2017 IIHF World Championship: Group B Preview

groupb

There is a clear target in Group B and although there are some top teams like in Group A there is one that has been a target since the World Championships began.

Canada is the country of hockey, it is where the sport was born and since the beginning of the sport, there has been a constant stream of talent coming out of the country.

It is the national sport and no matter what tournament they are a part of the expectation is that they will win gold.

The goal has never just been to compete for gold but to win gold because that is the standard in Canada when it comes to this sport.

For Canadians, it never matters who is a part of the team but rather that a team of people who have played the sport their entire lives through one of the best national systems is on the ice.

They met these expectations for a very long time as there was really no other country that could compete with them.

The only team out there that had a chance was Russia and both teams put on great shows as the rest of the world tried to play catch up.

With the world getting better Canada has not been as dominant over the last decade but they are still consistently in the hunt for the gold in every tournament.

That hasn’t changed the expectations of the Canadian fans though as every year they enter the World Championship or any other tournament they are expected to win.

They have done that in the last two years as the Canadians are the two-time world champions and are entering another tournament with their chance to get the three-peat.

Much like the other years, they won’t necessarily bring their best players to the tournament as they are all playing in the NHL playoffs.

The depth of the country though is the true test of how good they can be and for the last two years, they were the best in the world.

In 2017 they enter as the odds on favourite but their group will try to have something to say about that.

That dominance that the Canadians have had for as long as they have had it puts a target on their back in every international tournament.

It is not only for the good teams that are actually closing in or have closed in on the talent level of the Canadians but also for every team in the tournament.

Teams like Finland are expected to compete with the Canadians and winning against Canada is not entirely a strange concept.

In fact, the Finns are the fastest rising program in the sport and winning has become an expectation over the last few years.hockey-sidebar

They will enter the tournament as the one team in the group with a legitimate chance at unseating the Canadians.

Whereas the Finns are expected to compete the rest of the teams are just looking at Canada as a hill to climb.

There is talent in this group but the teams are not nearly as great as Canada and Finland are.

So for teams like Belarus, Slovenia, France and Norway simply competing against the Canadians is an accomplishment in itself.

It is a barometer for just how good the team is because pushing the powerhouse or even beating them can be a massive boost for a program.

So when the Canadians enter the tournament they are the team with a target on their back because every team wants to test themselves against Canada.

They have dealt with this exact thing before and will continue to do so as long as they are in major tournaments.

They will try to get through it as every team will give them their best game and through it all they will look to get the gold medal.

Their biggest test could be Finland as both teams are expected to compete for medals this time around.

Beyond them, it is a bit more of a toss-up as the Czech Republic is likely the next best team, but they have not been a power for years now.

Slovenia will look to stick around while Belarus tries to do the same both hoping to avoid relegation.

They get into relegation or compete for the playoffs alongside tournament hosts France along with Norway and Switzerland.

With only a small number of truly top tier teams in Group B, the battle will be an interesting one to make the playoffs.

Belarus

Belarus was a team that constantly struggled to stay in the top tier but lately, they have found their stride. They did take a step back in 2016 after finishing in the top ten two years in a row they just missed relegation. It still kept them in the top tier though and they will look to take advantage with a playoff appearance. As with most years, the Belarusians are not necessarily the most skilled team in the tournament lacking depth at most positions. The team will once again rely on the Kostitsyn brothers to produce as Andrei and Sergei are the most experienced players on the team. They both account for the majority of NHL experience and now as a part of the KHL, they are still the two leaders of Belarus. Along with Artyom Demkov and Andrei Stepanov, the Belarusians do have scoring talent but there is little beyond this group. To win against the better teams they will need to get better performances from the rest of the group. On defence the team is pretty young as a new generation of defenders will look to solidify the position. Vladimir Denisov is the elder statesman of the group at 32 while Roman Graborenko is their best blueliner after spending some time in the NHL with New Jersey. The youngster of the group is Pavel Vorobey who at 19 hopes to prove that he has earned a spot on the big team in his first World Championship. As with any of the teams fighting to stay out of relegation, Belarus will loo to their net for a lot of support. Canadian-born Kevin Lalande will be that support as the sole goalie with World Championship experience, he has been on the last three Belarusian teams. Lalande will need to have a great tournament if they hope to compete as a great goalie performance can make all of the difference. Belarus is a team that has now established themselves in the top tier but they are hoping to make that step towards consistent playoff performer. With this group, the chances are great that they might make it as it is not as strong and they could compete for that final playoff spot.

