Last year, Latvia participated in the U18 World Junior Championship for the first time since getting promoted from Division I in 2011. Many experts and journalists expected the Baltic state to fight to keep themselves in the elite group, but Latvians took their mission to another level.
Managing to record the sixth-best defensive effort of all teams competing at the tournament, they ended their preliminary round journey with the same number of points as Russia and Germany, only falling down to the relegation group because of a lesser total score. Then, the team avoided relegation entering the group as the team with the most points from the preliminary round. This year, the mission should be all the same, though. Unlike a year ago, however, they're about to face much stronger competition in Group A.
Only three 1995-born players represented Latvia last year and all of them will be back on the ice this time. This list includes their two leading scorers from last year's tournament, Georgs Golovkovs from HK Riga of the MHL, and his teammate from Riga, Rihards Bukarts, whose brother Roberts already competes for Dinamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey League. Both collected five points last year, followed by current Seattle Thunderbirds' forward Roberts Lipsbergs, the Edmonton Oil Kings' Edgars Kulda, and NCAA-based prospects Teodors Blugers and Nikita Jevpalovs, who is currently playing for Blainville-Boisbriand in the QMJHL. The way these four, all of them born in 1994 and thus ineligible for this year's championship, worked their way up into major junior/college hockey programs proves that Latvia definitely has some talent to show the world.
Strengths: One might say that Latvia will only have a chance against weaker opponents. At the last Under-18 championship, the team managed to collect some precious points in games with Switzerland and Germany, but is not meeting those two in the preliminary round this year. That means that they must surprise seemingly stronger opposition. Then, Latvia will have to rely on its power-play since physical hockey played by some Finnish defenseman and the sometimes undisciplined approach often seen from Russian players should provide the Latvians with several man-advantage situations in their matchups against those two countries.
Weaknesses: Just like every year, the Latvians are natural underdogs not only because they've never been a dominant youth-hockey country, but also due to a general lack of size among the prospects selected for the Latvian roster compared to other countries. Latvia's roster lacks the physical size which can hurt them, especially against Finland and the USA, the two teams that should have no problem overpowering the Latvians.
Key player: The aforementioned tandem of Bukarts and Golovkovs should be leading this year's team in scoring. The two played together for the first time a year ago at the U18 WJC, but they soon got reunited again as they both transferred to HK Riga of the MHL, which is the top Russian junior hockey league. Bukarts finished the season with more points, but Golovkovs had a better post-season after they both were recalled to play for HK Juniors Riga of the Latvian hockey league. The third second-year participant of the tournament, defenseman Girts Zemitis, should also use his experience to be one of the key players on the team, especially on their back-end.
Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Bukarts and Golovkovs will definitely receive much of the attention once again. Golovkovs and Zemitis are draft-eligible for 2013 while Bukarts, born in December 1995, can't be drafted until June of the next year. Also, some attention should be given to their North-American based players. 2014-draft-eligible netminder Kristaps Nazarovs had amazing stats (goals-against average of 1.22) this season with the Richmond Generals of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. Forward Roberts Smits spent a couple of years playing Swedish midget competitions before going overseas, where he has played the past two years with the Selects Hockey Academy. Smits failed to make the lineup of the Under-18 WJC team, but is eligible for this upcoming draft. 1996-born forward Davis Zembergs plays for the Boston Jr. Bandits of the EJHL and finally, Haralds Egle is a key player of the Portland Jr. Pirates in the same league.
Unexpected gem: 6'5“, 225-pound rearguard Roberts Mamcics looks intimidating and should be one of the hardest hitters of the tournament. Eligible for the upcoming draft, Mamcics plays for his hometown team, Metalurgs Liepaja, in both the Latvian league and the MHL B, the lower level of the MHL. He should provide at least some power for Latvia against its more physical opponents.