Will Canada reclaim gold at the World Junior Championships?

Greg Smith December 25, 2012 0
Canadian Press

Ten of the world’s best junior hockey countries will meet in UFA, Russia over the holidays to decide which country is the World Junior Champions.  Nowhere has the World Junior Championships become as popular as it is here in Canada.  Watching the tournament has become a tradition and with the NHL lockout, all eyes will be in UFA.

This year’s coverage starts off with a preview of the tournament.  The preview has been split into the two divisions that the teams will play in.

GROUP A

Group A has been dubbed the “Group of Death” and rightly so.  The group has, at least on paper, three of the top four rated teams in the tournament.  Since the 2007 world junior tournament, just four countries: Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Russia have captured all 18 medals awarded.  This year three of those four teams (Canada, Russia and the U.S.) are in group A, making the round robin portion of this year’s tournament one of the most interesting in memory.

Canada

Team Canada is loaded with talent and this years team is being compared to the world junior teams of 1995 and 2005 who both won gold and are generally regarded as being the best junior teams ever.  Both of those teams who were loaded with elite prospects, due to NHL lockouts, steamrolled over the competition.  To say Canada is shooting for gold is an understatement.  The motto is “Gold or nothing” in this country.  Team Canada has not won gold since 2009, but after a disappointing bronze medal last year is the odds on favorite to win gold this time.

Up front the team is led by the Edmonton Oilers Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, who has a full season in the NHL under his belt.  After Hopkins, the front line is loaded with talent including Mark Sheifele who is a 6 foot 2, 185 pound centre out of Barrie and who also has some NHL experience with the Winnipeg Jets.

Other forwards, include the OHL’s leading scorer Ryan Strome (NYI, 5th in 2011), and Johnathan Huberdeau (Florida, 3rd in 2011).  Shiefle, Strome and Huberdeau all have experience playing at the World Junior Championships and the trio, including Nugent-Hopkins provide a formidable front line for Canada.  Throw into the mix the rugid Boone Jenner (Columbus, 37th in 2011) and Canada has the deepest front line in the tournament.

Despite the loss of Ryan Murray, Canada is solid on the back-end with last year returnees Dougie Hamilton (Boston, 9th in 2011) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh, 54th in 2011) anchoring the defense.  Griffin Reinhart (Islanders, 4th in 2012) will add size and grit and Xavier Ouellet (Detroit, 48th in 2011) will provided much needed offense from the defensive end.

In goal, it’s a battle between the favorite to earn the starters job Malcolm Subban (Boston, 24th in 2012) and Jordan Binnington (St. Louis, 88th in 2011).  Subban has struggled in recent exhibition games and at times has looked shaky.  Binnington on the other hand has looked sharp, particularily in the last exhibition game against Sweden.  It will be interesting to see who coach Steve Spott picks as his starter.

Canada has struggled in recent exhibition games on the bigger ice surface and has been quite un-disciplined at times.  It will be interesting to see how they adjust as the tournament wares on and how they will play, particularly against the Russians.  However, at this point Canada has to be the odds on favorite.

Russia

The host Russians may be Canada’s biggest threat to win gold at the World Juniors this year.  Having home ice advantage might prove to be big for a country that has only hosted the tournament on three other occasions, the last being 2001.  The Russians are loaded with top prospects and experienced players from last season.

Sasha

The Russians are led up front by Nail Yakupov (Edmonton, 1st overall in 2012) and Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo, 12th in 2012) who were both paired on Russia’s top line.  They are bolstered by Alexander Khokhlachev (Boston, 40th in 2011) and Maxim Shalunov (Chicago, 109th in 2011).  The Russians have a forward group that is deeply talented and rivals that of Canada.

Perhaps the weakest part of this team is on the back-end, where the Russians have no marquee players.  Mikhail Naumenkov had a great super series against Canada in the fall, leading the defense with two goals and four points in the six games.  The defense also has Nikita Zadorov (ranked 19th in the 2013 draft) who plays with the London Knights.  Zadorov is 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds and is an effective player who it comes to using his size.

In nets, hometown boy Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay, 19th in 2012) will start in nets for the Russians.  Both goaltenders are returning from last year’s world juniors in Canada and will probably spell one another off.  Vasilevski will be joined by Andrey Markov (Buffalo free agent), which will provide the Russians with perhaps the best goaltending in the tournament.

The most important factor for the is team could be the intangibles.  The Russians quite simply are not afraid of Canada.  Having beaten Canada in the last two world junior tournaments including a dominating performance last year, the Russians hope to build on the silver medal they had in last years tournament and home ice advantage to carry them to gold.

United States

The U.S. is heading to UFA looking for revenge.  Last year the Americans were one of the favorites to win gold, but crashed out of the tournament finishing a disappointing 7th place.  The U.S. fielded one of the more experienced teams last year, this year they have only three returnees.  However, don’t let that fool you, the Americans are deep in talent and have added a new coach in Phil Housley.  Housley adds both international and NHL experience and has installed structure and discipline to the squad.

