Played under unusual conditions due to the global pandemic, the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship exceeded expectations with thrilling games and fresh-faced superstars. Here are the lessons we learned during those 11 days in Frisco and Plano, Texas.
Canada’s renowned depth still rulesEven though the Canadian junior leagues were severely disrupted this season, coach Dave Barr did a bang-up job with his stacked OHL and WHL roster. With relentless two-way hockey, Canada outscored opponents 51-12 for seven straight wins, never trailing until the first period of the 5-3 gold-medal win over Russia. Canada boasted the best PP (43.3 percent) and PK (83.9 percent).
Depth was key. Fourteen Canadians, including three defencemen, registered four or more points. This was Canada’s finest U18 Worlds team ever.
The kids are more than all rightIn a normal year, Canadian captain Shane Wright, 17, would have been named MVP and won the scoring race with his nine goals – a Canadian record – and 14 points in just five games. Yet the superb Kingston Frontenacs centre, the likely #1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, was overshadowed by two even younger, freakishly talented forwards.
Connor Bedard, 15, equalled Connor McDavid’s Canadian points record (14) with endless highlight-reel plays. And Russian scoring champ and MVP Matvei Michkov, 16, racked up 12 goals – trailing only Alexander Ovechkin and Cole Caufield (14) – and 16 points. Their reunion at the 2022 World Juniors in Alberta should be spectacular.
Sweden’s kryptonite is the red Maple LeafIf you disregard Sweden’s games against Canada, coach Anders Eriksen’s team had an outstanding run. The bronze medalists won their other five games by an aggregate of 28-4. However, the 12-1 group stage shellacking – Sweden’s worst U18 Worlds margin of defeat ever – and the 8-1 semi-final loss were disturbing.
Members of these Smakronorna will face Canada again at the World Juniors, World Championships, and Olympics. There must be a better pushback, or Canada’s psychological dominance will continue.
Captains are courageousShane Wright was one of several U18 captains who shone in Texas. Russia’s Igor Chibrikov boosted his stock with Nikita Kucherov-like shiftiness and vied for the overall scoring lead with 13 points. Finland’s Samu Salminen contributed to all-star linemate Samu Tuomaala’s success and paced his team with seven goals. The U.S.’s Red Savage showed grit and poise like his ex-NHL father Brian and had the tournament’s third-best faceoff percentage (63.7 percent) after Salminen and Wright.
The maturity of these young leaders is remarkable, considering some are too young to drink, vote, or drive a car. They’re on the right road.
Dramatic comebacks only take you so farIf these U18 Worlds were Greek mythology, the Finns would be Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a big rock uphill. In their opener, they fell behind 3-1 but rallied for a 4-3 shootout win over the Russians. Another three-goal Finnish rally yielded a last-minute 6-5 victory over the Czechs.
Yet playing from behind caught up with coach Petri Karjalainen’s boys. In a group-stage finale with five lead changes, they fell 5-4 to the Americans in overtime. And Finland trailed throughout the 6-5 semi-final to Russia, despite making it exciting with two goals in the last 10 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Suomi looked emotionally drained when it lost 8-0 to Sweden in the bronze medal game.
All good things must come to an endDespite home ice advantage, the U.S. saw its tournament-record medal streak end at 16 years. Coach Dan Muse’s team fell short in a 5-2 quarter-final loss to the Swedes. It was definitely no reflection on the excellent organization and hospitality of the host Texans.
Missing key 2021 draft-eligible stars like defenceman Luke Hughes – brother to Jack and Quinn – and forward Chaz Lucius hurt America’s hopes. However, the U.S. National Team Development Program produces bumper crops of talent, and nobody would be shocked if the Americans won gold next year for the first time since 2017.
Don’t underestimate BelarusTo put things in perspective, the last time Belarus played a Division I game (15 April 2016), Sidney Crosby owned just one Stanley Cup ring. Yep, it’s been a while. And the Belarusians, who came sixth in Texas, didn’t make it easy on anyone. In losses to favoured Sweden (5-1), Canada (5-2), and Russia (5-2), they fought to the end. Remarkably, they even had a better preliminary-round goal difference (16-13) than Sweden (16-14).
Belarus also dazzled skills-wise, from Dmitri Kuzmin’s lacrosse-style goal to Danila Klimovich’s unexpected six goals. These kids set the bar high for 2022.
Defence-first style may serve Czechs betterCoach Jakub Petr’s plan to have the Czech Republic attack more in 2021 was well-intentioned. The Czechs looked like contenders when they outshot the U.S. 18-8 in the first period of a 2-1 shootout loss. Yet everything went south in their last two games. After falling 11-1 to Russia to close out the group stage, the Czechs got hammered 10-3 in the quarter-final by Canada.
Until this Central European nation starts producing players like Jakub Voracek and David Pastrnak more frequently, focusing on taking away the neutral zone may yield better results.