The World Junior A Challenge is back after a two-year hiatus, set to kick off this Sunday in Cornwall, Ontario, with some of the best players in Junior A hockey facing off with national pride and gold on the line.
This year’s tournament starts on Dec. 11 and runs through to the 18th, with the host Canadians fielding two rosters (Canada West and Canada East) while Team USA, along with new entrants Sweden and Latvia, sends one apiece with the hopes of playing the spoiler on foreign soil. You can find the tournament schedule by following this link, and you should be able to stream the games on Hockey Canada’s website.
The Russians, who won gold in Dawson Creek, British Columbia back in 2019, won’t have the opportunity to defend their title, the result of a ban from international competition in response to their country’s ongoing, illegal invasion of Ukraine. This, coupled with Czechia’s decision to drop out of the tournament, facilitated Sweden and Latvia’s arrival on the World Junior A Challenge scene for this tournament and probably many more after.
Though this tournament may not enjoy the fanfare of the World Juniors that will start later this month, many scouts deem it critical to their evaluation process. All respect due to the Junior A leagues that feed this tournament, but the lower quality of competition in many of those environments can make getting a read on their players an incredibly fraught prospect. Scouts and executives covet the opportunity to see how many of these players perform when the talent pool compresses, as it does in an environment like this one.
Looking back to the last time this tournament was held, Brendan Brisson (Vegas Golden Knights), Devon Levi (Buffalo Sabres), and Ethan Edwards (New Jersey Devils) all did wonders for their draft stock with their respective performances on this stage. It’s not even a stretch to suggest that the latter two players could’ve made it through the 2020 NHL Draft unclaimed without providing teams with that proof of concept either.
Going further back in time, you’ll see names like Andrei Svechnikov, Kyle Turris, David Pastrňák, Nikolaj Ehlers, Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov, Brock Boeser, and Cale Makar have all made their way through the tournament, too. There’s a reason scouts and executives flock to this tournament by the dozen.
Now, if you’re curious as to what constitutes a Junior A league or why a player would go that route rather than the CHL, an easy way to think of it is that these are the players who are (mostly) going the college route. At the very least, they’re playing in leagues that allow them to maintain their eligibility to play in the NCAA.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s look at each roster and highlight some of the prospects to follow in this year’s World Junior A Challenge and make a few predictions too, just for the fun of it.
The absence of the Russians makes Canada East the closest thing this tournament has to a defending champion, and that seems fair enough. They came within an overtime goal of winning gold back in 2020, riding Levi’s exceptional performance in goal all the way to a silver medal. They’ll be in tough to repeat that feat this year. Canada East’s roster is headlined by Smiths Falls Bears defenceman Ty Campbell (committed to Clarkson University) and Giacomo Martino (Northeastern), their only two players to appear on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list for the 2023 NHL Draft.
Meanwhile, Canada West is looking to rebound from a disappointing performance in their last World Junior A Challenge showing, failing to medal with a group that included Carter Savoie, Michael Benning, Kent Johnson, Massimo Rizzo, Corson Ceulemans, and Ethan Edwards. That’s going to be a tall order with the BCHL not allowing their players to participate, robbing Canada West of top draft-eligible talents like Bradly Nadeau (Maine), Hoyt Stanley (Cornell), and A.J. Lacroix (Michigan State), which says nothing of the drafted players who would be eligible for this tournament. Instead they’ll have to rely almost entirely on the AJHL at this tournament (with one SJHL skater joining the fray). Their group is led by defenceman Aiden Celebrini (Boston University) and forward Aiden Fink (Wisconsin), both of the Brooks Bandits, their only two players to land on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list.
The pesky Latvians, known for playing with pride and punching above their weight on the international stage, look to bring that same underdog ethos with them to Cornwall when they make their World Junior A Challenge debut. They may have over-committed to the bit with this roster though. It’s an exceptionally young group with nine skaters eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft and not a single drafted prospect in their ranks. Worse still, no one rated on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list. I’m just going to level with you – I watch an obscene amount of hockey, real sicko stuff, and I couldn’t tell you who to watch on this team outside of maybe Kristers Ansons, a forward with some cachet in next year’s draft.
The Swedes are looking to make the most of their World Junior A Challenge debut, bringing a roster that’s packed to the gills with talent – particularly of the first-time draft-eligible variety. There are 17 skaters on this roster who made NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list, many of which have A- or B-grades. There’s also a lot of crossover between this group and the one that captured silver in Red Deer at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last August, including their goaltending battery (Noah Erliden and Marcus Gidlöf) and their entire first line (Zeb Forsfjäll, Otto Stenberg, and Noel Nordh). It’s gold or bust for a group this talented, even if they aren’t bringing any drafted prospects with them to the tournament.
The perennial favourite Americans have brought a roster fitting of their status, loaded with high-end first-time draft-eligible talent and quality affiliated prospects, too. The blue line is the strength of this roster, with 2022 draft picks Sam Rinzel (Chicago Blackhawks) and Garrett Brown (Winnipeg Jets) leading the way. They have one of the 2023 NHL Draft’s top goalie prospects between the pipes with Jacob Fowler (Boston College). And if that’s not enough, their forward group features three drafted prospects in Alex Bump (Philadelphia Flyers), Jake Richard (Buffalo Sabres), and Quinn Finley (New York Islanders). This is another team where anything short of gold has to be viewed as a disappointment.
