2016 IIHF World Championship: Group B Preview

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The divide in hockey is very pronounced and in Group B sits the two teams that receive the strangest focus every year around this time.

Canada and the USA are two of the biggest teams in international hockey right now and yet at World Championship time the support is severely lacking.

In every other tournament, both teams receive massive support for very different reasons.

For the Americans, it is about being the best at every sport, something that they have succeeded at more often than not, and hockey has become one of their latest conquests.

For Canadians, it is about asserting their spot at the top of the world stage in hockey, which is the sport Canadians identify with the most.

When the Olympics come the two fan bases are ravenous in their support as they will likely be for the upcoming World Cup and as they are for other tournaments around the year.

Yet the World Championships are the time when North American fans usually take some time off from cheering for their national teams.

That is largely due to the fact that the NHL is in the midst of the playoffs with the second round of the playoffs intersecting with the start of the tournament.

The focus for most North American hockey fans is on the playoffs of their favourite league where the majority of their favourite Canadian and American players are fighting for what many consider to be the ultimate prize in hockey.

So it becomes a competition between a tournament that is usually in a country halfway around the world or teams and players from North America.

More often than not the winner of that competition is going to be the NHL and so the Americans and Canadians playing in the World Championship take a back seat.

It might change this year for at least on country though as there are no Canadian teams in the playoffs leaving many Canadian hockey fans avoiding the playoffs.

With that in mind, many of those fans could turn their attention to the Canadians who will look to defend their gold medal from a year ago in enemy territory.

There is little doubt that the Americans and Canadians will be two of the best teams in the tournament regardless of how many of their players are still in North America.hockey-sidebar

In fact, this tournament provides a true test in just how good either nation can be as a true hockey country.

That is simply because they don’t often get to have their best players available throughout the tournament and as a result must look at their depth throughout the tournament.

The Canadians have done a better job of that than the Americans in the past but even the Canadians are far from a dominant team anymore.

With only two gold medals in the last decade, the Canadians are not the force they are in the Olympics or the World Juniors.

They still put together rosters of great players and as a result, they are the measuring stick that many teams use.

The two top teams won’t have a completely easy path as they will need to play each other and a few teams that are looking to make their mark in the tournament by beating one of the two big teams in the tournament.

There are the teams that consider a win against Canada or the USA as their championship while others prefer to put their names among that top group of teams.

Some are great at launching surprises while others should never be a surprise at their level of competitiveness.

Much like Group A there are teams expected to sit atop the group at the end of the round robin but nothing is guaranteed.

It is an international tournament and every team has earned their spot in the top division.

They will all compete to put themselves in the best position to take home a medal and unseat the Canadians as the best team in the world.

Belarus

Belarus often falls into the category of a team that is somewhat forgettable on the national stage. They have solidified their spot among the best in the world as they are constantly seen in the top division. It wasn’t always that way as they were a team that fell in and out of the top division regularly. The last few years has seen them stick though and they are looking to continue their momentum to become a truly challenging team. Last year they took another step towards that as they made the playoffs but ran into the Canadians. It was a step but they are still sitting on the outside of the contenders who have a good shot at a medal. They enter a new tournament looking to take another step and get back to the playoffs and move closer to a medal. Despite the fact that Belarus is not necessarily the biggest producer of talent there are some familiar names on the roster. Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn will both represent Belarus in the tournament as two of the only players to see time in the NHL on the roster. For Sergei, it is an especially important tournament as he is currently looking to return to the NHL and this could go a long way in his contract negotiations. Alongside their top scorer from last year Alexei Kalyuzhny, the Belarusians aren’t without talent up front. Like most teams fighting to stay in the top division, the talent is mainly at the front whereas the defence is somewhat of a liability. With veteran leader Dmitri Korobov and young star Roman Dyukov leading the way, the Belarusians are slightly better than years past. Still the depth isn’t quite there for the team which means issues for their goaltenders. They will be led in the net by Canadian-born Belarusian, Kevin Lalande who played the majority of games for them last year. He will have his work cut out for him this year and will need to be solid if they want to win games. The Belarusians have talent but the biggest question is whether or not that talent is enough. They have to face some deep teams and will give some teams fits but not enough to make the playoffs this year although they will stay out of relegation.

