2016 IIHF World Championship: Group A Preview

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There is a clear division in international hockey and the divide between them is as big as the Atlantic Ocean that separates the two sides.

Europe and North America are two very distinct groups of teams with a number of teams being the least of the differences.

Yes, North America holds only two major hockey powers while Europe has more than a handful but the differences go much deeper.

The World Championship expresses those differences more than any other tournament as in Europe it is the major championship in international hockey.

It has always been the big tournament where the best in the world get to face-off to determine the top hockey country for the year.

There is something to be said about the fact that many of the best players aren’t available but for European teams, the impact is slightly smaller.

It can vary country by country but many of the European teams are full of players who are a part of any of the number of European professional leagues.

Whether it be the KHL or the Swedish Elite League or any of the other leagues in between European nations often see some of their best players stay at home.

That gives Europeans an interesting perspective on the tournament as it truly is the best players from the country, minus a few.

Every year Europeans await the start of the tournament and in 2016, most will have one group to watch closely.

Group A is the all-European group this year and it will highlight the talent that is throughout Europe.

More than that though it will also show the divide between the European teams themselves.

As big as the divide is between the countries in North America and Europe there is a big divide between the haves and have-nots in the European continent.

Group A might display this pretty clearly as the World Championship features more teams than most international tournaments.

With eight teams in the conference, there are the teams that have shown that they are constant competitors and the teams that are just trying to stay afloat.

The tournament hosts account as a member of the first group as Russia has been one of the best teams internationally but especially in this tournament.hockey-sidebar

With 27 total gold medals, they are the gold standard in the world championship, although Canada is not far behind.

Unlike many other tournaments though the Russians are not utterly dominant in earning gold as the last few years has seen far more true contenders.

Those include the constantly improving Swedes and the always dangerous Czechs who will both join Russia in Group A making for a great battle at the top.

The group also features some of those teams that are trying to get to the point where these top three are currently at.

Teams like Switzerland and Denmark who have the ability to change things and shock a few teams but often fall below the top teams in the tournament.

Then there is the final group of European teams that struggle to put together much competition but will try to stay in the top division.

Norway, Latvia, and Kazakhstan are constant competitors in the world of hockey but are often forgotten when talking about big hockey nations.

Some are getting better, see Latvia, but many are still putting their efforts in staying among the top division rather than being relegated.

Group A will be the focus of most of Europe for the World Championships as the host country and some of the biggest teams from Europe will all look for their chance at being named the best in the world.

Czech-Republic

The Czech Republic has had a long history in the World Championship and rightfully so, as they are a true hockey nation. Over the years, the Czechs have been a team to watch with plenty of great players that have made the move to the NHL and become some of the best. In fact, the Czechs are the third most successful team in the tournament taking a total of 46 medals. For the last two years, the Czechs put together good teams but teams not able to get that extra step as they have lost in the bronze medal two years in a row. This year they will look to get back into the medals and keep up with the other top countries in World Championship medal table. They will head into a new year looking at a roster with a host of injuries that will have a big impact on their chances. The Czechs are a team with a good amount of NHL talent although they are no the deepest pool of talent. That is why injuries to some key players like David Krejci and Jakub Voracek are going to have a big impact on the team. They will still seem some good talent in the form of Tomas Plekanec and David Pastrnak. The team will hope that they can carry the load while KHL talent like Jan Kovar, Martin Zatovic, and Roman Cervenka can bring some secondary scoring. They are not entirely without talent up front as the team will be full of great players but without some of their best, it might be a bit tougher. The defence will be short of experience and top level talent as the team will have few players that have been in the World Championships before. They will likely lean on Michal Kempny and Michal Jordan but none of the group is considered game changing. That will put greater pressure on the goaltenders where there are three great goalies who are all fairly young. Dominik Furch could be the one to lean on throughout the tournament but all could get some time. The Czechs are a good hockey nation but not one that is deep enough to survive their best players not making the trip. Without Voracek and Jagr the Czechs will be good but not good enough to play for a medal this year.

