Welcome to the 2021 World Junior Championship predictions. Each day, Last Word on Hockey will take a look at each game and give our predictions of the results. Friday, December 25th is Day One of the tournament and starts out with Slovakia vs Switzerland. Click to check out the predictions for Germany vs Finland and Russia vs United States.
2021 World Junior Championship Predictions
Slovakia vs Switzerland
This game does not excite on the surface. Both Slovakia and Switzerland are doomed to be bottom-dwellers in Group A, fighting behind the powerhouses of Canada and Finland. But digging deeper, it could be an exciting matchup. Team Germany is looking particularly weak this year, so the winner of this game could be poised for a promising future. Switzerland has tasted a medal game in recent years, losing Bronze in 2019, although they haven’t won a medal since 1997. Slovakia hasn’t managed to move past the Quarter Finals since 2015, when they actually won Bronze. Both teams will be trying to relive former glory in a bit of a beat-up Group A this year and a confident Day One win could really spark that.
To say Team Switzerland doesn’t feature any polarizing figures won’t come as much of a surprise. Their lineup hasn’t featured much since 2016-17, when Nico Hischier brought a much-needed burst of stardom. But in 2021 Switzerland could have a lot to offer. The team is comprised mainly of 2021 Draft class members, including one potential First Round pick in Lorenzo Canonica.
Canonica has been playing in Switzerland’s U20 league for the 2020-21 season, instead of making his intended move to the QMJHL. He has managed an impressive 11 goals and 19 points in 20 games. That ranks third on his team and is nothing to sneeze at. Canonica’s ability to score has been made well-known this year, despite him being one of the younger players on Lugano U20. He has a very special shot; one that manages to come off the stick incredibly quickly and at about 100 miles-per-hour. He’s a sniper through-and-through and that talent will show up in full in the 2021 World Junior Championship. If one player is going to do the scoring for Switzerland, it’ll be Canonica.
The WJC-returnee Simon Knak will provide the team with plenty of leadership. The Portland Winterhawks winger appeared in the 2020 tournament as well, netting two goals in five games. He has completed a 34-point WHL season since then, and moved on to the Swiss minor league on loan for this season. He has scored four points in 11 games in Switzerland. Knak went unselected in the 2020 NHL Draft and has something to prove ahead of the 2021 Draft.
Their blue-line is manned by Noah Meier and Brian Zanetti, two of Switzerland’s finest. Both are popular names for the 2021 NHL Draft and provide great defensive and offensive-zone reliability respectively. They’ll bear a lot of weight but the forward-momentum of Switzerland will move through them.
Ultimately, Switzerland is an unsuspecting team with a few names that might manage some theatrics. But with a total lack of depth or strong goaltending, their future in the tourney isn’t exactly hopeful.
Nearly the exact same thing can be said about Slovakia. But unlike Switzerland, Slovakia has notable NHL prospects in its mix. This includes Samuel Knazko, a third-round selection by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2020 Draft. Knazko is a smooth-skating defenceman that drives play well in the right situations. He has managed 13 points in 20 games in Finland’s U20 league so far this season; an impressive tally. He has also appeared in the World Juniors before, netting one point in five games last year.
Martin Chromiak will headman the team’s offence. Chromiak was a fifth-round selection of the Los Angeles Kings last draft, although he’s already making that look like a steal. He has five points in eight games in Slovakia’s top league this year. That’s admirable scoring, even if in a bit-too-small sample size. But Chromiak’s ability in the offensive end is impressive. He possesses a solid shot and the mind to use it, with an elusiveness that can make him a threat anywhere on the ice. He’s a bit devoid of assistance on Slovakia’s offence but, thanks to a great hockey IQ, Chromiak could still really impress this year.
And in net for Slovakia is their most important asset: Samuel Hlavaj. Hlavaj has had a very bumpy career and is facing his third year of draft eligibility, after being looked over in the previous two. He had a disappointing USHL season in 2018-19 and a modest QMJHL season last year. Worst among it is the fact that he has yet to play this season.
That’s not exactly a recipe for success. But Hlavaj could very well surprise this tourney. He has shown flashes of great goaltending throughout his wandering career. He also really has something to prove. Hlavaj has appeared in the last two tournaments for Slovakia, ultimately setting a .867 save percentage and 4.16 goals-against-average in total. That’s, uh… not good. At all. But he has since wrapped up an alright QMJHL season and is looking a bit hopeful.
If Hlavaj can play the way some hope he does, he will easily be the difference-maker for Team Slovakia. If not, they’ll need to rely on a much more trustworthy duo of stars. But with little depth, the entire weight of their success is on the shoulders of a few.
The matchup will be important in determining the longevity of each team’s tournament. While neither will have to worry about relegation this year, there’s still a lot of nerves riding on this game. Switzerland is a much more unproven, yet just-slightly deeper lineup, going up against a hopeful-and-experienced Slovakia. As far as bottom-dweller matchups go, this one could be interesting.
Prediction: Switzerland wins 4-3.