The annual World Junior Hockey Championship (WJC) is almost upon us. Every year the tournament offers fans and teams alike to get a glimpse at the game’s best young talent outside the NHL. This year’s tournament will begin on Christmas Day, with the final being played on January 5th, 2021. After seeing the success the NHL had playing there, the tournament is slated to take place in a bubble at Edmonton’s Rogers Place.
With players being named to Canada’s World Junior camp this week, the hype for the 2021 WJC tournament has begun. Many are already starting to project who will be named to each team in the tournament and which NHL clubs will be represented. In the Flames’ case, they only have a handful of prospects who could be playing in the tournament this year, but are quite noteworthy.
Last year the Flames had just one player at the tournament in Dustin Wolf, and this year could be the same. Calgary had lost a lot of prospects through graduation to their NHL team in the past, but with the cupboards restocked this past draft, there are many more who are in the mix to play in the tournament.
There are still some exciting Flames prospects that have a chance to play in the tournament. Because the hockey schedule has been sporadic lately, the WJC is one of the first times Flames fans will get to see some of the team’s future players in action. Seven Flames prospects have a chance at representing their country this year at the 2021 World Juniors. Let’s take a look.
Dustin Wolf – USA
This one will come as a surprise to literally no one. Dustin Wolf represented team USA last year in the tournament and due to the NHL’s ridiculous rules with the CHL, he will be back in junior this year. As a returning player to the American team, Wolf is a lock to make team USA. The Americans are expected to have one of the best teams in the tournament along with Canada so Wolf has a great shot at taking home a medal as well, a goal that Wolf has his eye on.
Wolf will also be one of the best goalies in the tournament. He is coming off a season in which he won the WHL Goaltender of the Year, the CHL Goaltender of the Year, as well as the USA Hockey Goaltender of the Year. He also put up a superb 34-10-2 record in the WHL with a GAA of 1.88 and a .935 SV% last season. Despite the WHL season not slated to start until January 8th, Wolf has been training hard and making sure to stay in great shape.
Outside of Russia, Wolf would likely be locked in as the starter on every country’s team. However, team USA will also have top goalie prospect and Florida draft pick Spencer Knight on their team meaning the duo will likely battle for the starting job.
Last year Wolf played just one game in the tournament with Knight playing the rest, so at this point it is probably Knight’s job to lose. However, Wolf has all the tools to push him for the starting job and if Knight slips up early on, I’m confident team USA won’t hesitate to give their 2019 goalie of the year the job. We will just have to wait and see how it plays out but even if Wolf doesn’t win the starting job, I expect him to get into more than just one game this time around and potentially start some big games for team USA.
Josh Nodler – USA
Josh Nodler was invited to his second consecutive selection camp at the end of September. He did not make the USA WJC roster last season, but could have a better shot this year with another year of experience under his belt.
He doesn’t look like a guy who has the inside track to make the USA roster at first glance. Many of the 38 camp invitees are former first round picks and have put up eye popping numbers in previous seasons. However, Nodler has a winning pedigree and might be the type of player the Americans will need to put them over the top this year.
He has a history of not only representing the USA on the world stage, but elevating his game at the most important moments. Nodler was part of the USA’s undefeated team in the Five Nations Tournament in 2017, won a gold medal in the World Junior-A challenge in 2018, and was the team’s leading scorer in the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in 2018.
Nodler will likely battle for a bottom six role on the team, and could serve in a leadership role as well. Team USA loves what he brings to the table and if he makes the team, will be relied upon in different situations. He’s a dark horse candidate, but has more going for him than many might think.
Jakob Pelletier – Canada
Of all the Flames prospects not named Dustin Wolf, Jakob Pelletier has the best shot of playing in the tournament. The Val-d’Or Foreurs Captain has gotten off to a great start in the QMJHL, notching three goals, seven assists and 10 points in seven games so far. This has earned him an invitation for the second straight year to Canada’s camp.
Last year the Flames prospect had a great start to the season for the Moncton Wildcats and was invited to Canada’s camp for the first time. Pelletier looked to have a good shot to make the eventual gold medal winning team, however he suffered a concussion in his final game before the camp started and was unable to attend.
This year, assuming Pelletier stays healthy, he will have a great shot to prove his worth and make the team. Canada is losing eight players from last years team due to age, as well as tournament MVP Alexis Lafreiniere who will presumably be unavailable due to NHL camps taking place during the tournament. There will be a ton of roster spots up for grabs and given his pedigree, age, and experience, Pelletier should be one of the favourites for an empty roster spot.
I wouldn’t expect him to challenge for a top six spot as Canada is ridiculously deep this year (when are they not?). However, the fact that he is a 19-year-old and the captain for his junior club means he is exactly the type of player Canada will be looking for to fill out the bottom of their roster. Pelletier would be a great role player and leader for the team.
Connor Zary – Canada
The Flames’ 2020 first round pick Connor Zary will be looking to build off his impressive showing at last year’s WJC and force his way onto the roster this time around. Last year, when Pelletier was unable to attend camp due to a concussion, Zary was the one called up to take his spot despite him being just 18 and in his draft year.
Zary was reportedly very impressive at camp last year and garnered praise from the Team Canada coaching staff throughout the camp.