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Denmark

Denmark is a nation that has seen a different perspective than some teams as they are just coming into their own as a hockey nation. The Danes spent many years just trying to stay in the top division of the World Championship. That has given way to a constant spot in the top division as they are among the usual suspects for the annual tournament. The Danes are seeing a more consistent level of player coming out of the country with more Danish players in the NHL. As they continue to grow the Danish team is looking to be more than just another middle of the road team. Although their NHL talent is growing they will enter the tournament without some of their top talent and their potential young stars. Playoffs in North America will hurt the Danes taking away their top goalie in Frederik Andersen and their brightest young star in Oliver Bjorkstrand. It is not going to help them in their quest to get back to the playoffs but the addition of Nikolaj Ehlers is sure to give them a boost. Along with Lars Eller and Janik Hansen, the Danes will have a good trio up front that could put up some points. A lot of eyes will be on Mathias From this tournament as the 15th ranked European skater in the draft and the Danes will hope he can produce on the second line. Meanwhile, on defence, the group will be led by veteran Daniel Nielsen and is full of experienced players. They may not be the most experienced or the most talented group the Danish defence is not too old and not too young. They will need to step up against some much deeper attacks and give their goaltenders a break from what is sure to be some tough assignments. In the net, the Danes will likely use a combination of Sebastian Dahm and Simon Nielsen hoping that one can step forward and prove to be the starter that can beat the best teams. The Danes are a group with some talent and an ability to win games but their best players need to be their best players and if they falter the team will go down. The Danish team will certainly fight for a spot in the playoffs but will come up just short when they play the teams on their level.

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Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is back in the top division as they continue their reign as the best team in Division 1 Group A. They have spent the last few years being promoted only to fall to the second division I the tournament. They aren’t a team that can compete with the best in the world but they are better than those secondary teams. It is a challenge to call them a hockey nation because they go into the premier division without much talent to compete yet they are a hockey nation because they do compete regularly in the top division. They will enter this year’s tournament with one clear goal in mind, to stay in the top division in the world. They won’t be competing against the top teams but getting a big win against one of the lower teams could put them in a good spot to avoid relegation this year. There is little doubt that the most important player on this team will be the goalie as a team with less talent must have a great goalie. They won’t match up with the talent of the best teams but a great goalie performance can shock any team. That responsibility will fall on Pavel Poluektov who helped Kazakhstan to first place in Division 1 A when he played every game for the team. He is back and looking to at least surprise a few teams to give them a chance at remaining in the top division. In front of him, the team will look to Kevin Dallman who is one of their top players from a year ago and can provide some offence from the blue-line. Alongside Daniyar Kairov, Dallman hopes to provide some support in one of the few ways this team will win. On offence, the team will look to what many teams of this stature do with a mix of Canadian and American born players who have declared for Kazakhstan. Brandon Bochenski, Dustin Boyd, and Nigel Dawes are just a few of the names. They are good hockey players but they are not considered some of the best in the world. The Kazakhstan team is sure to give some tough games to certain teams and that is where their concentration should be. They won’t beat any of the top teams and aren’t guaranteed to get a win but if they can pull off a few they may very well be able to stay in the top division.

