Canada favored against tough junior field
If it's true to suggest North America's hockey community has been starving for action, it's about to enjoy a bountiful buffet with the start of the World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn.
Beginning Christmas Day and continuing through the gold-medal game on Jan. 4, the world's best under-20 players will gather for the annual event.
The NHL lockout means that rosters are chock full of NHL draft picks, some of whom would otherwise be playing in the NHL or with development teams and unavailable for the tournament.
"I think it's going to be a terrific tournament," said Anders Hedberg, director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators and a close follower of the tournament over the last decade.
The 10 nations represented in the tournament are divided into two pools. The United States, which won its first-ever championship with a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over Canada in the gold-medal game in Helsinki last year, will be joined by Russia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Belarus.
Canada, the heavy favorite heading into the tournament, will be joined by Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and Germany.
Following an initial round-robin, the bottom two teams in each pool will be eliminated from medal competition (they play in a relegation playoff). The top team in each pool is given a bye into the semifinals. The second- and third-place teams will cross over (the second-place team in one pool playing the third-place team in the opposite bracket and vice versa) in the quarterfinal. The quarterfinal winners play the top two teams and the winners of the semifinal games meet for the gold. The losers play for the bronze medal.
Here is a team-by-team look at what to expect when the tournament starts.
Style Points:The defending champs have a good mix of skill and toughness. Rookie international coach Scott Sandelin has the option of going with three up-tempo lines, although he will need a healthy Dan Fritsche to do so. A shoulder injury has kept the Columbus Blue Jacket prospect out of action for most of the season. One of the deepest teams down the middle in the tournament, Fritsche, Patrick O'Sullivan, T.J. Hensick and Robbie Schremp are all capable of playing the pivot. The defense, anchored by three-time World Junior Championship member Ryan Suter, should be solid, as will goaltending led by Al Montoya.
Success Hinges On: Can Montoya, the sixth pick in last summer's amateur draft and the most recognizable of the American players, repeat his heroics of last year in Finland? "I believe he's the type of player that will tell the boys, 'Hey, get on my back, let's go,' " said Lew Mongelluzzo, Ottawa Senators scout and USA Hockey Director of Player Personnel. The other major issue is whether a youthful team that won't have the chemistry of last year's squad can find cohesion in what many predict will be the most fiercely contested junior tournaments ever. Leadership from Suter, O'Sullivan and hometown boy Drew Stafford will be crucial.
Names To Know: Schremp, an Edmonton Oiler draft pick, has put aside questions about attitude and defensive abilities to become one of the top scorers in the Ontario Hockey League playing with the London Knights, the top team in the junior circuit. Brian Lee, 17, was a surprise pick for the team ahead of others like A.J. Thelen and Jack Johnson, but Sandelin calls the 6-foot-3 player from Moorehead High School in Minnesota one of the top young players in the country. "Brian's a pretty exciting player to say the least," said Jack Barzee, a USA Hockey player evaluator and amateur scout.
It's A Small World: Suter's father, Bob, was a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal winning team, and his uncle, Gary, played 17 NHL seasons, while first-time national junior team member Chris Bourque is the son of NHL Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque.
Projected Finish: Second in Pool A, Loser in the bronze-medal game against Finland.
Style Points: Boasting the top two picks in last year's NHL entry draft (Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin), the Russians have the potential to light it up offensively. They are expected to play an up-tempo style and will try to stretch the ice to create offensive opportunities. They are the defending under-18 winners, which means there should be some built-in chemistry and familiarity. The Russian squad always seems to be shrouded in some sort of mystery, which players will play, etc., but they have come away with a medal in nine of the last 11 WJC tournaments.
Success Hinges On: Goaltending, as it always seems to be with the Russians, will be the question mark. Andrei Kuznetsov played well during a recent tour of the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada, although Minnesota Wild draft pick Anton Khudobin may also be in the mix. "I'm not even sure they know who their No. 1 goalie will be," Hedberg said.
Names To Know: Ovechkin. Yes, everyone knows Washington made the slick forward the top pick in last year's draft. But he's also been making a name for himself in the Russian super league with solid two-way hockey, including a thunderous hit on Boston's Sergei Gonchar that sent Gonchar to the hospital. Left wing Alexander Radulov leads Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 46 points in 36 games and leads all league rookies in scoring.
It's A Small World: Atlanta star Ilya Kovalchuk enraged Canadians at the world juniors a number of years ago when he vigorously celebrated an empty-net goal that beat the Canadians. Among the members of that Canadian team is Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dany Heatley, who happens to be Kovalchuk's closest friend.
