Several teams in the mix at U18 Worlds

By Derek O'Brien

The annual IIHF U18 World Championship gives hockey fans a chance to see some of the world’s top undrafted talent, as well as a glimpse into which countries can be expected to dominate the international hockey word in the future. The 2011 edition in Crimmitschau and Dresden, Germany is no different.

The ten teams at the tournament are divided into two groups of five.

Group A

Of the two groups, Group A seems to be the easier to predict. Based on past performances at this tournament, and in pre-tournament play, the USA enters as clear favorites.

Their dominance isn’t because they have tremendously more talent than everybody else, although they certainly aren’t lacking in that regard, but more because they play together as a team all season. The team’s top-rated players, Ryan Biggs and Connor Murphy, as well as the line of Reid Boucher, Rocco Grimaldi, and J.T. Miller are their top players to watch. Josh Gibson is the highest-rated goalie in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

The Russians will probably finish second in this group. They were entirely unimpressive in a tournament in the Czech Republic in February, where they lost all four games and were pummeled 10-4 by the Americans. Their defense seemed suspect and they played undisciplined at times. Still they have some offensive firepower with Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Kucherov, Maxim Shalumov and Nail Yakupov, nobody in the group other than the Americans seems likely to finish ahead of them.

Switzerland may not have enough talent to seriously challenge the US or the Russians, but they’re definitely setting their sights on a quarterfinal berth. Left winger Alessio Bertagglia is their highest-rated domestic player, and they also have Lino Martschini of the Peterborough Petes.

Slovakia has consistently finished below Switzerland at the junior levels in recent tournaments, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this year will be different. Obviously, they will enter with the aim of making the quarterfinals, and it’s certainly possible that they will. At this point, however, Switzerland has to be considered the favorite to get the third spot in the group.

To their advantage, Germany has home ice advantage, and should have the passionate fans of Crimmitschau behind them. To their disadvantage, they don’t have enough depth to realistically expect to make the quarterfinals, and will probably finish fifth in the group. The top eight teams in the tournament remain in the top group for next year, so if they can pull off a minor upset and make the top eight, the tournament would have to be considered a success for them.

Group B

Group B seems to be wide open, with four of the five teams being fairly evenly matched. In a format where the group winner automatically advances to the semifinal, Sweden, Finland and Canada enter this tournament with the realistic aim of doing so, while the Czechs are not far out of the mix.

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose between Finland and Sweden. They finished second and third at a tournament in the Czech Republic in February, the only difference between them being a 3-2 Finish victory in a game that could have gone either way.

The Finns were led offensively by the line of Markus Granlund, Toni Kallela, and Ville Jarvelainen in February; they showed good chemistry and will likely play on the same line again. Their roster will be bolstered by the addition of forward Joel Armia and defenseman Miikka Salomaki, who were both SM-liiga regulars this year. Samhu Pehronen is the highest-rated undrafted goaltenders in Europe.

Sweden is the deepest of the European teams, led by Jonas Brodin and Markus Zibanejad, the top-rated European defenseman and forward who will play in the tournament. Oscar Klefborn on defense and Viktor Rask, Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall, Viktor Arvidsson and William Karlsson are also highly rated.

The Canadians are ranked fourth in this group due to their poor performance in Belarus in 2010, in which they had to survive the Relegation Round. Much like their counterparts in the World Championships at the senior level, the Canadians are forced to assemble a makeshift squad composed of players whose teams have been eliminated from their leagues’ playoffs. They have enough talent to compete with the best teams in the tournament and even win it, as they’ve done on a couple of occasions in the past. The challenge that Mike Williamson and his coaching staff face is making a cohesive unit out of this collection of talent.

As far as Canadian teams go, this one isn’t top-heavy, with defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers and centers Mark McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders and Mark Scheifele being their only projected first rounders in 2011.

As for the Czech Republic, they have to be considered a longshot to outperform all the other teams in the group and finish first. However, their goal of making the quarterfinals is very realistic. A Czech team devoid of any stars went 1-3 in their tournament on home ice in February. They were in each game, but had problems scoring. The additions of forwards Dmitri Jaskin and Martin Frk, as well as defenceman David Musil should help with this problem. Jaskin and Musil are projected to be first or second rounders in 2011, while Frk isn’t eligible until 2012. They aren’t the deepest team in the tournament, but they should be competitive.

It would be a surprise if Norway finishes anywhere other than fifth in this group. They were promoted to this tournament by winning Division I last year, and that’s likely where they are headed back to next year. If they have anything going in their favor, it might be that goaltender Steffen Soberg has two season in the Norwegian Elite League and a U20 World Championship tournament under his belt, and he might keep the scores respectable. His 16-year-old brother Markus is apparently something to see, but his age and supporting cast will likely limit his production here.

Final outlook

As far as who will win the tournament, group play is only part of the story. Once the sudden-death games begin, anything is possible. While the USA are the favorites, Sweden, Finland, and Canada all have reasonable chances as well. Even with their apparent problems, Russia has to be in the mix for a possible medal, with the Czech Republic and Switzerland as dark-horses.