Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
Let’s face it folks. When you outscore your competition by a score of 155 to 40 in the last 31 tournament games and you earn a record of 30 wins and one loss in the process, your nation goes into a hockey tournament as the prohibitive favorites to win the thing. Such is the case for Canada’s junior team.
To be fair, Canada’s junior team has been all but unbeatable at the IIHF World Junior Championships. They have earned five gold medals in a row and, given their depth, are all but a lock to capture their sixth straight Gold.
The tournament will be played in Saskatchewan with the first game being played on Boxing Day. For many, the World Junior Championship allows their families to enjoy some hockey over their Christmas holidays, a tradition for many Canadian families. For others, the WJC supplies a glimpse into the upcoming 2010 NHL amateur draft, especially the European talent, of which many NHL fans never get a chance to watch.
Canada, Sweden, Russia, and the United States are expected to ice the most talented rosters, with Finland, Slovakia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Latvia looking like the also-rans.
Canada will be led by Taylor Hall of the Windsor Spitfires, a player that currently leads the OHL in scoring and is the odds-on favorite to be the number one draft pick at the NHL’s amateur draft this summer.
Hall will be joined by Windsor Spitfire teammates Adam Henrique and Greg Nemisz. The threesome makes up the OHL’s most lethal line combination, and by all accounts, all three should have exceptional tournaments.
Canada will be blessed with some very talented second and third liners. Brayden Schenn (last year's fifth overall pick, Los Angeles Kings) and brother of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, Luke Schenn) will be asked to bring the secondary scoring and take many of Canada’s key face-offs.
Jordan Eberle (last year's tournament hero for Canada) will join Schenn, with Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri (who may also see fourth line duty) and Gabriel Bourque, expected to flank the other wing. One or more of these players will also see some playing time on the Penalty Kill, an area where, given Canada’s propensity for taking penalties, will be quite busy.
Patrice Cormier, who has been selected as Canada’s team captain, will be relied upon to shut down the opposition's best lines. Stefan Della Rovere and Brandan McMillan will join him. Look for Cormier to mix it up often. If he gets out of control and takes too many penalties, Canada’s head coach Willie Dejardins will be forced to shorten his leash, leaving Kadri or Schenn to do the dirty work.
Defensively, Team Canada should be excellent. Travis Hamonic and Marco Scandella are expected to be Canada’s go-to pairing with Jared Cowen and Alex Pietrangelo making up the second unit and the offensively gifted Ryan Ellis and hard-hitting Colten Teubert making up the third pair. Calvin de Hann will be Canada’s seventh defenseman, a player that can be relied upon to play in just about any scenario Canada puts him in.
Canada’s goaltending is always solid and this year looks to be no exception. Jake Allen is expected to get the call as Canada’s number one goalie, with Martin Jones, who stands 6’4” and 193 pounds, filling the number two role. Allen is an exceptional goalie, but rest assured, if he falters, Jones can fill the role, as witnessed by his solid shutout effort against team Finland on Tuesday evening.
Look for Canada to get lots of offense from its defensemen. Ryan Ellis, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jared Cowan can all “bring it” offensively and will be a key factor in Canada’s success.
No question, Canada is loaded for bear and, by all accounts, will win gold. Let’s have a quick look at the competition...
Sweden is blessed with a deep defensive lineup and a very solid goaltender in Jacob Markstrom. Front and center for the Swedes defense will be Adam Larsson, whom many NHL scouts have described as the second coming of last years second overall pick at the NHL amateur draft, Victor Hedman, who is now playing in the NHL for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Larsson, who stands 6’2” and weighs in at 210 pounds, will be joined by Oliver Ekman Larsson, Tim Erixon, Erik Karlsson (a tournament All-Star in 2008), and David Runblad on the back end, giving the Swedes a very formidable defense to play against.
That said, given Canada’s dominating 6-2 performance against the Swedes in their exhibition game earlier this week, it’s safe to say that, as deep as Sweden’s defense looks on paper, it may be overmatched against the very talented Canadian squad.
The fact is, Canada made quick work of Sweden in last years Gold Medal match, disposing of the Swedes by a final score of 5-1. Sweden was picked by many to have the best chance of beating Canada for the Gold Medal last year and, when it was all said and done, came up four goals short.
Russia is an interesting squad with some decent offensive talent, led by Columbus Blue Jackets top prospect and WJC tournament All-Star in 2008, Nikita Filatov. Like many other teams in this tournament, Russia will have a tough time matching Canada’s compete level and overall depth.
When you look at the two rosters side by side, you’ll note that Canada has no weaknesses while Russia’s defense and goaltending, while decent, does not offer up the same excitement for NHL scouts as Canada.
Evgeni Grachev is not expected to be released by the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack (this could change), which is a big hit to Russia’s offense. That said, Russia’s forwards will be dangerous and this team has the ability to light the lamp often, which should serve them well in this tournament.
Russia looks to be fairly solid on defense with Dmitri Orlov and perhaps Dmitri Kulikov of the Florida Panthers expected to be the leaders. Orlov was impressive at last year's tournament and should receive a bigger role here in 2009-10.
Russia has not brought home a gold medal since 2003, a medal which was won on Canadian soil in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Formerly known as the Soviet Union, Russia has won a total of 14 gold medals at the WJC, Canada owns the record with 15, so there is always a question of pride involved here.
Jordan Schroeder is expected to lead the Americans with Tyler Johnson, Ryan Bourque, Jerry D’amigo, Jeremy Morin, Kris Kreider (who can fly), and Jason Zucker to fill out
Team USA’s offensive threats.
On defense, Cam Fowler of the Windosr Spitfires, John Ramage, and John Carlson, who should log huge minutes, will be relied upon to keep their opponents at bay while Mike Lee and Jack Campbell will be given the challenge of keeping the pucks out of USA’s net.
The Americans are a young, fairly inexperienced squad, who look to be undersized. They will be in tough to win a medal, let alone the Gold, something Team USA has failed to do since 2004 in Helsinki, Finland.
To all the teams, have a great tournament and a Merry Christmas! Outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs this is the best hockey we see all year, so don’t forget to tune in...quick prediction: Canada goes undefeated and wins their sixth straight Gold Medal!
Until next time,
Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter