Urs Berger The Hockey Writers
WJC 2020 – Each Nation’s Best Player
Ten Teams – ten Players. Who was the best player for each team at the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic? We take you through each team and nail them down.
Who would you pick? Honestly, there were so many great players at this year’s tournament that it was not so easy to choose considering there were over 230 players.
So, who was the best player on each team? I looked at their play for the team, their value in the dressing room and what they did relative to other players.
Some of my choices will surprise you, and perhaps you’ll think someone else was more deserving. But the task to pick just only one from each team made the writing pretty intense and my choice may not be yours. And that’s fine!
Goaltender Joel Hofer was at his best in the final. The St. Louis Blues prospect had a great tournament. He was stellar behind the defence, made some great saves and had something that a goalie needs to have to play the net: confidence, excellent play reading and great moving between the posts.
He was mentally on top, and even when he let in a bad goal he washed it away. Hofer got into the tournament as a substitute to Nico Daws but took over the duties in the middle of the second frame against Russia in the preliminary round and never looked back. With a .939 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.60 goals-against average (GAA), he was the best keeper of the tournament.
The underager Yaroslav Askarov split duties with his teammate Amir Miftakhov. For me, Askarov was the better goaltender for Russia. The numbers may not speak the truth. Askarov may have had an .877 SV% and a 2.71 GAA, but he is a strong goalkeeper who has huge potential. Even if he did not play in the final, he looked stronger, had the better reads in the games and was quicker between the pipes. However, he still needs to build up his frame and his play reading.
Forget Samuel Fagemo or Nils Hogland from the Swedish squad. Nils Lundkvist is my choice. Compared to last season, he took his game to the next level. Lundkvist had eight points in the tournament. The Swedish defenseman was a better passer and seven of his eight points were assists. He seldom got outplayed by the opponents and his decisions were quick and he was a leader on the defence.
The small 5-foot-11, 174-pound first-rounder from the New York Rangers has everything that a modern defender needs: great vision, quick release and he can quarterback the power play. That he does not shy away from taking the body is a plus. With his eight points and a plus-two plus/minus rating, he showed that he is a sure asset.
Despite having a hot goalie, Joonas Oden may have been the most underrated player on their roster. The dual citizen from Benton City, Washington played in his first-ever World Juniors. He never even made the cut for the under-18 World Hockey Championship or last year’s World Championship team. This year he showed up and he was a force for his team. Oden got on the scoresheet six times and evenly split the points between goals and assists. And now the scouts should look more closely at him. He may be a huge sleeper in the 2020 Draft coming off a hot tournament. If it were up to me, I would pick him as an overager in an early round.
Once again my team had stellar goaltending. No doubt about that. But I didn’t pick Luca Hollenstein as the best player. Instead, I pick Simon Knak. The Swiss forward has something that you don’t see often, at least not in Switzerland. His play is simple and he makes the right decisions without any hesitation.
He led last year’s U18 team as their captain and was one of the key figures on the ice for this year’s success at the WJC. He had two goals and averaged 12:42 minutes of ice time. Ranked No. 64 on future consideration’s 2020 draft prospects, he may be on the rise into the second round. The only downside is his frame. He needs to bulk up his muscles.
Arthur Kaliyev is from Uzbekistan and plays for the Ontario Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. He had a great tournament and was one of the key players in the team. With his four goals and two assists while averaging 12 minutes of ice time across five games, he made the most out of the limited playing time. He looked strong playing a defensive role and was a great blueliner. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round in 2019, and what they will get is a player with a good vision and a great hockey sense. The only area I would like to see him improve is his muscle. There he has some downside.
If you look at the roster of the Czech Republic you will see that there was only one player who had more than four points: Michal Teply, who had five assists. However, one player stood above him.
It was Libor Zabransky who had four goals and was one of the leaders in the team. The Brno native was named the captain of the Swiss team. I could blame him for a lack of leadership, but that would be short thinking. He was responsible for the team qualifying for the quarterfinals. He did everything he could to take the team to the next level. Unfortunately the team did not respond.
The same goes for team Slovakia. They did not have a strong tournament at all. The best on a disappointing team was Oliver Okuliar. The 19-year-old from Trencin had a good tournament and was a silent leader on and off the ice. With his four points that were split equally between goals and assists, he had a plus/minus of minus-four. He showed that he is capable of leading a team. He gave it all, but that was not enough.
With Eric Mik, Germany had a great defender. He had the team’s best plus/minus with a plus-three, only took one minor penalty and had a goal and an assist. He defended the goal crease, took the attacking opponent out of the play and never looked out of place. In the play-out games against Kazakhstan, he was the key defender who took some of the heat off the shoulders of the goalkeepers.
Despite being relegated, there was one player who looked good. Behind a shaky defence, keeper Vladislav Nurek faced the most shots of all netminders. With 211 shots on him, he saved 187 of them for an .886 SV%. But hey, that’s still a good number. What would he have done behind a better defense? Maybe Kazakhstan would still be at the top level in junior hockey.
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