I Grant You Permission To Care About These Boys At The World Juniors
3:04 PM EST on December 23, 2021
Times are tough for a hockey fan right now. Due to a flood of new COVID cases around the league, the NHL has played a grand total of two games since Monday, with no more scheduled until next Monday, and there's not even the promise of the Olympics to keep us warm. We've had nothing but bad news to keep us company, and have had to resort to such horrific coping mechanisms as "watching the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl" and "dreaming of becoming a ham sniffer." It's a depressing place to be.
But the 2022 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, somehow, are still set to drop the puck on Boxing Day, as 10 under-20 teams from around the globe will congregate in Alberta to show off their best prospects and compete for the gold. The pre-tournament games are even live today! Right now!
Normally I'd consider a deep emotional investment in the World Juniors to be teetering on the edge of "sicko shit," unless you're a scout or a hockey blogger or some sort of crazed nationalist. The World Juniors, to me, typically function best not as a series of 60-minute games to watch in their entirety but as a GIF production enterprise. A bunch of cool teens who aren't quite yet at the NHL level show off their skills and make some neat plays, and those in the know distribute those highlights on the internet, allowing fans of struggling teams or even just general enthusiasts to hype themselves up on endlessly repeating little flashes of greatness. That's what this tournament is for.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the lack of hockey this week, as well as the ongoing uncertainty around the schedule and the sudden withdrawal of the NHL from the Olympics, might have left you thirsty for a good old-fashioned glass of international stickpuck. In that case, I am hereby allowing you to watch these games if you so choose. And while you may already have some personal favorite prospects tied to your favorite team—the Red Wings have eight across five countries!—I am also going to quench your thirst by giving you a few other key names that you can pay attention to. Don't expect this every year! But for now, go wild.
Shane Wright and Owen Power, Team Canada
I couldn't separate one from the other, so here, together, is the future of Canadian hockey on both offense and defense. Power was picked first overall in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres, and Wright looks projected to be snagged first next summer by Montreal or Ottawa or wherever the Coyotes are playing by then. They lead a Canadian superteam looking to avenge its runner-up position under the U.S. last year and reassert their country's historical ownership of this event.
Power, the blueliner, is extraordinarily tall at 6-foot-6, and yet he's also an athletic skater who appears quite comfortable imposing his gigantic frame on the action. He's also, by everyone's account, a hard-working, intelligent kid who's constantly motivated to get better, and his play at the World Championships really cemented him as someone deserving of his hype. Though his early games were a struggle to get comfortable against pro-caliber opposition, and Canada as a team began 0-3, Power rose to become a 24-plus minute player in each game of the knockout rounds, helping carry the Canadians to a gold medal turnaround.
Wright's the kid with something to prove, though he's put up gaudy scoring totals everywhere he's played, from the Kingston Frontenacs to Canada's U-18s. (He'll turn 18 on the day of the tournament final.) He's got a killer shot and the natural ability to dominate inferior competition, but even though he's still considered the best of his draft year, he's not currently poised to enter the NHL with quite the same hype as some of the truly generational Canadian prospects. He's certainly no Crosby or McDavid just yet, but a top-scoring performance in these games could go a long way toward creating belief in him as the can't-miss guy everyone wants him to be.
Matty Beniers, Team USA
And now here is the best that the Stars and Stripes have to offer, and another Michigan Wolverine to pair with Owen Power. Beniers was picked second overall by the Seattle Kraken in 2021, after a run of seasons where he ranked highly in scoring on both the U.S. National Development Team and in the NCAA. He'll be a key driver of the offense for the reigning champs, as his strong instincts and powerful skating have torn up defenses all over the nation. Go Blue.
Bonus guy: Logan Cooley, a small but tenacious and speedy forward out of the development program who should go top five in this next draft.
Topi Niemela, Team Finland
Did I pick this Toronto Maple Leafs prospect because he has a great name? Maybe. But he's also a returning hero who was voted best defenseman at last year's edition of this tournament after he picked up eight points in seven games as part of Finland's bronze-medal finish. He was only a third-rounder in the 2020 draft, but the 19-year-old has been producing eye-popping numbers in the Finnish Liiga, showcasing an exciting style of play that moves the puck creatively and always makes him a threat to a goalie. Check out the sickness of this particular goal he helped manufacture. (He's No. 7 at the line.)
Yaroslav Askarov, Team Russia
Goalies are people, too! And therefore you have my full authorization to care about Russia's and the Nashville Predators' Yaroslav Askarov. There are goalies at his tournament with more to prove—specifically 2021 first-rounders Sebastian Cossa (Canada) and Jesper Wallstedt (Sweden). But Askarov, drafted 11th overall in 2020, deserves your notice because of all the young goalie prospects out there, he seems to draw the most envy with his spectacular shot-stopping ability and contortionist scrambles. (The phrase "Hasek-esque" easily comes to mind when watching highlights of his more heart-stopping denials.) Goalies are notoriously tricky to predict at this age (and beyond!), but for where he's at in his career, Askarov already has a solid track record of success in the KHL and on the international scene. This is his third appearance in this tournament, and that experience should help him stand out among his peers and perhaps even carry Russia to its first gold since 2011.
OK, that's everybody you can care about! Yes, everybody. "But Lauren," you might be asking, "Did you not even pause to briefly consider the wrist shot of Alexander Holtz?" No, I didn't. Now go away! There's hockey to be watched.