Below is a preview of eight teams competing in the upcoming World Junior Championships occurring from December 26th – January 4th in Finland. The teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Team Canada is looking to earn its first gold medal in the tournament since 1997 and this year’s team gives that dream much hope.
With Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in net, Canada boasts the top goaltender in the tournament. The first overall selection from last year’s entry draft has performed very admirably in the NHL this season for the lowly Penguins and brings leadership and experience to this team after leading Canada to a silver medal at last year’s tournament.
On defense, Canada sends out four first round selections from last year’s entry draft. Braydon Coburn (who was a final cut last year), Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook and Shawn Belle make up the core. Derek Meech, a teammate and partner of Phaneuf, Kevin Klein and Josh Gorges round out the final seven. This primarily Western Hockey league based unit (Klein is the only non WHL’er as he plays in the OHL with Guelph) may also be considered the weak link for Canada. All seven members of the defense are playing in their first World Junior Championship. Ian White would have been the only returning member but his ankle injury prevented him from making the final roster. Regardless of experience, this defense provides a bit of everything including a lot of size, offensive elements and a physical nature.
The offense for Canada is a well balanced unit combining work ethic at both ends of the ice, size and strength, as well as supreme offensive ability. Sixteen-year-old superstar and CHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby cracks the unit and sets out to prove that he’s the type of player he has been hyped to be. Buffalo Sabres draft pick and team captain Daniel Paille is the only returning skater for Canada and will be looking to set an example and lead this team to victory. A total of six first round selections from last years entry draft will look to provide Canada with offense: Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Anthony Stewart, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Tambellini and Minnesota Wild forward Brent Burns. Most likely combining with Paille to form the “shut down” line are assistant captains Tim Brent and Maxime Talbot. Jeremy Colliton, Stephen Dixon and miniature Nigel Dawes round out the forward group.
Doubters may look to this team and suggest that experience may play a role in keeping this team from winning the gold. Canada has only two returning players from last year’s silver medal winning squad and a total of only seven 19-year-old skaters (both goaltenders are 19 years old). This in a tournament which most experts claim is “won by nineteen year olds.” However this Canadian team is well balanced in every area and though inexperienced, has 11 first rounders in total from the 2003 Entry Draft.
The Czech Republic is another very well balanced team. In net the Czechs have a duo of top 2004 goaltending prospect Marek Schwarz and Ottawa 67 netminder Lukas Mensator. Schwarz could raise a lot of eyebrows in this tournament as he is a very good goalie whom most North Americans are going to get their first look at.
The forward groups are among the most well balanced and oldest in the tournament. Petr Kanko, Tomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis, Jakub Koreis and Kamil Kreps lead the offense as 19-year-old skaters. Vojtech Polak and Petr Vrana (if he’s able to return from injury) can also chip in as players selected from the 2003 Entry Draft and 1985 born forwards. Not to mention that the Czech Republic will be boasting two potential top selections for the upcoming 2004 Entry draft in Rostislav Olesz and Jakub Sindel. This Czech offense is experienced and very dangerous.
The Czech defense is also experienced and well balanced. Besides potential top selection in the 2004 draft Ladislav Smid, the entire defense will be made up of 19-year-old players. Stars first rounder Martin Vagner and Blackhawks second round draft pick Michal Barinka will lead this group.
If the Czechs can play their always notoriously stingy and safe game to perfection, they could be tough to beat with a well rounded offensive game and overall very experienced team.
Finland is another team that will be facing life with a new starting goaltender. Kari Lehtonen is now to old for the tournament and has moved on to the professional ranks. The good news for Finland is that they still boast the second best goalie in the tournament in Hannu Toivonen. Toivonen is a Bruins first round draft pick who served as Lehtonen’s back up last year. He has been playing with Providence in the AHL this year and has been turning heads in the Boston organization. He is a legitimate top 10 goaltending prospect. He’s going to make every opposing forward work for their goals.
The bad news for Finland is that they bolster defensive and offensive units that on paper don’t stack up very well against the Russians, Canada, the Czechs or the Americans. The defense is made up of all 19-year-olds, however none of these seven have been top 100 selections in the NHL entry draft and only three have been drafted in total. Mikko Kalteva was an Avalanche fourth rounder while Kevin Kantee and Oskari Korpikari were both late round selections by Chicago and Montreal respectively. Janne Jalasvaara was expected to be drafted in last year’s entry draft but ended up going undrafted.
The offense for Finland will be lead by New York Islanders forward Sean Bergenheim. Bergenheim is a returning player from last year’s squad and will expected to provide leadership and scoring to the team. Some other forwards to look out for include Bruins draft pick Masi Marjamaki, Stars draft pick Jarkko A. Immonen, Blue Jackets draft pick Arsi Piispanen and the 2004 draft eligible Lauri Tukonen.
Regardless of whether this Finnish team stacks up on paper, they always find ways to win because of how well they usually gel as a team. This year should be no different.
This Russian team is going to be a very good offensive club, with 2004 top prospect Alexander Ovechkin leading the way. Joining Ovechkin to power an explosive Russian offense are Washington Capitals forward Alexander Semin, Dmitri Pestunov, Evgeny Tunik, Sergei Anshankov, Grigori Shafigulin, Dmitri Kazionov, Alexei Shkotov, Evgeny Isakov and potential 2004 top 5 selection, Evgeny Malkin. All are very strong offensive players who look to give Russia the best offense in the tourney.
