The IIHF 2012 U18 Tournament taking place in Brno, Znojmo and now Breclav, Czech Republic, kicked off yesterday. The tournament goals of northern neighbors Germany and Denmark are officially different, but on paper quite the same; somehow surprise in the uphill battle of the initial round or then avoid relegation at all costs in the relegation round. This will be no easy task for either team.
The U18 tournament has been growing in prestige throughout the scouting community in recent years and this year's event will once again feature a number of young men whose names will be called at the 2012 NHL draft. Countries such as Canada, Sweden, Russia and the USA will feature a number of young men who NHL teams are looking to get a conclusive and hopefully convincing look at.
Last year, Germany hosted the event in Dresden and Crimmitschau where, despite some very impressive games and results along the way, it ended up watching the medal round from the stands. Their high hopes as the hosting country took some hits along the way due to injuries, including the one to key forward and later Edmonton Oilers 4th round pick Denmark was busy earning its way back into the Division 1 bracket, a situation not uncommon to the program. Key contributors to that effort Nicolai Meyer and Sebastian Ehlers will not be able to help out this year's squad. Denmark now finds itself in nothing less than an upward battle.
Here's a look at the two nations' respective entries at this year's tournament.
As is the case just about every year, this inconspicuous German team will enter the tournament with the official goal of winning every game, approaching every game day with a must-win attitude and knowing that nothing will simply be given to them by any opponent. This mentality is one that has generally led the German program to success at several levels in recent years after many years of what seemed like an unstoppable downward trend. That trend is thankfully a thing of the past for the time being. Germany will once again feature a very homogenous team as not one player on the team spent the 2011-12 season in a foreign country. Head Coach Jim Setters is very active nationwide in viewing and working with Germany's top 15, 16, 17 and 18-year-old talents, keeping a eye on and molding them for the years to come.
After five different player viewing and team building sessions in the course of the season, and with regular observation of well over 50 candidates in Germany's top junior league and minor pro ranks, the national program is confident in its team's construction heading into this tournament. A relatively young junior league known as the DNL has grown into the key developer and feeder of not only the U20, U18 and U16 teams, but also a number of pro clubs in Germany's top four leagues. This year's team will emphasize that more than ever, as Team Germany members Dominik Kahun, Leon Draisaitl, Marcel Kurth, Sven Ziegler and Markus Eisenschmid pose five of the league's top 10 scorers. In addition, recent addition Dennis Shevyrin also managed to finish third in playoff scoring. Alone league champion Mannheim will be providing the team with 10 players.
This team is a very new one, featuring only two returnees from last year's edition, goalie Marvin Cuppers and forward Frederik Tiffels. There are also eight players with 1995 birthdays dotting the roster, which will certainly benefit next year's team as well as this year's. The big boys on the team are 18 year old defenseman Eric Stephan measuring in at 6'2 and 203 pounds and 16 year old forward Leon Draisaitl measuring 6'2 and 198 pounds. Central Scouting's final rankings for European skaters only have forward Sven Ziegler at spot 52, defenseman Dominik Tiffels at 109 and forward Patrick Klopper at 112. One way or another, this team will need to achieve everything by committee, as any possible movers and shakers will need to come to the forefront in the course of the tournament. This will also be the case with the goalie triumvirate, even if Cuppers is the expected starter.
Thanks to a fairly strong tournament showing last spring, the team will not need to think about preliminary round encounters with Canada and the USA, two countries whose styles of play they often tend to match well with. Instead, they'll now face the high-flying Swedes and Russians, a hungry Latvian team and their arch rival Switzerland. As such, the first two matches against Latvia and then Switzerland are clearly the most important in the tournament and games the team knows it simply must win before looking to take a bite out of the favorites in the group. Coach Setters will look to use four hardworking lines to wear down the opponents and capitalize on their mistakes. Despite a rough and tumble game plan, the team will need to make sure it doesn't take too many penalties, particularly with special teams being a likely difference-maker in the first two games. Should Germany head into the playoff round, they'll assume the role of a spoiler, which is one they generally tend to thrive in.
Players to keep an eye on:
G Marvin Cupper, Berlin Juniors
He hasn't had the best season he could have, but fact is, his professional club is high on him and he's got experience not only in the DNL and on the international scene, but also in Germany's third pro league. In addition, he was ranked for a while amongst Europe's top 10 goalies for the upcoming NHL draft, a ranking he has not been able to maintain this spring. He has every reason to be motivated into solidifying himself as an NHL prospect, if he so chooses. Germany could desperately use that type of motivation in the Czech Republic, especially to kick off the tournament.