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canada

The Canadians are always a team where questions linger no matter the roster they put together for the tournament. Part of that is the fact that gold is the expectation for Canadian hockey and with a number of great players in the NHL playoffs the Canadians often go with a team lacking the biggest superstars. Last year that wasn’t quite the case as Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Brent Burns all made the trip. As a result, the Canadians went undefeated throughout the tournament to take their first gold medal since 2007. This year many of those stars won’t be making the trip and the Canadians will be heading into a title defending year with a much younger group. The biggest missing pieces will be on offence where players like Spezza, Crosby, and Seguin all seeing their teams in the second round. Instead, the team will look to younger stars like Matt Duchene, Mark Scheifele, Max Domi, and the future superstar Connor McDavid. Late additions, Corey Perry and Derick Brassard will provide the veteran leadership for the group. The defence will surely miss the presence of Brent Burns but the young group of defenceman they will see is sure to settle most concerns. Ryan Murray, Morgan Reilly, and Matt Dumba will lead the group while solid defencemen like Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton sure up the blue line. In goal, the Canadians will see some inexperience as well with Cam Talbot and Calvin Pickard filling out the roles. For the last few years, a panic has come through Canadian hockey regarding the goaltending, which used to be a strength of Canadian teams. Both Pickard and Talbot are a new generation of Canadian goalies considered to be top prospects. They each saw time in the NHL this year, Talbot was the starter for Edmonton while Pickard was up and down for Colorado, and will look to take that experience into the Worlds. The team is a typical Canadian team as top players might not be there but there are more than enough talented players to fill out the group. It won’t be as easy as last year but the Canadians are sure to rise to the top of the group and make a run at the title.

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Finland

As much as they might not want to hear it the Finnish teams bears a striking resemblance to their neighbours in Sweden. They are a team that has gone through success only to see a generation of stars retire and have nobody to replace them. Just like the Swedes though the Finns are enjoying a resurgence of talent with young Finnish stars entering the draft every year. This new generation has led to plenty of success in the Juniors over the past few years and the leading edge of that new generation helped the Finns to their second gold medal in 2011. Now that new generation of Finnish stars is looking to guide the Finns back to the medals once more. They won’t be entirely a new generation though as veterans like Mikko Koivu and Jussi Jokinen will be there to provide some experience. The offence will truly be leaning on the younger generation though as Mikael Granlund, Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, and a potential top pick in this year’s draft Patrik Laine will all be watched closely. If these young players can reach their potential there is little doubt that the offence will be a force. On defence the talent level is not quite the same as Topi Jaakola and Juuso Hietanen will likely lead the way from the KHL. Meanwhile, Esa Lindell and Ville Pokka continue the youthful injection into the line-up. They will get some reinforcements as one of the few Finnish goaltenders in the NHL is making the trip to Russia. Niklas Bäckström will be a steady hand in the net for the Finns as he has the ability to step up his game against the best in the world. It has always been a challenge in Scandinavia as the goaltending situation is not the best there. The fact that Bäckström is available will be a big boost to a team with a questionable defence. The Finns are a team that will need to put up points in order to win as they can’t rely on a solid defence behind them. It won’t be a big problem though as the Finns have a very good, albeit very young, group up front. Expect them to make the playoffs and make a serious run at earning another medal on the big stage.

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France

It is not the first country anyone thinks about when talking about hockey countries but France has found a place among the best teams. After a period of relegation and promotion the French have found their spot in the top tier and have stayed there. They even found their way to the playoffs in 2014, although they lost in the quarter-finals. The French are a team looking to get a much better hold on the top division and with the tournament heading to Paris next year they want to ensure that they can compete. They enter another tournament trying to gain momentum before 2017 with plenty of motivation to show that they belong in the top division. There is little doubt who will be leading this team as the first NHL player from France continues to lead from behind. Cristobal Huet was a great goalie in the NHL for the years he was there and now in Switzerland, he once again returns to his national team albeit at 40-years-old. He will get the majority of starts for the team and when a team has a good goalie it can change things. Huet won’t be intimidated by the NHL talent he has to face in most of the games in this group. In front of Huet is a defence that is fairly young which will likely give Huet a lot of work. They aren’t without talent though as Yohann Auvitu, currently playing in Liiga, and Benjamin Dieudé-Fauvel, currently in the ECHL, lead the way. Still the talent pool is not that deep for the defence which makes Huet’s performance so important. One offence the French are a mix of experience nad young talent that seems to be typical in a developing hockey nation. On one hand they have players like Philadelphia Flyer Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Julien Desrosiers, and Yorick Treille who have all been on the national team for a few years. Then there are players like 2012 Montreal draft pick Tim Bozon and Jordan Perret who are looking to make their impression on the national stage. The French have an interesting collection that only comes when a sport is beginning to reach another level. It doesn’t mean they will compete with the best teams as most wins will depend on Huet and how he plays. They are good enough to avoid relegation but likely won’t be fighting for a playoff spot this year.

