Just over a week ago, when hockey fans talked about “Zee,” they were focused on Zdeno Chara’s surprise move from the Boston Bruins to the Washington Capitals. However, after the U.S.’s legendary 2-0 victory over host Canada in the 2021 World Junior gold medal game, the “Zee” they’re talking about is Trevor Zegras.
The 19-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect (#9 overall in 2019) backed up his own brash words with a goal and an assist on Tuesday in Edmonton, earning the tournament scoring title (7+11=18), an all-star berth, and MVP honours.
In a pre-game interview with the NHL Network Zegras was candid about the previously undefeated host team: “I honestly don’t think [Canada has] been tested with a real team yet, and I think we’re kind of going on all cylinders right now. I think we’re gonna catch them by surprise, and I think we’ll go from there.”
The gifted 182-cm, 79-kg forward also cast doubt on the prowess of Canada’s Devon Levi, named Best Goalie and an all-star: “I honestly don’t think this goalie’s been tested 5-on-5 yet.”
Those are the kind of quotes that drive Canadian hockey fans nuts and will be remembered north of the 49th parallel 10 years from now. (The Finns and Russians, too, might be nettled to learn they don’t qualify as a “real team.”) They’re the kind of quotes that could have come from the flamboyant Jeremy Roenick at the 1989 World Juniors in Anchorage, Alaska.
Zegras lacks the rambunctious physicality of a young J.R., but he’s made a greater impact as a World Junior legend. En route to gold, this native of Bedford, New York surpassed Roenick’s single-tournament 1989 total of 16 points, trailing only Doug Weight’s 19 points in 1991. Zegras equalled Jordan Schroeder’s career U.S. World Junior record of 27 points (7+20=27), but did so in just two tournaments to Schroeder’s three.
Most importantly, though, his cheeky, inventive play – like exploiting a weird bounce to tuck the 2-0 marker inside goalie Devon Levi’s right post – kept the U.S. perfect in gold medal games versus Canada on Canadian ice (2010, 2017, 2021). The Americans have now won four out of five World Junior finals against their cross-border nemesis, the only loss coming in 1997 in Switzerland (2-0).
“I think we surprised them in the first few periods with how well we played below their hash marks,” Zegras told TSN. “You could tell that they haven’t seen that kind of ground game from any other team in the tournament. We got a couple quick goals early in those periods, and then from there, we kind of just put it on shutdown mode and played great defence.”
He shone on U.S. coach Nate Leaman’s top line with Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev, assisting on Turcotte’s first-period winner against Canada. They’ll be Southern California rivals soon, with Turcotte and Kaliyev joining the Los Angeles Kings. Driving the offence while helping goalie Spencer Knight shut out Canada for the first time ever in a World Junior final was the perfect way to go out.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Zegras. “These guys are my brothers. When I first met these guys in our U17 year, I couldn't imagine that it would turn into this.”
If Zegras at times carries himself with the surfer-dude insouciance of Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it doesn’t bother the USA Hockey braintrust.
Asked about Zegras’s pre-game comments, Leaman responded: “I loved it. I mean, it was honest. You know, there’s nothing wrong with being honest. Trevor showed up and scored points against every team we played. I'm proud of the way he worked off the puck. I think it was a big reason why our team was successful. I think he’s going to be a terrific player.”
In the last two years alone, he’s come a long way. At the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sweden, the diminutive but dynamic duo of Jack Hughes and Cole Caufield stole the spotlight. Hughes led the U18 with 20 points and Caufield tied Alexander Ovechkin’s single-tournament record with 14 goals.
Zegras was important but still a member of the supporting cast, not always reaping the accolades in Ornskoldsvik. On a smaller scale, it was reminiscent of how Joe Juneau was overlooked in Boston relative to Ray Bourque and Cam Neely.
On that bronze-medal U18 team and the sixth-place World Junior team in 2020, Zegras seemed firmly entrenched as a pass-first guy in the Adam Oates mold. He recorded zero goals and nine assists at both tournaments and was dubbed the “Wizard of Pass.”
Yet now, the former Boston University star – named to the NCAA Hockey East All-Rookie Team with 11 goals and 25 assists in 2018-19 – has proved he’s a top shooter too.
Zegras may get to make his NHL mark offensively even sooner than originally projected. Last season, the Ducks were 25th out of 31 NHL teams in goals scored (187) and their leading scorer, Adam Henrique, had just 43 points. Also, the AHL season is scheduled to start on 5 February, meaning there’s no rush to send Zegras to the San Diego Gulls. There is an opportunity for him in Anaheim, whether as an immediate contributor or as a member of the team’s taxi squad.
If his NHL career follows the same legendary arc as his World Junior career, he’ll be a “Zee” who rivals not only Chara but also former Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, an IIHF Triple Gold Club member. However, a ton of hard work lies ahead before that can happen.
For now, this American hero is still soaking up USA Hockey’s amazing gold-medal triumph at Rogers Place on Tuesday.
“Greatest day of my life,” Zegras said.