Every year in the heart of the holiday season, big hockey countries look forward to the World Juniors. The 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship went down differently but the story lines were as unique as ever.
Although there was a lot of good that came out of the 2021 World Junior Championship, some things stood out more than others.
The first being that we actually got to see a World Junior Tournament in a year with so many question marks. Yes, there were no fans in the arena and yes, teams had to battle adversity due to COVID-19, but the fact that a gold medal was awarded this year is absolutely incredible.
Next, the top stars performed as expected! I can mention many names here but four players in particular stood out, bringing their game to another level.
Let’s start with Tim Stutzle. The kid is incredible and led Germany to a 6th place finish behind the five powerhouses of the World Junior tournament (USA, Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden). Stutzle had points on 10 of Germany’s 15 goals in the tournament putting him 3rd in tournament scoring. Not to mention he was on the ice for all but one goal they scored! Stutzle was awarded best forward at the tournament and was named to the All-Tournament team. The Ottawa Senators have a star on their hands in the 3rd overall pick.
The second player is Team Canada’s Bowen Byram. The Colorado Avalanche 4th overall pick from the 2019 NHL Draft demonstrated why he is expected to be a star at the next level, showing off his incredible skating, poise with the puck and smart decision making when jumping into the rush.
When Canada seemed to have nothing going in the gold medal game, it was Byram who was a post away from swaying it in their favor. Byram drove the offence for Canada and was part of a solid defence core that did not give up a 5-on-5 goal until the gold medal game. Byram led the tournament at +13 and was a great choice to be on the all-tournament team
Now to the gold-medal winning Team USA. Starting with Trevor Zegras. Wow! The Anaheim Ducks have a new face of the franchise coming. He carries himself with incredible confidence that some may even call arrogance, but he goes on the ice and backs it up every single shift. Zegras more than out did himself from last years tournament when he led team USA with 9 points. This year, all he did was lead the tournament with 18 points, have a goal and an assist in the Gold Medal game and tie an all-time USA record for points in a World Junior career with 27. Zegras may go down as the best American to ever play at the World Juniors. To no one’s surprise Zegras won tournament MVP and proved why he has such big expectations heading into the NHL. The young American may already be the best player on the Ducks and amongst one of the top rookies in the league.
Finally the last player to point out is Spencer Knight. The star of the gold medal game. Goaltending is a true difference maker in short tournaments like this and having a goalie that has been there before gave team USA a massive advantage. Knight proved why it is such a difference maker.
On Christmas Day in the Americans opener against team Russia, Knight was pulled after allowing 4 goals on 12 shots. From that moment on he was virtually unbeatable. Goalies need to have a short memory, especially after a bad performance in a tournament jam packed with pressure. Knight proved his mental strength by the way he responded to being pulled by putting up back-to-back shutouts of Team Czech Republic and Team Sweden. Then after wins against Slovakia and Finland, Knight saved his best performance for last in the gold medal game. Knight was insane against Team Canada stopping all 34 shots he faced and shutting out a team that had 41 goals! Knight had a .939 save percentage and a 1.63 goals against average, tying the shutout record with 3 at a single World Junior Tournament. Knight, the 13th overall pick by the Florida Panthers, continues to prove why he is one of the highest ranked goalie prospects in the NHL.
Despite the tournament providing much more good than bad, two teams did not perform up to expectations and that is why they will be put in the bad category.
Team Switzerland is lucky that there was no Relegation Round at this years World Juniors because Team Austria would have given them all they could handle. The Swiss are the only team that does not have a single player on the roster drafted to the NHL and it showed. Switzerland circled two games on their calendar before the tournament started. Opening day against the Slovaks, and their final game against the Germans. Yes, they lost both those games by one goal but the Swiss were not in control of either of them.
The heartbreak started for them on Christmas day against team Slovakia. It was an even game when the Slovaks scored with just under 6 minutes to play, followed by Slovakia’s goalie Simon Latkoczy making the save of the tournament to shut out Switzerland in their opener.
Then in a must win game against Germany, Switzerland found themselves down in the first 5 minutes of the game and never seemed to get anything generated until late when the score was 4-0. The Swiss were not able to play the strong defensive game that they have always put forward at the tournament and one year after finishing 5th, they slid all the way to 9th place, which in any other year could have led to relegation.
The biggest disappointment at the 2021 World Juniors was team Sweden. Sweden came into the tournament riding a 52 game unbeaten streak in the preliminary round, which amazingly has only led to one gold medal!
With the win streak up to 54 games after blowout wins against Austria and Czech Republic, Sweden was finally defeated by Russia in overtime to end the incredible run that started all the way in the 2008 tournament!
You may ask yourself, why is this a disappointment? Well, the disappointment is not that the streak finally came to an end; the disappointment is how they followed up their first round robin loss in 13 tournaments.
The next day, Sweden played USA and got run out of the building by an American team who dominated every facet of play beating Sweden 4-0. With back to back losses, Sweden finished 3rd in Group B and played Team Finland in the quarterfinal. Sweden was in control up 2-0. After the lead was cut to one, Finland thought they tied the game but Sweden won an offside challenge meaning they started the third up a goal. In the final period, Finland would tie the game with under 9 minutes to play. Then in the dying seconds, a wrap around goal would send Sweden home with three straight loses and a round robin win streak that seems like a distant memory.
The ugly for this tournament had to be the large number of lopsided wins.
On December 26th the games were Sweden/Czech Republic, Canada/Germany and USA/Austria. The closest margin of victory in all those games was 6 goals! With Sweden crushing the Czech’s 7-1, yes you read that right… the closest game was 7-1.
The other games make a 6 goal win seem close, because USA won by 11 goals and Canada beat Germany by 14.
December 29th came with the same story line as the 26th. USA/Czech Republic, Canada/Switzerland and Austria/Russia. Once again the closest score was 7-1, with Russia beating Austria by 6 goals. The USA won 7-0 that day, while Canada rolled over the Swiss 10-0.
Every year at the world juniors the gap between the top and bottom teams is massive, but at this years tournament it seemed like the difference grew even more. In the 2020 World Juniors a goal differential of 6 or more only happened four times, including Russia beating Canada 6-0, which Canada would eventually prove was a fluke, winning the gold medal.
At this years tournament it happened 8 times with 3 of those being by double digits.
Although it will always be a problem for as long as the World Juniors is a 10-team event, the exposure that the players on the bottom teams receive is a silver lining.
Bonus – the Great:
Mic’d up referees! The positive side to the seats being empty had to be hearing almost every interaction between the ref and players.
Whether the referees were being fed their one liners or they came up with them off the top of their heads, the opening faceoff became a must listen to event.
The 2021 World Junior tournament was great on the ice, but here’s to hoping that this tournament was the last one to be hosted in an empty arena. The World Juniors strives off fans from around the world, and with fans in the arena, the 2022 event will be better than this one!