World Championship round table
by Andy Potts|25 MAY 2019
USA's Jack Hughes (#6) and Finland's Kaapo Kakko (#24) shake hands following a 3-2 overtime win.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
We’re down to the final four and it’s been a tournament full of thrills and surprises. We asked our pool of writers – Lucas Aykroyd, Derek O’Brien, Andrew Podnieks and Andy Potts – to share their thoughts on some of the big questions from the first two weeks of World Championship action in Slovakia.

For the first time since 2006, both newly-promoted teams survived in the top division. Does this suggest the standard in Division I is improving?

Potts: As a Brit, I was thrilled to see GB stay up and would love to see the country establish itself at this level in the way that Norway and Denmark have done in recent years. But when head coach Pete Russell admits that the gap between Division IA and the ellite nationas was “like another planet”, it’s clear that there’s plenty of work to do. What seems clear is that there are more teams in Division IA capable of pushing for promotion at the moment – next year’s tournament looks set to be competitive again – but I think there’s still some way to go before we can expect new faces to thrive among the elite.

O’Brien: Since 2015, the lines have blurred somewhat. We’ve seen Hungary, Korea and Great Britain all appear in the top group, we saw Belarus relegated last year and France this year. I think we’re seeing more the Division IA and even some of the Division IB teams getting stronger. What we’re definitely seeing is more parity at the Division I Group A level. At this year’s tournament in Kazakhstan, five of the six teams had all played at the elite level in the past three years and had a reasonable shot to go back. If that division has a higher level of competition, it’s going to give those teams a better shot at competing, if not with the top 10 or so countries in the world, at least with teams 11 through 14.
Podnieks: I don’t mean to be a Debbie downer, but Great Britain and Italy played many terrible games. Sure, it was a breath of fresh air to have GB back after 25 years, but they are just did not play like a top-pool nation, and neither did Italy. Yes, their final games which kept them up were exciting and dramatic, but the quality of play was clearly well below the other teams. I think the top pool has two distinct sections – the so-called Big Six, along with slight outliers Switzerland and Germany, and the middle teams ranked 9 to 14. The bottom two are promoted and demoted regularly for a reason.
Switzerland and Germany produced some strong performances against the ‘big six’ nations. Are we starting to see more countries emerge as genuine contenders for regular medals in World Championship play?

Podnieks: I think what has become clear is that Switzerland is knocking on the door of the Big Six. One might have thought their gold-medal game appearance a few years ago was an aberration, but they did it again last year and they played a great game against Canada in this year’s quarter-finals. And you look at the names – Nico Hischier, Kevin Fiala, Nino Niederreiter, Philipp Kurashev, Roman Josi – wow, these are world-class players.

O’Brien: Those countries, yes. I think we’ll continue to see Switzerland and Germany get better. I think Switzerland is just about on par with the Czech Republic now and Germany is pretty much even with Slovakia and will soon be ahead of them. They both lost in the quarters this year, but they were no pushovers, especially Switzerland. I think we can expect more of that. I don’t think anyone else is threatening to join that group yet.

Aykroyd: In my mind, countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Slovakia are genuine contenders, but not necessarily on a regular basis. When one of these nations gels as a team, brings in enough game-changing NHLers, and gets outstanding goaltending, it has a chance to stand on the podium. By the same token, finishing ninth or eleventh isn’t a surprising result if all those factors aren’t present. I think we’ll soon see Denmark enter the conversation as an “occasional genuine contender” as well.

We’ve seen two potential #1 NHL draft picks in action in Kosice – who looks better out of Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes?

O’Brien:  The general consensus is that Kakko is more ready to step right into the NHL, probably due to playing professionally in the Finnish Liiga, and I’d agree with that. Which will be the better player long-term, which is really the important question, is harder to answer. I think we also saw that once it became apparent what an offensive threat Kakko is already, teams began keying on him and he was a lot less dominant after the first few games. Hughes also showed that he has the skills, it’s just a matter of him getting bigger and stronger, which he will.

Podnieks: If you believe the scouts, they say Kakko is more NHL-ready now but that over time Hughes will be the better player. Far be it for me to question their wisdom, but right now Kakko looks comfortable playing with the big boys and Hughes is a boy among men – a talented boy, but a boy all the same. I can’t see New Jersey selecting a Finn over an American first overall, but right now Kakko is clearly the better player. Will Hughes overtake him in five years? I don’t know.

What was your personal highlight from the hockey we’ve seen so far?

Aykroyd: When I covered my first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2000, I expected to see an all-star host team with Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin, and Alexei Zhamnov playing classic, high-tempo, tic-tac-toe Russian hockey. Of course, that didn’t happen, and they shockingly finished in eleventh place.

This year, Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Gusev have delivered what was missing in 2000. They have made one highlight-reel play after another with their incredible, intuitive chemistry. They have come through in clutch situations against big teams, combining for four points in the 4-3 quarter-final win over the Americans and overshadowing the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin. As I’ve said before, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s inability to bring Gusev over to play with Kucherov stands as one of the great missed opportunities of the Steve Yzerman era.

O’Brien: I don’t know if highlight is the right word, but the most striking thing to me was the back-to-back losses by the Slovaks against Canada and Germany after leading both games. They came away with zero points from those two games after being scored on with 1.8 seconds left against Canada and giving up two goals in the last two minutes against Germany. They had started the tournament well and those collapses cost them a quarter-final spot, especially the Germany game. I was watching among the fans when the winning goals were scored both times, and saw the looks of shock and sadness on their faces.

Potts: Apart from GB’s overtime winner, I’d pick out Sakari Manninen’s goal for Finland to beat Sweden in the QF. I spoke with Manninen briefly after the defeat to Germany that cost Finland top spot in Group A and he seemed hugely disappointed that his team had missed the chance of a ‘weaker’ opponent in the last eight. To channel that disappointment into the game he had against Sweden and crown it with a virtuoso winning goal was quite something.
Podnieks: The two quarter-finals games in Kosice were outstanding. The matinee featured a great game plus another in a long list of incredible late goals from Canada, and the nightcap saw Finland score early, trail 3-1, and rally also with a late goal. The atmosphere in Steel Arena was fantastic, and the games were played at a high speed and level of skill.

Who is going to win it all?
O’Brien: When you’re down to four teams left and it’s a single knockout, you can say any of them has a chance. The Russians seem very confident and when they’re on their game, they’re the best team here. That said, I think they can be beaten too.

Podnieks: Nope, I won’t take the bait! I think it will be Canada and Russia for gold, but that’s as far as I’ll go!

Aykroyd: Canada looks good, but Russia looks better. They’ve got total buy-in at both ends, from their three NHL scoring champions to Nikita Gusev, who is playing like one. If you’re a Russian fan who has been waiting eons for an heir to Slava Fetisov, you should be excited about the way Mikhail Sergachyov stepped up against the Americans. And apart from Sergei Bobrovski’s golden run in Minsk 2014, no modern Russian team has gotten better goaltending than what Andrei Vasilevski is delivering right now. If the Russians don’t win this year, it will be because they beat themselves.

Potts: The Russians should have this one. But Finland has a track record of slowing the Red Machine on the big occasion, including on the way to gold here in Bratislava in 2011. I can see that semi-final being tighter than expected, but I can’t see past Russia for the big prize.