This year's time difference between North America and Ufa, Russia doesn't allow for much time for the Christmas hangover to wear off in time for the start of the World Junior Hockey Championships. In fact, already at noon on December 26 on the East coast, four games have already gone final. So yes, you may criticize the fact that this isn't actually a "preview" in it's purest form, but we were busy pleading with Santa for some playing time.
This year's tournament features some of the most talented rosters in recent memory, thanks in large part to Mr. Bettman. Consider this his Christmas present to everyone who loves watching junior hockey, I guess.
The 2012 results yielded some rather interesting groups for this year's tournament as well. In one group, the three traditional hockey superpowers, Canada, Russia and the United States, wil all jockey for position, while defending champion Sweden will wrestle with the upstart Finns and Czech Republic for Group B supremacy. The entire groups are as follows:
Group A: Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia
Group B: Russia, Canada, United States, Slovakia, Germany
Canada has benefitted the most from the NHL lockout, boasting a roster that includes a number of players that would likely be playing professional hockey if it were a real, functioning league. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton go along nicely with potential 2013 top five picks Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. Malcom Subban enters as the starter in net with Jordan Binnington nipping at his heels, which could develop as an interesting dynamic if Subban falters. They enter enemy territory as the heavy favorite for a Gold medal, and why not? This is probably the most talented team since the 2005 team that ended an eight-year drought as tournament champion. The star player on that team? Some guy named Crosby.
Returning champion Sweden limps into the tournament after losing three first-round picks to injury before the puck even dropped in Ufa. In an exhibition game against Canada, Boone Jenner KO'd defenseman Jesper Pettersen, fracturing the Swede's wrist and dislocating his shoulder. Jenner was given a three-game suspension, while Pettersen will miss the duration of the tournament.
Just hours before rosters had to be finalized, it was revealed that Anaheim Ducks prospect Hampus Lindholm would be unavailable for the tournament due to a concussion. After the Ottawa Senators held last year's overtime hero Mika Zibanejad out of the tournament as a safety precaution, it's hard to see this team duplicating their success from 2012. Though they're in a relatively weak group, they should struggle to earn a medal. If they do, expect Oscar Dansk, the maestro behind a wonderful 1-0 performance in last year's Gold medal victory, to have a statue erected in his honor in Stockholm.
Host Russia is a curious case. You'll probably never find a Russian side low on spectacular offensive talent. This year's squad is no different, featuring Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Kucherov and Anton Slepyshev. They return a pair of goaltenders who had an outstanding tournament in 2012 in Andrei Vasilevski and Andrei Makarov. But where this team may falter is on the blue line. Their inability to hold a lead may already have been exposed, as they allowed Slovakia to rally in the final minute and force overtime. Given the IIHF rules, an overtime win is worth just two points as opposed to a regulation win, which nets you three. In a loaded Group B, that may cost them come time for the medal round.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this year's draw is Finland. The Finns have already taken care of Canada and the US in pre-tournament exhibitions, and won't be sneaking up on anyone. But in Group A, they may be the team to beat. Finland, like Canada, features one of their finest rosters in recent memory, including Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick Teuvo Teravainen, 2011 Sabres first rounder Joel Armia and 2013 draft-eligible Aleksander Barkov, who has scouts salivating. The Finns have already dealt with a casualty of their own, though, losing Miro Aaltonen to a gruesome ankle injury. Don't believe me? YouTube it, but for reference, it's Willis McGahee/Joe Theismann ugly. You've been warned. Despite Aaltonen's loss, the Finns have their sights set on gold. Don't be surprised if they come real close.
The United States enters the 2013 tournament licking its wounds from a dismal seventh-place finish a year ago. And while potential 2013 first-overall pick Seth Jones thinks the Americans are the team to beat, they will most definitely be fighting an uphill battle in Group B.
New York Rangers 2011 first-rounder J.T. Miller returns as the only forward from the 2012 team and will get some help from Alex Galchenyuk, taken third overall in 2012 by Montreal, a high-end scorer the likes of which haven't been seen on a US roster since Patrick Kane. Other US forwards make up for what they're lacking in size with pure talent, but even on the international ice surface, questions linger as to how Jon Gaudreau and Rocco Grimaldi will fare against some of the finest defensemen in the world.
The Americans strength is on defense, with Jones and Jacob Trouba leading the way. Connor Murphy and team captain Jake McCabe offer significant depth on the blue line, which is in stark contrast to a year ago, where it was thought to be their biggest weakness. John Gibson gives the United States an experienced netminder, which is exactly what they'll need to contend past the quarterfinals.
One thing to keep in mind for the Americans is that although they'll need to Canada and Russia in group play, that means they'll avoid both of them until at least the semifinals. If they can win two games in regulation, they'll likely play Sweden or Czech Republic in the quarters, given the medal round's format. A matchup with the Czechs for a berth into the semifinals would be a favorable draw to say the least.
MIKE- It's just so hard to see a team knocking off Canada in the medal round, though, as we've seen time and again at this tournament that anything is possible in such a small format. Canada wins Group A, while Finland wins Group B, earning an all-important bye into the semifinals. The Russians, who finish in second in Group A, make quick work of the Czechs--third in Group B-- in the quarters, setting up a date with Finland for a chance to play for Gold on home ice. The Americans take care of whatever's left of Sweden to set up a date with Canada in the other semifinal. Canada knocks off the Americans while Russia is upset (dare I say in overtime, again?!) by the Finns.
But in the end, the onslaught of NHL-caliber talent is too much to overcome. The Canadians end their Gold medal "drought" of four years, defeating Finland in the final. Russia rebounds from a devastating loss to Finland to knock off the Americans for the Bronze.
BRIAN- Mike draws this one up pretty much on the money, but Finland gets my nod for gold. Finland may not be teeming with offensive talent the way the Canadians are, but they've got more than enough high-level talent to compete. Armia taught us last year that he has the makings of an elite scorer, and Barkov truly has the makings of a first-overall pick. Finland has the weapons to stick with Canada in a run-and-gun game that we have seen Canada get carried away in late in recent tournaments, and a Canadian team that has struggled to find consistency in the defensive zone and has had considerable trouble staying out of the penalty box will give the Finns too many opportunities.
Also indicative of past Canadian teams is a whiff of goaltender controversy. Subban will be ridden for the length of the tournament according to Coach Spott, as he should be as he was thought to be the best tender heading into Canada's development camp. The fact is that he was not, and Jordan Binnington gained headlines. Two starting caliber goalies in this tournament is hardly a problem, but with problems between the pipes a staple problem for Canada in recent tournaments, the slightest weakness shown by Subban could cause a stir and should be watched.
Russia comes stacked with offensive talent and arguably the tournament's best goaltender in Vasilevski. They could easily find themselves battling for gold, but I don't believe are well-rounded enough to beat Finland. Russia will however have the upper-hand on the US, a team much more solid defensively but missing tremendous offensive upside from 2012, fire power that wasn't even enough last year to bolster the weak defense. Team USA returns without Kreider, without Coyle, without Bjugstad, and without Etem. Galchenyuk may be more capable than any of these names in terms of creating for himself, but this is a team that to be successful, will need to win a lot of one-goal, two-goal, low scoring games. In a group with Canada and Russia, that's a heck of a challenge.
Finland Gold, Canada Silver, Russia Bronze