Sweden’s William Nylander of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the American Hockey League’s scoring leader at the moment, competes with Russia’s Vladislav Kamenev of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals during the annual IIHF World Junior Championships last season.
Photo: Getty Images
Two of international ice hockey’s most heated rivalries of all time, Canada vs United States and Russia vs Czech Republic, most fittingly highlight the opening day’s playing schedule as the 40th installment of the IIHF World Junior Championships finally begin in the Finnish capital city of Helsinki on December 26th.
In recent seasons, the annual WJC tournament has been nothing if not a completely unpredictable affair, with no fewer than five different nations – Canada, Finland, United States, Sweden and Russia – all having won the title and accompanying set of gold medals within the last five years. And, in keeping with this recent pattern of results, it appears that this year’s sheet of ice in Helsinki, so to speak, will be as wide open as ever. Defending gold medalist Canada figure to have a very strong team as almost always but, with a dozen players returning from last season’s fourth place WJC squad, so do Sweden while Russia, the returning silver medalist who have taken home some kind of hardware from 10 of the last 11 WJC tournaments including the last five in a row, must always be a part of this sort of discussion, too; meanwhile, the United States have the world’s most highly regarded player who has not yet been drafted by a National Hockey League club and Finland, who have strengthened their squad with two American Hockey League players who just so happen to be 1st round NHL Draft picks, have the decided advantage of skating on home ice.
For the record, now that all the final 23-man rosters have been submitted to the IIHF by the Christmas Day deadline, it can be stated that no fewer than 31 players who are 1st round NHL Draft picks will be on display at the 2016 WJC in Finland. Perhaps not surprisingly, Canada have the most first round picks with twelve while both Sweden and the United States each have five, Russia have four, both the Czech Republic as well as Finland each have two and Switzerland have one. Altogether, a total of 94 players who have already been drafted by National Hockey League clubs will be skating for eight different countries at this year’s WJC tournament with the breakdown being as follows : Canada 21, Sweden 20, United States 14, Finland 12, Russia 9, Czech Republic 9, Switzerland 5, Slovakia 4.
(Note to Kram – a good many of these NHL Draft picks will be coming to an American Hockey League arena near you in the not so distant future)
All of the Philadelphia Flyers / Lehigh Valley Phantoms prospects whom this blog has been keeping track of prior to this WJC tournament – Travis Sandheim and Travis Konecny of Canada, Ivan Provorov and Radel Fazleev of Russia, Oskar Lindblom and Felix Sandstrom of Sweden as well as David Kase of the Czech Republic – survived the final cut for their respective junior national teams, it shall be noted.
At least on paper, it certainly does seem as if Group A (Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, United States) is a bit of a tougher one than Group B (Belarus, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia) but that could easily balance itself out in the elimination stages. It is not uncommon at all for teams to face each other more than once as the annual WJC unfolds. For the benefit of those unfamiliar, the tournament format has each team play every other team in its group once in a preliminary round with the top four teams in each group advancing to the knockout quarterfinal round.
At the quarterfinal stage, the first place team from Group A plays the fourth place team from Group B and so on, so it behooves each team extremely well to finish as high as it can in the preliminary round standings for obvious reasons. Teams certainly have recovered from losing at the group stage, however, as evidenced by the United States, who lost to Canada 2-1 in the preliminary round but then soundly thumped their northern neighbor in the semifinal 5-1 before defeating Sweden for the gold medal at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia. So, again, anything can and will happen when the world’s best hockey players under the age of 20 hit the ice with hardware at stake.
Since goaltending plays such a pivotal role in any given ice hockey game and especially in a tournament as short as the annual WJC, it is rather interesting to rank the different nation’s netminders according to their respective NHL Draft status :
Samsonov – RUS … 1st rd, # 14 overall – Washington
McDonald – CAN … 2nd rd, # 34 overall – Calgary
Nedeljkovic – USA … 2nd rd, # 37 overall – Carolina
Vanecek – CZE … 2nd rd, # 39 overall – Washington
Blackwood – CAN … 2nd rd, # 42 overall – New Jersey
Halverson – USA … 2nd rd, # 59 overall – NY Rangers
Sandstrom – SWE … 3rd rd, # 70 overall – Philadelphia
Vladar – CZE …… 3rd rd, # 75 overall – Boston
Montembeault – CAN … 3rd rd, # 77 overall – Florida
Soderstrom – SWE … 4th rd, 95 overall – NY Islanders
At least in part, Russia’s medal hopes will rest upon the shouders of Ilya Samsonov, the promising 18-year-old who has put up very good numbers (14 ga, 1.87 avg, .929 svpct) playing roughly a third of division-leading Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s games this season in the crack Kontinental Hockey League. Mason McDonald will start Canada’s first two games at the minimum because MacKenzie Blackwood must sit out a suspension. It is hard to say whom the United States will start in goal in their opener against their border rival but do not be surprised to see Alex Nedeljkovic, who turned aside all fifteen shots he faced during the second half of the Americans’ come-from-behind 3-2 exhibition win over Finland on Tuesday.
