In mid April, 10 teams will play in Crimmitschau and Dresden, Germany for the IIHF World U18 Championship. In February, five of those teams, the United States, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Russia, met in Hradec Kralove and Novy Bydzov, Czech Republic.
Heading into the 2011 event, the United States has won the last two World U18 Championships, and are considered the favorite to repeat. They were utterly dominant in the Five Nations Tournament, winning all four of their games by a combined 26-11 score.
They were led offensively by the line of Reid Boucher, Rocco Grimaldi, and J.T. Miller. Boucher and Grimaldi finished first and second in tournament scoring with 10 and eight points, respectively, in four games. Grimaldi opened the tournament with a hat trick against Sweden and Boucher closed it with a trick of his own against Finland. The duo posted almost ridiculous numbers in the first two games: Grimaldi had seven points and Boucher six.
But will they dominate so completely in Germany? Coach Ron Rolston doesn’t think so. "They’re all good teams and they’re all missing players," he said. "I think this age group is very close."
Finland surprised many people with their 3-1 record, losing only to the USA on the tournament’s final day. This was despite being without two of their highest-rated prospects, Joel Armia and Miikka Salomaki. Both of these players play in the SM-liiga and their respective clubs, Assat Pori and Karpat, decided that they would like them to rest for the upcoming SM-liiga playoffs. Both players completed for Finland at the World U20 Championships in Buffalo in addition to a full SM-liiga season, and there was some worry of fatigue. They will almost certainly be in Germany in April.
Offensively, the Finns were led by the duo of Markus Granlund and Toni Kallela. The two showed incredible chemistry together, and they can be expected to be paired together in Germany as well. In particular, Granlund (the younger brother of prospect Mikael) showed off an amazing wrist shot on a few occasions that would have made Joe Sakic proud. In goal, Sasmu Pehronen looked solid until he was beaten by a bad-angle shot in the second period of the final game, but that may have been the result of fatigue. The USA fired 52 shots at him that game.
Sweden got off to a tough start in the tournament, losing convincingly to the US in the first game and then getting edged by Finland, 3-2, in the second game, which ultimately decided second place. Sweden had a tough schedule, playing four games in four days in two different cities. Also, the flu ran through the Swedish team, and for one game they were reduced to five defensemen. The team’s captain, Oscar Klefborn, was only well enough to play in its final game.
Regarding the team’s schedule, defenseman Jonas Brodin said, "Yes, our schedule was very hard." Despite the obstacles they had to face, the highest-rated prospect playing in the tournament figured, "However, we finally made it pretty well."
Indeed, after dropping their first two games, Sweden came back with two wins to finish third. Coach Rikard Gronborg doesn’t like to make excuses, though.
"We’re always aiming to get the gold. You know, there was a loss to the USA first game and also a close one in the second with Finland. But then we got better as the tournament went on. We knew there will be the Czechs and also the Russians, both very tough teams to play. But we’re always trying to win the tournament we’re at."
The host Czech team was regarded as the weakest team in the tournament, and the absence of their top prospect, Dmitrij Jaskin, only strengthened this thought. Earlier this season, Jaskin was out of the lineup for six weeks with a knee injury, which kept him out of the World U20 Championships. His club team, Slavia Prague, decided they wanted him to rest the knee and not risk re-injury with the Extraliga playoffs looming.
However, they gave the US team its toughest game of the tournament. The US won 3-1 in a game that was very physical and, by many accounts, the most entertaining of the tournament.
"(The Czechs) were a lot better than I actually expected," American left-winger Nicolas Kerdiles said after the game. "They actually did a lot more (physically) than I expected. That was probably their game plan."
Despite playing a good team system and playing strong team defense, the Czechs struggled offensively throughout the tournament. The addition of Jaskin surely would have helped that. "Yeah, Jaskin is a very good shooter," said Czech defenseman Petr Sedlik, "and right now we don’t have a goal-scorer like that on the team. It’s a problem."
After three losses, the Czechs managed a win against their arch-rivals, the Russians, in the tournament’s final game.
Losing all four games, the Russians were easily the biggest disappointment of the tournament. Though they had some definite talent with the likes of left winger Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Albert Yarullin, they seemed to lack depth and played undisciplined at times.
Their lineup included 16-year-old left winger Antonin Ivanyuzhenkov, a big player who is good with the puck and saw a fair amount of power-play time in the tournament.
Russia is fortunate that at the World U18 Championships, they will play in a group that includes Slovakia, Switzerland, and Germany, in addition to the USA, which means they will almost surely advance to the quarter-finals. Even though the US hammered Russia 10-4 in Hradec Kralove, Rolston still expects them to be a big challenge in the group. "Yeah, they have a lot of guys missing, even from their summer team at the Ivan Hlinka (Tournament). I think they have a whole top line missing, so they’ll be dangerous. If you take penalties against them, they’re dangerous on the power play."
The close results in games involving Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, who will be joined by Canada and Norway, lead most observers to believe that it will be the more competitive of the two groups.
While they may not be as dominant in Germany, the US team’s strong performance is a testament to the success of the National Development Program. Since its creation in 2003, the US has been dominant at U18 events, and that has filtered into U20 success and a lot of high draft picks.
The fact that the team plays together all season gives them an advantage against teams that have to be assembled from players playing on different clubs. "Definitely, yeah" agreed Kerdiles. "We see each other every day, go to school together, practice and work out. We play a 42-game schedule together so we know each other pretty well."
While they may be favorites, Rolston warns against being too overconfident. "There’s a lot of good teams and I think there are probably four or five different teams that could win at the end of the year."