The 2020 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship will begin as it does annually on Boxing day (just December 26 if you’re not Canadian). This year the tournament will be played on European soil between the cities of Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.
The tournament is a fan favorite for many, as well as a must-see for amateur scouts of NHL teams and other pro-leagues alike. I largely attribute my fascination with the prospect world to the media coverage of the event, dating back to the five consecutive Canadian gold medals from 2005 to 2009. For me, enjoying and analyzing the tournament has become as much of a holiday tradition as anything else.
Betting on a Canadian darkhorse has always been at the heart of the tradition for some of my friends and I, but for today’s edition of The Journey, I want to expand on that.
To kick things off, with Canada narrowing their selection roster over the last few days, I am eager to declare my darkhorse selection. While a major number of eyes will be focused on the 2020 draft-eligible duo of Rimouski’s Alexis Lafreniere and Sudbury’s Quinton Byfield, I’ll be rooting for the emergence of Drummondville’s 2020 top prospect Dawson Mercer.
I was fortunate enough to see the 18-year-old forward play in Saint John during the CIBC Canada-Russia series earlier this year where he chipped in a goal and an assist in the first game of the series. The 18-year-old added another goal in the team’s second contest down the Trans-Canada in Moncton on night-two of the series.
Mercer’s success may hinge on his coaches and linemates ability to recognize his stealth speed, which can prove dangerous in all situations and on the transition. He also possesses and excellent shot that should bring success in this level of a tournament, despite his age and lack of experience.
Of course, with Canada still obliged to make adjustments to their final roster before Christmas, Mercer’s spot in the lineup is not guaranteed. While I’ll be disappointed if the draft-eligible forward is ultimately cut, I maintain that he would make for a positive impact on Canada's chances of bringing home a medal.
As mentioned earlier, declaring my pick for Canada’s dark horse would only be the beginning of today’s feature. The second and final portion of today’s edition of the Journey is my expanded spin on my annual tradition, where I’m thrilled to justify my projected picks for the tournament-ending all-star team!
While Mercer could be a player to put himself on the map this holiday season, it’s highly unlikely that he becomes one of the players who singlehandedly drives his country to an unsuspecting positive finish. One player who I think that might have to be, however, is fellow draft eligible forward Lafreniere.
The Rimouski winger is favored to be the first overall selection in this June’s draft and a significant portion of that determination will be made in Ostrava. The even-keel winger will have another opportunity to address competition that is one step closer to the professional level this January. His skillset, experience and deployment are such that he has dominated the QMJHL in 2019. As a returning player to Team Canada, he will be expected to bring his game to yet another level and lead the team’s charge for gold.
Seeing Lafreniere find another gear when he is truly challenged is something that scouts will certainly be watching for. If he is able to do so and perform as anticipated, there’s no reason why Lafreniere can’t be the most impressive player at the tournament.
Canada’s first ringer to be loaned by his professional squad also has an excellent opportunity to lead the tournament on both an offensive level as well as in terms of overall energy. Despite being restricted in terms of deployment by the Coyotes, Barrett Hayton brings a returning level of competitiveness to Team Canada that will separate him from most of the competition on a shift-by-shift basis.
Stepping away from Team Canada, their Group B rivals in red, white and blue could potentially present the most ominous opposition throughout the tournament’s round-robin play. The American’s will be a dynamic group throughout, but perhaps one of their most dangerous weapons will be Boston University winger Trevor Zegras. The Anaheim prospect has been outstanding, offensively as a rookie in Hockey East and will look to transition that hot streak into the tournament.
Until now, none of the forwards from the first round of the 2019 NHL entry draft have emerged as the biggest steal, but Zegras will have an excellent opportunity to do so in a couple of weeks.
With the American’s entering the tournament as one of the most formidable challengers, K’Andre Miller begins as one of my favorites to stand out the most among defensemen, with something to show for it at the end. As a returning player for Team USA, he will own a lion’s share of the ice-time both at 5-on-5 and on special teams, however my projection is that the American defenseman will only be the first of two New York Rangers prospect defensemen to be featured on the tournament all-star team.
Swedish blueliner Nils Lundkvist has played outstanding in his D+2 season with Lulea of the SHL and is primed to demonstrate his refined skillset in his second kick at the can. He’s a dynamic defender that has, until now, gone somewhat undetected on the world stage and in fantasy, despite being a returning player to the tournament. In the weaker of the two pools, Lundkvist has an opportunity to lead his Swedish squad to a first-place Pool-A finish and elevate his perceived value.
In my opinion, now is the time to bet on these players, as the performance that we’re hoping for from each of them at the tournament will certainly elevate their fantasy value immediately.
I hope you enjoyed the read and are looking forward to the tournament as much as I am. Find me on Twitter @olaf1393
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