- Team USA 🥇
- Sweden 🥈
- Canada West 🥉
- Canada East
Tournament MVP: Sam Rinzel
World Junior A Challenge All-Star Team
Forward: Aiden Fink, Noel Nordh, Alex Bump
Defence: Sam Rinzel, Garrett Brown
Goalie: Jacob Fowler
Player to watch
Aiden Fink, F, Canada West (2023 NHL Draft)
There’s an awful lot working against Fink as it relates to his draft stock. Though he may be on pace for 122 points over 60 games (yes, seriously), he’s still a 5-foot-9 forward playing his draft year in the AJHL. Teams are wary of those sorts of players, fairly or otherwise. This is an opportunity for Fink to prove he’s the real deal, playing a leading role on a Canada West team that’s going to need someone to produce an out-of-body performance for them to advance to the gold medal game.
Sam Rinzel, D, Team USA (Chicago Blackhawks)
This tournament is shaping up to be Rinzel’s opportunity to announce himself as a top prospect after flirting with that rarified air since the start of his draft year. The Blackhawks 2022 first-rounder bounced between high school and the USHL last season, making his evaluation a difficult one for scouts, and he’s putting up good-not-great numbers now as a full-time draft-plus-one skater with the Waterloo Black Hawks. The physical tools are beyond reproach, each of them earning an above-average grade ahead of last draft. Questions linger among our staff about his feel for the game though.
Alex Bump, LW, Team USA (Philadelphia Flyers)
Bump was one of the very last players to make our final draft ranking in the Elite Prospects 2022 NHL Draft Guide, checking in as the 120th-ranked player with a hearty endorsement from our crossover scout Daniel Gee. After bouncing between high school and the USHL last season, Bump is now playing a full-time role with the Omaha Lancers, where his per-game offence has taken a pretty significant step forward. So much of the game runs through his hands, whether it’s his potent release, puckhandling skill, or his ability to connect with his linemates as a distributor. The question has always been whether the skating would pass muster in a professional setting. Let’s see if there’s a little more explosiveness in his stride in this setting.
Otto Stenberg, C, Sweden (2023 NHL Draft)
Our staff has struggled to make sense of Stenberg’s game this season. The skills pop in every viewing, his hands and release foremost among them. You even see flashes of an advanced, intelligent off-puck game from Stenberg. Still, inefficiency has marred our viewings, with the Swedish centre often forcing hope passes or skating into pressure, turning the puck over far more often than we’d like to see. We weren’t particularly impressed with his work at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup either. This tournament is a good opportunity to rehabilitate his stock.
Tanner Ludtke, F, Team USA (2023 NHL Draft)
Tanner Ludtke is putting up a ton of points for the Lincoln Stars in his first full season with the team after a season spent bouncing between the USHL and Minnesota high school hockey – up to 20 points in 20 games, as of this writing. Still, we’re struggling to make heads or tails of his game. So far, we’ve mostly found ourselves impressed with Ludtke’s habits and work rate. He’s a menace in offensive zone puck retrievals and supports play well in the offensive zone. Questions about his overall skill level remain though.
Jacob Fowler, G, Team USA (2023 NHL Draft)
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Fowler has a chance to supplant Michael Hrabal as the prohibitive favourite for the first goaltender off the board in June’s draft with a strong showing at this tournament. Perhaps he can put a dent in the space between the two if he backstops Team USA to a medal though. Fowler’s put up good-not-great numbers on a struggling Youngstown Phantoms team and is projected to be a middle-round pick.
Noel Nordh, RW, Sweden (2023 NHL Draft)
Nordh was a pleasant surprise for our staff at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, his three goals second only to Stenberg’s five on Sweden. He’s strung together some strong showings in our viewings since, wreaking havoc on retrievals, playing a power game, showing shooting and passing skills, and most recently developing a bit as a playmaker. Our Swedish scout Jimmy Hamrin has assigned him a B-grade, meaning we view him as a second- or third-round prospect. He’s 6-foot-2, plays a power game, and brings an interesting collection of tools to the table. He could be a first-rounder by season’s end, if not on our board then perhaps in Nashville at this June’s draft.
Kristers Ansons, F, Latvia (2024 NHL Draft)
The younger brother of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Raivis Ansons, Kristers is leading HS Riga’s men’s league team in goal scoring and is one point back of the team lead in overall offence as of this writing. He’s also a 6-foot-4 forward who could be a high draft pick in 2024. I’m not overly familiar with his game just yet, but hey, that’s as good a reason as any for someone to land on the “players to watch” list.
Giacomo Martino, F, Canada East (2023 NHL Draft)
The younger brother of Dallas Stars draft pick and Canada East silver medallist Ayrton Martino, Giacomo is scoring at a ridiculous rate for the St. Michael’s Buzzers in the OJHL. Canada East needs him to replicate that success in Cornwall for them to have a chance at repeating as medallists. He’s committed to Northeastern for next season.