WJC preview

By Peter Westermark

The WJC’s are just two days away. The tournament is set to start in
Skellefteå and Umeå, Sweden, on Christmas Day. This year there isn’t one
team everyone agrees being the clear favourites to win it all, which makes
for a more interesting tournament. The Swedes should nevertheless go into
the tournament as favourites, closely followed by the Russians, Canadians
and Finns, in that order.

Sweden, knowing that it was high time to make a serious bid to win the
gold this year as hosts, has adopted a new strategy this year to help the
players considered for the JWC squad. The main idea is to make sure that no
player warms the bench all season before going to the JWC’s to have a
significant role. So, in coalition with Elitserien club teams the Swedish Ice
Hockey Federation created a rule which allows the players considered for the
JWC’s to leave their Elitserien team on loan if they are not getting into
the lineup there to play for teams in the Allsvenskan instead, which is the
level of senior hockey competition one notch below Elitserien. A significant
number of the players on Team Sweden are players who have benefited from
this rule.
Sweden will be lead offensively by the Sedin-twins as expected, but they
will not be joined by Mathias Weinhandl who is still suffering from the
effects of the high-stick to the face from Czech Michal Travnicek he
suffered nearly two months ago. Instead of Weinhandl, the Sedin’s will
probably play with RW David Nyström, drafted by the Flyers 224th overall in
the 1999 Draft. Nyström is expected to assume the role as sniper on the
line. Also, good things will be expected from C Rickard Wallin (drafted by
Phoenix) and LW Christian Berglund (New Jersey). On defense Christian
Bäckman look like a natural leader – in the final exhibition game against the
USA he scored a goal, provided steady defense all game and threw a crushing
open ice hit on Team USA’s Andy Hilbert. Goaltending, usually the
achilles-heal on Swedish Junior Teams look solid this year with Rangers
draftee Johan Asplund going into the tournament as the number one goalie.
The Swedes were dominated along the boards by Team USA at times in their
exhibition game, which ended 2-2 after the Americans tied the score with 20
seconds left, and this is something that other teams can take advantage of.

The Russians have looked good in exhibition beating Team USA 3-1 and Finland
2-1.

Team USA looks to have a solid goaltending tandem in Rick DiPietro and
Phillipe Sauve and good defense with players like Jeff Jillson, Jordan
Leopold, Doug Janik and Brooks Orpik. The US had trouble generating quality
scoring-chances against the Swedes, but they are a hard-working team and
have an high-energy forward in big Willie Levesque (6´0, 230) and might just
surprise.

Canada, as usual, has the most interesting names on paper, and this year
it’s more true than ever with 16-year olds Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester
making the team. Big things should not be expected of these two just yet,
just making the team is a significant achievement. Canada is also the only
team to receive players from the NHL (Malhotra – NYR, Ribeiro – MTL, Biron –
NYI), but on the other hand, no other team has as many players unavailable
because they are playing professional hockey.

The Slovakian team also is an outsider who could make some noise. The have
the number one ranked player for the 2000-Draft, Marian Gaborik, and other
capable forwards such as Josef Mrena from the Prince George Cougars (WHL),
Miroslav Zalesak (San Jose) and 1982-born center Tomas Kopecky. The last
three looked very good in exhibition against Switzerland. On defense they
are led by the big twosome of Islanders first rounders Branislav Mezei and
Kristian Kudroc.

The Swiss Team beat Slovakia 2-1 in exhibition, but should realistically not
reach further than the quarterfinal. Luca Cereda did nothing to warrant his
status as a first rounder in that game, but the look to have a leader in
small but skilled centre Flavien Conne (5’10, 176).

Remember that the Swedes and
Russians get to play Ukraine and Kazachstan. Their top guns should benefit
form this in the race for the scoring-title.