Nearly eight months after it was originally scheduled to begin, the preliminary round of the 2022 World Junior Championship is finally over.
All three Vancouver Canucks prospects at the World Juniors saw success in the round-robin stage of the rescheduled tournament, with their respective countries finishing top two in their groups.
In Group A, Joni Jurmo and Finland won three of their four games, only dropping one game against the high-powered Team Canada, which finished at the top of their group. Jacob Truscott and Team USA swept the preliminary round to finish at the top of Group B, handing Jonathan Lekkerimäki and Sweden their only loss as they finished second.
Lekkerimäki and Sweden will now face Latvia in the quarterfinals, Jurmo and Finland will face Germany, and Truscott and Team USA will take on Czechia. All three games will be on Wednesday, August 17 on TSN — Finland vs Germany at 9 a.m., Sweden vs Latvia at 12:30 p.m., and USA vs Czechia at 7:30 p.m.
Despite being the only team of the three that won their group, Team USA arguably has the toughest matchup, as Czechia beat Slovakia and pushed Finland to the shootout. Then again, Latvia stunned Czechia with a 5-2 win and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Let’s take a closer look at how the three Canucks prospects performed, particularly in their most recent games.
Lekkerimäki picked up two assists against Germany
The Canucks’ top prospect has shown steady improvement throughout the tournament, with his best game coming against Germany on Monday. The winger, who is the youngest player on Sweden and one of the youngest at the World Juniors, played more of a passive game early on but was a lot more assertive against Germany and made some quality plays.
Lekkerimäki was once again on the third line, playing with Åke Stakkestad and Liam Öhgren and finished with 13:49 in ice time and two shots on goal.
After Germany stunned Sweden by scoring on their first shot of the game, Lekkerimäki helped Sweden pull even on the power play. He made a great play to win a puck back off Bennet Rossmy — one of Germany’s top players in this game — to keep the offensive zone possession alive.
Lekkerimäki sent the puck to Emil Andrae at the point and he relayed it to Oskar Olausson, whose shot snuck in for the tying goal.
Lekkerimäki got involved defensively too, alertly identifying an open Josef Eham in the middle of the ice and leaving his man at the point to get his stick in and disrupt Eham’s scoring chance.
At times, however, Lekkerimäki’s youth and lack of strength on the puck showed. He was knocked off the puck a little too easily a few times, which can be forgiven considering he just turned 18 and needs to bulk up in the coming years.
Even if Lekkerimäki needs to add more strength to his frame, he’s already a weapon on the power play, even if he didn’t get opportunities to use his shot. His ability to regain possession of the puck after missed chances is what helped Sweden against Germany — he did it again in the third period to help make it 4-1.
This time, Lekkerimäki had to knock down a puck that went ringing around the boards on a missed shot. He did so neatly, then got his body in position to protect the puck. Even as he got knocked off stride, he was still able to slip a pass down low to Theodor Niederbach, who set up Daniel Ljungman for a goal reminiscent of the many power play goals of Bo Horvat.
While Lekkerimäki has three assists in four games, it was clear that he wanted a goal badly. In the third period, he got caught from behind on a breakaway attempt when the stretch pass was in his skates, Sent a shot wide while burning down the right wing, then nearly slipped a shot five-hole while driving to the net.
Even with just a minute left and the game well in hand, Lekkerimäki was still eagerly beaver-tailing for the puck in transition and sending wild shots towards the net. Lekkerimäki loved to score goals and it seems clear he wants to break his goose egg this tournament.
Despite not getting any goals, Lekkerimäki has acquitted himself well and looked a lot more dangerous in this game than he has previously in the tournament. Perhaps his first goal will come in the quarterfinals.
Jurmo gets victimized by Bedard
Joni Jurmo has had a very good tournament for Finland, showcasing his strong skating and his improved defensive game, but how would he handle the top team in the tournament — Canada?
