A look at the countries competing at the world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia:
The Swedes won gold in 2012. Six players are eligible to return from that team, including forward Sebastian Collberg, who had seven points in six games in Alberta. Second-year forward Victor Rask played 10 games with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers before he was returned to the Calgary Hitmen this season. Roger Ronnberg will coach the Swedes again.
Up 2-0 on Sweden in the semifinal in Alberta, the Finns lost an overtime heartbreaker and had little emotional energy left for the bronze-medal game against Canada. The Finns have 10 players eligible to return from that team, although goaltending is a question mark. Players to watch include forwards Markus Granlund and Joel Armia, who each had seven points in seven games in Alberta, as well as London Knights defenceman Olli Maatta. Finland is looking for its third gold in the history of the tournament after winning in 1998 and 1987.
The Czechs have seven players eligible to return from the squad that finished fifth last year. Players to watch are NHL first-round draft picks Radek Faksa (Dallas) and Tomas Hertl (San Jose). Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman David Musil, son of NHL player Frank Musil, was born in Canada. The Czech roster will have a high Canadian Hockey League content with as many as 14 from the league. The Czechs won back-to-back golds in 2000 and 2001, but their best result since was bronze in 2005.
Canadian Sean Simpson will coach the Swiss in Ufa. Coming off an eighth-place finish, Switzerland boasts tournament experience with a dozen players eligible to play for their country again. Forward Christoph Bertschy is a Minnesota Wild draft pick. Switzerland could use a breakthrough in this tournament. Bronze in 1998 is their only medal so far.
Latvia avoided relegation in 2012 with an overtime goal over Denmark. There are a dozen returning players from that team, including overtime hero Nikita Jevpalovs. Zemgus Girgensons was the 14th overall pick in the this year’s NHL draft by Buffalo and forward Teodors Blugers is a second-round pick of Pittsburgh. Staying out of the relegation pool would be a win for the Latvians.
Call the Russians a tournament favourite with home-ice advantage, a star-studded lineup and experienced goaltending. The Edmonton Oilers made Nail Yakupov the first overall pick in the NHL draft this year after choosing Canada’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins No. 1 in 2011. Yakupov has a strong supporting cast around him including Nikita Kucherov and Alexander Khokhlachyov and high-scoring defenceman Nikita Nesterov. A country is lucky to have one goaltender with previous tournament experience and the Russians have two.
The NHL lockout bolstered Canada’s gold-medal chances by making the likes of Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton available to the team. Canada is strong at centre in contrast to the 2012 tournament when the middle was a weakness. Six players return from the team that won bronze in Alberta. Canada doesn’t have the experience in goaltending that Russia does.
The Slovak lineup was heavy with Canadian Hockey League players in previous tournaments, but no longer. Most of the roster is from an under-20 Bratislava club team that plays some games in the elite league. The exception is New York Rangers prospect and Peterborough Petes defenceman Peter Ceresnak. The Slovaks have five players eligible to play in the tournament for a second year.
Seventh in 2012 was the worst result for a U.S. team since they were eighth in 1998. Defenceman Jacob Trouba, forward J.T. Miller and goaltender John Gibson are the returning players from that team. Trouba was the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Winnipeg Jets. The Americans will be coached by former NHL defenceman Phil Housley. The U.S. won the 2010 world junior tournament in Saskatoon.
The Germans return to the top-tier championship after they were relegated in 2011. The player to watch is Tobias Rieder, a Kitchener Rangers forward and fourth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers. The Germans have eight players back from the squad that earned promotion, but no returning goaltenders.