The attention of most casual observers in the preliminary round of the World Juniors was focused on Group B which featured the United States and Canada. But pool play in Group A this year was one of the craziest I can remember.
It starts with the defending gold medalists in Finland. This is a tough tournament to repeat in. In fact, the defending gold medalist hasn’t won a medal the following year in the past five tournaments now. And Finland was missing three great players in Patrik Laine, Sebatian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi, who were not released for this tournament because they’re in the NHL. But nobody could have predicted what an absolute disaster this tournament would be for Finland.
The Finns lost each of their first three games in regulation and clinched a spot in the relegation round before their last game. Finland fired their entire coaching staff shortly after they cliched a spot in the relegation round. They saved face a bit with a win in their fourth game over Switzerland, but by then, the damage was done. They shouldn’t have any problem with Latvia in the best-of-three relegation round, but the ninth place finish will be the worst-ever result in this tournament for Finland.
Conversely, I think everyone had penciled Denmark into the relegation spot in this group, especially after they were blown out by Sweden on the opening day of the tournament. But they shocked Finland in their next game, pulled off another upset in overtime against the Czech Republic, and built a big lead on Switzerland before eventually losing in a shootout. Any one of those three results would be cause for celebration for Denmark; all three and finishing in second place in their group has to be beyond their wildest dreams.
I think the run ends here. I can’t imagine they find a way to upset the Russians in the quarterfinals. But this is already a great tournament for them. Tangible success at the top level like this will go a long way in helping to convince the government in Denmark to invest more in their hockey program.
Which is good because this tournament looked like another step for Slovakia as they slowly slide out of international hockey’s “Big 7”. The Slovaks eventually pulled out a 4-2 win over Latvia to avoid the relegation round—it would have been incredible to see Finland go up against Slovakia in relegation and one of those two moving down—but the Slovaks looked to be a lot closer to Latvia than they did the other three teams in their group. I would not be shocked if, in the next few years, Slovakia ends up being relegated at some point.
Overall, the talent in this year’s tournament seems a bit weaker than the average year. A lot of that is because of how much talent that could have been here is already playing in the NHL, headlined by three of the best players in the NHL right now in Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine(and maybe Zach Werenski belongs in that category too.)
What’s interesting is that usually Canada has the near-monoply on players missing the tournament due to the NHL, but this might be the first year ever where you could make a legitimate argument that the US is missing as much, if not more talent than Canada. Of course Canada could have the top scorer in the NHL on their team(but like, only tied for leading scorer in the league, so he’s not that good), but freshly-minted 20-goal-scorer Auston Matthews isn’t that far behind McDavid. Canada is also missing Mitch Marner, Travis Konecny, Anthony Beauvillier, Lawson Crouse, and I guess the injured Nolan Patrick at forward, and Jakob Chychrun on defense.
The US is certainly missing much more on defense with no Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin. I’m not sure they’re missing any forwards the caliber of Marner, but Matt Tkachuk probably cancels out Konecny, and Christian Fischer plus the injured Logan Brown, Brock Boeser, and Max Jones hurts more than what Canada lost. At the very least, the debate over who lost more is much spirited than any other year I can remember.
All that missing talent should have provided an opportunity for the next generation of talent to shine through, but the growing theme of the 2017 NHL Draft seems to be: ‘Meh’ and that has mostly continued in this tournament. Finland had a lot of first-time draft eligible players on their team—perhaps part of their problem—and they largely underwhelmed, especially the forwards. Boston College commit Eeli Tolvanen saved his final numbers a bit with two points in Finland’s meaningless final game, but was very quiet in the first three, as was big forward Kristian Vesalainen, who has all the tools to be a top-five pick, but likely won’t be because he has produced so little this year.
Sweden’s Elias Petterson and Lias Andersson have been fine for young guys in this tournament, but aren’t playing a huge role for Sweden.
The biggest riser out of this tournament should be Swiss forward Nico Hischier, who has probably worked his way into the discussion for the top five just because he’s one of the few first round talents trending upwards at this point. Czech Republic’s Martin Necas has been pretty good too. But there’s just not much to get excited about with this draft class.