I highly recommend a visit to the official web presence for this year’s World Juniors, which takes place in Sweden and commences the day after Christmas. In the past 5 years or so, this tournament has gained a richly deserved reputation for being perhaps the best in all of hockey.
Here’s why: It isn’t crammed into the compressed schedule of the Olympics; it doesn’t suffer from the conspicuous absence of marquee players as does the annual World Championships each spring; and for most competing nations, there’s been months and in some cases years of players skating in development programs together, allowing for greater roster chemistry than is generally seen within a relatively short tournament.
Best of all, the World Juniors faithfully generates at least one break-through performance that sets the international hockey world abuzz — think Alexander Ovechkin or Phil Kessel, each at age 16 — and it goes a long way toward clarifying which elite young talent will be grabbed up early in the NHL Entry Draft in June.
Unlike other international tournaments, the World Juniors doesn’t boast a reasonably deep pool of contending teams. Sweden, for instance — winners of both Olympic gold and the senior Worlds in 2006 — hasn’t medaled in the Juniors in 10 years, and hasn’t won gold here in a generation-plus. The Russians are known more for the individual array of talent they bring, which at times has overwhelmed the opposition — but less so this year. And the Czechs and Slovaks, winners each of the senior Worlds in recent years, are largely afterthoughts in the Juniors.
Still there are compelling storylines. Among the historically hockey-lesser countries competing, the Germans and the Swiss, if lacking in star power, are increasingly competitive, and the Slovakian roster is comprised of more than a dozen players skating this season in the CHL. While the World Juniors always plays a significant role in shaping the following summer’s NHL draft, this year’s race to the top of the draft talent pool is unusually wide open. Three names to watch with the no. 1 pick in mind next summer are Canada’s Sam Gagner, the Czech Republic’s Jakub Voracek, and Russia’s Alexi Chrepanov. Also with some serious moving-up Mojo is American James vanRiemsdyk.
Another intriguing aspect to this year’s tourney is the prominence of the netminders in what is historically a forwards-grabbing-the-headlines event. In Leland Irving and Carey Price Canada boasts a tandem of netminders good enough to start for every other country except Finland. The Finns’ Tuuka Rask simply may be the finest under 20 goalie on the planet. He might even be the best goalie presently in the Boston Bruins’ organization. And Russia’s hopes depend a great deal on Caps’ property Semen Varlamov, a “game stealer” who in 18 games in the RSL this season has a .923 save percentage and a 2.10 goals-against.
This year all eyes are on Canada, which is seeking its third consecutive title, and the U.S., which boasts one of the most talented bluelines perhaps in the tournament’s history and is seeking to regain its luster after two straight underwhelming World Juniors finishes. These two squads are the proverbial cream of the tournament crop; the Swedes and Czechs have big-time talent up front to cause worry but are vulnerable in their own end; Finland lacks firepower but again will play stifling defense; and the Russians appear lodged in the next tier down, bringing far less talent to the tourney than in recent years. Host Sweden boasts three world-class talents in Nicklas Backstrom, Patrik Berglund, and Niklas Bergfors, but the talent depth drops off precipitously thereafter, and the Swedish blueline offers no one to make anyone forget Nick Lidstrom.
Canada will win its third straight World Junior title if Jonathon Toews uses the tournament to jumpstart his stunningly mediocre season at North Dakota and if the Canuck veteran blueline meets or exceeds its American counterparts in poise and production. Five blueliners return from last year’s team (11 players overall). They may not have the “name” star quality of the Red, White, and Blue blueline, but they are battle-tested, high draftees in their own right, and paired up again. There are two challenges/quasi concerns — talent obviously not among them. How much, if any, will the team miss Coach Sutter, replaced this year by Craig Hartsburg . . . are the Canadians so loaded that virtually anyone can manage them behind the bench? And are two world-class netminders in Irving and Price a blessing or a burden? There’s one other angle of interest: overseas, the Canadians don’t always live up to expectations; they haven’t earned gold there since ’97.