It turned out that he could handle them quite well, actually, as Jurmo was able to use his mobility to escape danger in the defensive zone just as well against Canada as he was against the other teams in the tournament.
This play from early in the first period is a great example of how he intelligently uses his skating. With two forecheckers pressuring deep, Jurmo retreats and sucks in William Dufour by making it look like he’s going to wheel behind his own net. Instead, he pivots to the outside, gets a step on Dufour, and has the chance for a clean breakout.
Jurmo had a strong game defensively too, such as this play where he had to cover for his partner, Kasper Puutio, when he wiped out behind the net.
Jurmo quickly took away the pass in front, then took his man into the boards and out of the play before coming up with the loose puck.
Even when Jurmo makes a mistake, he immediately works hard to rectify his error, such as this play where he hesitates between pinching and backing up into the neutral zone on a puck in the offensive zone and gets the puck chipped past him by Dufour.
Jurmo’s strong skating makes up for it, as he beats Dufour to the puck despite starting at a standstill while facing the wrong direction. He maybe gets away with a stick hold, but you could also think of it as him already chicken-winging at an NHL level.
Jurmo then immediately turns the puck back up ice, gets the zone entry, and gets a shot attempt off before hustling to the bench for a line change.
Not everything went Jurmo’s way in this game, however. While he proved up to the challenge of checking most of Canada, there was one player who clearly got the better of him. In Jurmo’s defence, it was Connor Bedard.
Could Jurmo have played that differently and gotten a tighter gap on Bedard to give him less room to shoot? Probably, but it’s also hard to blame Jurmo for getting beaten by Bedard when Bedard has been beating pretty much everybody. That was a ridiculous shot with a quick release in not a lot of space.
Not a lot went right for Finland as a whole, in any case. Canada largely dominated the game, out-shooting Finland 37-to-25 and winning 6-3. Finland had a great chance to come back in the third period when Canada started piling up penalties, including a five-minute major for kneeing that gave Canada a one-minute-long 5-on-3.
Despite 11 minutes of penalties for Canada in the third period, Finland could only manage the one power play goal, which wasn’t enough to claw their way back into the game.
All of the power play time also clipped Jurmo’s ice time, as he isn’t on either of Finland’s power play units. He finished with 16:04 in ice time.
Jurmo’s World Junior performance has been tremendously encouraging. Early in his first game, he seemed to struggle with the pace of the tournament, but he adapted quickly and has been a force in transition with his ability to skate the puck up ice. It’s given some reason for optimism after some shakiness in his development path since he was drafted.
Truscott has been as good as he’s needed to be
Unlike with Lekkerimäki and Jurmo, it’s hard to find plays to highlight for Jacob Truscott. It’s not that he’s played poorly — the opposite is true — but he just doesn’t make a lot of standout plays.
Team USA has been dominant in this tournament, which hasn’t left Truscott much to do. He’s been primarily playing a stay-at-home, puck-moving role on USA’s second pairing with Wyatt Kaiser, who is the more daring, jump-up-the-ice defenceman of the two.
For Truscott, the bulk of his game has been playing sound position hockey, winning the occasional race to a loose puck, and making the safe, simple pass to break the puck up ice or keep it in the offensive zone so that his talented forward teammates can do something good with it.
So, in terms of highlights, I’m left with Truscott hitting a crossbar against Switzerland…
…and that’s about it.
Truscott has been extremely fine, which is what his team has needed him to be. He’s averaging 14:15 in ice time per game and has just three shots on goal but that’s fine. He’s fine.
It’s honestly difficult to talk — or write — about Truscott. He plays a calm, refined game, making few mistakes, but also not making any great plays. But isn’t that what every coach wants from a defenceman? Mistake-free, unexciting hockey.
Maybe Truscott has a little bit more excitement in him for the quarterfinals on Wednesday but it’s more likely that he’ll continue to play his calm and consistent puck-moving game. And that’s fine.