World Junior Championships

With the NHL’s labor issues, this year’s World Junior Championships tournament has a particularly strong talent pool from which to draw when play begins Dec. 26 in Ufa, Russia. Canada should be the major beneficiary of players dispersed by the lack of NHL play, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele and Dougie Hamilton all would have likely cracked their respective teams’ rosters. The United States looks to be a step behind its 49th parallel rival, though with a roster littered with future NHL talent should still be in the mix for a medal. Russia, as the host, will be under enormous pressure but may have the most skill in the entire tournament, while Finland and defending champion Sweden are each capable of making a run.

GROUP A

FINLAND

2012 Finish:
Fourth place

Team Outlook: No team ever wants to lose the bronze medal game, though the Finns’ fourth-place finish a year ago marked their strongest World Juniors appearance in six years. An upwards-trending Finland team that will call upon 10 potential returners should have some strong momentum in this year’s medal-or-bust tournament. Versatile forward Teuvo Teravainen was selected in the first round by Chicago, has tremendous on-ice vision and may be the Finns’ choice to quarterback an effective power play as a breakthrough 18-year old performer. Fellow first-rounder Olli Maatta of Toronto will look to bounce back after suffering a concussion on a hit by Canada’s Boone Jenner at last year’s tournament. The poised 18-year old defenseman is responsible in his own zone and has made three consecutive World Juniors teams. Rasmus Ristolainen, 18, is another defenseman who plays with intelligence and doesn’t try to be too fancy in his own zone. Unless their top-end guys mold into effective NHL-types and are unavailable 12 months from now, Finland’s 2014 squad could be awfully good.

What must happen for Finland to win gold: A team that hasn’t medaled since 2006, Finland has to finally win some big games when they matter most. They’ll place a large emphasis on finishing first in a winnable group and avoiding a potential extraneous quarterfinals matchup against the United States, Canada or Russia. Without a bye in the first knockout round, Finland would likely have to go 2-1 against those three teams to medal.

Player to Watch: Joel Armia. A point-a-game performer at last year’s tournament, the burly WJC veteran is a north-south type capable of chipping in rebounds and scoring from close range. Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2011, the 19-year old Armia will need to continue to cash in on some opportune “greasy” goals.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A medal.

Prediction: Bronze medal

SWEDEN

2012 Finish:
Gold medal

Team Outlook: Sweden highlights a Group A round robin that doesn’t have as much of a group-of-death feel of the Russia/USA/Canada-weighted Group B. Unfortunately for the defending champs, their analysis revolves more around who is not on the team rather than who is. Star forward and Ottawa first-rounder Mika Zibanejad was not given clearance by the Senators to leave Binghamton of the AHL – a problematic development, considering the NHL-bound riches available for Team Canada this year – and Tre Kronor would have loved to have the well-rounded forward’s diverse talents back for a title defense. Anaheim first-rounder Hampus Lindholm has shown incredible development in his all-around game over the past year and will be the pillar of a veteran defensive corps that features four 19-year old defensemen.  “You can’t give [talented forwards] one inch. You have to be right in their meat, and you have to stand with them,” the 18-year old said to FOX Sports at a Ducks development camp in July. Goaltending should be a strength, yet again: Niklas Lundstrom, an Elitserien goaltender drafted by St. Louis, is the presumed starter, while Oscar Dansk, the 31st overall pick in 2012, may push for playing time.

What must happen for the Swedes to win gold: They’ll have to get strong minutes out of their top four defensemen, while Lindholm will have to continue his excellent trajectory with an all-tournament performance that illustrates the many aspects of his occasionally mean, well-rounded game. It’s not out of the question – the 18-year old remarkably has five points and a plus-two rating for .500 AHL outfit Norfolk. They’ll also need a ton of production from… (see below)

Player to Watch: Filip Forsberg. The Washington Capitals’ first-rounder will need to pick up the scoring slack with key departures from the roster. In 22 games in Sweden’s second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan, Forsberg has registered 19 points. The most skilled player on the roster has a heavy shot and possesses a good mix of playmaking and net-driving ability.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A silver or gold medal. The defending champs’ stakes have been raised by four medals in the last five tournaments.

Prediction: Fourth place

CZECH REPUBLIC

2012 Finish: Fifth place

Team Outlook: After Martin Frk, Radek Faksa and Tomas Hertl there isn’t a ton of elite talent up front for the Czechs, who have fewer first- and second-round NHL draft picks than Canada, the US, Russia, Sweden or Finland. Defenseman David Musil is in his fourth year of playing in North America and is finally ready to emerge in the WJC after an ankle injury kept him out of the 2011 tournament; he was moderately effective a year ago. The 6-foot-4 defenseman was the first pick of the second round of the 2011 draft by Edmonton and is one of four Major Junior-based defensemen on the roster. The Czechs haven’t medaled since 2005. Goaltender Patrik Bartosak, 19, has been phenomenally good for a re-tooling Red Deer squad in the WHL, posting a .931 save percentage that ranks third in the league. He’ll have to be excellent; the graduated Petr Mrazek was named the top goaltender in the 2012 tournament where the Czechs finished fifth.

What must happen for the Czechs to win gold: Frk, Faksa and Hertl have to carry the team offensively while younger, unheralded players step up the secondary scoring. Defense isn’t a concern with this group, though Bartosak would have to stand on his head. Unless Frk or Faksa emerges on the All-Tournament team, the Czechs will have a major challenge getting to the semifinals.

Player to Watch: Frk, a Detroit second-rounder, has a nose for scoring. He was a point-a-game performer in the tournament as a 17-year old two years ago before a concussion derailed his chances of playing last year. He’ll need to regain his 2011 touch if the Czechs are to be playing for a medal.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A medal. Considering the skill on the top-end teams this year, finishing better than two teams amongst Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States would serve as a moderate accomplishment.

Prediction: Sixth place

SWITZERLAND

2012 Finish: Eighth place

Team Outlook: Though there are only two drafted players – Tampa Bay’s Tanner Richard and Minnesota’s Cristoph Bartschy – there are quality (if undersized) forwards who have been productive for their junior and professional teams. Five-foot-8 playmaker Alessio Bertaggia (who’s father, Sandro was a legend at Lugano HC), 19, has carved out a dynamic presence in the WHL, having registered just under a point per game in his junior stay, while 5-10 QMJHL star Sven Adrighetto has 124 points in 90 career games with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Both play heavy minutes against many of the stars that populate the American and Canadian squads. Richard, who could stand to shoot more, is an excellent playmaking pivot who plays the game with excellent balance and intelligence. Defensively, 17-year old Everett Silvertips defenseman Mirco Mueller is expected to log significant minutes in advance of the 2013 NHL Draft, where he’ll be projected as a mid-to-upper-level draft pick.  The rookie rearguard has looked right at home in the WHL, racking up two goals, 16 assists and a plus-four rating – even despite teammate Ryan Murray’s lengthy absence from the lineup. If their goaltending is adequate, Switzerland could surprise a team or two. After graduating Luca Sbisa, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi to the professional ranks, there isn’t as much top-end talent, though Swiss contributions to club and international hockey have grown steadily in the last few years.

What must happen for the Swiss to win gold:
Rule-altering that allows Bartschi to participate in this tournament again.

Player to Watch: Mueller. The young defenseman could greatly increase his draft stock if he’s able to hold his own in the significant minutes he’s likely to receive.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A semifinals berth. The depth of players the Swiss Ice Hockey Association has produced in the last several years has grown immensely. They’ll have the confidence that they can get past Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic to reach the knockout stage. Could the Swiss knock off a superpower to be in position to win their first medal since 1998 and second in team history? It’s unlikely, though certainly possible.

Prediction: Seventh place

LATVIA

2012 Finish:
Ninth place

Team Outlook: The Latvians narrowly avoided relegation with an overtime game-winner against Denmark last year by [then]-17 year old Nikita Jevpalovs in the tournament finale. Jevpalovs returns, as does an intriguing forward corps that includes 6-2 Zemgus Girgensons, 18, the 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft and current Rochester American. The physical center will cause difficulties in any opposition. Teddy Blugers is a Pittsburgh second-round pick who enjoyed some success at last year’s tournament, while 18-year old Robert Lipsbergs is delivering nearly a point per game to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds and could be an NHL draft pick after having been passed over in his first draft year. Defensive depth and goaltending will be a concern.

What must happen for the Latvians to win gold: Large scale defections from players on other squads to Latvia.

Player to Watch: Girgensons. Having made the jump from the USHL straight to the AHL, the first-line center is clearly the most skilled Latvian teenager playing hockey.

What would constitute success at this tournament: Knocking off Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic while avoiding relegation. The Latvians could field a squad capable of making the knockout round next year, and it is imperative that they avoid relegation situations as perilous as last year’s.

