After winning the promotion to the Elite division last year in Belarus, Team Latvia will play its fourth ever WJC and just as other years, their primary goal will be retaining their spot, a goal which they reached just once.
The 2012 team will have some returnees from last year’s squad, most notably two players from North American junior leagues, 2012 eligible Zemgus Girgensons and forward Kristians Pelss (EDM). Other returnees include goalie Kristers Gudlevskis and forward Maris Dilevka.
Just as one could expect, Team Latvia doesn’t look overly good on paper. Even with some good players on roster, the team led by Eriks Miluns will have to battle hard to avoid blowouts in the round robin (where they will have to play against Sweden and Russia). However, being just one team who will be facing relegation since this year, it might be easier for the Latvians to survive and get a ticket for Ufa 2013. The team will also be very young and this might be a problem in the tougher, deciding games.
Latvia historically never produced a high number of goaltending prospects and this might be a problem for them long term. However, Kristers Gudlevskis is one year older now and most likely he will be the starting goalkeeper for the tournament. The 19-years-old native of Aizkrakule, Latvia, is having a good season in the MHL, just as last season, and this is definitely a good sign for the future of the Baltic nation as Gudlevskis might well be a potential goalie for the senior national team.
The backup goalie position will be assigned to one between Rihards Cimermanis, who starts between the pipes for HK Juniors Riga of the MHL B, second tier Russian junior league, and 1994-born Elvis Merzlikins, who is currently the second goalie of Swiss HC Lugano U20.
The defensive line doesn’t look either that good, considering that there is probably only one legit prospect in Nikita Kolesnikovs. After a decent season in the MHL, Kolesnikovs was drafted in the CHL Import Draft by the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL, where he started the 2011-12 season. After 13 games, with a convincing score of 10 points, fruit of one goal and nine assists, he was sent to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in a deal which seen Kirill Kabanov (NYI) going on a reverse path. Kolesnikovs is doing well in his new team as well with two goals and 11 points in 17 games. The 19-years-old blueliner might be worth a late rounds selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft as he wasn’t picked up last year.
Another name which might be interesting to follow at is Edgars Siksna, who is having a very good first pro season with Metalurgs Liepaja of the Belarusian Open League, being among the leaders of the team despite of his young age.
The forward line is the part of the team where Latvia is stacking most of its talent this year. Of course the most awaited player will be Zemgus Girgensons. The 17-years-old center is predicted to be a first-round pick in the upcoming 2012 selections. The native of Riga is having a very good season in the USHL, captaining the Dubuque Fighting Saints in his third season in North America. Girgensons might even emerge as one of the top players of the tournament among the draft eligible and probably most of the opponents’ attention will be given to him. Girgensons might have some hard time this season facing some of the tournament’s top teams, and this will give the numerous scouts attending the games a good indicator of his mental game in sight of the draft.
Another player worth of mentioning is Kristians Pelss (EDM). The Edmonton Oilers 2010 NHL Draft pick is having a very good season in the WHL with the Edmonton Oil Kings after he didn’t get a regular spot in the KHL with Dinamo Riga, which held the rights on him. Pelss appeared to be in good shape lately and this certainly can only be good for Team Latvia.
Zemgus Girgensons isn’t the only draft eligible player of Team Latvia which might get some attention from the scouts in the standings. Forward Teodors Blugers is having a very solid season in the USHS with Shattuck St. Mary’s as he scored 33 points in the 20 games played so far. Blugers pretty much fell behind the radar until now. It wouldn’t be much surprise if a team uses a late round pick on him in the 2012 Draft, considering his skills level and the very good season he is having this year.
Latvia has a very young team with some quality players, but too few of them to be a real treat to the more quoted team. Most likely Latvia will have to battle with other teams like Denmark in order to get a ticket for next year’s Elite Division WJC to be played in Ufa, Russia.