroes that emerge every year. Who can forget Denis Godla, the Slovakian goalie who won tournament MVP in 2015? Or Jordan Eberle’s tying goal that forced overtime against the Russians, and then his shootout goal that secured Canada’s semifinal win in 2009? Or Troy Terry’s shootout heroics after serving as a fourth-line grinder for the Americans in 2017? These moments live on long after the tournament ends and turn obscure junior stars into household names. While it’s impossible to predict if any historical moments will happen in 2022, here are a few players that you should keep your eye on throughout the tournament.
Team Canada – Connor Bedard
No one will be watched as closely in the 2022 World Junior Championship as Connor Bedard. Despite being one of the youngest players competing, he could be one of the tournament’s leading scorers. In the two World Junior games he played back in December before it was rescheduled, he sat second in scoring with four goals and five points. No one scored more goals than him, and only teammate Cole Perfetti, who won’t be returning to the games, had more points.
It’s no wonder that the 17-year-old phenom is widely considered the best option to go first overall in the 2023 NHL Draft. He set a record this past season as the youngest player to ever hit 50 goals in the Western Hockey League (WHL), hitting the mark at 16 years, nine months, and one day, scoring 51 before the season ended. He’s also only the third player to score 50 goals in his 16-year-old season, although no one reached the total before turning 17. To top off an incredible rookie season, he finished with a nice even 100 points, needing only 62 games to get there.
Internationally, Bedard has been just as good. At the 2021 U18 World Juniors, he tied Shane Wright’s 14 points to lead the team in scoring, despite being a year and a half younger, helping the dominant Canadians capture gold. He returned to the team in 2022 and took sole ownership of Canada’s scoring, putting away six goals and seven points in four games, although he failed to get the team past the first round of the playoffs. While it would have been nice to see his rivalry play out with fellow phenom and a potential top pick in 2023, Russian Matvei Michkov, it will still be incredible to watch what he’ll do this time around.
Team USA – Sasha Pastujov
The United States World Junior team has just six players returning from 2021 and only three forwards. That puts them at a bit of a disadvantage in their pursuit of a second straight gold medal; experience can mean the difference between earning a medal and going home early. Without Trevor Zegras and Alex Turcotte, the Americans will need to find significant offensive contributors from their cohort of newcomers. Thankfully, they have one of the best scorers in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) on their roster: Sasha Pastujov.
Team USA doesn’t usually feature Canadian-based players and primarily draws from the college ranks and the United States National Development Program (USNDP). However, had Pastujov stuck to his initial plan, he would have been US-based; he skated for the USNDP for two seasons and committed to Notre Dame. That all changed when the Anaheim Ducks drafted him in the third round of the 2021 Draft and surprisingly signed him to an entry-level contract less than a month later. That made him ineligible to play college hockey, so he opted to join the OHL’s Guelph Storm for the 2021-22 season.
Pastujov can’t be disappointed with the results, however, as he has been one of the best players in the league. In 65 OHL games last season, the winger scored 34 goals and 76 points, both of which ranked in the top 25. He’s been arguably the Storm’s best player, too, leading the team in scoring by a wide margin and helping them to a second-place finish in the Midwest Division. Coming into his draft year, he ranked just outside the first round but fell on draft day due to mobility concerns. On the World Junior squad, he has the chance to be incredibly lethal, pairing up with the highly mobile Matty Beniers or Brett Berard in the top six.
Team Sweden – Liam Öhgren
It was quite a shock when it broke that William Eklund decided to not go to the World Juniors and instead prepare for the upcoming San Jose Sharks training camp. He was one of several Swedes to miss the tournament after contracting COVID-19, robbing him of his U20 debut, and then had the 2022 tournament cancelled after just two games. Arguably no one was more eager to play in the prestigious tournament, but the timing just didn’t work out for the talented Swede, and he bowed out, choosing instead to focus on the future.
