Thanks to Nikitas Jevpalovs’ overtime goal against Denmark at the 2012 World Junior Championship, Latvia escaped relegation into Division I and instead will play in their fifth WJC with a rather young roster featuring several returning players.
One of the country’s top talents, Kristians Pelss (EDM), won’t be returning as he graduated last year, but there will be plenty of players to fill his gap.
Latvia will also be deprived of another of their top players from 2012, Buffalo Sabres' first round pick Zemgus Girgensons, as the Rochester Americans of the AHL allegedly didn’t release him for the tournament due to their high number of injured players in the lineup. Despite Girgensons’ disappointing stats in the AHL (one goal and five points in 19 games), this is a serious blow to Latvia as they will have to fight even harder to escape relegation once again. With that being said, this year’s Team Latvia appears to be of a higher class, but their goal will remain the same.
Dinamo Riga’s Kristers Gudlevskis is not eligible this year, and this might be a problem to the Baltic team, which historically lacks good goaltending in junior tournaments. The starting goalie will probably be Elvis Merzlikins. The 18-year-old goalkeeper is a returnee, but he played just one small portion of a game against Canada during the 2012 WJC, so experience might be an issue despite the fact that Merzlikins has played a lot of international games with Latvia at lower age levels. Merzlikins has been dressed for some games for Swiss team HC Lugano this season, but hasn't seen any action. If Merzlikins doesn't deliver good performances between the pipes, Latvia will likely face some difficulty.
Last year, Team Latvia’s defense left a lot to be desired, but this season the defensive corps, coached by former pro player Leonids Tambijevs, has certainly improved.
WHL prospect Rinalds Rosinskis is expected to be playing a leading role. The large, stay-at-home defenseman has yet to register a point with the Prince George Cougars, but he has been involved in some fights and demonstrated that he can use his size.
Another player that is awaited in a leading role is Edgars Siksna. Siksna is in his second full pro season with Metalurgs Liepaja of the Belarusian League and has posted good numbers there, with seven points in 24 games and a +12 rating. The offensive defenseman will likely be counted on to quarterback the power-play unit. Both Siksna and Rosinskis are returnees from last year’s team.
Traditionally, Latvia is better at the forward positions than on defense, and this year is no exception, even without Pelss and Girgensons. The team features some interesting players who have already crossed the pond to play Major Junior Hockey.
Roberts Lipsbergs of the Seattle Thunderbirds is currently the top scoring rookie in the WHL with 17 goals and 32 points in 34 games, certainly a good result for a player in his first year at the top level of junior hockey. Lipsbergs was overlooked at the last NHL Draft, but things can change after a good season in the CHL.
Another player who decided to play overseas and that will be among Latvia's leaders is Nikita Jevpalovs. This is not his first season in North America as a couple of years ago he played in the GMHL with the South Muskoka Shield before returning home to skate in the MHL with Dinamo Riga’s junior team. With the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL, Jevpalovs has registered 15 points in 33 games while compiling a +12 rating.
The Latvian forward contingent will feature another interesting prospect, Teodors Blugers (PIT). The second rounder is now playing NCAA hockey with Minnesota State University-Mankato and he will probably center Latvia’s first line. The fourth player skating in North America is Edgars Kulda, the younger brother of the former Latvian prospect Arturs Kulda, now playing in the KHL. Kulda has notched 10 points in 33 games with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.
Among the players skating in Europe, the most interesting are center Arturs Kuzmenkovs, who’s having a very good season with the lone Latvian club in the Belarusian pro league, and 1995-born Rihards Bukarts, who is back in Riga after spending one year in Russia playing for Kapitan Stupino. This season, Bukarts has registered 17 points in 27 games for Dinamo Riga’s junior team in the MHL.
Of course, there were some good players left off the final roster, including Swedish Elitserien’s AIK player Edgars Klavins, who reportedly had some contrast with coach Tambijevs, and Juris Zandovskis, who plays in Switzerland for HC Gotteron.
This year’s Team Latvia appears to be slightly better than last year’s squad, but they will still struggle to stay in the WJC's top division given the level of talent available to all countries for this year's WJC as a result of the NHL lockout. If the goaltending and/or defense falter, it could be a long tournament for one of the underdog squads of this WJC.
Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter via @AlexSerenRosso