Projected Finish: Loser in the gold-medal game to Canada.
Style Points: The Czechs look to rebound from a series of disappointments at the WJC, which has seen them fail to produce a medal in three straight years after winning back-to-back golds in 2000 and 2001. They will ice a talented, patient team that will sit back waiting for opponents to make a mistake. "The Czechs will be good, too. They can play all day and wait for a break," Mongelluzzo said. The Czechs had 18 NHL draftees on their pre-tournament roster. They boast a big, physical defensive corps which could include three defenders 6-foot-3 or taller.
Success Hinges On: While Montoya of the U.S. got the press and ultimately the sixth pick overall in last summer's NHL draft, Czech netminder Marek Schwarz was drawing comparisons to countryman Dominik Hasek and was considered by some to be the best netminder in the draft. He has the potential to win games by himself.
Names To Know: Right wing Rostislav Olesz, the seventh pick overall of the Florida Panthers, oozes confidence having played in the Czech senior league since he was 15. Six-foot-3 defenseman Ladislav Smid was the ninth pick overall for the Mighty Ducks.
It's A Small World: The Czechs swept the 2001 tournament winning three straight one-goal elimination games. They also swept the individual awards as Tomas Duba was named top goaltender, Rostislav Klesla of Columbus was the top defender and Pavel Brendl of Carolina was top forward.
Projected Finish: Third in Pool A, defeated by Finland in the quarterfinals.
Style Points: Along with Switzerland and Germany, Belarus has little chance to procure a medal at the '05 tournament. Still, they boast four NHL draft picks, including the talented Andrei Kastsitsyn (10th pick, Montreal in 2003) and will try to play a little more up-tempo to take advantage of what skill they have. "They play like the Russians and try and stretch the ice out," said Mongelluzzo.
Success Hinges On: Belarus may make life difficult for opponents if they can produce enough offensive sparks to stay close against deeper, more talented teams. "If Kastsitsyn has a terrific tournament, he can certainly win a game or two by himself," Hedberg said.
Names To Know: Forward Konstantin Zakharov is a Blues prospect and defenseman Siarhei Koasau is a Red Wings prospect.
It's A Small World: Kastsitsyn may be joined on the Belarus roster by younger brother Siarhei. "If you're an NHL guy, you know he's a brother of Kastsitsyn and you're watching him."
Projected Finish: Fourth in Pool A, relegation play.
Style Points: Along with Germany, Switzerland has taken dramatic steps forward in terms of its international hockey profile. That doesn't mean they are a threat to win a medal, but they are a threat to knock off a team that doesn't take them seriously.
Success Hinges On: Trying to stay close with defensive play and stealing a win with a special teams goal or turnover.
Names To Know: Forward Peter Guggisberg, a Washington Capitals' draft pick in 2004 (166th overall), saw his performance at last year's World Junior Championship hampered by illness. The Ottawa Senators have two Swiss players that could be in action at the tournament, Roman Wick and Phillipe Seydoux, who will captain the Swiss group.
It's A Small World: The Swiss rode the hot hand of David Aebischer, now goaltender of the future in Colorado, to a 4-3 upset of the Czech Republic in the 1998 bronze-medal game.
Projected Finish: Fifth in Pool A, relegation play.
Style Points: Let's put it this way: The only player invited to Canada's selection camp that wasn't already an NHL draftee was Sidney Crosby, a lock to be the first overall pick at this year's draft (should there be one pending the resolution of the NHL lockout). Deep, talented, fast, physical -- this team can dominate any style and is already being considered among the most talented ever iced by Canada. "I think they're coming like a freight train. I think they'll run through their bracket like they did last year," Mongelluzzo said.
Success Hinges On: Many feel Canada's goaltending will be the team's Achilles heel, although even that's a stretch given that the second goalie taken in the draft last year, Devan Dubnyk (14th overall), may end up playing backup to Kootenay's Jeff Glass. "I've seen all four of them play, and there's not one of them that's a slug," said Barzee of the four Western Hockey League netminders vying for the two Canadian roster spots.
Names To Know: Crosby's name has been whispered in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux since he was just out of diapers. He will be the youngest player on the team and may be under the greatest scrutiny although being part of a lineup that includes top prospects like Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf and Anthony Stewart should help ease that burden of expectation. The team is coached by Brent Sutter, former NHLer and member of the far-flung Sutter clan from Viking, Alberta.
It's A Small World: Patrice Bergeron has already become a regular NHLer with Boston and played for Canada's gold medal team at the World Championships last spring. He would become the first player to win a World Championship before winning a junior championship if Canada brings home gold.