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Latvia

If there is one team that gets international fans excited, aside from their own countries, it has to be Latvia. The Latvians have become the team that nobody wants to face if they need a win. Over the last few years, it seems like the Latvians are good for at least one major upset at a major tournament and the country is only getting better at producing top talent. That includes this year where they hope to not only launch another upset but to truly compete for the playoffs and for a medal. There has never been a more important position in Latvia than the goalie who always seems to steal a game or two by himself. Although the Olympic hero won’t be in the Worlds they will head into the tournament with some good experience in net. Veteran Edgars Masalskis will lead the way in another major tournament and will hope to follow the patterns of Latvian goalies in other tournaments. In front of Masalskis will be a host of fairly experienced defenceman with plenty of top level experience. They are that wave of Latvians that have been bringing the Latvians into the national stage and while none will make the trip from North America there are plenty from the KHL. Leading the way is one of the older players on the team, 32-year-old, Aleksandrs Jerofejevs who will likely play alongside the other veteran of the group Maksims Sirokovs. The group is a microcosm of the team itself as the defence is full of players at their peak with international experience that will look to continue the growth and give the goalie a bit of a break. On offence, there is little doubt who the leader will be as Zemgus Girgensons has been leading the charge for Latvia for a long time now. As one of the few Latvians playing in the NHL Girgensons is a top level scorer and will be the player that the team looks towards to put up points. He won’t be the only one though as Kaspers Daugavins has stepped up in major tournaments and Rodrigo Abols attempts to make an impact in his second World Championships. The Latvians seem to be that annoying team every year and another surprising win is not out of the question this year. Competing at the top level might be too much for them though as they still don’t have the depth of talent to earn a medal this year.

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norway

The Norwegians are another team that is caught in the middle as they are not a team that ca compete with the best but have also solidified their spot in the top division. Norway has produced some NHL talent in the past and they have talent throughout the world but they are never as deep as the best teams. They are no strangers to the playoffs in the world championships as they have made the quarter-finals plenty of times in the last few years. That is where their runs usually stop though as they have not made it past the quarter-finals in the last decade. They will enter a new year trying to get back to the playoffs and possibly past the quarter-finals. There is little doubt who the biggest name on this team is as Mats Zuccarello has been a leader for Norway over the last few years. He will once again need to be a leader in 2016 as Norway will need him to step up and provide some offence alongside Andreas Martinsen and Mathis Olimb. The offence will lean on these three with the hope that a few more players can step up to provide some secondary scoring. On defence, the team will be led by some true veterans in 35-year-old Morten Ask and 39-year-old Mats Trygg. While they will likely get plenty of time many people will be watching Johannes Johannesen who is one of the top-ranked defencemen in this year’s draft. They will, like many of these second tier teams, look to the goaltenders to have a few big games if they hope to get to the playoffs. That responsibility will likely fall to the youngest goalie in the group, Steffen Søberg, who played well as a starter this year in Norway. There will be other options in case he falters but the Norwegians will need someone to step up and have some great games. They are once again a team that has some talent but a team that might not have enough of it. Without that same level of talent, the biggest players will be watched too closely. As a result, they may have to fight just to stay in the top division as there just doesn’t seem to be enough good players to put them into the playoffs this year.

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Russia

In every international tournament, there are two teams that will always be the favourites and they know it better than anyone else. Russia and Canada are the teams with the deepest pools of talent in international hockey and they are constantly at the top of the rankings. The Russians are always the favourites to win the entire tournament and they have proven that those expectations are warranted. With a total of 44 medals including 27 gold medals the Russians are the most successful nation in the World Championship and for their fans, this is the tournament to win. The focus on the tournament is a big reason for the Russians playing at home this year and they will look to take home another gold in front of a very supportive crowd. Of course like many of the best teams in the world the Russians enter the tournament with a somewhat reduced skill level on the roster. With players like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov still playing in the NHL the Russians will need to dig a little deeper into their talent pool. That has left the Russians with a fairly young group as the new generation of Russian stars is making their mark on the Worlds. On offence, there will be veteran leadership in the form of Pavel Datsyuk but beyond him it is a much younger group. That young group includes Nail Yakupov, Alexander Burmistrov, Sergei Plotnikov, and Nikita Gusev. The defence is the same with Slava Voynov marking the veteran presence among a young group. That group is heavy on the KHL talent with only Alexei Emelin representing the NHL while Yegor Yakovlev, Anton Belov, and Ilya Lyubushkin represent the KHL. They will be protecting a good set of goaltenders, an aspect of Russian hockey that has become a strength. With Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky in place, the Russians will likely go with a platoon system until one can assert himself as the starter. The Russians may not have the NHL talent that makes them one of the best hockey nations in the world but there is no doubt that they are a country that has more talent than just NHL players. The talent on this team is good and there is little doubt that they will finish anywhere but the top three with key games against the best teams making the difference in their tournament.