Goaltender John Gibson (Anaheim, 39th in 2011) will start for the U.S. and was one of the holdovers from last year’s tournament.  Providing that he’s recovered from a hip injury, he’ll provide veteran leadership on the back-end.  The other returnees are defenseman Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg, 9th in 2012) and forward J.T. Miller (Rangers, 15th in 2011).

The roster is loaded with U.S. college and Canadian Hockey league talent.  Joining Miller up front is offensive threat Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary, 104th overall in 2011) and power forward Alex Galchenuk (Montreal, 3rd in 2012).  The Americans are big up front, with the inclusions of the Senators Stephen Noesen (21st in 2011), the Leafs Tyler Biggs (22nd in 2011) and the Wild’s Mario Lucia (60th in 2011).  Their big bodies may overwhelm opponents in the group.

On the back-end, the Americans are much like Canada, with a group of shutdown and puck moving defenseman.  Trouba will lead this talent defensive corpse and will pound opposing forwards.  He’ll be joined by offensive threats Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia, 78th in 2012) and Matt Grezelcky (Boston, 85th in 2012).    In contrast to the front end though, which is built with power, the back-end is built more for speed and the bigger ice surface.

The U.S. is looking to rebound from the disappointment of last year.  Despite only returning three players the Americans have a wealth of talent.  It will be interesting to see how the big bodies up front, play on the larger ice surface.  In the run up to the tournament the Americans have had differing results- losing 5-1 to the Finns but beating the Swedes 3-2.  Placed in the group of death it will be hard for them to beat both Canada and Russia to win the group, so a quarter-final birth is looming.

Slovakia

Last year’s surprise team, Slovakia will have a challenge just maintaining their spot in the World Juniors.  Slovakia surprised everyone with their quarter-final berth and sixth place finish.  Their reward this year is to be placed in the group of death with Canada, Russia and the U.S.  Realistically, the Slovaks must beat the Germans to avoid relegation.

The Slovaks only have one drafted player on their squad, defenseman Peter Ceresnak (NYR, 172nd in 2011).  This team is young and not very deep and its goal will be to stay in the top flight.  Once in the relegation round, what might help the Slovaks is familiarity with one another.  No less than 13 players on the team play with HK Orange.  Also, the Slovaks have added two players Marko Dano and Tomas Mikus from the Russian Continental League and Martin Reway from the Gatineau Olympique of the Quebec Junior League all up front.  In the run up to the tournament the Slovaks beat the Czech Republic 4-1 a week ago, so no one knows how well this team will play.

The Slovaks have been a main participant in the world juniors since 1996, winning a bronze in 1999.  Placed in the group of death, the battle will be for the Slovaks to avoid relegation.  Although they have little experience they are not short on heart and could achieve their goal.

Germany

The Germans are back in the top flight after being demoted a couple of years ago.  One of the cruel ironies is that once a team is promoted, most of the players who got them there are no longer eligible for the tournament and the same can be said for the Germans having lost some top talent.

The team has only one drafted player on their squad, their top scorer from last year Tobias Rieder (Edmonton 114th in 2011).  Despite the lack of experience the German team does have six players who are currently in the Major Junior’s in Canada and one who is playing in the U.S.  The big question will be whether the north american influence will help them more than the familiarity that the Slovaks have with one another.

Basically, it boils down to whether the Germans can beat the Slovaks or not.  If not they face a tough task in beating either the Latvians, Czechs or Swiss who are expected to avoid relegation and who are clearly better teams.

Group B

Finland

The Finns have not meddled at the world juniors since winning a bronze in 2006.  However, no team has played better coming into the tournament this year than the Finns.  The Finns won over both Canada (3-2) and the U.S. (5-1) in pre-tournament games and seem to have jelled quicker than most of the other countries.  It will be interesting to see how they progress as the tournament wares on.

This year the Finns return a number of players from last year’s tournament and a wealth of talent.  The team is led up front by Markus Granland(Calgary, 45th in 2o11) , Joel Armi (Buffalo, 16th in 2011), Mikka Salomaki (Nashville, 2010) and Tuevo Teravavinen (Chicago, 18th in 2012).

The Finns will have 8 players drafted by NHL teams.  Starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (Columbus, 62nd in 2012), was the start of the four nations tournament in Sweden.  The goaltender  had a 1.17 goals against average and a .958 save percentage.

Several blue chip prospects are also on the team including returning defenseman Olli Maatta of the London Knights.  Maatta was the Pittsburgh Penguins first round draft pick last year and is the defensive leader of the OHL’s top team the London Knights.

The Finns are playing in a group in the weaker of the two divisions and are the favorite.  If they can win the division they will get an automatic berth into the semi-finals and will possibly end up facing the 2nd best team in the group of death.  Providing the Finns play up to their potential they should be a definite threat to win a medal, if not to compete for the gold medal.