The reigning double gold medallists are missing one of the key pieces from those teams, however, goaltender Andrei Medvedev. He’s now ineligible for the tourney because of age and will be replaced by St. Louis Blues second rounder Konstantin Barulin. Barulin was solid during the CHL vs. Russia series that occurred earlier this season and will look to prove that he can carry Russia to yet another gold medal.
The defense will be anchored by Canadiens prospect Konstatin Korneev as well as NHL draft picks Dmitri Kosmachev, Denis Grot and Denis Ezhov. Essentially every year, the Russian defense enters the tournament as a question mark but leaves as a successful unit. This year could be no different, but with no Medvedev, this Russian defense will have to be very solid in order to keep up with some of the explosive offenses featured in this tournament.
The Slovaks have a pretty decent team on paper, pretty well balanced in every area. The problem is that not one area sticks out as a strength or a weakness.
In goal, the Slovaks will rely on Montreal Canadiens ninth round selection Jaroslav Halak to carry most of the load.
Defensively, Predators third round pick Richard Stehlik and Rangers second round pick Ivan Baranka will be counted on as the top contributors. Michal Sersen, the top selection in the past CHL Import Draft, will be one to keep an eye on as he could be a first round selection come this June in the 2004 entry draft.
Offensively, the Slovaks will be lead by some top 100 selections from the 2003 Entry Draft. Branislav Fabry (Buffalo), Martin Sagat (Toronto), Stefan Ruzicka (Philadelphia) as well Tomas Troliga, who was a third rounder in 2002 by the St. Louis Blues.
The Slovaks top players will have to really have outstanding tournaments in order to get this team into medal contention.
Goaltending will be the issue here as Sweden is entering the tournament with a relatively unknown and undrafted Joakim Lundström and a 2004 eligible Magnus Åkerlund as their netminders.
This means that the Swedish defense will have to be very solid in order to help ease the goaltending situation. The defense will be lead by reigning SEL rookie of the year and Thrashers draft pick Tobias Enstrom as well as the 2004 eligible Johan Fransson. Alexander Tang is another to look out for. He was expected to be drafted last year but ended up being left out.
On offense, the Swedes will be lead once again by first rounders Robert Nilsson and Alexander Steen. This duo was very solid for the team last year and are expected to repeat their performances. Joining them on offense will be Rangers prospect Marcus Jonasen, 2003 Stars draft selection Loui Eriksson as well as NHL draft picks Niklas Danielsson (Vancouver), Fredrik Johansson (Edmonton) and Andreas Valdix (Washington). A forward to look for is the 2004 eligible Johannes Salomonsson whom could establish himself as a top 20 selection with a solid tournament.
The Swedes are going to have to overachieve in order to medal in this tournament.
The Swiss are always a dangerous team because of the style of play they use. Their tough defensive strategies tend to frustrate better teams into making mistakes.
As always, Switzerland will be lead by a few solid NHL prospects. Goaltender Tobias Stephan will look to lead this club and show the Dallas Stars that he was a worthy draft selection. Calgary draft pick Tim Ramholt will lead the defense and Penguins draft pick Patrick Bartschi will look to lead the offense with Kevin Romy (Philadelphia) and Emmanuel Peter (Calgary).
This is the United States’ best chance ever for a gold medal at this tournament. They boast an extremely solid defense corps (among the best in the tourney) to go with a very explosive offense, which will have no trouble putting pucks in the net.
The question mark for the US remains in net, where they were just recently handed a big blow. Returning netminder James Howard will miss the tournament due to an injury meaning that Michigan star and 2004 eligible goaltender Alvaro Montoya will be the starter. While Howard was unspectacular at last year’s event, he would have provided the United States with leadership in the crease, as he looked to prove that last year’s tournament was not the prime of his capabilities. Montoya has his doubters and will look to turn some heads as a big portion of how well the States fares at this tournament will be placed squarely on his shoulders.
The defense for the United States combines both offensive and defensive stars in order to form one solid unit. Predators first rounder Ryan Suter will be one of the top defensemen featured in this tournament as he can provide admirably at both ends of the ice. 2003 second rounders Matthew Carle and Danny Richmond as well as Blackhawks draft pick and offensive catalyst James Wisniewski will provide much offense from the backend and give the United States the most dangerous powerplay in the tournament. Bruins first rounder Mark Stuart and Rangers draft pick Corey Potter will look to provide stability to the defense as well as strong physical presence. Jeff Likens (Wisconsin) and Matt Hunwick (Michigan) round out the defense as 2004 eligible players looking to improve their draft status.
Offensively, the Americans will send out a lot of very gifted offensive players. Both Dan Fritsche and Ryan Kesler have spent time in the NHL this season. Zach Parise, Patrick O’Sullivan and Patrick Eaves will take on large roles offensively, as top NHL prospects. Greg Moore and Brett Sterling are returning players who will also look to provide leadership. Drew Stafford is a very talented player whom will look to improve his draft status for the upcoming 2004 entry draft. The United States has one of the best offenses for the tournament on paper. Some criticism has been laid on the selection process for leaving off top 2004 prospect Rob Schremp and as the tournament progresses, that criticism may die off or be increased depending on how this team fares.
Silver: Czech Republic
Top Goaltender: Marc-Andre Fleury
Top Defenseman: Ryan Suter
Top Forward: Alexander Ovechkin
All Star Team:
Ryan Suter – Braydon Coburn
Alexander Ovechkin – Jeff Carter – Tomas Fleischmann