G Kevin Reich, Mannheim Juniors
Sixteen-year-old Kevin Reich simply dominated the DNL regular season and playoff round, going a combined 23-3 along the way to the DNL championship. This was done on the strength of a 1.87 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. Granted, his team was the league's best, both in the regular season and the playoffs, but he contributed heavily enough that he's heading to the Czech Republic with a shot at playing. He's young and is a man for the future, but it'll be interesting to see what happens should expected starter Marvin Cuppers flail in either of the first two games of the tournament, especially considering Coach Setters is confident in all three of his goalies and claims he'll be anointing his starter based on who is hottest at the time.
D Dominik Tiffels, Mannheim Juniors
Not the largest kid around, Dominik is coming off a championship season in which he put up a combined six goals, 34 points and plus-34 rating in 42 games. An important player for last year's U17 team, he'll be looking to put his overall game on display for the scouting community and ready to strut his stuff on the international scene. More importantly, he is efficient in all three zones and in all situations.
F Dennis Shevyrin, Krefeld Juniors
The 6'0, 183 pound Russian-born Shevyrin had a solid first DNL regular season (10 goals and 27 points in 36 games), but was a smashing success in his team's shortened playoffs (three goals and 13 points in five games). A feisty player, Germany is hoping that his season-ending upward curve continues and goes on to help the team considerably in this tournament.
F Sven Ziegler, Berlin Juniors
The Eisbaeren Berlin hockey club has been the pinnacle of the German ice hockey scene in recent years, both at the pro and junior level. Ziegler managed to follow up on leading the DNL team in regular scoring on the strength of 26 goals and 45 points in 32 games with another 14 points in nine playoff games. He was also loaned to a 3rd division pro team for 10 games, where he managed to put up an additional 10 points. As the highest ranked German heading into this summer's NHL draft, it'll be interesting to see if the decent sized forward can make a solid contribution at the international level. The team will be needing offense from somewhere and will likely see him as a go-to guy.
F Leon Draisaitl, Mannheim Juniors
Without a doubt, this is the most interesting player in the German line-up. Leon is the son of former national team player Peter Draisaitl, most recently coach of the Nuremburg Ice Tigers in Germany's top pro league. Leon finished second in the DNL in scoring with 21 goals, 56 points and a plus-29 in 35 games. He then chipped in another 12 points and plus-seven in eight playoff games while becoming league champion. He was a key offensive performer for the 2010-11 U16 team and accumulated 13 points in 14 games for this season's U17 team. A boy in a man's body, expect Leon to be in a top six scoring role for this team at this tournament – doing so as a 16-year-old! He is the youngest player on the team, and perhaps in the tournament.
The Danes will face no less than the USA, Canada, Finland and the tourney's host Czech Republic in the preliminary round of the tournament. The US is the reigning gold medalist while Canada enters every tournament as one of the heavy favorites – this year being no different. Finland is always a team to take seriously and will feature a number of players who already see considerable ice time in their nation's top pro league. This can also be said of the Czechs, whose junior program has taken its developmental hits in recent years, but will be highly motivated as the host of this tournament. Coach Morten Hagen is well aware of the upward battle his team is facing in describing his approach to the tournament, "Of course we want to win every game, but we need to be realistic. Our group is very tough and we have to expect that we'll end up in the relegation round. Once we are there we need to be focused and prepared, much like our senior team. They've won all the important games whenever they've landed in the relegation group."
The team will feature a number of young men who are already playing pro minutes for their respective clubs in Denmark's AL-Bankligen while also logging lots of time for the respective clubs' junior teams. Denmark also has five kids in its line-up who play regularly for junior clubs in Sweden, a step that every NHL player from Denmark once took. In addition, Yannick Vedel has taken an extraordinary route to the national team, having spent the past two seasons playing in the US for Culver Military Academy. In putting together this line-up, the Danish program held three tournament training sessions in which a number of players from around the country were invited and took part in the tournament. As with any national program, the coaching staff already had a list of certain players who were very likely to be on the team, in this case U20 returnees Oliver Bjorkstrand and Mads Eller (brother to Montreal's Lars Eller) and last year's U18 members Christoffer Lindhoj and Kristoffer Lauridsen.
One of the keys to any success the team will enjoy at this tournament is that it is entering the event in a relatively healthy condition and with a line-up that is not necessarily missing any important figures due to injury. While most of the players are in their last year of U18 eligibility, there are eight attendees who were born in 1995, all of whom are considered amongst the best the country can throw on the ice for this year's tournament. As opposed to a few other tourney participants, Coach Hansen isn't facing any difficult questions with respect to his goaltending situation.
"Mathias Hansen from Frederikshavn is our number one goalie. Mentally he is very strong, which is very important against those high quality opponents we're going up against."
A clear-cut hierarchy is also present in the team's leadership ranks.
"Our key players on defense will be Bjorn Uldall and Marco Illemann. Both players really showed progress during the season. We will need goals from players like Oliver Bjorkstrand and Matthias Asperup, who rank amongst our most dangerous players."
