Here's to hoping all our readers had a wonderful Christmas holiday. The day after Christmas is still quite the holiday in Canada. Of course, as many of you know, today is Boxing Day for our neighbors to the north. However, many of it's hockey-crazed inhabitants are much more concerned with the return of the World Junior Hockey Championships, which begin today in Edmonton and Calgary.
The Canadiens, after reeling off five straight gold medals from 2005-2009, have been fallen just short of the ultimate prize in each of the last two years, settling for silver. For most of the countries competing in the tournament, it would be an honor to take home a silver medal, but for Hockey Canada, anything less than gold is unacceptable.
Russia, the defending champions who used a five-goal third period to stun Canada in the Gold Medal Game a year ago, is the all-time leader in gold medals at the World Juniors with 16, one better than Canada's 15. Can they return to their 2011 form and capture glory again?
Then there's the Americans, who have taken home a medal in each of the past two tournaments and seem to be catching up in the everlasting arms race for international hockey supremacy. Capitals defenseman John Carlson will be forever remembered by USA Hockey fans for his gold-medal winning overtime goal against Canada in 2010 which ended one of the most exciting games in American hockey history.
The popularity of the tournament growing in the United States exponentially from year to year. More and more hockey fans are tuning in to get their first glimpse of tomorrow's stars. NHL Network will be broadcasting all of Team USA's games, starting with tonight's matchup with Denmark at 8 p.m. (EST), as well as a slew of others through the 2018 tournament.
One of these three countries has won every tournament since 2002. The likes of Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic have boasted talented squads in recent years, but have never been able to capture gold. Is this the year one of them breaks through?
The teams have been split into two groups, based on last year's results. Group A will play their preliminary round games in Calgary, while Group B will faceoff in Edmonton. Each group winner will receive a bye to the semifinals, while the other four will play a cross-over format. Second place in Group A will take on third place in Group B in the quarterfinals, and vice versa. The groups are as follows:
Group A: Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Latvia
Group B: Canada, USA, Finland, Czech Republic, Denmark
Here at THS, we'll discuss some of the biggest storylines heading into the tournament and give our medal predictions. We'll have comprehensive coverage throughout the tournament, so be sure to check back to find out what's going on with this year's biggest stars. With that said, let's get right into it, starting with the question on everyone's mind surrounding this year's host nation.
Who's in net for Canada?
Everyone remembers Canada's monumental collapse in the third period of last year's gold medal game to Russia, turning a 3-0 lead into a 5-3 defeat. Most of the blame was doled out to goaltender Mark Visentin. Hockey Canada turned a lot of heads earlier this month when they announced their roster, featuring Visentin as the starting netminder again, despite a number of worthy alternatives. Visentin looked shaky again in Friday's exhibition game against Sweden and was pulled after surrendering four goals on 17 shots early in the second period. Scott Wedgewood, a third round selection of the New Jersey Devils in 2010, came on in relief and didn't allow a goal.
Head coach Don Hay has yet to announce the starter for today's 3:30 tournament opener against a talented Finland squad, though there are rumors swirling that he still favors Visentin. If he does, will the Niagara IceDogs goalie be able to silence his critics, who seem to multiply by the day? Heading into the tournament, it seems as though this may be the only flaw in an otherwise extremely talented Canada squad. Will it again be their undoing?
Can youth be served on the US blue line?
Before the final roster was announced, we discussed the impact of not having Justin Faulk on the Americans' defensive corps. It only got worse when 2013-draft eligible phenom Seth Jones was sidelined with an upper body in an exhibition with Russia last week. The US returns just two defensemen from last year's bronze-medal winning team in Jon Merrill and Jarred Tinordi. With the exception of the slick-handed Adam Glendening, head coach Dean Blais will have a number of big and bruising, yet inexperienced, defenders standing in front of third-year goaltender Jack Campbell.
With Nick Bjugstad's health rounding into shape, the Americans may pack as good an offensive punch as nearly anyone in this tournament. The real test will be on defense, where questions remain about the strength of these young blue liners.
Western Gold Russian
The defending champions return to the tournament this year primed for their first repeat since 2002-2003. While the roster has completely turned over from last season's gold medal squad, the one player they return was arguably their best last season. Evgeni Kuznetsov will lead an explosive run-and-gun offense, accompanied by two youngsters. Nail Yakupov of Sarnia (OHL) is the concensus first overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft and should see substantial ice-time for a youngster. Likewise, Mikhail Grigorenko (Quebec, QMJHL) has 56 points in 35 games this season and could go anywhere in the first five picks this June.
