While the Ottawa Senators remain dead last in the NHL (nine points in 19 games), there’s a late Christmas present on its way. The World Junior Championship runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Red Deer and Edmonton. This year, the Senators boast several prospects poised to make an impact for their home country.
There’s no chance the Senators will loan Tim Stützle to Team Germany for the tournament. He scored five goals and 10 points in last year’s tournament, but he’s too valuable to the Senators’ top-six. They have other talented players in their prospect pool who could break out at the tournament in 2022.
Unless they get injured, the following players will participate in the upcoming WJC.
Leevi Meriläinen (Goaltender)
Leevi Meriläinen is off to a solid but not outstanding start with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. Drafted by the Senators in the third round, 71st overall, in 2020, he has a respectable 10-4-3 record with a 3.41 goals-against average (GAA) and a .890 save percentage (SV%) in the high-scoring junior league. If he plays well enough this season, the Frontenacs should make some noise in the playoffs, especially with former exceptional status player Shane Wright in tow.
He’s in a tug-of-war for the starting job for Team Finland. Goaltending at the World Juniors tends to be fluid unless there’s a clear-cut superstar goalie, like Yaroslav Askarov for Team Russia. He has a chance to grab the starting job if he plays well.
In his way is Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Joel Blomqvist, who appears to have the inside track at the starting gig. Blomqvist has the draft pedigree, taken 52nd overall in 2020, and played in last year’s tournament. He’s also off to a blistering start in the Finnish Liiga for Kärpät with a 0.57 GAA and a .973 SV%.
In his way is Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Joel Blomqvist, who appears to have the inside track at the starting gig. Blomqvist has the draft pedigree, taken 52nd overall in 2020, and played in last year’s tournament. He’s also off to a blistering start in the Finnish Liiga for Kärpät with a 0.57 GAA and a .973 SV%. But Meriläinen was better in international summer play with a .941 SV%, compared to Blomqvist’s .889 SV%. Expect Blomqvist to start in the first game, and unless he dominates, Meriläinen will get a shot in game two.
Jake Sanderson (Defense)
Drafted fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, Jake Sanderson has been on fire in the NCAA this season with six goals and 16 points in 13 games for the top-10 ranked North Dakota squad. This will be his second year at the World Juniors, after putting up two points in seven games last year on the gold medal-winning US team.
He’s poised to make a huge impact this time around after playing against older competition for most of two years in the NCAA. Sanderson plays with poise, defensive discipline, physicality with elite offensive instincts, which could add up to a dominant tournament for Team USA.
Tyler Kleven (Defense)
Sanderson’s teammate from North Dakota, Tyler Kleven, is a 6-foot-4 214-pound defenseman who brings a physical presence and a big one-timer. The former second-round, 44th overall pick, in 2020 only suited up for two games in last year’s tournament but also won a gold medal. He and Sanderson have already been named to the preliminary roster, and Kleven figures to slot into the top-four or possibly the top pairing because of his familiarity with Sanderson.
Ridly Greig (Centre)
Ridly Greig will be a good leader and complementary addition to Team Canada. Even though he’s only listed at 6-feet, 174 pounds, he brings a physical edge and can chip in offensively, proven by his 12 goals and 23 points in 15 games this season in the Western Hockey League.
The former 28th-overall pick is also the captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings and has a chance to wear a letter for Canada this year. Some might argue that he could get pushed out of the lineup by a more offensively skilled player, like Connor Bedard or Matt Savoie, but I think he brings enough intangibles to secure his position.
Roby Järventie (Left-Winger)
The last player locked into a spot at the World Juniors is Roby Järventie. He suited up for the third-place winning underdog Finns at the 2021 tournament but logged zero points in six games. This year, Team Finland looks strong, with a few returning players, including last year’s top defenseman Topi Niemelä. Drafted by the Senators in the second round, 33rd overall in 2020, Järventie has played well at every level, including a solid 28 points last season, split between the Liiga and AHL.
This season, he has nine points in 16 games for the Belleville Senators and looks primed to compete for a top-line role for Finland. He’s also a dark horse pick to lead the team in scoring. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, and solid offensive instincts, there isn’t much he can’t do.
There’s only one other Senators prospect who has a chance to sneak into the World Juniors.
Oliver Johansson (Centre)
Drafted in the third round, 74th-overall, in 2021, Oliver Johansson is a stretch to make Team Sweden’s roster. If he does make the team, he will likely be the 13th or 14th forward, without much playing time.
Luckily, he’s still just 18 years old, making him eligible for next year’s tournament as well. He’s much more likely to make next year’s team, as he hasn’t had much success in the SHL with zero points in eight games this season.
His main competition might be Simon Robertsson, who was drafted three spots ahead of him at the 2021 NHL Draft. Robertsson has 51 SHL games under his belt, compared to Johansson’s eight, and was part of the U20 roster this summer. The one thing Johansson has going for him is that he has scored a goal in international play this year, whereas Robertsson hasn’t. All in all, without an injury, Johansson will likely be sitting out this time around.
Senators Who Missed the Cut
Here are the surprising and obvious players who won’t be travelling to Alberta this year.
Tyler Boucher (Left-Winger)
Arguably the best Senators forward prospect, Tyler Boucher, drives opposing teams crazy. Think Brendan Gallagher, but bigger. After the Senators took him 10th overall in last year’s draft, he summed up how he likes to play:
“I think I’m a throwback style of player. I don’t give anybody an inch, play with an edge and I think I have a pretty dangerous shot. I think I can score from a lot of areas.”
He’s had a slow start with three points in 14 games for Boston University this season, and Team USA left him off the tournament roster as a result. It could be a huge blow to his confidence, so look for him to either step up his game for the rest of the season or reach new lows. Luckily, he is eligible for the World Juniors next year, and with ex-NHLer Brian Boucher for a father, he will hear all the right things to motivate him.
If Ben Roger was born in Austria instead of Canada, he’d be a mainstay on the blue line. Sadly, he and fellow Canadian Zack Ostapchuk are probably good enough to make most other teams, but with another deep Canadian team, they are on the outside looking in. However, there’s a chance that Ostapchuk will make the team next year, as he’s still just 18 years old.
Other Senators prospects, like Carson Latimer and Chandler Romeo, are in a similar boat but also haven’t shown enough production or promise to be considered for the tournament.
Regardless, there are plenty of Senators prospects to watch at the World Juniors this year. Make sure to check out all of our World Junior Championship coverage, and tune in on Dec. 26 for the first round robin games.
Writer and hockey addict from the GTA, covering the Ottawa Senators. Leafs fan from birth, moved to BC to explore the mountains and find the strength to keep cheering. Love talking prospects, potential, and coaching strategies.