The 2024 World Junior Championship (WJC), or better known as the World Juniors, is right around the corner as the first preliminary round games take place December 26. Canada are the defending gold medalists and favorites while the U.S., Finland, Czechia, Slovakia, and host country Sweden are gunning to dethrone them. The other teams in the tournament include Switzerland, Germany, Latvia, and Norway, who are appearing in the World Juniors for the first time since 2014. So with that, let’s not waste any time and dive into what to look forward to in the 2024 World Juniors.
What Makes The WJC Special?
The World Juniors is a massive deal in the hockey world, and it is the biggest stage for amateur hockey in the world. The tournament is for players under 20 and takes place during the holiday season, starting after Christmas and running into the first week of the new year. The World Juniors is a massive stage where the players can represent their country and, as long as NHL players do not participate in the Olympics, it is the biggest international hockey tournament in the world. And unlike the Olympics, the World Juniors happens every year dating back to 1977.
Many of the greatest players ever have enjoyed massive moments on the World Juniors stage dating back to Wayne Gretzky’s incredible performance in the 1978 tournament, where The Great One scored eight goals with nine assists for 17 points in six games. Gretzky did that as the youngest player in the tournament at just 16 years old. The tournament has featured many of the NHL’s current stars, and in the 21st century the MVPs of the tournament have included stars like Marc-Andre Fleury, Zach Parise, Patrice Bergeron, Evgeni Malkin, Carey Price, John Tavares, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Gibson, Filip Forsberg, and more. Most recently, Connor Bedard solidified himself as the number one pick in the 2023 NHL Draft by leading Canada to the gold medal with his record shattering performance in the 2023 World Juniors.
The World Juniors always brings a great atmosphere and, for the first time since the COVID pandemic, the WJC is traveling outside of Canada by taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden. The crowds should be electric, especially for Sweden’s games, and the Swedish team could use the crowd to help them bring home their first World Juniors gold medal since 2012. The tournament is a high point for many players, being the highest level where they can represented their country, particularly if the NHL does not return to the Olympics in the near future.
The World Juniors format may feel a little bit weird for fans who have not previously watched the tournament, but the best way to describe it is that it is a mix of a pool play tournament, a march madness style tournament, and soccer’s promotion/relegation style of divisions, with the WJC being the top division. The ten WJC teams are split into two groups (Group A and Group B) for the preliminary round. The 2024 groups are as follows:
Each team will face off against each of the other teams in their group in the preliminary round, meaning each team plays four games. Points are awarded based on the result of each game, with teams receiving three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime win, one point for an overtime loss, and zero points for a regulation loss. There are no ties in the WJC, with all ties after overtime settled via shootout. Any ties in the standings after all preliminary round games have concluded will be decided by the head-to-head matchup between the team(s). After the preliminary round, the top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals, while the bottom team in each group plays in the relegation round.
The relegation round consists of the two last place teams competing in a best-of-three series. The winner of the relegation round stays in the WJC, while the loser is relegated to Division IA, and will be replaced with the winner of that division. The IA division winner is Kazakhstan, which means the relegated team from the 2024 WJC will be replaced with Kazakhstan for the 2025 WJC.
The quarterfinal matchups align the teams based on how they finished in their groups. On one side of the bracket, the Group A winner plays the fourth-place team from Group B, while the second-place team from Group B plays the third-place team from Group A. On the other side of the bracket, the Group B winner plays the fourth-place team from Group A, and the second-place team from Group A plays the third-place team from Group B. The image below shows the format of the matchups for the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. It’s a bracket like March Madness, where one game decides who advances and who is eliminated.
The Big Four
The obvious team to look forward to is the back-to-back reigning gold medalists in Canada. They have a boatload of talent, but a lot of that talent that is fresh to the World Juniors, as their only returning player from the 2023 team is Montreal Canadiens 2022 second round pick Owen Beck. Canada boasts some big names though, including ten former first round picks (six forwards and four defensemen), six of which are top 15 picks. Those six are forwards Conor Geekie (2022, 11th pick), Matthew Savoie (2022, 9th pick), Nate Danielson (2023, 9th pick), Brayden Yager (2023, 14th pick), and Matthew Wood (2023, 15th pick), plus defenseman Denton Mateychuk (2022, 12th pick). You can also add the 2024 projected number-one pick, Boston University’s Macklin Celebrini (who I have had the privilege to see play twice at BU), to that group as well as Boston Bruins rookie forward Matthew Poitras.
The U.S. can go head-to-head with Canada’s top-end talent, with ten former first round picks (nine forwards and one defensemen). The U.S. forwards group is made to dominate games, with nine of the thirteen forwards on the roster being first-round picks, three being second-round picks, and two being third-round picks. The lowest picked forward on the U.S. roster was the 78th pick in the 2022 draft. Of the first-round picks, five of them were top-fifteen picks and four of them were Boston College teammates (Will Smith, Ryan Leonard, Gabe Pearreault, and Cutter Gauthier). The U.S. also has two very reliable goalies in Trey Augustine (2023, 2nd round pick) and another BC Eagle, Jacob Fowler (2023, 3rd round pick).