His departure opened up a massive hole on offence for Sweden, and they needed to carefully consider who would replace such a dynamic presence. In the end, they went with Liam Öhgren, the Minnesota Wild’s 19th-overall selection at the 2022 NHL Draft. He may be two years younger, but he just might be the best possible replacement for a talent like Eklund.
Ögren can do it all – he’s a powerful, skilled skater, who has excellent positioning as well as strong defensive instincts. But it’s his shot and play-driving abilities that Sweden will be looking for. In 30 games with Djurgårdens IF’s U20 team, he scored 58 points, 33 of which were goals, and finished fourth in league scoring. He also played 25 games in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), where he added a goal and an assist to his season total. While fellow 2022 draftee Jonathan Lekkerimäki outscored him there, as well as at U18 tournaments, no 18-year-old was better on Sweden’s U20 team last season. Ögren played just three games with the team but scored a goal and two assists; Lekkerimäki had just a single goal in the same amount of time.
While it isn’t common to trust an 18-year-old with the bulk of a team’s production at the World Juniors, Ögren has proven that he can handle it. He’s stepped up in every situation he’s been placed in, and while he may not be the fastest skater, he has more than enough speed to keep up with some of Sweden’s best players. That will make the Swedes once again a very difficult team to handle at this year’s tournament.
Team Finland – Brad Lambert
Finland will bring two highly-touted 2022 draft-eligible prospects to Edmonton later this month, who will be under intense scrutiny from the international community. Many will be excited to get their first glimpse of Joakim Kemell, who tore up the Finnish Liiga this season as a 17-year-old, but more will be curious to see how his former JYP teammate Brad Lambert will fare. Once thought of as a potential first-overall pick, he plummeted down the draft rankings after an average 2021 World Junior appearance and pedestrian numbers in Finland’s top league, resulting in a 30th overall selection in July.
It’s been a rough fall from grace for Lambert, but the talented forward now has a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away any time soon. He has all the skills to be a key player for the Finns this year; he’s one of several returning players, which include Topi Niemela, Roby Jarventie, and Kasper Sinomtaival, from last year’s bronze-medal-winning squad. He is also familiar with playing with Kemell and Samuel Helenius from his time with JYP, as well as defenceman Matias Rajaniemi, his current teammate on the Pelicans. The biggest thing for Lambert is the connections he made with the Finnish team in the bubble last year, which will play a big part in his and his team’s success in 2022.
“The things I remember most from last year’s tournament are the great group — players, coaches and staff — we had, how well everyone got along and how much fun we had together on and off the ice.”
Brad Lambert recalling his time at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton
That familiarity proved highly effective back in December, as Lambert got off to an incredibly hot start, putting away a goal and four assists in just two games before the tournament was postponed. Had he had the chance to play the full tournament, there’s a good chance he would have snuck his way back into the top half of the 2022 first round, but the Winnipeg Jets, who snapped him up at the end of day one, are not complaining. Lambert will look to take charge of this year’s tournament, and with a stacked roster around him, he’ll be a lethal force every time he steps on the ice.
Team Latvia – Dans Locmelis
After the expulsion of the Russian and Belorussian teams from IIHF events, Latvia was granted a spot at the rescheduled 2022 World Juniors. It will be the nation’s first time at the tournament since 2017, where they finished 10th, and their fifth appearance in tournament history. The highest the small country ever finished was eighth back in 2009, which they accomplished without a single drafted prospect on their roster. Compared to that squad, this year’s Latvians are more skilled than ever, possessing three NHL draft picks on their roster: Sandis Vilmanis, Klavs Veinbergs, and Dans Locmelis.
The most skilled of the three is arguably Locmelis, a fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins who spent this past season with Luleå HF J20 of the Swedish Junior League. Along with Vilmanis, the pair finished second and third in scoring, with Locmelis just edging out his teammate with 18 goals and 34 points in 44 games. However, come playoff time, he was far better, putting up a goal and an assist in five games before losing in the second round. Next season, he’ll join the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL). While he hasn’t found much success internationally as of yet, he will likely end up on Latvia’s top line.
