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The 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship kicked off on Boxing Day in Vancouver and Victoria, marking the second time British Columbia has hosted the event. Last time the tournament was in BC was in 2006, when a Canucks prospect helped lead Team Canada to gold.
That prospect, Luc Bourdon, unfortunately passed away two years later. It would seem a fitting tribute for another Canucks prospect to win gold in Vancouver in this year’s tournament.
The Canucks have four prospects at the tournament, all on teams that could realistically win the gold medal. There are also several players expected to star at the tournament that could become Canucks prospects at the 2019 NHL Draft, which will also be held in Vancouver.
Canada - Mike DiPietro
Team Canada is looking to repeat as World Junior Champions, but will have to do it with only one player returning from that team: Maxime Comtois. That means no returning players on defence, where they’ll be led by a trio of 2018 first-round picks in Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, and Ty Smith.
A less experienced blue line could mean some extra action for Canada’s goaltenders and Canucks’ prospect Mike DiPietro is expected to be the go-to guy in Canada’s crease. DiPietro has been groomed for the position, but will face stiff competition from Ian Scott, who has been lights out in the WHL this season.
Even with the inexperience and some key injuries — Gabe Vilardi and Alex Formenton will miss the tournament — Canada is still a favourite to medal, but DiPietro will need to be at the top of his game.
USA - Quinn Hughes, Tyler Madden
The Canucks’ top prospect, Quinn Hughes, played a depth role for Team USA at last year’s tournament, but he and his brother will be the linchpin to their medal hopes this year. The smooth-skating defenceman will log big minutes at 5-on-5 and play on the top power play unit, just like he has for the University of Michigan, where he has 20 points in 17 games this season.
Quinn’s younger brother, Jack Hughes, is expected to be the first overall pick at the 2019 draft, and will centre the top line for the US. The Canucks are extreme long shots to get the first overall pick, but fans will likely still be keeping an eye on how the Hughes brothers play together.
Tyler Madden will also join the Hughes brothers. The Canucks’ 3rd round pick from 2018 has a versatile game, with the grit and two-way game to play in a bottom-six role, as well as the skill to play further up the lineup. He’s centred the first line for the Northeastern Huskies this season, with 11 points in 13 games as a freshman.
Finland - Toni Utunen
My initial expectation was that Toni Utunen, the Canucks’ fifth round pick from 2018, would make Finland in a depth role, but signs point to him playing a bigger role. The smart defensive defenceman has been a key part of Finland’s national program for years and was the captain of their Under-18 team last year.
With the news that Urho Vaakanainen and Henri Jokiharju would join the team from the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, it seemed like Utunen would be pushed into a 7th defenceman role, but when Finland named their roster, Utunen was one of just six defencemen named. There’s still room for them to add a couple players, but for now Utunen will play regular minutes for Finland.
Canucks fans can also keep an eye on flashy forward Kaapo Kakko, one of the few prospects that could challenge Jack Hughes for first overall at the 2019 draft. They should also keep an eye on defenceman Ville Heinola, as he could be potential pick for a Canucks team in need of more defencemen in their system.
Other 2019 draft-eligible prospects to watch: Philip Broberg (Sweden), Valentin Nussbaumer (Switzerland), Mads Soegaard (Denmark)
17 - Team Canada has won World Junior gold more than any other country — 17 times — followed by Russia, with 13 gold medals if you include their wins as the Soviet Union.
3 - Quinn Hughes had 3 points in 7 games at last year’s World Junior tournament, but should easily surpass that total playing in a bigger role this year.
Stick-taps and Glove-Drops
A tap of the stick to Jacob Markstrom, who has been stupendous in December for the Canucks. He won his first six starts of the month, and only gave up one goal in his lone loss. He has a 1.58 goals against average and a .944 save percentage in December.
I’m dropping the gloves with George Parros and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. They dropped the ball by not suspending Danick Martel for his blindside hit to the head of Troy Stecher. Their explanation? While they didn’t like the hit, they felt they couldn’t suspend Martel as the NHL rulebook doesn’t say anything about blindside hits, as if the hit to the head by itself wasn’t enough for a suspension.