It’s almost the greatest time of the year.
The World Junior Championship is just over five weeks away, with 10 of the best junior hockey nations in the world battling it out for gold in Sweden. It’s a premier event on the hockey schedule, showcasing the future of the game in the best way possible.
With most teams having participated in some U-20 tournament action since the summer – bar Canada, who elected to just hold a virtual information camp instead – we’ve got a idea of what many of the lineups could look like. But when it comes to players with NHL experience this year, that’s when things get tricky.
Hockey Canada, in particular, is expected to be making a pitch to NHL teams holding on to tournament-eligible players. Any NHLers born in 2004 and 2005 can participate, and a total of 12 U-20 players have seen NHL action already this year. At the same time last year, there were just five full-time U-20 NHLers, with 13 getting at least one game throughout the year. Six didn’t make their debut until the second half.
So, who might make the trek to Gothenburg for the holidays?
Fraser Minten and Matthew Savoie have both been sent down to major junior since seeing NHL action early. They’ll easily factor into Canada’s plans in a big way. Savoie, in particular, will likely be the team’s most skilled forward, while Minten could slot in just about anywhere. Consider them locks, regardless of how camp goes.
Here’s the Captain Obvious moment of the day: Connor Bedard isn’t joining Canada for a three-peat. Bedard was never going, regardless of what happened in Chicago to start the season. Shane Wright looks unlikely to go after Ron Francis’ comments last week. Wright seemed to be an option after starting the season with the Coachella Valley Firebirds. He’s now up with Seattle, but after bouncing around last year between the NHL, AHL, OHL and the world juniors, a bit of stability won’t hurt for the 19-year-old.
Staying down the middle, Adam Fantilli had a decent showing last year in a season that saw him win gold with the junior and senior Canadian teams. He’s now thriving with Columbus, who isn’t getting any production from Patrik Laine or Johnny Gaudreau. That alone makes it unlikely the Blue Jackets will loan Fantilli out, even though he’d have a good chance at being the team’s most valuable player.
Two Canadians who had strong training camps and have stayed with their respective NHL teams ever since are Boston’s Matthew Poitras and Chicago’s Kevin Korchinski. Poitras has had a few multi-game streaks without a point, but he’s still a valuable part of the team’s center depth. He’s trending toward a season-long scoring rate of 45 points, which is quite something for someone who, despite dominating the OHL, still seemed like a serious longshot to make the squad out of camp.
Korchinski, meanwhile, would be a returning face after a solid tournament a year ago. Korchinski is averaging more than 19 minutes a night and playing some solid hockey for the Blackhawks, so I’d understand them wanting to keep him since he’s been so valuable at 5-on-5 and on the power play. The difference between Poitras and Korchinski? The latter is on one of the worst teams in the league. Dominating a tournament like this won’t hurt, but it seems he’s important enough that if they decided to let him go, it would be after Canada finishes training camp.
For the United States, there’s no chance Logan Cooley goes. He’s too valuable for an Arizona Coyotes team that’s missing Barrett Hayton for the next month, and he’s in serious contention for the Calder Trophy. USA doesn’t need him, given they’ll likely be led by Will Smith, Cutter Gauthier, Gabe Perreault, Oliver Moore and more up front.
I feel confident the Buffalo Sabres will let Zach Benson go. He started strong for the Sabres with a two-point effort against the New York Islanders in just his second game, but a pair of injuries have kept him out of most of the campaign. It always felt like he was a nine-gamer, someone they’d send down before his entry-level contract kicked in. With Savoie back with the WHL’s Wenatchee Wild, I expect Benson will return in the coming weeks and join Savoie and fellow Wild teammate Conor Geekie in Oakville for training camp on Dec. 10.
The same goes for Tristan Luneau, the reigning QMJHL defenseman of the year. He got into two games early before getting an extended run as a healthy scratch. He looked solid during his run with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls, even if the club lost all six matches during his time there. Luneau is back with the big club for now, but I fully expect him to be on Canada’s top pairing come Dec. 26 because it doesn’t seem like the Ducks plan on utilizing him much this year.
Perhaps the two most interesting names are Montreal Canadiens forward Juraj Slafkovsky and Anaheim Ducks center Leo Carlsson. Slafkovsky wasn’t loaned out last year but has struggled for most of his rookie campaign. A mid-season injury last year stifled his development, and he’s still playing catch-up. There’s an argument to be made playing on the top line for a contending team is better than skating alongside Christian Dvorak on a bottom-feeder. Slafkovsky would be a huge asset for a Slovak team that came close to eliminating Canada last year.
But the 6-foot-4 forward hasn’t played against junior-aged players since the cancelled world junior tournament at the end of 2021. What does he have to gain against kids after playing against the best players in the world – not to mention with Slovakia’s men’s team at the Olympics and the World Championship? In my opinion, confidence, and I wrote about it recently. He went from looking great back in Europe to struggling in one of hockey’s biggest markets. It’s OK to take things slow, and the WJC could be an excellent reset for the big forward.
For Carlsson, his development has been so fascinating to watch. The Ducks have sat him on occasion, saying they don’t want to wear down the 18-year-old. And yet, he’s been one of Anaheim’s best players any time he’s been in the lineup, even scoring a hat-trick earlier this month. If they’re trying to be patient with him, could they loan him out to Sweden, let him dominate on home ice and chase gold? If they’re willing to keep him out for the odd game, why not? He’s good enough for the NHL, but they’re not looking to rush him. Let him challenge for gold in front of his friends and family.
But being realistic, I don’t expect either to go.
So, at a glance, here’s who I think will – and will not – travel to Sweden. I think there’s a safe bet we’ll see four NHLers at the world juniors this year, all on Canada. The three players I put in “Potentially” have good arguments for going, but I’d still learn towards them not going. No Chance is… you can probably guess.
Fraser Minten – Canada
Matthew Savoie – Canada
Zach Benson – Canada
Tristan Luneau – Canada
Leo Carlsson – Sweden
Kevin Korchinski – Canada
Juraj Slafkovsky – Slovakia
Connor Bedard – Canada
Shane Wright – Canada
Adam Fantilli – Canada
Matthew Poitras – Canada
Logan Cooley – USA
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