2016 World Juniors: Group B Preview

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Last year Hockey Canada hosted their first tournament in Toronto and Montreal, two of the biggest hockey markets in the world.

It was a lot of pressure for the home team who hadn’t won a gold medal in five straight years and were now set to face some of the biggest crowds in the history of the World Juniors.

This year the Canadian team is off the hook in terms of the main crowd members but the same can’t be said for Finland.

In hockey there are the big six nations that tend to be the best teams in every tournament from the Juniors to the Olympics.

Canada, USA, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic, and Finland are these six nations and this year Finland gets to host the Juniors.

This tournament is not the most popular around the world and so the IIHF ensures that one of these big nations hosts, Canada hosts more than any other country, and this year that honour falls to Finland.

They have been a team that has shown plenty of greatness and has a number of very good young players in the NHL.

It seems like they have only been getting better at producing top talent like Teuvo Teräväinen, Markus Granlund, Olli Määttä, and Aleksander Barkov.

All of these players have been in the World Juniors and all have brought the Finnish team to plenty of success.

It hasn’t always been consistent though as they went from winning the gold medal in 2014 to finishing out of the medals in 2015.

They have had moments where they looked to be beginning a run only to see it slip away with their great players.

They are a team still working to figure out how to get consistency but they will look to find it when they host this year.

The Finns have hosted the event five times since it began and have medalled three times including a gold in 1998.

That tournament was the peak of their time as they took advantage of the home support to win the gold and got to celebrate in front of their fans.

That is what they hope for this year as they once again host the tournament and they hope to find success.

It is not an easy task though as winning at home is never an easy thing with the focus on one group of young men.

It may not be the same as Canada where the tournament is one of the biggest every year but the Finns are still one of those big six nations in hockey.hockey-sidebar

That means that people pay attention to what they are doing in the Juniors and when they are at home that focus becomes even greater.

If the Finns can get over the pressure attached with hosting the Juniors they will have a shot as they are far from the worst team in their group but they will have some challengers to get to the top of the group.

Chief among them will be Russia who is the only team that can outdo Canada in this tournament.

They have more medals than Canada, although many came during the USSR years, and every year they come into the tournament as one of the favourites.

The Czech Republic has not been their usual powerhouse selves in recent years but they are still a major hockey nation.

They will always have talent on the roster and can find ways to win as they try to find their way to the top of the group.

Then there is the team that nobody thinks will win the tournament but has proven to be one of the toughest outs in the tournament.

Slovakia has been the pesky team almost every year that somehow pulls out surprise wins every year.

The new team on the block this year will be Belarus who are no strangers to the top tier of the tournament but spend most of their time battling to stay in the top tier.

After winning the Division 1-A they will try to stay in the top tier and avoid spending the 2017 tournament in the lower division.

The Finnish team will look to get through Group B and get a medal, preferably gold, in front of a home crowd as they try to get through the pressure that comes with hosting the 2016 tournament.

Belarus

2015 was a fairly successful year for the Belarusians as they managed to put together a great tournament. It wasn’t in the top tier though as they were able to get four wins on their way to the top spot in the division. That top spot meant that they earned their spot in the top division in what has become a theme for the team. Belarus is a team that continues to rise and fall through the divisions in an attempt to stay in the top tier hoping to build some momentum. This year they begin that quest to stay in the top tier for another year and that will be their focus. The Belarusians are not likely to be competing for the medals and will fight to stay out of the relegation for the first part of the tournament.  The offence might have been led by Flames prospect Pavel Karnaukhov but he will not attend the Juniors. That is bad news for the Belarusians as their talent pool is thin at best and losing their potentially best player is not going to help. That leaves Danila Karaban to lead the team in scoring as he develops as one of the best young Belarusians. Perhaps the best talent will be on the blue line though as Stepan Falkovsky comes from the Ottawa 67’s and will use his 6’7” 225 lbs frame to shut down opposing offences. His opposite, Vladislav Goncharov, stands at 5’6” but provides offence from the blue-line creating a good pairing. In net they will likely look to a pair of goaltenders and figure out which can get hot at the right time. Vladislav Verbitski and Aleksander Osipkov are the two most likely candidates but neither have much U20 experience. The big positive of this team is that many of the players named to the roster are a part of the Dynamo U20 team making that challenge of creating teamwork in a short period much easier. The problem is that the talent is just not there to compete with the likes of the Russians or Finns and as a result they will likely sink to the bottom of the group leaving the final series to keep them in the top tier.

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Czech-Republic

The Czech Republic haven’t been enjoying the success they used to in international tournaments despite continuing to bring top talent to the NHL. Last year in the Juniors they finished in sixth place managing only one regulation win. They seemed to have the roster to make a bigger impact though as they had some top talent heading to the tournament. Instead they disappointed losing to Slovakia in the quarter-finals. They enter a new tournament with another experienced and talented team as they try to put it all together to get back to the medals for the first time since 2005. There is little question as to who will lead this team as Pavel Zacha returns for his third tournament and is sure to be the focus. The problem for the Czechs is that Zacha is one of the few top prospects returning as David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana won’t be joining Zacha. That leaves Filip Chlapik and David Case to help Zacha produce, which was an issue last year. The problem for them is that beyond Zacha there aren’t many big time scorers on the team. They have a number of OHL players which bodes well but until they prove it the depth on the team is questionable. On defence Jakub Zboril should lead the way after being cut before last year’s tournament. They missed him in the 2015 version of the tournament and he should be in the top pairing alongside Dominik Masin in what should be a good blue line. Last year the focus was on the goaltending that was supposed to lead them but it wasn’t nearly as good as many expected. Vitek Vanecek and Daniel Vladar both return in hopes of improving their performances with Vanecek likely getting most of the starts. The Czechs are trying to save face after losing out to their long-time rival a year ago and failing to compete for a medal again. They have talent but a lot of the potential great talent will not be in Finland due to injuries or commitments to the NHL. That leaves them exposed as their goaltenders will have to be good this time around if they have a hope of competing for a medal although they will at least get that chance moving on past the group.

