2016 World Juniors: Group A Preview

 

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Last year the Canadians took home the gold medal in a tournament that ended the constant talk about the decline of Canadian hockey.

In 2010 the Canadians were shocked by the Americans in Finland when a team that usually just made it out of the group stage beat the team that had won the last five golds.

The Americans got the win and most people thought of it as a good sign that the USA had figured out a way to develop their young talent.

Then the next year Russia took home the gold with Canada taking the silver for the second straight year and once again it was brushed off as just the Russians being better that year.

Then in 2012 the Canadians dropped to third place at home bringing some concern over the trajectory of the Canadian program.

The next two years saw the Canadians finish the tournament without a medal at all finishing in fourth place in both years.

It was a major concern for so many in Canada that a tournament they had ruled for years was all of a sudden anything but a lock.

The Canadians began launching inquiries into the state of hockey in Canada with many wondering what the problem was.

Some said that the coaching wasn’t good or that the warm-up for the team was not good or long enough to make a team successful.

There were questions about the goaltending and how weak the group was over the years.

The concern only grew as the years went on and they continued to lose and the last two years without a medal was enough for many to think that Canadian hockey had reached its peak and was set for a letdown.

In all the five straight golds gave way to five straight years without a gold medal and Canada was no longer the team to beat every year.

Last year it all changed though as the Canadians had one of the most talented teams they have ever put together.

It showed as they ran through the entire tournament until the gold medal where they got their only challenge and yet still won 5-4 against the Russians.

The worry about Canada was over as they had once again risen to the top of the tournament but the worry wasn’t necessarily warranted.

What the Canadians were facing is a group of teams that has gotten better over the years.hockey-sidebar

The reason they couldn’t win was both because they weren’t putting together the best teams and that other teams were only getting better.

This year the Canadians are once again going to enter the tournament as favourites with plenty of potential NHL talent, most of whom have already been drafted.

That doesn’t mean they are a lock though as Group A features a number of teams that can make life hard for the Canadians.

There is the biggest rivals in the USA who have been a thorn in the side of the Canadians and are the only team to win two gold medals in the last six years.

Then there is Sweden who has been the most consistent team during that time taking four medals in six years including a gold in 2012.

Denmark and Switzerland are never considered favourites to win a medal, Switzerland has one medal and Denmark has never won, but they are far from pushovers.

Although they will likely be competing against each other to stay out of the final series to be demoted.

They can launch a surprise as both are fairly consistent in staying in the top division and for any of the top team they need to make sure they don’t overlook those teams.

Canada will enter another tournament with all eyes on them and the country that supports this tournament more than anywhere else behind them.

That doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to win though as a number of teams could take the top spot and surprise Canada in a tournament that is only getting more competitive each year.

canada

The Canadian returned to the top of the Juniors, a tournament they owned for years, in 2015 when they ran through every team to the gold medal. It wasn’t until the gold medal game that they were challenged and for many the streak of finishing without a gold was broken because they finally invited the best Canadians to compete for the team. The years before there were some very big exclusions from the camp roster and more often than not people believed they were the difference. Players like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair never made the team before the 2015 tournament and when they finally made the team they went off leading Canada’s offensive powerhouse through to the gold medal. The Canadians return this year hoping to start a run that can match their two five-peats in the tournament’s history. They bring another very talented team into the tournament and they also bring some experience. The offence will be led by two very strong NHL prospects in Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome, both of whom will be in the NHL next year. The late addition of Jake Virtanen brings some experience from last year’s team which is sure to help the rest of the young group. On the blue line the theme of Canadian teams continue as the group is full of drafted players. Led by Thomas Chabot and Haydn Fleury, both first round picks, who have the ability to get involved in the offence as well as play solid defence. The goaltending could be the issue again this year as Mackenzie Blackwood came into the selection camp as the starter but will serve a two game suspension after he took a swing at an opposing player with his stick during the regular season. That suspension means that Mason McDonald will start for the Canadians after a successful U18 tournament last year. Blackwood seemed to be a good start while McDonald is an unknown and as usual the goaltending remains the question. Canada is still a favourite to win it all this year but like usual their goaltending will be the question, if it can stay solid it could be another gold medal for Canada.

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Denmark

Last year the Danish team came into the tournament looking to simply stay in the top division after earning their spot in the top division a year before. They had brought in an experienced team with some of the best young talent that Denmark had seen in a long time. Many wondered if the few really good players were enough to keep them out of the relegation series. The proof was in their performance as they didn’t win a game but were the thorn in the sides of every team they faced. They did enough to earn a spot in the playoff but dropped their quarter-final game to the Canadians. This year they enter the tournament with a very different team than a year before. The Danes will be without their top goalie in George Sorensen, who made a big difference in a lot of games, Olivier Bjorkstrand and the best young Danish player in the NHL Nikolaj Ehlers. Unfortunately for the Danish team Ehlers is doing well in Winnipeg right now and they will keep him in the NHL. That leaves a group of unproven players for the Danes and that could be trouble. On offence Bjorkstrand and Ehlers are hard to replace but that task will be given to some experienced players in Jeppe Holmberg, Alexander True, and Kristian Jensen. The latter of which has had a good start to the season in the SuperElite league. On defence Denmark has never been the best and this year there is not a lot of difference in that aspect. They will rely heavily on their only two returning defenceman in Anders Krogsgaard and Matias Lassen. Both are good, albeit not great, defenceman that can get involved on the offensive side but past them there is not a lot of depth. With a lackluster defence the key for any Danish team has always been the goaltender. Thomas Lillie will serve as the starter after performing well in relief last year but needs to be really good this year if Denmark wants to stay out of relegation. Overall the Danes are a team that might frustrate some but will not be in contention this year as they will likely be competing to stay in the top division.

