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Canucks prospects 2024 World Junior Championship preview

Vancouver Canucks prospects Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Tom Willander, and Elias Pettersson will all represent Team Sweden.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki at the Vancouver Canucks' 2023 prospect development camp.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas or any of the other holidays that are celebrated in December — it’s time for the IIHF World Junior Championship.

The annual under-20 hockey tournament kicks off on Boxing Day and presents a great opportunity to watch some future NHL stars represent their country. It’s also a chance for fans of NHL teams to get a glimpse of prospects that they might not otherwise get to see because they play in Europe.

That’s the case for Canucks fans, who will have three prospects to watch in this year’s World Juniors, all playing for Team Sweden. Those three include their two most recent first-round picks — Jonathan Lekkerimäki and Tom Willander — and a defenceman who shares a name with one of their past first-round picks: Elias Pettersson.

The Canucks could have had a couple of other prospects in the tournament representing other countries.

Defenceman Hunter Brzustewicz, who was the Canucks’ third-round pick in 2023, is currently tied for the league lead in scoring in the OHL but wasn’t even invited to Team USA’s selection camp. The snub likely stemmed from Brzustewicz leaving the US National Team Development Program to go play for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL but Team USA also has some strong depth on defence.

Another defenceman, 2022 seventh-round pick Kirill Kudryavtsev, might have had a chance at making Russia’s squad, but the IIHF has barred Russia from participating in international tournaments due to their invasion of Ukraine. 

Sweden’s World Junior schedule for Canucks fans

Canucks fans will have to content themselves with just watching three of their top prospects on Sweden. Here’s the broadcast schedule for Sweden, with all times in Pacific Standard Time. 

Tuesday, December 26 - Sweden vs Latvia - 10:30 a.m. - TSN 1/3/4
Thursday, December 28 - Germany vs Sweden - 10:30 a.m. - TSN 1/4/5
Friday, December 29 - Canada vs Sweden - 10:30 a.m. - TSN 1/3/4
Sunday, December 31 - Sweden vs Finland - 5:30 a.m. - TSN 4/5 

The games are all in the morning as the tournament is taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Sweden could also play a quarterfinal game on January 2, a semifinal game on January 4, and a medal game on January 5.

Where do the Canucks’ three prospects fit into Sweden’s squad? Let’s take a closer look.

Jonathan Lekkerimäki

The Canucks’ first-round pick in 2022 had a disastrous post-draft season. Injuries and illness led to a disappointing performance in the HockeyAllsvenskan and he was frequently benched at the 2023 World Junior Championships. He had just four points in seven games at last year’s tournament, with two of them coming in a lopsided 11-0 win over Austria.

This season, however, has been completely different for Lekkerimäki. He came firing out of the gate in the SHL, piling up goals for Örebro HK. He currently has 10 goals and 16 points in 24 games to lead all under-20 players in the SHL and he’s improved his ability to find soft spots in coverage to use his excellent shot.

Lekkerimäki is likely to take a leading role for Sweden in his third World Junior tournament. He’ll likely be on the top line with Noah Östlund and Anton Wahlberg and is sure to take a starring role on the first power play unit. Sweden will be counting on him to have a big tournament.

“He’s a very smart player and very creative, but he’s at nature a goalscorer,” said Sweden’s head coach, Magnus Hävelid, to Elite Prospect’s J.D. Burke. “He works hard without the puck as well…I want to have him on the team because he can score goals and not just goals but important goals.”

Elias Pettersson

The Canucks’ 2022 third-round pick has taken significant strides since he was drafted. After starting the season bouncing between the SHL and the J20 Nationell, Pettersson has found a home with Västerås IK in the HockeyAllsvenskan and has settled into a second-pairing role. 

Getting more minutes with Västerås has helped the physical defensive defenceman find a little more offence, with 9 points in 17 games, good for second in points-per-game among junior-aged defencemen.

Pettersson grew into a larger role throughout last year’s tournament and is likely to play some significant minutes for Sweden, potentially even on the top pairing as the safety valve for free-roaming Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Sandin-Pellikka. He’s got the size, skating, and skill to be an excellent complementary partner for one of Sweden’s most important players.

While Pettersson might not get power play time, he’s likely to be an anchor on the penalty kill.

Tom Willander

The Canucks’ first-round pick in 2023 — selected six picks ahead of Sandin-Pellikka — has made the transition to North America in his post-draft season. Willander had 8 points in 15 games for Boston University, which is 11th among all under-20 defencemen in the NCAA.

“Willander hasn't had the easiest time making the transition to North American hockey,” said Elite Prospects’ Jimmy Hamrin. “Your time and space shrink on the smaller surface, and it's revealed some flaws in his game, particularly as a puckhandler.”

Back on the larger ice surface for the World Juniors, Willander’s skating and reads should help him thrive as a key component of Sweden’s defence corps. He could play on the second pairing with San Jose Sharks prospect Mattias Hävelid and couple play on both sides of special teams.

“He’s been really steady,” said Magnus Hävelid. “He’s really strong in one-on-one play. He’s got good feet, he can move the puck quick. He’s humble and he plays like that.”

It will be interesting to see how the defence pairings shake out over the course of the tournament. Perhaps the left-shot Pettersson and right-shot Willander could even end up playing together, giving fans a chance to see a potential future defence pairing for the Canucks.