2023-12-26 · 3 min read · IIHF World Juniors/Hockey
Macklin Celebrini and Axel Sandin Pellikka

AP Photo | Ola Westerberg

Team USA may be the most balanced headed into the tournament and are bringing back Trey Augustine between the pipes who was huge for them last year. Augustine has had a few big runs now as he also led Team USA to a gold medal at the U18's last year, as well as winning a silver medal in the 2022 U18's. Simply Augustine has been the guy in this program for a while now, expect him to play a major role in this tournament and be a top contender for best netminder. Augustine’s backup Jacob Fowler is no slouch either; he has been killer for Boston College this season, putting up a .925 save % and only giving up 2.16 goals per game.
On top of this team USA looks to have one of the best bluelines in the tournament, headlined by Lane Hutson. Hutson is returning from last year's Bronze run and will be wearing an “A” on the sweater. Huston was drafted by Montreal in the 2nd round in 22 and has 8 goals and 12 assists for BU so far this season. Interestingly Zeev Buium is surprisingly the only draft eligible player on this year’s squad. It seems like now it is the time to note Cole Eiserman was left off this roster despite being on the top prospects in this coming draft, I think this was a mistake.
For the forward group it seems the focal point will be Cutter Gauntheir who was the 5th overall pick in 2022. Cutter is one of the best scorers in this tournament, putting up 10 points in seven games last year. He's top 10 this year so far in goals and points in the NCAA with Boston College, and this is probably his last go around before turning pro in a few months. Joining him from last year's squad are Jimmy Snuggeraud (Stl, 22, 23rd) and Rutger McGroaty (Wpg, 22, 14th). McGroarty is going to be wearing the 'C' for this year's team. Snuggerud also had a dominant tournament last year when Team USA won bronze with 13 points in 7 games. Despite the above talent, the line I think could lead the USA to glory is the Will Smith, Gabe Perreault and Ryan Leonard trio. They were the top 3-point getters at the 2023 U18 World Championships The 3 of them combined for 55 points in just Seven games at that tournament as USA went on to win gold. All 3 of them play together as Boston College this year, and all of them have over a point-per-game this year. I see this team as one of if not the biggest threat to dethrone Canada.
Czechia played fantastic last year coming all the way within a goal of the gold. This was primarily because they played smart, tough hockey and their defence led by David Jiricek (now with the Blue Jackets) made life difficult for whoever was up against them. On top of this goalie Thomas Suchanek stood on his head at times having an outstanding tournament between the pipes. However, Jiricek, Suchanek and most of the guys who did the heavy lifting won't be there this time around.
This year's Czech team is going to have more of a focus on offence and that starts with Jiri Kulich (Buf, 22, 28th). He currently has 22 points in 22 games playing with the Rochester Americans this year in the AHL. He was named one of the top 3 forwards at last year's World Juniors, and he was the MVP of the 2022 U18 Worlds. The Czechs fell to Team USA in the semifinals of that tournament, but he had 9 goals and 11 points in 6 games.
Outside of Kulich, the Czechs have some other enticing skaters. Eduard Sale (Sea, 23, 20th) was a top prospect last year and is putting up quality number for Barrie in the OHL. Another guy I want to mention is Matyas Sapovaliv (Vgk, 22, 48th) as he was valuable experience with this being his 3rd trip to the World Juniors, he currently has 36 points in 27 OHL games this season.
I also want to highlight how a Jiricek will be there for Czechia, just not David. His younger brother Adam will be suiting up at the WJC for the first time. The younger Jiricek is projected anywhere from top ten to second round and I am excited to see if he can solidify his status in this tourney, he certainly has the potential. Overall, I think Czechia will be hard pressed to reach the same level of success as last year but they are not going to be an easy out.
While at first glance last year's 6th place finish may not look great, when one actually looks they had a fairly impressive tournament. They won a handful of big games namely cruising to a 6-3 victory of USA in group play. Then they got Canada and pushed them to OT in which if not for Conner Bedards generational talent they might have won. The Slovakians also finished in 4th at the 2023 U18's after taking down Finland in the quarterfinals, but then getting ousted by the Americans in the semis. Again, they lost to Canada in overtime in the bronze medal game. But this group of '05 birth years from Slovakia are really good and they have some returning stars.
The first name that comes to mind is Dalibor Dvorsky, who is one of the tournament's deadliest scorers. Dvorsky started off the season playing in the top Swedish league before coming to play for Sudbury in the OHL. In just 20 games with Sudbury, he has 18 goals and 16 assists. He was also one of the best players at the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he had more goals and points than his teammate and 1st overall pick in 2021, Juraj Slafkovsky.
Slovakia will also send out Filip Mesar (Mtl, 22, 26th) who is one of the premier passers in the tournament. Mesar who has 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 20 games with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League this season, had six points (two goals, four assists) in five games at the 2023 WJC, and has seemingly taken another step in his development since. Mesar's vision and passing go along with Dvorsky's ability to score, and this Slovakian forward group is going to be a handful all tournament long. While they may not have the depth of some other top teams, their top six holds up against anybody. On top of this they have a handful of wildcards, a kid like Samuel Honzek (Cal, 22, 16th) for example has the potential to take over when you're least expecting it.
As far as Slovakia's weakness it'll most likely be on defence. There's simply a dearth of NHL-caliber talent there. Jakub Chromiak ('24 Draft) is currently playing with Kingston in the OHL, following in the footsteps of his brother Martin Chromiak, he is projected to be a mid-round pick in next summer's draft. The Slovakian defender I'm most intrigued by is easily Luka Radivojevic. He's going to be the youngest player in the tournament, and the only '07 birth year. Granted, he'll turn 17 just 3 days into the new year. But he's been having a big year playing in the U20 league in Sweden, putting up 18 points in 27 games with Örebro; I could see him having a breakout tourney. Lastly and luckily for Slovakia they will have Adam Gajan returning between the pipes. He was the best goaltender at last year's tournament (and the favourite to be so again this year). Gajan is currently one of the best goalies in the USHL, playing for the Green Bay Gamblers. He has the most saves in the league, and the 2nd highest Sv%. In short Slovakia has elite firepower up front, questions on the blueliner and prime timer between the pipes; they are my dark horse team. I think there's a good chance they will bring home their first medal since 2015 (Bronze)
The Swiss are consistently better than relegation and worse than the medal, I will be quite stunned if that fails to be the case this year. It has been seven tournaments in a row now without having to fight for relegation, with a bronze medal game loss being the pinnacle. I expect more of the same in this tournament and if anything, I think they are a bit weaker than recent years. The Swiss player I'm most intrigued by is defenseman Rodwin Dionicio (Ana, 23, 129th), who has 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 26 games with Windsor and Saginaw of the OHL this season, will make his third tournament appearance.
Norway has to be happy just to be here as they are back up to the top division for the first time since 2014. At one point they even got relegated out of the Division 1A tournament and had to win the Division 1B tournament in '18 just to get back. But after winning last year's Division 1A, Norway is back, and they might be able to surprise some people as they are going to be better than expected I think. Petter Vesterheim who went undrafted in 23 draft, was one of the top point scorers at last year's tournament, helping Norway get promoted back to the top division. Yet Norway's most intriguing player is easily Michael Brandsegg-Nygard) as he is projected to be a top 15 pick in the 24 draft, which would easily make him the highest drafted Norwegian ever (currently Marius Holtet was drafted 42nd overall in 2002).
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