“That’s something that [coach] Dale Hunter said to me last year — you impressed us a lot, you got your name out there and obviously you didn’t make the team, but there’s going to be a really good chance for you to be on the team next year.”Connor Zary on last year’s World Junior Camp
He was unfortunately one of the final cuts from the team, but considering he wasn’t even included in the original camp roster it is an impressive feat to make it that far into camp. The Team Canada brass clearly likes what he brings to the table. Now a year older, Zary looks poised to make a very strong case to make the team.
Similar to Pelletier, Zary will most likely be competing for a bottom six role. Given his skillset I think he could be a great fit in a depth role and one that the coaching staff could trust. Zary is a very talented offensive player and could offer Team Canada a depth option who can play up the lineup if needed. I expect him to once again be one of the final players in camp and this time around possibly finding his way onto the roster.
Yan Kuznetsov – Russia
Yan Kuznetsov will be looking to continue his trend of suiting up for Russia at international tournaments at this year’s World Juniors. Kuznetsov has tons of experience playing for Russia as he has played for them at the U16, U17, and U18 levels. Having that familiarity with the Russian national team will certainly be an advantage for him. With the NCAA season delayed, Kuznetsov had been training back home in Russia during the pandemic, but is now back in the USA.
At just 18 years old, he will be one of the younger players vying for a spot on Russia’s team this year. The good news for him is that Russia has zero returnees on defence from last year’s team as they have all aged out, which leaves the entire defence corps wide open for the taking. Kuznetsov was also the youngest player in the NCAA and surprised a lot of people with how well he did in his freshman year.
Something that could be working against him, however, is the fact that Russia has been known in the past to favour hometown talent over players who have gone over to North America to play. (Kuznetsov will be going into his second year with the UConn Huskies this season in the NCAA.) Igor Larianov will be taking over head coaching duties this year replacing long-time coach Valeri Bragin, so perhaps things change this year.
Kuznetsov will be competing for a depth spot on the team, most likely on the bottom pairing and I think he has a decent shot to make it. His no-nonsense, responsible game is a great match for a bottom pairing stay-at-home defenceman role. His international experience with Russia will also help him, but being in the USA may prevent him from fully participating in training camp and practices. This could result in Kuznetsov not being included on the roster.
Ilya Nikolayev – Russia
The Flames’ 2019 third round pick Ilya Nikolayev will be vying for a spot on Russia’s World Junior team after missing the cut last year. He did suit up for them in three exhibition games last year but didn’t make the final team. Nikolayev had a solid season last year but unfortunately Russia typically favours experience and age on the teams they take to the tournament.
Now a year older, Nikolayev could find his way onto the team’s fourth line or perhaps as an extra forward. He had a great start to the year in the MHL with 13 points in just 12 games which earned him a call up to VHL, and eventually to Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL where he had one point in six games.
Russia is expected to have a very deep team this year especially at forward, so he is certainly a longshot to make the final cut, but he does have some factors working in his favour. First of all, as mentioned above Russia typically likes to take older teams to the tournament and at 19 years old and getting some time in the KHL this year, Nikolayev has lots of experience over younger players vying for a spot.
Also, with a bias towards players who stayed in Russia to play over going to North America, Nikolayev has an edge. He has spent his entire career playing in Russia’s hockey system, which could also help him sneak his way onto the roster.
Nikolayev is probably a longshot to make the team but given his age and experience in Russia he could earn himself a spot as a 12th/13th forward. Most Flames fans have probably never seen him play and don’t know much about him so it would be a great chance to be able to see the former third round pick play live.
Daniil Chechelev – Russia
The Flames’ fourth round pick from October’s NHL draft, Daniil Chechelev, has been off to a blazing start to his season. Starting the year off in the MHL (Russia’s equivalent to junior hockey) he went 10-0, was then called up to the VHL (the AHL in Russia) where he went 3-0 and was subsequently called up to HC Vityaz of the KHL. Although he hasn’t gotten into a game in the KHL yet, being called up this early into the year is very impressive for the 19-year-old.
Before the season started, Chechelev probably wasn’t even on the radar for Russia’s team. However, given his hot start to the year I think he has forced his way into consideration and Russia would be crazy not to at least give him a look.
The team already has their top two goalies locked in, most likely in Nashville’s first round pick from this year Yaroslav Askarov and Toronto’s fourth round pick Artur Akhtyamov. The third goalie spot is anyone’s for the taking though and Chechelev looks to have a decent shot to earn that spot.
One factor to consider that could benefit Chechelev is that Akhtyamov has never played for Russia internationally which could sway Russia to go with someone else as the backup. Chevhelev has represented Russia at the U17 level.
It’s definitely a longshot but if Chechelev can continue to light up the VHL he could possibly climb his way into the backup role. For now though just making the team would be a huge accomplishment for Chechelev. If he continues his hot start I think he does it.
Onto the tournament
The Flames don’t have a huge group of prospects projected to play in this year’s WJC tournament with only one lock in Dustin Wolf. Still, there are some exciting names that could find a place on their countries’ rosters when it’s all said and done.
As well, all three teams that could have Flames prospects on them are expected to be tournament heavyweights and featuring in some big games. This could be an exciting chance for Flames fans to watch some of the team’s prospects play in important games when they typically wouldn’t get the chance to watch these players live.
If I had to give a prediction, I’d say Pelletier and Kuznetsov will be joining Wolf in the Edmonton bubble. For now, we will have to just wait and cross our fingers that they all make their respective teams.
Image credits: Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press