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germany

They are yet another team that struggled years ago just to stay in the top division before finally solidifying their spot over the last few years. The Germans are a hockey country but they have not been able to produce the talent that many other countries have. That has kept them out of the playoffs for the last four years but the talent that they have produced have kept them out of relegation. The Germans enter another tournament trying to reach their peak which they got to in the late 2000s making the playoffs twice and just missing out on a bronze medal. They are a team with more talent than in the past and a team that is hoping that the talent on this year’s team is just the beginning. The biggest name might just be Leon Draisaitl who was the highest touted German to enter the NHL ever. He will make the trip and look to lead the offence alongside Arizona’s Tobias Rieder and the KHL’s Felix Shütz. Beyond them, there is talent but not a huge amount as they will be the big players to watch as they try to match other top lines. It is more talent than they have had in the past and that trend continues on defence. Christian Ehrhoff and Korbinian Holzer will lead the defence as the only defenceman with NHL experience. They will eat up plenty of minutes and that will be good in front of a group of younger goalies. The starting job will likely come down to Mathias Niederberger and Timo Pielmeier, currently a San Jose prospect. They will likely play an even amount of games before someone takes over the true starting role with a few good games. The Germans are in a unique spot as their team is getting better as the years move on with more talent coming from the country than ever before. That is promising for the future but right now they are still not a team with enough talent to compete with the top teams. They are sure to provide a fight to plenty of teams but in the end, they will fall short of a playoff appearance. They won’t go without a fight of course and their top talent should be good enough to beat a lot of teams but the depth simply isn’t there to roll out multiple lines like other teams can.

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Hungary

Hungary is a team just beginning to find their legs in international hockey after years sitting at much lower divisions. They will make only their second appearance in the top division of the world Championship and are hoping to make it stick this time. After spending years in the C division the Hungarians eventually found their way to Division 1 and solidified their spot there before finishing first in 2008 to earn their first chance at the top division. After being relegated the Hungarians have remained in that division until now after finishing second in Division I Group A last year. There is little chance that Hungary is going to compete for medals this year but they have a goal in mind and that is to spend one more year in the top division. This team has been built in a slightly different way though as the focus from Hungary is on the blue line first. Team captain Márton Vas leads from the blue-line as the elder statesman of the group that produces plenty of offence. Vas can get involved on offence as a forward and defenceman but the true offensive force comes from some of the younger players. Jesse Dudás has put up huge points in MOL Liga while 18-year-old prospect Peter Zsombor Garat has provided plenty of offence with his time in the U.S. high school system. The Hungarian team is going to depend greatly on this group for both sides of the game as they will be the beginning and end of any run they put together. The goaltenders will need that help as the group they are bringing lacks in world championship experience. They will lean on Miklos Rajna who helped them to the top division last year while Zoltan Hetényi returns to the national team after a year off to provide back-up. Although the defence will provide plenty of offence, the forwards will put up their own points. Krisztián Nagy and Daniel Koger have put up their own points in their respective leagues but could be relied upon to provide more secondary offence behind a good scoring defence. The Hungarians are a unique team but they are not a team with enough ways to put up enough points. Relying on their defence to score is not going to be successful as they are against teams that are too good and will likely fall back into the second division.

