OTTAWA - Itís time to drop the puck at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship, and questions need to be answered.
How will Canada handle the pressure of competing on home ice? Is Sweden ready to win its first gold since 1981? What can we expect from the always highly touted American squad? And what about the swift-skating Russians? Letís take a closer look at the 10 national teams that will take to the ice in Ottawa between December 26 and January 5.
Canada enters the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship seeking its fifth straight title, which would match its previous record-setting run from 1993 to 1997. Objectively, itís tough to bet against the host country.
The offence is headlined by 18-year-old centre John Tavares of the OHLís Oshawa Generals, who is a favourite to go #1 overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and will see a greatly expanded role after being earmarked as a power play specialist in the 2008 tournament. Another nifty yet responsible star to watch is Brampton Battalion captain Cody Hodgson, who led Canada in scoring with nine points in three exhibition wins over Sweden, Finland, and Slovakia.
Depth on defence shouldnít be a problem, as Canada is carrying eight blueliners, including returning veterans like P.K. Subban and Thomas Hickey, and 17-year-old power play quarterback Ryan Ellis. Goalie Chet Pickard of the Tri-City Americans rounded out Canadaís pre-tournament slate with a 3-0 win over Slovakia, but head coach Pat Quinn could equally well opt to start Dustin Tokarski in Canadaís Boxing Day opener versus the Czech Republic. Tokarski was named MVP when his Spokane Chiefs captured the 2008 Memorial Cup as champions of the CHL.
The Canadian attitude toward the World Juniors is always ďgold or bust,Ē but nonetheless, itís remarkable to note that Canada has won a medal of some shade in every tournament since Hockey Canadaís Program of Excellence was instituted in 1982, with the exceptions of 1984, 1987, 1989, 1992, and 1998. With a fast, skillful roster buoyed by rabid home crowds, that trend should persist this year, and the colour will likely be gold.
It feels like centuries since the Czechs earned back-to-back U20 gold medals in 2000 and 2001 with their trademark blend of offensive pizzazz and stifling defence. Since then, the Central European nation has only nabbed one medal (bronze in 2005).
This yearís team has enough talent to compete. But the Czechs will be hard-pressed to outdo Canada or the United States in Group A, despite bringing a veteran blueline with 1989-born players like Tomas Kundratek of the WHLís Medicine Hat Tigers and Martin Paryzek of the OHLís Ottawa 67ís. The Czechs have had a hard time establishing team chemistry in recent years, with so many of their young prospects departing for North America. At forward, thereís no one to rival Jaromir Jagr or Patrik Elias, but there is a Vladimir Ruzicka, the son of the legendary forward who coached the senior team to IIHF World Championship gold in 2005.
A third consecutive fifth-place finish could be in the works for the Czech Republic.
Always hard-working and energetic, the Finns are bringing a young team to Ottawa. And it remains to be seen whether this traditional underdog among the ďBig SevenĒ countries will be able to parlay all that exuberance into its first medal since 2006ís bronze.
Key players? Goalie Harri Sateri, who will need to improve on the 3.98 GAA and .878 save percentage he posted at the 2008 World Juniors if Finland is to go far. This season, heís been outstanding with Tappara Tampere of the SM-Liiga. (San Jose, which drafted Sateri in the fourth round, hopes heíll follow in the footsteps of other Finnish Sharks goalies like Vesa Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff.) Jesse Jyrkkio and Kristian Nakyva will be major components on defence, and Niclas Lucenius (last yearís Finnish scoring leader with six points) should spark the attack along with Joonas Rask and Toni Rajala. Mikael Granlund, at 16, becomes the youngest player ever to represent Finland at the U20 level. (The only two other 16-year-olds were defencemen Reijo Ruotsalainen and Janne Niinimaa.)
Improving on last yearís sixth-place finish isnít out of the question, but this may be a development year for the boys in blue and white.
The Germans have opted to go with a roster heavy on North American-based talent. Perhaps that isnít surprising, since youngsters back home often struggle to get valuable playing time in the DEL.
Goalie Timo Pielmeier, a San Jose Sharks prospects currently playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, can expect to see a lot of rubber whilst backstopping a team that was just promoted from Division I. Germany has never won a U20 medal. This hard-working bunchís best hope of a Preliminary Round victory in Group A will come against Kazakhstan on December 27.
Head coach Ernst Hofner is assisted by Uwe Krupp, the legendary former NHL defenceman who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for Colorado in 1996 and took over as the bench boss of the senior German national team in late 2005.
With eight returning players, the Kazakhs would be quite happy to replicate their eighth-place finish from 2008.
