Bedard headlines 2023 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships, Devils and Rangers prospects well represented

Christmas time means the world’s best hockey prospects get together to compete in the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships. The prestigious tournament will take place in Halifax and Moncton between December 26 through January 5.

Unlike last year when COVID-19 interrupted the tournament in Edmonton leading to a postponement, it’s expected to go on as scheduled. With all the bitter cold weather, hopefully there aren’t any issues.

The 2022 WJC was rescheduled for last summer. Canada proved to be the best team, taking gold by defeating Finland in a great game 3-2 in overtime.

Current Blue Jackets rookie Kent Johnson scored the golden goal to win it for Canada after Finland rallied from a two-goal deficit to force OT. Ducks rookie Mason McTavish won the tournament MVP by pacing all scorers with 17 points. He also saved the potential Finland winner prior to Johnson’s winner by batting a puck out of mid-air. It was pretty memorable.

While both players have graduated to the NHL playing for two of the league’s worst teams, Canada still boasts a potent roster. Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann is a holdover from the gold medal team. Along with Dylan Guenther (Coyotes), Joshua Roy ( Canadiens), Olen Zellweger (Ducks), Logan Stankoven (Stars), Zach Ostapchuk (Senators), Nathan Gaucher (Ducks), Ethan Del Mastro (Blackhawks) and headliner Connor Bedard (projected top pick in ’23), there’s plenty of experience for a repeat.

With recent Kraken fourth pick Shane Wright added to the roster along with Blackhawks prospect Colton Dach, the Canadians are strong favorites to win the tournament. Especially if the much improved Bedard continues to light the lamp as he’s done in exhibition games. He looks even more dangerous. Possessing both the explosive skating and quick release, this could be the coming out party for the consensus top pick for the 2023 NHL Draft. Chances are you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

With defensemen Brandt Clarke (Kings) and Nolan Allan (Blackhawks) added to a deep roster, Canada should be a handful. If there’s a question, it’s in net where they’ll rely on Benjamin Gaudreau (Sharks) and 19-year old Thomas Milic (Undrafted). Canada is coached by Dennis Williams.

The only shadow cast on the Canadian team is the recent investigation into Hockey Canada on former players who are accused of sexual assault from past tournaments. It’s a serious issue Rick Westhead has covered.

For the current roster, it’s unfortunate that this story is not going away. The more that comes out, the worse Hockey Canada looks. Good friend Anne Laurie can’t look past it. Despite games being played in New Brunswick, she won’t be attending any due to the mitigating circumstances. I don’t blame her. It’s extremely disappointing.

I can only hope that none of the current players are overshadowed by what’s happening off the ice. They are representing their country. I’ll be curious to see if the story is mentioned with TSN broadcasting the games. There are some quality people who are involved. Will they address the topic?

Considering how quick some in the media are to critique Alexander Ovechkin after he surpassed legendary Gordie Howe for second all-time with 802 goals to only trail Wayne Gretzky, you wonder if they’ll have the same no-nonsense approach with Hockey Canada.

It’s easy to question Ovechkin for his past support of Russia President Vladimir Putin. However, do any of these so-called journalists understand what it’s like to have family living in Russia. I seriously doubt it. Or did some of the critics including a popular NY Post columnist conveniently forget the ordeal Artemi Panarin went through a couple of years ago with his family?

It’s hard for a future Hall Of Famer to control what’s going on back home. The war in Ukraine is unforgivable. The act of a madman whose health has come under question. Hopefully, there’ll be a peaceful resolution soon.

In terms of Devils and Rangers prospects, there are plenty who’ll be represented up north. Luke Hughes highlights the list. The 2021 number four pick by the Devils is in his sophomore year at Michigan. After a big freshman year where he scored 17 goals and had 39 points in 41 games, the 19-year old defenseman is 3-15-18 in 20 games.

A great skater who can transition in a hurry, Hughes has a good shot and isn’t afraid to jump into the offense like a forward. He will captain Team USA in Moncton, New Brunswick. At the recent 2022 WJC, he looked the part tallying a goal and five assists. Unfortunately, they were upset in the quarterfinals by Czechia 4-2.

