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A primer for the 2014 World Junior Championship

While still comparitavely small to the NHL and Olympics, the World Junior Hockey Championship has grown in profile in the past five years in the United States. Between NHL Network's commitment to televising much of the tournament and providing an American spin on things, to the Americans growing more successful as that coverage has grown. The annual holiday tourney is safely at least at the level of "things you'll see tweets about most of the time."

The United States are the defending champions for the second time in four years, though they do not return as favorites for this year's tournament in Malmo, Sweden. We're finally growing up to the Don Cherry list of Canadian excuses for not winning the WJCs, in that many of last year's stars (Seth Jones, J.T. Miller, Alex Galchenyuk) currently occupy spots on NHL rosters. 

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Mike Salerno will be handling much of the World Junior coverage for PDL, but we thought it'd be nice to give you a bit of a preview of the tourney. More of a guidebook than hard analysis, though we've got some of that. Chris Peters of United States of Hockey and Cam Charron of Leafs Nation provide some capsules for each of the 10 teams competing. 

Group A

United States

Last Year: Gold Medal winners. 

Head Coach: Don Lucia 

Returning Players from last year: 3 (goaltender Jon Gillies, forwards Riley Barber and Ryan Hartman)

Analysis

Peters: "The defending gold medalists lost a ton of firepower from last year’s team with guys like Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Alex Galchenyuk busy with NHL duty. They’ll lean heavily on returnees Riley Barber and Ryan Hartman up front and will hope to get some solid goaltending out of Jon Gillies who was the backup last year. The U.S. squad has mobility and balance on defense, which should help them keep a lot of teams in check and be good in transition. The U.S. may struggle to score some goals, but there’s a lot of promise in under-age player Jack Eichel, who has a lot of skill. If the U.S. can get some timely scoring, succeed on special teams and get the goaltending that is expected, they’ll still be a gold-medal threat."

Canada

Last Year: Fourth place.

Head Coach: Brent Sutter

Returning players from last year: 3 (goaltender Jake Paterson, defenseman Griffin Reinhart, forward Jonathan Drouin)

Analysis

Charron: "Remember the hype between 2004 and 2005 about a young centreman named Sidney Crosby? Meet Connor McDavid, the first 16-year-old competing for Canada at a World Juniors in the post-Crosby era. Despite his age, McDavid has turned his Erie Otters OHL team from a laughingstock into a powerhouse this season, and isn't draft-eligible until next year. He's certainly not on Canada to fill a depth role, but should fill an important top six spot for Team Lunchpail. He can play both centre and wing, like most of Brent Sutter's forward-heavy group. The team has seven forwards selected in the first round of the 2013 or 2012 NHL drafts, plus one that will be first overall in 2015 (McDavid) and prospective first overall in 2014 (Sam Reinhart). Like Sweden, United States and Russia, the Canadians have a good shot at gold, but it may come down to their goaltending. Once again, Canada left its best goaltender at home, bringing aboard Jake Paterson and Zach Fucale, goalies with relatively pedestrian save percentages in the CHL behind strong teams."

Czech Republic 

Last Year: Fifth place.

Head Coach: Miroslav Prerost 

Returning players from last year: 4 (defenseman Petr Sidlik, forwards Jakub Vrana, Radek Faksa and Vojtech Tomecek)

Analysis

Peters: "The Czechs are in tough, like they are every year. Barring some miraculous play from their goaltender, it’s going to be tough for this team to come close to a medal. They do have some interesting pieces up front though including Dallas first-rounder Radek Faksa. Another guy every fan should be keeping close tabs on is Jakub Vrana, who is probably the best Czech prospect since Tomas Hertl. He has a lot of skill and knows how to score. David Pastrnak and Pavel Zacha are also a pair of forwards who should be able to provide some scoring for the Czechs. The defense is probably on the average side and will have trouble with the speed of top teams. If the Czechs get a few bounces or if anyone underestimates them, they could pull a surprise, but it’s a long shot at best."

Slovakia

Last Year: Eighth Place. 

Head Coach: Ernest Bokros

Returning players from last year: 6 (goaltender Richard Sabol, defensemen Tomas Rusina and Patrik Luza, forwards Milan Kolena, Marko Dano and Martin Reway) 

Analysis

Charron: "Slovakia is always one or two great performances from an anonymous forward from contending for a semifinal berth (remember Tomas Tatar?)"

Germany

Last Year: Ninth place.

Head Coach: Ernst Hofner

Returning players from last year: 4 (goaltender Marvin Cupper, forwards Leon Draisaitl, Dominik Kahun and Frederik Tiffels.

Analysis

Charron: "Germany has a conceivable chance at upsetting Slovakia and making it to the eight-team medal round. Germany actually has one of the more notable prospective NHL draftees in the tournament in Prince Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl. He was the second overall pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft and after a strong rookie year, has 51 points in 33 WHL games this year, which is very good for a 17-year-old."

