2018 World Juniors Preview: Group A

groupaThis is the group that everyone will be watching this year as the two biggest fan bases will be watching both in person and on TV.

There is no doubt that Canadians take this tournament seriously and that it is one of their biggest traditions every year.

Hockey in Canada is the be-all and end-all of sports and as many other sports grow the game continues to hold everyone’s imagination.

The same could be said for many of the teams in this division as places like Finland, Slovakia and Denmark are all in love with the sport.

A lot of the same traditions are held by all of these countries but for Canada things are different.

In a big country with plenty else to do and a lot of other sports, options thanks to the exposure that the country gets from the USA.

Still, the Canadians choose hockey over everything so much so that it is a part of the Canadian identity.

The other team in this group has a massive amount of options and such a widespread country provides certain opportunities for some in certain areas.

With a landscape from beaches to rocky mountains and everything in between there are certainly very different regions for Americans.

Some lend themselves to sports like basketball or football while others, like the Midwest and the Northeast, lend itself to hockey.

The USA doesn’t share that same tradition aside from these smaller areas as the entire country doesn’t have hockey running through their blood.

All of the countries in this group have some of that tradition one way or another and for many who do watch the tournament, this will be the one group that matters the most.

The Canadians are always the team that is expected to not only medal but to win gold in every tournament.

There is nothing else for them and every year they head into the tournament looking to do exactly that.

The Americans are the defending champions and are playing at home looking to win at home for the first time ever.

They are the rising team as the sport grows throughout the country they are getting better and they are back to compete with the best.

Then there is the Finns who were one of the best teams for a number of years and always seemed to be the new power.

For a number of years, they were sitting at or near the top with so much young talent that they seemed to be ready for a big run.hockey-sidebar

Last year they fell far too short of expectations but that has also been a pattern in the past and after a downturn, they usually look good which would make this year their comeback year.

For Denmark and Slovakia expectations are a little less as both countries have a proud tradition in the sport but neither have the firepower.

Both teams have also had a long tradition of launching upsets in these international tournaments.

They will try to do that again this year but both are likely to fight just to stay out of relegation rather than fighting to get a medal.

They could always surprise people and compete but they are still slotted below the top three teams in this group.

It is a group with plenty of talent as the old power looks to take the top spot against teams on the rise.

It won’t be easy for any team as going undefeated in the round robin seems unlikely for anyone.

Whoever comes out of this group of teams could be favourites as they are running through some very tough competition.

The Canadians will always put up a fight while the Americans are looking like favourites to win it all this year and take their second title in as many years.

If the Finns can bounce back they will provide a third power team to try to take out the rest while the Danes and Slovaks are always good for one surprising result.

canada

Canada is the only team that comes into this tournament every year with the exact same expectations no matter who has made the team. The idea is that the Canadians should win gold and anything other than that first place medal is a failure on the part of Hockey Canada. Things have only become tougher over the last few years though as Canada no longer has a monopoly on the sport and things are getting a lot tighter. The era of the five-peat in the World Juniors seems to be over and Canada can no longer walk through canstatseveryone in the tournament until they face the few big teams. For two straight years, the Canadians have been unable to get to that top spot. That is something that has become a lot more common in recent years but this group of Canadians is hoping to end the drought. Like every year the biggest focus on Team Canada is in net where the team has seen the tournament live or die. There is no doubt that goaltending is the key to Canadian success and it has been for years. A good goaltender can carry this team and this year they will look to a familiar face. Carter Hart is back for the second year after playing four games in the 2016-17 tournament and he will return as the clear starter this year. That experience might help Hart to be the goalie that the Canadians need to win this tournament. In front of him will be a pretty impressive group as the Canadian defence is full of players that can skate and move the puck with a great group that includes Victor Mete, Jake Bean and Cal Foote. It also might include Dante Fabbro but an injury might keep him out for the entire tournament although he could return and provide a great boost as well. Up front, the scoring is in good hands for the Canadians with Tyler Steenbergen and Jordan Kyrou both putting up more than 50 points already this year. The goal-scoring doesn’t seem like it will be a problem for this year’s Canadian team but like every year the goaltending will be key. If Hart can be the best goalie in the tournament the Canadians look good to win the gold if he struggles there might not be a medal for them this year. It seems like a good bet that the Canadians will earn a medal this year but what colour it will be could be a more challenging question.

Denmark

The Danes are not necessarily a hockey power on the international level but they have a tradition of hockey that has kept them in this top level for a while. Denmark has a reputation in these international tournaments and although it is not one of winning gold medals it is about being a tough out. For the smaller countries in this tournament often the accomplishment is about staying in this top division and being a team that can avoid relegation. That isn’t the case for the Danes who pride themselves on being one of the tougher small teams to play. They are always up for a good game and every time a bigger denstatsteam needs to play them they need to make sure they come to play. That is what the Danes bring as they are ready to play a tough style in order to try to surprise teams and make an unexpected run at a medal. To do this the Danes have always relied on a stingy defence that makes it tough to break through. With so many high powered offences their defence is extremely tough to get through and that is the plan once again. The only issue for the Danes after a fifth-place performance a year ago is that the biggest part of that stingy defence is too old to play in this tournament. Lasse Petersen was a big reason for their success in the last two years but he is gone and in his place is Kasper Krog who played in the tournament last year and will look to backstop the team to more success this year. He will play a very important role and will need to be good in order for the Danes to accomplish anything. On defence, Denmark is strong but they have had a tendency break down a bit when they face the best teams. They will look to some young talent on that side including the big body of Malte Setkov who stands at 6’6”. Up front, the Danes are a team with a lot of depth despite the ageing out of a number of other big players. They will look to Joachim Blichfield and Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup who have put up plenty of points in North America this year and will be needed. The depth is there but the team does lack that one true major game breaker which they have for a while. The Danes don’t have the scoring to match and although their defence is good it won’t be good enough for a medal but will likely stay out of relegation.

