Why 16- and 17-year-old phenoms could steal World Juniors MVP

Connor Bedard has the potential to win MVP at the World Juniors. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Connor Bedard has the potential to win MVP at the World Juniors. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Walking through the heart of Toronto’s Dundas West neighbourhood, a giant billboard is adorned with TSN’s promotional slogan for the World Juniors: The Future of Hockey Lives Here.

It’s a clever slogan for the network, which has become synonymous with its decades-long coverage of the tournament, but this year poses an interesting wrinkle to the thesis: how far into the future are we looking, when the two best players in this year’s iteration are just 16 years old?

With due respect to the rest of the competition, Canada’s 16-year-old phenom Connor Bedard, 17-year-old Shane Wright (who turns 18 on Jan. 5) and Russia’s wunderkind Matvei Michkov (who turned 17 on Dec. 9) could very well duke it out for tournament MVP honours, a notion that runs counterintuitive to one of the well-established axioms of the World Juniors. You can almost hear it, too.

TSN’s Gord Miller, who has been the voice of the World Juniors since 1994, often states on-air that "this is a 19-year-old’s tournament" — the idea that the best players in the competition are two years removed from their NHL draft year and have benefited from the extra developmental years.

That might not be the case this time around. Due to players graduating to the NHL, a lost developmental year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and an abnormal surge in talent from the 2023 class, we have all the conditions for the youngest players in the tournament to also be its best.

Let’s start with Wright. In many ways, he is a conventional choice for tournament MVP, and is the unchallenged, presumptive first-overall pick in next summer’s draft. To highlight how difficult this can be, Russia’s Ivan Miroshnichenko was supposed to pose a challenge for the top spot but his play has fallen off a cliff this year, and he failed to make the team. This type of phenomenon isn’t all too unique — we’ve seen 17-year-old future NHL stars thrive for Canada (Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alexis Lafreniere, Steven Stamkos) while others fail to make a difference against older competition (Rick Nash, Nathan MacKinnon, Quinton Byfield) and that’s all within the range of normalcy.

Wright has two elite skills by my estimation — his shot release, and his ability to see the ice — while doing everything else at an above-average level. He’s not going to blow you away with McDavid-esque speed, which is an unfair expectation. But on a Canadian team that has just one returnee among its forwards (Cole Perfetti), Wright is primed to show why he’s been pencilled for a top-six role since rising to prominence as an exceptional player with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs two years ago. And yet, despite teams Fighting For Their Wright To Party, it’s the younger comrades who may win the hearts and minds of the viewing public.

Bedard and Michkov are different cases and because they’ll be invariably grouped together for the rest of their lives, it makes little sense to differentiate between them now. During the 2021 IIHF World U-18 championship earlier this year, Bedard tied McDavid’s record for most points by an Under-16 player, recording 16 points while leading Canada to a gold medal. But his counterpart may have outdone him.

Michkov captured tournament MVP, notching 12 goals and 16 points, including a highlight-reel stunner in the gold-medal game. In any given year, both Bedard and Michkov would go first overall and they’d almost certainly supplant Wright if they were able to move up a draft class, but they both possess jaw-dropping offensive ability, and have been able to score with ferocity at every level of their careers.

Michkov is older than Bedard by a month, for what it’s worth, but the age gap is negligible, especially when you consider that the Russian winger is playing in the KHL — the best league in the world outside of the NHL — and doesn’t look remotely out of place. He shattered Nikita Kucherov’s points record last season for a 16-year-old in Russia’s Under-20 division and his audacity to pull off the seemingly impossible would certainly impress his countryman.

There are potential challenges to my thesis, but we’ll spell them out. There are indeed some pretty good 19-year-old players in this tournament. United States captain Jake Sanderson seems on the verge of graduating to the Ottawa Senators, while Matthew Beniers, who went second overall to the Seattle Kraken, is expected to carry an offense that will feel the absence of last year’s core. Canada’s Mason McTavish already has six NHL games under his belt. Sweden’s Alexander Holtz and William Eklund are both dynamic shooters who are projected to be top-six players in the NHL sooner rather than later. The relative dinosaurs of this tournament are still young adults, and their talent hasn’t atrophied while a handful of teenagers have supplanted them.

With the exception of perhaps Holtz, Eklund and Beniers, none of these players have the game-breaking, show-stopping offensive skills that Bedard, Michkov and Wright possess. Few would be surprised if Holtz leads the tournament in scoring, or if Sanderson is clearly the best defenseman in the tourney, but will they be able to carry their team to stratospheric heights? For at least Bedard and Michkov, they’ve always been able to make the seemingly impossible look routine, and have been completely unfazed against competition five years their senior.

People who cover junior hockey and prospects for a living have spelled out a common misconception about the World Juniors: that using a two-week sample to make a larger projection of a player’s professional chances is a fool’s errand. We can abide by that, certainly. But this isn’t an assessment of how Bedard, Michkov and Wright will look in the pros — although we’ll make easy bets that all three become NHL stars, while the 2023 kids have franchise-altering potential. It’s how they will command the arena, and their respective teams, in a short window. And to that end, there are few players better-suited for the occasion than this spectacular trio.

I’ve written about Bedard, Michkov and Wright before. This could very well be the launching point for household name-brand recognition, and it certainly won’t be the last time I venture to pitch something about the three standouts. The future of hockey lives during the World Juniors, only now we’re exploring into the great beyond.

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