The preliminary round of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship is complete, and all four Carolina Hurricanes prospects are moving on to the quarterfinals after strong showings in the first four games of the tournament.
With its high-octane offense, Team Canada won all four of its games to finish atop Group A, while Team USA finished ahead of Russia and Sweden in Group B.
"It's more the little things that the development coaches have talked with these athletes about; it's not always the production," said Canes Director of Player Personnel Darren Yorke. "We like to see growth from these players. The pace and competition of these games is higher than their average elite game. For them to continue to show the little things at this level is great."
Noel Gunler (Sweden): 4 goals, 1 assist (5 points) in 4 games
Given his offensive on-puck talents and what figured to be an elevated role on Team Sweden, I pegged Gunler, the Canes' third-ranked prospect according to Elite Prospects, as a potential breakout star in the tournament.
"They're going to need his offensive game to really shine through," Yorke said before the tournament. "I think Noel is probably going to use the previous years when he might have thought he deserved to be there but couldn't make the team as motivation. I think this is going to be a coming out party for him."
And sure enough, it was.
Gunler was an offensive force for Sweden, leading the team with four goals, which ranked tied for third-most among all skaters in the preliminary round. He also added an assist for a team-leading total of five points in four games.
"His shot is elite. He can get it off quick and change the angle of release. It just explodes off his stick," Yorke said. "For him, getting those opportunities to score are great."
In the waning minutes of Sweden's first tournament game, Gunler hopped onto the ice, took a pass in stride and snapped off a rocket of a shot from the top of the right circle.
He followed that up with a pair of goals in Sweden's 4-0 win over Austria. His first of the game was nearly a carbon copy of his first of the tournament. He dusted the puck off at the left circle before releasing a laser quick shot that was in and out of the back of the net in an instant.
Gunler's second of the night against Austria was just as lethal. In transition, he accepted a nice behind-the-back feed from Simon Holmstrom and roofed a shot glove-side high.
His fourth of the tournament didn't have the same panache as the first three, but they count all the same - and this one was perhaps his most important. With just a minute left in regulation, Gunler got to the front of the net and redirected a shot off his shin pad to tie the game at three. Russia, though, then snapped Sweden's incredible 54-game preliminary round winning streak in overtime.
Gunler's offensive production has been just one facet of his game that has stood out so far in the tournament.
"The complete side of his game is there, as well," Yorke said. "He's playing in a big role, and he's got to be able to play the 200-foot game and play well without the puck. I think he's shown that."
Ryan Suzuki (Canada): 2 goals, 1 assist (3 points) in 4 games
Team Canada's high-powered offense blitzed through the preliminary round with 33 goals in four games, twice posting double digits in wins over Germany and Switzerland.
Suzuki joined the fun with a goal in each of those two games and finished with three points in the preliminary round, while also demonstrating a heavier element in his skillset.
"His game has evolved in this tournament. He's playing as physical as I've ever seen him play," Yorke said. "That's great. The role he's playing in, they want him to play a little more of a heavier game."
Suzuki was in the right place at the right time against Germany, netting his first of the tournament off a turnover behind the net, one of seven goals Team Canada scored in the second period alone.
Suzuki's second goal of the tournament came when he followed up his own rebound. Though he didn't get all of the bouncing puck, it was just enough to slip it past the outstretched left leg of goaltender Noah Patenaude, putting Team Canada up 4-0 over the Swiss.
"When he gets thrown on the second unit power play, he runs it like a pro. It's so calm when he gets the puck. He sees the ice," Yorke said. "You're seeing more of a complete style game from Ryan in this tournament."
Vasiliy Ponomarev (Russia): 2 goals (2 points) in 4 games
Ponomarev finished the preliminary round tied for the team lead in goals with two, both scored in Russia's opening game against Team USA. Though he was quiet on the scoresheet in the three games that followed, he's been noticeable on the ice.
"I honestly think that line has been one of the most consistent lines in the tournament," Yorke said. "It seems like every time they're on the ice something happens, and it's not always from an offensive standpoint but on the defensive side, as well. Vasiliy has been on the puck. He's puck-hounding on the forecheck and hounding it on the backcheck."
Ponomarev recorded his first goal of the tournament by getting to the front of the net for a redirection.
His second goal showcased his quick release, as he was the beneficiary of a Team USA turnover, which he then wristed past goaltender Spencer Knight en route to Russia's 5-3 win over the Americans.
"He's really showing that complete game and the complete player he is," Yorke said. "He's creating offense on his own and for his teammates. He's really shown a lot of different layers and the Swiss Army Knife type of player he is."
Zion Nybeck (Sweden): 1 assist (1 point) in 4 games
Though Nybeck averaged just over 11 minutes of ice time per game in the preliminary round, he was still able to make a positive impression for the Swedes, and that's exactly what Yorke and the Canes hoped to see.
"Everyone wants to see production out of players … but from a developmental standpoint, you watch how he's playing and creating when he gets the puck," Yorke said. "He's able to provide energy in lesser minutes. When guys are thrown into a different role, how do they adapt? With Zion, I think he's shown he can still have an impact on the game."
Nybeck notched one assist in the preliminary round, which came in the first game of the tournament, a 7-1 victory over the Czech Republic. After an extended, cycling shift in the Czech zone, the puck popped up to the point, where Nybeck swung it across the blue line, recording the secondary helper on Oscar Bjerselius' tally.
"Even though some of the passes he's made haven't been converted into goals, we're happy that he's able to see those situations and complete those passes under pressure and in a higher paced game than the junior levels," Yorke said. "That side of his game is translating."
Schedule: Quarterfinals & Beyond
The full schedule for the quarterfinals, semifinals and medal games can be found below, and it will be regularly updated with score results. All games will be broadcast live on NHL Network in the United States and TSN in Canada.
Results: Preliminary Round
2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
|Jan. 2 ||QF: Russia vs. Germany ||2-1 |
|Jan. 2 ||QF: Finland vs. Sweden ||3-2 |
|Jan. 2 ||QF: Canada vs. Czech Republic ||3-0 |
|Jan. 2 ||QF: United States vs. Slovakia ||5-2 |
|Jan. 4 ||SF: Canada vs. Russia ||5-0 |
|Jan. 4 ||SF: United States vs. Finland ||4-3 |
|Jan. 5 ||Bronze Medal Game: Finland vs. Russia ||4-1 |
|Jan. 5 ||Gold Medal Game: Canada vs. United States ||0-2 |
|Date ||Match-Up ||Result / Time |
All games on NHL Network in U.S. and TSN in Canada. All times listed in Eastern time.