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Finland

It is a stressful year for the Finns as they play in front of a home town crowd trying to get back to the top of the tournament. In 2014 they were the best team in the Juniors winning the gold, beating their long-time rivals, Sweden, to earn the top spot. Then last year they fell off finishing in 7th place and ending what could have been a great run in the Juniors. They seemed to be on their way to the top in winning multiple gold medals with a great group of young players. That came to an end last year when they disappointed in a big way as they look to reclaim that potential. They return this year with the weight of a country on their back but plenty of talent to make their home fans proud. The biggest boost for the Finns came early when Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen were loaned to the team form their AHL clubs. Both were top draft picks of their NHL teams and have spent the majority of their time in the AHL so far. They will be the leaders of the offence this year while Jesse Puljujarvi looks to show what he has as one of the top prospects for the 2016 NHL draft. On defence the team is a young one with a number of draft eligible players named to the selection camp. Olli Juolevi leads the young guys as he is considered one of the top prospects for 2016 and is currently playing for the London Knights. There is not a lot of experience in the group though as Sami Niku could be the only player returning from last year and should be leaned on throughout the tournament. The goaltending is equally inexperienced as Kaapo Kähkänen looks to be the starter after going through the process last year but never getting into a game. He is a draft pick of the Minnesota Wild though and will look to prove he has what it takes against some top offence. The Finns are a team pumping out more talent than most countries in Europe and they should see that pay dividends this time around. Still a gold may be out of reach with their inexperience but getting a medal is very likely as they have a lot of talent even without the experience that some teams have.

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Russia

If there is one team that can rival the Canadians in their success in the World Juniors it is the Russians who always seem to be in the hunt. Last year was much of the same as the Russians rose to the gold medal game and gave the Canadians their toughest test of the tournament. They lost that game to their rivals but it was a successful year as they earned their fifth straight medal. This year they come to the tournament with hopes of earning another medal and might be there once again. The Russian team brings its strength from the net out as Ilya Samsonov is the key to their success in the tournament. Samsonov has never been in the U20 tournament but played seven games as a member of the U18 team and three games in the U18 tournament. He will follow a long line of great Russian goaltenders in the tournament that have taken a lot of the focus away from the usual high powered offence that Russia has been known for. Samsonov has some big skates to fill but he seems to be set for it with a great year in the KHL already under his belt. In front of Samsonov will be a good group of defenders all led by 2015 first round pick Ivan Provorov. Alongside Sergei Zbrovsky and Sergei Boikov, the only other players drafted, the Russian have put together a team full of CHL and KHL prospects that are sure to make life difficult for opponents. Although the back end of the team is the strength there is still plenty of talent up front as is expected from a Russian team. The biggest boost for the entire group is that there are a number of players playing well in the KHL. That includes Denis Guryanov and Yevgeni Svechnikov as well as one of the promising young stars in Kirill Kaprizov. The leader could very well be the only Russian forward in the NHL system though as Vladislav Kamenev is currently playing in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. The Russians have switched things up this year and although their offence isn’t near what it used to be their defence is enough to make them contenders for another year.

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Slovakia

If there is a team that represents the new world of hockey it is the Slovakians who went from being a perennial loser to a medalist. It is the perfect example of teams beginning to find ways to compete beyond the top teams in the world. They rode a great goaltending performance all the way to the medals in 2015 beating the Swedes in the bronze medal game to earn their second medal in tournament history. That leaves a lot to live up to as a new team heads into a new tournament without some of their top players from a year ago. Their leading scorer Martin Reway and their star from a year ago in Denis Godla. He was named the goaltender of the tournament last year and was the main reason for the Slovaks getting as far as they did. He will not return this year in a major blow for the team as Adam Huska will take over looking to try to match that performance. It is certainly a tough thing to achieve but so far in the USHL, Huska has done a good job in limited time on the ice. It won’t be easy but the defence will provide some help. They are not too deep but the pairing of Erik Cernak and Patrik Maier are solid prospects that could make life a little easier for Huska. That leaves a younger group to try to get them back to the medals this time around. Radovan Bondra will return to lead the way alongside Kristian Pospisil to try to get enough goals to bring them back to the medals. Beyond those top players though there is not much other talent that can bring them back to the medals. They won’t be the same team as a year ago as they lost their top players from that tournament. They won’t lose to the Belarusians but they won’t rise to the top. Unless there is another great tournament from their goaltender that can win games by himself there doesn’t seem to be a repeat performance in the Slovakians this year as they will finish inside of the playoffs but outside of the medals.

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Prediction:
Group B will be an interesting battle but it won’t be that interesting at the top and bottom of the standings. It seems clear that the Belarusians are the worst of the teams in the group and they won’t be able to compete with the rest pushing them to relegation. The top of the group will be a better battle but it seems like the Russians have the better team thanks to what should be a good defence. They should get a challenge from a very talented Finnish team who will fall just short of winning the group but has a good shot of getting to the medal rounds. After that it will be the Czech Republic and Slovakia trying to fight to get the better spot in the playoffs. The Slovakians could be a great team but they might fall short against a deeper talent pool in the Czech Republic who should take third place.

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