The 2021 World Junior Championship schedule is out and though there are still an incredible amount of unknowns surrounding the tournament in Edmonton, at least we now have a framework to work off. The bubble environment will be fascinating for the tournament, as there is no relegation this year. That's great for teams like Slovakia, Germany and Austria, who are assured berths in next year's WJC, and a tough pill to swallow if you're a team like Denmark or Latvia - which won't even get a chance for promotion because the second-tier tournament has been cancelled.
But the missions will largely be the same this year: the elite teams want gold, while the mid-tier and smaller teams want to at least qualify for the chance to play for a medal. Just as a refresher: the top four teams in each grouping qualify for the medal round, so you don't want to be Team No. 5. With that in mind, let's break down the five most important games on the preliminary round schedule.
Russia vs. Team USA, Dec. 25, Group B
There's always a battle of the titans at the beginning of the tournament and this year, it's the Cold War Kids on the first day (games actually start on Christmas Day this time, one day earlier than usual). Team USA has been on top of the rivalry lately with five straight wins, but the Russians had their number before that - so this will be a fierce competition to get the upper hand. This game will also pit two of the best goaltenders in the tournament against each other, with Yaroslav Askarov (NSH) taking on Spencer Knight (FLA) in the creases. More importantly in the big picture, the loser of this game will be under more pressure to beat Sweden later in the round robin, as the third-place finisher in Group B likely has to take on Finland in the quarterfinal - and that's never a fun assignment.
Slovakia vs. Germany, Dec. 28, Group A
Low-key, this game could help change the order of power in the junior landscape. Slovakia has been declining for years, while Germany is on the upswing. Before the changes were made, I seriously wondered if Slovakia would be relegated this year, as they had been previously at the under-18 level, but now they get a stay of execution for now. Germany had to play in the relegation round last year, but they were a scrappy team with upside thanks to Tim Stuetzle (OTT), Lukas Reichel (CHI) and J.J. Peterka (BUF) joining older players such as Moritz Seider (DET). All of those players are eligible to return, assuming Stuetzle is healthy enough after his arm surgery. Slovakia can counter with Maxim Cajkovic (TB) and Samuel Knazko (CBJ) and this will be a must-win for both teams. I will say, however, that Switzerland doesn't look very strong this year either, so there may be some wiggle room in Group A's basement.
Russia vs. Sweden, Dec. 30, Group B
If you hadn't heard yet, Sweden has a pretty impressive round robin streak going. The Tre Kronor have won 52 straight in the preliminary round, but it hasn't translated to playoff success (their last gold medal was back in 2012). Russia will be the first test for the Swedes this year and heck, at this point it might be better for Sweden to lose a game in the round robin and reset, rather than go into the playoffs undefeated once again only to falter. With Hugo Alnefelt (TB) in net and a top line of Alex Holtz (NJ), Karl Henriksson (NYR) and Lucas Raymond (DET), the Swedes will be flying, however.
Canada vs. Finland, Dec. 31, Group A
So yeah; Group A is not going to be very competitive. Canada and Finland are the big boys, with Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia a couple rungs down. This makes the showdown between the Finns and Canucks incredibly important: not only is it a great tune-up for both teams heading into the playoff round, but it also determines the top seed. No. 1 gets to play No. 4 in the crossover and that means avoiding Sweden, Russia or Team USA in the quarterfinal - which is a tremendous advantage, because anything can happen in the quarters. Canada's roster is going to be loaded, even if players on the cusp of the NHL don't come, while Finland will be deep down the middle with Anton Lundell (FLA) and Aatu Raty (2021 draft), plus a host of solid complementary players.
Sweden vs. Team USA, Dec. 31, Group B
There's nothing new to say about this matchup, other than it will likely have big playoff seeding implications and it will be fun to see Cole Caufield (MTL) go up against Philip Broberg (EDM) and the Swedish defense corps. Most likely this game will decide who finishes first in Group B (even if the 'wrong' team wins and Russia gets first as a result) and once again, that means an easier draw in the quarterfinal (frankly, it's usually the Swiss). If anything, this will be a good opportunity for the Americans to make sure they can score in pressure situations - something that cost them last year and has been an area of emphasis already for new coach Nate Leaman.