If you’re looking for a sure bet, and something different to bet on, this international youth hockey tournament is a world class presentation of upcoming NHL and KHL stars. The WJC is an annual Under-20 event held in a different host city, with the only stipulation being that the tournament is held in Canada every other year. This is one of those years, since Canada can fill an arena for even the most obscure matchups like Denmark-Switzerland.
It’s pretty highly visible sporting event in Canada that always starts on Boxing Day, December 26th, and one that is looked forward to every hockey fan in the country. National pride is also on the line since in 2016, Canada finished a disappointing 6th, and now is hoping to better their fortunes and win gold. They’re off to a great start having beaten one of the top teams in their group last night, they beat Russia 5-3, and now look tonight to their second game versus a Team Slovakia.
Canada will have momentum and confidence going into tonight’s matchup and will want to build on that win against what is possibly the weakest team in Group B. But that doesn’t mean they should take them for granted, on any given night any team can run into a hot goaltender or have their scoring touch dry up.
Slovakia had one good showing the last time the WJC was held in Canada, and that’s when Montreal Canadiens prospect, Martin Réway captained his team to a surprising bronze medal. They are the darkhorse despite being one of the weakest clubs in the IIHF’s Top Division for six of the previous seven years. Their bronze medal from the 2015 tournament didn’t follow through to the next year since in 2016 they finished seventh in Finland.
Slovakia won’t have it easy, since they start their tournament against the beast, Canada who’s already hungry for more victims. That’s why in their start tonight it will be dire for the Slovaks to get off on a good start and at least try to hang with one of the world’s best teams.
Canada has won this tournament record 16 times in the 39 years of it’s’ existence, but in their recent history they have faltered. They won in 2015 ending a five year drought, but finished sixth last year which show how much the quality of international hockey has improved and become more competitive. There was mass national hysteria last year, so the pressure is on to get the gold back.
However, this year, being back on home ice might help but they won’t have any big household names. The reason being the eligible Canadian juniors are doing such a good job in the HL that their teams do not want to let them go to the WJC. Examples of such players: Mitch Marner, Jakob Chychrun, Anthony Beauvillier, Lawson Crouse, and Travis Konecny, who are all major NHL contributors and not being released to play. So Canada will have to go on without them and no true star to lead them. Of course, upcoming superstar Connor McDavid is still eligible too, but there is no way that the Oilers are not letting him go anywhere.
So the guys to look out for are: Kale Clague, a left-handed defenseman out of Brandon (WHL) drafted by L.A. in 2016. He should be the extra D-man or a low pairing guy. Dillon Dube, who had an extremely strong camp made the coaches keep him around and cut a forward instead who was projected to be on the roster. He’s a Calgary draft choice and will be interesting to watch to see if he can keep up his strong play. There is Dylan Strome too, the main guy to watch for, and probably a future Pacific Division star. Drafted third overall, he is projected to be a future franchise player, and he’ll be the go-to guy for Canada and redeem them with gold.
Slovakia has some strong prospects too who will one day play in the NHL. Some Slovak rookies, like the Canadians will also not be joining their national team, players like Travis Konecny, Pavel Zacha and Jakob Chychrun were too important to loose. So, center Adam Ruzicka should help fill the void. Ruzicka, is only 17 and will be NHL draft eligible in 2017, and he has averaged better than a half point-per-game through mid-November, keeping the Sarnia Sting in the CHL’s West Division race. Suprisingly he was selected 107th overall by Sarnia in the 2016 CHL import draft. Ruzicka has played in the past two Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournaments for Slovakia, and he was so good that he captained the team in August, contributing four points in four games.
“We’re not leaning on him offensively, but we definitely need him to contribute,” said Sting coach/owner Derian Hatcher. “If he wasn’t here right now, there would be a big hole to fill.”
Before he joined the Sting, he played in Pardubice, Czech Republic. He’s a 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds center who worships Czech right winger Jaromir Jagr and his infamous puck-protection style. “He’s a legend,” Ruzicka said. “I’m trying to play like him because he’s probably one of the best players in the world. We’re a similar type of body.”
With him leading the team, Slovakia has another asset and that’s in net. And everyone knows that a hot goalie can take a team pretty far in a short tournament like this. There always seems to be one at every WJC that steals a few games for an underdog country, and goalie Adam Huska is a prime candidate to be that guy this tournament for Slovakia. He is a high quality prospect that has flown under the radar so far, he’s been great this season in the NCAA, and has a lot of experience playing internationally, so he could shut the door tonight or at least make it hard.
Wingers Erik Cernak and Radovan Bondra, are currently both playing out their junior careers in Canada, and are the two other main players to watch out for on the score sheet. A couple of unexpected names will have to step up massively if they want to reach the medal games again, and they’ll soon find out if they can roll with the big dogs tonight.