2018 World Championship: Group A Preview

groupaThis year Group A might take on a different look as the battle might not be as much for the top spot as it is to stay out of the bottom.

Every tournament brings in a new host of questions but there have always been massive divisions in international hockey.

Although there is plenty to watch throughout every tournament each year there is still some clear divisions.

Certain teams will always be the favourites to head to the medal rounds while a number of others will fight just to be relevant.

In Group A this year there are only really two teams that can truly be considered favourites to win the tournament.

Russia and Sweden are very likely to be the teams fighting for the top spot in the group as they have always been great teams.

It would be a pretty surprising thing if they weren’t the top two teams in the group at the end of the round robin.

The one team that could throw a wrench in those plans would be the Czechs who have always been a solid team but struggle to stay at the top.

The rest of the group doesn’t seem likely to challenge these teams making this group one where teams might be fighting more to stay out of the bottom.

Belarus is used to that fight as they are often in the bottom while Austria is making an appearance after being promoted last year.

France was a surprise last year while Slovakia and Switzerland could go anywhere from near the playoffs to the bottom of the rankings.

It is a group made up of teams that seem more likely to be fighting for the bottom of the division rather than the top.

That could be the fun of this group as the fight to stay in the top division could be the best fight among these teams.

Either way, there will be a battle in Group A whether it’s between the top teams or the bottom teams leaving a lot to watch.

Austria

The Austrians are making their first appearance in the top division since 2015 when they failed to win a game on their way to the bottom of the rankings. Alongside Slovenia, they were sent down to Division IA where they struggled in 2016 sitting in the middle of the division. Last year they were able to find their way to the top of the division and earned their spot in the top tier. The Austrians have a pretty good history in the World Championship but it has been a long time since they were able to have any success. The austrialast time the Austrians took home a medal was in 1947 when they won their second bronze medal. Since that time it has been a constant battle just to stay in the top division year after year as they are often in the fight to avoid relegation. This year they head into a new tournament with hopes that they can stay up and they are in a group that provides that opportunity. The Austrians will likely not compete against the Swedes or Russians and will have a tough time against the Czechs and the Slovakians. Every other team gives them a shot to take an important win but they will need to have some great performances from their biggest names to do that. The biggest name for the Austrians is one of the few Austrians playing in the NHL as the team will look to Michael Raffl to try to help them produce. He hasn’t been the most potent scorer in the NHL but his 22 points are good enough for him to be one of the best players on the team. They will also look to Brian Lebler who was one of the top scorers in the EBEL this past season. On defence this team is a small one with only one player over 6’1”, that being the 6’4” Mario Altmann. That could provide some challenges against some bigger teams who like to play physically. Like any team in their situation, they will look to their goaltending to lead them as veteran Bernhard Starkbaum tries to stand up and steal a few games. There is a chance that they can win a game or maybe two and stay out of relegation but their undersized defence could be an issue against teams in this group.

Belarus

The Belarussians are back for another year as they continue to survive as they have avoided relegation since 2003 remaining in the top division since 2005. It is a great accomplishment for a team known for being regularly in the bottom teams throughout most international tournaments. Yet they have earned an almost permanent spot in the top division of the biggest tournament and it seems to be having an effect on the development of the sport in the country. With the recent success in these tournaments, at belarusleast relative to their usual spot, they are beginning to see more players come through and make an impact. It will reflect in the team that they put together for 2018 and they are hoping that it can put them into the playoffs rather than keeping them fighting for their lives in the top division. When looking at the defence the youth movement is clear as there is only one player over 30 years old, veteran leader Vladislav Denisov. The majority of the group is under 25 leaving some major questions about how this young group can hold up against the best in the world. The offence will also look to some young talent to help them as 19-year-olds Maxim Sushko and Yegor Sharangovich are two of the most potent offensive talents on the team. Sushko was able to put up 60 points in the OHL this year while Sharangovich is likely to be taken in the 2018 NHL Draft after time in the KHL. The offence will have a few more veterans in the group as Yevgeni Kovyrshin will enter his 9th tournament and Olexander Materukhin enters his 9th tournament, although first with Belarus. In the theme of the tournament for the lower ranked team, Belarus will need their goalie to step up. A young group makes up the goaltenders as well but Vitali Trus will take the majority of the games after posting a 1.91 GAA this year in the Belarussian league. The Belarussians are a team that has found their way to a somewhat permanent spot in the top tiers. They are hoping to continue that trend this year and in this group have a possibility of remaining among the best in the world. They will struggle against the best teams, although they have been known to surprise a few teams, but will likely be able to stay out of the bottom although playoffs aren’t very likely.