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Sweden

The Swedish team is one of the biggest programs in the world and in Group A they are one of the teams that everyone looks to in order to challenge the Canadians. Last year was a disappointing year as they finished in fourth place just outside of the medals. They had a good team as well but when it came down to the end of the tournament the Slovakians upset the usual powerhouse for the bronze. This year the Swedes are trying to get back to winning after making the gold medal game in three straight years and they may have the talent to do it. The key for the Swedish team relied heavily on the Toronto Maple Leafs who held the fate of the best Swedish forward in William Nylander. After waiting until the last minute the Leafs decided that Nylander would be best served by attending the tournament. That is a massive boost for the team as Nylander has been one of the best players in the AHL and many have believed he should be playing in the NHL right now. There is no doubt that he will lead this team and join an experienced group from a year ago that brought one of the youngest teams to the tournament. Surrounding Nylander will be fellow first round pick Adrian Kempe along with returning players Christoffer Ehn, Axel Holmstrom, and Oskar Lindblom. There are some young stars to watch for as well with Alexander Nylander and Rasmus Asplund who are set to enter the 2016 draft as potential first round picks. On defence the team has more returning players with Sebastian Aho and Andreas Englund leading the way alongside Gustav Forsling and William Lagesson. It is a good group and a big group that will give their goalie plenty of support. That goalie will likely be Linus Söderström for most of the tournament after playing in seven games last year. The swedes enter another tournament with a deep talent pool and they are sure to be the toughest test for the Canadians. The fight for the group will likely involve this team and they won’t be finishing without some medal around their neck this year.

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Switzerland

Switzerland did not have their best tournament last year when they finished at the bottom of their pool pushing them into the relegation round. The Swiss came out on top in that series beating the Germans in the first two games of the relegation round. That stamped their ticket for the tournament this year and they hope to have more success this time around. The promising thing is that the Swiss will be bringing back a very experienced team this time around. When they announced their selection camp roster ten players were returning from a year before. Last year did not work out the way they had wanted largely due to a young team but this time they will see the opposite. The biggest concern right now is that their best prospect Kevin Fiala is still playing in the AHL and will not be making the trip to Finland. The Swiss are a different team with Fiala in the line-up and it is going to be a tougher job without him. The focus will fall on returning forward Timo Meier who is sure to be the leader of this team and he will be joined by Noah Rod and Pius Suter who will enter another tournament with the team. Tino Kessler will also be watched as the only player in the elite Swedish league as a member of HC Davos. On the blue line the Swiss will enjoy the presence of Edson Harlacher, Simon Kindschi, and Jonas Siegenthaler who all had time last year. Like most second their teams they are not the best defence group but they are good and the experience is sure to help them. That being said the goalie will be an important and luckily for the Swiss both of their goalies from a year ago are back. Gauthier Descloux will lead the way as the starter after a good tournament in 2015 while Ludovic Waeber is there for support should something happen. Either goalie seem like a good option but much like Denmark they will need to step up if they want to give the Swiss some hope. The Swiss will be better for their experience and will avoid relegation but they will not make it much further than the first round of the playoff.

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usa

The Americans are only getting better as the years go on but the performance on the ice is not matching the talent that they have brought. Last year they gave Canada a push in the group but couldn’t finish it off and lost to Russia in the quarter-finals. It left them in fifth place and left them without a medal for the second year in a row after winning gold in 2013. This year they were the very early favourites to take home gold for another year with a deep pool of talent. Then they released their camp roster and the hope of winning it all faded quickly. They have seemingly fallen into the trap that the Canadians did in the five years they were without a gold medal. Instead of selecting the best players you can they are bringing in a group that they think will make a good team with everyone having their roles like in the NHL. That thought has left players like Jeremy Bracco, Alex Tuch, and most surprisingly Conor Garland, the QMJHL’s leading scorer, out of the equation this year. It doesn’t mean they don’t have talent but the focus will be much greater on their best player. That will be Auston Matthews who is the top ranked prospect for the 2016 draft this year. It will be the first time many get to see Matthews who decided to play in Switzerland this year rather than in Major Junior or the NCAA. He will be the one that everyone watches while players like Christian Dvorak and other draft eligible prospects Matthew Tkachuk and Alexander DeBrincat provide support up front. On defence the Americans have always been strong but this year they will be inexperienced as Brandon Carlo and Zachary Werenski are the only two returning defencemen on this year’s team. The goaltending will also see some inexperience as the two returning goalies played a combined one game last year. Brandon Halverson will likely start but Alex Nedeljkovic could be right behind him. The Americans are going about it a different way and it may very well work as they have the talent but is it enough to beat the Canadians in Group A?

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Prediction:
The classic teams will be fighting for a spot in the medals as Denmark and Switzerland will be trying to stay out of relegation. The Swiss will come out on top and earn a spot in the quarter-finals while the Danes will see their focus shift to the relegations series. At the top it will be the Canadians who are not as talented as they were a year ago and won’t walk through the USA and Sweden. Still they are very good and very deep meaning that they will get the wins they need to sit at the top. The Swedes will be right behind them with an equally talented and deep team that is sure to challenge for gold. As for the Americans the hype is big but the roster is missing some big names. With those names they are first in any group but without they finish behind the Swedes and Canadians hoping to get a favourable quarter-final match-up.

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