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canada

The Canadians enter the 2017 tournament as the favourites to win, but that is nothing new to them, the bigger question is whether they can meet those expectations. Canada will always bring one of the most talented teams to the tournament but they have had issues coming together at times and sometimes simply not playing to their potential. More often than not this team has an easy time in the round robin and sometimes it can lull them into sleep and before they know it they are out of the tournament. The last two years they avoided that and now they try for the three-peat with a team lacking their best players but full of some of the best young NHL talent. The scoring depth on offence could be devastating for other teams with players like Wayne Simmonds, Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier bringing a physical style that gives other teams issues. They also bring speed and skill with players like Matt Duchene, Claude Giroux, Nathan MacKinnon and the top scorer of the team this year Mark Scheifele. Mitch Marner adds yet another top threat in his first world tournament, but his size and his first full season in the NHL could slow him down. On defence, the group is led by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who at only 30 is the most experienced of all the blueliners. With players like Tyson Barrie and Calvin De Haan, it is a good mix of scoring and defensive minded play. Behind these young defenders will be a fairly inexperienced group as Chad Johnson will serve as the start and Calvin Pickard the back-up but between the two they have played in five World Championship games. Both are good goaltenders but if they falter that could be the difference for the Canadians with every team looking for the once weakness to beat this team. They still have the depth that most teams wish for and they can win in multiple ways with the talent that is on the roster this year. Whether they can come together as a team in time is the question and although a playoff spot is all but guaranteed a medal is no certainty.

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Czech-Republic

The Czechs are a bit of a strange team especially over the last few years as a new generation of players is beginning to come through while the old generation walks away. They had always been one of the powers of international hockey but when the generation that brought them to that status began to retire from international hockey there wasn’t a lot to replace them. Now they are a team with some young stars but still without the depth of the other powers in the tournament. Last year they surprised everyone when they rose to the top of their group after beating Russia and Sweden. The run didn’t last too long though as they took a loss to the USA in the quarter-finals and failed to compete for a medal. As they enter a new tournament they hope to show that it was no fluke and that the Czechs are ready for a resurgence. A key factor in that resurgence will be Petr Mrazek who last played in the World Championship in 2012. With the Detroit playoff streak broken he is free to play for his home country and with plenty of development since 2012, he can be a big difference for this team. They will look to him to help push them over the top and get into the medal hunt. In front of him is a young group led by NHLers, Radko Gudas and Michal Kempny who hope to take most of the minutes for this team and help out their goalies. That pairing is a good one and while there is other talent on the blue line they will likely be heavily relied upon. Up front, the Czechs will look to David Pastrnak who had a break-out year in Boston and could be one of the focal points of the team. He will have help with veterans like Tomas Plekanec, Jakub Voracek and Roman Cervenka who have all been playing for the Czechs for years. The Czechs are a team that doesn’t have the most depth but with good players, in key positions, they might make a run. Expect them to make the playoffs but a medal will only come if certain players can play above and beyond expectations.