Sweden also boasts a solid group of top-end talent, rostering eight former first-round picks that include two top-fifteen picks in Boston University defensemen Tom Willander (2023, 11th pick) and forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki (2022, 15th pick). Sweden has a very solid defense, with Axel Sandin Pellikka (2023, 17th pick), Mattias Hävelid (2022, second round pick), and Elias Salomonsson (2022, second round pick) headlining the defensive unit. Sweden is also the host nation, meaning their games will likely have the most lively crowds, making their games particularly fun to watch.
Finland doesn’t have any former first-round picks on their roster, but they do have two players that have a good shot at being first-round picks in 2024. Forwards Konsta Helenius and Emil Hemming and defenseman Veeti Vaisanen have an outside shot of being first-round picks. Finland also boasts a handful of second-round draft picks, led by 2022 Seattle Kraken draftee Niklas Kokko and 2023 San Jose Sharks pick Kasper Halttunen. This year isn’t one of Finland’s strongest teams, but they could be carried by a good performance in goal by Kokko, as well as some breakout performances across the team. Plus, they are still Finland, which means that they should still be in the mix to push for a medal.
Czechia went on a bit of a surprise run to the silver medal in the 2023 WJC, but it will be tough to replicate that run with a roster that has lost a lot of talent. However, there is still a decent group of top-end talent with forwards Jiri Kulich (2022, 28th pick), Eduard Sale (2023, 20th pick), and Matyas Sapovaliv (2022, second-round pick) leading the forward group. Defensemen Adam Jiricek will look to follow in his brother David’s footsteps, as he is a projected top-ten pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and a big tournament could help him climb further up draft boards. Czechia’s team will need good goalie play, which they hope to get from UMass goalie Michael Hrabal (2023, second round pick). The hope for Czechia will be to medal for the second consecutive year. Czechia is the team to watch as a scrappy underdog with a legitimate shot at stirring up some chaos and making a deep run. However, the chances of them winning gold are not super high.
Slovakia is one of the most intriguing teams, as they beat the U.S. 6-3 in the preliminary round and nearly beat Canada in the quarterfinals, losing 4-3 in overtime. This year, they have three former first-round picks in Dalibor Dvorsky (2023, 10th pick), Samuel Honzek (2023, 16th pick), and Filip Mesar (2022, 26th pick), as well as a handful of second-round draft picks including returning goalie Adam Gajan. The depth on defense is a little thinner for the Slovaks, but top teams will be sure to not overlook them and they could make some noise and shake up the preliminary rounds, upsetting the elimination round seeding.
Switzerland’s roster only has one NHL draftee in 2023 fifth rounder Rodwin Dionicio, who is returning for his third WJC The Swiss do not have the talent to truly compete with the best teams, which has shown in recent years. They haven’t won a game by more than one goal since their New Years Eve upset of Finland back in 2019. They have struggled to score in the WJC in past years, and do not have that one guy who can put the offense on their backs like they have sometimes had in the past. Other notable players outside of Dionicio are goalie Ewan Huet and defenseman Daniil Ustinkov. The goal for Switzerland will be to avoid a last place finish in the group, which would keep them out of the relegation round.
Germany had back-to-back sixth place finishes in 2021 and 2022, but fell down to eighth place in 2023. Their roster entering the 2024 tournament does not seem to have any significant improvements over the 2023 roster that was outscored 33-8 in the WJC, meaning that Germany could be headed to another fight to stay out of the relegation round. The German team does feature three NHL draft picks, with forward Julian Lutz (2022, second round pick) being the standout. The other two draft picks are forward Kevin Bicker (2023, fifth round pick) and defenseman Norwin Panocha (2023, seventh round pick).
Fight For Survival
Latvia survived relegation last year, defeating Austria in both relegation round games, but it will be another relegation battle for them this year. If they can defeat Germany, they might actually be able to avoid the relegation round. However, a loss to Germany would likely see them in the relegation round, as Germany is more likely to take points off of the other teams in their group. Latvia does have two NHL draft picks, with forward Sandis Vilmanis (2022, fifth round pick) and UMass forward Dans Locmelis (2022, fourth round pick) both returning for their third WJC. Forward Eriks Mateiko has a shot at being drafted in the 2024 NHL draft, and he makes his WJC during a season where he is averaging a point a game in the QMJHL.
Norway is competing in their first WJC since 2014 following their promotion from Division IA. Norway hasn’t had a player picked in either of the last two NHL drafts, which could be a sign of their potential fate. It is about survival for Norway, with avoiding relegation the goal. Anything else is a plus. Key players for Norway include 2024 draft prospects Michael Brandsegg-Nygård (forward), who is a projected first round pick, Stian Solberg (defenseman), and Petter Vesterheim (forward), who represented Norway at the hockey World Championships last year.
That wraps up the official Bleacher Brawls preview of the 2024 World Junior Championship. The tournament is exciting every year, but this year feels more exciting than usual. The teams at the top have a ton of talent. The dark horse teams have enough talent to shock the big four. And even the teams that should be fighting to avoid relegation will make for intriguing contests, with something always being on the line. It’s a fun time for hockey fans, and it’s a time where you can put on the USA or Canada gear, or the gear of whatever country you represent/support, and cheer for the players who get the privilege to represent their own country.