One of six players returning including Coyotes ’21 third pick Logan Cooley along with Red Savage (Red Wings), Jack Peart (Wild), ’23 Draft Eligible goalie Kaidan Mbereko (Colorado College), and ’23 Draft Eligible Charlie Stramel (Wisconsin), Hughes will fill the leadership role.

Rangers 2022 fourth round pick Noah Laba is on the team. He’s a freshman on Colorado College. In 17 games, he’s scored seven goals with four assists and 11 points. It’s hard to say what his role will be. Especially with newcomers Tyler Boucher, Cutter Gauthier, Rutger McGroarty and Jimmy Snuggerud arriving.

The blue line has several new players including undrafted Luke Mittlestadt. A player to watch who has 13 points in his freshman year for Minnesota. Devils ’22 second round pick Seamus Casey has done well so far on Michigan with 16 points (4-12-16). Interestingly, USA teammates Dylan Duke (Lightning), Gavin Brindley (’23 Draft Eligible) and McGroarty also play for the Wolverines along with Hughes and Casey. They are again well represented.

Rand Pecknold takes over behind the bench replacing Providence College coach Nate Leaman. Pecknold is the Quinnipiac coach. He’s been behind the Bobcats bench since 1994. He guided them to 17 straight winning seasons. They made two Frozen Four appearances in 2013 and 2016 losing in the national championship game both times. He’s the 33rd coach to win 400 games in Division 1.

It’ll be the second consecutive WJC that doesn’t include Russia. They continue to be penalized for the war in Ukraine. What that has to do with kids who play hockey I don’t know. It’s Canada’s loss.

No Matvei Michkov in the tournament. He’s only one of the top prospects eligible for next year’s Draft. He just turned 18 over two weeks ago. While most of the focus is on the remarkable talent of Bedard, Michkov is a slick skater with superb scoring instincts. He’s currently in his third year playing for Sochi HC in the KHL. He spent the previous two with St. Petersburg SKA.

Michkov is highly rated by everyone including legendary Bob McKenzie who has him number 2 behind Bedard. Elite Prospects ranks him fourth. TSN’s Craig Button has him fifth. The only catch with the diminutive Russian is he likely will stay in Russia until 2025. So, whoever selects him will have to wait. He’ll continue to hone his skills in the KHL.

With Russia out of the tournament, it again loses some of its juice. That creates an easier path for world powers Canada, Sweden, Finland and USA. Group play looks easier for USA. They take on Latvia later today on Day One of preliminary action. Slovakia, Switzerland and Finland are in their group. It’s Canada, Sweden, Czechia, Germany and Austria in the other group.

On Boxing Day, there are four games. Finland versus Switzerland at 12 PM (11 EST) in Moncton. Sweden vs Austria at 2:30 PM (1:30 EST) in Halifax. Latvia vs USA at 5 PM (4 EST) in Moncton. And it’s Czechia challenging Canada at 7:30 PM (6:30 EST) in Halifax. All games can be seen on NHL Network. Circle the final one due to Bedard and Wright. Plus Blueshirt fans will want to see Othmann.

Czechia also features NYR prospect Jaroslav Chmelar. The ’21 fifth round pick has six goals and four assists in 18 games for Providence College. He got a writeup on the official Friars site. Top Blue Jackets prospect David Jiricek is back on Czechia to anchor the blue line. Remember. They stunned USA last August to advance to the semifinals where Canada ousted them 5-2 en route to the gold.

Other Rangers prospects are Adam Sykora and Kalle Vaisanen. Sykora will play for Slovakia who boasts recent Devils second pick Simon Nemec. The other promising young defenseman who could make their back end lethal once he and Hughes join the big club. Nemec had four assists in five games in the ’21 WJC. He skipped 2022 to prepare for NHL training camp. So far, he is 3-8-11 in 24 contests for Utica in the AHL.

Other Devils prospects include Petr Hauser representing Czechia and Topias Vilen playing for Finland. If you haven’t already, the Devils had a whole preview of the WJC including their five prospects led by future defensemen Hughes and Nemec. Plus Casey. It’s that promising trio that Devils fans should be keeping an eye on.

If you have the time to catch some of the games, it should be worth it. No matter what’s happening that I disagree with regarding the hypocritical Canada and IIHF, it’s a great tournament. From the playing of the anthems for the teams who win to the presentation following games, there’s plenty to admire about the WJC. Let’s enjoy it.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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