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The World Junior Championship is always seen as the ultimate test for the best prospects in the world, both drafted and undrafted. And while the 2020 edition will have its fair share of top drafted NHL prospects, such as Barrett Hayton (ARI), Cole Caufield (MTL), Ville Heinola (WPG) and Rasmus Sandin (TOR), there will be plenty of attention paid to the 2020 draft prospects, which is considered by some experts to be the best draft since 2003.
As many as six players who will appear at the world juniors will land in the top 10 of the 2020 draft: Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield, Alex Holtz, Lucas Raymond, Yaroslav Askarov and Tim Stutzle. (It would have been seven had an injury not taken Anton Lundell out of the tournament.) By comparison, just four of the top 10 selections from the 2019 draft played in the tournament earlier that year. Furthermore, 29 first-year draft eligible players are slated to skate at the world juniors, one shy of tying the previous record set in 2008.
Consider Canada. With a deep talent pool, it's rare the Canadians bring draft-eligible prospects to the tournament. But this year, coach Dale Hunter's staff invited nine undrafted players to training camp, led by projected first- and second-overall picks Lafreniere and Byfield, both of whom made the cut. Forward Dawson Mercer, defenseman Jamie Drysdale and goalie Nico Daws, Canada's only over-aged draft-eligible prospect, made the team, as well. That's five draft-eligible players. Given Canada's vast player base, that's a high number. Last year, the two undrafted forwards – Lafreniere and Brett Leason (WSH) – both made the team and played pivotal roles out of selection camp. Prior to that, the last time a draft prospect made Canada was 2014. That was Connor McDavid.
Skipping to Russia, projected to be a top team at the tournament, the nation has goaltending phenom Yaroslav Askarov for the first of three potential World Junior tournaments. The starting role isn't his yet, but if 19-year-old Amir Miftakhov can't hold the fort, Askarov will be ready to swoop in. Coach Valeri Bragin is notorious for not giving underaged players much playing time, but Askarov has been dynamite at all other tournaments for Russia in the past. He may very well be the right option for the Russians. Of course, we can't forget about winger Maxim Groshev, a projected top-100 pick in June. He has 24 games KHL experience and a goal to his credit against Slovakia in Russia's final exhibition game on Monday.
Sweden has what Ryan Kennedy dubbed the ‘Terror Twins’, the lethal combination of Holtz and Raymond. When paired together, Holtz and Raymond have found a way to crush opponents internationally, usually with Karl Henriksson (NYR) centering the duo. Both Holtz and Raymond have challenged for tournament scoring titles and have spent time in the top Swedish League, bouncing around from role to role while getting used to older, more experienced competition. They’ll have Henriksson once again for the World Junior Championship, and while the elder statesman can produce quite well himself, it’ll be his wingers doing the most damage.
Then there’s Germany, who could have as many as three first-round picks for the first time ever. Sure, Moritz Seider (DET) and Dominik Bokk (CAR) will be counted on to push the team into the quarterfinals, but Stutzle is the nation’s top forward prospect since Leon Draisaitl. Few U-20 players play prominent roles in the German DEL, but he has been a top-line forward for Adler Mannheim and his 23 points in 25 games puts him behind Marcel Goc (51) and Marco Sturm (47) for the single-season lead in scoring by a U-18 player in the German League – and there's still a few months left to play. John-Jason Peterka and Lukas Reichel deserve significant praise themselves and will be key top-six forwards for Germany as the team looks to do something few teams can successfully achieve: remaining in the top world junior tournament after being recently promoted.
The Czech Republic has seven prospects worth following, starting with forward Jaromir Pytlik. Slotted as the team's first-line left winger, Pytlik has been one of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds' best players and looked energized during the Czech Republic's exhibition game against Slovakia. On defense, Simon Kubicek and Radek Kucerik, the team's second-pairing, will be utilized in various roles. Nick Malik is one of the top goaltenders for the 2020 draft, but with Lukas Dostal and Lukas Parik in tow, Malik may not see much action. You can be sure scouts will be watching if he does get an opportunity on home ice, however. Forwards Adam Raska and Jan Mysak and defensemen Karel Klikorka won't be short on ice time, either.
With the aforementioned injury taking Lundell out of the tournament, the focus for Finland turns to Aatu Raty, one of the top 2021 draft prospects. Finland's top center at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup during the summer, Raty is a smart defensive player and relentless forechecker with wheels. Raty's stat line in the Finnish U-20 league looks funny – one goal and 14 assists in 16 games (he had 17 goals and 31 points en route to helping Karpat win the U-20 title in 2018-19) – but he has skated in 12 games in the main Finnish League, as well. Raty will play an integral role in Finland's title defense. Even though he's a 2021 draft prospect, his late 2002 birthday makes him the same age as the top 2020 names.
Despite making Martin Chromiak a final cut on Monday, the Slovaks still have two solid prospects in defensemen Samuel Knazko and Marko Stacha. In Knazko's case, he's having a fantastic year with TPS' U-20 team in Finland and has already appeared in two U-18 World Championship tournaments at 15 and 16. Stacha is a late-bloomer in comparison, but he has shown great progress in the Slovakian league and could progress up the lineup as the tournament goes on.
The Americans won't have any first-year eligible prospects, but it's unlikely Parker Ford will go unselected for a third time after a good freshman effort with Providence College. Switzerland's Simon Knak has a chance to land in the second round, and with his country bringing a lackluster offensive group, Knak will be counted on to put points on the board. Kazakhstan doesn't have a single drafted prospect, and it's unlikely that any of the five first-years will go in June, either. But there's no shortage of draft prospects in this tournament, and the talent pool is special. Enjoy it, because many of the best players this year will make immediate jumps to the NHL in 2020-21.
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