VANCOUVER – The preliminary round is finished at the 2019 world juniors and we’re all set for the big stuff now: medal round and relegation. I can’t say there have been too many surprises in the tournament yet, though Sweden has looked better than I anticipated and the Czechs have been a bit disappointing. Otherwise, Canada, Russia and the U.S. have all looked strong and those were my top three coming into the tournament. Let’s do some quick hits to get set for the rest of the tournament, shall we?
The Russians and Americans are looking deadly right now. Not only did the Russians earn a hard-fought victory over Canada in a smashing New Year’s Eve showdown, but the Americans tossed aside the Finns in Victoria, while yet again playing without Jack Hughes. Assuming Hughes (and the ill K’Andre Miller) returns against the Czechs, it will be hard to bet against the Americans right now.
Sweden had no problems against Kazakhstan of course, but the eye-opening story was the stomach flu that has run through the Tre Kronor squad. Sweden takes on Switzerland in the quarterfinal and the Swiss have been a tough out in this tournament. Give credit to coach Christian Wohlwender and his staff: they’ve got their boys playing well, despite not having a top-end guy like Nico Hischier or Nino Niederreiter this season. It’s hard to see Switzerland upsetting the Swedes, but what if the Gold and Blue can’t keep their pre-game meals down?
Two of Russia’s most intriguing players so far have been goalie Pyotr Kochetkov and winger Kirill Slepets. Neither has been drafted yet, but according to scouts I spoke to, that’s going to change this summer. Kochetkov has great size and skill, but was passed over before simply because scouts didn’t have a book on him. Kochetkov didn’t have any international experience before this season and scouts travelling from North America have a devil of a time with viewings in Russia’s junior and AHL-level league, where Kochetkov has been toiling.
As for Slepets, the hang-up was obvious: the kid was rail-thin. But he’s also super-quick and deadly on the penalty-kill and that’s worth a flyer in the draft, given how he has developed so far.
Despite his mysterious injury, Jack Hughes is still my No. 1 for 2019 and it’s hard to see that ever changing. Kaapo Kakko comes in second and I can’t wait to see him against Canada in the quarters. I know scouts would have liked to see him play center at this tournament (he has done so back in Finland’s Liiga), but so far he’s been on the wing, where he had been last season.
I asked a scout if Vasily Podkolzin could go third overall and he said it’s “too early,” but I have been very impressed with the Russian kid so far. Does he need to control his emotions more? Sure, but any coach will tell you it’s easier to rein a player in than it is having to push them to be more aggressive.
Canada over Finland
Team USA over Czech Republic
Sweden over Switzerland
Russia over Slovakia
I know, I’m boring. But…
Kazakhstan over Denmark in the relegation round