Against all odds, the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship was completed. Based on the way the tournament went, the odds of the United States winning the whole thing may have been even longer. However, for the fourth time in 11 years, the Americans skated off the ice with the gold medal following one of the more spectacular defensive efforts and goaltending performances the U.S. has ever enjoyed at that level.
Canada looked unbeatable throughout much of the tournament, outscoring opponents 41-4 prior to the gold-medal game, and never once trailing. However, they ran into a hot goaltender and a U.S. squad that was committed to forcing the Canadians to earn every inch of ice.
The road for any team to just get to the tournament, let alone the gold-medal game, was long and arduous. Several players had to be withdrawn from team camps due to positive COVID-19 tests or close contacts. Germany had nearly half of its team quarantined for the first half of the tournament due to positive tests upon arrival to Canada. Sweden played the tournament without four of its coaches on site, including head coach Tomas Monten. Canada's camp was disrupted by positive tests among players and staff, forcing a two-week isolation period in a hotel in Red Deer, Alberta. The U.S. lost two players to positive tests the day before they were to leave for Canada.
It will continue to be debated whether the tournament should have happened at all amid the pandemic. However, the system worked as it was designed, and the result was a tournament that provided some incredible individual and team performances in the first (and hopefully only) World Junior Championship played in a bubble.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from an unforgettable tournament:
1. Trevor Zegras had a legendary World Juniors performance
Anaheim Ducks prospect Trevor Zegras had what can only be described as the greatest individual performance by an American player in the history of the World Junior Championship. With 18 points in seven games, he fell one point shy of tying Doug Weight's single-tournament scoring record set in 1991. The difference is that Zegras won the gold medal and was named the tournament's MVP.
Zegras also matched the record for most points in a World Junior Championship career, with 27. The previous sole record-holder Jordan Schroeder appeared in three World Juniors and played in 19 total games. Zegras appeared in 12 games as the U.S. was eliminated in the quarterfinals last year. His 2.25 points-per-game average ranks fifth all-time among players that appeared in more than one WJC, with a minimum of 10 games played. Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Esa Keskinen and Vladimir Krutov are the only players that bettered Zegras' mark.
The key part about the production Zegras put together in 2021 is that the vast majority of his points were scored on consequential goals. He assisted on USA's first goal and scored the second himself in the gold-medal game. He was never held off the score sheet in any game.
"Trevor showed up against every team we played," said head coach Nate Leaman after the gold-medal game. "He was so committed off the puck and that helped our team. Seeing that helped them."
Earlier in the tournament, Leaman said that he was especially impressed with how Zegras was just as effective and dangerous at the end of a shift as he was at the beginning. When your best players are providing that kind of effort, it trickles down. There wasn't a single game where Zegras wasn't a threat.
Now Zegras will head to Anaheim where he will look to make the Ducks out of training camp. He has a good shot of doing that, if he plays as well as he did in the tournament. The 19-year-old is one of the best passers not currently playing in the NHL, with elite vision and hockey sense. He also tacked on some muscle this offseason, and showed his physical strength in the way he protected pucks and extended plays, while also challenging teams on the back check and forcing turnovers.
Part of what made Zegras' tournament that much more impressive is that he hadn't played in any live games this year, like many of his U.S. teammates that are still playing college hockey. He came into the tournament ready after the long layoff, and looked even better than he did at the end of last season at Boston University.
There may be some development time yet before he's ready to make a big NHL impact, but there's no question that he's coming into his first NHL training camp red hot.