WJC Preview – The Fab Four
December 15, 2019
By Grant McCagg
The World Junior Championships are an opportunity for clubs to showcase their draft picks to a broad fan base, and for the second consecutive event, Montreal is expected to be in the forefront.
A repeat of having the tournament MVP (Ryan Poehling) and top defenceman (Alex Romanov) may be asking too much, but four of the five prospects selected to preliminary rosters have an opportunity to make a significant impact, with Romanov leading the way.
This championship will offer a stark contrast for Alex Romanov in terms of expectations. Last year, little was expected from the second-round pick that many had panned on draft day because draft pundits did not expect him to go in the top 40.
This year, the microscope will be on Romanov from the opening faceoff, but it would be wise not to have unrealistic expectations. Romanov had an offensive breakthrough during last year’s event, leading all blueliners with eight points in seven games. Point production is not really Romanov’s forte, however, as his four points in 33 KHL games this season would attest.
Mind you; Romanov was not exactly tearing up the KHL last season either when he departed for the World Juniors, so it will be interesting to see if he can duplicate his production.
What we can expect is that he will be solid defensively. Romanov is already impressing KHL followers in that regard this season, and the competition level will be a notable step down for the second-year pro. There shouldn’t be too many junior forwards outmuscling the sturdy blueliner or beating him to the outside – his strength and mobility are already NHL calibre.
How he responds offensively is the big question mark. In a short tournament, a player can get hot and a little lucky…we will find out soon enough if last year’s production was an anomaly.
One only needs to look back four years to Olli Juolevi’s standout performance for Finland in his draft year when he made the first all-star team and led all defencemen in assists. The expectation was that he would dominate the event as an 18- and 19-year-old. Instead, Juolevi struggled and Finland underachieved. The Finn managed six points in the next two tournaments combined, three points less than he scored as a 17-year-old.
My guess is that Romanov will have a solid all-around tournament, but that he won’t duplicate or better his offensive showing of last year. Perhaps somewhere in the middle in terms of point production…five or six points while being a shutdown defender. We will soon find out.
“It depends on his usage,” suggests Patrik Bexell, European correspondent for Habs Eyes on the Prize website. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets PP time; he has the experience and he has better passing than we know from the KHL.
“If he gets PP time he’ll get points. Also with Askarov in net they can afford to let Romanov play higher up.”
Given what he did at last year’s event, expect Romanov to be on the first power play, and a key driver of their offence. How many points he gets may well come down to how well the skilled forward group finishes plays.
Mattias Norlinder has made Team Sweden despite never representing his country in international play before this autumn when he played three games in a Four Nations U-20 event. It is a testament to his vast improvement over the past year that resulted in him being a top-90 NHL pick in his second year of draft eligibility.
The mobile 19-year-old is top five in goal scoring among all Allvenskan defenders. He has scored several highlight-reel goals this season, displaying offensive skills that have Canadiens’ management hopeful that he can challenge for a top-four position on Montreal’s defence in 2-3 years.
Norlinder’s puck skills, quickness, agility, shot and vision are NHL quality. Where he will need to keep improving before making the move over to North America is defensively, and from all reports, he has made major strides in that regard this season.
It is his defensive play that Sweden’s coaching staff will be most closely monitoring in camp and exhibition games, and if he can show the brain trust that he is trustworthy in all situations, he may well have a significant role on the Swedish defence.
“I am undecided about his role to be honest,” said Bexell. “It comes down to if (Rasmus) Sandin and (Adam) Boqvist will be released from Toronto and Chicago, respectively.”
“If they aren’t, I can see him grabbing a top-four role as his offensive game is so strong and you would want to use his strength (skating and zone entries) as much as possible especially with the bigger ice surface in Europe.
(Late note: Leafs announce Sandin will play for Sweden at WJC)
“My expectations are a bit dependent on the role he gets, a top-four role from the start and we can see an outbreak a la Romanov last year, maybe not as the best defender in the tournament but his offensive game should translate well and I will think that there will be a highlight goal or two.”
Norlinder has been featured regularly on Bexell’s Twitter timeline this season as he has scored, and come close to scoring, several noteworthy goals that demonstrated his impressive skill set.
“If he starts on the bottom pairing I expect him to play safe, a job that he will do well,” added Bexell. “He is stronger than many think, his hockey IQ lets him read the game well and his skating usually takes him to the right position. His defence is strong, however not as strong to play on the penalty kill, but he should feature on the power play, especially if it struggles early in the tournament.”
Jacob Olofsson has started to come on offensively, and that has to be encouraging for the Canadiens, who have waited patiently for the big center with lots of tools to translate that promise to the scoresheet. Olofsson sits ninth in Skelleftea scoring with nine points in 21 games while averaging 13:05 in ice time per game.
Olofsson has developed a reputation for playing better in league play than internationally. Despite being given top-two center roles at the start of many tournaments over the past three years, Olofsson has accumulated five points in 25 U-20 games .
After starting the season pointless through his first ten games, Olofsson has picked up nine points in his last 11 games, so the Swedes were banking on him to play a key offensive role this time around. Alas; word broke on Friday that he was injured in practice with his club team Skelleftea, and would miss the WJC with an upper body injury. That is a significant blow to a Swedish team that lacks high-end center depth for the upcoming event.
Jordan Harris is one of the rising stars in USA hockey circles, having performed admirably in the World Junior Summer Showcase when not much was expected from his first foray into international competition.
Harris was arguably the top American defender in the event, and he has followed that up with a productive start to the season for Northeastern, outproducing all other American defenceman invited to the WJC camp.
One US-based NHL scout that ranked Harris as a mid- to late-round pick in his draft year because of concerns about his hockey sense has changed his opinion on the Habs prospect.
“He has made incredible progress in the last two years, said the scout. “He does it all for Northeastern, handling heavy minutes well. He plays an active, but smart, game. Very good skating, has NHL skating ability and uses it to get up in the rush and gap/angle his man defensively.”
Does he expect Harris to make a loaded US team?
“I do, I do,” said the scout. “Our college free agent guy has been blown away by him too.”
Last, but not least, is Montreal’s most recent first-round selection Cole Caufield, who is the only college freshman in the top 30 in goal scoring, sitting tied for fifth overall, one goal behind the leaders.
Caufield is expected to play a pivotal top-six role on the American team despite being one of the younger players on a squad that will have plenty of 19-year-olds. It’s not like USA hockey doesn’t know what he can do – he did, afer all, shatter the career USNTDP goal-scoring marks last season.
The 15th overall pick is playing on a line in Wisconsin with fifth-overall selection Alex Turcotte, and continues to impress the scouting world.
“He has outplayed Turcotte this year,” noted the American scout. “He might be the better player. He’s more NHL ready than Turcotte. He has an elite shot, and is also elite at creating his own shot. He will score in the NHL, especially on the power play.”
Four highly-talented teenagers playing on three of the favourites heading into what promises to be a competitive tournament.
It is not outlandish to expect Canadiens prospects to once again be in the running for the Best Defenceman and tournament MVP awards, and for that reason above all others, millions of Habs fans in Canada will be glued to their TV sets this holiday season watching teams other than Canada with great interest.
Great report Grant. It seems NHL is getting faster and the young players are taking over. Very exciting to see Montreal with lot of prospects who are doing well.
I love to see montreal make playoffs, but if that means trading away top prospects and top draft picks, I would stay put. Next year will be very exciting with probably Romanov, Caufield, and maybe Brooks making the team. Young players are much more exciting, watching them grow.
Keep up the great reports.