2016 U18 World Championship Preview: Inexperienced Latvia squad hard-pressed to avoid relegation

By Chapin Landvogt
Team Latvia - 2016 IIHF U18 World Championship

Image: Team Latvia will send a mostly internationally inexperienced team to the 2016 IIHF World Championship, where they hope to avoid relegation to D-1.

 

 

After making their way up from Division I in 2014, the Latvians played a wonderful tournament in Switzerland at the 2015 IIHF U18 World Championship. Things started off with a wild 11-6 loss to Canada, but the team showed that it would not back down and would find ways to be dangerous.

Despite some tight contests in the preliminary round, including a couple of one-goal losses, the team found itself in the relegation round against Germany. There, however, the Latvians showed they belonged. They gained two 5-3 victories, and retaining class never seemed to be in doubt. At no point was Germany able to muster a lead. Most impressive, though, was that the tiny nation displayed solid fundamentals and a world of creative enthusiasm on the attack.

With the U20 team having also recently gaining promotion to next winter’s World Junior Championship, Latvia is on a roll, with the whole program looking forward to bigger and brighter things.

Returning Latvian Head Coach Eric Miluns will bring along a largely unknown and very small squad to Grand Forks, with 10 of his players currently playing abroad, a trend that has been growing amongst U20 players in recent years. Captaining the team will be mid-sized defenseman Tomass Zeile, who plays his hockey for the Arlanda Wings in Sweden, for which the all-around defender put up 20 points and a +5 in 27 U18 league contests. He will be assisted by Emils Ezitis, who spent the year with Riga in the Russian MHL, and Markuss Komuls, a forward and defenseman who had 37 points in 39 games for the Vermont Lumberjacks of the EHL.

Latvia will kick off the entire tournament with a match against Switzerland, a team it played tightly last spring and a country in which two of Latvia’s players ply their trade. If the Latvians are to have any hopes of making the playoff round, then a victory here may be the best – and only – route to that goal. Games against Sweden and tournament host USA will follow after that, with Latvia being viewed as the heavy underdog. The last game of the preliminary round will be against Russia, which is always a special match-up for Latvia. With Russia having sent in a younger replacement team, it will be interesting to see how Latvia reacts, especially if it’s in a do-or-die situation at that point.

Here’s a look at what you can expect from Team Latvia.

Unknown quantities in goal

Davis Grigals had a pretty active winter for Riga in the MHL. In 30 games, he had a 2.36 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The 6’2”, 200-pound Niklavs Rauza got into 23 games for Finnish club Sport and gained some valuable experience, even if his stats at the U20 level were nothing to write home about. Mareks Mitens is likely the third stringer. Judging by the test games, it looks like Grigals will get the nod, but there is no telling what exactly this group of goaltenders will be able to do at this tournament. Latvia will simply hope that one has a great day at the right time. Whoever is in net, he is bound to see a lot of pucks.

Take deep breaths, then expect and accept the pounding

As opposed to some other tournaments in recent years, the defense for Latvia is looking mighty tiny. Stay-at-home ruffian Roberts Kalkis is the largest at 6’1” and 185 pounds. Like colleague Pauls Svars, who is just 5’10” and under 160 pounds, they are the two most experienced rearguards against older players, having been part of Riga’s entry in the Russian MHL, which is a U23 league. As such, expect captain Zeile to be given a boatload of ice time in all situations. He will get most of his help from Sandis Smons, who put up 22 points and 51 penalty minutes for Geneva’s U17 outfit, and Regnars Udris, who has been playing high school hockey for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks in California, with whom he only mustered one point in 25 games. Despite being internationals, neither has faced much of the type of competition they will be exposed to at the U18. On no less than the power play, you can expect to see the aforementioned Komuls manning the blueline.

The mid-sized, defensively-oriented Silvestrs Selickis and Olaf Berzins each spent the entire season playing U18 league hockey for their respective club teams and will round out the defensive corps.

Said another way, this defensive group doesn’t come close to resembling the one the team featured last spring. As far as merits are concerned, there is little proven size or talent here, lending credence to the belief that this is among the lowest profile defensive units to show up at any U18 tournament in many, many years. Little can be expected of it, especially against the types of forward units their opponents can throw on the ice.

Give us offense or give us… relegation

If the group of forwards proves any less offensive than last year’s team, which certainly got the job done in the goal-scoring department, then the chances of avoiding relegation are very minimal. This team has to score goals, because all indications are that they will have a hard time preventing them.

Leading the way will be 6’3” Roberts Blueger, a Shattuck St. Mary’s winger scheduled to head to Lake Superior State next season. If that name rings a bell, it should, because older brother Teddy Blueger is a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick who just finished off his career for Minnesota-Mankato. He had 48 points in 47 games this winter, good numbers that are only average for the Shattuck’s program. His linemates will likely be Ezitis, who will look to create space for Blueger while providing a passing target near the net, and 6’2” center Erlends Klavins, an MHL center who had nine points in 42 games.

They will be best assisted up front by tiny tot Deniss Smirnovs, only 5’9” and 150 pounds, who had 68 points in 41 games for Geneva’s U17 team in Switzerland. A center with quickness, Smirnovs hasn’t let his size hold him back yet, but he also hasn’t faced this kind of competition. Also expected to help out is 6’1” lightweight Verners Egle, brother to upcoming Clarkson forward Haralds Egle, who spent 20 games with the Madison Capitals’ U18 program (16 points). He is only 16 years old, but will be counted on to contribute up front, also thanks to his experience on North American ice.

Renars Krastenbergs has just spent the past season playing Tier 1 U.S. midget hockey for the TPH Thunder, for whom he collected 18 points in 30 games. It is very possible that he will be lining up with the likes of Valters Apfelbaums and Vladislavs Nazarovs, who each spent the year between a number of clubs. Apfelbaums actually played in 16 games of pro play with Prizma Riga (four points) while Nazarovs appeared in eight (two points). Both are a spit in the bucket weight-wise, and if you thought Smirnovs was small, wait until you see the 5’7”, 152-pound Nazarovs on the ice.

SK Riga members Haralds Strombergs, Lukass Sicevs, and Emils Gegeris will round things out, with each spending time with the club’s U18 and U17 teams.

Keep an eye on…

What his role will be is uncertain, but 16 year-old Emils Gegeris has shown some real good instincts at the U17 level and will likely play abroad next season. Folks can get a look at him now in this tournament, and if Latvia finds itself losing by a good bit, you can expect him to be given more and more ice time in order to build for the future.

Outlook

Quite honestly, it’s not good. The team is quite small and has very few players who have spent their winter playing hockey at a level similar to what they’ll now face in North Dakota. The only true goal can be to retain the class, and this would best be done with a victory over a hopefully sleepy Switzerland to kick things off. What the team can build on is its pride and the strength often gained from a David vs. Goliath mentality. But on paper, this is the weakest participant in the tournament, and that is not good in light of the rather large and strong clubs Denmark and Slovakia, their closest rivals, will be icing.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin