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2017 World Juniors: Who And What To Watch For

We preview the teams and players to watch for at the 2017 World Junior Championships

by Dan Marrazza @GoldenKnights / VegasGoldenKnights.com

The 2017 World Juniors will feature the world's top players under the age of 20, and the Golden Knights' hockey ops staff will be on hand to scout for talent.

For those watching the World Juniors at home, here is a guide of what to watch for, both with what countries should contend for medals and what players you can expect to become the NHL's stars of tomorrow.

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The Favorites

USA (Group B)

Strengths: The U.S. enters the World Juniors with perhaps the deepest group of forwards in the tournament.

Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs) lacks size, but makes up for it with offensive talent. He's currently fifth in the Ontario Hockey League scoring race with 51 points (17g, 34a) in just 27 games with the Kitchener Rangers.

Jack Roslovic (Winnipeg Jets) is already almost a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League, and maybe has higher upside than any forward in the tournament.

Meanwhile, Boston University teammates Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Jordan Greenway (Minnesota Wild) have been equally proficient as NCAA scorers.

Weaknesses: The U.S. defense is largely unproven, even for the junior level. And after the graduation of Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Brandon Carlo (Boston Bruins) from last year's team to the professional ranks, the Americans will need some unproven commodities to step up their games.

An intriguing member of the team's blue line is Caleb Jones (Edmonton Oilers). The brother of current NHLer Seth Jones and son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Caleb Jones has racked up a lot of points this season with the Portland Winterhawks and is a prime candidate for a breakout performance.

Player To Watch: Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders) is one of the U.S.'s younger players at only 18, but the former first-round NHL draft pick has shown promise with Boston University. Finding himself on a roster with several BU teammates, Bellows can be expected to be a key contributor.

Bottom Line: If the defense can maintain some consistency, the Americans should contend for a medal.

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Canada (Group B)

Strengths: As is the case with most Canadian teams, this year's squad is absolutely stacked at all positions.

Canada is especially potent down the middle. Team captain Dylan Strome actually started this season in the NHL by playing seven games for the Arizona Coyotes. Ditto for second-line center Mathew Barzal, who played two games for the New York Islanders before returning to juniors.

Weaknesses: Canada doesn't have many weaknesses to speak of.

If anything, lack of clarity between the pipes could be a cause for concern, should one of Canada's goalies struggle in the early going.

Canada would greatly benefit from either Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers) or Connor Ingram (Tampa Bay Lightning) taking the bull by the horns and owning the position.

Player To Watch: Thomas Chabot (Ottawa Senators) is a smooth-skating defenseman who's equally proficient on both sides of the puck. Chabot is perhaps the top defensive prospect in the tournament.

Bottom line: After a disappointing sixth place finish last year, Canada should be well positioned for a gold medal run on its home soil.

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Could Make Some Noise

Sweden (Group A)

What To Know: When looking at the Swedes' recent World Junior record, judgment probably depends on if you're a glass half empty or a glass half full sort of person.

On the plus side, Sweden is routinely dominant in round robin play, having only lost two of 36 contests since 2008.

On the negative side, they've only won one gold medal (2012) during that stretch.

Being placed in a pool without the United States, Russia or Canada dictates that the Swedes should again dominate round robin play. But as is the case with many Swedish teams in recent years, the tournament won't really begin until after round robin play, from which Sweden is virtually guaranteed to advance from as a top seed.

Finland (Group A)

What To Know: Champions in two of the past three tournaments, Finland will be without the services of Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton Oilers), its past stars who've since graduated to the NHL.

1999-born defenseman Miro Heiskanen might the top defenseman in the tournament whose rights are yet to be owned by an NHL club.

Finland will need players such as Heiskanen to step up for a chance to contend after the core of its recent championship teams have graduated to the NHL.

Russia (Group B)

What To Know: Russia nearly won gold medals last winter, before falling to Finland in the final.

Kirill Kaprizov (Minnesota Wild) and Alexander Polunin were key forwards last year who should be even more potent this time around, while Ilya Samsonov (Washington Capitals) has starred in the KHL and provides excellent goaltending.

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The Longshots

Czech Republic (Group A)

What To Know: Forward Martin Necas should be one of the more exciting prospects in the tournament yet to be drafted by an NHL team. But the Czech junior system has been in shambles in recent years, and doesn't have too much depth beyond its top players.

This team should produce a few bona fide NHL players, though. And in a weak Pool A, the Czechs should still secure a few victories.

Switzerland (Group A)

What To Know: Traditionally, the Swiss have developed significantly better defensemen than forwards.

Nico Hischier, one of the top undrafted forwards in the tournament, provides optimism that Switzerland could have more offensive punch than past years.

But despite this, goalie Joren Van Pottelberghe (Detroit Red Wings) will probably face a heavy workload. Perhaps he can steal a game or two, although a medal is way too much to (fairly) ask.

Denmark (Group A)

What To Know: The Danes have rapidly improved as a hockey nation over the past decade, but still have a long way to go before contending for medals in this tournament.

Forward Alexander True is one of their more interesting prospects in this tournament. Passed over in the 2016 NHL Draft, True has been a lethal offensive threat for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds this season, and seems likely to be nabbed by someone in the NHL Draft this June.

True is the cousin of Winnipeg Jets young star Nikolaj Ehlers.

Slovakia (Group B)

What To Know: Radovan Bondra (Chicago Blackhawks) is one of the biggest, strongest forwards with offensive upside in the tournament.

However, this team is filled with holes and has the misfortune of finding itself in a pool with Canada, the United States and Russia.

Slovakia is facing the prospect of several blowout defeats in this tournament.

Latvia (Group B)

What To Know: A highlight for Latvian hockey came in the 2014 Olympics, when they nearly stunned Canada on the worldwide stage.

Holes at most positions and a daunting schedule in the 2017 World Juniors don't provide much reason to believe that the Latvians will accomplish anything as memorable as that near miracle in 2014.

And that near miracle was still a game that they lost.

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