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Slovakia

If there is one team in this group that has a chance at shocking everyone it has to be Slovakia who has a tendency to give everyone a tough test. The Slovaks are a team that may not always have the top players in the world but they always seem to play a tough game. The team seems to come up at big moments and as a result, they have found themselves as real competitors in international tournaments like the World Championships. The Slovaks will enter another year looking to make things difficult for the best teams and if history does repeat itself they have at least one upset in them. Their tough attitude usually comes from the blue line where this year they will look to Andrej Sekera, Martin Marincin, and Andrej Meszaros to lead them. All three have seen time in the NHL and all will set the tone for the team. The Slovaks have always had a good defence and a goaltender that can play big when he needs to. That responsibility will fall on Julius Hudacek as he hopes to fall into the category of great Slovakian goaltenders. On offence, they will rely on a young group that has shown success in other major tournaments. Martin Reway, Marko Dano, and Tomas Jurco have all played in the U20 tournament and all have had success. They will be relied upon to provide offence while KHL players, Martin Bakos, Vladimir Dravecky, and Marek Bartánus all hope to provide some of their own offence. The Slovaks are a team that just won’t go away and the rising level of talent on the team continues to show that. They are getting reinforcements every year from young talent and this year that young talent will be a big part of their ability to win games. They may not be able to beat the top teams but they will be able to beat the rest of them and earn a spot in the playoffs this year. That is where things will get interesting as they are certainly a team that can surprise and make a run at a medal but as it stands right now they aren’t a medal team. They could be a team to watch for some excitement and they are getting better but in the end, they don’t have the same talent level to earn a medal this year.

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usa

The Americans enter another tournament as a team that could be ready to challenge for the medals but a team that has rarely seen much success. The Americans are not a team like Canada or Russian with a long history of success in international hockey. In fact, most of their success has come only in the last few decades as the country continues to embrace the sport. Despite that their only two gold medals have come in 1933 and 1960 as they continue to struggle to put together a good enough team in the World Championships. They are saddled with the same issues as Russia and Canada as most of their stars are in the NHL playoffs. The talent pool is simply not deep enough yet for them to get that gold medal but they are not far off. They enter another tournament looking to finally get that gold and like the Russians and Canadians they will do so with a young base. On offence, the entire hockey world will be focused on them as the projected top pick, Auston Matthews, gets a chance on the American team. He will be watched to see how he can handle the competition and the Americans will hope that he can provide a good junk of the scoring. He will be joined by a number of young players in the American system like J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor, Tyler Motte, and Miles Wood who all play in the NCAA and some of whom will play in the NHL next year. The NHL is well represented up front as well with elder statesman Matt Hendricks playing a veteran leadership role alongside Nick Foligno. The defence is a younger group as it is made up of top prospects including Noah Hanifin, Jake McCabe, and Brady Skjei while Chris Wideman may have to be the leader at 26 years old. In goal, the USA is enjoying a period of success with some great prospects making up the goalie group. That group includes Thatcher Demko, considered one of the top goalie prospects in the league, although he likely won’t see much time. Instead, Mike Condon will likely take the majority of the starts thanks to his experience in Montreal over the last few years. The Americans are going to be a team missing their biggest stars and may feel it more than their counterparts at the top of the rankings. They are sure to compete for the top spot but won’t get it and although they will likely play for a medal it probably won’t be gold.

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Prediction:
The North American group will see a classic rivalry make the difference in the fight for the top spot. Canada and the USA will fight for that spot and the Canadians will come out on top with a better all-around team than the Americans. Still the Americans will give them a fight and the big game might just be their first when they face each other in what could determine the top of the group. Behind them, the Finns are sure to push for the top spot with so much offensive talent it is hard to think they won’t take a real run at the top of the group. They will fall just short but still earn a spot in the playoffs and make a deep run through the playoffs. An interesting battle will be for the final playoff spot where Slovakia and Germany will fight for the right to play for a medal. Slovakia seems like too tough of a team to lose that fight though as they will take the final spot while Germany will come up just short. At the back of the standings will be three teams that all have a chance at taking that fall to the second division. The French team seems just good enough to stay away from the real battle at the bottom of the group but a few bad games will put them in the heart of the fight. Hungary and Belarus are two teams with good talent but not enough talent to compete at the top. They will compete for the final spot in the top division but Hungary won’t be able to get it as Belarus will stay and Hungary will fall again to the second division.

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