Team Czechia – Jan Mysak
The Czechs have had a rough go at recent World Junior tournaments. They haven’t won a medal since 2005, and since then, finished fourth once. It’s not like they’ve been deprived of talent; the Czechs have featured players like Martin Necas, David Pastrnak, Tomas Hertl, Vitek Vanecek, Petr Mrazek, and Libor Hajek during their medal drought, yet none have managed to propel their team past one of the big four (Canada, the United States, Finland, or Sweden). If this year’s team manages a breakthrough, however, it will likely have a lot to do with Jan Mysak.
Mysak is entering his third World Junior tournament, joining Simon Knak as the only player this year to do so. That experience alone gives Czechia a leg up on their competition in Pool A, which features Canada, Germany, and Finland, simply because those players have a level of comfort that can only come from seeing this before. But the Czech star will also have another secret weapon up his sleeve, which he acquired from playing with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
“I feel comfortable because I’ve been playing this season on the same ice as the tournament. I think it will be really good.”
He’s been very good for the Bulldogs, too, putting up 34 goals and 65 points in 61 games and helping them claim the OHL Championship and a berth to the Memorial Cup before losing in the Final to the Saint John Sea Dogs. But Mysak is more than an offensive force – he’s also a leader, recognizing his role both in the OHL, where he’s served as an alternate captain this season, and at the international level; he was Czechia’s captain at the tournament last year. He’s expected to return as captain, but even if he’s not, he will make sure that everyone is adequately prepared to handle the biggest tournament of their careers, so far. That makes him one of the most important players on his team, and if he can stay consistent and on his game, then the rest of his team will likely follow.
Team Germany – Alexander Blank
Germany became the team to watch at the 2020 World Juniors. With a lineup consisting of Moritz Seider, Tim Stutzle, John Peterka, Lukas Reichel, and Florian Elias, they put the fear into much bigger nations, beating Czechia, limiting the gold-medalist Canadians to just four goals, and scoring three times against American phenom Dustin Wolf. Stutzle, Peterka, and Elias returned in 2021, and all finished in the top-10 for tournament scoring while nearly knocking out Russia in the playoff round.
Unfortunately, none of those players will be returning this year, leaving the Germans once again at a loss for top-end talent. But don’t discount them too quickly; this is a nation that has proved it can hang with the top hockey nations with their intense work ethic and chemistry. This year, they’ll be relying heavily on Alexander Blank, who showed that he has what it takes to put the Germans over the top back in December, helping them defeat Czechia in overtime with a beauty of a goal.
The 20-year-old Berlin native had a great 2021-22 season, finishing with 16 points in 48 games while playing for the Krefeld Pinguine of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), Germany’s top hockey league. While that total is impressive for a teenager, what’s more, is that no one was even close to catching him; the next highest total among a U20 player was Joshua Samanski, who ended the season with eight points.
Internationally, Blank also proved he could handle the pressure, leading the Germans in scoring in the cancelled 2022 World Juniors with three points in two games and adding three assists in other U20 competitions. It’s practically his first time at this level, too; the only other international contests he had seen were back in 2021 when he played two games for the German National Team. he truly appears to be a hidden gem who finally is getting his chance, and the other teams in Pool B need to be ready for him.
Team Switzerland – Noah Patenaude
Smaller nations, like Switzerland, rarely have many top-tier junior players to select from to create their World Junior rosters. That often means that for the team to find any success at the tournament, they need to ride a hot goaltender. The Swiss are no strangers to that arrangement, having relied on the likes of Benjamin Conz and Pauli Jaks, both of whom claimed the Top Goaltender Award at the World Juniors, as well as David Aebischer, who helped them secure their first – and only – medal, a bronze in 1998. This year, without the dominant defensive presence of Lian Bichsel, they’ll look to Noah Patenaude to keep them alive.