When it comes to Canada, they have one fond World Junior memory--the stunning 6-3 victory they scored over the red Maple Leaf at the 1998 tournament, keyed by an Andrei Troschinsky hat trick that was set up by future Toronto Maple Leaf Nikolai Antropov.
This yearís team is a family affair. Head coach Oleg Bolyakin can deploy his son Evgeni on defence, a position the skillful 18-year-old fills for the KHLís Amur Khabarovsk.
After securing promotion to the elite division for the first time since Vancouver 2006, the plucky Latvians will be hard-pressed to keep their spot, even with 13 returning players from last yearís Division I champions.
Expect Latvia to finish at the bottom of Group B, and then battle for dear life in the Relegation Round.
The Russians are always expected to bring high-flying offensive talent to these tournaments, but while they have some snipers on this yearís roster, thereís nobody of the caliber of an Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin.
Top winger Nikita Filatov might have been better-served to continue his development in the KHL rather than being consigned to Columbusís AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, where heís accumulated 17 points so far this year. Still, after leading Russia at last yearís tournament with nine points, Filatov will be counted on to provide scoring and creativity, especially in light of the tragic death of electrifying 19-year-old forward Alexei Cherepanov earlier this year with Avangard Omsk. Another go-to guy will be centre Evgeni Grachev, who comes to Ottawa with 35 points in 30 OHL games for Brampton.
Expect returning veteran Vyacheslav Voinov (Manchester Monarchs) to anchor the defence, along with Maxim Goncharov (CSKA Moscow), a 19-year-old who has 10 points in the KHL this season. Russiaís goaltending, as usual, remains a question mark.
The Russians won bronze in 2008, and should have a shot at another medal, but itís by no means a sure thing.
The Slovaks have only captured one medal in World Junior history, and that was a bronze ten years ago in Winnipeg. Itís dubious the drought will end in Ottawa with this young squad, despite the national federationís innovative effort to centralize U20 talent on the Orange 20 Puchov team in the Slovakian League.
One ďnon-OrangeĒ player to watch is Richard Panik. He stepped up with 10 points in six games at the 2008 IIHF World U18 Championship, and the 17-year-old HC Trinec product will likely face some tough checking.
Pitted against Sweden, Russia, and Finland in Group B, Slovakia will have a difficult time securing a playoff berth. A big, confidence-building win over Latvia in the opener on December 27 is a must.
Last year, Sweden came closer to derailing Canadaís bid for yet another gold medal than any other nation has managed recently. Tre Kronor snapped Canadaís 20-game winning streak at the World Juniors with a 4-3 decision in Pardubice on December 29, 2007, and then pushed the Canadians to overtime in the gold medal final before falling 3-2.
But this yearís Swedes will need to produce a better effort than they showed in a 4-2 exhibition loss to Canada on December 19 in Toronto, where they were outshot 43-24.
All eyes are on monster defenceman Victor Hedman of Modo Hockey, who was named to the 2008 World Junior tournament all-star team and could well be the top selection in Juneís NHL Entry Draft. But up front, teams will also struggle to contain slick forward Oscar Moller, who has put up 13 points in 29 games in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Kings.
And the talent doesnít end there. Speedster Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi was the youngest Swede ever to represent his country at the U20 level last year, and the 17-year-old Timra IK forward should exceed his two-point 2008 output in Ottawa. Gifted (if diminutive) blueliner Erik Karlsson will look to impress the Senators, who drafted him 15th overall this year. Jacob Markstrom is being touted by some as potentially the tournamentís best goalie.
Anything less than a medal would be a disappointment for Sweden, which rightfully takes pride in its resurgent junior development program.
The members of Team USA wouldnít be human if they didnít have revenge on their minds this year. The Americans lost to Canada in the 2007 and 2008 World Junior semi-finals, and nothing would be sweeter than turning the tables on their northern rivals in Ottawa.
This is a chance for the University of New Hampshireís James vanRiemsdyk to step up as a leader again. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect took the 2008 tournament scoring title with 11 points, and at 19, this is his last shot at winning gold. Other key forwards on the Ron Rolston-coached club include centre Colin Wilson, who scored six goals in six games last year, and super passer Jordan Schroeder. Captain Jonathon Blum of the Vancouver Giants will lead a blueline that features size and skill. Thomas McCollum, the starting goalie for the OHLís Guelph Storm, will likely carry the load between the pipes.
Despite the success of the USAís National Team Development Program in fostering talents such as top NHL picks Rick DiPietro, Erik Johnson, and Patrick Kane, USA Hockey is still looking to build upon its lone U20 gold medal from 2004. This will be a huge test for a group that should have its sights set on making the final.