NHL hockey won’t be back until tomorrow, as the three-day Christmas break is still ongoing today. And the Flyers won’t be playing again until Thursday night, when they’ll head down to Florida to begin a four-game road swing. But one of international hockey’s showcase events begins today, as the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship will get underway in Buffalo.
The event is a highlight of the hockey calendar, as the best under-20 players across the world get together and face off beginning the day after Christmas and ending a few days into the new year. And for a lot of American hockey fans, it’s the best and highest-profile chance they’ll get to see some of their team’s top prospects in action.
That’ll be the case this year for fans of the Flyers, who have four prospects in action on four different national teams. Let’s briefly run through who those players are, and what’s expected from — and at stake for — each of them.
Carter Hart (Canada)
Hart, one of the Flyers’ 2016 second-round picks, is no stranger to the big stage for the Canadian junior team, as he was the primary goalie in last season’s silver-medal finisher. The 2016-17 WJC was an up-and-down experience for Hart, who appeared to briefly lose his starting job to Lightning goalie prospect Connor Ingram before reclaiming it (and losing the Gold Medal Game to the U.S. in a shootout) after Ingram also struggled.
With a Team Canada roster that doesn’t appear to be the near-consensus favorite that it often is in this tournament, much of the pressure will be on Hart to be a rock for his country. He’s had an otherworldly first half of the WHL season; after missing some time early due to mononucleosis, Hart has posted an absolutely ridiculous .961 save percentage and 1.32 GAA in 17 games with Everett.
Still, questions (mostly unfair ones, but questions regardless) were raised about Hart after he struggled a bit on the international stage last year, so neutral evaluators will be watching him closely. If Hart posts another overall uninspiring showing, questions about his readiness will almost certainly continue in at least some corners. If he anchors Canada to a medal, though? People calling him “one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey” may have to think about dropping that “one of” qualifier.
(Yes, I think it’s very silly that four to eight games in a single tournament can swing opinions that much. So it goes.)
German Rubtsov (Russia)
Like Hart, Rubtsov is making his second appearance in the World Juniors after getting a look on last year’s team that probably didn’t go quite the way he was hoping for. He played a secondary role on Team Russia, tallying no points in bottom-6 minutes before taking a high hit in the quarterfinal round that led to a broken nose, sidelining him for the rest of the tournament.
Rubtsov figures to play a more prominent role on this year’s Russian team, and for Flyers fans, the hope here is that a great tournament can kick-start a successful second half of the season for the 2016 first-round pick. Rubtsov has hummed along at a point-per-game pace in the QMJHL season, and while at first glance that’s not terrible, it’s actually a step back from where he was in limited time in the Q last season, and fans that were expecting more out of him this season probably haven’t loved what they’ve seen so far. A strong performance at the WJCs could re-instill some confidence in the young Russian.
Maksim Sushko (Belarus)
Belarus is back in the top tier of World Juniors after a one-year relegation to the tournament’s second division, and Sushko (who played a minor role on that team as a 17-year old) will be there with them. Nine forwards aged out of that Belarus team from last year, so the 2017 fourth-round pick will likely be asked to play a more prominent role as the team hopes to extend its stay at the highest level of WJC competition.
Sushko got out to a blazing-hot start with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack this season, as a four-goal game in mid-October highlighted a torrid month that had Flyers fans thinking that Ron Hextall may have found a mid-round gem last summer. Sushko inevitably cooled off a bit from that start, and he enters the tournament with 16 goals and 10 assists in 28 games this season. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares on one of the tournament’s clear underdogs, and if he can flash the skill that he’s shown at times this year against big-name countries, he may start to get even more of this fanbase’s attention.
Linus Högberg (Sweden)
Something of a sleeper in the Flyers’ system thanks to his playing in another country and the team’s depth of defensive prospects, Högberg — who just turned 19 this past September — is in the middle of his second season at Sweden’s highest level of hockey. He’s posted four points (one goal, three assists) in 25 games with the Växjö Lakers this season, and while his numbers don’t jump off the page, his overall skillset was enticing enough that he was always likely to receive an invitation from Team Sweden.
This is likely the first chance that a lot of Flyers fans will have to see Högberg, who has largely flown under the radar since his selection in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. While he’s not likely to be flying up and down the ice setting up goals left and right, he figures to play a key defensive role for Tre Kronor in the WJC. Hopefully the stage isn’t too big for a 19-year old that already has meaningful experience in one of the best hockey leagues on the globe.
WJC game time schedule: December 26, 2017
12:00 p.m. ET: Czech Republic vs. Russia
2:00 p.m. ET: Belarus vs. Sweden
4:00 p.m. ET: Canada vs. Finland
8:00 p.m. ET: USA vs. Denmark
Teams in bold feature Flyers prospects. All games, with the exception of Belarus-Sweden, will be on NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada. Belarus-Sweden can be seen on TSN GO in Canada.
Feel free to use this thread to discuss today’s games.