The preliminary round of the 2020 World Junior Championships wrapped up on New Year’s Eve in the Czech Republic, with eight teams heading to the quarterfinals and two teams going to the relegation game.
All four Canucks prospects at the tournament will be heading to the quarterfinals with their respective countries.
Nils Höglander and Sweden went undefeated in the preliminary round and landed at the top of Group A. Toni Utunen and Finland had a tougher time, falling to Switzerland in their final game of the opening round to finish third.
Over in Group B, Vasili Podkolzin and Russia wound up in third behind Canada and Team USA, though they ran roughshod over Canada and Germany and look like they could be very dangerous in the elimination round. Meanwhile, Karel Plášek and the host Czech Republic managed to avoid relegation with a couple clutch performances against tough competition.
Here’s the schedule for the quarterfinals, if you want to catch the prospects and see if they can move on to the medal round. The quarterfinals begin on January 2nd, with all games on the main TSN channel. All times are Pacific Standard Time:
- United States vs Finland - 3:30 AM
- Canada vs Slovakia - 5:30 AM
- Switzerland vs Russia - 8:30 AM
- Sweden vs Czech Republic - 11 AM
Let’s break down the preliminary round and the performances of each Canucks prospect. Be warned: there are a lot of gifs in this article, so you might want to wait until you’re on wi-fi for this one.
Russia looked a little off early in the tournament, particularly on the power play, which went 0-for-12 through their first three games before finally connecting against Germany, going 3-for-6.
In their opening game, they were upset by the host Czech Republic, but then handed Team Canada their worst ever loss at the World Juniors, a 6-0 thrashing that was even worse than it sounds. Not only was it over by the end of the second period, with Russia scoring all six of their goals in the first 40 minutes of the game, but Canada lost Alexis Lafreniere, their top player, to a knee injury, though it looks like he will return.
Somehow, Vasili Podkolzin and his linemates were held entirely off the scoresheet against Canada, despite controlling play when they were on the ice. Podkolzin led Russia with seven shots on goal, but couldn’t find the back of the net, even as so many of his teammates did.
Podkolzin did score against the Czech Republic, albeit in a losing effort. He picked a bouncing puck out of mid-air in an impressive feat of hand-eye coordination, though it helped that the Czech goaltender was floundering, completely out of position to make the save.
One of the stories of the tournament for Canucks fans was the lack of scoring from Podkolzin, a continuation of concerns about his lack of scoring in the KHL this season. Podkolzin had just the one goal and no assists through the first three games, before adding two assists against Germany, giving him three points in four games.
The lack of points isn’t an accurate reflection of how Podkolzin has played and his impressive defensive play deserves mention. Only one Russian forward has averaged more minutes per game than Podkolzin, and only two defencemen, because the power winger plays in every situation for the Russians. He was even the lone forward on the penalty kill for a 5-on-3 against the Czech Republic, which is extremely rare for a winger.
Podkolzin arguably deserves more points as well. He’s made some fantastic plays to set up his teammates, but hasn’t been rewarded.
For instance, there was this fantastic set up from below the goal line against the USA, fooling the goaltender into thinking he was heading to the far side before slipping the pass through to Ivan Morozov. Somehow, Morozov missed the wide open net.
Against Germany, he had a couple more gorgeous setups that didn’t result in goals. First there was this rush up the right wing, with a slick backhand pass to Kirill Marchenko in front, but he was robbed by German goaltender Hendrik Hane, who was named Germany’s best player despite the lopsided 6-1 score.
In the second period, Podkolzin had some slick moves to evade German defenders through the slot, then gave Marchenko an open net at the back door, but Leon Huttl came up with a big shot block to prevent the goal.
Somehow, despite getting robbed on both those chances, Marchenko still had a five-point game.
Podkolzin had a great assist in the first period, setting up Marchenko with a cross-ice pass on an offensive zone possession that looked like a power play despite being at even strength. Marchenko tried to centre the puck, but it deflected in off a German skate.
Podkolzin’s second assist of the game was a little more mundane: he made a touch pass at his own blue line to spark a rush, then his teammates did the rest. Perhaps it’s a just reward for the assists he didn’t get on much better plays.
Against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, Podkolzin will have a chance to increase his point totals, but he will surely be more concerned with getting his team to the medal round. While his mature two-way game isn’t as sexy as sky-high point totals, it’s still a big positive for his value as a prospect.
Speaking of sky-high point totals, Nils Höglander has been superb for Sweden. He’s tied for second in tournament scoring with 7 points in 4 games, with an incredible Zorro Goal against Finland that lit up the hockey world.
Höglander has just kept producing. It’s not like he racked up points against a lesser opponent like Kazakhstan, but steadily put up a goal and an assist every game until Slovakia held him to just an assist in Sweden’s final game of the preliminary round.
