4 by 4 with IIHF.com
by Andrew Podnieks|12 MAY 2023
Latvian fans hope to bring their team good luck in Riga, while Finland hopes to keep its medal-quality play going.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andre Ringuette
We are mere hours away from the start of the 86th Men’s World Championship, so what better time to catch up with the IIHF.com’s crack writing team for some pre-tournament thoughts. Lucas Aykroyd, Derek O’Brien, Andrew Podnieks, and Andy Potts all weigh in. Four questions and four answers for four writers covering 16 teams. Let’s call it 4 x 4. Let’s go!

Q: Is Finland’s dynasty the real deal?

Andy: By the standards of earlier dynasties, the current Finnish team perhaps lacks the kind of stand-out stars who would get a place on any country’s roster. For me, though, that makes the coaching all the more impressive. Jukka Jalonen has found a system that keeps Finland among the medals seemingly regardless of personnel – whether that’s a no-NHL Olympic roster or a World Championship team that can call on a wider range of players. Fans of other countries might raise questions about the impact of Covid or the absence of some opponents, but Finland’s results since 2019 speak for themselves, and you wouldn’t bet against them collecting more medals here.

Lucas: Part of me is old-school and believes that no team counts as a dynasty unless it has won three straight championships. By that criteria, we’d have to harken back to the golden Czech teams of 1999 to 2001. But in today’s volatile environment – whether it’s increased player movement worldwide or the ripple effect of the pandemic – I’d say the Finns certainly qualify, especially factoring in their historic 2022 Olympic gold medal. They tick so many boxes, from head coach Jalonen’s unique blend of motivation and tactics to the clutch scoring of recurring characters like Sakari Manninen, Mikko Lehtonen, and Marko “Mörkö” Anttila. And they’ve beaten some impressive rivals, notably during their 2019 playoff run when they outscored Sweden, Russia, and Canada.

Derek: Defining a dynasty is always subjective, but I like Lucas's point about the Olympic gold—that makes it three golds and one silver in the last four major tournaments. Add to that the fact that it has been so many of the same players that it feels like it's a team with real continuity. 

Andrew: Often when people try to lessen a record or achievement, they forget the simple question first—if it was so easy, why didn’t others do it? So if Finland’s record recently is found wanting in the eyes of some, why didn’t other step in? I’ll back Andy up and credit cach Jalonen first and foremost, and also wonder why he hasn’t been hired by an NHL team, many of which woud fit with his coaching style. Finland is real, and they will be a quality team again this year.

Q: What’s the thing you’re most looking forward to in the next 17 days?

Derek: Here in Riga, I'm looking forward to the atmosphere inside Arena Riga. I wasn't here in 2006, but I've heard it was incredible. I was here in 2021 but not many fans were. We really got only one Latvia game with a decent number of fans, but even that was a great experience. 

Andrew: The thing that always amazes me about the Men’s Worlds is that there are always 16 stories to follow. This year, it ranges from Andy’s thoughts on young USA, to Canada’s unknowns, Finland’s dynasty, Czechia following up on its bronze, all the way to what will likely be a dogfight to avoid relegation, Sweden’s attempt to bounce back after three disappointing tournaments, Slovenia’s first appearance in seven years, and Denmark’s continued presence in the top pool since 2003. Lots to talk about. Lots to watch.

Lucas: Surprises! What if Hungary upsets Finland, Sweden, or the U.S. in the preliminary round? It always gets the hockey world buzzing when an underdog that’s appearing at the Worlds for just the third time since the 1930s (2009, 2016) pulls off a shocker.

Andy: It might sound perverse after dismissing the USA’s chances of gold, but I’m interested to see how their crop of NCAA players performs here. It’s not hard to imagine somebody going home with a much bigger reputation than he brought to Tampere, and that gives us an intriguing sub-plot this year. 

Q: Which one player has the most star power?

Andrew: I’ll go with the two young stars who are likely to be very high draft choices in a few weeks—Canada’s Adam Fantilli and Sweden’s Leo Carlsson. Fantilli has been overshadowed by Connor Bedard the last couple of years but has a chance to skate into the spotlight on his own. And ditto for Carlsson who was always a year behind the presence of Simon Edvinsson. Are they ready for their closeups? Let’s see!

Lucas: Given that Mikko Rantanen this year became just the third Finnish player after Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne to score 50 goals in an NHL season, he’s an easy choice with his modern, power-forward game.

Andy: Since Lucas has quite rightly picked out Mikko Rantanen, I’ll highlight another Finn. Mikko Lehtonen has a happy knack of making the big plays when needed, and should be a hugely influential cog in Jalonen’s engine room once again.

Derek: In general, there is probably more star power in Tampere. In Riga, I think the most familiar name is Andres Ambuhl. This is his 18th World Championship and with every game he plays he adds to his games-played record. 

Q: Who’s your long shot to win a medal this year?

Andrew: The top teams have historically been so dominant it’s tough to choose a true long shot and sound coherent. But in the context of 16 teams and three medals, I’ll take Czechia. Of course, for decades they were favourites, not longshots, but last year’s bronze was their first WM medal in a decade, which sounds crazy, but there you have it. Given the positive vibes from 2022, and the incredible rise of the women’s team, I’ll take Czechia for a medal. Their return to form makes all of hockey stronger. 

Derek: Slovakia was my longshot pick at last year's Olympics and it turned out to be right. They don't necessarily have one of the three strongest lineups, but with the system they play under Craig Ramsay, a medal is definitely within the realm of possibility. I just worry about their goaltending. Or is this where I bring out my annual prediction that the USA will win the gold medal? It's never been right, but you just have to figure a team that makes the semi-finals as often as they do can't keep losing them. 

Andy: I’ll partially agree with Derek. Slovakia’s return to form after something of a lost decade makes them a good candidate to spring a surprise. But I can’t get behind Team USA for gold this year. Even allowing for the law of averages, the 2023 roster looks light on depth and experience.

Lucas; The Swiss may not have enough depth to match their silver-medal runs of 2013 and 2018, especially without 2013 MVP and 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi on defence. But this ever-cohesive group has plenty of experience and motivation. To cite a couple of examples, in 2018, goalie Leonardo Genoni allowed Filip Forsberg’s winner in the 3-2 gold-medal loss to Sweden, and veteran NHLer Nino Niederreiter was stopped on the game-deciding last shot by Anders Nilsson. So Genoni and Niederreiter – both grizzled veterans at this stage – should be driven to bring home some hardware with the clock ticking on their IIHF careers.