The eyes of the hockey world will be fixed on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next Saturday afternoon for this year’s Winter Classic but starting the day after Christmas they will be on the HSBC Center in Buffalo, NY for this year’s Under 20 World Junior Hockey Championships.
The defending champion, Team USA is favored to repeat as World Champions. With the benefit of playing on home soil and returning eight players from last year’s squad, Team USA looks poised to repeat as world champions, a feat no USA team has ever accomplished.
The United States has hosted the tournament just twice in the last fourteen years. In 2005 the tournament was played in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, North Dakota and the 1996 showcase was held in Boston.
Other than soccer, no other team sport is as competitive world wide as hockey and the rest of the world is bringing a lot of talent to Buffalo. Team Canada has revenge on their minds as the USA spoiled Canada's chance at a record sixth consecutive gold medal last year in Saskatoon, Canada.
Much like the Olympic tournaments gold medal game in Vancouver last winter, the U20 Junior Championship game needed overtime to decide the champion as well. Washington Capital's defenseman John Carlson scored a little of over four minutes into the extra period to stun the host and win the under 20 tournament.
Canadians are concerned that this year’s roster does not feature an all world scorer like past rosters have but of the four returning starters, three are on the blue line. We will see if defense wins championships. With 15 first round picks on the roster Team Canada should get a crack at revenge against the Americans for gold.
Team Sweden, last year’s bronze medal winners always figures to factor in WJC play. With potentially two top five picks on the roster, the Swede's could send everyone away from Buffalo disappointed.
The Russians and Czech's look to improve upon their disappointing sixth and seventh place finishes last year. The Russians failed to medal for the first time in six years and last won gold in 2003.
This year’s tournament is jammed pack with the future of the NHL. Twenty Eight of the thirty teams have at least one player represented. The Washington Capitals have the most with six while five other teams have five prospects playing in Buffalo.
No tournament preview is complete without a prediction and I believe that team USA repeats as champion. Since 1996 the USA has made a committment to find and develope the best hockey players in the country.
The effort is paying off, one third of last years first round selections in the NHL entry draft were American players. Twenty one of the first sixty players chosen were American born.
Two first round selections hailed from Maryland (Jarred Tinordi) and Southern California (Emmerson Etem), not your typical scouting hotbeds of the hockey world.
The following is a list of ten players to keep an eye on this week. They are listed in no particular order.
The NHL Network will broadcast each of Team USA's games beginning with their opening match-up v. Finland at 8:00 p.m.est. on Friday December 26th.
Ryan Ellis is the seventh player in Team Canada history to make his third trip to the tournament for his country. The last to do it were Ottawa's Jason Spezza and Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester. Both played in their third straight U20 Tournament together back in 2002.
Ellis has been chosen Team Canada's Captain and will be needed for much more than leading the power play this year. With 15 points in his last two tournaments combined Ellis will have to step forward and lead a team without a proven prolific scorer.
Ellis has recorded 213 points in just 168 regular season games with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL and was drafted in the first round (eleventh overall) by the Nashville predators in 2009.
Team Canada plays in group B, which is the tougher of the two groups. Canada must get past an improved Russian and Czech team as well as last year's bronze medal winners Team Sweden.
Leading Canada past this group won't be easy. Ellis's offensive skills have not been put into question what may be is his ability to carry a team. If Ellis can in fact lead Canada back to the Championship game they may be better tested to face an American squad playing in a softer group A.
Niederreiter was well received in last year’s tournament, the Canadians were chanting his name like the Russians did for Rocky at the end of his fight against Drago in Rocky IV. Niederreiter and Switzerland goalie Benjamin Conz will have be just as good if not better this year to better their fourth place finish.
Niederreiter scored six goals en-route to a ten point tournament as Conz was named the tournament’s best goalie. Niederreiter led Switzerland to a quarterfinal upset of the Russians. Trailing by one and with an empty net Niederreiter snagged a failed Russian clearing attempt and scored to tie the game with less than thirty seconds remaining.
In overtime his shot would get deflected past the Russian goalie giving the Swiss their first ever win over a Russian team in WJC play.
Niederreiter's strong showing last year made him the fifth overall pick of the New York Islanders in June's entry draft. He did spend nine games with the Islanders this season, scoring his first NHL goal against the Capitals on October 13th.
Niederreiter made the tournaments all-star team and brings fellow country man and WHL teammate, Sven Baertschi to the U20 tournament. Baertschi is a great assist man and could help propel Niederrieter and the rest of the Swiss to another surprising upset in this year's showcase.
Vladimir Tarasenko and Team USA's Jeremy Morin
Prior to this year's NHL Entry draft, NHL's director of European scouting Goran Stubb said this about Valdimir Tarasenko "Tarasenko is very effective around the net with his excellent overall skill level and vision. He is a strong, mobile skater with a quick shot. He is not only a sniper, but also a good passer and playmaker. There are no real weaknesses in his overall game".
Tarasenko was drafted 16th overall in the first round by the St. Louis Blues. As an 18 year old playing in Russia's KHL with HC Sibir Novosibirsk , Tarasenko was second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 17 points in 28 games, with only a little less than 12 minutes of ice time per game.
His play is crucial to a team that struggled to a sixth place finish last year and failed to medal for the first time in six years. Tarasenko represented his country at the 2009 U18 WJC's, winning a silver medal. He scored eight goals and finished with 15 points good enough for the tournaments all-star team.
Forward Joel Armia has been tearing up the Finnish Men’s league. Armia plays for Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League and has 12 goals and 19 points in 30 games.
Armia was rated No. 1 by Central Scouting among Finnish players in its preliminary rankings.
Armia along with the Detroit Red Wings fourth round selection, Teemu Pulkkinen could be asked to lead a Finnish team that finished fifth in last year’s WJC. Minnesota Wild first round pick and Finnish player Mikhael Granlund is out recovering from a concussion.
At 6' 3 Armia is gifted scorer who can skate. He is draft eligible this year should be a top ten pick in June's entry draft.
Armia trails only Pulkkinen in the Finnish league rookie scoring race.
Adam Larsson returns to the WJC with a lot a stake this year. He is draft eligible and many have Larsson projected to be the number one overall selection in this years NHL entry draft.
A big strong mobile defenseman with excellent leadership skills Larsson will be counted on to better a bronze medal finish last year. The Swedes boast a lot of talent and it is not out of the question that along with Larsson, potential top five pick Gabriel Ladeskog and Ottawa Senators second round pick Robin Lehner in goal, that Sweden surprises everyone and wins this tournament.
Larsson has been projected as low as third on some mock draft boards and with every NHL scout in the house at the WJC he will have a chance to show his leadership skills. I believe Larsson is one of the best players in the tournament and will not disappoint.
Don't be surprised in a year when the Canadians are preaching depth over talent the Swedes sneak by them and if they do Adam Larsson will be the biggest reason why.
Larsson played for Sweden at both the U-20 and U-18 World Junior Championships last year. In 6 games at the U-20, he scored 1 goal and added 3 assists for 4 points. At the U-18, Larsson scored 2 goals and picked up 1 assist in 5 games.
Sean Couturier of Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is the only draft-eligible player on Team Canada's roster. He has a shot to cement a number one over-all selection in Junes draft with a good tournament.
According to NHL Networks Dave Starman "The fact Canada is coming in with only four returning players from last year's team is probably a good thing. They'll have a new corps that isn't hung up on revenge and I feel that'll work for them. They're big, physical, fast and unbelievably skilled."
The big, fast and unbelievably skilled part describes two-way center Sean Couturier's game. The Phoenix, Arizona born native had 96 points in just 68 games for Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. This season he has 52 points in 32 games with 36 helpers and even though the Canadiens are four lines deep a bad tournament by Couturier could mean another disappointing finish for Team Canada.