Prediction: Ninth place

GROUP B

UNITED STATES

2012 Finish:
Seventh place

Team Outlook: By virtue of emerging from the relegation round after a disappointing finish a year ago, the United States slots into a brutal Group B alongside Canada and Russia, whom they’ll be challenged to finish above. The strength of this team should be on defense and in net. Seth Jones, 18, projected to go first or second at the upcoming NHL draft, has been phenomenally good for a loaded Portland Winterhawks team and will face off against teammates Ty Rattie and Tyler Wotherspoon, who will play for Canada. Winnipeg first-rounder Jake Trouba, 18, has been terrific in his freshman season for the University of Michigan and represents one of the heaviest hitters in the tournament, someone who plays with a nasty streak. Anaheim second-rounder John Gibson, 19, carries a career .928 OHL save percentage into this year’s tournament and will be handed the reigns for the first time in his junior career. Up front, Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in the NHL draft, had posted 40 points in his 17 most recent games with Sarnia of the OHL and may be the hottest player entering the tournament. Forward J.T. Miller, 19, has held his own in making the jump from the OHL to the AHL and boasts 14 points in his first 26 pro games. He factored onto the scoresheet a year ago and will need to continue to put up points for a stingy U.S. squad that should be more defensively oriented.

What must happen for the Americans to win gold: Two full lines of secondary scoring emerge to balance out the scoring generated by Galchenyuk’s line. Jones and Trouba need to continue to play smart and efficient, and the U.S. must avoid losses to teams below them in the junior hierarchy. Group stage losses to Finland and the Czech Republic last year really stung.

Player to Watch: Galchenyuk. An injury that derailed nearly his entire 2011-12 OHL season kept him out of the tournament a year ago. The natural scorer would have challenged for the first overall spot in the draft had he remained healthy.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A silver medal. Jones spoke of the team’s confidence when he fingered them as the team to beat. Though a bronze medal would certainly be satisfactory considering the strength of Russia’s and Canada’s squads this year, the 2010 gold medalists have a poor taste in their mouth from a year ago and a much stronger   showing.

Prediction: Fifth place

CANADA

2012 Finish:
Bronze medal

Team Outlook: With an NHL lockout granting players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton and Mark Scheifele an extra opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf, Canada’s already-loaded tournament entry has been infused by a collection of players who would have been major impact players at the professional level. Nugent-Hopkins could approach Jordan Eberle-level World Juniors productivity (if not his penchant for the clutch), and it would be a disappointment if he did not finish on the all-tournament team. There are waves of experienced offensive performers, including numerous players (D Morgan Rielly, D Griffin Reinhart, F Jonathan Huberdeau, F Ryan Strome, F Scheifele, and F Nugent-Hopkins) who were top-10 NHL picks. Nathan McKinnon, 17,  will be either the first or second pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Defensively, Hamilton, the 6-foot-4 reigning OHL defenseman of the year, would likely have cracked Boston’s lineup, while the lightning-quick elusive offensive contributors Morgan Rielly and Ryan Murphy should provide an impact on the blueline as well. Scott Harrington and Tyler Wotherspoon round out the Canadians’ stay-at-home capabilities. In goal, Malcom Subban backstopped two wins over last summer’s Summit Series and represents the most equipped goaltender the Canadians have featured after struggling with Mark Visentin and Olivier Roy in their recent gold-medal drought, which has reached three years. Subban, a Boston first-rounder, ranks second in the OHL with a .932 save percentage.

What must happen for the Canadians to win gold: They’ll have to respond favorably to the inevitable adversity that befalls every team while playing simple, carefree hockey thousands of miles away from the pressure that seemed to consume them in the previous three tournaments. Also, Subban needs to provide an improvement in goal. “In recent years, they haven’t had great goaltending, at least since Carey Price,” said one OHL observer, who referred to Subban as an “elite” junior goaltender.

Player to Watch: Nugent-Hopkins. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the young Edmonton … errr … Oklahoma City Barons star average better than two points per game.

What would constitute success at this tournament:
A gold medal.

Prediction: Gold medal

RUSSIA


2012 Finish:
Silver medal

Team Outlook: Hosts for the first time since 2001, the Russians may actually have more pressure on them than Canada. There is a lot to like about “the most skilled team in the world, period. The end,” according to one hockey reporter. This team has some of the tournament’s most dynamic top-end skill, though it is in goal where the Russians boast consistency that no other team can match, perhaps with the exception of Sweden. Tampa Bay first-rounder Andrei Vasilevski was among the tournament’s best goaltenders a year ago, posting two shutouts, a 2.01 goals against average and .953 save percentage with a 4-1 record. Buffalo prospect Andrei Makarov will be participating in the Memorial Cup with Saskatoon later this season and has also proven to be productive at the World Junior level, posting a 0.88 GAA and .979 save percentage in three appearances a year ago. Up front, 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov will look to battle with future Edmonton teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to be the tournament’s top scorer. He had nine assists at last year’s tournament, while Buffalo prospect Mikail Grigorenko is a sturdy center who is difficult to move off the puck and will look to improve upon his two goals and three assists from a year ago. Defensively, there are more questions than last year after Mikail Naumenklov was sidelined by injury, leaving just two returnees on defense.

