2023 World Junior Championship: 10 things learned

2023 World Junior Championship: 10 things learned thumbnail

The dramatic conclusion came five months after the country celebrated its last WJC title following a 3-2 overtime victory in the gold medal game against Finland on Aug. 20.

It was the second straight gold medal for Canada and 20th overall.

Canada forward Connor Bedard, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. Bedard led the WJC with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in seven games.

[RELATED: More 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship coverage]

The WJC Media All-Star Team included Czechia goalie Tomas Suchanek (2023 NHL Draft eligible), Czechia defenseman David Jiricek (Columbus Blue Jackets), Sweden defenseman Ludvig Jansson (Florida Panthers), United States forward Logan Cooley (Arizona Coyotes), Czechia forward Jiri Kulich (Buffalo Sabres) and Bedard.

Here are 10 things learned at the tournament:

Bedard dominant

If there were any doubt Bedard should be the top selection in the 2023 draft, his performance at this tournament settled the issue.

The 17-year-old right-handed shot led the tournament in scoring and averaged 19:36 in ice time. He holds the record for most goals and points by a Canada player in a single World Juniors and came within six points (36 points; 17 goals, 19 assists, in 15 games) of tying Hockey Hall of Fame forward Peter Forsberg for most career points at the WJC (42 points). Forsberg averaged 3.00 points per game in 14 matches (1992-93). Bedard averaged 2.40 in 15 games.

“John Paddock coaches Connor and is general manager in Regina (of the Western Hockey League) and he told me last spring that the spotlight has been on Connor since he was 12 years old,” said TSN director of scouting and NHL analyst Craig Button. “It doesn’t matter how bright the spotlight is, he shines. So you come to the World Juniors. It’s a top level, under-20 tournament, the best players are here. It’s hard for 19-year-old players to perform at a high level and they’re all trying their best and we’ve seen lots of great performances. What he’s did at his age at this tournament with all the expectations … it was beyond impressive.”

Milic time

Thomas Milic, the only player on Canada’s roster who was passed over in the NHL Draft, played a huge role in the biggest tournament of his life.

The 19-year-old goalie won all five of his starts with a 1.76 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in six games. He made 43 saves in a 6-2 win against the United States in the semifinal round Wednesday and 24 saves in the final against Czechia on Thursday.

“It’s something we’ve been working toward for a long time now and it’s something you dream of doing as a kid,” Milic said. “So super-excited. I love those high-pressure situations. And I think as we’ve progressed through the tournament, we’ve just been getting better and better.”

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United States wins bronze

The United States won its 14th medal (and seventh bronze) at the WJC after an 8-7 win against Sweden in the third-place game Thursday.

U.S. linemates Jimmy Snuggerud (St. Louis Blues), Cooley and Cutter Gauthier (Philadelphia Flyers) finished as one of the most prolific top lines at the event, combining for 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists) in seven games.

Cooley, 18, who centered the line, led the U.S. with 14 points (seven goals, seven assists). Snuggerud, 18, who played right wing and is Cooley’s teammate at the University of Minnesota, was second with 13 points (five goals, eight assists). Gauthier, 18, who plays at Boston College, had 10 points (four goals, six assists). 

“I think my speed is something that’s really helped me of late,” Snuggerud said. “It wasn’t necessarily good my 17-year, but my 18-year I improved in college year and by the end made a huge jump. I think it’s also playing with good players and practicing against the best every day. It’s helped me improve a lot.”

Gajan the great

Slovakia goalie Adam Gajan (2023 NHL Draft eligible) was one of the tournament’s biggest surprises. 

The 18-year-old had success at the start of the season with Chippewa of the North American Hockey League before committing to the University of Minnesota-Duluth on Dec. 2. He was loaned to Green Bay of the United States Hockey League on Dec. 6 and told Dec. 17, via a text message, to get on a plane to join his country at the World Juniors.

“A year ago, nobody believed in me that I can play, even in the NAHL, to be the first goalie there,” Gajan said. “And then after a few games, I think about six USHL teams talked to my coach. So yeah, it was pretty crazy. Everything happened so fast.

In four straights starts at the World Juniors, Gajan had a 2.40 GAA, .936 save percentage and one shutout. He made 33 saves in a 6-3 victory against the United States in the preliminary round on Dec. 28, a win he called the biggest in his hockey career. He made 53 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss to Canada in the quarterfinal round on Monday.

Record-setting Suchanek

Tomas Suchanek (2023 draft eligible) of Czechia became the first goalie in tournament history with two assists in a game during his eight-save shutout in preliminary-round play against Austria on Dec. 27.

“In this type of the game everyone wants the goalie to play the puck,” Suchanek said. “I think it’s part of my job and I’m just lucky right now that the shooters are scoring goals.”

