LAPPEENRANTA – After breaking in the Olympic arenas in Sochi, the IIHF U18 World Championship heads north to Finland for its 2014 edition.
With the tournament set to begin on Thursday, 10 teams filled with many NHL draft hopefuls are making the final tuneup for a medal run in the south-eastern Finnish towns of Lappeenranta and Imatra. With the amount of talented players coming up through the national development programs of the world's top hockey nations, the tournament has been pickin up steam as an international showcase for the sport's future stars.
The defending champions? Team Canada, which last year foreshadowed the double Olympic triumph of the country’s men’s and women’s senior teams by edging the United States 3-2 in the U18 gold medal game at the Bolshoi Arena.
The Canadians will go into the 2015 tournament with a few fresh faces needing to replace the scoring production that came from last season’s tournament MVP Connor McDavid.
One candidate expected to pick up the slack is forward Brayden Point of the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors. Point has already gotten onto the scoresheet in Finland, notching three goals and two assists in exhibition games against Denmark and the host Finns.
"He goes to the hard places," said head coach Kevin Dineen, who recently guided the Canadian women's team to Olympic gold in Sochi. "He earns everything he gets."
One team that will see an unusually high amount of turnover in its roster will be 2013 silver medallists USA. Forward Jack Eichel is the lone returnee from last year’s squad.
But that’s not to say this country can be taken lightly. The U.S. enters the tournament having captured a record 10-consecutive medals, including back-to-back golds in 2005-06 and four-straight gold medals from 2009-12; three silver medals (2004, 2007, 2013); and one bronze medal (2008). Team USA's seven gold medals are the most of any country in the history of the U18 Worlds, due in large part to a highly centralized development system.
“I think we played well in exhibition, we’re pretty used to each other since we play together most of the season,” said Eichel. “I like our team a lot this year, we got two good goaltenders, seven good defenceman and a great group of forwards.”
2013 bronze medallists Finland gave both North American teams a run for their money last season, defeating the United States 2-1 in the preliminary round before falling 3-1 to Canada in the semi-final.
The Finns have in their offensive arsenal forward Kasperi Kapanen, a rising star for the national team who has been an impact player since he helped the team win gold at the 2012 Youth Olympic Winter Games. Kapanen is currently the highest-rated European skater in the Central Scouting Bureau's pre-draft ranking.
“I think we have good guys here this year too and we feel very confident,” says Kapanen, who missed out on a gold medal this year after having to pull out of Finland’s World Junior team with a shoulder injury.
“There’s a lot of pressure playing in Finland for the national team,” he added. “But I just try to take that crowd and use it as sort of a sixth man on the ice and try to do the best that we can.”
Russia, which finished in fourth place last season after losing to Finland in the bronze medal game, will ice a strong team as usual, led by players with impressive hockey pedigrees.
Ivan Nikolishin, a strong two-way forward and one of the top players in this year’s team, is the son of former NHLer Andrei Nikolishin. He spent this past season playing for Krasnaya Armia Moscow, the junior team of CSKA Moscow in the MHL. Playing in a league with players up to five years older than him, the then-17-year-old managed to accumulate 11 goals and 23 points in 53 games, and now plays in Canada for the Everett Silvertips. Among the netminders backstopping the Russian team will be Maxim Tretiak, grandson of Vladislav Tretiak, who just so happens to be one of the most famous goaltenders in the history of the game.
Sweden, which up until last year were perennial silver medallists, fell to fifth place in Sochi after losing 4-0 in the quarter-final to its nemesis the United States. Prior to 2013 the Swedes had lost three straight times to Team USA in the gold-medal game.
Tre Kronor will look to get back to the medal round with a cast that includes Oscar Lindblom, a strong two-way player who had four points in four games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the summer and last year earned the Top Forward award in the junior Allsvenskan league. William Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, is a highly skilled forward that will be counted on to put pucks in the net, something he did just twice in last year’s U18s.
Switzerland finished behind the Swedes last year, and will ice a team that includes Kevin Fiala, a pure scoring forward who notched five points (1G+4A) in this year’s World Junior Championship. Another forward, Denis Malgin, returns for his second U18, but the lack of scoring depth leaves question marks as to whether the Swiss can improve on their sixth-place finish.
The tournament dark horse? Probably the Czech Republic, a team that won bronze in 2002, 2004, and 2006 but has otherwise struggled at this level of play, especially since being relegated in 2007. After making it back to the top division in 2009, this hockey nation has never finished better than sixth place. It will be looking to turn things around this year with a crop of youngsters headed by David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana. Pastrnak is a speedy offensive weapon and a gifted scorer, and both him and Vrana have international experience at the U20 level.
Denmark is the newcomer to the top division this year, and is aiming on staying there. However the team will go into the tournament missing its star forward as Nikolaj Ehlers is in the middle of the playoff season with Halifax Mooseheads. Ehlers, the son of former national team player Heinz Ehlers, led the team in scoring in the 2014 Division I Group A tournament with 11 points in five games.
Chances are the battle to avoid relegation will go down to the Danes and Germany. Slovakia, which finished in 9th
place last season, could also be in the mix.
The tournament will take place from April 17-24, and features ten teams divided into two groups. The United States is grouped with Finland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Denmark, and will open the tournament against the Swiss. Group B will feature defending champions Canada, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden, and Russia. Imatra will host the first preliminary round game of Group B when Russia faces Slovakia. Click here for schedule