Though the Division I-A under-20 tournament is one rung down from the world juniors, the drama is just as real. After all, the winner gets promoted to next year’s WJC, while the last-place finisher gets relegated even further down the ladder. And promoted teams aren’t always one-and-done, as Kazakhstan proved last year in Vancouver. Despite missing some of the biggest names like Marco Rossi (Austria), Mathias Emilio Pettersen (Norway) and Ole Bjorgvik Holm (Norway) this year’s Div. I-A field still brings some intriguing talent to the world stage, including NHL draft picks and high-end prospects for 2020 and 2021. Let’s run down the best from these nations, who will do battle in Belarus from Dec. 9 to 15. The six countries in the tournament are Austria, Belarus, Denmark, Latvia, Norway and Slovenia. The Danes, who were demoted last year, are the odds-on favorite to win it all.
Aliaksei Protas, C, Belarus: His first season in the WHL ended with a championship, and now Protas is the primary offensive force for Prince Albert. Big, skilled and blessed with great hockey sense, Protas is a Washington Capitals draft pick who is one of the top scorers in the ‘Dub’ this season. He was a point-per-gamer for Belarus at last year’s tournament, where the national squad finished second to Germany.
Mads Sogaard, G, Denmark: Pretty much everything was a nightmare for Denmark at the world juniors in Vancouver, culminating in a relegation at the hands of Kazakhstan. Sogaard got blitzed in B.C., but the team in front of him only scored three goals all tournament – including none in the round robin – so it wasn’t exactly his fault. While the Ottawa draft pick has struggled with WHL Medicine Hat this season, he showed his upside on the team last year. His 6-foot-7 frame is an obvious plus, but Sogaard also moves really well.
Arturs Silovs, G, Latvia: This is his first crack at the world juniors, but he does have international experience at the lower age brackets. The Vancouver Canucks draft pick is in his first season with OHL Barrie, where he has been the starter. A rangy, athletic goaltender with a competitive personality, Silovs also brings a 6-foot-4 frame to the table.
Marcus Almquist, RW, Denmark: You don’t often find a ‘Next Big Thing’ from Denmark, but folks are jumping on the Almquist train. While he’s listed at just 5-foot-5, the 16-year-old has been impressive playing for HV71’s under-18 team in Sweden. A dynamic 2021 draft prospect, Almquist has speed and skill.
Thimo Nickl, D, Austria: A strong defenseman with a physical dimension and a great one-timer, Nickl is a 2020 draft prospect in his first season with QMJHL Drummondville. He captained Austria’s under-18 squad last year and tied for the Div. I-B scoring crown with nine points in five games (but Japan took promotion). His adjustment with the Voltigeurs has been relatively seamless.
Ilya Solovyov, D, Belarus: A pleasant surprise in the OHL, Solovyov has been one of the top-scoring D-men in the league as a rookie with Saginaw. Passed over twice in the NHL draft, Solovyov is now rated by Central Scouting for 2020. A big kid who can move and lay the body, Solovyov actually played at the Div. I-A men’s World Championship for Belarus last year, while also doing duty with the under-20s.
Yevgeni Oksentyuk, LW, Belarus: Dynamic and diminutive, he attracted draft interest last year but wasn’t picked. Expect that to be rectified this summer, since the left winger is now getting exposure over here in his first season with OHL Flint. Oksentyuk was leading the Firebirds in scoring and was a big reason the team is winning. He played for Belarus’ under-18 and under-20 teams last year.