2011 WJC: Best of the rest

By Jason Menard

The polite thing to say is that every team has a chance. That’s the polite thing to say — the honest thing would be something totally different. For some teams, participation in the World Junior Championship isn’t about medaling — rather it’s about measuring your program against the world’s elite and avoiding relegation.

For a quartet of teams, gold is out of the question — and for a trio of these squads, they’re hoping for nothing more than to avoid the relegation purgatory often occupied by the Austrias, Latvias, Kazakhstans, Denmarks, and Belaruses of the world.

And while some of the teams below may serve as trap games for the tournament’s elite at best — and cannon fodder at worst — there are still a few reasons to tune in to watch these teams compete at the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, NY.

Finland

It’s heartbreaking to include the Finns in a list of this nature. This proud hockey nation has produced some of the league’s most dynamic players over the years: Teemu Selanne, the Koivu brothers, and Miika Kiprusoff come to the top of mind. As of late, the well’s run dry.

In fact, Finland‘s last taste of success at the WJC came back in 2006 where the club came home with a bronze medal. But from 2001 to 2004, the Finns medaled in four consecutive tournaments (three bronze, one silver), and in 1998 the squad led by Olli Jokinen and Eero Somervuori took home the country’s second WJC gold medal.

This year, Finland again is consigned to the also-rans. One bright spot may be between the pipes where Samu Perhohen could be poised to pull a Bejamin Conz and rise to the tournament’s upper echelons in spite of his team’s on-ice performance.

Finland had high hopes that Mikael Granlund (MIN) could suit up for the squad, but complications from a concussion will keep him from suiting up. Instead, the Finns will be led by Erik Haula (MIN), who is currently has three goals and 15 assists for the University of Minnesota, but will be hard-pressed to find someone to cash in on the chances he creates. The Montreal Canadiens‘ prospect Joonas Nattinen will be another forward to watch, but in all honesty the pickings are slim for the blue and white.

Germany

Post-unification, considering its size one would think that Germany should have the resources at its disposal to develop into a solid European hockey nation. And while that’s yet to materialize, we’re seeing signs of promise out of Deutschland.

The German strength lies in net, where Washington prospect Philipp Grubauer and 2011 draft-eligible prospects Mathias Niederberger and Niklas Treutle should provide the club with a solid last line of defense.

Up front, the German squad also has some offensive potential, led by Pittsburgh prospect Tom Kuhnhackl who has played well in the OHL (and whose father is the German Wayne Gretzky). He’ll receive support from Nashville prospect David Elsner and Tobias Rieder — Central Scouting’s sixth-ranked OHLer in the 2011 draft.

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect on the German roster is a player who is not eligible to be drafted until 2012 — Nikolas Latta. The youngest player on the German roster, Latta has played well in a limited role with the OHL‘s Sarnia Sting, but tore up a German junior league with 31 goals and 31 assists in 34 games last year, showing that the offensive potential is there. That said, this year’s likely more about gaining experience for the future for Latta — but any offense that he can muster will be greatly appreciated.

Norway

The Norwegian squad enters the tournament with four strikes against it: Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.

The pool-makers did Norway no favors by consigning it to the tournament’s Group of Death. The question appears to be not if they’ll be relegated, but when. However, if Norway can avoid that fate this year, they should be far better for the experience.

Norway is icing an extremely young squad this year in Buffalo. In fact, of the 24 players invited to the selection camp, all but one are eligible for the 2011 NHL entry draft. And for that one player, who has already been drafted, there will be tremendous pressure for him to lead this squad in all aspects of the game.

Sondre Olden, who was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2010 entry draft, has spent the majority of the season with Modo’s under-20 squad (after joining the team last year as a 17-year-old), scoring six goals and 12 points in 22 games. He’s also spent three games with Modo’s parent club in the Elitserien. He’ll be the primary focus for the Norwegian attack, but he’ll receive some assistance from a trio of players familiar with the North American game.

Rasmus Juell, Andreas Stene, and Nicholas Weberg have all spent the season in North America. Juell, who has committed to Northeastern University, is currently with the USHL‘s Cedar Rapids squad, following two years in Sweden (he played in Detroit with Belle Tire in 2007-08), Stene has two goals and seven points in 25 games with the WHL‘s Kelowna Rockets, and Weberg currently plays with the prep powerhouse and noted hockey factory Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota. Their familiarity with the North American ice surface and style of play will be invaluable to the Norwegian squad.

Unfortunately for Norway, there’s no standout in net — and whoever is between the pipes is likely to see a lot of rubber coming their way. Teammates Kenneth Eriksen and Steffen Sobert (Manglerud Star), and Finland’s Espoo Blues’ Lars Volden will be battling for the starting role.

In the end, it would take an upset of immense proportions for any of this quartet of teams to medal in Buffalo. But stranger things have happened and, as Team Canada found out in 1998 when it lost to Kazakhstan — the same year that the aforementioned Swiss won its only WJC medal defeating the heavily favored Czechs in the bronze-medal game.

But instead of feeding you a platitude about "this is why they play the games" each of these teams offers something of interest to fans of the game. An upset would just be the cherry on top.