The American Mission: The No-Nameplate Team
If you doubt the poisonous, ego-driven karma in the 4th-place American dressing room at last year’s World’s, check out Jack Skille’s reminiscence in The Hockey News this week. USAHockey has turned internally, to Ron Rolston, to help shape better chemistry, and given him 15 players from the USNTDP to guide. Rolston coached many of these players to Under-18 golds. There are three clear givens about this American team: it is fast, it is highly skilled, and it will have a blueline more talented than some current NHL ones. Johnson and Johnson, as in Erik and Jack, are simply the best, most dominant defenders in the tourney. This is how good the American blueline is: 7th D-man Jamie McBain is a second-round NHL pick and the no. 1 D-man for the defending national champion Wisconsin Badgers. Keep an eye on Kyle Lawson of Notre Dame, a World Juniors newcomer but a superb skater and deft distributor of the puck. Brian Lee is back for his third tour of duty for the Americans.
What’s far less certain is the caliber of play behind them. Goaltenders Jeff Frazee and Jeff Zatkoff are solid. But are they Golden? Or, behind this blueline, will they even need to be? Worth noting perhaps that heading into the 2003 tourney few thought Al Montoya was all that.
A Trio of Sweet Swedes
While the Canadians and Americans can roll four lines and do damage, the Swedes will have to rely on their Big Three: Backstrom, Bergfors (23rd overall, New Jersey, ’05), and Berglund (25th overall, St. Louis, ’06). After them, there’s a dropoff in talent, and the problem is quite serious on the Swedish blueline. There’s promise in net — Joel Gistedt will start, and he’s had a superb start to his season in the Swedish Elite League. He’s backed up by Buffalo draftee Jhonas Enroth, and the Sabres know their goalies. It’s generally believed that a lead reason for Backstrom remaining in Sweden this season and not joining the Caps was his country’s hosting this tournament, but because of the team’s lack of depth, the burden on his shoulders is mighty. Still, there’s firepower at the top to contend with, and this pre-tournament result caught some attention: Sweden 3, Canada 2. Sweden no doubt will draw positive enegy as the host nation, but confronted by the tournament’s teams with elite and lethal depth, they should have difficulty keeping up. They’ve not only home team expectations to live up to, but the mental burden of coming up short regularly in this tourney.
A Quartet of Terrific Czechs
Martin Hanzal (17th overall for Phoenix, ’05) is leading the Western Hockey League in scoring this season for Red Deer. Teammate Michael Frolik went 10th overall in last summer’s draft to Atlanta, and while his play for Rimouski in the Q this season has been spotty, he’s widely regarded as a game-breaking talent. ’07 eligible Jakub Voracek’s play for Halifax has been brilliant, and he’s no.1-overall-worthy for some scouting services. Left wing Jiri Tlusty (13th overall, ’06) got a long look from the Maple Leafs in September. But like Sweden, the Czech forwards will have to carry a heavy load.
Great Goalies and Crossed Fingers
That about sums up the hopes for Finland and Russia. The Finns as usual will play the tournament’s toughest team defense, but there’s no elite talent with which to score big goals. But if ever a goalie were to carry a team in this tourney it could be Rask. Last year in the elimination portion of the tourney he stopped 50-plus Swedish shots in a 1-0 win. The Russians’ best skater is 17-year-old, ’07 eligible Chrepanov.
Young Guns to Keep an Eye on
It’s always fun to try and forecast who’ll break through at the World Juniors. No one saw Kessel’s star coming in 2004, just as no one saw him skating past the opposition on the ice. A few to focus on: American Pat Kane, an ’07 eligible, who as a freshman in the Ontario League led that league in scoring solidly into December. He’s smallish, but he can fly, dangle, and light the lamp. His teammate Kyle Okposo is slightly better known, as he’s taken the WCHA by force this fall with the Golden Gophers. The World Juniors could be his first true international highlight reel. The Czech Voracek has the complete skill package in a pro frame. Canada’s Sam Gagner is similar but plays with an edge. And Russia has a pair to monitor: Varlamov in net and Chrepanov up front.