World Juniors 2024

Each team's X-Factor at the 2024 World Junior Hockey Championship

Star players define team performance at every World Juniors. They are game-breakers and game-savers – players who stir the drink for their respective teams. X-Factors, you might call them.

They're the catalyst to success, whether the goal is to medal, avoid relegation, or advance their nation's standings in the eyes of the IIHF.

Extreme examples litter the history books. Trevor Zegras for the USA in 2022, Jesse Puljujärvi for Finland in 2016, Cody Hodgson for Canada in 2009, and the TSN camera in 2020 – the teams they played for may not have seen similar success without their contributions.

You can pick X-factor players from last year's tournament. Chicago Blackhawks star Connor Bedard elevated Canada to Gold through his goal-scoring prowess. Anaheim Ducks prospect netminder Tomáš Suchánek dominated for Czechia, helping manifest a Silver-place finish, and Adam Gajan rocked a .936 save percentage, crucial to keep Slovakia in the fight.

The question now becomes, who is each nation's X-factor for the 2024 World Junior Championships? Let's figure that out.

Group A


Macklin Celebrini, C, Boston University (NCAA)

It’s rare that draft-eligible players are able to walk into a U20 tournament and be the primary difference maker. What's more absurd is that a nation like Canada could experience this in back-to-back years. While it is wholly unfair to compare Macklin Celebrini with Bedard, one can’t help but see the similarities of their situations. Both are top-of-the-draft players whose talent demands they anchor a top line for their respective teams.  

Some may question if Celebrini can handle this much responsibility. The reality is this shouldn’t be anything new for Celebrini, who has already proven to be one of the best prospects on earth, whether you look at drafted or undrafted players alike. Already a superstar for Boston University, the Vancouver-born forward is crushing older competition in the collegiate ranks. Across 15 games, Celebrini is operating at a 1.67 point-per-game pace, good for third across the NCAA. He’s scored 10 goals and, by a good measure, is the program's primary offensive weapon up front.

What makes Celebrini even more impressive is how complete his game is at such a young age. He has one of the best off-puck motors outside of the NHL. Constant, cerebral, pressure pushing means the Elite Prospects' 1st-ranked player in 2024 is forcing mistakes, creating turnovers, and making defenders’ lives a living hell. He identifies secondary threats, proactively moves to create disruption, and is an extremely hard-working and physical quantity in his own zone.

Off the rush, Celebrini’s game is about compounding habits to create persistent advantages – perfect for Canada to rack up a volume of chances. Changes in pace, explosiveness, protection through hip-pocket holds, and large-ice manoeuvrability mean an automatic entry when he has control. He blends playmaking skills through hooks, slips, and layered feeds, sprinting into soft ice off-puck to be available for a give-and-go attack. From there, he’s deceptive, firing pucks through defenders, sending deft passes across newly created seams, or even cutting back to create sustained pressure. He’s relentless in his pursuit of finding soft ice in high-danger areas to leverage one-touch, off-the-pass shooting. If the puck strays to the perimeter, Celebrini is typically the first man in on the retrieval, winning battles and working slippery escapes out of physical pressure.

While the addition of Boston Bruins’ rookie Matthew Poitras helps Team Canada’s centre depth immensely, Celebrini remains one of the Great White North’s true game-breakers down the middle of the ice. With roster decisions shaping Canada as a team defined by hard-working individuals, Celebrini fits this team like a glove, on top of possessing the hockey sense and offensive punch to make a difference.


Jonathan Lekkerimäki, RW, Örebro (SHL)

A younger player on an undermanned 2023 Swedish World Juniors squad, Jonathan Lekkerimäki failed to make much of an impact across his minutes. He looked lost on the power play operating in the bumper, soft on the perimeter of the ice, and had minutes cut drastically as the tournament went on. When all was said and done, the Vancouver Canucks prospects only mustered up one goal across seven games, flashing some deft playmaking in isolation.  

Reeling off a poor start in HockeyAllsvenskan earlier that season, Lekkerimäki was behind due to a bout of mononucleosis he contracted in the offseason, resurging in the playoffs after his regular season ended due to surgery.

Present-day Lekkerimäki is in a much better space. He’s a top-10 goalscorer in the SHL and has stacked better habits across his entire game. A deadly shooter off the pass on the power play, Lekkerimäki’s inside-foot, angle-changing release creates fits for SHL goaltenders. Sweden’s top goal scorer last year only produced four goals across seven games – further highlighting his importance.