Projected Finish: First in Pool B, gold-medal winner over Russia.
Style Points: The Finns are invariably described as tenacious, tireless and sometimes testy. They also have terrific balance and possibly the most potent forward line in the tournament. The Finnish junior program is considered among the most sophisticated in the world with a focus on physiology and team-building, and while they may not boast the overall talent of the other elite teams in the tournament, their work ethic may more than make up for it. "Sometimes they beat you by out-hitting you, out-working you," Barzee said.
Success Hinges On: If the trio of Lauri Korpikoski, Lauri Tukonen and Petteri Nokelainen can light it up like they did at the under-18 world championships (they tied for the scoring lead in the tournament), the Finns will have enough offense to complement strong team defense. All three were taken in the first round of the NHL draft last spring.
Names To Know: The Finns will rely on either Joonas Hallikainen or Tuukka Rask to handle the goaltending chores. Neither belongs to NHL clubs at this point, although Barzee was impressed by Finnish netminding at a summer evaluation camp in North Dakota last year. "I expect the Finnish goaltending to be good," Hedberg added.
It's A Small World: Finland has suddenly become the goaltending capital of the world with the emergence of Miikka Kiprusoff during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring and a strong dedication to goaltender development in Finland. It was Kari Lehtonen, now the goaltender of the future for the Atlanta Thrashers, who used his junior experience as a springboard to becoming the top prospect in hockey the last two years.
Projected Finish: Bronze-medal winner over United States.
Style Points: Although Germany continues to emerge as a hockey nation, drawing more and more attention from NHL scouts, their goal in the tournament will be to stay close. To achieve this, the Germans will play a methodical, fall-back, trapping style that will try to force opponents to dump the puck in and beat them with the forecheck.
Success Hinges On: Lacking the talent of virtually every other team in the tournament, the Germans will have to be extremely patient and get outstanding goaltending from Thomas Greiss.
Names To Know: Greiss and forward Kai Hospelt are the only two NHL draftees named to the German's preliminary roster. Both were drafted by the San Jose Sharks, who have become the unofficial home of German NHLers. The Sharks boasted three German-born players last season, Marco Sturm, Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff. Greiss was the fourth-ranked European goaltender heading into last year's draft.
It's A Small World: Former NHLer Uwe Krupp, who makes his home in Atlanta where he is involved in minor hockey, is the team's assistant coach.
Projected Finish: Fifth in Pool B, relegation play.
Style Points: The Slovaks, while not as talented as their neighbors from the Czech Republic, will play a similar style of game -- patient with an emphasis on the counter-attack.
Success Hinges On: The Slovaks will have to play it close to the vest defensively and will rely in large part on hulking Atlanta Thrashers draft pick Boris Valabik and his 6-foot-7 reach to help keep offenders at bay.
Names To Know: Left winger Stefan Ruzicka and defenseman Andrej Sekera are teammates in Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League where Ruzicka was runner-up for rookie of the year honors last season. The Ottawa Senators have high hopes for defenseman Andrej Meszaros, who plays for Vancouver of the Western Hockey League. The slick, puck-moving defenseman is expected to wear the "C" for the Slovaks.
It's A Small World: The Slovaks have won only one medal at the WJC, a bronze medal in 1999 when they stunned Sweden 5-4 thanks to a three-goal effort from Phoenix star Ladislav Nagy.
Projected Finish: Fourth in Pool B, relegation play.
Style Points: The last time the Swedes won a medal at the WJC was in 1996, and the country's junior development program continues to be overhauled. Still, many expect the Swedes to ice a more competitive team this year that will look to capitalize on a combination of size and balance. Fourteen Swedes drafted by NHL clubs were part of their preliminary roster for the tournament.
Success Hinges On: Whether the Swedes can find enough offensive jump to get into medal contention. Loui Eriksson (a Dallas Stars draft pick); Robert Nilsson, son of former NHL star Kent Nilsson; and Carl Soderberg are expected to shoulder that weight. "They have an outside chance of surprising. It's not a team without some talent," said Hedberg, one of the top Swedish players of all time.
Names To Know: Christopher Heino-Lindberg is expected to be the Swedes' top netminder. He is not related to former Swedish netminding hero Pelle Lindberg, who died in a car crash after playing five seasons for Philadelphia in the mid-1980s although the two shared the same club team in Sweden, Hammarby.
It's A Small World: Beloved Swedish star Peter Forsberg remains the all-time junior tournament scoring leader with 42 points in 14 tournament games.
Projected Finish: Third in Pool B, quarterfinal loser to United States.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.