Finland

The Finns are a strange team and have been over the last few years especially when it came to the Juniors where they have been at once great and terrible. Two years ago the Finns were on the top of the Juniors taking the gold medal and continuing a tradition of evolution. They had taken a gold medal in 2014 and again in 2016 and for many, that was a sign of a new power coming to be in the hockey world. They were a team with so much young talent that they were going to be great for a very long time. They were bringing more talent into the NHL than ever before and it made their Junior teams some of thefinstats best in the world and they proved it with gold medals. The problem was that in between those gold medal performances the Finns suffered terrible losses that came entirely unexpected. Last year was one of those years as Finland dropped from a gold medal team to relegation in only a single year. They may have lost a number of really big names but nobody expected them to be fighting for their lives to stay in the top level of the tournament. That is where they ended up though and the Finns were forced into relegation just to stay among the best teams in the world. Now they return looking to save face and prove that they are still a superpower. They come into the tournament with plenty of talent again as a number of the players are among the top prospects in the NHL. On offence, they will look to Aleksi Heponiemi who is the leading scorer in the WHL so far this year. With other offensive talent like Eeli Tolvanen as well as one of this year’s top prospects in the draft, Rasmus Kupari they have the depth to score. On defence, it has been a rough year for Olli Juolevi but he will return to help lead this group from the blue line. They will get some offence from that side too as Henri Jokiharju, Eemeli Räsänen and Juuso Välimäki can all put up points. In net, they could look at Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who backstopped them to success in the U18 World Championships. The Finns are a team that has plenty of talent but they have struggled without their greatest generational players. They are hoping that it will change this time around. There is no doubt that they can get a medal this year but gold might be out of their reach.

Slovakia

Much like Denmark, the Slovakians are a team that is never quite in medal contention but is a team that can put up a fight against anyone. They have that same reputation where any game against them is far from an easy win for that team as they will push them. Much like Denmark again they do that with a concentration on goaltending and defence to make life difficult on other teams. They are a team that can be fighting to stay in the top tournament but can also fight for a medal. The range is always there for them as they are a team that can do anything in that range but will always look to challengeslostats for a medal and make things difficult for the bigger teams. This year the way to win will be the way that they always win, with great goaltending as their lack of depth has always hurt them but finding a great goaltender changes their fate. They are going to look to Dávid Hrenák to lead them for that aspect as the goaltender returns to the tournament but will serve as the most likely starter after a successful year in the NCAA. If Hrenak can make a big enough difference the Slovakians can make their way to the medal rounds. If he falls short they won’t have enough to back him up and they might be forced into the relegation round trying to stay alive. In front of Hrenak, the Slovakians will look to a fairly big group led by David Matejovic and Vojtech Zelenak while Martin Bodak hopes to provide some offensive support. Up front, they will rely on Adam Ruzicka and Marian Studenic to provide the scoring after both have been able to put up 30+ points this year in the CHL. The Slovakians are built like most of the other traditional hockey countries with a lack of talent depth. They don’t have enough depth to compete with the top teams and for this year’s Slovakia team it won’t be enough to compete for a medal this time around. They will rely too heavily on the goaltender to compete and as a result, will likely find their way to the bottom of the group and into the relegation where they will need to fight to stay in the top tournament. It could be a challenge but they will try to stay in and they could find a way to surprise some with an unexpected win but most likely they won’t be able to keep up.

usa

The Americans are a team with some very high expectations this year as they are the defending champions and they are at home in front of their own fans. It has led to the type of expectations that the Canadians have seen year after year with the only real outcome being a gold medal. If they can’t meet those expectations things will seem like a failure for the team. It is a chance for them to finally take the reins after years of USA Hockey seeming to develop into a real powerhouse but failing to be consistent. They tend to have plenty of talent but often fail to keep their runs going finding it challenging tousastats win multiple gold medals. Now they have a chance to win two in a row and they are bringing a team full of talent to the tournament to try to do just that. This year’s team looks like it can be a back-to-back winner but with so many teams that are full of talent, things are not going to be simple. The Americans bring some very potent firepower this year as the talent they have up front is some of the best in the tournament. Kailer Yamamoto is one of the smaller players in the tournament but he has a special ability to make plays to the point where he almost made the NHL this year, many think he should have. To contrast that the Americans bring 6’6” 220 lbs centre Logan Brown who can skate and put up points. Along with a number of other top scorers like Kieffer Bellows, Casey Mittelstadt and Joey Anderson this scoring depth is big. The defence might struggle this year as they won’t see some of their best players return on the blue line. That will leave Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren as the sole returnees and leaders on the defence. They will look to help a young group protect was has traditionally been a strong point for the team in net. This year those shoes will be filled by Jake Oettinger and Joseph Woll who could compete for the job until one stands out. Both are good and experienced but neither is as great a prospect as they have had in the past. The Americans have the skill and the depth but they are going to go through some very good competition in this group that will expose their weaknesses. If they can fight through that gold could be in their future but any medal seems likely for this group.

Prediction:
Group A is going to be the toughest of the two groups with three legitimate contenders in the group. For the top teams, it is all about meeting expectations as Canada, USA or Finland could all win this group if they play up to their standards. It seems more likely that USA will with the talent that they have on the team and their depth that allows anyone to pick up the slack. Canada will be the next in line as they are a talented team with slightly less depth while the Finns will be able to bounce back but not enough to get to the top. At the bottom, the Danes seem to have enough talent to stay out of relegation while the Slovakians will struggle and find themselves at the bottom of the group.

groupa-prediction

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