Czech-Republic

The Czech Republic has always been among the top teams in the world when it comes to hockey but in the last few years, things have not been going as planned. The Czechs have a long history of being able to play with the best in the world but the depth of the talent in the country has been a problem over the last few years. They are trying to find their way back and although the depth of talent still isn’t back to the old days they are getting better. This year they head into the tournament hoping to keep climbing their way back to the top of the heap. The hope is that the team they put together full of players in their czechrepublicprime can help them get back and compete at the top of the group. This roster is a mix of players playing in the Czech league as well as major leagues throughout the world. There are NHL stars and young prospects along with KHL players and most are part of a younger group that is beginning to carry the load for the team and get them back into the top of these tournaments. The offence is led by a trio of NHLers including the veteran presence, Tomas Plekanec and young stars Radek Faksa and Dmitrij Jaskin. Adding one of the top prospects in the NHL to the mix in Filip Chytil and a number of others KHL players gives them pretty good depth up front. On the blue line, Radko Gudas leads the way alongside Michal Jordán and Adam Polasek it is a good group. That defence is also very young and could provide some holes as they try to climb up the standings. The goaltending will be a big part of that if the young defence can’t figure things out quickly and they could have a solid group. Pavel Francouz looks like the starter to begin this tournament after a good year in the KHL and if he can keep it up he will make up for any mistakes. The Czechs could be finding their feet on the international stage once again with a solid team this year. They will likely compete with the top teams but won’t be able to come out on top. Making the playoffs from this group seems likely but beyond that, a medal is going to be hard to come by against deeper teams.

France

The French had a big tournament a year ago as they were playing hosts to a tournament that isn’t necessarily their strong suit. The French have never been known as a hockey country but they have been able to find a home at the top level of the tournament over the last few years. Last year they were seeing more focus than ever as they were determined not to get embarrassed in front of their home crowd. That determination worked out for the home teams as they surprised a lot of people with some key wins. franceThey battled right until the end of the tournament trying to find their way into the playoffs but they just missed out. It was one of their best showings in the World Championship and now they are trying to build on that in a new year. It will be tough for the team as they are going to be without some of their best talent for this year’s tournament. With Pierre-Edouard Bellemare still in the playoffs, Antoine Roussel recovering from an injury and Cristobal Huet retiring from the game, the team is starting from a deficit. They will still be looking to make an impression this time around and will do so with a solid group. Charles Bertrand leads the way on offence after a good year in Finland while a young rising star in Alexandre Texier looks to show that he belongs among the top talent. Beyond them, the team is not overly deep with talented players. The defensive group will be led by Edmonton’s Yohann Auvitu and veteran Kevin Hecquefeuille they are again not a very deep group. In net, the veteran presence is gone leaving Sebastian Ylönen to lead the way and fill some big shoes. The French are a team that can struggle with their top talent as the depth of the team is not good enough to compete. Without them, it is going to be even tougher for the French to repeat their performance for a year ago. It won’t mean they won’t find their way to next year’s tournament as they will likely stay in the top division for another year, continuing their time among the best teams in the world.

Russia

The Russians are the picture of what every team in this group wants to be as they continue to churn out talent into the top leagues in the world. They are one of the best teams in any tournament that they are a part of and often are favourites to win it all every year. Still, they have issues with their consistency in tournaments as they have all of the talent but struggle to consistently compete. Last year they brought a great team to the World Championship but they failed on expectations only coming away with a russiabronze. Of course, for most teams that is a great accomplishment but for a team like the Russians bronze is not what they wanted to come away with in any tournament. The expectation every year is to come back with the gold medal and they consistently have the talent to do that but the question will remain if they can actually make good on that talent. Like every year this team is full of talent from the NHL and the KHL with a lot of offensive firepower. There are the young stars still coming through the rankings as one of the best in the world including Yevgeni Dadonov and Nikita Soshnikov. They will also have some of the older veterans like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk who is likely using this tournament as the last audition to get back to the NHL. The development in recent years for the Russians has been a number of great defensive players. They will look to show off that talent with one of the main leaders of that group Nikita Zaitsev making his return to the national stage after his Maple Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs. That defence is strengthened by a constant supply of good goaltending. This year it will likely be Ilya Sorokin leading the way in the net after showing up big time in his two games a year ago. The Russians are a team with a lot of depth and that depth will show through especially with the potential reinforcements that could appear depending on how the NHL playoffs work out. The question will always remain the same though as the Russians have a tendency to falter in big tournaments and many wonder if they can get over that this year. The team has the potential to win the gold but they will need to shake off their issues to get there.

