Well, they did it. The IIHF managed to complete the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships in the midst of a global pandemic. It was not easy. Many teams, such as Canada, Sweden, the U.S., and Germany received positive covid-19 tests from key players prior to arrival in Edmonton, which ruled them out for the tournament. Germany faced even more positive test results during the quarantine period which caused them to start the tournament severely shorthanded. However, after a bit of a bumpy start, the bubble environment proved to be safe for players, staff, and everyone else involved in facilitating the Championships.
On the ice, the biggest discussion piece circled the notion of competitiveness between nations. The tournament saw many “blowout” losses by the likes of Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and Switzerland, and it caused many to ask, “should the tournament be run differently?” At the end of the day, the main goal of this tournament is not to entertain the public. It is to help develop hockey players from around the globe and the only way to promote growth is to allow developing hockey nations the opportunity to play the best. This gives them something to strive for. Germany is the perfect example. For many years the Germans were relegated to the second division at the tournament. But with the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Tim Stuetzle, Moritz Seider, Jason-John Peterka, and Lukas Reichel, the Germans have found a resurgence. It was exciting to see them push the Russians in a close quarterfinal game and certainly validating as to why this tournament needs to remain less restricted.
In terms of the results, Canada and the United States came out on top following the preliminary round, which would help to foreshadow the matchup in the gold medal game. Leading up to the gold medal game, Canada looked like a dominating force, causing many in the Canadian media to prematurely champion this year’s team as one of the best ever at the IIHF event. A dominating shutout of team Russia in the semi-finals certainly helped their cause. The United States had a slightly different route. Their tournament opened with a disappointing loss to Russia that saw star goaltender Spencer Knight get pulled. However, with each game played, the team built up strength and confidence leading up to a gold medal showdown with Canada. During that build up, the team even set a new tournament record shutout streak of nearly 219 minutes. During the gold medal match between Canada and the U.S., the Canadians were stifled by the suffocating American forecheck and blanked by Florida Panthers draft pick Spencer Knight. By a score of 2-0, the U.S. captured their first goal since 2017. Anaheim Ducks draft selection Trevor Zegras was the star of the tournament, capturing the MVP and the scoring title.
As we reflect on the tournament, we will conclude with a look at the players who were voted to the Media All Star team with outstanding performances that shone a very bright light on their potential, in addition to those awarded by the IIHF directorate for their achievements. – Brock Otten
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IIHF Directorate Awards
Best Goaltender: Devon Levi, Canada
Drafted 212th Overall by Florida in 2020
Club Team: Northeastern University (NCAA)
WJC Stats: 6 wins, 0.75 GAA, .964 SV%, 3 shutouts
Levi, a seventh-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, was the surprise of the tournament for many. A Northeastern commit out of the Junior A circuit in Ontario (the CCHL), Levi established himself as the Canadian starter early on and finished the tournament with some of the best statistics in the tournament’s history. The only other goalie in the history of the tournament to post a save percentage above .960 with five or more games played was Carey Price in 2007 with a .961 stat line. The only other goalie to post those kinds of numbers with seven games played was John Gibson for the U.S. in 2013. Certainly, terrific company for Levi.
Last year, Levi was a standout in the CCHL, where he was the league’s MVP. He was also named the CJHL Player of the Year, for all of Canadian Junior A. At the World Junior A Challenge, a high-end tournament that occurs at the beginning of December each year, Levi led Canada East (made up of Junior A players from Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces) to a silver medal and was named tournament MVP over the likes of Brendan Brisson, Kent Johnson, Marat Khusnutdinov, amongst others. His performance a season ago, led us at McKeen’s to rank him 106th heading into the 2020 NHL Draft. Ultimately, he ended up going much later, in what is looking like a terrific selection by the Florida Panthers.
