Two Vancouver Canucks prospects remain alive at the 2023 World Junior Championship; one is going home.
As Sweden faced Finland in the quarterfinals, the Canucks prospects in the tournament didn’t exactly go head-to-head, as Finnish goaltender Aku Koskenvuo wasn’t on the ice. Instead, he was the backup to Jani Lampinen after posting an .842 save percentage in two games during the preliminary round.
Winger Jonathan Lekkerimäki and defenceman Elias Pettersson were both on the ice for Sweden, however, and they’ll be moving on to the semifinal after Sweden’s come-from-behind victory over Finland on Monday.
The two Canucks prospects only played a small role in that victory, however, and one much smaller than the other.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki barely played for Sweden. While he played a regular shift in the first period, Lekkerimäki was benched at 5-on-5 in the second and third period, only coming out for two power plays on the second unit.
As a result, Lekkerimäki finished the game with just 5:36 in ice time, last among Swedish forwards. He had no shots on goal in that time and was all-but invisible.
It’s definitely concerning that the Swedish coaching staff felt the need to bench Lekkerimäki in a close game. There have been some concerns about Lekkerimäki’s play away from the puck and it showed up on the first Finnish goal.
Lekkerimäki was covering his man at the point but suddenly switched off his man when Ville Koivunen circled up the boards and threw a shot on net, trying to pressure the shot. This could have been okay if there was an understanding between Lekkerimäki and his teammate that they were switching checks, but his teammate tried to stay in Koivunen's shooting lane and, instead, Lekkerimäki’s man slipped behind him and went straight to the slot.
It ended up being a moot point, as it wasn’t Lekkerimäki’s man that corralled Koivunen’s rebound and scored the 1-0 goal but it was a red flag for Lekkerimäki’s defensive awareness.
Offensively, Lekkerimäki simply hasn’t done enough. It seems clear that he needs a strong playmaking centre to create chances for him to finish, but even with that type of centre, the responsibility is on the sniper to proactively find soft spots in defensive coverage and get open for the centre to find them with the puck. We simply didn’t see that from Lekkerimäki during this tournament.
At this point, Lekkerimäki is looking a long way from a can’t-miss prospect. His performance comes with the usual caveats that he’s still just 18 years old and has a lot of development time ahead of him, but there are plenty of 18-year-olds — and even 17-year-olds — who are massively outperforming him in this tournament.
Couple that with Lekkerimäki’s struggles in the Allsvenskan this season and it’s fair to be concerned about his development and potential.
As for Elias Pettersson, he had a quiet game but that’s not always a bad thing for a defenceman. His usually on-point passing had its struggles, with a couple of giveaways in the neutral zone, but not particularly costly ones.
While Pettersson was on the ice for one Finnish goal, it’s hard to blame him. One of his teammates gave the puck away in the neutral zone, leading to a 2-on-1 for Finland, with Pettersson the last man back.
Pettersson could have pressured the puck carrier, Niko Huuhtanen, a little bit more, but he was initially focused on taking away the pass until one of his teammates came back on the backcheck. Huuhtanen simply made an excellent shot, beating Swedish goaltender Carl Lindbom on the short side to make it 2-1.
Pettersson was also on the ice for Sweden’s game-tying goal in the third period, though he didn’t get a touch of the puck. It at least evened out his plus/minus for the game. Pettersson finished fifth among Swedish defencemen in ice time at 15:24.
Tied 2-2 late in the third period, Finland got a golden opportunity to win the game with a power play for the final two minutes. Instead, Sweden stunned their nordic rivals with a shorthanded goal.
Swedish captain Victor Stjernborg stole the puck from Aleksi Heimosalmi in the neutral zone for a breakaway, then slid the puck five-hole on Lampinen.
With the clutch goal, Sweden stays alive and heads to the semifinals to face either Czechia or the United States on Wednesday. The questions for Canucks fans are how much will Lekkerimäki play and will he have an impact for Sweden?