Friday, 25 December 2009

Another Christmas Tradition

I hope you're all having a wonderful Christmas Day, and that all of your Christmas wishes have or are coming true. People always say that it's a magical time of year, and I have to agree. There is no season like the holiday season as everyone around the world, regardless of their beliefs, looks to celebrate. Traditional practices such as family feasts, the exchanging of gifts, and inviting loved ones to a family gathering are all seen during this season. I'll just point out that the feast at my locale was delicious, and certainly deserving of a culinary award. Gifts were exchanged, so everything about the holiday season has gone to plan. And now, we prepare for another popular tradition in Canada: the World Junior Championships.

There are a couple of teams that probably will be overwhelmed when they step on the ice against the top-six teams. There are a couple of darkhorses that, if given the opportunity, can pull off an upset and possibly find themselves in a medal game. There are also the tournament favorites who will most likely find themselves battling with each other for tournament supremacy.

Today, HBIC will take a look at the teams in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships, and rank them in inverse order as to their final standing.

AUSTRIA: The Austrians will be hard-pressed to avoid relegation this year as they come in with only one player who has played in North America. Defenseman Stefan Ulmer will be representing his country after suiting up for the WHL's Spokane Chiefs this season. The majority of the team comes from European leagues, so Austrian players will simply be getting their names out there for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Like Michael Grabner, this tournament could help them out in achieving a bigger dream.

LATVIA: The Latvians always come in as an upset choice as they seem to have just enough moxie to steal a game from one of the unassuming favorites. After shocking both Germany and Kazakhstan in last year's relegation round, the Latvians look to build on their success this year. The majority of their team comes from the junior Dinamo Riga team. Dinamo Riga is the only KHL team in the Eastern European country, but having this junior squad has allowed the team to build continuity. Roberts Bukarts, who is suiting up for the senior Riga team this season, should be a player to watch as he seems to have a nose for the net. In a pre-tournament game against Russia, Bukarts scored twice in a 3-2 Latvia victory. While there are players who are currently playing in North America, none are playing in an upper-tier junior program.

SLOVAKIA: As much as I like this team, I feel that the Slovaks may play well below their potential again this year. It's not to say that they don't have the talent; rather, they never seem to reach their full potential. They'll be missing goalie Jaroslav Janus, so their best junior player isn't on this team. Tomas Tatar of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins should be their offensive catalyst as he's looked good for the Red Wings' minor-league affiliate. Richard Panek of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, Adam Janosik of the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques, Andrej Kudrna of the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, and Marek Viedensky of the WHL's Prince George Cougars are all North American-trained, and should provide some scoring. The majority of this team, however, comes from HK Orange 20, a junior team based in Puchov, Slovakia that plays in the Slovak Extraliga. This is essentially the national training team for players aged 20 and under in Slovakia, and was formed after 2007 when the Slovaks finished dead last at the WJC tournament. We'll see if they can improve on my prediction this season, but they may find the competition slightly better than the Slovak Extraliga.

SWITZERLAND: The Swiss have an interesting team this year, but they always seem to run into problems scoring against the upper-tier teams. They have talent from top leagues - Luca Sbisa of the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes, Alain Berger of the OHL's Oshawa Generals, Lukas Stoop of HC Davos, and Tim Weber of Modo. They normally get solid goaltending, although there are no clear-cut top goalies this season. Again, secondary scoring and defensive zone coverage will determine how far this team goes. Make no mistake, though, in that Switzerland could challenge for a medal if they get hot.

CZECH REPUBLIC: The Czechs performed admirably against Canada in their pre-tournament game, but the defensive shell that the Czechs are forced to employ may only carry them so far. Injuries to their best players will limit this team's success if they aren't near perfect every night. The Czechs have a number of excellent players out of Canada's junior system, including Tomas Vincour of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings, but there simply is the lack of a star to carry the offensive load. Jaroslav Hafenrichter, who plays for HC Slavia Praha, is injured and will miss the tournament after he put up 62 points in 44 games for the Czech Extraliga team last season. The team already is missing his scoring.

