Thanks to a shutout performance by Spencer Knight, Team USA upset Canada 2-0 in the final of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championships earlier this week. The tournament, held behind-closed-doors in Canada, marks another milestone for several NHL draftees – each with a bright future ahead of them.
The final, however, was decided by the combined brilliance of tournament MVP Trevor Zegras and Florida Panthers prospect Knight. Zegras, an impressive performer throughout the championships, registered a goal and an assist in the final, with University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Alex Turcotte scoring Team USA’s opening goal of the night.
Elsewhere, Finland defeated Russia 4-1 to secure the bronze medal. It is just the second time in 11 tournaments that Russia – who won gold in 2011 – finished off the podium. The Finns, meanwhile, suffered defeat in the bronze-medal game last year, winning gold in 2019.
With another tournament in the books, it’s time to reflect on three things we’ve learned from this year’s play in Red Dear and Edmonton.
Trevor Zegras is going to be even better than we thought
Zegras, an Anaheim Ducks prospect, “had what can only be described as the greatest individual performance by an American player in the history of the World Junior Championship,” according to ESPN’s Chris Peters.
The 2001-born centre was on fire in the Great White North, registering 18 points in seven games – just one shy of Dough Weight’s record from 1991. Zegras also matched the record for points in a World Junior Championship career and now ranks fifth on points-per-game among players with at least 10 appearances at the tournament.
“Trevor showed up against every team we played,” said head coach Nate Leaman after the gold-medal game. “He was so committed off the puck and that helped our team. Seeing that helped them.”
Most importantly, however, is the fact that most of Zegras’ production was consequential to the USA’s path to gold. The 19-year-old featured on the scoresheet in every match, more than backing up the bold comments he offered to the NHL Network before puck-drop against Canada.
“I honestly don’t think Canada’s been tested with a real team yet and I think we’re kind of going on all cylinders right now,” Zegras said when asked about how the Americans might upset their hosts. “I think we’re gonna catch them by surprise and I think we’ll go from there.”
That they did. Zegras has an exceptionally bright future.
The German production line is still ticking along
Although Germany’s goalie, Jonas Gahr, came under fire for his performances at the World Juniors, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the nation’s ice hockey prospects. In fairness to Gahr, however, he travelled to Canada as the side’s backup netminder – only to be thrust into the firing line due to a coronavirus outbreak in the German camp.
Regardless, Tim Stuetzle – the third overall draft pick in 2020 – was fantastic for Team Germany. The Ottawa Senators prospect, who is set to start his NHL career aged 18, averaged 25:40 ice time per game, all while displaying significant defensive commitment and an impressive skillset in the offensive zone. With 4.2 shots per game, the Viersen native prospered under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Florian Elias also made strides at the World Juniors. After being passed up at last year’s NHL Draft, Elias had a lot to prove in Canada – and he dealt with the pressure well. It remains unclear whether he will ever fulfil the promise of an NHL prospect – but he will be pleased with his tournament regardless.
J-J Peerka – drafted 34th overall by the Buffalo Sabres – also had a fine tournament, putting a cherry on top of his impressive season in the DEL with EHC München.
Germany certainly isn’t on course to become an ice hockey powerhouse – but they’ll be alright if they can keep producing forwards as talented as Stuetzle.
Team Finland are on the up
Securing the bronze medal seems like poetic justice for a Finnish roster that performed admirably against stern opposition. Ville Heinola, Anton Lundell, Topi Niemela, and Kari Piiroinen were particularly impressive for Team Finland. This team has the tools to challenge for World Championship medals in the year ahead.
Piiroinen, Team Finland’s undrafted netminder, should be particularly pleased with his tournament – earning praise for his composure in the crease despite the number of shots he faced. Born in 2001, Piiroinen has a bright career ahead of him – whether in North America or Europe.
Dylan Cozens, who had a brilliant tournament for Team Canada, was visibly distraught when the final buzzer sounded on Tuesday evening. His post-game comments were succinct but accurately reflected the mood of a nation. “We lost the gold medal game,” the 19-year-old said. “We feel horrible.”
Amid the backdrop of Covid-19, it is a triumph the tournament even took place. Now, with the NHL’s return just around the corner, hockey fans have a new season to look forward to. With a fresh sheet of ice ahead, we’ve all got something to look forward to.