2017 World Juniors: Group A Preview

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The last time that the two biggest hockey markets in the world hosted the finals the playoffs were held in Toronto.

This time around it will be in Montreal where the history of the game is embedded in the roots of the city.

There is no city with a greater history of the game as the Canadiens are the oldest professional hockey team in the world.

They are written all over the history books of the NHL as one of the founding members and the most winningest team in the league.

The city is in love with hockey, although that love affair is more so with the Canadiens than with the game as a whole, and it is a worthy host for the tournament.

It must be an interesting thing for these young players as not all of them will get to play at the Bell Centre ever again.

Not everyone that enters this tournament is considered a top draft prospect for the NHL and some aren’t even considered NHL prospects at all.

There are certainly many that will find their way to the NHL but there is no chance that all of them will make it which means for some of the Europeans this will be the first and only time they get to play in an NHL arena.

The NHL is after all the be all and end all of the hockey world and every player grows up wanting to play in the league.

No matter where you are in the world the NHL is always the goal and the best players around the world will get a taste of the NHL life.

They will get to play in one of the Mecca’s of hockey in Montreal where the Canadiens play and in front of NHL-size crowds.

It will be a dream come true for many of the players and although they may not see the top of the heap in their futures they get to play in one of the theatres of the league.

It will be a great experience for many but they will all be looking to remain in Montreal the entire tournament and take home the gold medal for this year.

Group A is an interesting as the power teams seem to have all found their way to the group in Toronto.

Canada, Russia and the USA will all be in Group B making Group A one with a few spots to make the playoffs.

The obvious battle in this group will be between two of the best rivals in international hockey.

Finland and Sweden have had plenty of battles for important titles in the world of international hockey.

They have not had the same success in the Juniors but their time seems to have arrived as the Finns are the defending champion.

The Swedes took their last title in 2012 and there are more great players coming from Scandinavia every year.

This year the Finns will try to defend their title but the Swedes are looking like a team to watch.

That battle will be the biggest part of the group for the entire tournament as both teams will try to get the best match-up possible to make it to the medal rounds.

The Czech Republic will try to recapture some of their glory by finding their way into that battle but they might have a long way to go.hockey-sidebar

The other Scandinavian country in the tournament, Denmark, will try to throw themselves into the battle at the top and surprise everyone.

Meanwhile, Switzerland tries to take their brand of hockey and shock most people by competing this time around.

At first look, this group seems like an easy one to call as Finland and Sweden are easy picks to take the top two spots in the group.

It would be a shock if any of the others competes for the top meaning this might be a battle to stay out of relegation.

The three teams might just be competing against themselves in order to get a date with one of the big teams from Group A.

That is what this could turn out to be although there is always room for a surprise.

If one of the other three teams could take a key win they might be able to fight for that top spot but that doesn’t seem like they will.

The Scandinavia rivalry will define this group and the winner of that rivalry this week could be headed to a gold medal performance.

Czech-Republic

The Czech Republic used to be one of the top teams in the world as they continued to produce great talent. That time seems to have passed though as they have been overtaken by other European countries and have not been able to keep up with the Canadians and the Russians. What was once a powerhouse has turned into more of a question mark every year that they return to the tournament. Last year the promise was there as they had a team that many thought would bring them back to contention. They certainly were better giving some teams a tough run and making it look like they could compete. They couldn’t do it though as they made the playoffs but lost their playoff game to the USA 7-0. It wasn’t what they were hoping for but they were trending in the right direction and they hope to continue that trend this year. They will be led from the net this time around as Boston Bruins prospect Daniel Vladař will likely be the starter for the entire tournament. He will be key to their success this year as the rest of his team may suffer from some depth issues. On defence, there are plenty of good pairings with Jakub Zboril and Libor Hájek leading the pack for a good defensive corps. On offence, the Czechs will see a number of CHL players representing them with Filip Chlapik leading the way after putting up 20 goals in the QMJHL this year. Adam Musil, Tomas Soustal, Simon Strasky, and Michael Spacek will all represent the CHL with the Czechs. A lot of people will be watching Martin Nečas who is one of the top-rated prospects in next year’s draft and could provide some extra depth. That is what the Czechs lack though because their top lines are great but the rest are just ok. When going against teams that have stars in four lines it can be a big issue but the Czechs will make the playoffs and likely will end up third behind the two bigger teams thanks to their great defence.

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Denmark

In international hockey, Scandinavia has been a producer of some of the top talent in the NHL but the Danes are almost the forgotten part of that equation. While Finland and Sweden fight it out to be the best of the region the Danes are fighting to be relevant. They are improving and although they are nowhere near the level of their bigger neighbours the talent level is getting better. Last year the Danes continued a strong progression as they won their first game in regulation and made the playoffs for the second year in a row. They were no longer looking at relegation as a certainty in their tournament and as they enter another year they hope to keep it going. They will try to grow their program with another year in the playoffs as they hope to compete regularly with the top teams. Last year the concern was over the loss of some great players that moved on to the NHL but they made due and this year much of the team returns. Captain Alexander True will lead the way hoping to get noticed by scouts after being passed over in the draft. He will be joined by NHL draftees Mathias From, Nikolai Kraig-Christensen, and Joachim Blichfeld and goaltender Lasse Petersen who all return this year. All will be a very important part of this team as the offence will run through True, From, and Kraig-Christensen. Meanwhile, Lasse will try to hold down the fort in the net which will be the toughest part of this team. The knock on the Danes has been their lack of defence in putting too much pressure on their goaltenders. When they face great teams that pressure can be relentless and no matter how great their goalie is they can’t withstand that attack. There are not stand-out defenceman on the team but they will be a big part of the team and how well this team does. Another playoff run is not out of the question but competing for a medal isn’t very likely.

