A 16-year-old Nate Leaman wasn’t watching the World Junior Championship in 1989 – probably because he couldn’t find it on television - so he did not witness the havoc Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano played on their opponents to finish 1-2 in scoring in Anchorage. There’s a good chance he wasn’t watching in 1991 either, when Doug Weight led all scorers with 19 points in Saskatoon. But he was behind the bench as an assistant coach when Jordan Schroeder scored 11 of the 27 career points he registered in three WJCs en route to becoming the highest-scoring player the United States has ever produced.
No matter. The head coach of the American entry in the 2021 WJC didn’t need to see what all those other guys did, or even know what they did, to know that Trevor Zegras is on the verge of joining them among the greatest World Junior players in the history of the U.S. program. In fact, regardless of what happens in the gold medal game against Canada Tuesday night, he’s already there.
“What Trevor has done in this tournament speaks for itself,” Leaman said following USA’s 4-3 semifinal win over Finland Tuesday night. “I don’t think anyone has to qualify that. We had a tough pod. We had a really tough pool with Sweden and Russia. ‘Zee’ has shown up against every team. He’s shown up in every game in the tournament…and he’s very worthy of leading the tournament in points. He’s earned them.”
Zegras, who has scored six goals and 16 points in six games in the tournament, has some company at the top of the scoring list with Dylan Cozens of Canada, who has eight goals and 16 points. As much as it will be USA against Canada for gold, it promises to be a very interesting battle between Zegras and Cozens for the scoring championship in the tournament and top player honors. That Zegras and Cozens have been the best two forwards in the tournament is indisputable and there’s a very good case to be made they’ve been the two best players, period.
“Dylan is an unbelievable player,” Zegras told Mark Masters of TSN. “Kind of been going at it with him and that group for a long time now, so it’d be nice to stick it to him and win this thing.”
With a big night against Canada in the gold medal game, Zegras has a chance to win the scoring championship outright and put an permanent stamp on USA hockey’s World Junior program. His assist on Matthew Boldy’s goal to put the Americans up 3-1 tied him with Roenick for the second-most points in a single WJC, three points behind Weight. He also has 25 points in two World Juniors, which is two behind Schroeder’s total for the all-time lead among U.S. players. He has registered a point in every game in the tournament and transformed from an assist machine last year to a threat to both score goals and created them with assists in this tournament. He’s an elite playmaker who will take his talents to the Anaheim Ducks after the tournament, but it seems as though almost all the offense for the Americans runs through him.
“We’re playing for the gold and he’s done it against great teams,” Leaman said.
This is not the only date with destiny that Zegras has, since this is a team made up largely of 2001-born players who are very eager for redemption. Zegras was one of 11 players on the American Under-18 team that was the best and most dominant the U.S. National Team Development Program has ever produced. But that team came up agonizingly short, losing a shootout to Russia in the semifinal before beating Canada in the bronze medal game. Cozens and 11 other players on Canada’s World Junior team were on that Canadian Under-18 team.
As good as the Americans are, it will be a monumental task for them. They know it. Everyone knows it. Speaking of destiny, if this Canadian team wins, it will go down as one of the most dominant entries it has ever had in the tournament. Canada goes into the game as the prohibitive favorite, but the Americans have improved as the tournament has progressed. If the U.S. does manage to pull of the upset, there’s a pretty good chance Trevor Zegras will be right in the middle of things.
“I’m very aware that Canada is going to try to bump him and take him out of his game,” Leaman said. “But I think he’s mature enough to stand that.”