Suchanek finished with four assists in seven tournament games. The only goalies with multiple assists in a single tournament were John Gibson of the United States (2013), Joni Ortio of Finland (2010) and Janis Kalnins of Latvia (2010). The other goalies with two career points at the World Juniors are Roman Turek of Czechoslovakia (1989, 1990), Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden (2001, 2002) and Marc-Andre Fleury of Canada (2003, 2004).

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The 19-year-old also was named the tournament’s best goalie after finishing with five wins and a 1.52 GAA, .934 save percentage and one shutout in seven games.

The Wright stuff

Shane Wright (Seattle Kraken) saved his best goal for the biggest day of the tournament, which just so happened to be on his 19th birthday in the gold medal game Thursday.

The center, who was loaned to the Canada National Junior Team by the Kraken, did what he came to do and finished with seven points (four goals, three assists), averaging 18:54 of ice time.

Wright, Canada’s captain, gave his country a 2-0 lead 4:35 into the second period when, after getting a pass from Dylan Guenther along the right-wing boards, skated into the zone, shielded the puck away from forward Adam Mechura (2023 eligible) and beat defenseman Stanislav Svozil (Columbus Blue Jackets) before scoring on a backhand low in the right circle.

After the goal, the fans in attendance began singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Wright.

“Shane played great,” Guenther said. “That was one of the nicest goals I’ve ever seen, dancing through those guys, backhand, top shelf. Doesn’t get much better than that.”

Jansson sparkles 

Jansson made the most of his return for Sweden at the World Juniors.

The absence of defensemen Simon Edvinsson (Detroit Red Wings), Elias Salomonsson (Winnipeg Jets) and Mattias Havelid (San Jose Sharks), who each were not loaned to Sweden for participation, forced Jansson to not only become a presence on the blue line, but a leader.

The 19-year-old, selected by the Panthers in the fourth round (No. 125) of the 2022 NHL Draft, was the only returning defenseman for fourth-place Sweden at this year’s tournament. 

“I mean, I’m one of the members of the team who has played in one tournament before so I tried to be a good role model for the younger guys,” Jansson said. “I think I did that pretty good. Next year, it’s their time to shine in their second tournament and lead the younger guys in that group.”

Jansson tied with Ryan Ufko of the United States for the tournament lead among defensemen with 10 points (four goals, six assists), finished with a plus-9 rating and averaged 19:15 of ice time in seven games.

NHL Draft evaluations

Bedard wasn’t the only A rated skater on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary players to watch list for the 2023 NHL Draft gaining experience and having a huge impact with his country. 

Sweden forward Leo Carlsson finished with six points (three goals, three assists) and averaged 15:20 of ice time in seven games. Sweden defenseman Axel Sandin Pellikka had one assist, but led his team in average ice time (19:52) and ranked first among defensemen in shots on goal (19).

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Canada forward Adam Fantilli had five points (two goals, three assists) and averaged 11:31 in ice time in seven games. The United States received production from underage forwards Charlie Stramel (three assists; 14:16) and Gavin Brindley (four points; 14:20), and Slovakia gained a greater appreciation for forward Dalibor Dvorsky (three points; 20:33).

Forward Eduard Sale of Czechia had six points (one goal, five assists) and averaged 15:30 in seven games.

Happy hosts

The 2023 World Junior Championship was the first time in three years the event was played in front of capacity crowds at its normally scheduled time.

The 2021 WJC was played in Edmonton without fans. The December 2022 edition was canceled and the August 2022 version in Edmonton was not well attended by fans. Halifax and Moncton proved to be fantastic hosts and players were performing in front of full arenas. In Halifax, the average attendance was 8,610. Moncton has a smaller capacity at the Avenir Centre (8,800 compared to 10,400 at the Scotiabank Centre) but also drew an average of 5,548 for Group B games and two quarterfinal-round matches.

“Halifax and Moncton were great places to come back with the World Juniors,” IIHF president Luc Tardif said. “There’s a good spirit, the cities and people were involved, you could feel it everywhere. I’m really happy about the success of the tournament and we can look to the future positively.”

2024 WJC setup

The 2024 IIHF WJC will be held in Gothenburg, Sweden, at Scandinavium and Frolundaborg from Dec. 26-Jan. 5, 2024.

It will be the seventh World Juniors in Sweden and first since 2014 (Malmo), when Finland won gold and the host country took silver.

Latvia won a best-of-3 series against Austria in the relegation round and will return to the 2024 WJC. Austria will play in the 2024 WJC Division I, Group A tournament. Norway, which won the Division IA in December, will replace Austria in the top tournament.

Here are the groupings:

Group A (Scandinavium): Canada, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Latvia.

Group B (Frolundabord): United States, Czechia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Norway. 

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