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2020 World Juniors: Knight, Denisenko and Schütz Go for Gold

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The holiday season isn't officially over until the medals have been handed out.

In an annual tradition unlike any other, the top hockey players under age 20 from 10 different countries will soon take center stage and begin their collective quest for gold when the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship kicks off on Thursday in Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.

The tournament is slated to run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, with two groups of five teams competing in an internal round-robin before a three-round playoff is used to decide a winner.

All games will be broadcast on NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada.

"It's always a fun tournament," said Florida Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe, who helped Canada win gold at the tournament in 1994 and 1995. "It's a coming out party for some guys, and it's great for them to represent their countries. It's always an honor."

For the tournament's preliminary round, the 10 participating nations have been split up into two separate groups of five: Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Slovakia and Kazakhstan are in Group A, while Russia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany and the United States make up Group B.

The Panthers have three of their top prospects competing at the event in goaltender Spencer Knight (United States), and forwards Grigori Denisenko (Russia) and Justin Schütz (Germany).

At the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver, B.C., Florida had two prospects take home medals. Denisenko won bronze with Russia, while Aleksi Heponiemi helped guide Finland to gold. With nine points apiece, they finished in a tie for the tournament's scoring lead.

"Our prospects performed very well," McCabe said. "To have two guys tied for the tournament-scoring lead and one win a gold medal, it was a very special time to be a Panther, for sure."

With another installment of the tournament about to begin, check out below for everything a Panthers fan needs to know, including insight into prospects and a schedule of their games.

THE PROSPECTS

Spencer Knight

Team: USA

Position: Goaltender

Drafted: Round 1 (13th overall), 2019 NHL Draft

Heading into the World Juniors, few prospects have garnered more attention than Knight.

Selected 13th overall by the Panthers in the 2019 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old goaltender has looked dominant in the early goings of his freshman campaign at Boston College. In 15 games, he's gone 11-4-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and four shutouts.

Already piling up accolades, he was named the National Rookie of the Month by the Hockey Commissioners Association in November after going 7-1-0 with a 1.12 goals-against average, .959 save percentage and two shutouts. In those eight starts, he never allowed more than two goals.

Living up to his lofty draft stock, Knight was the first goalie selected in the top-15 since 2010.

"For a freshman to put up the numbers he has a on a team that I guess you would say was fairly suspect coming into the season, they turned that program around in a hurry and Spencer is a big part of that," McCabe said. "I believe he's got four shutouts as a freshman. His numbers are off the charts. USA will obviously be looking to him to carry them through the tournament."

Tweet from @NHLNetwork: "This will be the best goaltending prospect to come out of amateur hockey since Carey Price." All 👀 will be on @slknight30 at #WorldJuniors. Watch #NHLTonight's WJC preview Dec. 25th at 5pm ET. pic.twitter.com/3j1IpXcN3B

With Knight between the pipes, the United States will look to take home its fifth straight medal at the World Juniors after finishing first in 2017, second in 2019 and third in 2016 and 2018. Last year, the Darien, Connecticut native won silver while serving as the team's backup goaltender at just 17 years old.

Prior to backing up at the U20 tournament, Knight backstopped the United States to a bronze medal at the U18 tournament in Örnsköldsvik and Umeå Sweden. Suiting up in six games, he led all netminders at the event in save percentage (.936) and goals-against average (1.51).

"In a short tournament, goaltending is key," McCabe said. "It's somewhat like a seven-game series in the playoffs. He's a really focused kid and dialed in. He doesn't get too ahead of himself or put too much pressure on himself. I'd expect him to continue what he's done so far."

Grigori Denisenko

Team: Russia

Position: Forward

Drafted: Round 1 (15th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

After an incredible tournament in 2019, Denisenko will look to pick up right where he left off.

Florida's first-round pick (15th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft, the 19-year-old winger burst onto the national scene at last year's World Juniors. Finishing tied for the tournament's scoring lead with nine points (four goals, five assists), he was awarded a spot on the event's All-Star team.

In the bronze-medal game, he posted an assist during Russia's 5-2 win over Switzerland.