He’s not just a shot, however. Lekkerimäki has been dynamic on the rush, especially in 1-on-1 scenarios, exploiting mistakes, handling through defensive triangles, and leveraging a newly found second gear to create separation. His 5-on-5 play is more inside-focused, and he’s a far more involved defensive player, especially on the backcheck. These qualities should help keep Lekkerimäki on the ice longer.

If Sweden is going to contend for their first gold medal since 2012, it will likely be on the back of Lekkerimäki’s goal-scoring and efforts to convert in even strength.


Konsta Helenius, C, Jukerit (Liiga)

The 2024 Finnish World Junior roster is a bit atypical, possessing a breadth of scoring wingers that boast the likes of New Jersey Devils prospect Lenni Hämeenaho and the draft-eligible Emil Hemming – the problem is that they lack skill down the middle of the ice.

Enter 17-year-old Konsta Helenius.

Helenius, one of the top prospects for the 2024 NHL Entry Draft, was the eighth-ranked player on Elite Prospects' latest draft board. Already a major contributor for Jukerit in Finland’s Liiga, the centre is putting together a monster season with 20 points across 28 games.

From a tournament standpoint, Helenius has enough established professional habits to anchor Finland's top-line and special teams. Off-puck, he is perpetually open, timing and activating into space expertly. He’s a constant supporter who possesses the size to win battles on the peripheries, and his defensive habits are advanced and all-encompassing. He tracks up and down his zone, prevents inside-lane access, and is a relentless pressure pusher.

A fast-executing playmaker, Helenius distributes through dangerous hooks and one-touch feeds through layers. There’s an element of deception in his game. He uses feints to draw attackers in, only to bump a pass off to a teammate with less resistance. Helenius’ release is even projectable. These traits combine to create a player who can start and continue a cycle, find teammates in layers, finish off of give-and-goes, and ultimately leverage the shooting skill available on the wings.

Playing up in age shouldn’t be an issue, either. We are talking about a player who already has two years of experience playing against professionals.


Julian Lutz, LW, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)

In what will be his second World Juniors, Julian Lutz will represent only one of three drafted players across the German national team.

Selected in the second round of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft by the Arizona Coyotes, the 6-foot-3 forward left the Deutschland this past year to play in the USHL for the Green Bay Gamblers – an endeavour that has gone fairly well. Across 19 games, Lutz has amassed 23 points and is likely Germany’s only higher-end scoring option across their roster.

The hulking winger has a considerable amount of flash to his game. It’s not uncommon to see a dynamic handle off the rush to step by an F1. He uses delays, can pop into a power move, and utilizes weight shifts. He struggles to string additional plays together and can run into puck protection issues – he can be fairly inefficient the longer he has possession. This may be a roadblock if Lutz is a primary puck carrier for Germany. Regardless, with Green Bay, he’s proven to be an excellent pass supporter who can execute give-and-go attacks through the middle of the ice. If his linemates can connect, Lutz has the skill to execute a high-danger play.

The German winger can even flash some high-end playmaking under sustained pressure; he patterns into pivot-hook passes and one-touch feeds circle-to-circle. He even understands how to break down defenders by loading his shot, only to zip a pass through an open seam.

Germany will likely need Lutz to be an all-world contributor offensively to avoid the relegation bracket. Like other nations that are undermanned talent-wise, one of the biggest hurdles will be possession -- which could mean a lot more off-puck sequences for Lutz. Look for the Coyotes prospect to have a prominent role in all situations, 5-on-5 and on the special team units.


Dans Ločmelis, C, UMass (NCAA)

In what will be Dans Ločmelis third World Juniors, the Latvian centre is entering the tournament as one of their most experienced players internationally. A cog in Latvia men's World Championship team in 2023, Ločmelis helped capture Bronze, scoring two goals across nine games. An extremely hard-working player, Ločmelis left the U20 Junior Nationell to join UMass this past season.

Almost always operating ahead of the play, Ločmelis sense stands out as his best tool. Nuance and habits drive his game. In a Boston Bruins prospect pool article earlier in the year, I highlighted how he uses protection to create advantages,  

“Protection habits are a central part of the Latvian’s game. If he feels pressure off his back, Ločmelis will likely punch into a turn or cutback to shake pressure, working a pass out of the manoeuvre. He struggles to find the best option at times, throwing pucks to heavily covered teammates, but the process of shaking off the pressure and working a quick play to the inside of the ice is a stepping stone. He will even go as far as faking a cutback, incorporating a shoulder shake to stagger defenders and create room.”

Like Lutz, Ločmelis will be leaned upon heavily in all scenarios. He may not have any separating tools, but Ločmelis’ off-puck game is advanced, he plays in hard areas of the ice, and his anticipation in the defensive zone allows for impact across the entire ice surface. Latvia is never an easy out and it’s partly due to players embodying the aforementioned habits above.

