Friday, 26 December 2008

Defending The Title

Tonight in Ottawa, Team Canada takes to the ice versus the Czech Republic as they look to defend the championship won last year, and continue Canada's winning ways at the World Junior Championships as they strive for their fifth-straight tournament Championship win. This, of course, makes them the target of all the teams at this year's World Junior Championship, and there are definitely a couple of teams who have a very good shot at ending the Canadian dream. Let's take a look at each team who is participating, and their chances of reaching the podium. I'll run through the teams in reverse order of how I think they will finish.

Kazakhstan: The Kazakhstan team comes into the tournament as immense underdogs in every game that they'll suit up for. They have no immediate stars, but it's hard to judge who will stand out on this team as so little is known about the players attending the tournament. Last season, the Kazakhstani team avoided relegation by defeating Denmark and Switzerland - huge moral victories and confidence builders in their program.

The one player that scouts may want to Nikita Ivanov. The 6'4" forward is the biggest player on the Kazakhstani roster, and was born in 1989. He should be able to use his size and his experience playing for Russian club Krylia Sovetov Moscow against some of the smaller teams, but he will need help to propel the Kazakhstan team to greater heights.

As always, goaltending and scoring will be a question mark against the elite teams, but this team may find itself on the wrong side of the ledger against mid-level teams like Slovakia and Germany if they don't have a strong game in their defensive zone. As much as I hate to say it, the Kazakhstani team appears to be a relegation team unless they pull off an upset or two.

Latvia: Latvia is in the deep Pool B with the Swedes, Russians, Czechs, and Slovaks, and they'll need some help in this tournament. They have no stars on paper, but they do have one North American-trained player on their roster who might be able to help them out. Latvia appears to be in tough, but sometimes you have to win with effort rather than winning with skill.

The one player that has experience playing in North America is forward Edgars Lipsbergs. Lipsbergs plays in the NAHL for the Topeka Roadrunners, and has two goals and four assists in 20 games thus far this season. He is a +6 on the season, showing that he isn't a defensive liability either. Lipsbergs will have to convert for Latvia, and hope that others convert their chances for Latvia to survive.

Overall, this team has a large number of players born in 1989, so they'll need a strong showing to finish in the top eight teams. Otherwise, there will be a whole new cast playing in the Division-I U20 tournament next season after being relegated. Goaltending will be vitally important for the Latvians, and their blueline has decent size on it to wear down opposing forwards. The only question is whether than can outscore their opponents while holding their goals-against to a minimum. They are still a long way from being an elite team, though. As an example, Team USA hammered Latvia 13-2 in a pre-tournament game.

Slovakia: It looks like it could be another disappointing World Junior Championship tournament for the Slovaks. This team has a few North American-trained players, but they looked listless against the Caandians in a pre-tournament game, losing 7-0. If they don't start playing with a little more grit and effort, this will be a long tournament for these kids.

One notable player who could be a factor is 6'7" defenceman Juraj Valach. Built in the same mold as Zdeno Chara, the undrafted Valach needs to be physically punishing in his own end while being a go-to-guy on the point on the Slovak powerplay. If he's looking to get an NHL job, he'll have to show more than did in the game against Canada.

Jaroslav Janus, who appears to be the Slovakian backup goaltender in the tournament, was shelled for all seven Canadian goals, so starting goaltender Marek Ciliak will have to be a world-beater with his skill. Unfortunately for both players, Slovakia hasn't produced a top-tier goaltender in a long time. The biggest question mark will be between the pipes for this team, and that spells doom in a short tournament, especially if neither goalie is particularly confident.

Germany: The Germans come into the tournament with a number of well-trained players. There are a large contingent from the DEL's Eisbaren Berlin team, the top team in the German Elite League, and a handful of players from the Canadian Hockey League. This team will work hard and capitalize on mistakes, but they will need some help if they want to finish in the top-six.

Conor Morrison, who plays for the BCHL's Salmon Arm Silverbacks, should be the Germans' scoring threat. He's posted 29 goals and 28 assists in 34 games thus far for the #1-ranked Canadian Junior-A hockey club. Much like Kyle Turris, his training in the BCHL is putting him on the map. The 1989-born junior is undrafted, and should be on many scouts' radars if he continues his strong play at the tournament. Shawinigan Cataractes' goaltender Timo Pielmeier, a San Jose Sharks draft pick in 2007, should give the Germans solid backstopping if he is picked as the starter.