What must happen for the Russians to win gold: Yakupov needs to stay within himself and avoid frustration, which may be challenging considering the implications of Russia as tournament hosts. The Russians, who have vastly improved their performances in the CHL Super Series, need to completely buy in under head coach Mikhail Varnakov.

Player to Watch: Valeri Nichushkin, 17, projected as the top Europe-based prospect in the 2013 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-4 winger has already gotten into eight KHL games this season after starting the year in Russia’s minor leagues.

What would constitute success at this tournament: A gold medal.

Prediction: Silver medal

GERMANY

2012 Finish:
Won Division I, Group A to earn promotion.

Team Outlook: No more Marcel Noebels. Germany’s tested World Junior Division I team from a year ago has graduated much of its experience, leaving only one NHL-drafted player on a team that hasn’t seemed to find a home in either the top flight or in Division I.  Edmonton draftee Tobias Rieder potted 42 goals for Kitchener a year ago and was a star at the D-I level, but is only 5-foot-10 and has more feistiness than skill. Sarnia’s Nickolas Latta, one of seven North America-based junior players on Germany’s roster, will be a third-line type who will be given top-six minutes, while 6-2 Oshawa Generals forward Sebastian is a gritty winger who will be relied upon to slow down some of the top flight skill in the Germans’ division. Tim Bender, a 5-10 defenseman,  is a skilled puckmover but will be overexposed as a top-pairing defenseman in this tournament, while goaltender Marvin Cupper – the 10th-rated Europe-based goaltender in last year’s midterm NHL Central Scouting rankings – has cut his teeth in North America with a QMJHL-worst Shawinigan Cataractes team. He went undrafted.

What must happen for the Germans to win gold: As many as nine teams getting lost en route to Ufa.

Player to Watch: Defenseman Oliver Mebus — all 6-9 and 240 pounds of him — who will need to have the tournament of his life if Germany expects to keep its games with Canada, Russia and the U.S. close.

What would constitute success at this tournament: Avoiding relegation.

Prediction: Tenth place and, unfortunately, relegation.

SLOVAKIA


2012 Finish:
Sixth place

Team Outlook: Marek Tvrdon can hardly buy a break. After missing nearly his entire WHL debut season with Vancouver two years ago – and missing the WJC, where he’d have cracked the team as a 17-year old – the 19-year old Detroit prospect who was effective in this tournament a year ago is out for the remainder of the season with a blood clot. Defenseman and Edmonton prospect Martin Gernat scored seven goals in the WHL playoffs en route to a Memorial Cup bid last spring, but is also out with injury due to a shoulder issue that his kept him out of action all season. The Slovaks, who would have given the U.S. a run for its money to make the quarterfinals had both been healthy, will struggle considerably in this tournament and will be in a desperate fight to avoid relegation. There is little scoring power up front; Marko Dano is an 18-year old with three KHL goals for HC Slovan Bratislava, while Richard Mraz – who was unable to make an impact with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s this year – appeared in three KHL games a year ago and registered five points in the 2012 tournament. Defenseman Peter Ceresnak, 19, will appear in his third World Juniors and as a sixth-round pick of the New York Rangers two years ago represents Slovakia’s only active NHL-drafted player.  The 6-3 blueliner is a physical, shutdown type who has yet to register a point in his two previous tournaments.

What must happen for the Slovaks to win gold:
The only gold medal the Slovaks will win will come in the name department. Branislav Rapac is a personal favorite, while Bruno Mraz sounds like some bizarre pop culture hybrid.

Player to Watch: Martin Reway. At 5-10 and 17 years old, he’s hardly a can’t-miss NHL prospect. But with 25 points in 24 games for Gatineau of the QMJHL, his performance may be the most interesting thing happening amidst several lopsided losses within their division.

What would constitute success at this tournament: Making the quarterfinals and avoiding the relegation bracket. The bar is usually set higher for Slovakia, but a drop-off in talent, several injuries and a hellacious division have recalibrated the outlook of this always-competitive team.

Prediction: Eighth place