The time has come.
The highly anticipated World Junior Championship is set to kick of Christmas Day from Edmonton, Albert, who will share the hosting duties with nearby Red Deer.
The 10-nation tournament has seen some exhibition action over the last couple of days, but the real action kicks off with three tournament-opening games on Friday, including a powerhouse matchup between a couple of teams boasting serious gold medal aspirations.
It’s the United States versus Russia in what should be an early-tournament dandy from Edmonton.
USA vs. Russia Betting Odds
- USA (-110)
- Russia (-120)
- USA -1.5 (+265)
- Russia +1.5 (-385)
- Over 5.5 (+110)
- Under 5.5 (-150)
USA vs. Russia World Junior Pick Breakdown
With the tournament-ending injury already sustained by Canada’s Kirby Dach in Wednesday’s exhibition with Russia, the United States could very well lay claim as the tournament’s best offense.
Their three-goal output over Finland in their own exhibition is hardly an offensive outburst, however two of those came from American sniper Cole Caufield.
Caufield, who was a major disappointment at last year’s event with just one goal in five games, is arguably the top pure goal-scorer in the tournament. The Montreal Canadiens first-rounder bagged 19 goals as a Freshman at the University of Wisconsin last season and already shares the NCAA lead with six across just 10 games this season.
We’ll see how the lines shake out, but Caufield could join the likes of fellow NHL first-rounders in Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras on the top line, although Arthur Kaliyev has scored 95 goals over his last 124 games with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, so keep an eye out for him as well.
Boston College’s Matthew Boldy – a Minnesota Wild pick – and Bobby Brink (Flyers) will also factor into top-six roles in this high-octane U.S. offense that has plenty of firepower at the top.
It’s not as deep as Canada’s from lines one through four, but the Americans will lean heavily on their big guns throughout the tournament and would be right to do so with such goal-scoring talent in Caufield and Kaliyev while Zegras could be the tournament’s best play-making forward.
When you play the Russians you’re usually playing against a team boasting plenty of familiarity with one another.
Russia recently triumphed over Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic in the Karjala Cup, going undefeated in the process. Many of the players from that roster are also on this World Junior roster, giving the club a leg up on the competition considering the lack of North American professional and junior hockey over the last several months.
Forward of the tournament in the Karjala Cup was 2020 Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Rodion Amirov while Vasily Podkolzin, Yegor Spiridonov, Yegor Chinakhov and Marat Khusnutdinov will help Amirov in providing the bulk of the team’s offense in this tournament.
The exhibition against Canada wasn’t exactly a shining example of the talent among this forward group as they were shut out on 23 shots by Canadian netminder Devon Levi.
Nonetheless, it’s a group chock-full of talent, albeit not the deepest group in the tournament.
Like their offense, there is elite talent on the American blueline.
Jake Sanderson was taken with the fifth overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators while Cam York was taken with the 14th overall pick of the 2019 draft by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Sanderson isn’t going to be flashy, but he could be the top overall defenseman at the tournament while York has the superior offensive ability at the moment with five games through eight games at the University of Michigan this season.
They may or may not skate together, but if they did they could become the best defense pairing in the tournament.
The other seven blueliners on the Team USA roster have all been drafted by NHL teams as this American blueline boasts both high-end talent and notable depth.
The Russian group of defenders is not the strength of their roster, but its not devoid of talent.
University of Connecticut product Yan Kuznetsov, the KHL’s Kirill Kirsanov and 2021 draft eligible blueliner Daniil Chayka are some of the key names to monitor as the tournament moves along.
The group did have a fine showing against Team Canada in their Wednesday exhibition matchup, limiting that high-octane offense to just one goal, although the Russian defenders had a difficult time stopping the Canadian cycle and puck control in their own end.
As a group, it’s not the best in the tournament but you could certainly include them in the tournament’s top three alongside Canada and the United States.
Here is where the game can be decided as their are two elite netminders set to go head-to-head.
For the States it’s Boston College product Spencer Knight who has produced ridiculous numbers at the NCAA level over the last two seasons. Knight worked to a stout 1.97 GAA and .931 Sv% across 33 games as a Freshman and has followed that up with an eye-popping 1.50 GAA and .955 Sv% across four starts this season.
Knight wasn’t quite as spectacular at last year’s tournament, but worked to a solid 2.49 GAA and .913 Sv% while starting four games for the U.S. Despite their sixth-place finish, the blame doesn’t fall on Knight as he allowed just one goal while his offense went silent in 1-0 elimination loss to Finland.
As good as those high-end forwards are for the Americans, Knight makes their goaltending the strength of their roster.
The same could be said for Russia as they bring 2020 Nashville Predators first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov to the table after he’s enjoyed a monster season so far in the KHL.
In seven games with St. Petersburg, Askarov has posted an insane 0.96 GAA and .962 Sv%. Somehow, he’s just 4-3-0 in that time, but he’s certainly only increased his prospect hype in the second-best professional hockey league in the world.
The only knock on Askarov heading into this tournament is his performance at last year’s event. Askarov played in five games last time around, and while his 2.71 GAA is mostly fine, his .877 Sv% is not. Of course, the more telling goaltender stat is the save percentage and Askarov didn’t fare too well in that department.
Nonetheless, he’s clearly been scary-good while playing against high-level competition this season as the Russians certainly feel quite comfortable with Askarov, especially after his lights out performance in only surrendering one goal to the Canada’s in Wednesday’s exhibition.
USA vs. Russia World Junior Pick
You gotta love the tourney starting with a hang on opening night as the USA and Russian teams are ranked third and second, according to Bovada’s tournament odds, behind Canada as the heavy favorite despite the injury to their captain.
It’s also a matchup of the top two netminders in the tournament. While that would seemingly give the under 5.5 a strong chance, I’m a little hesitant given the elite-level offensive players in the top six of each club.
In short, I think Team USA gets the slight nod here. While the Russian top line that features the aforementioned Amirov tore up the Karjala Cup, I’m not convinced the Russian blueline will be able to contain the likes of Caufield, Kaliyev, Zegras, Turcotte, York, Boldy and more.
If I were to make a guess, I’d go something like 4-2 for the Americans, possibly with an empty netter. Rather than roll the dice on the total, I’ll simply take the U.S. to win a battle of the titans on opening night.