2024 WJC: Ranking the Contenders
by Lucas AYKROYD|20 DEC 2023
In the 2023 World Junior final in Halifax (pictured), host Canada edged Czechia 3-2 in overtime. Who will battle for gold in Gothenburg in 2024?
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
The 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden will feature hockey that’s as unpredictable as it’s exciting. Questions abound.
Could a non-North American team win the gold medal for the first time since Finland in 2019? Will it be tears of joy or despair for the host nation? Might the Czechs medal again? Or will another nation end its long podium drought?
Here is a pre-tournament ranking of the 10 competing teams. This ranking is based on the author’s assessments and does not reflect any official opinions of the IIHF.

1. Canada

2023 finish: Gold
3 players to watch: Macklin Celebrini (F), Denton Mateychuk (D), Matthew Savoie (F)
How do you bet against the two-time defending champs? It’ll be exciting to see how Celebrini responds to the spotlight as the projected #1 overall NHL draft pick in 2024. Granted, this squad isn’t quite as flashy as previous editions headlined by MVPs like Connor Bedard and Mason McTavish. And goaltending, as usual, remains a question mark heading in. Forward Owen Beck is the lone returnee.
Still, Canada traditionally finds ways to pull together. Anything but making the final for the seventh time in eight World Juniors would be a major comedown for coach Alan Letang’s group.

2. United States

2023 finish: Bronze
3 players to watch: Cutter Gauthier (F), Lane Hutson (D), Will Smith (F)
On paper, the U.S. forwards – including a smorgasbord of NHL first-round picks – look poised to shred opposition goalies. To illustrate, in 2023, Gauthier potted seven goals at the men’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Smith led the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with 20 points, just one point shy of Nikita Kucherov’s single-tournament record.
Coach David Carle’s blue line is deep, solid, and gifted. Goalie Trey Augustine will be hungry for redemption after allowing five goals in last year’s 6-2 semi-final loss to Canada. The U.S. last triumphed in 2021.

3. Sweden

2023 finish: Fourth place
3 players to watch: Filip Bystedt (F), Jonathan Lekkerimaki (F), Axel Sandin-Pelikka (D)
Stunningly, the Juniorkronorna have only won the World Juniors twice (1981, 2012). Even without a blue-chip centre like Leo Carlsson, coach Magnus Havelid’s Swedes should vie to end their current drought on home ice.
Every line can score. Sandin-Pelikka headlines one of the tournament’s best blue lines, and netminder Hugo Havelid proved he can work miracles in the 2022 U18 Worlds final upset over the Americans. Yet – as we recently saw in a dramatic 2-1 overtime loss to Czechia in the 2023 quarter-finals –  Sweden must overcome its long-standing tendency to disappoint in World Junior playoff games.

4. Finland

2023 finish: Fifth place
3 players to watch: Kasper Halttunen (F), Konsta Helenius (F), Emil Hemming (F)
Especially with top blueliner Aron Kiviharju sidelined due to surgery, the 2024 Finnish lineup exudes “workmanlike” more than “wow factor.” The forwards will need to check tenaciously and help out a pedestrian defence. Karpat’s Niklas Kokko, 19, may carry the load in net after not playing last year.
Battling Canada and Sweden, new bench boss Lauri Mikkola’s troops will likely come second or third in Group A. After that, it’s anyone’s guess, but the Finns can thrive as underdogs. Incidentally, they also won the World Juniors the last time it was in Sweden (Malmo 2014).

5. Czechia

2023 finish: Silver
3 players to watch: Adam Jiricek (D), Jiri Kulich (F), Matyas Sapovaliv (F)
Last year’s success offered a massive confidence boost for this Central European nation, whose previous medal was 2005’s bronze. The Czechs’ offensive flair was unmistakable as they scored 37 goals, their highest single-tournament total since 1995 (43).
With key returning players, there is hope that Czechia will play for a medal again, but it won’t come easily. For towering goalie Michael Hrabal to match 2023 all-star Tomas Suchanek’s excellence could be the biggest challenge.

6. Slovakia

2023 finish: Sixth place
3 players to watch: Dalibor Dvorsky (F), Adam Gajan (GK), Filip Mesar (F)
The gutsy Slovaks arguably deserved a better fate last year. Not only did they shock the U.S. 6-3 in the preliminary round, but they also gave Canada a real scare in a 4-3 quarter-final loss in overtime, thanks to Gajan’s magnificent 53-save outing.
This year, though, the defence is thinner. And top nations won’t take Slovakia lightly.

7. Switzerland

2023 finish: Seventh place
3 players to watch: Rodwin Dionicio (D), Ewan Huet (GK), Daniil Ustinkov (D)
Strong defence is vital for Switzerland, which struggles to score at the World Juniors. In fact, the Swiss haven’t beaten any nation by more than one goal since a 5-2 upset of Finland on 31 December, 2019. There’s no sniper like Nico Hischier or Kevin Fiala to ignite the offence this year, and blueliner Lian Bichsel’s absence is a setback.
Three-time U18 Worlds head coach Marcel Jenni, who takes the WJC reins for the first time, must ensure his boys open strongly against Slovakia and don’t waste points versus Norway.

8. Germany

2023 finish: Eighth place
3 players to watch: Kevin Bicker (F), Julian Lutz (F), Norwin Panocha (D)
Tobias Abstreiter has served as Germany’s World Junior coach since 2020, including back-to-back sixth-place finishes (2021, 2022). Those marked Germany’s best results since the Berlin Wall fell.
Realistically, nothing about Abstreiter’s 2024 roster portends a huge improvement over 2023, when the Germans were outscored 33-8. Barring a shocker, it’ll all boil down to their Group A finale on 30 December versus fellow underdogs Latvia.

9. Latvia

2023 finish: Ninth place
3 players to watch: Dans Locmelis (F), Eriks Mateiko (F), Sandis Vilmanis (F)
At the 2022 World Juniors in Edmonton, Latvia’s 5-2 win over Czechia was the biggest preliminary-round upset. It paved the way for an all-time best seventh-place finish. Those were good times.
Third-time WJC participants like Locmelis and Vilmanis aspire to go out with a bang here. But they will need significant offensive support from newcomers like Mateiko, who is close to a point per game in his second QMJHL season with Saint John. Another do-or-die relegation round clash likely looms.

10. Norway

2023 finish: Promoted from Division IA
3 players to watch: Michael Brandsegg-Nygard (F), Stian Solberg (D), Petter Vesterheim (F)
No NHL club has drafted a Norwegian since the Arizona Coyotes took D-man Emil Martinsen Lilleberg in the fourth round in 2021. That’s just one worrisome indicator for Norway, which last competed in the top division in 2014.
Expect an honest effort, but also struggles at both ends of the ice. Avoiding relegation is the goal – anything more is gravy.