The Germans are built strong - four players are 6'4" and seven weigh in over 200 lbs. - and they look to trap and pounce on mistakes as much as possible. The one thing that may hurt Germany is getting behind in a game. The Germans don't have wave after wave of scoring threats like the elite teams do, so they'll need some secondary scoring to go deeper in this tournament. However, they do look fairly strong with all players born in 1989 or 1990 except two, and this experience should help the Germans perform well in this tournament.

Finland: Finland is a plucky team who will need to outwork the majority of their opposition in order to have a chance at a medal. However, being stuck in the same division as Sweden and Russia may play against the Finns. If they can pull off an upset or two, the Finns may have a shot at the podium this year.

There really is no one who stands out on the Finnish roster as a bonafide scoring threat. Juha Metsola was shelled for seven goals against the Canadians in a pre-tournament game, and really didn't show a lot of moxie as the starting goaltender. This team will have to outwork and play gritty against the more skilled Russians and Swedes to keep their heads above water. It's not impossible for them to upset either of those teams, but they might struggle to put pucks in the net if they tire or start showing wear-and-tear. In preparing for the coming years, however, the Finns brought along 16 year-old Mikael Granlund as part of their roster. I doubt he'll get a lot of playing time, but the experience will be extremely helpful for the youngster's development.

Despite Finland's lack of a flashy star, I expect this team to play the same style they always do: up-tempo, lots of hits, and some gritty performances. While I think that they should be better than sixth in this tournament, they may not be able to match the skill levels of the other teams. And if the goaltending isn't up to par, this could set the Finns back a little this year.

Czech Republic: The Czechs have a large number of North-American trained players which should help them in this tournament. While they have no immediate standouts on this team, there is a balanced attack up front, and decent skill on the blueline. Goaltending is always a question with the Czech team, so we'll see how they fare versus the Americans and Canadians in Pool A competition.

Rudolf Cerveny is a solid forward with 15 points and a +20 rating in 35 games for the Regina Pats. Stepan Novotny is has 18 points in 32 games for the Kelowna Rockets. Radim Valchar has 21 points, but is a brutal -16, in 33 games for the Portland Winter Hawks. Tomas Vincour has 28 points in 35 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Balanced scoring? I'd say so. But if they need that late goal, there's no one you can really point to and say "go get us a goal".

This team needs to establish a physical game to compete with the big American team and the skillful Canadian team. Without a significant goaltending threat, the Czechs will have to commit to team defence, and that may reduce scoring chances. The Czechs have the skill to upset one of the top four teams, but they'll need to commit to defence and sound fundamental play. A 5-2 victory over the Slovaks in a pre-tournament game should help confidence in their build-up to the game with Canada on December 26. Run-and-gun games will not favour the Czechs in this tournament.

Sweden: Despite a lot of people saying that Sweden is a lock for a medal, I have yet to see that determination. Despite some excellent goaltending, they looked overwhelmed by the Canadians in a pre-tournament game that they lost 4-2. If it wasn't for a spectacular goaltending performance by Mark Owuya, who stopped 39 of 43 shots, it could have been a blowout for the red-and-white. This team needs to step up.

Victor Hedman, who was the pre-tournament favorite to be the #1 pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, has fallen off in his early showing. He hasn't been the dominant "big man" defenceman that the Swedes need, and he certainly didn't control any part of the game against the Canadians. Hedman will need to work hard, play well fundamentally, and make the players around him better if he hopes to regain the top spot in the pre-draft rankings. The Swedes are relying on him to be a star.

Overall, the Swedes have a very strong goaltending tandem in Jacob Markstrom and Mark Owuya. Following in the footsteps of New York Rangers' star Henrik Lundqvist, both goalies look to be very credible and skilled. The Swedes will rely heavily on their strong defensive play and transition game to counter most teams' attacks, and their forwards are skilled bunch. If they can step up their intensity, a medal is definitely within their grasps.

Russia: If there is one team who may upend all of these standings, it would be the Russian team. With the loss of Alexei Cherepanov, this team could be disappointing. However, with the addition of Nikita Filatov, this team has legitimate scoring. With the indifferent recent play of the Russian juniors, it's anyone's guess as to where they'll end up. If they play to their potential, though, they're almost certain to bring a medal back to Moscow.