While Levi is undersized by today’s standards of the goaltending position (6’0), his athleticism and body control are fantastic. This was extremely evident at this year’s WJC’s. The issue that some smaller goalies have is that they rely on their athleticism to make saves at the lower levels, but when they advance to the higher levels, they have issues with positioning due to their scrambling nature. Not every goaltender can be Dominik Hasek or Tim Thomas. With Levi, he is so quick post to post, and up and down, but he is also so in control of his movements, so you rarely see him caught out of position. He is laser focused and as such was such a rock for the Canadian team. It will be interesting to follow his development at Northeastern the rest of this season, where he will surely become the starter for a team that finds itself hovering around a top 10 ranking in the country. – Brock Otten
Best Defenseman: Topi Niemela, Finland
Drafted 64th Overall by Toronto in 2020
Club Team: Karpat (Liiga, Finland)
WJC Stats: 7 games, 2 goals, 6 assists, 8 points, 6 PIM, +4
Niemela's offensive abilities and steady defensive game stood out throughout the tournament. The right-shot blueliner was highly reliable and logged big minutes at even strength. He was also a vital part of the Finnish team's power play. He showcased great puck moving abilities and consistently helped the Finnish team exit the defensive zone with control. He was calm with the puck, did not panic under pressure and had the patience to look for good passing lanes before moving the puck to the forwards. He led all defensemen in points with two goals and six assists. His goals were very similar: on both occasions he unleashed a quick, accurate wrist shot after moving laterally. His shot hasn't been a significant strength in his game before, however in this tournament he did a good job of creating shooting lanes and getting pucks consistently on net, even through traffic.
Defensively, he had the mobility, backwards skating ability and awareness to be effective. He kept tight gaps and had the ability to stop opposing rush attempts already in the neutral zone. He did not show much of a physical element to his game, but he played smart and therefore didn't get into trouble very often. In the defensive zone, he played with his head on a swivel and used shoulder checks to survey the ice. The Toronto Maple Leafs third round pick became the first Finnish player to win the Best Defenseman award since Rasmus Ristolainen in 2014. – Marco Bombino
Best Forward: Tim Stuetzle, Germany
Drafted 3rd Overall by Ottawa in 2020
Club Team: Adler Mannheim (DEL, Germany)
WJC Stats: 5 games, 5 goals, 5 assists, 10 points, 8 PIM, -4
Sure, you’d be right to look at the Ottawa Senators’ Tim Stuetzle being tied for third overall in WJC scoring with five goals and ten points in just five games (two less than fellow 10-point getter Anton Lundell) and think it’s a no-brainer that he finished up his tournament on the all-star team. You also can’t be faulted for perhaps expecting such a performance from a #3 overall draft pick. In fact, the most critical of fans may even expect nothing less considering Stuetzle was the obvious go-to guy in all situations for a national side like Germany, one of the tournament’s traditional minnows bereft of competitive talent at this level. Nonetheless, there’s a lot more pointing out just how impressive Stuetzle’s achievements over five games were.
Like many of the tournament’s primarily North American participants, Tim hadn’t played a lick of competitive hockey this season heading into the WJC. This was due in part to not only his North American (namely NHL or AHL) and German (DEL) options being out of session, but also an arm injury that had sidelined him since November. To what effect this arm injury continued to plague him at the WJC is unknown, but the arm was indeed wrapped up the whole time and he was seen holding it gingerly with his glove off on several occasions when he wasn’t on the ice. Speaking of time not on the ice, those moments felt few and far apart as he averaged - are you ready - an eye boggling 25:29 minutes of ice time per game throughout the tourney. His total power play ice time was second overall only to linemate John-Jason Peterka at 32:52 minutes. He also earned his team more power plays than any other player, being the target of identified illegal showings of affection on five occasions.
All that considered, there may be no more telling indicator of his performance than the good old eye test, which viewers across the hockey globe got to make on their own accord. Playing the first three games with only sixteen players after several days without on-ice practice, he served as the team’s captain and willed it right into its first ever quarterfinal, not only impressing under dubious circumstances in games against Canada and Finland but also in defeating Slovakia and Switzerland in what were do-or-die contests. He generated timely offense, backchecked, threw checks with aplomb, and battled through constant attention from the opposition (which clearly got the better of him at times), adding to just how daunting the task was in leading his team to what ended up being a razor thin 2-1 loss to Russia in the playoffs. All this was achieved with a number of moves, dangles, passes, and posts that surely had viewers, well, out of their armchairs.