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Finland

It has been one of the biggest stories in international hockey as the Finns are beginning to take over. With three medals, two silver and a gold, in the last three U18 tournaments, two gold medals in the last three Junior tournaments and two silver medals in the last three World Championships they are one of the best teams in the world right now. As these results suggest they may only be getting better as the best part of this system is the young talent. As they enter the 2017 World Championships they will have a mix of young and veteran talent but there is no doubt that the young players will drive this team. Their best young player will not be headed to the tournament as Calder Trophy nominee, Patrik Laine will skip the tournament after his rookie NHL season. They still have a lot of scoring depth though as Sebastian Aho put up 49 points in the NHL this year while Mikko Rantanen stands as a key piece to the future of Colorado. They will also look to Jesse Puljujarvi who spent his season in the AHL after being selected 4th overall last year by Edmonton. These young stars will look to veteran NHLer Valtteri Filppula as the leader but the scoring will come from their young corps. On the blue line, the pipeline of talent is a little less for the Finns but they will still see first round pick Julius Honka in his first World Championships. Meanwhile, international stars like veteran Lasse Kukkonen and Topi Jaakola will serve as leaders from the back. In net, the Finns will be a little less solid as they are without their top netminders. They will likely look to their youngest netminder in Joonas Korpisalo or the only goalie with any World Championship experience in Joni Ortio, who played three games in 2013. They are all talented goalies with ties to the NHL but without their best goalies, it could be a vulnerability this year. The Finns are still one of the top teams and they will ride their momentum into what they hope is another medal. They will make the playoffs but a medal might not be in the cards due to their goaltending questions.

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France

France is playing a unique role this year as they are not only in the tournament for the 10th straight year, the longest stretch for any French team, but they will also be playing hosts. They are far from a powerhouse but hockey in the country is gaining some ground and with a few NHL players they are looking to launch a massive surprise in front of a home crowd. The development of this team has everything to do with one of the stalwarts of the French team in Cristobal Huet. He was one of the first major French success in the NHL when he was drafted in 2001 by the Los Angeles Kings and then found a home in Montreal and Chicago where he helped both teams to the playoffs and won a Stanley Cup in 2010 as the back-up in Chicago. At 41 Huet is just about ready to end his time in the sport but he returns for this tournament in his home country. It will be his last tournament but for a team like France, he will serve as a very important piece as they need the goalie to play at a different level to have a shot. With a home crowd behind him, he might be able to reach that level and go out with a great tournament. In front of him will be a slightly older group but one that has helped this team to their consistent status in the top tier. That includes Yohan Auvitu who spent time in the NHL this year and big bodies Jonathan Janil and Antonin Manavian. Up front, the French will lean on their two latest NHL products as Antoine Russel will need to be a big producer this year alongside Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They will also need players like Anthony Rech, Laurent Meunier and Loic Lamperier, all with over 40 points in their respective leagues this year, to carry some of the load. The French team is not at the level of some of the best teams but with the home crowd they might just get to that extra level and have their best tournament, although a medal is not very likely.

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norway

Norway is one of the more traditional hockey markets but as a small country, they have had a hard time producing top-level talent. They are one of the few teams stuck in the middle for these World Championships as they are not fighting relegation but also find it tough to make the playoffs. Last year they came just short despite a good round robin where they at least kept it close against the top teams. They need to start winning more consistently though and in 2017 they hope to find that consistency in a group with teams that they should compete against. It will be a bit more of a challenge without their top player in Mats Zuccarello, who is currently playing for New York in the NHL playoffs. Without him, the Norwegians will look to more local players like Patrick Thorensen who had a great year in the Swiss league putting up 45 points. He will need to take that good year into the tournament where the Norwegians will need his playmaking ability. They will also look to their only other active NHL player in Andreas Martinsen to help produce more scoring. The defence is a smaller group but they will also bring some offence to the team with a few players that can put up points. Jonas Holos, Daniel Sorvik and Alexander Bonsaksen have all put up points in their respective leagues this past year and could provide a boost for Norway. They will also need to tap into their defensive abilities though as they will take on some teams with endless attacks and leaving their goalies out to dry is not a great strategy. In net, the Norwegians look to some familiar faces in Lars Haugen who started most of the games last year and Steffen Soberg who played a backup role in 2016. They will need to be good to prevent big scores this year but they both have the talent to help the team out. The Norwegians are a good team and the playoffs could be in their future but they will need to fight to get there while the medals are out of the reach for another year.

