From Saskatoon to the future

What can hockey’s top nations expect for 2010 and beyond?

08.01.2010
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Credit Union Centre Saskatoon Saskatchewan Canada

John Carlson, who scored the game-winning goal in the gold medal game, battles for the puck against Canada’s Greg Nemisz. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

The showdown in Saskatoon won’t be forgotten for many years. It was the day Team USA ended Canada’s U20 domination after five consecutive gold medals. With the 2010 event in the books – what does the tournament indicate about the future?

Canada and the U.S. had the nail-biting games at the 2010 U20s– both in the preliminary round and in the gold medal game.

The outcome of the gold medal game, a 6-5 overtime American win, was a hot topic on the front pages of Canadian newspapers.

One could say: “Come on, it’s just junior hockey. It was just an overtime goal.” But in Canada, it’s more than that. It’s nearly a reason to put maple leaf flag at half mast in the motherland of hockey.

To show the importance of that game in numbers: 15,171 were in attendacne at the final in Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon – reportedly the biggest crowd that has ever witnessed a hockey game in Saskatchewan. 12.3 million viewers saw at least part of the game on TV – every third Canadian.

But the World U20 Championship is not “just” junior hockey. It’s also the future of hockey. And according to most Canadians, anything other than gold is a disappointment.

Or to describe the feelings in national paper, The Globe and Mail:

In a shocking blow to national pride, a determined U.S. fleet beat Canada at its own game. As teams gear up for the Olympics, the Americans have now established themselves as legitimate rivals in Canada’s quest for gold. […] Nothing – not American Idol, not contempt for medicare, not even distant memories of the War of 1812 – bothers Canadians so much as an American victory in the Canadian game.

The U.S. team played a great game on New Year’s Eve, with the difference, that Canada was the luckier team. In the gold medal game, the Canadians staged another great comeback with two goals from Jordan Eberle in the last three minutes of regulation, but this time the Americans had fortune on their side in overtime.

A factor in the U.S. was the recent World U18 Championships. In the last five years, the Americans have won the gold three times. The other two tournaments were won by Canada and Russia, respectively.

Heading to the Vancouver Olympics, here are some conclusions that can be drawn for the future of the U20 nations.

1. USA

Team USA’s impressive win at the 2010 World Juniors shows that USA Hockey is on the right path in its junior development. Much of this is thanks to the National Team Development Program, which now after a decade is paying dividends by brining together the top American talent for two seasons when the players are 17 and 18 years-old. Most believe that this commitement to junior development is the number-one reason that the U.S. is now gathering medals and top draft picks at an astounding rate. Also consider that the players on the U20 roster came from ten different states. This can be considered a result of NHL expansion to new U.S. markets in the 90s. The future continues to look bright with a young Olympic roster and no end in sight to the success at U18s.

2. Canada

“They did a good job. We have a lot of work to do,” was head coach Willie Desjardins’ comment about the gold medal game, which was Canada’s ninth consecutive U20 final. Canada had the skill to win, but did what is unusual for any Canadian team – losing in overtime. From that perspective, there’s work to do for next year's U20 coach. The goal for is clear: get revenge by winning the 2011 World Juniors on American soil. And there’s much pressure on the host nation at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as the men’s, women’s, U20 and U18 national teams all missed to win world championship titles prior to the Olympics.

3. Sweden

The good news: Sweden won a third medal in a row. The bad news: After two silvers, they dropped a notch to bronze. The Swedes had a better line-up than last year. and waltzed past most of their European opponents. It was a team very well organized and with depth. The only problem: The Swedes seldom defeat North American teams. Since the 1996 quarterfinals, Sweden hasn’t defeated the U.S. in ten games. Still, Sweden is currently the only European country that consistently develops high-quality juniors on a regular basis.

4. Switzerland

The Swiss had four final-round appearances from 1998 to 2002 including two semi-finals, but missed the playoffs the following seven years with a relegation in 2008 as the lowlight. This year they were the Cinderella squad after making the semi-finals. The Swiss don’t have as much depth as the elite nations, but still earned fourth place despite playing without their injured star players – Olympians Roman Josi and Luca Sbisa. It took some luck and strong goaltending to defeat Russia in the quarterfinal. But after that surprise win, the gap between the elite nations and the next tier became obvious as the Swiss were wiped off the ice in their next two games by the medal winners. Still,  the team showed that there is considerable talent that will help Switzerland maintain seventh place in the world ranking.

5. Finland

The 2010 World Juniors was the best tournament in four years for Finland. In some aspects, they were even the best team in Group B. The Finns created an enormous amount of scoring opportunities, but couldn’t finish on key plays. They were missing a true sniper. Many shots were too weak and the players were not plucky enough to score the dirty goals. This season, the Finns got back on track, but to hit the medal round it will take more, especially as the top-three finishers from this season are showing no signs of slowing. If Finland doesn’t develop more dangerous and gritty forwards, it will probably not be able to improve its image as the eternal silver-medallist on the men’s level.

6. Russia

The Russians showed excellent and entertaining rushes in most games, especially when their opponents annoyed them by scoring which required them to react – but you seldom win games with a few strong minutes. The days of turining it on and off are over for the country, if its wants to contend for a medal it will take a full 60-minute effort. Also not helping was the impression that the team did not respond to its coach and lacked depth in comparision with the top days of Russian junior hockey. Additionally, Nikita Filatov, the biggest prospect, scored only once. It might take several more years to see the next Ovechkin/Malkin-calibre Russian star.

7. Czech Republic

It’s the worst result for the Czechs since 1999, when they also ended up in the relegation round. In the last four years, the Czechs lost in the quarterfinals, this time they had to play to avoid relegation. It looks like the Czech junior development system has stalled, especially since many players are leaving the country to play junior hockey in Canada. For now, the Czechs men’s team relies on their veteran stars from the prime time of Czech hockey. But what happens when the players born in the 70s are retired?

8. Slovakia

After four years in the relegation round, the team surprisingly earned fourth place in 2009. It looks like now this was the exception and not the rule as the Slovaks returned to the relegation round. The Slovaks face similar problems like their “brothers” from the Czech Republic. Players push early for a junior career in North America. The general perception that the Slovak professional league is of lesser quality than Europe’s top-6 doesn’t make the situation better. Will the 2011 World Championship in Bratislava and Kosice boost the sport?

9. Latvia

The Latvians have some decent prospects like KHL forward Roberts Bukarts, but like last year the team was not capable to keep up with the big teams. Contrary to last year, they won just one relegation round game – not enough to stay with the elite nations. The players made too many fundamental mistakes and they have much to learn. The new system with Dinamo Riga in the KHL and its junior team in the Belarusian league could possibly develop more talent in the future.

10. Austria

The opposite of Latvia. The team concept and hard work were well visible and appreciated by the fans, and it helped Austria to scare powerhouses Russia and Sweden, at least during some moments. Unfortunately for them, hard work didn’t make up for the lack of depth which eventually became very visible at top division level. The team was too dependent on the production of the first line. Still, they were there. Countries like Germany, Norway (both qualified for the 2011 World Juniors), Belarus or Denmark weren’t. Just this little fact is good news for Austria.

MARTIN MERK

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