Slovakia

Slovakia has a bit of a strange history with the World Championship as they are a team that everyone worries about yet they rarely find their way to the medal rounds. They are not the strongest or the deepest teams but for some reason, their style of play seems to clash with even the best teams in the tournament. The team can often find themselves playing in important games thanks to some major upsets in every major tournament but last year was not one of those. They struggled throughout their group stage and failed to slovakiamake the playoffs. Although they are not always the strongest teams they have somewhat cemented their spot in the top division and don’t often fight to stay out of relegation. After a poor tournament in 2017, they will try to rebound in 2018 and find that signature style in order to upset some teams and find their way to the playoffs again. The offence of the team will need to step up if they want to find their way back to the playoffs this year and they will look to a few key players to do that. Ladislav Nagy is the elder statesman of the group as the 38-year-old has long been one of the top players for the Slovakians. He continues to put up points in the Slovakian league and will be a key part to this offence. They will also be looking to Tomas Jurco to get out of his slum pas he was once a promising prospect. He has struggled to find his way to the NHL but the Slovakians will need him to produce in order to get back into the playoffs. The defence has always been an interesting group as they are often a big group although this year they are more of a mix. Andrej Sekera will lead the way while they will hope that Martin Fehérváry can step up as one of the top-rated prospects in the 2018 NHL draft. The goaltending has always been a bit of a strength for the Slovakians but an inexperienced group will be a question. Denis Godla has performed well on the international stage in the World Juniors but beyond that, there aren’t many big tournaments that these goalies have been a part of right now. The Slovakians are used to surprising a few people this year and if they can they could be fighting for a playoff spot far away from the poor performance of a year ago.

Sweden

The Swedes are much like the Russians in that they are constantly watched as one of the best teams in any international tournament. They will act as the biggest test for the Russians in this group with the power to beat them and take first place. Last year they were able to rise right to the top of the tournament and take the gold medal away from the Canadians. It was their tenth gold medal and their first medal of any colour after they were unable to find their way to the final games in the previous two tournaments. swedenAs they head into a new year they seem like they might have reloaded and put together as good if not a better team than a year before. It is a team full of top-level talent and it is going to be one that is hard to beat. Much of the talent is up front as they have a load of players in their prime all determined to sit on top of the world rankings for another year. This past year Rickard Rakell put up plenty of points in the NHL and the Swedes will look to him to continue that pace. He won’t be alone as Mikael Backlund, Adrian Kempe, Gustav Nyquist and young prospect Elias Pettersson will all provide points to help the Swedes get back. The Swedes are also becoming one of the best places to find defensive talent and although the top prospect won’t be there this time around they still have a lot of talent on the blue line. Oliver Ekman Larsson leads the way alongside John Klingberg and Adam Larsson that are just the top of a deep group. In net, the job is slightly easier with the defence that they have in front of them. Anders Nilsson will be the starter for most of the tournament and will look to keep a long tradition of good goaltending alive. The Swedes are a good group for another year and it would be a shock if they aren’t in the medals again this year. The gold is in their sights again although they will need everything to go right once again this year.

Switzerland

The Swiss are often like the Slovakians in that they seem to be built to play a different way that gives them leg up on some of the better teams in the tournament. They are a team that likes to get dirty and play a very physical game which can sometimes shut down those teams depending on their speed and skill. It leads to upsets often and the Swiss benefit by sticking around in the top division with a chance to play for the medals more often than not. Last year they were able to find their way to the playoffs but they switzerlandcouldn’t get to the medal rounds falling just short. This year they will return with a number of their top players back to try to grab a medal for the first time since they won silver in 2013. They will have the talent to get there but the biggest question will be whether or not they will have enough talent to find their way into the medal round. On offence, they will be led by Nino Niederreiter who was able to put up 32 points this year with the Minnesota Wild. Sven Andrighetto will look to provide some backup to Niederreiter after a successful season with the Avalanche. Beyond this top talent, there isn’t a lot more for the Swiss to depend on which is a theme throughout the lineup. On defence, they will look to a young prospect in Mirco M ller who just began his NHL career and is one of the top prospects to come out of Switzerland in years. In net, the Swiss are looking to Reto Berra as their main guy this tournament who returns after leading them most of the way a year ago although not with the most impressive performance. The Swiss are a team that knows how to fight their way through some of the better teams in the tournament. They will look to do the same this year and see if they can spring a surprise in order to get back to the medals It won’t be entirely easy with their lack of depth but the playoffs aren’t entirely out of the question.

Prediction:
This group has some clear favourites as the Russians and the Swedes will most likely fight for the top spot. Unless there is a massive upset there isn’t much of a chance of the other teams finding their way to the top. There will be some interesting battles though as the one to get the final two playoff spots could be a good one. The Czechs and Swiss seem to be the best chances at those spots while the Slovakians will come up short despite putting up a fight. The fight for the bottom is the most interesting as there are a number of teams that could all find themselves in relegation. France might take their recent experience into another year while Belarus and Austria fight to the end to stay out of the bottom. Austria just doesn’t seem to have the talent they need to win while Belarus is too good to lose to the Austrians this time around.

groupa-prediction

 

 

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