World Junior Championships Preview
Ten years from now, when we look back at this years World Junior Championships, we
will be amazed how many big stars that were present. Sure, a few of the biggest
names are missing because they have not been released by their NHL-clubs, but
many of the players who will battle for the gold-medal will become big stars in NHL sometime down the road.
This years tournament will be held in Skellefteå and Umeå, Sweden. The first game will be played on December 25th and the final will take place on January 4th. The ten teams are divided into two groups with Canada, USA, Slovakia, Finland and Czech Republic in Group A and Sweden, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Switzerland in Group B. A difference from last years tournament is that the group-winner will not be automatically qualified for the semi-final. This year the winner in Group A will play the fourth-placed team from Group B, the second-placed team in Group A will play the third-placed team from Group B and so on.
The favourites will probably be Canada. Despite missing a few of their NHL-players, they have a very impressive roster. Three NHL-players were released this year: Manny Malhotra of New York Rangers; Mathieu Biron, New York Islanders and Mike Ribeiro, Montreal Canadiens. They also have the sixth pick from the 1999 draft, goalie Brian Finley, the ninth pick Jamie Lundmark, Chicago prospects Steve McCarthy and Mark Bell and of course the two 16-year-olds Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester. Only twice before have Canadian 16-year-olds been playing the WJC, in 1979 Wayne Gretzky and in 1990 Eric Lindros.
One thing that will be a disadvantage for Team Canada, is the bigger rinks (which showed in their first exhibition game against Sweden were they lost 1-7) and another could be the fact that there will be no red-line involved. Canada have only two players that are used to playing without the red-line and that is college-players Dany Heatley and Matt Pettinger. The European teams on the other hand are used to both the bigger rinks and playing without the red-line.
Canada may be small favourites, but the race for the gold will be very tough. Several teams have a good chance of, at least, taking a medal. Hosts Sweden have a good chance of ending up as winners. The last time Sweden took gold in the WJC was in 1981, then led by twins Peter and Patrik Sundström. This year, the Sedin-twins, Daniel and Henrik, drafted as number two and three by the Canucks in the 1999 draft, will try to win the gold for Sweden. They are currently in their last year playing in the Swedish Elite League and will leave for the NHL in the summer. The expectations in Vancouver are huge. On the down-side they are missing their linemate from the very successful “Line 19”, Mattias Weinhandl who is out indefinitely with an eye-injury.
Last years bronze-medallists, Slovakia, looks interesting this year as well. Their big star from last year, Marian Hossa, will not be back, but he is replaced by his younger brother Marcel Hossa, a predicted first-rounder in the 2000 draft. They also have the player that is expected to be the first overall-pick in next years draft, Marian Gaborik. He is a natural goalscorer and a future star in the NHL. Other players that their opponents will have to watch closely are Branislav Mezei (10th overall in the 1999 draft), Kristian Kudroc and Milan Bartovic. Slovakia have been placed in the tougher of the two groups, Group A, but has a good chance of finishing second.
Russia will go to Sweden keen on defending their title. They may be missing the big stars that teams like Canada and Sweden has, but if the Russians plays as a team they will be hard to beat. The most interesting Russian player this year will probably be Alexei Smirnov. He is predicted to be a top-5 pick in next years draft. He is big (6-3, 205 Ibs) and has a good shot.
Finland and the Czech Republic also has a chance of grabbing a medal. Finland is led by their star, Jani Rita (a 13th overall pick in the 1999 draft), but has got plenty of talent behind him as well. Players like goalie Ari Ahonen and forwards Teemu Laine, Teemu Saionmaa and Samu Isosalo all have good chances of becoming NHL-players one day.
Czech Republic have their stars in first-round draftees Milan Kraft and Martin Havlat. After a poor performance from the Czechs last year they will want to show that they can do better than that. Unfortunately for them they will be playing in Group A, which makes it tougher for them to get an “easier” opponent in a possible quarterfinal.
The fifth team in Group A are USA. They are without their big stars David Legwand, Tim Connolly and Dave Tanabe and faces a tough job to even reach the quarterfinal. Defensively they look rather strong led by big guy Jeff Jillson, but they seem to lack offensive talent even though they have first-rounder Barrett Heisten. Their biggest star however is their team doctor, former speed-skater and five times Olympic gold-medallist in Lake Placid in 1980, Eric Heiden.
In group B Switzerland looks like the team likely to finish third. Swiss national team hockey has improved a lot over the last few years and the NHL-teams have got their eyes open for Swiss players. The star on the team is Toronto-prospect Luca Cereda, a first-round pick in this summers draft.
The remaining two teams in Group B, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, will battle for the final quarterfinal spot that will probably see them face Canada.
Group A Group B
1. Canada 1. Sweden
2. Slovakia 2. Russia
3. Finland 3. Switzerland
4. Czech Republic 4. Ukraine
5. USA 5. Kazakhstan
Czech Republic-Sweden 2-3