The 2024 World Juniors are almost upon us and while the Habs won’t have as many prospects taking part compared to a year ago, several of their top youngsters will be suiting up. Here’s a look at who will be participating.
Owen Beck (Canada)
Officially, Beck is the lone returning player from last year’s event. I’d use that term loosely, however, considering he was originally cut from the team and played all of 13:09 over three games. That’s not a lot of experience to draw from.
That comment aside, Beck projects to play an important role this time around. Perhaps most intriguingly from a Montreal perspective, that role is also the one that might suit him the most in the pros.
Beck is expected to be the centre on Canada’s checking line. That means he’ll draw the toughest defensive matchups while that group will also be counted on to provide some energy. From a special teams perspective, he’ll be seeing a healthy dose of time on the penalty kill. If you think about Beck’s potential future with the Habs, being the third centre while playing a key defensive role would be a pretty good outcome.
Beck could wind up being one of Canada’s more valuable players in the tournament but that doesn’t necessarily lend itself toward being a high-end scorer. Honestly, I don’t think he’ll put up more than a handful of points since his role will be more defensive-minded. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say he’ll be playing a lot more than just 13:09 this time around; he’ll probably eclipse that in the tournament opener.
Jacob Fowler (United States)
In terms of raw talent, Fowler would be the undisputed starter on just about every team in the tournament. He has simply been dominant with Boston College this season and usually, an every-game college starter is going to get the nod on a World Junior team.
That is, every team except this one. Last year’s starter Trey Augustine returns which at least gives him the leg up on the starting job even though Fowler’s numbers are considerably better in college.
Neither goalie really established themselves as the go-to guy in pre-tournament action; both had their ups and downs so it stands to reason that the battle will last at least through the preliminary round. That will give Fowler a couple of games to show his worth. If he earns the number one spot, he’ll be a key part of what could be a Gold-calibre team. If he doesn’t, it’ll be a good learning experience heading into next year’s event when the two will battle for the starting role once again.
Lane Hutson (United States)
Last year, I felt expectations were way too high for Hutson heading into the tournament and that wound up being the case as he played more of a secondary role. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that either; that was a deep back end to be a part of.
This year, I still think expectations are way too high. Yes, Hutson should be playing higher up in the lineup (though he was dropped to the third pairing in their final pre-tournament game) but this team also has Zeev Buium and Seamus Casey on their defence corps. If you’re not familiar with them, the quick thing to note is that they have more points in the NCAA this season than Hutson does. This means it’s not a lock that Hutson will get top minutes in all key offensive situations by default; he’ll have some legitimate competition for those minutes.
Having said that, Hutson should be in line to make a bigger impact in this event and not because he’s an alternate captain. He’s one of only two returnees on the blueline and with the firepower they have, there are plenty of points to go around. But I’m not sure I’d be handicapping him as the odds-on contender to be the top-scoring defenceman in the tournament; if Casey in particular gets some of the prime offensive minutes, Hutson might not end up as the top-scoring rearguard on his own team.
Filip Mesar (Slovakia)
The Slovaks don’t have their full complement of age-level talent once again (Juraj Slafkovsky is still with Montreal, after all and Simon Nemec is with New Jersey) but they still have a pretty good group. Of the ones they have, Mesar should be one of their go-to players along with Dalibor Dvorsky, one of the players likely under consideration when the Habs took David Reinbacher back in June.
Mesar averaged nearly 20 minutes a game in last year’s event and should see similar usage this time around. He’ll be on the top power play unit and play in late-game offensive situations. While it won’t have any bearing on his playing time, Mesar is also an alternate captain.
Mesar has been much better in the OHL this season, quickly becoming a key weapon offensively after being more of a secondary option last year. I’m quite curious to see if that will carry over to this event.
If you’re wondering where Reinbacher is on this list, Austria didn’t qualify for the tournament as they were relegated last year. That keeps him and Vincenz Rohrer from making another appearance in this event.