After a promotion following their first-place showing at last year’s U18 World Championship Divsion I Group A tournament held in Nice, France, Team Latvia will fight for survival in Switzerland at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship to avoid relegation back to that lower level.
It’s hard to imagine that the Latvians will have a different outcome than playing in the relegation round, but competing against teams like Germany and Slovakia might provide a better chance at staying with the top group than Latvia would have against Finland or host Switzerland. Of course, it would be better for Latvia – or any other relegation team – to avoid relegation games against one of the USA, Czech Republic, Canada, Sweden, or Russia, however unlikely it is that one of those countries would fall to that level.
While not being an elite hockey nation, Latvia is producing some interesting players, with the most notable names in recent years being Zemgus Girgensons (BUF), Nikita Jevpalovs (SJS), and Kristers Gudlevskis (TBL). There are certain prospects from this year’s U18 squad worthy of a look, as well, with a preview of Team Latvia’s U18 squad beginning below.
The two main candidates to be the starting goalie for Latvia are Denijs Romanovskis and Mareks Mitens. Romanovskis spent this season in North America playing in the NA3HL with the Nashville Jr. Predators and the Bozeman Ice Dogs, while Mitens played at home for HK Riga in the MHL. Both players had similar numbers, so at this point, there does not seem to be a clear-cut number one goalie for this tournament. Mitens may have the edge, however, as he took part in the U20 WJC Division I tournament earlier this year.
The defensive corps for Latvia will feature two players who already play pro hockey. Kristians Rubins is in his second year with Vasteras, a team in the Swedish second league (Allsvenskan). This season, Rubins skated in 10 regular season games for the main team, aside from being a core player for the junior squad. Maksims Ponomarenko spent the last few seasons in Norway, and has already skated with Lorenskog during the last two regular seasons. Both Ponomarenko and Rubins were part of last year’s team that won the gold medal in France. These two players are clearly better than the others at this position, and are expected to skate as a defensive pair.
Other defenders worthy of attention are former CHL Import Draft pick Eduards Jansons and Eduards Fjodorovs, another returnee. Both players spent the 2014-15 at home in the Latvian league, playing for Ogre/Saga 18. Other players who could see significant ice time are Kristaps Zile and Karlis Cukste, both playing in the MHL with HK Riga. Most of the defensemen are returnees from last year’s team, so it is expected that the Latvian defense will be fairly solid.
Latvia will bring some interesting forwards to Switzerland for the U18 tournament. The top player may be Rudolfs Balcers, who is playing in Norway with the Stavanger Oilers. In 36 regular season games with the main team, Balcers scored eight goals and 21 points, definitely good numbers for a player who just turned 18 a few days ago. He is a returnee from last year’s team and has already skated at the U20 WJC Div. 1, just like Martins Dzierkals, who started the season in the Latvian league, then moved to HK Riga of the MHL and became one of both their top players and top scorers.
A third interesting forward is Filips Buncis. Gifted with good size (6’3”, 201 lbs.), Buncis didn’t enjoy tremendous success in his first season in North America playing in the USHL and NAHL, but he improved as the season progressed and may be an important player for Latvia at this tournament. His size surely will be something that Latvia can use at the U18, particularly in the games against the toughest competition.
The team’s captain will most likely be Julians Misjus, who centered the first line for Ogre/Saga 18 in the Latvian league playing with Roberts Baranovskis and Eriks Zohovs, who was the top scorer on this line. Zohovs is a returnee from last year’s squad, where he was one of the best forwards. It’s likely that this line won’t be split up in Switzerland since Latvia can get good use from a line which has already gained chemistry at home, as chemistry can be a key factor in a short tournament.
The bottom line
While Team Latvia will bring a good, solid roster to Switzerland, it is still well behind top countries like Russia, Canada, or the USA. The Latvians’ main goal will be to avoid the relegation round, which won’t be an easy task. The roster is reasonably balanced, and the presence of many returnees from last year’s team is definitely a plus, but those positives are not enough to guarantee a place in next year’s top U18 group.
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