KOSICE – The IIHF World Championship is a senior event for the world’s best players, but every year various teams offer a chance for some younger players in their system to represent their country. This year is no different, but the youngsters here in Slovakia are not just young – they are incredibly fast and skilled, the future of the game even as they develop before our eyes.
What’s interesting is that the number of players born in the 1990s playing here reflect something about the state of the game in their countries. For instance, two of the top teams in the world lead the way with six 1990s players – Canada and Sweden. This well reflects the nations’ place as superpowers, having enough depth to put young players into the line-up and continue to win, often not in spite of that youth but because of it.
Jeff Skinner of Canada, for instance, is not only the youngest player at the tournament, he is proving quickly to be among the team’s best forwards. He is still only 18, but he already has one full season of NHL hockey under his belt, and in two games with Team Canada has proved able to play at top speed against a higher level of skill on the international ice. In fact, his three goals and five points leads all players.
Canada’s “kiddie corps” also includes 19-year-old Evander Kane, 20-year-old John Tavares, and 20-year-old Matt Duchene. These are players who have every chance of playing in Sochi, such are their talents so far.
Sweden’s six 1990s players feature Magnus Pääjärvi, coming off a fine rookie season in Edmonton with Eberle. Oliver Ekman Larsson also had an impressive season with the Phoenix Coyotes, and 20-year-old Tim Erixon, son of Jan, was born in New York while Jan was playing in the NHL and has been developing nicely back home in Sweden, with Skellefteå.
But the news is not all good. Both Slovakia and Czech Republic have zero players in the championship who are under 21, a disturbing trend caused by a depletion of talent to the CHL, all but killing the youth programs at home. This can only be a worry to those federations moving forward.
The United States have three 1990s players: Anaheim’s Cam Fowler the youngest, along with Chris Kreider of Boston College and Calder Trophy finalist Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers. Not surprisingly, all have junior experience with USA Hockey at the U20, their commitment and understanding of the program an essential part of its – and their – development and success.
Latvia has two young stars, forwards Roberts Bukarts and Ronalds Kenins. Neither have been drafted into the NHL, but both played pro this past season and will be counted on to build a strong Latvian national team again.
The youngest Russians are 19-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko and 20-year-old defenceman Dmitri Kulikov. Tarasenko was part of the historic gold-medal U20 team this past January in Buffalo while Kulikov had a fine rookie season with the Florida Panthers. However, given the wealth of talent in the KHL, one might have thought general manager Vladislav Tretiak would have gone with at least a couple of other youngsters.
Six countries have but one 1990s player, perhaps most surprisingly Finland. Its lone 1990s star is a big one, Mikael Granlund, the ninth overall draft choice at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by Minnesota. He played for HIFK in Helsinki this past season, but the Finns consider him a superstar of the future. The same can be said for Luca Sbisa and Switzerland. He joined the team here after Anaheim was eliminated from the playoffs, although another young star, Nino Niederreiter, was not available.
Belarus, Denmark, Norway, and Slovenia, smaller hockey nations which struggle to compete for medals with the top countries, also have only one 1990s-born player each, but this is to be expected because they have much smaller talent pools to work with.
Germany and Austria have no 1990s, in the case of the latter because it’s a smaller nation, and in the former because coach Uwe Krupp has tried to keep a core of players together who started their careers in U18, then U20, and later the World Championship. It is still a young lineup, but more experienced than one might normally think based solely on dates of birth.
Of course, these numbers won’t determine who wins gold on May 15, or who will win gold in Sochi, but they are indicators of one sort or another. Veteran players are essential to victory, but the speed and enthusiasm and skill of the next generation are an important reason why the tournament is relevant in the first place.