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4416__slovenia-primary-2016

Slovenia has long been a team that many believe should be better but they can never really stick their spot in the top tier of the tournament. They are one of the smaller countries in the tournament with very few hockey players to choose from but for that, they have a lot of talent. They continue to travel up and down the levels of the World Championships unable to stay among the top tier in the tournament. Last year they almost ran the table in Division I-A to earn their promotion and now they enter another top tier tournament with a realistic goal in mind. For them, this year is all about trying to stay in this top tier of the tournament and avoid the relegation round. They can do it but it is not automatic as they will need to find a different level this time around if they want to stay in the top tier. It will be a bit of a challenge without the best player from Slovenia in Anze Kopitar but they will need to move on from the Kings captain. The player that will likely try to take over is last year’s Division I-A MVP, Jan Urbas who will try to translate that success into a new tournament. Alongside Robert Sabolic, who put up 44 points in the KHL, the Slovenians have some scoring talent. They will also get some support from their defence with Matic Podlipnik and Klemen Pretnar both putting up around 30 points this season in their respective leads. With these two helping on offence the Slovenians will see an older group that includes 35-year-old Ales Kranjc and 34-year-old Mitja Robar who have been a part of this team for a long time and are hoping to keep them in the top tier. In net, the Slovenians will rely on youth in the form of Luka Gracnar who played the majority of the games last year to help them into the top tier despite being the youngest netminder on the roster. The Slovenians have talent and they are in the right group but they will still need to get some key wins to stay out of relegation.

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Switzerland

If this group has a theme it is that there are a number of teams that sit among the good teams but not the great teams. Switzerland is one of those teams as they are another team that will look to the playoffs as their goal. They have thrown surprises the way of a lot of teams including in 2013 when they rose all the way to the silver medal. That was their first medal since the 1950s and they haven’t been much closer since then. They remain in the middle of the pack as they avoid relegation regularly but they can’t seem to find their way back into the hunt for the medals. They will try to do so with a team made up almost entirely of Swiss league players and a few players from North America. The offensive leader of the team will be Denis Holenstein who put up 44 points in the NLA this year. He will look for support from Tampa Bay prospect Tanner Richard and Florida Panthers prospect Denis Malgin. Along with other NLA stars, they have some scoring depth but it doesn’t match the depth of the more traditionally great teams. On defence the Swiss look to former NHL star Raphael Diaz as the leader alongside another defenceman Philippe Furrer both who have played in these tournaments before. Another NHL prospect in Dean Kukan will look to add some scoring help as well. In net, the Swiss will likely look to Jonas Hiller as the former Anaheim and Calgary goalie is the most talented in the group. If he can play like he has been known to he might just be the difference in this tournament for the Swiss. They will not be in the relegation conversation but like so many more in the group, they will need to fight to make the playoffs. With Hiller in net, they could make it there but he will need to step up in a big way as the group has plenty of potential playoff teams but only a few will make it. Beyond the playoffs, they won’t see the medals again this year with better teams out there.

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Prediction:
The Group is an interesting one as the top teams seem like they will easily take the top spots but beyond that, there is a lot up in the air. Canada and Finland are clearly the class of this group and will take the top two spots in the group. Canada will come out on top in this round but Finland is not going to go down easily. After them, the Czechs are still looking good enough to earn the third spot and although they won’t beat the top two teams they will have an easier time than the rest. The biggest battle will be for that final spot as any of the remaining teams could get there. Switzerland might have just what they need to get over but Slovenia Norway and France could all challenge. Belarus will sink to the bottom in the fight as they will once again travel to Division I and look to get back next year.

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