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Sweden

They may not be a team with the most success at the Worlds but they are a team that is finding another period of success. Unlike the Canadians and the Russians the Swedes have not been the most consistent in international tournaments. They had a great period with legends leading the way but when that generation began retiring there was nobody to replace them. A new generation is here now and it looks like it is a new era in Sweden as the pipeline continues to produce talent year after year. That new generation will be a big part of Sweden’s attempt to get back to the medals after losing in the quarter-finals last year. Led by offensive stars like Mikael Backlund, Gustav Nyquist, and Alexander Wennberg the Swedes are going young like so many of the other top teams. They won’t be without some veteran presence though as Jimmie Ericsson represents a Swede with plenty experience in the World Championship. They have always had a penchant for the offensive game and the young group they will bring to the World Championships expresses that. Players like Nyquist and Backlund have that ability to be creative and put up points. The youth-filled team continues on the blue-line where NHL prospects Erick Gustafsson and Adam Larsson will lead the group. They have never had the strongest defensive group but the Swedes are improving in that respect. That has been led by the continued development of the goaltending. There are more good Swedish goaltenders than in the past when Sammy Salo was the only real option. This year it will be Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom that will be taking over the net for the Swedish team. Although Markstrom has spent a lot of time up and down in the NHL system he is a good young goalie and could be the future of the Swedish team. The Swedes are taking the same path as many of the top teams who don’t get to see their best players play in the Worlds. They are going with their young stars and although they do not have the depth of talent pool they are still a tough team. They will make a run at the top of the group but might fall just short although a run at a medal is not out of the question.

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Switzerland

They are another European team that isn’t necessarily at the top of the standings but one that has earned a constant spot in the top division. They have also been growing into a team that can surprise some with a silver medal in the 2013 World Championship. The Swiss have not necessarily been a power in international hockey but they are certainly far from pushovers. That is exactly the aim of the team over the past few years as they have built a reputation for playing a certain kind of hockey. For most teams in Europe, the concentration has always been the offence and many have been very successful playing an offensive based game. They generally avoid contact or rough play and it has been successful until they face the North American teams that can do both successfully. The Swiss take a different approach as they are one of the toughest European teams on the ice and although they don’t have the offence to match many teams they certainly make sure everyone remembers playing them. That toughness comes from the back-end where the Swiss have produced their best NHL talent. That talent will be on display again as players like Yannick Weber and AHL players like Rafael Diaz and young star Christian Marti will make the trip to Russia. All three have that North American pedigree and will be the leaders of this team as the Swiss love to focus on defence first. The blue liners will be backed up by a solid goaltender in Reto Berra. He may not be the NHL all-star that some teams have but he is a developing goalie that has seen plenty of time against the best in the world. Although the Swiss have long concentrated on defence their offence is beginning to look better than in past years. This year they will be led by Canadiens forward Sven Andrighetto and Minnesota Wild prospect Christoph Bertschy. Both have seen time in the NHL and are going to be leaned on to produce the majority of the offence for the Swiss team. The Swiss are a team that has been a defensive minded team for a while but what has held them back is their lack of scoring ability. Although they are a solid team they won’t find their way to another medal this year but they are sure to finish in the top ten and give some teams fits.

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Prediction:
There is little doubt about who the two best teams in this group will be when the round robin is over. Russia and Sweden will fight it out for the top spot but the Russians are too strong and too deep for the Swedes to beat this year. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic won’t have a massive battle as they slot in behind the top two teams without their best players to push them any further. One of the biggest battles will be for the final playoff spot as there are a few teams that could be there. It will all be determined by how their players perform on the big stage as none have the talent level of the top teams. In the end, Switzerland will have just enough to get by Denmark and Latvia who will remain in the top division but will end their tournament early. Norway and Kazakhstan will fight to stay in the top division with Norway coming out on top thanks to the collection of better players on the team.

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