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Finland

There is no doubt that the Finns are one of the best international teams in the world right now and they continue to produce. It goes back to the golden years of Finnish hockey when massive stars began to rise through the ranks and take over the NHL. That hasn’t quite happened yet but the same pattern seems to be happening. Last year the Finns came into the tournament with one of the best players they had ever seen in Patrik Laine. He is now taking over the NHL as the top scoring rookie and following a number of good prospects in the league. With Laine, the Finns were able to take over the tournament and took the gold medal home. They won’t have Laine this time around but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a talented team with great prospects leading the way. On offence, Eeli Tolvanen is gaining comparisons to Laine for his offensive prowess and is one of the top prospects in next year’s draft. He doesn’t seem to be as good but he is certainly going to be a massive part of the offence for the Finns. He is still the youngest on the team though and returning members Julius Nättinen, Petrus Palmu, and Kasper Björkqvist will all act as leaders for this team while they let the young guns take over. They won’t be too bad on the blue line either as captain Olli Juolevi returns alongside top defensive prospect Miro Heiskanen. Behind them, Veini Vehviläinin will return as the backstop after starting four games in last year’s tournament. The Finns are a team with plenty of talent throughout the roster and with many players returning they are an experienced group. They may not have their superstar back but they continue to produce great players that will likely make them a tough team. The playoffs are almost a given for them and a medal could be in their future but the colour is a question as they could win gold again but they also might end without a medal altogether.

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Sweden

The Swedes are a country that, much like their neighbours, have produced a tonne of top NHL talent. Yet when it comes to the international game the Swedes are begin overshadowed by their biggest rivals. The Finns are taking over quickly while the Swedes are sinking to second fiddle in their region and that includes the World Juniors. After winning the gold in 2012 the Swedes have had a steady fall down the rankings with two silvers and then two straight bronze medal losses. After last year’s bronze medal loss things needed to change and Sweden will enter a new era with a new coach and an almost entirely new team. By all accounts, the talent is there this year as it could be the year that the Swedes come back to earn a medal. They will have to fight a very talented Finnish team but they seem to be able to match them. On offence, the Swedes are happy to have Alexander Nylander back from the AHL as he will lead the scoring push. He won’t be alone with a team full of speed and some experience as Joel Eriksson Ek will return as the captain while Tim Söderland and Lias Andersson will all play important roles and have all impressed so far. There are a number of lines on the team that have already proven that the team has a new level of talent. On defence, the excitement is coming from Rasmus Dahlin who was so impressive that at 16-years old he played himself onto the team to become the youngest to ever make a Swedish U20 team. There will be a lot of eyes on him while Jacob Larsson leads the group. In net, Felix Sandström will look to try to continue the reputation of solid goaltending. The Swedes are a younger team than usual this year as they are looking more to prospects to help them, although they left off their top prospect. That could be a factor but they will make the playoffs and could take the top spot in the group while they play for a medal this year.

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Switzerland

The Swiss were prepared to play in the playoffs last year with a better team than they had put together in recent years. They were a team full of NHL prospects and they looked like they could do some damage this time around. For the Swiss, the goal was never going to be to win a medal but making the playoffs and making an impact would have been the best result. Then they met the Danes and lost that all-important game forcing them to relegation against Belarus. They won two straight games against Belarus to stay in the top division this time around and they will hope to make good on their potential before it’s too late. This year the talent remains good as they are a smaller program getting better as the year’s go on. They will look to their captain Calvin Thürkauf alongside Philipp Kurashev, Marco Miranda and top prospect Nico Hischier who have all shown scoring prowess recently. This new era of Swiss is producing better offence and they will try to continue that process with these new offensive players. On defence, the Swiss continue a tradition of big bodies patrolling the blue line. Led by Jonas Siegenthaler, the only returning defenceman, the Swiss have always been a team that plays tough on defence and stands up the rush on the line. Behind that great defence will be returnee goaltender Joren van Pottelberghe who started all six games for the Swiss last year. The Swiss are a good team just like last year but their challenge will be whether or not they have the talent level to compete with the deepest team in the tournament. They are certainly better but they are still going to be fighting to stay out of the relegation rather than fighting for a medal. They will need to beat the Danes if they want to stay in the top division although it is a tough task with the Danes only getting better along with everyone else and the biggest game for both teams will be when they meet.

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Prediction:
Group A is not going to be an interesting one as the group is without the biggest powers in the tournament. Finland and Sweden are sure to fight for the top spot in the group as they are clearly the most talented teams in the group. Who wins first is a toss-up though as they are both talented and they will try to get back to the gold medal. Beyond that, it is somewhat wide open as the Czechs look like a good team but they have faltered in recent years. Denmark and Switzerland could rise up if they can get some key wins although they will likely fight each other to stay out of relegation.

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