Hockey is officially back in Alberta’s capital as the World Junior Championship continued with pre-tournament action last night. Three Calgary Flames prospects featured in the afternoon tilt between Canada and Russia, Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary suiting up for Canada, and Yan Kuznetsov suiting up for Russia.
Canada won the game 1-0 and generally looked to be the better team all game, but lost captain and Chicago Blackhawks forward Kirby Dach to an apparent wrist injury. We still don’t know if he’ll be able to return for Canada’s next game.
All three Flames prospects had impressive showings in this game.
Pelletier, a 2019 first round pick, started the game on Canada’s primary shutdown line alongside Colorado Avalanche prospect Alex Newhook and Edmonton Oilers prospect Dylan Holloway. This trio played well together during practice before the tournament, and will likely be Canada’s top defensive line.
As a defensive specialist, Pelletier made an immediate impact early in the game on the penalty kill. With Russia up a man, Pelletier pressured Russia’s puck carrier at the blueline and forced a dump in around the near side boards. Pelletier blocked the dump in and pushed the puck outside Canada’s zone, preparing to lead a shorthanded rush. The Russian defender was forced to take a holding penalty as he couldn’t contain the quick turnaround.
Pelletier immediately showed the Canada coaching staff how reliable and effective he can be in defensive situations and there’s no doubt he’ll be one of the go-to players matched up against other teams’ top lines and deployed when Canada needs to protect a lead.
Pelletier also made a major impact on the offensive side of the game. Midway through the first period, he quickly lifted the stick of a Russian defender during a forechecking sequence, and wristed a shot passed goaltender Yarslav Askarov. Unfortunately it hit the post and the Canadians couldn’t bang home the rebound, but Pelletier kept digging until the whistle was blown and ended up being thrown to the ice by a frustrated Russian defender.
Pelletier had a truly excellent game. He was always in the right place defensively, led some dangerous rushes on offense, and was generally reliable every time he stepped on the ice. He should be a lock to play every game for Canada and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his role increase as the tournament goes on.
Zary, drafted by the Flames in the first round in 2020, started the game on the fourth line with Los Angeles Kings prospect Quinton Byfield and New Jersey Devils prospect Dawson Mercer. However, Zary was noticeable right out the gate and it wasn’t long before he moved up the lineup.
The thing that stood out immediately with Zary is his speed. On full display basically every time he got the puck, Zary had several scoring chances throughout the game. His blazing speed wasn’t too much for him to handle, either. He was quick to stop and square up against defenders, protected the puck well, and made some slick passes too.
One of Canada’s best chances of the game is shown in the above video. Dylan Cozens is thwarted on a point blank shot right in the slot, off a brilliant puck retrieval and setup by Zary. He was all over the ice and when the unfortunate injury to Dach happened, Zary was one of those tapped to play in his place on the top line. It was a well deserved opportunity.
If Dach is forced to miss time, Zary could be one of those asked to play in his stead. He may have started on the fourth line, but Zary is making a case to move up the lineup permanently. His versatility and ability to play at center and the wing makes him a swiss army knife for Canada, something they may have to use if they can’t call on their captain.
Kuznetsov, a second round pick in 2020, isn’t a flashy player like Pelletier and Zary. However, Kuznetsov had a solid game on Russia’s second defense pairing which saw him line up with highly touted 2021 draft eligible Daniil Chaika.
For Kuznetsov, whose primary role is to play shutdown minutes, the best thing about his game is that he didn’t show up on any highlight reels. He was steady and patient with the puck in his own zone, made smart passes out of his zone, and was generally in the right place at the right time throughout the game.
The most important thing for Kuznetsov is that he didn’t make mistakes and wasn’t noticeable. He was calm and poised and always dropped back to cover his point.
We wrote about how Kuznetsov will be one of the most interesting players to watch in this year’s tournament, and even the TSN broadcast spent some time talking about his journey to the NHL and how big of a role he’s played so far with UConn in the NCAA.
Russia likes him, Calgary likes him, and it’ll become more apparent why as the tournament rolls on.
The tournament round robin opens up on Christmas day with Dustin Wolf and Team USA taking on Kuznetsov and Team Russia. Zary and Pelletier will be in action on Boxing Day as Canada takes on Germany.