Team Sweden – 2012
With the continued NHL lockout, the eyes of the world turn to Ufa, Russia as the IIHF’s World Junior Championships are set to take place between December 26th and January 5th. This tournament highlights the top prospects under 20-years-old, representing their country in a round-robin qualification round before the top three countries in each group move on to the medal rounds and the bottom two countries fend off being relegated to the Division I Group A tournament next year. Here’s a quick look at the individual countries taking part in this year’s iteration.
Sweden - The Swedes are the defending champions of the World Junior’s tournament after beating Russia in overtime 1-0 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta. There are six returning players from Sweden’s gold medal team including team captain Filip Forsberg, who was selected by the Washington Capitals in the 1st round (11th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. However, Team Sweden will be without the services of Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton Oilers), Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa Senators), and Jonas Brodin (Minnesota Wild). Klefbom and Brodin are medically unable to play in the tournament as each is suffering from an injured shoulder and a broken collarbone, respectively, while the Senators didn’t release Zibanejad to play in the tournament. This will not stop the Swedes from being a threat in the tournament, especially since 2013 draft eligible players Jacob de la Rose, Elias Lindholm, and Alexander Wennberg are more than ready to step up and take their place. Expect Team Sweden to battle the Finns for supremacy in Group A and the automatic berth in the tournament semifinals.
Finland - Team Finland hopes to bounce back after their fourth-place finish in last year’s tournament. They will have 8 returning players suiting up this time around, including 2012 draft picks Ville Pokka (New York Islanders) and Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins). Aleksander Barkov will be one of the prospects to watch in this tournament as the 17-year-old was rated by NHL Central Scouting as the number one Finnish skater entering this year’s draft and one of the top prospects in all of Europe. Other top prospects to be on the lookout for include Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks), Markus Granlund (Calgary Flames), and Joel Armia (Buffalo Sabres).
The Finnish team is one of the younger teams in the tournament, as the vast majority of their players are eligible to be drafted in the upcoming NHL Draft in Newark, New Jersey. Two of these 2013 eligible draftees, Artturi Lehkonen and Rasmus Ristolainen, are going to have a lot of scouts watching them this tournament. While the Swedes are favored to win Group A, the Finns will be the toughest competition for them in the preliminary round.
Czech Republic - Led by 2012 NHL Draftees Radek Faksa (Dallas Stars), Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks), Tomas Hyka (Los Angeles Kings), and Martin Frk (Detroit Red Wings), the Czech Republic look to better their 3rd place finish in group play in last year’s tournament. Forward Petr Beranek is listed by the Central Scouting Service as the 10th best prospect of all Czech skaters entering this year’s draft and is projected to be a mid to late round draft selection. While it seems unlikely the Czechs will win Group A this year, it is expected they will place third in group play and advance to the tournament quarterfinals.
Switzerland - In last year’s World Juniors tournament, the Swiss found themselves in the relegation round trying to stave off a demotion to IIHF’s Division I Group A tournament. While they were able to place second in the relegation round, it seems as if Switzerland will find themselves in a similar situation this time around. Center Christoph Bertschy was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the 6th round of last year’s draft, as was Guelph Storm left winger Tanner Richard (Tampa Bay Lightning). Ex-Peterborough Pete Lino Martschini will be asked to help provide a major part of the scoring while Luca Boltshauser will have the monumental task of keeping the Swiss in games.
Latvia - The Latvians will have the daunting feat of staying out of the relegation zone in a tough group but will have the help of 2012 second round pick Theodor Blueger (Pittsburgh Penguins). Roberts Lipsbergs (Seattle Thunderbirds) averages almost a point per game in the Western Hockey League and the Latvians hope his scoring ways can translate onto the international stage. However, they will end up facing relegation again due to the competition they will face in group play.
