The annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, considered by some to be the most prestigeous international hockey competition of players under eighteen years of age, was held last week in Břeclav, Czech Republic, and Piešťany, Slovakia. And as is usually the case in the world of hockey, some results and statistics were simply surprising.
For example, the United States finished seventh out of eight countries after beating the co-hosting country of Slovakia by only a one-goal margin in the seventh-place game. On the other side, the Czechs surprised with great team play and loads of effort, which resulted in a big challenge even for Russia and Canada.
Let's take a look at the teams and some individuals that dominated the play.
Team Canada can travel home with another gold medal and it is not only an expected victory, but a deserved one, too. The Canadians played hockey the Canadian way – a lot of pride, hard hits, shots on goal and rebound opportunities. They beat all their opponents in the tournament – from Slovakia in the group stage to Finland in the finals. And in most games, they did so in a dominating way. Winning 4-0 in the final game tells a lot about the quality of the team, starting with the goalies and ending right at the opposition's goal crease.
The space between the pipes was covered by a goalie from the province that has produced a number of great NHL netminders. The Rosemére, Quebec, native, Zachary Fucale, was the number one goalie for Team Canada and, although it might have seemed that he wasn't a key factor in its games, he indeed was. He didn't make a big save in every game, but he was in the right place almost all the time, which is what matters the most. Some rearguards really helped him, especially Darnell Nurse, by some compared to Chris Pronger, a gritty defenseman that can not only get you out of the space in front of the net, but also can get under your skin. Nurse likes to sacrifice his body, throw his weight around and talk after the whistle blows.
Two more blueliners made an impression at the tournament: offensive-minded Jordan Subban, who's older brothers are Malcolm of the Boston Bruins organization and P.K. of the Montréal Canadiens, and Josh Morrissey, who is best described as a two-way defenseman that tends to play offensively. However, Subban spends much more time threatening the enemy lines and his play rises on the power-play.
Leading the way among the Canadian forwards was Nathan MacKinnon, the top-rated prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft and a future NHL franchise player. While he's drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby, their styles of play don't have so much in common. The younger of the two legendary Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia natives is a more physical player and has got the goal-scorer's instinct. Other notable forwards are power forward Curtis Lazar, goal-scorer Bo Horvat and playmaker Max Domi, son of the former NHL enforcer, Tie Domi.
The silver went to Finland, a deserved medal. Just as always, the Finnish team played the hard-nosed style of hockey that opponents do not like.
Two players of Team Finland belonged at the top of the tournament and they are both forwards. One is Aleksi Mustonen, who has a great technique and may be just as talented as the Granlund brothers. The other is Felix Westermarck, a big, 6'3“ native of Espoo with the ability to score goals.
Sweden finished third and even though I didn't see any of their games at the tournament, I saw some of the players at the U-18 World Championship, which was held last April in Brno, Znojmo and Břeclav. Jacob de la Rose is a big-time playmaker with a hard drive to the net, while André Burakowksy is a really aggresive winger with the forechecking ability and smooth hands that make him able to put the puck right on someone's tape.
As stated above, the fourth-placed Czech Republic showed a beautiful perfomance led by strong team play and loads of effort. If it wasn't for the fans, who supported the national team as if they were looking forward to seeing these players all year long (and maybe some did), the Czechs might not have made it that far. There's just one really notable Czech player whom I'd place among the tournament's All-Stars. His name is Petr Štencel and despite his short stature (5'9“), he makes big plays in his own zone everytime his team needs it.
Fifth-placed Russia is always more about the individuals than about the whole team. This time, the lack of discipline was getting them down on their knees and there are just two players worth a couple of words. Alexander Sarov is a very fast, technical forward with the ability to break through the defensive lines in a flash. On the other side, Nikita Zadorov is a combination of Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov; he plays very calm at both ends of the ice and impressed both at this tournament and at the U-18 Worlds in April, too. This top prospect will play for the London Knights in the OHL.
In Team Switzerland, no one impressed me more than Phil Baltisberger. The kid is just sixteen and eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, but if he is drafted where he is currently ranked, he could be a real steal for that team. On the power-play, his job is to be a static a quarterback stationed at the blue line, from where he's able to feed the puck or blast a one-timer. His shot is hard and his passes are accurate. Baltisberger plays the game easily, doesn't make unnecessary dekes and stops any kind of attack. The Swiss team rarely allowed a goal when Baltisberger was on the ice and if he made a mistake, he corrected it very quickly.
This tournament was a disappointing result for the United States, as evidenced by their seventh place finish. I believe that a big part of this can be blamed on the goalies, although they the only reason for the poor finish. The defensive coprs was led by the puck-carrying Sarnia Sting blueliner, Anthony DeAngelo, but his performance wasn't very good. DeAngelo carried the puck for too long a time and was loud with the refs. Too much confidence might not be a problem for another New Jersey native, Connor Clifton. The big rearguard throws his weight around effectively and often. His hits are bone-crunching and not many opponents are willing to go through him.
Up front, Adam Erne provided the goals and points for the U.S. He will be probably be the first forward drafted among the Americans at the draft next year. My focus was primarily on Justin Bailey though. The big power forward from Buffalo is pretty fast for a man of his size and sometimes, he makes things happen invisibly, only by doing those little things like a little slash there, a little hook there, nothing really punishable, but efficient. Also, his IQ is very high and guidance he received from Pat LaFontaine, his coach from the Long Island Royals, will be very useful for him.