Rivals Looking to play Spoiler in Toronto (2015 World Juniors)

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Toronto will be the host to the biggest games of the tournament this year as they are the home to the medal round. Before that though, they play host to one of the biggest rivals of the home country in Russia. Not all too long ago the Russians were beaten at home in the Olympic Games when the Canadians took home gold in Sochi. Now the junior team looks to get back at their longest rivals by taking home the gold medal in one of the biggest tournaments for Canadians in Canada. That is the goal of the Russians as they take over Toronto for the first round and try to take out the rest of Group B on their way to the medal round. They seem to be the class of this group as they are the powerhouse in this part of the tournament with not many others ready to challenge them. The Swedes will also be in Toronto to provide the biggest challenge to the Russians while the Czech Republic looks to play spoiler this year. Meanwhile the Danes and Swiss try to surprise everyone with a spectacular performance in earning a spot in the medals. It is clear though that this group is not the powerhouse that will be in Montreal this year. There are two very good teams in this group while the others could always surprise and provide some resistance to the top teams but the likelihood of that happening is not very good. The Russians and the Swedes will fight it out and for both teams the focus will be that gold medal while a secondary focus will give them the drive. For the Russians it is getting to beat their biggest rivals on their home soil. To win the gold will be the main goal but doing it in Canada makes it that much better for the Russians. They have constantly battled with Canada and for years were the one team that could match the system that the Canadians had for developing young talent. To get a chance to beat the Canadians in their country could be the boost that these players need to get the win. Meanwhile the Swedes are still reeling from losing the gold medal on home soil last year. With the tournament in Malmo, Sweden the “Tre Kronar” made it into the gold medal game but last to their longtime rivals, Finland. They are looking for payback this time around and to spoil the party for the Canadians like their party was spoiled last year. Group B has teams that can win it all and they will look to get through the group stage on their way to the medals in hopes that they can play spoilers with the tournament’s return to Canada. Despite the lack of competition in the group there will be plenty to watch for as the Swedes and Russians will try to stay powerful and the other teams look to be the surprise of the tournament in Toronto.

czech-republic

The Czech Republic are a team to be wary of this year as they represent a team that can easily upset a lot others. They have not had the most success in recent years, winning their last medal in 2005. That comes years after they were the team to be feared when they won back to back golds in 2000 and 2001. Lately though the amount of talent in the system for the Czechs has not been up to the level of the teams they used to compete with. Last year they were expected not to do a lot but they did show some signs of growth. They did not end up with a great record but took a close game against the Canadians as their only win of the tournament. This year they enter the tournament with a lot more experience than previous years. One of the main players that will help the Czechs this year is the 25th overall pick in last year’s NHL draft. David Pastrnak had three points in last year’s tournament but is ready to step up this year and help to lead the Czech Republic. Coming into the tournament on a good year with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, Pastrnak seems like the type of breakout player that the Czechs need. Along with Jakub Vrana, Ondrej Kase, and Pavel Zacha, a top prospect for the 2015 draft, the offence has plenty of playmakers. As you look beyond the forwards there is not a lot left to be optimistic about. The defence is young with little experience in the Juniors and few top prospects. Dominik Masin will serve as the leader of the group, he is the only defenceman drafted to the NHL, and will try to keep all of the young talent in check. Meanwhile one of the Czechs biggest assets from last year is no longer with the team in Marek Langhammer. The goaltender played his last tournament in 2014 and has left the Czechs with three inexperienced goaltenders. All have their advantages but Vitek Vanecek seems to be the starter. With a potent offence the Czechs could surprise some top teams but their defence is going to be the biggest challenge of their tournament as they might not have the backside strength that they need to win a medal this year.

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denmark

Last year the Danes ran through the first division of the IIIHF U20 tournament with a great performance. Not losing one game they were clearly the best team in Division I A and for that they earned a spot in the top tier this year. It is a great reward but also one that offers a massive challenge for the team. They have been in the top tier three times and in those three tournaments have never earned a win. This year they enter the tournament with a hope that they can earn their first win and avoid the relegation round. It might be a tough task though as they do not possess the talent level of the other teams in the group or the tournament. They do have one thing that can help them get that first win if everything goes right though, Nikolaj Ehlers. He is by far the most exciting prospect to come from Denmark since Lars Eller. Ehlers totaled 104 points in 2013 with the Halifax Mooseheads and was the 9th selection overall in the 2014 NHL draft by the Winnipeg Jets. He will need to be on his game this year if the Danes have any hope of getting their first win. He is not alone though as another 100 point player will join him on the top line. Oliver Bjorkstrand will join Ehlers as an offensive power that can give other teams fits. The depth behind them is thin and although it was good enough to go undefeated in Division I A it might not be enough to help them get that first win. As with many teams that do not have that talent level the focus will turn to the goaltending to try to steal a game. That will fall to George Sorensen who totaled a 2.00 GAA and a .928 SV% in last year’s Division I A tournament. If he can stand on his head for one game the Danes could find themselves with their first win. Other than that it doesn’t seem like the Danes can compete with the best in the tournament although staying in the top tier might end up being their goal as they seem headed to the relegation series.

