In the weird year we’ve all been victim too, you have to look a little harder for the happy things in life. Very few things have remained the same, and anything that’s positive that hasn’t should be cherished.
For me, one of those happy things is the IIHF’s World Junior Hockey Championship. For prospect fans, the tournament truly feels like Christmas – which is fitting given it begins on Christmas Day this year. For many of the players, it’s one of the last signs of their youth before heading full-time to the pro ranks, either to thrive or sink against the world’s top players. It’s the height of many player’s careers, while others are just getting started and introduced to their future NHL fanbases.
The 2021 edition in Edmonton is a unique situation. For the first time in tournament history, health concerns have put a damper on the event, preventing fans from being in attendance like most major sporting events these days. But one of the best aspects? With the NHL on hold, we could see more high quality talent than we’re used to in a tournament that’s already loaded in that category.
The NHL’s regular season is set to begin on Jan. 1, but there’s reason to doubt that at this point in the juncture. With Canada set to kick off training camp in mid-November, and other nations already playing in events before travelling to Alberta, we’re nearly in the thick of everything. That means it’s time to take a look at a few of the potential NHLers we could see participate in the tournament, including the fate of one future NHL star who’s status could be clearer than first thought:
Should be there
Kirby Dach, C, Chicago Blackhawks (Canada)
Initially left off Canada’s selection camp roster, Kirby Dach was added on hours later to help give Canada a massive boost. The catch? If the Chicago Blackhawks start training camp prior to the tournament, Dach will be sent back to Chicago to focus on the NHL season.
That’s a true threat, but, like I said, there’s a reason to doubt an NHL start in two months time. If that’s the case, Canada has the No. 1 center spot locked up with a player holding a full year of NHL experience under his belt. Dach would have benefited from playing with Canada at the 2020 edition but the Hawks elected to keep him back and, in the end, his playoff performance made it clear the club chose the right development path for him just months after going third overall at the 2019 draft. Dach’s year of NHL experience, plus a mini-playoff excursion, will make Dach one of the most dangerous players once he heads back to play for Canada for the first time since the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. Canada looked deep beforehand, but Dach’s 64-game run in the NHL certainly doesn’t hurt their shot at gold.
Quinton Byfield, C, Los Angeles Kings (Canada)
The second overall pick last month, Quinton Byfield is one of six potential returnees for Canada’s gold medal defense and will be given an elevated scoring role this time around. Byfield was, frankly, invisible during the tournament playing a bottom-line role and wasn’t given opportunities to thrive playing outside of his usual role down the middle. He’s a year older now coming off of an incredible season in Sudbury – even if he’s on Canada’s third line, he won’t be sheltered this time around.
There was no guarantee that Byfield was going to make the NHL right away – some scouts told me prior to the draft that another year of major junior would have major benefits to his development, especially in regards to how to use his size effectively (which might mean nothing if the OHL does away with body checking this year). Los Angeles’ depth down the middle is actually a strength of the franchise and the Kings could have decided to be patient with Byfield under normal circumstances. With no NHL action prior to the world juniors, Byfield is a no-brainer to represent Canada, and his rounded skillset and pure offensive dominance will be highly useful, even if in a secondary scoring role behind some of the 2001-born players on the roster.
Ville Heinola, D, Winnipeg Jets (Finland)
Third time’s a charm? Heinola already has two world juniors under his belt for Finland and unlike Dach and Byfield, there was a full expectation that Heinola would play at the tournament, regardless of the world health situation. Heinola had a short stint in the NHL after making the Jets out of training camp but was returned to Luuko to play the majority of 2019-20. Internationally, though, is where Heinola really took off the past two winters.
As an underaged prospect in 2019, Heinola played key top-four minutes en route to gold. The Finns didn’t medal in 2020, but Heinola was effective in a top-pairing situation and finished with five assists, making his mark as one of the tournament’s better defenders. That should be the case once more with added experience and his improved play in the Finnish Liiga this season should help in his bid to bring home some hardware.
Nicholas Robertson, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs (USA)
Is Robertson ready to crack the Leafs full time? Perhaps. He had just one point in four playoff games this past season, but the fact that the Leafs believed in the 18-year-old in a do-or-die scenario is a sign of trust. Toronto had to clear some contracts on the wing in Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, so there was definitely a case to be made for Robertson’s immediate NHL inclusion in 2020-21.
But even so, all expectations were that Robertson would make his presence known at the World Junior Championship in 2021 and the Americans will happily give him opportunities to succeed. Robertson, who led the OHL with 55 goals last season, carried his momentum to the Czech Republic where he finished with five points in as many games in what turned out to be a disappointing effort for the Americans. If I’m betting on a contender to dethrone Canada, though, I’m loving the United States. The 2001-born age group is one of the best I’ve ever seen out of the United States, even without Jack Hughes in the lineup. Having Robertson taking passes from a guy like Alex Turcotte or Trevor Zegras? Yeah, this group is going to have no issue producing points.
Alexis Lafreniere, RW, NY Rangers (Canada)
Could you imagine Team Canada getting Alexis Lafreniere for the third time? There’s a chance that could become reality. Following Canada’s selection camp roster announcement, Tom Renney, the CEO of Hockey Canada, said there had been talks with the New York Rangers about Lafreniere participating in the tournament, with the Rangers being “open-minded” about the situation.
That doesn’t mean yes or no at this point, but the potential of having Lafreniere – the tournament’s reigning MVP and the first-overall pick in the NHL draft last month – would make Canada so dangerous to defend against. Lafreniere had 10 points in just five games last year after suffering an early leg injury that most people expected would keep him out of the medal round. Now, with two 100-plus-point QMJHL campaigns under his belt and an extra year of development, how many points would he get in a full outing? Could he go for 15? There’s no player the rest of the teams would want to see less than Lafreniere and the uncertainty of his inclusion has to be scaring opposing coaches right now.
Of course, we can’t discount the thought that maybe Lafreniere doesn’t want to participate after all. He’s been twice and his focus has surely shifted towards the NHL at this point. Lafreniere already has the hardware from this event and has nothing left to prove, but wouldn’t it be fun?