Will WJC be Bedard vs. Michkov: Part II?
The WJC is traditionally a tournament for 19-year-old players, but all eyes will be on the top two prospects for 2023...and eight other players to watch
(Note to Readers: The previous piece that was sent out had a typo in the headline. Please accept my apologies. I attribute it to a turkey and egg nog-induced haze.)
When we last saw Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov on the international stage, they were dominating as underage players at the 2021 World Under-18 Championship. More than seven months later, will the hockey world get a chance to see them do it all over again at the World Junior Championship?
Well, we know that the Russian team at the WJC will lean heavily on Michkov, who turned 17 two weeks ago, because Russian coach and former NHLer Sergei Zubov said it would. What we don’t know is how much the Canadian team will use 16-year-old Bedard. Canadian coach Dave Cameron is nothing if not old-school and the old school happens to believe this is a 19-year-old tournament.
But we also know that if the WJC has historically taught us anything, it’s that the rosters often look very different at the end of the tournament than they did at the start. Despite sparse ice time as Canada’s 13th forward, Bedard managed to score a goal in Canada’s 6-4 tune-up victory over Russia, a game in which Michkov was used regularly and responded with a two-goal effort. The prohibitive No. 1 and 2 picks of the 2023 NHL draft will have 18 months after this tournament to figure out the order, but wouldn’t it be something if both of them figured prominently in this year’s WJC?
Because, as we said before, the last time the two went head-to-head, it was nothing short of astounding. At the U-18 Worlds in Dallas last spring, Bedard and Michkov put on an incredible show, capped by a gold medal game that Canada won 5-3 in which Bedard scored a goal and an assist and Michkov a goal and two assists. Michkov led the tournament in goals and points and finished with MVP honors, while Bedard tied teammate Shane Wright for second in tournament scoring with 14 points. All three players were underagers in the tournament and were driving forces for their teams.
Both players are dangerous in very different ways. Bedard is smooth as silk, with the kind of hands and brain that can create an on-ice symphony. Michkov is a winger who can drive a line. He’s ridiculously good at scoring off the rush and has a release that reminds you of a young Alex Ovechkin. He is a pure goal scorer who is under contract to his SKA Russian team until 2026, so his immediate availability is definitely in question. But that will not deter teams from taking him because he does the most difficult thing in hockey incredibly well. The Minnesota Wild waited five years for Kirill Kaprizov.
There’s nothing to suggest, especially after the tune-up game, that Michkov will not continue his scoring ways in this year’s WJC. “He’s got a good shot,” Zubov said of Michkov. “And we’re going to use him as much as possible.”
Bedard, on the other hand, faces a much more uphill battle in his quest to make a mark on the tournament. After all, Connor McDavid scored the same number of points in the World Under-18 Championship as Bedard did as an underager, then followed that up by scoring just one goal and four points in his first World Juniors.
Canada has never been one to lean on young players in this tournament, using it instead to give prodigies the opportunity to learn what will be expected of them in coming seasons.
“The part of Connor’s game that has to mature is his play away from the puck,” Cameron said. “And when that matures to the point…then he’ll probably earn trust from the coach and we’ll go from there.”
If Bedard can indeed do that in the next little while, then we’ll go from there indeed. We’ll take Cameron’s word about Bedard’s play without the puck, but when he has it on his stick, he’s capable of doing some very special things. Something tells me he won’t end this tournament as Canada’s 13th forward.
Here’s a look at a player to watch for each of the other eight teams in the tournament:
Jake Sanderson, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft by the Ottawa Senators, has been the captain of U.S. teams going back to his days with the National Team Development Program. The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson is a smooth-skating defenseman who has the ability to control a game. He’s got an outstanding hockey IQ, can play a physical game and uses his long stick to break up opposing rushes. No player on the U.S. team logged more ice time than Sanderson did in last year’s gold medal game.
William Eklund was robbed of an opportunity to play in last year’s tournament because he contracted COVID. And for a while there, it looked as though he might not be play in this year’s tournament because he was doing so well with the San Jose Sharks. Eklund made the Sharks out of camp and had a point in each of his first three games. He was sent back to Sweden after nine games.
Joakim Kemell was putting up mind-boggling offensive numbers in the Finnish League before suffering a wrist injury that kept him out for three weeks. But with 12 goals in 21 games, the 17-year-old has acquitted himself well in a very tough league. Unlike most of the players from Canada and USA, Kemell has spent the season playing against men.
David Jiricek played in the tournament as a 17-year-old last year and was one of his country’s top players. He played for both the World Junior and World Under-18 teams for Czechia last season and will be counted on to lead the blueline corps this season. He’ll be a high pick in the 2022 NHL draft.
Another player who isn’t eligible until 2023, Dalibor Dvorsky made the move from his native country to play for AIK in Sweden this season. He’s scoring at better than a point-per-game pace for the organization’s junior team and has played 10 games with the men’s team, which plays in the second-tier Allsvenskan. He scored eight goals for Slovakia in last summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky tournament, where Slovakia surprised with a silver medal.
Playing on a line with Tim Stutzle and J.J. Peterka, Florian Elias scored nine points in last year’s WJC for a German team that started the tournament short staffed because of COVID, then gave Russia a big scare in the quarterfinal. Elias was also rookie of the year in the German League last season, but went undrafted. As a 19-year-old, he’ll have ample chance to prove to NHL teams they were wrong about him.
The Austrians will be fodder in a tournament that probably has at least two teams too many. In fact, if not for COVID rules that prevented relegation, Austria wouldn’t even be in this year’s tournament. But this team could very well produce a first-round NHL pick in Marco Kasper, who has played 24 games for Rogle in the Swedish League as a 17-year-old. If Kasper can somehow find a way to score two goals, he’ll double the output from the entire Austrian team at last year’s tournament.