Group B

Sweden

Last Year: Silver medalists. 

Head Coach: Rikard Gronborg

Returning players from last year: 9 (goaltender Oskar Dansk, defensemen Christian Djoos, Linus Arnesson, Robert Hagg, forwards Alexander Wennberg, Sebastian Collberg, Filip Forsberg, Jacob de la Rose and Nick Sorensen)  

Analysis

Peters: "Canada may still be the best team on paper, but Sweden is not far off. Unexpectedly getting loaned Elias Lindholm and Filip Forsberg almost isn’t fair as they had a lot of skill to begin with. The forward crop is absolutely stacked, especially with those two highly-skilled centers in the mix. Sebastian Collbert, Alex Wennberg and Andre Burakowsky all have some terrific offensive abilities. In net, Oscar Dansk is very strong and will have to be. Sweden’s defense is probably average for the tournament, and Robert Hagg is a strong blueliner. Sweden has an excellent chance to win gold on home ice if they play up to their abilities."

Russia

Last Year: Bronze medalists. 

Head Coach: Mikhail Varnakov

Returning players from last year: 4 (goaltenders Igor Ustinski and Andrei Vasilevski, defenseman Andrei Mironov,  forward Anton Slepyshev) 

Analysis

Peters: "The Russian team is really going to miss Valeri Nichushkin this year. He would have played a huge role on this club, but they have more than enough skill to make up for it. Russia’s real strength, however, is in net with Andrei Vasilevski. He’s the best Russian goalie prospect in a long time and should be a huge difference-maker for Russia. Up front, Pavel Buchnevich, Ivan Barbashev, Bogdan Yakimov and Valentin Zykov are all guys to watch who should be able to score. Defensively, the top defender will be Nikita Zadorov who saw NHL time with the Sabres this year. Russia is going to need some big performances with Vasilevski in net, but they have the scoring power up front to contend. It’s just a matter of everything coming together at the right time, which is never a sure thing for Russia at the World Juniors."

Switzerland 

Last Year: Sixth place.

Head Coach: Colin Muller

Returning players from last year: 6 (goaltender Melvin Nyffeler, defenseman Mirco Muller, forwards Sandro Zangger, Lukas Sieber, Dario Simion and Lukas Balmelli) 

Analysis

Charron: "The Swiss don't have an elite forward like in previous years with Sven Baertschi or Nino Niederreiter, which means they'll have to rely on their goaltending to send them through."

Finland

Last Year: Seventh place.

Head Coach: Karri Kivi

Returning players from last year: 4 (goaltender Janne Juvonen, defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, Ville Pokka, and Juuso Vainio)

Analysis

Peters: "This Finnish team has an interesting mix up front with a ton of skill led by Teuvo Teravainen and Arturri Lehkonen. They are likely to play together and can be a dominant force on the power play in particular. There’s also Kasperi Kapanen, who could be a first-round pick in this year’s draft. He has great speed and a nose for the net. The Finns, as always are probably going to be pretty strong in goal, with a solid trio of netminders. Defensively, getting Rasmus Ristolainen from the Sabres is huge as he’s a veteran of this tournament and the rest of Finland’s blue line is merely OK. Julius Honka is another youngster to watch for this club. Finland is probably a middle-of-the-pack team this year, but if the goalies can steal a few games, they’re very interesting."

Norway

Last Year: Winners, Division I Group A World Juniors, promoted to Top Division)

Head Coach: Orjan Lovdal

Returning players from last year: 5 (goaltender Joakim Svendsen, defensemen Erlend Lesund, Mattias Norstebo, forwards Markus Soberg and Jorgen Karterud)

Analysis

Charron: "Norway is at a standalone disadvantage against Russia, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, and essentially exists as a foil for Connor McDavid to rack up points during the round robin"

TV Schedule (in the United States)

All games on NHL Network (all U.S. games produced by NHL Net)
Date Time Matchup
Dec. 26 7:30 a.m. ET Canada vs. Germany
  11:30 a.m. ET USA vs. Czech Republic
Dec. 27 9 a.m. ET Slovakia vs. Germany
Dec. 28 7:30 a.m. ET USA vs. Slovakia
  11:30 a.m. ET Canada vs. Czech Republic
Dec. 29 9 a.m. ET USA vs. Germany
Dec. 30 7:30 a.m. ET Germany vs. Czech Republic
  11:30 a.m. ET Canada vs. Slovakia
Dec. 31 7:30 a.m. ET Czech Republic vs. Slovakia
  11:30 a.m. ET USA vs. Canada
Jan. 2 6 a.m. ET Quarterfinal
  8:30 a.m. ET Quarterfinal
  11 a.m. ET Quarterfinal
  1:30 p.m. ET Quarterfinal
Jan. 3 9 a.m. ET Semifinal
  1 p.m. ET Semifinal
Jan. 5 9 a.m. ET Bronze Medal Game
  1 p.m. ET Gold Medal Game
Steve Lepore

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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