It might seem like the race for gold at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship is as wide open as itís ever been.
Look at the list of the last four winners, which features no back-to-back titles: Canada (2009), the United States (2010), Russia (2011), and Sweden (2012).
In the tournamentís history, dating back to 1977, weíve only seen one other sequence of champions like this: Canada (1997), Finland (1998), Russia (1999), and the Czech Republic (2000).
Recently, however, the Canadians, Russians, Swedes, and Americans have separated themselves from the rest of the U20 competition. (In fact, not one medal has been awarded to a nation outside that foursome since Finlandís bronze medal in 2006, which came largely courtesy of the heroics of starting netminder Tuukka Rask in Vancouver.)
But are the Big Four truly neck-and-neck heading into the 2013 showdown in Ufa, Russia? Thatís a difficult question. The answer is probably no.
Certainly, Canadian fans, who take the World Juniors more seriously than their counterparts in any other country, are agonizing over their teamís inability to bring home the expected top prize. Especially since Canada has lost in such heartbreaking fashion in elimination games the last three years.
There was John Carlsonís OT goal that gave the Americans a 6-5 gold medal victory in Saskatoon 2010. Then came the stunning five-goal, third-period rally by the Russians to beat Canada 5-3 in the 2011 final in Buffalo. And memories of surrendering a 6-1 lead to Russia in last yearís semi-finals and falling short with a four-goal comeback in the third are still fresh and painful.
Yet even when you acknowledge a pattern of Canadian goaltending woes in these must-win matches, itís pretty obvious that Hockey Canadaís program has not fallen apart. Not by a long shot.
The Canadians, after all, made the final every year from 2002 to 2011. Thatís a record of consistency that no other U20 nation can rival.
For 2013 specifically, thereís another factor to consider. On two previous occasions (1995 and 2005), the World Juniors have taken place during an NHL work stoppage. If the current lockout persists, this likely will play to Canadaís advantage.
Historically, most NHL clubs either refrain from releasing their top U20 talent to appear in the World Juniors or only do it if theyíre struggling in the NHL. However, if the league is not in action, then Canada, which already enjoys the deepest program, will have even more talent to choose from.
In 1995, Canada earned a perfect 7-0 record en route to gold under coach Don Hay in Alberta, benefiting from the presence of NHL-ready skaters like Jason Allison, Bryan McCabe, and Eric Daze. 2005 witnessed what was arguably the most dominant squad in World Junior history, as Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf helped power Canada to another spotless golden run.
Of course, other countries could also take advantage of the availability of NHL-ready sprospects this time, like Russia with Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko.
But itís only scraping the surface of possibilities for the Canadians to point out that they could potentially dress a player who has already competed in a senior IIHF World Championship (2012), former Calder Trophy candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers.
There are, of course, promising signs for the other three main contenders. The 2013 host Russians have had Canadaís number the last two years, and broke an eight-year title drought in 2011. The United States and Sweden have squared off in the last three U18 finals (with the Americans winning each time). That reflects a wealth of emerging talent for both countries. This year, the Swedes will welcome 2012 returnees like forwards Filip Forsberg and Rickard Rakell. (Regardless of the lockout status, the U.S. wonít be well-stocked with returnees for 2013, however.)
The bottom line is that even though Canada hasnít won gold since 2009, it would be foolhardy not to view coach Steve Spottís team as the leading favourite. That stands even if the NHL and NHLPA are able to achieve a new collective bargaining agreement before the first puck drops in Ufa on December 26.