This year’s edition of the World Junior Hockey Championship is brimming with NHL-caliber talent, offering fans a glimpse of what lies ahead in the near future.
There’s a veritable mix of NHL-ready players, along with a host of stars that have yet to have their name called on draft night.
Ahead of the Dec. 26 opening, which features a heavyweight Canada-U.S. battle, we highlight the players that you should keep a close eye on during the tournament.
Alexis Lafreniere, Canada
Lafreniere is simply the best prospect since Connor McDavid and the 2020 World Juniors might eventually be remembered as his breakout tournament. The 17-year-old dynamo paces all scorers in the Canadian Hockey League with 70 points in 32 games for the Rimouski Oceanic, leading some to somewhat lazily compare him to Sidney Crosby.
Gifted with tremendous puck skills, shooting and passing accuracy, Lafreniere is the key component of a deep, talented Canadian corps that’s expected to lead the country back to the gold medal after a heartbreaking sixth-place finish in 2019. In the blink of an eye, Lafreniere will soon be a household name in Canada. You may as well keep a look out on the player being billed as the NHL’s next superstar.
Barrett Hayton, Canada
Hayton joins Canada on loan from the Arizona Coyotes, where he played sparingly this season, a contributing factor to why he’s been allowed to feature for his country this winter before returning to the NHL. The fifth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Hayton posted a goal and four points in 14 games with the Coyotes prior to being loaned.
The 19-year-old star, along with Lafreniere, is expected to be the anchor of Canada’s offense, a task that Hayton ought to be more than prepared for. He’s scored highlight-reel goals against international competition before and this tournament ought to boost his confidence. As the lone NHL player on the roster, he’s quite literally a man amongst boys.
Cole Caufield, United States
Caufield tore up the World U-18 tournament this spring on a line with 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes, and simply hasn’t stopped scoring ever since. At 5-foot-7, Caufield fell to the No. 15 spot in the 2019 NHL Draft, ostensibly due to concerns about his size and durability. It’s too early to make a declarative statement, but it appears that Montreal is walking away with the steal of the first round.
The 18-year-old winger is dominating at the NCAA level for Wisconsin, leading all freshman across the nation with 12 goals in 18 games. Caufield’s 72 goals for the USNTDP in 2018-19 was a program record, one that has graduated Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Phil Kessel among others. Count out the pint-sized dynamo at your own peril, while Canadiens fans get a glimpse at their next offensive weapon, who could graduate to the NHL next fall at this rate.
K’Andre Miller, United States
It’s only a matter of time before Miller graduates to the New York Rangers, and the 19-year-old will be a key component of a United States team that is still reeling from last year’s silver medal finish. Miller boasts outstanding skating ability which ought to translate well on the larger ice surface, while his offensive game continues to evolve.
Some considered Miller to be a project when he was selected 22nd overall in 2018 but he’s more than just an excellent athlete, as he’s become adept at joining the rush, steering traffic into the offensive zone, and will likely factor heavily on the power play. Miller has tremendous recovery speed and will be allowed to take more calculated risks, even against some of the tournament’s most dangerous forwards. He’s slated to dominate this tournament and he’ll be one of the most fun players to watch.
Rasmus Sandin, Sweden
Sandin is likely familiar to most NHL fans, having emerged as a key weapon for the Toronto Maple Leafs before being sent down to the AHL. Make no mistake, Sandin’s demotion wasn’t a function of poor play but rather a consequence of the Maple Leafs holding limited roster flexibility for the 2019-20 season, affording him more time to excel at the AHL level.
Entering this year’s tournament, Sandin is simply too good for the competition. While most of his counterparts are starring at the junior level, Sandin is excelling in the pros and could easily best last year’s showing, where he posted two goals and four points in five games for Sweden. If Sweden medals this year, it’ll be in large part due to Sandin’s heroics, where he’ll likely battle Lafreniere and Hayton for tournament MVP honors.
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