After two close calls and a couple of blowouts, we have our final four at the 2016 World Junior Championships as Finland, Sweden, the United States, and Russia have all advanced to the semifinals. Even with Canada being knocked out earlier than many expected, the remaining teams boast a tremendous amount of talent, including a handful of draft eligible players worth keeping an eye on in the semifinals, Bronze and Gold Medal games.
Nobody is scoring more than the Fins. Through four preliminary games and one quarterfinal game, the host nation has scored 29 goals — four more than Sweden and the USA, who are tied for second in scoring. Their offence has been driven largely by the performance of Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Olli Juolevi, three 2016 draft eligible players, and Sebastian Aho, who was chosen with the 35th pick of the 2015 draft by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Puljujarvi currently leads the tournament in scoring with five goals and 10 assists, and in the next two games, he’ll challenge for the record of most points scored by a U-18 player in World Juniors history. Right now, the record is owned by Jaromir Jagr, who scored five goals and 13 assists in a Bronze Medal winning performance for Czechoslovakia back in the 1989-90 tournament. Right behind Jagr are Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros with 17 points each, so the fact that Puljujarvi is even challenging this record is incredible, and it suggests what kind of player he has the potential of becoming.
Just to summarize, Finland has the tournament’s leading scorer in Puljujarvi, the leading scorer among defencemen in Juolevi, and three of the top four scorers in total. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time the Fins had this good of a group of draft eligible players in the tournament at the same time, let alone one player as incredible as Puljujarvi, who very well could be the best prospect to come out of the country in years.
And of course, while these three 2016 draft prospects have stolen the show for Finland, they also boast a couple of other familiar names in Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen who are interesting prospects that have had slightly underwhelming tournaments. As I mentioned, the Fins have been scoring at will, so regardless of what happens from here on out, their games will be fun to watch.
Taking on the Fins in the semifinals will be Sweden — the only undefeated team in the tournament. While Finland has been scoring like the Harlem Globetrotters, Sweden has been a stalwart defensively, allowing just five goals through the first five games of the tournament. Amazingly, of those five goals, three of them came against a lowly Switzerland squad, who ended up playing in the relegation game with Belarus, in the first game of the preliminary round, and two came later on against Canada. So Sweden has shutouts in three of their five games so far, including a 1-0 blanking of the high-powered United States.
Both of Sweden’s goalies have been excellent. Linus Soderstrom, the 95th pick of the 2014 draft by the New York Islanders has a 0.952 save percentage in four games, while Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect Felix Sandstrom has been perfect through two games. Of course, this success can also be attributed to Sweden’s team defence, as they’ve allowed just 114 shots against throughout the tournament — the fewest of any team.
In writing this, I would expect to have William Nylander’s name down as one of Sweden’s most interesting players to watch, but as we know, he was injured back in the team’s first game against the Swiss and hasn’t returned to action since. As of right now there isn’t any information on a possible return, and with two games remaining in the tournament, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nylander’s doctors calling the shots as to whether he’ll be cleared to play, I doubt we’ll see him again.
Fortunately for the Swedes, William’s younger brother Alexander Nylander has been as good as anybody could have expected. The 2016 draft eligible prospect has four goals and five assists in five games, good for fifth in tournament scoring. His nine points is the best we’ve seen from a Swedish U-18 player in a long time, and like Puljujarvi and Laine, he has a chance to cement his performance as one of the best of the sort of all time.
The United States
The U.S. of A has pretty much matched Sweden throughout the tournament so far, as the two teams are tied for fewest goals against with five, and second most goals for with 25. Also, their only loss of the tournament came back in the preliminary round in the form of a 1-0 loss to the Swedes. Otherwise, they had a pretty easy glide through the tournament so far, including a 7-0 drumming of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
It doesn’t really need to be mentioned, but Auston Matthews is the most intriguing name on the American roster. The ISS top rated prospect heading into the 2016 draft hasn’t failed to impress, as he sits first in goals with seven and tied for third in points with 11 through five games. It’s expected that come June his name will be the first one called at the draft, and his performance at the World Juniors hasn’t done anything to suggest that scouts and general managers should be willing to budge on that consensus opinion. Along with Matthews, the Americans boast a few other 2016 draft prospects, including Matthew Tkachuk, who yes, is Keith’s son. Keith Jr. is second on the team in scoring with eight points and has looked incredibly dynamic throughout the tournament.
Then, looking up and down the roster, the American team is oozing with interesting already-drafted names like Christian Dvorak of the Coyotes, Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets, and Colin White of the Senators. Honestly, it’s pretty easy to watch this team and be impressed by somebody on the ice at all times as the group is loaded with talent from top to bottom. That said, Matthews is the one who’ll likely steal the show and raise the most eyebrows.
The Russians and Americans will square off not in an epic battle over who can put a human on the moon first, but one of U-20 hockey supremacy. Heading into this game, the United States are pretty easily the favourites, but Russia who has medaled in each of the past five tournaments, is certainly never a slouch.
That said, these aren’t the high powered Russians we’re used to seeing. They’re right in the middle of the pack with 18 goals for, and they’re third with just 10 goals against. But when looking through their results, they’ve only really had one easy victory, which was a 4-1 against Belarus in the preliminary round. Even against Denmark, who had a goal differential of four to 16 through their first four games, proved to be a tough test for Russia in the quarterfinal, as they just edged out a 4-3 win in overtime.
Regardless, the most interesting player on Russia’s roster is slick defenceman Ivan Provorov, who was drafted seventh overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2015 draft. His six points tie him for first on the team with Yegor Korshkov, who’s eligible for the 2016 draft.