In his last shot at the U20 stage, look for the Latvian to team up with fellow drafted prospect Sandis Vilmanis (Florida Panthers) as the nation looks to keep their spot in the top group.

Group B


Cutter Gauthier, C, Boston College (NCAA)

When combing across Team USA’s 2024 World Junior roster, many players could be the red, white, and blue’s X-factor. Lane Hutson is an automatic high-danger change creator off the blue line, a resurgent Frank Nazar flashes skill off of every puck touch, Jimmy Snuggerud is a puck retrieval monster, and even one of America’s goaltenders could be the deciding factor for a podium finish.

At the end of the day, though, one player who will likely have his hands on most of the important plays is Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cutter Gauthier. Likely to play in all situations as the team's No. 1 centre, the former fifth-overall pick has been off to a roaring start with Boston University, having scored 13 goals across 17 games.

A Clint Eastwood-esque shooter quickly unholstering and holstering his revolver in the blink of an eye, Gauthier just doesn’t need much time or space to unleash his pinpoint, accurate shot. If he finds an opening, such as a defender’s triangle, he’ll curl and drag a shot through it to create a screen.

Off-puck, he times his activations into pass lanes expertly and can whip pucks off the pass with velocity. If the shooting lane isn’t available, the Swedish-born, America-representing forward accesses a secondary power game. It’s not uncommon to see Gauthier roll off a defender, crash the net front and create immense chaos—all keys for creating off the rush.

Heavy physically and a disruptive quantity in his own zone, it would not be a shock to see Gauthier’s contributions extend onto the penalty kill as well.

My EP Rinkside colleague Russ Cohen recently interviewed Gauthier, where he talked about being an adaptable player for Team USA,

“Whatever the coach wants. I want to be that versatile player. Playing left wing, playing centre. Today I was playing centre out there. I’ve been used to it this season with Boston College,” Gauthier reiterated. “It’s been working out. I don’t really have a preference. Whatever the coach wants to do.”

While this will be The Boston College Eagles centre's second World Juniors, this iteration will require an adjustment to the Olympic-sized ice – this could be an issue for a heavier-foot player like Gauthier. Regardless, it’s clear if the USA is going to have success, it will likely be on the back of their number one centre across all situations.


Jiří Kulich, C, Rochester Americans (AHL)

One of the major reasons Czechia walked away with the silver medal in the 2023 World Juniors was Jiří Kulich’s goalscoring. Tied for second with seven tallies in last year's tournament, the Kadan-born winger hasn’t really slowed down in the past year. In fact, Kulich leads the entire AHL in goalscoring with 16 goals across only 22 games this season.

Most of these goals are scored off-puck – quick strike, mechanically perfect wrist shots and one-timed bombs off the right-hand circle. A lot goes into his shooting success. Kulich’s feet are always setting and adjusting to take the puck in the middle of his stance. He possesses a violent follow-through, drops to his knee, and leverages his whole body through the slap shot. Kulich’s ability to fire the puck off any type of pass is what separates him from other similar shooters. Throw it in his feet? He still finds a way to paint the top of the net. Find his tape, and the puck is 
earmarked to hit twine. In pressure? He’ll change the angle and fire through you. The adaptability is just too immense.

Essentially, Czechia will need Kulich to repeat his performance from last year, if not improve. Across seven games, he had 39 shots, and six of his seven conversions were 5-on-5. If he can repeat his even-strength performance and mix in more powerplay goals (six of sixteen goals in the AHL were with the man advantage), Czechia has a chance for another podium finish. The team is loaded with NHL-drafted players, but make no mistake, if Kulich isn’t able to score, it could be curtains. Nevertheless, nothing in his past really indicates that will happen.


Adam Gajan, G, Green Bay Gamblers (NCAA)

Slovakia is entering the 2024 World Juniors with some considerable star power. Samuel Honzek has returned from injury, St. Louis Blues prospect Dalibor Dvorský is carving up the OHL, and Montréal Canadiens draft pick Filip Mešár is producing at 1.6 point-per-game paces with the Kitchener Rangers. While all these players would be good choices for the Europen nation’s X-factor, it’s hard to look past Chicago Blackhawks prospect Adam Gajan.

Gajan was one of the biggest surprises in the 2023 World Juniors, ultimately winning the award for the tournament's best goaltender. The Slovak goaltender dragged his nation to a 2-2-0 finish, stopping nearly 94 percent of the shots sent his way. Since then, Gajan was drafted in the second round as an overaged player and is currently rocking a 14-4-1 record with the Green Bay Gamblers, second only to Hampton Slukynsky in save percentage.

