2020 has certainly been interesting. Every sport and league has been affected by delays and cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for a while it looked as if the IIHF World Junior Championship would fall into that category as well. But now the premier junior hockey tournament is officially here.
The 2021 edition kicks off on Christmas Day with a triple-header, capped off with what will be a magnificent battle between two of the top teams going for gold — Russia and the United States.
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To break down that game and how things should shake out over the next 12 days, Sporting News chatted with longtime NCAA hockey analyst Dave Starman, who will be joining play-by-play caller Stephen Nelson for all Team USA games on NHL Network.
(Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and length. It should also be noted that it was conducted before the Kirby Dach injury.)
SN: You were just in the bubble with the NCAA’s National Collegiate Hockey Conference, so you kind of know how the bubble works. There are no fans, which is obviously the big one of the biggest draws of world juniors. What’s it going to be like for these players when they go out and play these games now?
DS: You know, it was interesting. When we were in the pod with the NCHC in Omaha [Nebraska], it was unique that there were no fans. But here’s what was important: the fact that they pumped crowd noise in. Even though it was just kind of a low roar that was going on, it wasn’t dead silence. It felt like there was at least a buzz going on throughout the arena, and then obviously with the music and the horns and the whole nine yards when goals got scored or between whistles, it just added to the ambiance.
I think it’s going to be very unique for them to not have anybody there. But on the other hand, listen, we all as youth hockey players played in arenas where it was family and friends and there were 30 people watching the game. So it’s not like this is a group of players that is unused to the empty seats. I think it’s a matter of manufacturing your own emotion, and I think that each team will have its own unique challenge in that respect.
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SN: There’s definitely one team that will probably be impacted the most by not having the crowd, as the Canadians are the home team. Is this really just Canada’s tournament to lose?
DS: That’s a good question. Yes and no. I will say yes because whenever you’re the host country, you figure to have a little bit of a leg up. But on the other hand, when you’re the host country — especially them — the pressure really increases because the exposure increases.
When you’ve got so many really good players, you’ve got one puck, and that puck’s got to get shared, and there are a lot of guys that are going to be on the ice that are used to having that puck on their stick for a little longer than they’re going to [get] in this tournament. So I do think the adjustment to the first couple of games is going to have to happen for a team like Canada, and a team like the United States. The one thing the U.S. has going for them is they got the Russians right away, so they’re gonna get a pretty stiff test.
Canada’s got three teams before New Year’s Eve, when they play the Finns, that aren’t exactly powerhouses; they’re good but they’re not the traditional powerhouses that Canada and Finland are. So Canada on New Year’s Eve, that might be the first game where they really find out what they have. Will it be too late to make the adjustments that they need to be successful on Jan. 2 [when the playoffs start], where they’re going to probably play the fourth-place team in the other pool? I wonder about their level of battle-testedness once they get to Jan. 2.
SN: Speaking of with Canada, goaltending is always a big question. Devon Levi you actually know pretty well because he plays at Northeastern. Can he be the No. 1 goalie for head coach Andre Tourigny?
DS: I’ve often said that coaches pick starters and No. 1 goalies tend to pick themselves. … He does play at Northeastern University in Hockey East, which is a really good offensive conference that’s got some talent in it and produces some really good NHL players. So he’s playing against quality players on a night-by-night basis, and I think it’s a good way to evaluate what a goaltender could be at the next level.
He’s a big kid who’s really athletic. He uses his glove and his feet extremely well. He’s aggressive in the crease. I like the way he plays. Northeastern likes to play a real up-and-down style, and they can grind you, they can defend well, but they’re also willing to get out quick and at times your goaltender might face a 2-on-1 once or twice a period. I think he’s the kind of kid that is probably used to seeing quality opportunities on a night-by-night basis and that, to me, gives him a little bit of a leg up to what he’s about to face in the world juniors.
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SN: Is there anyone Canadian roster who you think fans should keep an eye on?
DS: Oh, keep an eye on the [Alex] Newhook kid from Boston College. He’s just an exciting player. He’s explosive, and he so fits the mold of what Boston College is. Back a ways, they had a line with the Hayes brothers [Kevin and Jimmy] and Chris Kreider on it, and he’s a little bit of a combo of the three of them in a lot of different ways. He’s a big kid who can skate, handles the puck well, can go to the net with it, makes plays. He’s smart. He’s got a little snarl to his game. He brings a lot of components. He’s not necessarily a jack of all trades, master of none, because I think his skating is really good; he fits the mold of that big Boston College player that is multi-dimensional and can impact games on every shift.
SN: The United States plays Russia in its first game on Christmas Day. Must-see TV. Does facing the Russians help set the table going forward in the tournament?
DS: I think they’re gonna find out a lot about themselves in this game. … Game 1s are funny. They’re funny from a TV perspective; they’re even more up in the air from a hockey perspective, and I think you’re gonna get a chance to see some things. I think the one thing [head coach] Nate Leaman would love to see in this game is this game, for the most part, played 5-on-5. … So he can start to establish more his top-9, bottom-3 [and] see where the depth sorts out. … To me, I look at the U.S. and I figure that there’s a really good battle to who the depth guys on that back end are going to be. And the more that he can roll seven D, the better chance against a good team, the better chance he’s going to get to figure it out because I don’t think the Austria game [on Boxing Day] is going to tell him much.
SN: Canadiens prospect Cole Caulfield did not have a great tournament last year. What does it mean for him to produce this year, and is he just kind of on a little bit of a revenge tour right now because of 2020?
DS: It’s funny. I talked to Tony Granato about him the other day, his coach at Wisconsin, and Tony was like, since Jan. 6 of last year he has had Dec. 26 of this year, which presumably would have been their first game non-COVID, penciled in in his mindset. He said [Caufield] had a really interesting summer because he really hit the weight room; he did a great mix of cardio and weights. And he’s training for three teams — he’s training for Team USA, he’s training for Wisconsin and he’s training eventually to play for his parent club in the NHL. So he really put in a good summer. He’s had a good start, and he’s got an infectious enthusiasm, which goes throughout the locker room.
Does he need to have a great tournament? For the USA to win, he does. To increase his likability and attractiveness to his parent club, Montreal, do I think he needs to have a great tournament for them? No. Does he need to have a great tournament for himself? That’s where I say absolutely because I really feel like, after last year, there is a box he wants to check and that box is having a dominant World Junior tournament.
[Editor’s note: Caufield was also Starman’s pick for tournament MVP.]
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SN: All right, so which is your team to keep an eye out for the tournament.
DS: There’s a couple. Let’s keep an eye on the Swedes because they’re not going to get an exhibition game in. The Swedes I don’t think have lost a preliminary-round game since Kennedy was president [it’s since the 2007 edition, to be accurate]. It’s an unprecedented record that they’ve got rolling on here, but then they get into the second half of this thing and it doesn’t go so well.
I think you have to keep an eye on the U.S. I think they’re an interesting team just because of how good they are, and when they win gold like they tend to do it up there [in Canada]. It’s been a good breeding ground for them in terms of having success.
I think they’ve got a little something to prove coming out of last year. I think that they like being on the medal stand on Jan. 5, regardless of which one it is. I mean, they love having gold but I think it’s becoming a pride factor to have a medal at every one of these things. For me, the U.S. is really the team to watch because of how they’re built, it’s a kind of a new coaching staff, and, again, I think there’s some unfinished business among the returning guys.
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SN: Who is your X-factor?
DS: [Yaroslav] Askarov would be a pretty good bet for me because I think that the Russians because of their mentality over the last few years — and, again, it could change with [Igor] Larionov — but just because of the way they played the last few years years that I’ve done this tournament, they could be all over the place. Stability in goal could be a huge factor in helping a team with a new coach find its footing underneath it. To me, if he gets saves, it just ignites the rest. It’s amazing how much taller you get when your goalie’s making stops behind you. So if he gives them the stability to get their footing underneath them and get into this tournament, on the right frame of mind, the Russians can be a scary out.
SN: When the dust settles on Jan. 5, who is on your podium?
DS: You know what, I never get this right and I’ve almost stopped trying but I would tell you this: Based on the way that the divisions are set up, and looking at potential crossovers, I think Canada is gonna win their pool [and] their path to the podium, I think, is a good one. I think that on the U.S. side, with the Swedes not playing any exhibition games, do they get on track slower? Do they lose a game in that preliminary and get off track a little bit? I think they’re kind of a wild card. I think the Russians are skilled enough to be on that podium.
My feeling would be Canada, Russia, the U.S, probably on the podium. I hate counting out the Finns because I just love the way they play. But when I just look at the path, those three teams make sense to me. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what order.