Ryan Bourque is one of eight returning players on Team USA for this year’s WJC. Bourque recorded three assists in last year’s tournament. If you do not recognize the last name then you are probably as young as the players in this tournament.
Bourque was drafted in the third round by the New York Rangers in the 09 entry draft. He is expected to make his NHL debut this season some time.
Ryan is the son of Hall Of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque.
Bourque is fast and uses his speed to create plays. He had 43 points in 44 games with Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL last season and recorded ten more points in nine playoffs games.
The Head Coach of the USA development squad Ron Rolston said of Bourque's speed, "He plays with a lot of energy and he has got great speed. He's made a lot happen with speed. He plays with a lot of tenacity. He's finished a lot of plays off and gotten to those areas and made nice plays around the net against older players, in terms of effectiveness of a player, he's got the ability."
Bourque will need to play a bigger role in this year’s tournament if the United States are going to repeat.
Do not be surprised if during the NHL entry draft in June Sweden has two of the first three players chosen in the draft. How that scenario plays out may just depend on this WJC tournament.
While Adam Larsson could be a number one overall pick, Landeskog may not be far behind.
Landeskog, Larsson and Team Sweden have a chance to upset Canada but both will need to play top notch games.
Landeskok plays for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL. His game has been called perfect for North America. He hits people, clearing space for his teammates to make plays. By the way he can also score, last season with Kitchener he racked up 46 points in 61 games and so far this season has 45 points in 32 games. In 20 playoff games he scored 23 points with Kitchener.
He was a teammate of Team USA and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Jeremy Morin. Morin had this to say about Landeskog. "He's a very physical guy. He's the nicest guy off the ice, but when you get him on the ice and into a uniform, he finishes his checks and plays hard."
One of the major reasons the United States won last year’s tournament was in part to the goal-tending play of Jack Campbell. His play elevated his draft status. He was the eleventh overall selection by the Dallas Stars.
Coming off of the bench in relief in the gold medal game, Campbell was stellar, making several big saves in OT and in the closing minutes in helping the U.S to gold.
Following last year’s WJC tournament many began talking about the day Team USA goalie Ryan Miller would hand the reins over to Campbell. In last year’s tournament Campbell had 2.54 Goals against with one shutout and a .923 save percentage.
Not so fast, while Campbell is good he has slowed down
Campbell is struggling somewhat coming into these games. He has not performed quite as expected with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL.
In 22 games this season Campbell is 12-9 with a lofty 3.68 goal against and a save percentage of just .887.
Jack Campbell will be fine. Campbell knows his role the second time around will be significantly different. He's now viewed as a veteran and will probably get almost every start.
They say that drafting a goalie is like drafting a quarterback, for one that makes it, five are busts. Campbell is not going to be a bust. His calm demeanor under pressure sets him apart.
He was 1-1 against Canada last year in the WJC. I do feel he will need to be 2-0 in Buffalo if the United States is going to skate off with the gold once again.
Emerson Etem may use this WJC as his breakout performance. He was selected by his hometown team the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round of this year’s NHL entry draft.
Currently playing for the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL, Etem has 35 points in 35 games. Last season he scored 37 goals and racked up 65 points in 72 games.
In 44 games with U18 US Team, Etem has 35 points. At 6' 1 and 197 pounds Etem plays a style similar to Jerome Igilna. With the US returning six forwards Etem may be asked to do some unconventional playing for his game but the big winger says he's ready for the chance.
"I am willing to go there and play a top six role,” said the Long Beach, California native. "If I can't do that I am also strong in my penalty killing". I feel like I can be a two-way player. I think that is what they are expecting from everyone. I am just going to try and show it with finishing checks and blocking shots and playing a strong defensive game".
Sounds like top hockey tournament playing to me.
I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the United States wins gold, Sweden wins silver and with apologies to my Canadian friends a bronze for your boys. Whatever the result it's a great way to end and start a new year. Enjoy.