Sweden

Last year’s gold medal champions are this year’s underdogs.  The strength of the Swedish squad was supposed to be their defense, but after injuries to Minnesota Wild prospect Jonas Brodin and Edmonton Oilers prospect, the Sweden blue line is short-staffed.  Now defenseman Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim, 6th in 2012) will have to carry the load.  Other top defensemen now are Mikael Vikstrand (Ottawa, 196th in 2012) and Tom Nilsson (Toronto, 100th in 2011)  Still, without their two top defensemen, the Sweden still have a competitive back-end.

Up front, the Swedes don’t have a clear  number one scorer like they did last year in Mika Zibanejad.  However, the Swedes still do have a good core of forwards, including Filip Forsberg, Sabestian Collberg, William Karlsson and Rickard Rakell.  In total the Swedes have 13 players who were previously drafted in the NHL draft.

In nets, the Swedes will miss their goaltender from last year Johan Gustafsson.  Without a clear number one netminder both Niklas Lundstrom and Joel Lassinantti will battle for the starting job.

The Swedes always have their fair share of talent and with the loss of their top two defenseman, they are no longer the favorites to win this group.  Finishing anything less than first in the division will cause the Swedes to play a quarter-final match against one of the top three in the group of death.  Also, with their question marks in the nets, the Swedes could be a candidate for an upset.  Still the Swedes have played well coming into the tournament, losing pre-tournament games to both the U.S. (3-2 in overtime) and Canada (2-1 in a shootout).

Czech Republic

The Czech’s have been a big disappointment at the world juniors since back to back gold medals in 2000 and 2001.  Since then the Czech’s have won one single medal; a bronze in 2005 and they haven’t finished higher than fifth in the last six tournaments.  Last year, the Czechs put a valiant effort and lost to eventual silver medalist Russia in the quarter-finals.

Pavel Francouz

This year, the Czech’s have 14 players playing major junior hockey in Canada with seven of those players already drafted by the NHL.  The team is led by returning forwards Radek Faska (Dallas, 13th in 2012), Tomas Herti (San Jose 17th in 2012), Dimitri Jaskin (St. Louis, 41st in 2011) and Tomas Hyka (Los Angeles, 171st in 2012)

On defense David Musil (Edmonton, 31st in 2011), brings experience and size to the team.  The Czech’s are loaded up front and on defense.  If the Czech’s do have a question mark its in-goal.  Goaltending duties will be split between Patrik Bartosack of the Red Deer Rebels and Matej Machovsky of the Brampton Battalion.

The Czechs are deeper than they’ve been in years and they should give both the Swedes and Finns a challenge.  If their goaltending can prove strong then this team can challenge for a medal.  However, if the goaltending tends to be weak then they better make sure to keep an eye on the Swiss who are just over their shoulder.

Switzerland

Since 1996 the Swiss have been a regular participant in the world junior tournament.  Although the Swiss have only meddled once (bronze in 1998), they have produced some of the most memorable upsets, defeating the Russians two years ago in the quarter-finals finishing in fourth place and last year coming within a goal of defeating the eventual gold medal winning Sweden in the round robin.

This year’s squad is missing two of its biggest stars in Nino Niedrreiter and Sven Baertschi who have both graduated.  The Swiss will be led by Sven Andrighetto of Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec league, undrafted Alessio Bertaggia, Tanner Richard (Tampa Bay, 71st in 2012) and Christoph Bertschy (Minnesota, 158th in 2012).  In total the Swiss have five players playing in the Canadian hockey league with the rest of the team comprising players from the Swiss ‘A’ league.  Although not a favorite to medal, the Swiss are always a dark horse to upset someone.  Favored to finish fourth, the Swiss must upset one of the top three, with the Czech’s being the most likely candidate and must avoid a loss to the pesky Latvians.

Latvia

For fans of junior hockey, the Latvian fans are always a treat to watch, travelling in groups and banging on their drums and musical instruments.  The little team that could always manages to give talented opponents a fit.  Unfortunately it doesn’t translate into anything significant on the ice.

The Latvians are led by forward Teddy Blueger (Pittsburgh, 52nd in 2012.  Blueger’s is a freshman at Minnesota State-Mankato and has been playing against older competition.  He also played in the World Juniors last season.  In total the Latvians have four players who are currently in the major juniors.  Of the remaining players, 10 play with HK Riga, giving the team some continuity.  In fact the Latvians have most of last year’s squad in tact, including two of the three goaltenders.

Although strong on heart, the Latvians are short on talent and depth.  In the weaker of the two divisions the Latvians can give some of the lower lights, specifically the Czechs and Swiss, a run for their money.  This team has a great work ethic, one that puts it definitely a level above both Germany and Slovakia when it comes to being relegated.