2013 WJC Review: Latvia fails to avoid relegation

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

Teddy Blueger - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Minnesota State forward and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Teddy Bluegers was not as productive as he would like to have been for Latvia at the 2013 WJC (courtesy of Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

In spite of expectations before the tournament, Team Latvia was relegated to next year's WJC Division 1, Group A tournament. Icing what was considered their best roster in recent years wasn't enough, however, as the deciding game against Team Germany finished with a 5-2 score.

In the game preceding the relegation round loss, Latvia lost to Team Slovakia 5-3, a loss that was not unexpected.

To better analyze the WJC aftermath for Latvia, Hockey's Future talked with Didzis Rudmanis, a journalist for the popular website, Sportacentrs.com.

“I think the Germans were way more talented than the Danish team last year”, Rudmanis said. “Despite the fact that there were literally a couple of 1992-born players on last year’s (Danish) team and it was indeed considered weak, the defensive end had more talent.”

“Perhaps, similarly to last year, (Latvia) was simply too young and inexperienced for a tournament of such scale, as, with 1994-born players generally considered the most talented in a long time, there weren’t that many 1993-born players on the roster in Ufa after all.”

Moreover, the team controversially lacked some players who could have helped at the WJC, but who instead were left off the squad that made it to Ufa.

“There were a few other players apart from Buffalo Sabres first round pick Zemgus Girgensons that deserved a place in the camp, yet remained uninvited”, Rudmanis noted. “Such players included Edgars Klavins, who has spent most of the season with AIK in Swedish Elitserien; Juris Zandovskis, who made his debut in Swiss’ NLA, as well as Kristaps Bazevics, who plays in the NAHL.”

When asked about these players, the team's head coach, Leonids Tambijevs, a former pro hockey player with experience playing in Russia, Latvia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Italy, replied that they had a poor performance at the last U-18 WJC. Yet, it seemed apparent that there was something more to it, maybe past conflicts with the coaching staff.

Top Forward – Nikita Jevpalovs

Having a solid rookie season in the QMJHL with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada thanks to eight goals and 17 points in 35 games, Jevpalovs managed to step in when it was truly necessary, scoring crucial goals in the games versus the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Jevpalovs was one of the most active forwards on the Latvian team; he was noticeable throughout the tournament and showed that, as a result of his time in North America, he has managed to take his game to the next level.

Top Defenseman – Edgars Siksna

One of the rare defenders that, despite being the underdogs in most games, avoided making tremendous mistakes. He was also the team’s captain and top scorer (four helpers in six games), an experienced player with two pro seasons behind his back who managed to show a solid, all-around performance. Siksna plays for Metalurgs Liepaja of the Belarusian professional league.

Team MVP – Teodors Blueger

The Pittsburgh Penguins second round pick failed to beat the opposing goaltenders more than once, yet he managed to show a great skill set, determination, as well as certain leadership qualities. Blueger was one of the last players to give up, even dropping the gloves in the decisive game versus Germany. Blueger is having a good first season in the NCAA with Minnesota State University.

Unsung Player – Ivars Punnenovs

Punnenovs entered the tournament as the nominal second goaltender, yet ended up starting between the pipes in four of the six games. Punnenovs finished the WJC with a save percentage of .886, which doesn’t sound as impressive without taking into consideration the goals-against average of 4.27. Punnenovs was the lone reason why, half-way through the game against eventual silver medalist Team Sweden, the score was still tied at 1-1.

2013 prospects to watch

This year Latvia had a number of potential fringe late-rounders such as Nikita Jevpalovs or Edgars Kulda, who are both playing their first seasons in the CHL, as well as some of the potential leaders of the U-18 team – Georgs Golovkovs, Janis Jaks or Rudolfs Petersons.

Undrafted player worthy of a second look

Roberts Lipsbergs, currently the WHL's top rookie scorer who plays for the Seattle Thunderbirds, remained undrafted last year in Pittsburgh. In Ufa, Lipsbergs didn’t have a successful tournament, scoring a mere two points in six games. Still, he joined the team only a few days before leaving for the championship and, according to head coach Leonids Tambijevs, was in inadequate physical shape.

Follow Alessandro Seren Rosso on Twitter @AlexSerenRosso
Follow Didzis Rudmanis on Twitter @DidzisRudmanis