Ranking the Medal Contenders for the IIHF World Junior Championships

Chris BlanchardContributor IIIDecember 24, 2012

Ranking the Medal Contenders for the IIHF World Junior Championships

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    The world's best U-20 hockey players have arrived in Ufa, Russia for the IIHF World Junior Championships. With the games set to begin on December 26, it's time to pick the medal favorites for this winter's competition. 

    The tournament will open with a two-group round-robin phase that will give way to a single-elimination medal round featuring three teams from each group.

    The groups are as follows:

    Group A Group B
    Sweden Russia 
    Finland Canada
    Czech Republic Slovakia
    Switzerland USA
    Latvia Germany

    Sweden, Russia and Canada claimed the medals in Calgary and Edmonton last winter and will face a stiff challenge from this year's field. 

    Here is a look at the medal contenders.

6. Czech Republic

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    Last Year's Result: Fifth Place

    The Czech team faces an uphill battle as it attempts to medal for the first time since 2005. Despite being in the easier of the two groups, the Czech Republic will be hard-pressed to finish higher than third in Group A behind Finland and Sweden.

    However, if they do reach the medal stage, they have enough talent to pull off an upset, with first-round picks Tomas Hertl and Radek Faksa leading a solid set of forwards. 

    They will face group favorites Sweden and Finland in their first two games and could quite easily find themselves 0-2 before very winnable games against Latvia and Switzerland. 

    If the Czech's can beat either the Swedes or the Finns early on, they'll be nearly certain to reach the knockout phase. 

5. Sweden

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    Last Year's Result: Gold 

    The defending gold medalists enter this year's tournament with a depleted squad. Top defensemen Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom will miss the tournament due to injury. Meanwhile, star forward Mika Zibanejad, who scored the overtime winner against Russia in the 2012 gold-medal game, has been withheld from the tournament by the Ottawa Senators, who have opted to keep him in the AHL. 

    Despite the losses, Sweden has no shortage of talent. Captain Filip Forsberg, the Washington Capitals 2012 first-round pick, could be among the tournament's best forwards. Meanwhile, top 2013 prospect Elias Lindholm has been compared to Swedish great Peter Forsberg and could be this year's breakout player. 

    The Swedes took both Team USA and Team Canada to overtime in pre-tournament warm-up games, and they have all the necessary ingredients to challenge for a medal. They should have little trouble surviving Group A and could win it, if they can beat rival Finland. 

    Without Zibanejad, Klefbom and Brodin, a gold-medal repeat may be too much to ask, but bronze would hardly be a shock. 

4. Finland

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    Last Year's Result: Fourth Place

    Finland is well equipped to improve upon their fourth-place finish from a year ago. The well-balanced squad will battle with neighboring Sweden for Group A supremacy. 

    Though they are short on star power, the Finns may be the most cohesive unit in the competition. 

    Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey Blog tweeted the following about the Finns after their 5-1 pre-tournament win over Team USA on December 22: 

    A note on Finland: There isn't a team in the tournament that plays as well collectively. Commitment to team defense is unrivaled. #2013WJC

    — Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) December 22, 2012

    They do have a few elite threats, including Aleksander Barkov, who is currently ranked as the No. 1 European prospect eligible for the 2013 draft, according to Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. 

    First rounders Teuvo Teravainen, Joel Armia and Olli Maatta provide plenty of top-notch talent to power the Finns. 

    A lock to reach the medal round, the sky is the limit for Finland, with a bronze medal looking like a good fit. 

3. USA

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    Last Year's Result: Seventh Place

    A very talented Team USA will look to bounce back from a disastrous seventh-place finish last year. Despite a strong squad, the Americans could have a hard time in this year's group of death. 

    Sharing Group A with favorites Canada and Russia, Coach Phil Housley will have to get every ounce of talent and effort out of his team. 

    The Americans will be led by defenseman Seth Jones, who is looking to become the first American selected first overall in the NHL draft since Patrick Kane in 2007. A physical beast, Jones can make huge plays offensively and hammer opponents in his own zone. Jones captained the Red, White and Blue to gold at the U-18 level last year and will look to add to his medal collection. 

    He will be aided by 2012's third overall pick, winger Alex Galchenyuk, who currently ranks second in the OHL in points with 61 in just 33 games. Defenseman Jacob Trouba and goalie John Gibson will also be crucial to the American cause as they seek to slow down Russia and Canada's superstar scorers. 

    Team USA should easily be able to reach the medal round, although likely by way of a third-place finish in Group B. At that point, they'll need to be at the top of their game to win gold for the first time since 2010. After a poor performance against Finland in their final warm-up game, bronze seems like a more realistic target for Team USA.  

2. Russia

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    Last Year's Result: Silver

    After missing out on gold by the slimmest of margins in 2012, the Russians will be on a warpath on their own turf. With seven medals in the last eight years, the Russians will be a favorite to challenge for gold once again. 

    A demanding Group B won't cut Team Russia any slack, but the team shouldn't need it. Led by 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov, this squad should score in bunches, with forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Alexander Khokhlachev also set to make major offensive contributions. 

    In addition to their scoring prowess, the Russians are blessed with an abundance of talent in net. Goalies Andrey Vasilevskiy and Andrey Makarov were both spectacular in last year's tournament, and whichever netminder finds himself carrying the load should be more than capable. 

    With only Team Canada featuring a greater level of talent and depth, Russia should ride home-ice advantage to a third consecutive medal. Anything less than gold for the Russians will be considered an abject failure. 

1. Canada

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    Last Year's Result: Bronze

    After a devastating failure to win gold in their own backyard a year ago, Team Canada arrives with a dream team full of players made available by the NHL lockout. 

    During the 2004-05 lockout, Canada went undefeated en route to a gold medal with a squad featuring stars such as Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Patrice Bergeron. This year's team will be led by superstar prospects, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton. 

    Their lineup is stocked from top to bottom with elite talent at every position. The only question mark on the team will likely be the goaltending situation. 2012 first rounder Malcolm Subban was the favorite to start in net for Canada, but a few poor performances in pre-tournament exhibitions may give Jordan Binnington a chance to break through. For some teams, such a controversy would be troublesome, but in this case, both goalies have enough ability to backstop Canada to gold. 

    Despite being pushed down the depth chart by 2011 first-round picks, potential 2013 top pick Nathan MacKinnon will draw tons of attention. The high-scoring forward could use the tournament as his coming out party. 

    Despite the presence of Russia in Group B, Canada should advance with ease, and their New Year's Eve battle with the host country could be a preview of the gold-medal game. On paper, Team Canada is likely the best World Junior squad since the last NHL lockout. The question remains whether they translate well from paper to ice.