That wasn’t for lack of trying. Once again, Höglander picked the puck up onto his stick from behind the net, but instead of going for another Zorro Goal, he instead flipped the puck over the net, hoping to find a teammate streaking into the slot.
Höglander knows opposing teams are looking for him to try for another Zorro Goal, so he started using it as a feint. On one power play against Switzerland, he faked like he was going to Zorro the puck before instead making a pass to a teammate. A few moments later, Höglander was in front of the net to tip in his second goal of the tournament.
His assist against Switzerland was even sweeter, as he dashed up the left wing, stuck with the puck when his attempted deke got disrupted, then evaded another pokecheck with his quick hands to set up Samuel Fagemo.
One thing is clear for Höglander: he doesn’t hesitate to go to the front of the net, as illustrated by his net drive for an assist on another Fagemo goal against Kazakhstan.
Another neat aspect of Höglander’s tournament is that all three of his goals have been scored in wildly different ways. There was his Zorro Goal against Finland, then he tipped a puck in against Switzerland, and then showed off the wicked release on his wrist shot against Kazakhstan after taking a pass off his skate to gain the offensive zone.
Canucks fans have every reason to get excited about Höglander, who is looking like he should have gone in the first round of the 2019 draft.
Toni Utunen has performed exactly as expected: quiet on the scoresheet, while playing steady, reliable defence.
Utunen has just one point, an assist, through the first four games of the tournament, and has just four shots on goal, but he’s been a steady presence for Finland on the backend. That’s not particularly exciting for Canucks fans, but if Utunen can bring that same steady game to the NHL someday, he’ll be a useful player for the Canucks.
It’s been an odd and frustrating tournament for the defending gold medalists. They dropped their first game in overtime to their Nordic rivals, Sweden, then made mincemeat out of Slovakia and Kazakhstan, demolishing the two teams by a combined 15-2 score. That left a crucial game against Switzerland to determine who finished second behind Sweden in Group A.
Finland fumbled the opportunity. Though they out-shot Switzerland 38-to-22, their goaltender, Colorado Avalanche prospect Justus Annunen, had a rough night.
As for Utunen, it’s been a little disappointing seeing him play such a simplified game, frequently content to dump the puck out when we know he’s capable of using his passing and skating to break out with possession. Whether that’s a coaching choice or a sign of Utunen’s limitations as a prospect, it’s hard to tell.
Finland has spread around the minutes among their defencemen, with no defenceman averaging even 18 minutes per game. That’s partly a consequence of Finland choosing to dress eight defencemen and just 11 forwards. It’s odd, and limits the impact any one defenceman can have on the game. Utunen comes in fifth in ice time among Finnish defencemen at 14:07 per game.
Utunen started with even less ice time at last year’s tournament and ended up on the top pairing by the gold medal game, so we’ll see how the tournament progresses for him and Finland, who will have a tough matchup against Team USA in the quarterfinals.
Plášek wasn’t even on the Czech roster for their first game of the tournament, but was arguably their best player over the last couple games of the preliminary round. He played a crucial role in securing fourth place in the very tough Group B to avoid relegation on home ice.
It’s unclear why Plášek wasn’t on the roster for the opening game, let alone in the lineup, but injuries ensured that he took on a sizeable role as soon as he stepped in.
The Czech Republic managed a major upset against Russia in their first game, but they didn’t ride that high for very long, falling to Germany two days later. That put them at risk of relegation, needing a result against either the USA or Canada — not an easy ask.
That’s when Plášek stepped in, helping to save the Czech’s tournament in their game against Team USA, where he was named his team’s best player of the game. Plášek did his best work on the power play, where he picked up his lone point of the tournament. He set up Libor Zabransky with a superb no-look backdoor saucer pass to give the Czechs a 2-1 lead.
Team USA stormed back in the second period, however, scoring two goals to give themselves a 3-2 lead. The Czech Republic needed a goal in the third period to at least push the game to overtime, giving them at least one point to stay ahead of Germany in the standings.
After a Czech goal was controversially disallowed, Plášek stepped up on the power play once again, doing some great work to move the puck around the zone. He didn’t get an assist on the 3-3 goal, but it doesn’t happen without his fantastic cross-ice pass that threw the USA penalty kill into disarray.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Plášek, by any means. While he has great vision and playmaking ability, there’s still work to be done on his play away from the puck. He had a chance to move the puck out of the zone on the 3-2 goal for Team USA and it was his man, Cole Caufield, that scored in overtime when Plášek lost track of him.
Still, you can see the skill level that made the Canucks take a chance on him in the sixth round at the 2019 draft. The Czech Republic seemed out of energy against Canada in their final game of the preliminary round, but Plášek still looked dangerous offensively.
The host Czechs might need to be satisfied with just avoiding relegation, however, as they’ll be facing the red-hot Swedes in the quarterfinals. If it’s Höglander vs Plášek, I have to put my money on Höglander.