Though it is criminally overlooked by some in the hockey community, the World Junior Championship tournament is an annual opportunity to watch the greatest under-20 prospects fight it out for national pride and personal notoriety.
Naturally, one of the consequences of becoming as successful as the St. Louis Blues have in recent years is that your prospect pool dwindles over time. Consequently, they entered the tournament with just two prospects: Nikita Alexandrov, playing for Team Russia, and goaltender Joel Hofer, who was expected to back up for Team Canada.
By the end of the tournament, there were just two teams remaining: Russia and Canada. Alexandrov and Hofer were both major contributors for the teams that won silver and gold respectively. Let’s take a look now at what they accomplished, and what it means for their future.
On a team with top prospects like Grigori Denisenko, Vasili Podkolzin, and Kirill Marchenko, Alexandrov was expected to be a secondary player at best. But the Blues’ 2019 second-round draft pick became one of the team’s most indispensable forwards and won player of the game honors for Team Russia in the gold medal game.
Alexandrov finished the tournament in second place amongst Russian scorers, with two goals and eight assists. He scored the opening goal of the gold medal game, breaking a 100-plus minute shutout streak for his future Blues teammate Hofer. He also laid probably the most memorable hit of the tournament, checking America’s Bobby Brink in front of his own bench and drawing audible cheers from his teammates.
Throughout the tournament, Alexandrov showed some of the skills that made him an enticing prospect for the Blues. Their front office always drafts players with high hockey-IQ, and he has it in spades. He also has a wicked shot and is valuable on the power play, but he showed more playmaking ability than he has flashed in the past.
Alexandrov is just 19 and is in his third season with the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL, where he had 23 points in 19 games before leaving for the WJC. He was the Blues’ highest draft pick in 2019, having surrendered their first-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Ryan O’Reilly. He shows the all-around skill and hockey sense to suggest he’s a pretty certain future-NHL player, the only question is where he slots in the lineup.
Alexandrov looks like a responsible bottom-six center with some offensive upside and ability to contribute on special teams, not unlike Blues’ forward Ivan Barbashev, another Russian they once drafted out of the QMJHL in the second round. He has not yet shown the offensive consistency to graduate into a potential top star, but after his performance at the WJC, his confidence has to be at an all-time high.
While Alexandrov had himself a very fine WJC, Hofer was arguably the breakout player of the entire tournament. When Team Canada held its summer camp in Michigan in 2019, he was not one of the five goalies invited to attend. By the time the tournament started, he’d made the roster, but was expected to sit behind terrific Guelph Storm netminder Nico Daws. But after coming on in mop-up duty in Canada’s 6-0 group stage loss to Alexandrov’s Russians, Hofer seized the reins and never let them go.
In six games, Hofer looked unbeatable, with a preposterous stat line: a 1.30 goals-against average (GAA) and a .946 save percentage (SV%), both leading the tournament. He also collected one shutout and was unbeaten in his five starts.
Obviously, when the gold medal game came, Hofer was between the pipes for Canada. And while Alexandrov snuck one past him, he was still very strong, stopping 35-of-38 shots. He helped Canada win gold, and brought home two distinctive honors for himself: nomination as a tournament All-Star, and the WJC award for best goaltender. He now returns to his native Winnipeg as a national hero, before moving back to the Portland Winterhawks, his junior team in the Western Hockey League (WHL).
It is obviously unwise to overreact to any two-week period of a young player’s career, even on a grand stage like the WJC. But this hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere for the 19-year-old 2018 fourth-round pick of the Blues. Since being traded to Portland last season, and particularly since the start of this season, he has looked like a completely different goalie.
Hofer has an unbelievable 20-4-2 record with the Winterhawks this season, and he leads the WHL in GAA at 1.81. He adds to that an extraordinary .937 SV%. Judging by those numbers, the WJC may have been more of a coming-out party than a flash in the pan. He’s even made skeptics like The Athletic‘s senior NHL prospect writer, Corey Pronman, into believers.
Scouts have praised Hofer a lot to me recently, but I wasn’t fully on board until the past month. Hofer, from his WHL season to his U20 camp and into this tournament, has been excellent. He showed athleticism and made the tough save but never seemed like he needed to. Whenever chaos would happen around the Canadian net, he seemed to be tracking pucks perfectly and stopped the dangerous chance without scrambling much. He was clearly the best goalie in the tournament.
Corey Pronman (from ‘Pronman: Standouts, surprises and disappointments from the 2020 world juniors,’ The Athletic, 1/6/20)
Pronman isn’t the only one. While there is obviously some recency bias at play, TSN’s Craig Button named Hofer the 29th best NHL-affiliated prospect, trailing only five other goalies. It appears that though Hofer’s rise may have been meteoric, he won’t be burning out anytime soon.
The Final Word
It is only natural that a championship-caliber team would have a barer prospect cupboard than other franchises. And with the recent graduation of players like Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, the unexpected ascent of Jordan Binnington, and the departure via trade of Dominik Bokk, it was uncertain who would become the next jewels in the Blues’ prospect crown. But now that question has been answered.
In both Alexandrov and Hofer, the Blues have 19-year-old youngsters who will one day make a significant impact in the NHL and have already proven their mettle at the highest level of junior competition. It appears that general manager Doug Armstrong’s impressive draft resume will continue to grow.