"Let's hope he picks up where he left off last year because he was very dynamic," McCabe said. "He had a great tournament in Vancouver. I'm sure he'd like to do the same this year… I'm pretty sure he'll be wearing the "C" or an "A" on his jersey. He'll be a leader on that team."

In his second KHL season with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, Denisenko has recorded four goals and four assists in 27 games. On the international stage, he notched two goals and three assists while captaining Russia at the U20 Four Nations Tournament in Helsinki, Finland in November.

At this year's World Juniors, the Novosibirsk, Russia native is expected to play a top-line role.

"I saw him in November at the U20 and he played very well," McCabe said. "He played in all situations and stuff. It's just tougher in a men's league trying to find that ice time. He seemed pretty happy with where his game is at. He's developing as we thought he would over there."

Russia has medaled in eight of its last nine World Juniors appearances, but has not won gold since 2011.

Justin Schütz

Team: Germany

Position: Forward

Drafted: Round 6 (170th overall), 2018 NHL Draft

If you're looking for a potential Cinderella story, look no further than Schütz and Germany.

Returning to the top division for the first time since 2015, Germany earned its ticket back up by winning the 2019 IIHF 1A World Junior Championship in Füssen, Germany. Playing a major role in the winning effort, Schütz was tied for second in scoring at the tournament with seven points.

A sixth-round pick (170th overall) by the Panthers in 2018, Schütz is one of seven German-born players drafted since 2014. That list also includes St. Louis' Dominik Bokk (25th overall, 2018) and Detroit's Moritz Seider (6th overall, 2019), who are also both competing at this year's event.

"They're my sleeper pick," McCabe said. "They're in a tough group, a tough pool, but I could see them maybe sneaking a win out against one of those top teams. They're a fun team to watch. They play fast and have some high-end draft eligible guys this year that will be on that team. Obviously Schütz was on the team last year that won to help them get back into this year's tournament. I think their goal is to win some games and obviously not get relegated again."

After spending most of last season with junior clubs and with EC Salzburg II in the Alps Hockey League, Schütz has made a smooth transition to professional hockey this season in the DEL, Germany's top men's league. In 25 games with Munich EHC, the 19-year-old forward has tallied five goals and five assists.

Among players under age 20 competing in the DEL, Schütz ranks third in scoring with 10 points.

"Schütz has had a very good season in the men's league in Germany," McCabe said. "He's playing a lot. He's playing fast. He's a great kid. I'd never seen DEL hockey before, but I went over there in October. It's fun to watch. They've got great crowds. It's a fast game with puck possession. It plays to his strengths."

In 26 appearances at the World Juniors, Germany has never taken home a medal.

TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE (FOR PANTHERS)

Thursday, Dec. 26

Russia (Denisenko) vs. Czech Republic, 9 a.m. ET, NHLN

USA (Knight) vs. Canada, 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Friday, Dec. 27

USA (Knight) vs. Germany (Schütz), 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Saturday, Dec. 28

Czech Republic vs. Germany (Schütz), 9 a.m. ET

Canada vs. Russia (Denisenko), 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Sunday, Dec. 29

Russia (Denisenko) vs. USA (Knight), 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Monday, Dec. 30

Canada vs. Germany (Schütz), 9 a.m. ET, NHLN

Czech Republic vs. USA (Knight), 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Tuesday, Dec. 31

Russia (Denisenko) vs. Germany (Schütz), 9 a.m. ET

Thursday, Jan. 2

Relegation Game 1, 4 a.m. ET

Quarterfinal 1, 6:30 a.m. ET, NHLN

Quarterfinal 2, 9 a.m. ET, NHLN

Quarterfinal 3, 11:30 a.m. ET, NHLN

Quarterfinal 4, 2 p.m. ET, NHLN

Saturday, Jan. 4

Relegation, Game 2 5 a.m. ET

Semifinal 1, 9 a.m. ET, NHLN

Semifinal 2, 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

Sunday, Jan. 5

Relegation, Game 3 (if needed), 5 a.m. ET

Third-place game, 9 a.m. ET, NHLN

Championship game, 1 p.m. ET, NHLN

For updates throughout the tournament, follow @JamesonCoop and @FlaPanthers on Twitter.

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