As teams begin to gather for the world juniors, the spectre of Covid-19 looms large. Team USA and Sweden have both lost the services of three players and counting before even arriving in Edmonton, where the tournament will be held in a bubble later this month.
For the Americans, the trio of players all came from Boston University, where a positive case in the Terriers program was the culprit. While Boston U. has paused its season, Team USA won't have defenseman Alex Vlasic (CHI), left winger Robert Mastrosimone (DET) or goaltender Drew Commesso (CHI) at camp. Luckily, the Americans were able to put out the call to three replacements - defensemen Tyler Kleven (OTT) and Hunter Skinner (NYR), plus goalie Logan Stein (undrafted) - but yesterday was the final day for teams to bring new players in, so any further positive tests will be particularly hurtful to national teams.
Vlasic was practically a lock to make Team USA thanks to his shutdown prowess, though Kleven's hot start to the season with the University of North Dakota makes him a tantalizing replacement option. Commesso was guaranteed to be Team USA's third goalie behind Spencer Knight (FLA) and Dustin Wolf (CGY) and he can still play next year, which is a bit of a consolation. Stein, a freshman at Ferris State, now takes over that third spot. In a locked-in bubble, teams can't afford to have only two netminders.
One last American item to keep an eye on? The University of Wisconsin just cancelled a pair of games against Michigan State for this week after the Badgers had a positive test in their program. Wisconsin's Cole Caufield (MTL) is slated to be a key player for Team USA; let's hope he got out of Madison in time.
Sweden just lost their third player, as blueliner William Wallinder (DET) was yanked after his Modo team had a Covid-19 breakout. His absence came too late for a replacement, though Sweden has 11 more blueliners to choose from and that back end was going to be a strength for them anyway, so it's more unfortunate for Wallinder - though he'll still be eligible to play next year.
More alarming for the Swedes was the loss of center Karl Henriksson (NYR), who has been the glue guy on various junior national teams while playing between the Terror Twins, Lucas Raymond (DET) and Alex Holtz (NJ). With no Henriksson, the Swedes are perilously thin down the middle, though they still have a ton of talent on the wings. One winger they won't have, however, is William Eklund, a 2021 draft prospect who has been lightning for Djurgarden on a line with Holtz. Eklund's 12 points in 16 games makes him one of the highest-scoring junior-aged players in the SHL, one point behind Holtz and tied with Raymond, who has played more games than Eklund.
Two non-Covid-related absences for the tournament are 2021 draft prospect Aatu Raty, who was snubbed by Finland for a camp spot, and Slovakia's Maxim Cajkovic (TB), who was sent home after violating team values during camp (allegedly he threw some dodgy hits on his potential teammates). Cajkovic's scoring potential will be sorely missed by Slovakia, but for all the teams missing players, whatever the reason, it is important to remember that there is no relegation this year, due to the pandemic and other tournaments being cancelled.
This is big for Slovakia (not to mention teams like Austria and Germany) and less so for the Americans or Swedes, who will certainly qualify for the medal round even with a couple players missing. Perhaps Sweden's incredible round-robin win streak will come to an end, but otherwise, the worst-case scenario still isn't too bad.