Can the Rest Continue to Impress (Pool A Preview)

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The World Juniors has always been seen as a tournament for the Canadians and only really watched by the Canadians. That has started to change though as teams have begun to challenge Canada with development in other countries catching up to Canada. Even then Canada would still dominate with only a handful of teams challenging them and giving them a scare. The USA and Russia were the only teams that seemed to be able to challenge the Canadians in this tournament and that lasted for a while but Canada continued to win. In 2013 the view is much different as it is not the big three that are dominating anymore with other good hockey countries beginning to make themselves known to the world of junior hockey. Last year was one of the first breakouts in this new era as the Swedish team, one of the top teams in the World Championships, finally took home another World Junior Title, their first in 31 years. The Swedes are back with a lot of talent this year and will be the main focus of Pool A but they are not a shoe in. Clearly Pool A is not the strong pool, the Russians, Americans, and Canadians are all in Pool B, but that does not make this pool any easier. They will need to take on some good teams with high level talent to earn their way back to the finals in hopes of a repeat. If there is going to be a surprise team in this tournament it will come out of this pool with a number of great hockey countries looking to make an impact in the junior ranks. This is the major challenge for most teams as they can have a presence in the Men’s Championship but when it comes to the Juniors they do not have the depth they need to compete. These programs are getting better though as they are starting to build deeper programs with more talent. Teams like the Czech Republic and the Swiss are both looking to get better and stay away from the relegation rounds of the tournament. Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Swedes in the pool will be their longtime rival the Finnish team. Finland is one of the more promising programs to arise in the last few years and if there is a team that can challenge a very challenging Swedish team it will be the Finns. Then again any team could make a run and without the big three there are spots available for one of the forgotten teams to make an impact in the 2013 tournament.

Czech Republic

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The Czechs have had their successes in the World Juniors as they were a powerhouse at the beginning of the century. After back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2001 the Czechs have not been able to get back to the big game. Last year the Czechs finished in 5th place as they remained one of the middling teams in the tournament. The Czechs are hoping to reverse their fortunes though and a rising group of young stars are looking to carry them there. On offence the Czechs see the most of their power in the offence as most of their top prospects will be upfront. The Czechs will see a couple of top NHL prospects in Radek Faksa and Tomas Hertl lead their offence. Both players have the experience in the tournament and will be the top players for the Czech team. They will be leaning on both players for most of their offensive output with few big name prospects in on the team. On defence it is much the same as the Czechs will have a fairly inexperienced group. Marek Hrbas will be the most experienced of the group with one tournament under his belt. The defence will include the Czech’s highest ranked prospect in David Musil who was born in Canada but raised in the Czech Republic. The goaltending position will likely see Matej Machovsky in the starting role as one of the few players on the Czech team who has seen some time in the NHL. Machovsky was invited to the Ottawa Senators Training camp in 2011 and is currently the starting goaltenders for the Brampton Battalion. If Machovsky struggles Patrik Bartosak will likely back him up as a very promising young goaltender. The Czechs do not have the names of the other teams and this can hurt them in the tournament. They struggle to produce top talent unlike in the early 2000s when they won the gold. The one positive for the Czechs is that their program is getting better. They have a total of 12 players on their team who are currently playing in the CHL. Although other leagues are considered great it is widely known that the CHL produces the best players in the world and having players in the league only means good things. The Czechs are looking to improve on their performance of last year but they may not be there quite yet. Expect them to get past the round robin but any further than that will require a big effort from some unknown stars.

Strength:
Offence
– The Czechs are not very deep but Radek Faksa and Tomas Hertl provide a good one-two punch that will definitely help them win although they will need a lot more players to step up on offence if they hope to make a medal game

Weakness:
Defence
– The Czechs are a very inexperienced team on defence and despite the inclusion of prospects like David Musil and Marek Hrbas they will struggle to deal with the offence of the top teams in the tournament putting too much pressure on the goaltending

Player to Watch:
Radek Faksa, C (Kitchener, OHL)
– Unfortunately Faksa is in the middle of the NHL lockout that would have seen him attempt to make the Dallas Stars as the first Czech to be drafted in the first round since 2007 but luckily he will be on the Czech team looking to make an impact in the offence

 

Finland:

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The Finnish team is in the midst of a resurgence but a lot people are still looking to their neighbours as the best team in the region. Last year the Fins came painfully close to a gold medal game appearance. The Fins would finish in 4th place losing their last game to the Canadians but the process had been started. This year the Fins are looking to take on to another level and win a medal as they look to challenge longtime rivals Sweden in Pool A. Instead of relying on two or three lines of big name talents the Fins will need to look to the handful of top players that they have on the roster. The offence is the one part of the team with the most big talent as they will welcome back Markus Granlund of the Granlund brothers who had a great tournament in 2011. Granlund, a Calgary Flames prospect, will be joined by other NHL prospects including Joel Arnia, Buffalo Sabres prospect, and the gritty Miika Salomaki, Nashville Predators prospect. The most interesting offensive power though is Aleksander Barkov who looks to be the top European prospect in the 2013 draft and is a big player to watch this year. On defence the Fins look good as they will welcome back some experienced players from last year. The leader of the defence is not the most experienced though as Ollii Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, was supposed to be the superstar of 2011 until he suffered a concussion in the first game of the tournament. Maatta will return to the team along with Ville Pokka, New York Islanders prospect, to form the top pairing. The defence will also include a top ranked defensive prospect in Rasmus Ristolainen who is one of the top defensive prospects from Europe for the 2013 NHL draft. In goal the Fins will likely look to Joonas Juvonen who is the more experienced goaltender and a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect. If Juvonen struggles the Fins will have no issue going with Eetu Laurikainen who has had a great year with the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL and could see some time through the tournament. The Fins are looking to continue the rise and with a weaker pool they will move on with their biggest game coming against Sweden on December 31st that will likely determine the winner of Pool A. As for their hopes beyond the round robin they can expect to play for a medal again but it would depend largely on the draw.

Strength:
Defence
– It is clear that the Finnish defence will be a big physical presence in the tournament and although they may not be the best defensive corps in the tournament they will definitely frustrate plenty of teams

Weakness:
Offence
– The offence is not terrible but it lacks those impact players that many teams have as Markus Granlund and Aleksander Barkov may have to provide most of the offence for the team leaving a few lines in trouble against better teams

Player to Watch:
Aleksander Barkov, C (Tappara, FIN)
– He is the top ranked European player in the 2013 NHL draft and he will be introduced to world in the 2012-13 tournament as he looks to impress and work with Markus Granlund to provide some fireworks on offence

 

Latvia:

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The Latvians are one of the few teams who have struggled to stay in the top section of the tournament. They have been up and down as one of the best teams in the second tier but have not been able to deal with the top tier. Last year the Latvians were in a familiar situation as they had been put into the relegation round of the tournament fighting for their lives in the top tier. They survived the relegation in a thrilling fashion as they would beat Denmark in overtime to stay in the top division of the tournament. This year the Latvians are looking for an improvement as they hope to stay out of relegation although it could be a very tough fight. The offence of Latvia will be without their top talent as Zemgus Girgensons has remained with his team in the AHL. He was a big part as to why the Latvians stayed in the top tier last year and without him they will need a few players to step up. Last year Nikita Jevpalovs played the role of the hero scoring the overtime goal to keep the team in the top division. This year he will need to improve on his performance from last year to help the offence recover from a big hole. Jevpalovs will also be joined by Teodors Blugers, currently playing for University of Minnesota, as the two best offensive powers for Latvia. On defence the Latvians are not very deep but do have some talent on the blue line. Led by Kristaps Nimanis, Currently playing in Finnish Elite League, the Latvians are not the deepest squad. Nimanins will join Rinalds Rosininskis as the likely top pairing and after these two there is little talent. It will mean trouble for a very inexperienced goaltending corps who will need to stand on their head to help the Latvians win. The starter will likely be Vadims Miscuks who is having a good season in Latvia and looks to be their top goaltender. Miscuks does not have any time in the Juniors along with his backups, of whom Elvis Merzlikins will likely be the dressed. The Latvians are in tough in this year’s tournament as they are without their best player and will need to compensate. It will be tough to stay out of relegation for the Latvians and to stay in the top division of the tournament. They will need a few good performances to stay in the top tier and without that they will likely be relegated to the second tier after this tournament.

Strength:
Offence
– It is not necessarily a strength as much as the best part of this team with much better players on the offence than in any other spot but they still need to have some players step up if they hope to win but this is the group with the most talent for the Latvians

Weakness:
Defence
– The stats don’t lie as the team does not contain any big stars that can make a big impact against some of the offences they will face making them a porous group that doesn’t go much beyond the top defender on the team

Player to Watch:
Nikita Jevpalovs, RW (Blainville-Broisbriand, QMJHL)
– A year after he saved the team from relegation Jevpalovs represents one of few players on Latvia that is currently playing in North America as people watch to see if he can turn into an impact player for the team

 

Sweden:

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Last year the Swedes were the biggest surprise of the year with a great performance that put them into the Gold Medal Game against the mighty Russians. They were never supposed to beat the defending champions but nobody seemed to tell them as they went on to win the tournament for the first time in 31 years. Now the Swedes return to the tournament as the defending champions and thanks in part to the NHL lockout will have plenty of good players to help them defend the title. Up front the Swedish team will definitely miss the presence of Mika Zibanejad who was held back in the AHL by the Ottawa Senators. Zibanejad will be missed but Filip Forsberg will fill the hole as the Washington Capitals prospect will be looked to for most of the offensive production. He won’t be alone though as he will be joined by a group of NHL prospects including Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks), Victor Rask (Carolina Hurricanes), and possibly the next best player on the team Sebastian Collberg (Montreal Canadiens). Added to these NHL caliber players will be some future stars including Elias Lindhom and Alexander Wennberg who are looking to impress in their draft year. The offensive power will be backed up by a good but shorthanded squad. The top two defenceman from 2012, Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin, will be out of the tournament due to injuries. Taking over will be the pairing of Hampus Lindhom and Rasmus Bengtsson, both NHL prospects. The Swedes also decided not to go with many young prospects as Linus Arnesson is one of the few defenceman up for the NHL draft this year. In net there is a battle between two NHL prospects as St. Louis draft pick Niklas Lundstrom and Columbus draft pick Oscar Dansk will fight for the starting role likely into the round robin. The Swedes are loaded with NHL talent and potential NHL talent as they have a good team to defend their gold medal. Then there is the pool as the Swedes will have little resistance in Pool A with their biggest game coming against a talented Finnish team. The defending champions will likely win the pool and earn a bye but to get back to the Gold they will most likely have to go through one of the big three from Pool B which could mean trouble for them as they can be sure to be in the bronze medal game but not much more this year.

Strength:
Offence
– It is clear that Zibanejad will be missed but Forsberg and Collberg will be a great pair of talents up front along with some top NHL prospects and some of the top draft eligible players in the tournament that will make their offence a force

Weakness:
Defence
– It is not that they are terrible but the fact that they will be missing the pair that shut down a very strong Russian team is not promising as they will rely on other defencemen to do the majority of the work against some very good offensive teams

Player to Watch:
Filip Forsberg, RW (Leksand, SWE)
– He is the catalyst for the offence this year and will be looked to for leadership with other key pieces out of the lineup this year as the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft could be one of the big stars of the 2013 tournament

 

Switzerland:

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The Swiss team has not been a powerhouse in the Juniors as they have only ever won one medal, a bronze in 1998. In 2012 the Swiss would finish in the relegation round but would remain in the top tier of the tournament. Finishing in the 8th spot the Swiss were able to stave off relegation for the year as they return to the top tier of the division. This year the Swiss are looking to once again remain in the top division of the tournament by staying out of the relegation. They will be looking to compete in a weaker pool to earn a spot in the tournament next year and hopefully stay out of the relegation round. They will lean on their experience this year as they return a number of players from last year’s tournament. On offence the team will lean heavily on Christoph Bertschy who was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2012. He will be the main offensive weapon for the Swiss but he will not be alone with a good offensive corps. This includes a number of CHL players like Sven Andrighetto, Alessio Bertaggia, and Tanner Richard who will all provide a good support group. On defence the Swiss will look to Samuel Guerra for most of their leadership as one of the more successful players on the team. As a member of HC Davos and a draft pick of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL he will be the player that the team will look to for leadership. He will be joined by Dean Kakan in the top pairing to make a pretty good defensive pair. After that though, the talent on the blue line falls off leading to a porous group in front of the goalies. The goaltending will likely come down to the young Melvin Nyffeler and the veteran Luca Boltshauser. Nyffeler might not get much time as he will enter his first U20 tournament with some good, but not great, numbers as a U18. Meanwhile Boltshauser will enter his second year as a member of the U20 team and a goalie in the Swedish Elite League. The Swiss are looking to stay out of the relegation round this year and they have a good team. The problem is they will need to compete with the Czech Republic to do this which is not an easy feat. They have a very good shot of staying in the top tier and if they can beat the Czechs they could see themselves make it past the round robin.

Strength:
Offence
– The offence is not as powerful as some in the tournament but they are not as bad as many would assume with a good solid group of players that is good all around rather than having only one or two great players

Weakness:
Defence
– The defence is not terrible but there is really only one pairing that can give teams fits as the rest of the players in the defensive corps are not that talented and could be easy prey for top offensive teams

Player to Watch:
Christoph Bertschy, C (Bern, SUI)
– A draft pick of the Minnesota Wild Bertschy can use this tournament as a way to show the Wild how good he can be and for the Swiss he will be the key to their offence as they will lean on him more than any other player

 

Prediction:
1. Sweden
2. Finland
3. Czech Republic
4. Switzerland
5. Latvia

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