FINLAND: It's always tough to have Finland finishing out of the medals, but they may not have the firepower that is needed to make a serious run in this year's WJC. They do have solid scoring from the likes of Jyri Niemi of the WHL's Saskatoon Blades, but, like other Finnish teams, this is a group of players who will simply attempt to wear other teams out with gritty, physical play. Defensively, they play a hitting game in their own zone, and finish all checks in the offensive zone. The lack of scoring will hurt the Finns in games against teams like Sweden, USA, Russia, and Canada, so they must do all the little things right to outwork their opponents if they hope to capture a medal in this tournament.

USA: The USA is one team that legitimately could turn this entire tournament upside down. What they lack in experience they could make up for in effort and energy. John Carlson of the OHL's London Knights and Cam Fowler of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires should lead the offensive attack from the blue line, and both play extremely responsibly in their own zone. Up front, Jordan Schroeder from the NCAA's University of Minnesota, Danny Kristo of the USHL's Omaha Lancers, and Jeremy Morin of the OHL's Kitchener Rangers should be prominent in the USA's scoring stats. Mike Lee will tend to the nets, but he hasn't been a standout for St. Cloud State in the NCAA at this point. If he suddenly gets hot, however, the Americans could be looking at one of the top-two medals.

SWEDEN: The Swedes, like Canada, seem to suffer from having their best players in the NHL. Victor Hedman is leading the Tanpa Bay Lightning and Erik Karlsson is sticking with the Ottawa Senators, so the torch will have to be passed to others. Jakob Markstrom is good enough to be the best goaltender in the tournament, and should provide quality backstopping to get Sweden a medal. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson should be a force in this tournament as the speedster from last year is rounding into his bigger frame. Marcus Johansson, Andre Petersson, and Mattias Tedenby should provide lots of goals for the Tre Kronor. Defensively, this team would be scary if Hedman and Karlsson were in Saskatchewan, but, as it stands, David Rundblad and Tim Erixon will lead the way. Sweden plays hard, but they may get bullied by some of the more physical teams. This may be a concern during the playoff round.

RUSSIA: Despite the lack of NHL draft picks on this team, you can't be fooled by the Russian talent. If it weren't for the lack of a transfer agreement, the majority of the Russian squad would heading for NHL rinks near you in the immediate future. Nikita Filatov of the Columbus Blue Jackets/CSKA Moscow teams should be near the top of the scoring lead. He has immense talent and will look like a man amongst boys in the majority of games. Alexander Tarasov and Kirill Petrov should be decent players in this tournament as well, but because the majority of players are playing in Russia, scouting is tough. The Russians are missing two top players - Dmitri Kulikov is staying with the Florida Panthers, and Kirill Kabanov is out with a wrist injury. Despite these absences, the Russians have a deep team that should challenge for one of the top medal colours.

CANADA: Now, some may call this homer-ism in terms of me awarding Canada the gold medal before the tournament. I'll tell you right now that this is not the case. Canada is deep, solid, and well-coached. Jake Allen appears to be everything that Canadians have come to expect from their goaltenders - reliable, consistent, and athletic.

On the blue line, the Canadians may have the best collection of defensemen in the tournament with Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Ellis, and Colten Teubert all returning from last year's gold medal-wining group.

Up front, Canada has grit, size, skill, and speed. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, and Brandon McMillan have shown incredible skill and speed in the pre-tournament games, while Nazem Kadri, Luke Adam, Jordan Caron, and Patrice Cormier have taken the body at every opportunity.

The one place that Canada may run into problems is in their physical play, though. Cormier has spent considerable lengths of time in the penalty box, and good teams like the Russians and Americans will hurt the Canadians on the powerplay. Discipline will need to be preached at all times with this Canadian sqaud, but they have looked solid. Canada will also have to match their opponents' tenacity when it comes to playing against Canada. The Czechs threw checks with reckless abandon, and it seemed to rattle the cages of the Canadians just a little.

Overall, this looks to be an exciting tournament as the Canadian prairies welcomes the world. It all gets started tomorrow, and Canada squares off against Latvia at 3:30 EST in a game that might get out-of-hand if the Canadians are firing on all cylinders. The entire tournament schedule is here, and I encourage you to try and catch as many games as possible. Tomorrow, HBIC will announce the WJC Contest, so head back here tomorrow to get the details!

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

David said...

Fantastic summary. Love this time of the year as well - this tournament has been a tradition in our family for the past few years and we intend to keep it for the years to come. Next year's tourney will be in Buffalo and I believe the year after it's back in Canada (Alberta). Go Canada Go. It will be a nice warm-up to the Olympics.