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russia

Russia has rarely not been in the conversation for the gold medal in every World Juniors as the only nation with more medals than the Canadians. In total the Russians, including their time as the Soviet Union, have won 32 medals, Canada has 28, while thirteen of those have been gold, Canada has fifteen. They are constantly in the mix but last year they took a step backward in the round robin. The Russians took two wins but also lost twice and finished in third place in their group. They picked it up after that and made it into the bronze medal game where they beat their longtime rival, the Canadians, for the bronze. It was a victory but it was not what the Russians wanted as they are expected to place for gold every year. Much like their biggest rivals they are a team that is supposed to win gold in the Juniors and supposed to be the best in the world. They enter a new year with new hope and once again are expected to compete for gold. The last few years the Russians have leaned on their goaltending, which has been outstanding in previous tournaments. That may have been their issue though as the usual potent offence was not there to provide support to Andrei Makarov that he needed to get the win. Now Makarov is gone and Ilya Sorokin is in his place as the starting goaltender. He started his campaign in a big way stopping 52 shots in the Russians’ pre-tournament win over the Canadians. Sorokin will need to be the rock of the Russian team this year as they enter the tournament with less firepower than usual. The Russians were most successful when they had a potent offence but this year that offence does not have the usual weapons it once did. This year the Russian offence will be in the hands of Ivan Barbashev and Nikolai Goldobin and not much else beyond them. That could be their issue as the Russians are fairly inexperienced with plenty of top prospects but not a lot of proven talent. With that in mind the Russians could finish first but is seems like they don’t have the firepower to get there although a medal is not out of the question.

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sweden

The Swedes are still hurting from last year’s tournament when they came so close to winning a gold medal on their home soil. With the tournament in Malmo, Sweden it was the perfect time for the Swedes to put together one of their strongest teams. They did just that and ran through the tournament without losing a game. They looked unstoppable until they took on the Finns in the gold medal game where they lost 3-2 in overtime. As they travel to Canada the Swedes remain one of the most talented teams in the tournament but this year the experience is lacking. Many of the players from last year’s team are too old or spending time in the NHL and will not be joining the 2015 version. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect William Nylander will play in the arena he is hoping to spend most of his career in and is hoping to give his potential fans a show. Nylander will be the player that most want to watch in this tournament as one of the most exciting player on the team. He is not the only part of the offence though as the Swedes also have captain Jacob de la Rose, Adrian Kempe, Oskar Lindblom, and Lucas Wallmark. The offence has depth and plenty of scoring power but as the team moves back to the net it gets that much weaker. The defence is still solid although more inexperienced than last year. They will be led by Robert Hagg and Gustav Forsling who have the ability to play against the physical teams that rule the tournament. In net will be the Swedes’ biggest question though as they will be without their best young goalie in Andre Burakovsky who was held back by the Washington Capitals. Meanwhile potential starter Jonas Johansson will miss the tournament with an illness. That will likely leave Linus Soderstrom as the starter although all three of the goalies on the team could start for the Swedes. None are experienced and all have had a rough year in their respective leagues providing plenty of questions for the team in the crease. The Swedes are still very talented but if their goaltending can’t hold up they may not be able to win the gold, although a medal could be in their future.

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switzerland

The Swiss have not had the most success in recent years but they have been one of the most improved teams in the Juniors. They have gone from being a teams that moves in between the two divisions to a team that can remain in the top division every year. Their next step is to start competing with the top teams and bringing a fight to very game that they play. Last year they were getting there with a win over Norway and a surprising overtime win over Finland. That win over Finland gave them plenty of confidence heading into a new tournament and this year they are hoping to continue their time in the top tier of the tournament. The system is getting better for the Swiss as they are starting to produce more talent than before. That is reflected in their top player, Kevin Fiala who has the ability to compete with the best in the tournament. He is a true goal scorer and along with top prospect like Denis Malgin and drafted players like Noah Rod the Swiss have a good attack. On the blue line it will be Mirco Mueller who will lead the way after being allowed to play by the San Jose Sharks. Muller is one of the top prospects for the Swiss and his addition to the team will bolster a blue line that does not have a lot of experience. That goes to the net as well where Gauthier Descloux, Gilles Senn, and Ludovic Waeber all have no Junior experience. They have all fought throughout the pre-tournament and will continue to fight through the start of the round robin. With a good offence the Swiss have more firepower than they have before but that won’t make up for the fact that the team is without a lot of experience. That could hurt their chances of competing in the quarter-finals but they are better than a relegation team. They will be caught in the middle in this tournament as they will not get into the medals but will remain in the top tier as they will be a team that can go a long way to deciding the top teams but won’t be there themselves.

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Prediction:
There is not as many top teams in this group as are in Group A but there will still be a battle at the top. Russia and Sweden are sure to fight for the top spot and it may very well come down to their games against the weaker opponents. The matchup between the two teams will be essential as well but there are teams that can surprise them and put them in a bad spot when it comes to facing each other. Whoever wins that battle will have a better chance at making the medal rounds. The other battles will be in the lower rankings as the Czech Republic and Switzerland try to avoid facing top teams in Group A. Meanwhile Denmark seems set to enter the relegation round as they make an attempt to stay in the top tier.

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