As explosive as Russia is offensively, their holes are troublesome on the back-end. The youth on this roster is staggering, as all three goaltenders and all defenseman with the exception of Nesterov (property of Tampa Bay) are eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. Russia will need starter Andrey Makarov (Saskatoon, WHL) to grow up in a hurry between the pipes and out-do his 3.02 GAA, good for 15th in the WHL.
Russia is considerably younger than the US and Canada, but they are undoubtedly stronger off the rush. And if they taught us anything last year, it's that sometimes instant offense overcomes all else in the WJC. Let's see who can keep up with Russia.
After last year's 4-2 loss to the US in the bronze medal game, Sweden left the WJC without a medal for the first time since 2007. They've responded this year with a little more flash. The Swedes already made a statement that reverberated through the tournament field with a 5-3 exhibition win over Canada on Friday night. That victory only cemented the notion that the road to a medal this year for Sweden will run through Mika Zibanejad. Zibanejad, last year's sixth overall pick who spent nine games with Ottawa this season, scored twice for Sweden in that game. Top prospect Filip Forsberg will also be one to watch in the week ahead for a pretty well-balanced Swedish squad.
Sweden returns five players to this year's tournament to add valuable experience, but will not have Adam Larrson with them, immediately weakening their blue-line strength. A lot will be asked of Oscar Klefbom and Lonas Brodin, both of whom were drafted in the first round last June. The top pairing of Klingberg and Nemeth will still give Sweden a strong veteran presence on D
Sweden does not necessarily overwhelm you at any one position, but their veteran depth and stability in all areas gives them a strong starting point entering play in Group A.
A Medal Finnish?
Finland enters play as the favorite darkhorse amongst most analysts (calling Mike Salerno!), dressing one of the tournament's most potent scoring duos in brothers Mikael (No. 9, 2010, Minnesota) and Markus Granlund (No. 45, 2011, Calgary). Eyes will also be following Joel Armia, the 16th overall pick last June, taken by Buffalo, and Teemu Pulkkinen, the team's scoring leader form last year. They are two of six players returning for Finland.
Christopher Gibson will play in net for the Finns, the King's second round pick last year. He has a GAA over 3 and a Save % of .899 this season in Chicoutimi. In a group that features offenses like the US and Canada, that might not be good enough to even get out of Group B. The back-up options have no stronger a history. Gibson will have to grow up before our eyes to compliment one of the strongest top lines in the tournament.
Finland has some offensive pop and a defensive lineup that will show us a couple of this June's highest ranked prospects. Their success will rely not only on the play of Gibson, but also on whether or not the Finns can match the grit of a grudge match, like the US and Canada have shown they can. Last week's 3-1 exhibition loss to Canada may have been an indication that the Finns aren't quite there yet.
Mike: Give me the Russians in a repeat performance of last year, except they won't need to come back to do it. Nail Yakupov and Evgeni Kuznetsov will be the difference in the end for Team Russia, who wins it's 17th gold. In the bronze medal game, I've got the Americans defeating an upstart Finland squad to capture their third medal in as many years, a first for USA Hockey at the WJC.
Brian: Russia takes it again! With question marks in net and a defense that is marginal in its own end at best, Russia doesn't seem like the strongest candidate. But the US is just as inexperienced on D and certainly doesn't have the play-making ability. Canada has the best D corps in the tournament, but their goaltending is a huge question mark going in. When you step back and look at it, Russia is similar to last year's squad, only much scarier on the power play and off the rush. This is a Russian group that got better at what they did best, and stayed even everywhere else. Canada turned a blind eye on an opportunity to strengthen their biggest weakness and it will cost them. Russia will take gold, Jack Campbell will battle the US to silver, and the Canadians, superior defensively and well-rounded on offense, will suffer another set-back this season with bronze thanks to inconsistent goaltending. I have Sweden in fourth, but wouldnt be shocked at all to see them force themselves onto the medal stand. Sweden has considerable depth and a lot to prove.
So there you have it, the THS editors are in agreement: Russia will win gold. We'll certainly be rooting against our predictions throughout the tournament. Be sure to check in daily to get the latest news, recaps and analysis on all the World Junior action, and follow us on Twitter (@The_Scratches) for quick updates on scores!