At 6-foot-3, Gajan is strong, quick, and aggressive. He’s flexible, reads the play well, and now has a track record of success.

With a defensive stalwart like Simon Nemec not attending the annual tournament, Slovakia is heavily relying on Maxim Štrbák, Richard Baran, and Viliam Kmec, among others, to hold the fort on the backend. While all are having some relative success this season across the NCAA, BCHL, and CHL respectively, it’s clear that Gajan will be the ultimate decider of Slovakia’s fate.

It would not be shocking if the future Minnestoa-Duluth Bulldog repeated some of his holiday magic this time around.


Rodwin Dionicio, D, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)

If you have ever seen Rodwin Dionicio play, you will understand the wave of chaos that follows him. One of the most exciting players in the Canadian Hockey League, the Swiss-born defender has already tallied 29 points across 26 games this season in the Ontario Hockey League.

With Lian Bichsel's status unknown, Dionicio will be the primary offensive threat and the only drafted player on Switzerland’s roster. The good news is that the 6-foot-2 defender is a creation machine with enough ability to crush opponents who take him lightly.

Full of manipulation and delay elements, Dionicio’s transition game is extremely nuanced -- and risky. He’s always trying to create an advantage. Deft body fakes to freeze a defender, changes in pace to open pass lanes, protection to drive deeper in the offensive zone --Dionicio hunts the crease, treating everyone around him like a teacher dodging children in a busy school hallway. He sends bullets on the breakouts, and his inside-focused habits take hold when he’s set up in the offensive zone. With a lack of skill across Switzerland’s roster, the New Jersey-born defender will have to take on the onus of doing the heavy lifting – something he seems to enjoy when he is on the ice.

Part of the excitement around Dionicio's game revolves around his confidence – it’s on another level. If he faces pressure on the line, he baits, controls, and walks around the pressure. Activation is not only a habit; it’s paramount to how he plays. With that comes chaos -- if teammates aren’t covering for him, it means odd-man breaks the other way.

The question really revolves around how much time Dionicio will get with the puck – especially against deeper nations. He’s a chaotic, bruising defender who lacks the stride and edges to play that style effectively. Dionicio often sacrifices positioning in turn for an aggressive disruption attempt – this could be a disastrous combination on the Olympic-sized ice.

Regardless, with relegation a real possibility for Switzerland, they need any type of offensive spark they can get, and luckily, that’s the name of Dionicio’s game.


Michael Brandsegg-Nygård, RW, Mora IK (HockeyAllsvenskan)

Born in October of 2005, Michael Brandsegg-Nygård will be one of the youngest entities across the 2024 World Juniors. A member of the Norwegian team that won promotion last season, the draft-eligible forward scored five points across five games, beating out Hungary, France, Kazakhstan, Denmark, and Slovenia.

A top prospect for the 2024 NHL Entry Draft, Brandsegg-Nygård was recently ranked 11th by the Elite Prospects scouting team. Part of what makes the Norwegian such a highly touted player is his projectability. His habits, on both ends of the rink, are advanced. He plays, creates, and defends like an NHL already.

Possessing a powerful stride that he leverages to create separation on the rush, Brandsegg-Nygård blends protection, individual skill, and nuance throughout his game. When he takes a pass, he’s already leaning on his stick to launch the puck off his blade on reception – à la J.T. Miller.

He holds pucks in his hip pocket, executes cutbacks to stagger defenders, and is a constant supporter off-puck. A perpetual physical threat, Brandsegg-Nygård sprints to drive puck carriers to the outside, drills defenders on the forecheck, and targets sticks to create turnovers. He initiates proactive contact to win races and has enough playmaking ability to set up an immediate chance in the centre of the ice.

Norway’s roster is light, and their main goal will be to avoid relegation. With a professional background in HockeyAllsvenskan, the right-shot winger shouldn’t be phased by the under-20 opponents. While some may question if Brandsegg-Nygård alone is enough of a difference-maker to win games against the lower-bracketed nations, what is clear is that without him, Norway’s dreams of avoiding relegation is a pipe dream at best. Expect Brandsegg-Nygård to be Norway’s number-one option across the tournament.

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This article is about:
World Juniors 2024 Canada U20 Czechia U20 Finland U20 Latvia U20 Norway U20 Sweden U20 Switzerland U20 USA U20 WJC-20 Michael Brandsegg-Nygård Macklin Celebrini Rodwin Dionicio Adam Gajan Cutter Gauthier Konsta Helenius Jiri Kulich Jonathan Lekkerimäki Dans Locmelis
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