Canada - Team Canada once again provides a deep team and hopes to better their bronze medal performance from last year’s tournament. They will benefit from the ongoing NHL lockout as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers) will join the Canadians on their quest to bring home another gold. Seventeen-year-old Nathan MacKinnon will have the eyes of the entire world on him as he tries to solidify the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
Canada’s defense will be bolstered by top prospects Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins), Ryan Murphy (Carolina Hurricanes), Griffin Reinhart (New York Islanders), and Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs). Charles Hudon (Montreal Canadiens) will miss the tournament with a lower back injury but has been replaced by Mark McNeill (Chicago Blackhawks). Hudon’s injury is not going to hurt Canada’s forward corps as prospects Jonathan Drouin (2013 eligible), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), and Ryan Strome (New York Islanders) are more than capable of finding the back of the net.
Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues) will get the majority of the starts in net but will be backed up by Jake Paterson (Detroit Red Wings) and Malcolm Subban (Boston Bruins). Canada will contend with the Russians and the Americans to take the top spot in Group B.
Russia - The Russians are still bitter over last year’s silver medal and hope to win the gold in front of their home crowd. Nail Yakupov (Edmonton Oilers), who was the first overall selection in last year’s draft, is back to get revenge along with Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres) and goaltenders Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Andrey Makarov (Buffalo Sabres). Valeri Nichushkin is rated as the number one skater coming out of Russia this year and will help an already loaded Russian squad that is deep in every facet of the game. Coach Mikhail Varnakov should be very impressed with the roster he has put together and may have all of the components to not only battle to win Group B but to take the gold in front of the home crowd.
United States - Team USA is coming off a very disappointing 2012 Wold Juniors but is looking to get back into the medal rounds after winning the relegation group last year. Goaltenders John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks), John Gillies (Calgary Flames) and Garret Sparks (Toronto Maple Leafs) look to give the Americans a solid grasp between the pipes.
Defenseman Seth Jones is a 2013 Draft eligible player who currently plays for the Portland Winterhawks (Western Hockey League) and will be competing with MacKinnon for the 1st overall selection in the upcoming draft. Jones will also wear the alternate captain's "A" this tournament. Team USA’s defensive corps is also bolstered by Matt Grzelcyk (Boston Bruins), Connor Murphy (Phoenix Coyotes), Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets), Patrick Sieloff (Calgary Flames), alternate captain Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg Jets), and team captain Jake McCabe (Buffalo Sabres). Leading the American forwards is 2012 first round draft pick Alex Galchenyk (Montreal Canadiens) and 2011 first round pick J.T. Miller (New York Rangers), who has also been selected to be an alternate captain. Other talented forwards include John Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Rocco Grimaldi (Florida Panthers), Riley Barber (Washington Capitals), Mario Lucia (Minnesota Wild), and alternate captain Cole Bardeau (Cornell University).
Team USA may not win Group B, but should have enough points to escape the threat of relegation and move onto the tournament quarterfinals.
Slovakia - The Slovaks made it through to the medal round last year but were derailed by the Finns 8-5 in the quarterfinals and finished 6th overall in the tournament. Team Slovakia only has one NHL draftee on its roster- Peter Ceresnak, who was selected in the 6th round by the New York Rangers in 2011. While he does not have much of a scoring touch, his physical play on the blue line will help keep the Slovaks in games. Marko Dano is another returning player who is eligible to be drafted in the 2013 NHL Draft. He currently plays for HC Slovan Bratislava of the KHL and is known to have a very quick shot release and great vision on the ice. It’s hard to envision Team Slovakia making it to the medal round this year as Canada, Russia, and the United States will be fighting each other for the top three spots in Group B.
Germany - Team Germany did not play in last year’s tournament. However, they won the Division I Group A tournament last year in order to be promoted to the highest division for this year’s tournament. Like Slovakia, the Germans only have one player on the roster who has been drafted by an NHL team – Tobias Rieder, who was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 4th round of the 2011 draft. Rieder is a member of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League where he is almost a point per game scorer this season. Goaltender Marvin Cüpper also plays major junior hockey in Canada for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He has struggled so far this season with a goals-against average of 3.57 and a save percentage of .895 in 27 games.
Germany will struggle to not only win some games in group play but also keep from being relegated after one appearance in the World Junior Championships due to a young roster and strong competition.
In the United States, all games will be broadcasted on the NHL Network while games will be broadcasted on TSN in Canada. This tournament has all of the ingredients to be one of the best in recent memory and if past tournaments are a sign this one will not disappoint.
Photo credit: Getty Images