Nikita Filatov, the Columbus Blue Jackets' standout youngster, has been performing well with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch, posting seven goals and ten assists in 23 games. Playing against stronger players in the AHL should allow him to elevate his game against junior players, and I expect the play-maker to be in the top-ten for scoring. Viatcheslav Voynov of the AHL's Manchester Monarchs will lead the blueline, and he's another dynamic player for the Russian squad. The majority of the Russian players are playing in the KHL or CHL, and that's good for building their program.

There are three major issues that face this team: goaltending, intensity, and toughness. The first is a major cog in the Russians' success, but there is no legitimate star in between the pipes for the Russians. Someone will have to elevate his game for the Russians to be a force. The intensity needs to be ramped up in the Russian dressing room. They defeated Kazakhstan 4-1 in a pre-tournament game, but they certainly have more firepower than four goals against one of the weaker teams. Russia needs to gear up if they want a shot at the medals. Lastly, team toughness will be questioned throughout the whole tournament if they allow teams to push them around. While I'm not suggesting that they cannot hold their own, teams like the Finns, Americans, and Canadians will physically punish the Russians into submission as seen in past tournaments. The Russians need to push back if they want to bring home some hardware this year.

USA: The Americans are definitely the biggest roadblock standing in the way of a Canadian dynasty. This team is loaded with scoring, plays well in their own end, and has solid goaltending. This is a team loaded with players from the 1989 birth year, and they are hungry to add a gold medal to their resum├ęs.

Where do you start with the standouts? James van Riemsdyk, Colin Wilson, Jonathan Blum, Drayson Bowman, Blake Kessel, Ryan McDonaugh, and Kevin Shattenkirk are all considered top-level prospects for the NHL. There are eight players from the CHL on this team - the most ever in Team USA history. Josh Unice, who plays for the Kitchener Rangers, led his team on a spectacular run last season to the Memorial Cup Finals, and he will be counted on to backstop this team to the podium. There are a number of players from the NCAA on this team, and they know how every win and loss can mean the end of a tournament. This team has size, skill, and speed, and they look to be a force to be reckoned with.

The fallback for the Americans will be defensive play. While I'm not suggesting that they won't be good in their own zone, they played a weaker opponent in Latvia and really beat up on them. The Americans have to focus on a solid transition game that starts with a good breakout pass. They have the defencemen to do that in McDonaugh, Shattenkirk, Kessel, and Blum, but they'll have to be accurate when playing Canada, Sweden, or Russia. Otherwise, there might be a lot of odd-man rushes coming back at them. All in all, though, this might be the best team that the Americans have sent to this tournament in some time, and they will be one of the favorites for the gold medal.

Canada: Yeah, this might be the "homer" pick, but Canada has looked impressive in their three pre-tournament games, and they might have the best goaltending in the tournament. John Tavares has shown why he is considered one of the best goal scorers at the tournament as well, and it will be a question of finding enough secondary on this team if they want to repeat.

Without a doubt, John Tavares, Cody Hodgson, Zach Boychuk, and Jordan Eberle have been the best players on this Canadian squad so far. Defensively, the "shutdown" pairing of Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert have eliminated the opposition's big line in each of the game. Chet Pickard and Dustin Tokarski battled in a WHL Final last season when the Tri-City Americans met the Spokane Chiefs. The result? A seven-game series in which five games went to overtime and three games went to double-overtime. Again, this might be the best goaltending tandem on paper in the entire tournament.

Secondary scoring might be an issue for Canada. Head coach Pat Quinn hasn't found effective linemates for John Tavares yet, and he'll need to get Tavares rolling in five-on-five situations to have an effective one-two punch. Angelo Esposito, Tyler Ennis, Jamie Benn, and Evander Kane will have to find the scoresheet as well, but continue to play in the roles assigned by Quinn. The shutdown centerman in Brett Sonne might be one of the most unsung guys in the tournament, but he'll need to keep some of the most explosive players in check if Canada wants to succeed.

There's the quick preview and prediction. Again, anything can happen in this tournament, and it will be interesting to see how the crowd affects Team Canada and their opposition during the games. I'm quite certain that the crowds in Ottawa will be raucous, boisterous, and noisy, and that's always a big advantage for Canadian teams.

Enjoy the games, everyone! This year's tournament looks like it's going be a good one!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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