Vitek Vanecek, the 19-year-old who is already in the Washington Capitals’ system playing in the East Coast Hockey League for the South Carolina Stingrays (14 ga, 2.00 avg, .917 svpct) this season, will be a very key man for the Czech Republic. Reportedly, as was clearly in evidence during the recent 1-0 exhibition loss to Canada, the central Czech strategy is to play an extremely conservative, defensive-oriented game and patiently wait to strike opponents on the counterattack. Undoubtedly, Vanecek, who has the benefit of having made three appearances for the Czech Republic at the 2015 WJC, will be looking to raise his stock in the Washington organization and perhaps earn a promotion to the AHL’s Hershey Bears by performing well on the world stage in Helsinki.
Linus Soderstrom started all seven games for Sweden at the 2015 WJC last winter but the 19-year-old from Swedish second division side HC Vita Hasten was not sharp and got pulled after conceding five goals to Canada during the wild 7-6 loss to the defending gold medalists in an exhibition contest in Finland two days before Christmas. Soderstrom might very well lose his place between the pipes to the Flyers / Phantoms prospect Sandstrom, the untested 18-year-old from Swedish elite league outfit IF Brynas Gavle. Goaltending could prove to be the achilles heel of an otherwise very strong Sweden team, it is certainly something to watch as this year’s WJC progresses.
The potent Swedish offense will be powered by a quartet of players who all averaged a point per game or more at the 2015 WJC last year. William Nylander (7 ga, 3 go, 7 as) of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and Adrian Kempe (6 ga, 4 go, 4 as) of the AHL’s Ontario Reign are two 1st round NHL Draft picks are a pair that Tre Kronor is counting upon heavily. The Flyers / Phantoms prospect Lindblom (7 ga, 4 go, 5 as) of IF Brynas Gavle and Axel Holmstrom (7 ga, 1 go, 6 as) of AIK Skelleftea are two other returnees that Sweden will need to produce.
Two AHL forwards who are also 1st round NHL Draft picks and WJC veterans, Mikko Rantanen (5 ga, 4 go, 0 as) of the San Antonio Rampage and Kasperi Kapanen (5 ga, 1 go, 0 as) of the Toronto Marlies, will fuel the attack for host nation Finland. The Finns have nobody left from the team that won the gold medal by defeating arch-rival Sweden in overtime at the 2014 WJC two years ago but Suomi do have a dozen NHL Draft picks, including a trio of second rounders, to work with this time around. A complete lack of game experience at this international tournament means that goaltending could easily be a question mark but Kaapo Kahkonen, the 19-year-old from elite league club Blues Espoo who was the 4th round pick (# 110 overall) of the Minnesota Wild at the 2014 NHL Draft, could get hot with the home crowd behind him.
Russia, who have won a total of 19 medals from the 23 WJC tournaments they have officially entered since the breakup of the old Soviet Union, felt so secure about the quality of their junior national team that Denis Guryanov, the 1st round pick (# 12 overall) of the Dallas Stars at the 2015 NHL Draft, and Yakov Trenin, the 2nd round pick (# 55 overall) of the Nashville Predators at the 2015 NHL Draft, were both among the very last players to be dropped from the pre-tournament roster. Defenseman Sergei Zborovsky, the 3rd round pick (# 79 overall) of the New York Rangers at the 2015 NHL Draft, was another late casualty and left Russia with only nine players who have been tabbed by National Hockey League clubs on its 2016 WJC roster. Then again, the career track record of head coach Valery Bragin, the former Spartak Moscow and Khimik Voskresensk forward who has one gold medal (in 2011) and three silver medals (in 2005, 2012 and 2015) from his previous tours of duty behind the Russian bench at the annual WJC, speaks for itself.
Vladislav Kamenev (7 ga, 1 go, 3 as) of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, the 2nd round pick (# 42 overall) of the Nashville Predators at the 2014 NHL Draft, and Alexander Dergachyov (7 ga, 1 go, 3 as) of KHL club SKA St. Petersburg are Russia’s two returning WJC veterans up front and will be expected to provide leadership in multiple ways. Evgeny Svechnikov, the 19-year-old winger who was the 1st round pick (# 19 overall) of the Detroit Red Wings at the 2015 NHL Draft and now skates in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, is another dangerous forward for opponents to beware of. The Flyers / Phantoms prospect Provorov, the 18-year-old defenseman from the Brandon Wheat Kings who was the seventh overall player taken in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft this past summer, is the only other returning WJC veteran for Russia and is expected to be a dominant force on the blue line.
.2016 WJC Opening Day Schedule in Helsinki
(all listings for Eastern Standard Time zone)
7:00 am … Czech Republic vs Russia
9:00am … Sweden vs Switzerland
11: 00 am … Finland vs Belarus
1: 00 pm … Canada vs United States
Note – two different facilities in the Finnish capital city, the Hartwall Arena and the Helsinki Ice Hall, are being utilized for the 2016 WJC.
Categories: Phantoms Hockey