No doubt that each of these players will have to carry more than their weight if Denmark is to upset any of the hockey giants they'll be facing in the preliminary round.
Players to keep an eye on:
G Matthias N. Hansen, Fredrikshavn White Hawks
Matthias spent the bulk of this past season playing for Fredrikshavn's second men's team as well as its U20 junior team. He also saw action for the club's top men's team, where he put up a healthy 2.62 GAA and .911 save percentage in four appearances. More importantly, he has seen action in six U18 games throughout the winter, posting a marvelous 2.13 goals against average and .929 save percentage in the process. Look for Hansen to aim to put in a performance not unlike that of Norway's Stefan Soberg (WAS) last spring, whose stunning play while facing an average of over 50 shots per game led him to being selected by the Washington Capitals in the 4th round of the 2011 NHL draft. Any upsets or surprises Denmark generates will have to come on the shoulders of some top efforts by this young goalie, who is very much aware of his role and looking forward to the challenge.
D Sonny Hertzberg, Frolunda U18 Jr. Indians
Coming in at 6'0" and 190 pounds, this 16-year-old defenseman will look to log a good amount of ice time in the course of this tournament. A defensive defenseman to date, but with the skills to see his offensive game grow, Sonny put up four goals and 13 points in 42 total games with Frolunda's U18 team this past season. Any physical game he may possess will need to be put on display at this tournament as he grows into being a cog for Denmark's U18 and U20 teams over the next few seasons.
F Oliver Bjorkstrand, Herning Blue Fox
Likely Denmark's most important forward, the 5'11, 161 pound winger has had a monster year for a 17-year-old. The son of University of Maine alumnus and former IHL as well as Danish league scoring star Todd Bjorkstrand (born in Minnesota), Oliver took a regular shift for the Blue Foxes this past season, posting 17 goals and 35 points in 54 total games. He also took a regular shift at the WJC in Canada, tallying two goals in six games, even suiting up for 18 further games played by the U20 and U18 Danish teams in the course of this past season. A bit of a specialist who concentrates on the skill aspect of the game, Oliver has only spent a total of 16 minutes in the sin bin throughout the entire season. Look for him to receive considerable ice time, especially on the power play. He'll need to really raise some eyebrows if Denmark is to have any chance of avoiding relegation.
F Mads Eller, Frolunda U18 Jr. Indians
If for nothing more than his name, scouts will be keeping an eye on 16-year-old Mads Eller's game during the course of this tournament. Having scored eight goals and 16 points in 26 games for Frolunda's U18 program, Mads has shown some good signs of development in one of the world's best junior programs. He's had an otherwise busy winter, having played 21 games for Denmark's U18 and U20 teams, including being brought along for the experience at the WJC in Canada. Still, his offensive game hasn't quite surfaced at a consistent level (only one point in those 21 international games) and this tournament will serve as a huge challenge for the young man, who will look to show that he can contribute in all three zones. At 6'0 and 183 pounds, Mads is still trying to figure himself out at a size that's quite generous for his age.
Matthias Asperup, Frolunda U18 Jr. Indians
A tick older than his Swedish league teammate Eller, Asperup's game is bit more advanced and refined. He'll certainly be looking to use this tournament to make his way into every scout's notebook, if he hasn't already. The 5'10, 168 pound winger saw 10 games of action for Denmark's U18 program this past season, but his biggest accomplishment was his 14 goals and 36 points in 40 games for Frolunda's U18 junior team. Along with Bjorkstrand, with whom he may share a line, Denmark's offensive hopes will suffer greatly unless he finds a way to contribute regularly.
Tournament Prognosis for Germany and Denmark:
With four of the 10 teams ultimately playing in the relegation round, there is little doubt that at least one, if not both, of these countries are expected to fight for their Division I lives. Neither features the firepower or the depth seen in the line-ups of hockey's traditional powerhouses and only Latvia would appear to be in the same boat when it comes to a lack of prospects ranked for the upcoming NHL draft in June.
Germany has however been very good at sporting a hardworking, highly motivated team that seems ready for an upset or two at recent tournaments. Both their men's and U20 teams have had some general success in recent years and there has been a definite increase in junior players from Germany finding their way to the CHL ranks. As such, Germany once again enters the tournament as a big wildcard and every opponent knows that it must be ready for a battle when facing this team, despite its lack of recognizable names. On the other hand, Denmark has been on a swivel of sorts for a while now, moving up and down on a fairly regular basis. Fortunately for them, this year's tournament will only see one team be relegated. The team and staff know it must be realistic in its expectations and garner those one or two vital victories in what will probably be a relegation round appearance. For them, all their hopes may come down to one key relegation round match against Latvia, if not their German neighbor to the south.