In short, we got a look at a very special player who had a very special tournament facing more than his fair share of adversity. Senators and NHL fans alike have a lot to look forward to. – Chapin Landvogt
Media All-Star Team & MVP
Goaltender: Devon Levi, Canada
- Already covered, see above
Defenseman: Bowen Byram, Canada
Drafted 4th Overall by Colorado in 2019
Club Team: Vancouver Giant (WHL)
WJC Stats: 7 games, 1 goal, 4 assists, 5 points, 0 PIM, +13
A returning gold medalist from the 2020 World Junior Championship with Canada, Byram was every bit the leader this team needed at the 2021 event. After playing more of a depth role with last year’s team, Byram anchored Canada’s top pairing with Anaheim Ducks first round selection Jamie Drysdale. The two of them were the tournament’s top pairing. Byram’s average ice time per game of 23:16 was fourth among defenders in the tournament behind Victor Soderstrom, Ville Heinola, and Simon Gnyp of Germany. His ‘InStat Hockey Index’ of 255 led all skaters at the tournament, which is a measure of overall effectiveness according to advanced stats and metrics. Needless to say, Byram was nothing short of terrific.
The focal point of Byram’s game is his skating ability. A dynamic skater, Byram is so dangerous and aggressive on the attack and it made Canada such a strong team in transition. While early on in the tournament, his aggressiveness offensively did lead to some turnovers, by tournament’s end he had learned to select his spots better to jump up into the rush and demonstrated an understanding of when to try to be aggressive and push deep into the offensive zone. Blessed with great hands and vision, no question Byram can be a high-end offensive facilitator at the NHL level. However, it was his defensive ability that truly stood out at the tournament, showing significant progression from a year ago. His pairing with Drysdale drew all the important assignments against the opposing top lines and they did a great job at largely dictating the pace of play for Canada. With his four-way mobility, Byram’s transitional defensive ability has become a significant strength and bodes well for him becoming an all situations, minute crunching defender for the Colorado Avalanche.
Speaking of the Avalanche, that is where Byram’s attention turns to now as he will head to NHL camp and look to make the opening night roster of Colorado. With the WHL not yet started, Byram will be allowed to remain a member of the taxi squad or even be sent to the AHL to start his pro career until the WHL begins. Unquestionably, a potential Cale Makar and Bowen Byram pairing down the line has to be a scary proposition for the other NHL franchises. – Brock Otten
Defenseman: Ville Heinola, Finland
Drafted 20th Overall by Winnipeg in 2019
Club Team: Lukko (Liiga, Finland)
WJC Stats: 7 games, 0 goals, 4 assists, 4 points, 4 PIM, +3
Heinola was counted on to play big minutes in all situations and he did not disappoint. He averaged over 24 minutes of ice-time per game and performed at a very high level. His economical skating and durability were two significant factors that enabled him to play the most minutes on the Finnish team. It was doubtful whether he could play in the quarterfinals due to an injury suffered in the previous game against Canada. However, he did play against Sweden and at that point, it was probably his best game of the tournament. The Winnipeg Jets first rounder showed poise and composure. He was very confident with the puck under pressure and moved pucks reliably to the forwards. He could create space for himself along the offensive blueline with his fast stickhandling, mobility and wheels. He has a good shot and used it a lot in the tournament. He often kept his shots from the point low, aiming for possible redirections and deflections.
Overall, he was very sharp in his execution offensively. Furthermore, he defended well with his stick and he was tough to beat in 1-on-1's. He wasn't much of a physical force, but he processed the game fast and outsmarted many forwards in the tournament. I think most impressive was that he brought his best game when it mattered most and improved as the tournament progressed. It is clear that Heinola's development is heading in the right direction – he should be a very solid player for the Winnipeg Jets down the road. – Marco Bombino
Forward: Trevor Zegras, USA
Drafted 19th Overall by Anaheim in 2019
Club Team: Anaheim Ducks (NHL), formerly Boston University (NCAA)
WJC Stats: 7 games, 7 goals, 11 assists, 18 points, 0 PIM, +9
What more can be said about Trevor Zegras that hasn’t already been said? Many of those words have been said by me, so I honestly don’t know. When Anaheim used its ninth overall pick in 2019 on the USNTDP playmaker, we were already of the opinion that they had one of the steals of the draft, seeing how we had Zegras ranked 6th. He was already one of America’s top weapons at the 2020 WJC, finishing that (ultimately less successful from a national perspective) tournament as one of the top three players for the American squad, with nine helpers (no goals) in five games. This time, playing as much on the wing as in the middle, he led the entire tournament in assists (11) and points (18). Even his seven goals were only one fewer than anyone else on the American Gold Medal winning side had points.
It may not be fair to say that Zegras was a one-man show for Team USA, but it is absolutely fair and correct to note that the Red, White, and Blue do not collect Gold without his performance. I already mentioned his playmaking bonafides. All of his passes are clever and creative. His strength in the cycle game is pretty remarkable, as he can break out of it at any time and in any direction, spying a teammate with a few inches of open stick blade to pick with an unexpected pass. He also spent a lot of power play time on the point, where he could survey the scene with fewer distractions. What Zegras did this year that we had not seen fully in the past was to demonstrate his shooting strengths. Firing shots to the net with as much creativity and unpredictability as he generally makes his passes, he became a living nightmare for opposing defenses. Even if he isn’t known as a great skater, he also used his wheels to help create some scoring chances and goals. See the rush he made in the Austria game, where he changed gear late in a drive down the wing to get around a suddenly flatfooted defender before cupping the puck over the dropping goalie’s shoulder. Generally, though, he adds elusiveness through masterful edgework instead of through sheer speed.
Zegras’ performance in Edmonton, which brought him into a tie with Jordan Schroeder for most points in a career (albeit in seven fewer games than his predecessor) by an American at the WJC, was one for the ages, even if there wasn’t a crowd in the stands to witness it. Having signed his ELC with Anaheim last March, Zegras should have a chance to play with the Ducks right away, and with the added confidence in his abilities as a goal scorer on top of his well-established playmaking reputation, NHL defenders will soon have their hands full. – Ryan Wagman
Forward: Dylan Cozens, Canada
Drafted 7th Overall by Buffalo in 2019
Club Team: Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
WJC Stats: 7 games, 8 goals, 8 assists, 16 points, 6 PIM, +11
The 2021 World Junior Championships was supposed to be the Kirby Dach and Dylan Cozens show for Canada, with the two set to play on the same line in hopes of terrorizing opposing defenses. However, Dach suffered a gruesome wrist injury during an exhibition game for the tournament. In turn, this amplified the pressure placed on Cozens to be Canada’s go to player. After all, he was the team’s returning leading scorer from a year ago when they captured gold. Boy, did Cozens deliver. From start to finish, he was one of the tournament’s top forwards, finishing second in scoring behind tournament MVP Trevor Zegras. Additionally, with a strong tournament, Cozens moved into 4th all-time in WJC scoring for Canada with 25 total points (across two events), behind only Eric Lindros, Jordan Eberle, and Brayden Schenn.
You might expect that a player who finished second in tournament scoring would have stood out mostly at the offensive end. He was certainly impressive from an offensive standpoint, with his speed and skill in transition really giving opposing defenses a difficult time. However, the component of Cozens’ game that was so impressive was his defensive work in the neutral zone and in his own end. Matching up against the tournament’s top lines, not only did he shut them down, but he outproduced them too. His defensive awareness, positioning, and effort are all significantly improved from a year ago. Now a highly effective two-way player, Cozens appears ready for his next challenge, which would be to make the opening night roster of the Buffalo Sabres.
Like mentioned with Bowen Byram earlier, Cozens has a shot to make Buffalo and play a significant role for the Sabres this year, now that he has become a much stronger player away from the puck. And like Byram, Cozens has the opportunity to be a member of the team’s taxi squad, or play in the AHL should he not crack Buffalo’s roster, due to the fact that the WHL has not begun their season yet. Could Cozens be a future winger for Jack Eichel, the one that the team has long been searching for? Prognosis is certainly good currently. – Brock Otten
Forward: Tim Stuetzle, Germany
- Already covered, see above
Most Valuable Player: Trevor Zegras, USA
- Already covered, see above
The McKeen’s team are scouting and writing about prospects all season long and provide in-depth reports on our website: www.mckeenshockey.com