It’s the most wonderful time of the year…It’s the most wonderful time…It’s the hap-happiest season because the World Junior Championship is here. The spotlight on this annual international tournament is even more intense this year with the NHL lockout going stronger than ever. The best under-20 aged hockey players across the globe have descended upon Ufa, Russia for the 2013 edition.
Like year’s past the event will commence on December 26th – a.k.a. Canadian Boxing Day. Everybody is well aware how much weight and pressure the Maple Leaf union places upon itself to win gold. After all hockey is Canada, and Canada is hockey. As many teams struggle to place one team in the tournament that will be competitive, Canada in all honesty could roster two teams that would contest for the crown.
Historically, the competition has been dominated by the Russia and Canada, together these two countries have accounted for 28 of the 36 gold medals awarded. Canada leads the all-time gold medal count with 15 and has won a total of 28 medals. Russia has won a sum of 30 medals. Again this year these two countries will strive for the top spot although defending champ Sweden, Finland, and the USA will try to add to their medal count as well.
Just this Christmas Day when finalized rosters were due to the International Ice Hockey Federation, some surprise injuries have become known to a few teams. One player does not make or break a team, especially at this level of competition. Although this year Sweden has been hit with the loss of a few big names which you would think will directly affect their chance at achieving gold once again.
So without any more hesitation here is my 2013 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.
Why? Maybe we should say why not. Or simply because the Nuge is huge! Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers) is an up and coming NHL center man with very good skating and speed, and excellent acceleration. He also possesses an accurate shot with good hands. But Team Canada is not just about RNH. It is loaded with first and second round NHL draft selections from Huberdeau to Strome to Scheifele upfront to the defensive corp. comprised with the likes of Hamilton, Rielly, Reinhart, and Murphy.
Pretty much loaded at every position from center, down the wing, and on the blue line. Perhaps the one Achilles heel that has gotten the best of Canada in recent history is the manning of the pipes. Two years ago in Buffalo, NY when it looked the Red & White would get back on the gold medal track; Canada self-destructed in the third period on some sketchy goaltending. This year’s team will be led by a couple of OHLers, Malcolm Subban (Belleville Bulls) and Jordan Binnington (Owen Sound Attack), who have produced decent numbers in the last two season in the Ontario Hockey League, although the WJC is different beast as one bad period or game could be the death of a team.
Bottom line is even with Charles Hudon (Chicoutimi Sagueneens-QMJHL) out with injury and Boone Jenner (Oshawa Generals-OHL) serving a three-game suspension for a late hit versus Sweden in pre-tourney tune-up, this team is still very good. Plus, Halifax Moosehead standout, Jonathan Drouin, was recently injured in practice and will stand to miss some time. Regardless, Canada can skate, bring a physical presence, and put the biscuit in the basket. They get out of Ufa and artic wind chills with the hardware.
The biggest factor Team Russia has going in its favor is the ability to understand the home culture, food, and openly accepting the -20 degree weather. But then again Canada has a few boys from Alberta and Saskatchewan that love the prairie winter winds. The intangible factor of hosting this year’s WJC could give Russia some extra motivation to please the hometown crowd.
They will be paced by a couple of NHL first rounder in Nail Yakupov (Oilers ’12 – 1st overall) and Mikhail Grigorenko (Sabres ’12 – 12th overall). The Nailer is a very speedy forward with pure offensive abilities. He plays fairly sound defensively, although his true game is being the skilled stick handler, who moves the puck at top end swiftness, a nice shot, and that all-important hockey sense. Grigorenko like his Russian counterpart probably would have had a legitimate opportunity to make Buffalo’s squad if training camp opened back in September. He again is having a productive QMJHL season with Quebec Remparts, as a big and strong player with impressive puck skills and vision. Additionally, he has an elite shot with a long reach with superior puck protection abilities.
Russia also has a couple of undrafted snipers in Valeri Nichushkin (Chelmet Chelyabinsk-VHL) and Anton Slepyshev (Metallurg Novokuznetsk-KHL) both are eligible for the 2013 NHL draft. The questions come from the back-end as Russia’s blue liners who are not overly big in size and will need to step up their game, though luckily for them two goalies return for another WJC tourney. Andrei Vasilevski (Lightning ’12 – 19th overall) has a big frame at 6’3” 205lbs. who uses his size to his advantage by covering the net. He is impressively athletic and quick too. The other tender with WJC experience is Andrei Makarov (Saskatoon Blades) who has shipped his game to North America in recent years in the QMJHL and now the WHL.
Russia has won gold before and there is nothing they would like more than to do it on the frozen home soil in front of all their fans, yet they might have to settle for the silver lining with Canada being so deep with talent.
The Finns are hoping the two pre-tournament warm-ups against Canada and the USA are no fluke. In all honesty, Team Finland always plays international competitions very tough and they are setting up to hopefully to steal the gold away from the highly powered Canadians and Russians.