Patenaude is no stranger to bailing out his team. At the 2019-20 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, he kept a struggling Swiss team from being blown out by a deadly Canadian squad until the dying seconds of the game, despite being one of the youngest players on the team. He then took his talents to Saint John, New Brunswick, where he became the Sea Dogs’ backup goalie for the next three seasons. His best record came just this past season, where he posted a .914 save percentage and a 2.96 goals-against average, helping his team finish third in the league with 47 wins.
His international numbers aren’t spectacular; since 2018-19, he hasn’t posted a save percentage over .889. But when you’re continually competing in the top division as a weaker team, those numbers aren’t going to look great. What Patenaude brings is some much-needed experience playing against some of the best players in the world back in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), and reliability between the pipes. With that in hand, there’s no telling how far the Swiss can go in 2022.
Team Slovakia – Dalibor Dvorsky
Slovakia is usually a dark horse to steal a medal at the World Juniors, and that was never more true back in December as the team headed into the tournament with some of the world’s best young talent. However, that will no longer be the case, as Juraj Slafkovsky, Filip Mesar, Simon Nemec, Martin Chromiak, Samuel Knazko, Adam Sykora, and Marko Stacha will no longer be on the roster. That’s a huge gap that won’t be filled easily and will leave them as underdogs in most of their matches in 2022.
There is one player that could change their fortunes, though, and that’s Dalibor Dvorsky, a highly-touted 17-year-old who has a chance to go in the top five of the 2023 NHL Draft. He was electrifying at the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky tournament, scoring eight goals and 12 points in five games, just one point behind Russian phenom Matvei Michkov, and was the highest-scoring player for Slovakia in all U18 international competitions last season.
While he’s been excellent against his age group, Dvorsky hasn’t seen much action against older players. The times he has played up, he’s been a little more muted; in 17 games with AIK in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, he had just two goals and three points. While those totals are great for a 17-year-old, he’ll need to take his game to a new level at the World Juniors to keep up with Canada, Czechia, and Finland in Group A.
Team Austria – Luca Auer
Like Slovakia, Austria will take a huge hit with the rescheduled tournament, with both Marco Kasper and Vinzenz Rohrer not coming to Alberta. That’s a huge hit for the Austrians – Kasper was expected to be a massive play driver for the inexperienced team, and Rohrer would have been expected to play within the top-six. However, unlike Slovakia, they have far fewer options to replace their missing talent.
One player who may end up stepping up is Luca Auer. A 6-foot-1 forward from the Red Bull Hockey Academy, he’s been one of the best young players in the country. Playing with the Red Bull Juniors, he put up 20 goals and 48 points in 35 games, the 10th highest total in the league, and was the highest scorer on Austria’s U18 international squad. He even scored a goal in the ICEHL, Austria’s top hockey league, the youngest player to do so last season. At the 2022 CHL Import Draft, the Regina Pats used their first pick to snap up the talented player, and hope that he’ll join their team soon.
Although Auer wasn’t drafted by an NHL team this summer, he did earn some consideration as a late-round flyer. On top of leading his team in points and goals, he set a league record for points by a first-year professional in the ICEHL. But he’s far more than just a danger on offence; according to the Draftin Europe 2022 Draft Guide, “Auer displays rare defensive instincts for a 17-year-old,” playing a responsible game on all ends of the ice. With a few World Junior games now under his belt, he could emerge as Austria’s best player now that they have a huge hole in their lineup.
Anything Can Happen at the World Juniors
When the best players in the world are pitted against each other, it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Hockey is becoming a more global sport – look no further than the ascension of Team Germany, which has produced the NHL’s top scorer in Leon Draisaitl and won a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics. While many fans would prefer Canada or the United States to claim another gold, we can all admit that growing the game is far more important. So, tune in to those matches that don’t feature one of the big five nations and watch for an underrated star to emerge. Anything can happen, and we’ll have to watch and find out how it all ends.
All Your THW 2022 World Junior Championship Coverage
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.