Many scouts eyes will be on 2013 NHL Draft eligible defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (TPS Turku-SM-liiga) and dynamic forward Aleksander Barkov (Taapara-SM-liiga).
Ristolainen is a poised blue liner with good two-way ability and a mature style. He moves the puck with assurance, plays the body well with his large frame, shows good mobility, and hockey IQ. Barkov has been climbing up the draft charts and looks to crack the top 5 this June. Sasha is a very skilled player in passing and puck handling who also possesses great creativity and offensive instincts. In the first half of the Finnish elite league he has been seen often wearing the golden helmet signifying his offensive production.
Although the Finnish young guns are just a piece of the puzzle as they also bring first round defenseman Olli Maatta (Penguins ’12 – 22nd overall), with scoring punch of Joel Armia (Sabres ’11 – 16th overall), playmaking abilities from Teuvo Teravainen (Blackhawks ’12 – 18th overall), confidence puck handling of Markus Granlund (Flames ’11 – 45th overall), and 2013 draft eligible forward Artturi Lehkonen (KalPa-SM-Liiga).
In a short tournament like the WJC, not only are special teams key, more importantly is receiving solid goaltending. This is perhaps the biggest question to be answered though they will look to Columbus Blue Jacket draftee, Joonas Korpisalo (Jokerit Helsinki-Jr A SM-liiga) to lead the way.
Most hockey folks probably have the Americans penciled in for a medal. They have a go-to guy in net in John Gibson (Kitchener Rangers-OHL) as well as the highly regarded D-man in this year’s draft, Seth Jones, of the Portland Winter Hawks (WHL). Jones has been battling Canada’s Nathan MacKinnon in most draft gurus’ rankings as either the number one or two spot. He most likely would have earned a roster position last year, but unfortunately came to injury prior to the 2012 WJC tournament. He is a very good skater for his size with excellent mobility and athleticism that makes outstanding outlet passes. He is sound defensively and will chip in the offensive rush as well and adds a dangerous shot from the point.
Besides Gibson and forward JT Miller (Connecticut Whale-AHL), another returnee to the team will be defenseman Jacob Trouba (Michigan-CCHA) who plays a tough two-way game with his physicality and heavy shot. Jake McCabe (Wisconsin-WCHA) will captain the US squad and brings some good versatility at the blue line, along with offensive defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere (Union College-ECAC), Mike Reilly (Minnesota-WCHA), and most likely Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University-Hockey East). The US is hoping too that former Phoenix Coyotes first round selection of 2011, Connor Murphy (Sarnia sting), is fully healed from a shot to the neck so he can contribute to get America back to glory.
The offensive output will hopefully be solved by Montreal Canadians 2012 first round pick, Alex Galchenyuk (Sarnia Sting) and the dangerous NCAA Champion, Johnny Gaudreau, of the Boston College Eagles. The Americans also have some other scoring threats in Tyler Biggs (Oshawa Generals-OHL), Mario Lucia (Notre Dame-CCHA), Rocco Grimaldi (North Dakota-WCHA), and Vincent Trocheck (Saginaw Spirit-OHL). Team USA has a good mix of college and major junior players though if there effort and offensive production is anything like the exhibition match versus Finland on Saturday then a chance to medal will be difficult for Phil Housley’s troops.
Perhaps the team entering the tournament with such high expectations from winning gold last year is Sweden. But then in recent weeks the news has made the chance to repeat or even medal maybe out of the question.
First, Team Sweden lost Jonas Brodin (Houston Aeros-AHL) and Oscar Klefbom (Färjestad-SuperElite) to injuries. Both players were first round picks in 2011 NHL Draft. So much of the weight was supposed to held by another first round pick, Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm (Norfolk Admirals-AHL), but his services now to seem to be in question too as he is now labeled on the IR. Not to mention the hero of last year’s 2012 WJC gold medal game, Mika Zibanejad (Binghamton Senators), was not given the green light by Ottawa in this lockout year.
Although not all is bad for Sweden as they still have many offensively talented players like Filip Forsberg (Capitals ’11 – 11th overall), Rickard Rakell (Ducks ’11 – 30th overall), Sebastian Collberg (Canadians ’12 – 33rd overall), Victor Rask (Hurricanes ’11 – 42nd overall), and William Karlsson (Ducks ’11 – 53rd overall).
Most likely OHLer and Columbus Blue Jackets 2012 second rounder, Osacr Dansk (Erie Otters) will get the starts with Niklas Lundstrom (AIK Stockholm-SEL) possibly seeing some action too.
Normally I would not count the Swedes out and still do not, although with three key components gone at the blue line it will be extremely difficult to repeat gold, let alone medal. Players like Rasmus Bengtsson (Muskegon Lumberjacks-USHL), Tom Nilsson Tom Nilsson (Mora IK-ALS); and Mikael Vikstrand (Mora IK-ALS) will have to step their game up to an entirely new level for this to happen.
6th Place…Czech Republic
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