2013 World Junior Championship preview
The NHL's decision to cancel another slab of games last Thursday was another lump of coal in the stockings of pro hockey fans already beaten senseless by the 100-plus day lockout. But those cancelations were exactly the gift that organizations like Hockey Canada and USA Hockey had at the top of their Christmas wish lists.
The razing of the NHL schedule through Jan. 14 ensures that the rosters for the 2013 World Junior Championship, which gets underway in Ufa, Russia, will remain intact for the length of the tournament. And that means, for the first time since 2005 each nation will truly be able to ice its best possible squad in what stacks up to be the most star-studded event since Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Corey Perry led Canada to gold in 2005.
The 10-team tournament features the top under-20 players in the world competing in a round-robin format that begins Dec. 26 and culminates with the gold medal showdown on Jan. 5. Already established as a must-watch holiday tradition in Canada, its appeal should expand southward this year as NHL-starved fans in the United States look for elsewhere for their hockey fix. First-timers drawn in by the lockout will find a high-stakes event fueled by teenaged testosterone and burning national pride that matches, and sometimes exceeds, the hustle, passion and heartbreak that make the NHL's playoffs so compelling.
Granted, the 11-hour time difference between Ufa and the east coast means most games will air live between 3 AM and 9:30 AM EST on TSN in Canada and the NHL Network in the United States. NHL.com will also live stream Team USA's games. Not exactly viewer-friendly times, but there'll be prime time replays for the late risers. (Click here for schedule.)
Still, it'll be worth setting the timer a little earlier on the coffee pot . It's always better to watch sports live -- no need to actively avoid Twitter spoilers -- and this year's event could be the best in years with no clear favorite -- Canada, the US and Russia are locked in the hunt for gold -- and the finest assemblage of young talent across the field since that fabled 2005 tournament. Among the stars on display will be the last two players selected first overall-- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Canada) and Nail Yakupov (Russia) -- alongside the four players battling for that honor in 2013 (or whenever the next draft is held): Seth Jones (USA), Aleksander Barkov, Jr (Finland) and Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin (Canada).
GALLERY: Players to watch
Every NHL franchise has at least one top prospect suiting up, with 18 first-rounders from 2012 and 14 more from 2011 in action. Buffalo fans can follow Mikhail Grigorenko (Russia), Joel Armia (Finland) and Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia). Ducks' faithful can follow Rikard Rakell (Sweden) and John Gibson (USA). Winnipeggers can track Mark Scheifele (Canada) and Jacob Trouba (USA). Even if your country doesn't win, chances are someone you'll be cheering for in the next year or two will. A few key players are missing. Ottawa's decision to keep Mika Zibanejad in the AHL means Sweden is without the author of its 2012 golden goal. A lingering suspension handed down by the OHL cost Team USA top-six forward Stefan Noesen. Columbus prospect Ryan Murray, inked in as Canada's No. 2 defender, was lost to a shoulder injury just ahead of camp.
Here's a breakdown of the teams I expect to come home with medals.'
One walks out on a fairly sturdy limb when picking the Canadians to win this event. Prior to its heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Russians in last year's semis, Canada had run up a remarkable 10-year streak of finals appearances and captured five straight gold medals from 2005-2009. But that run of success might have stretched further if not for three years of goaltending cursed by a deadly propensity for giving up goals at the most soul-crushing moments. The position remains this team's gravest concern heading into the event.
The consensus ahead of the selection camp was that Malcolm Subban, Boston's 2012 first round selection, would be the first game-breaking stopper Canada had employed since Carey Price in 2007. But after being outplayed by the other three goalies in Calgary and turning in a middling performance in the exhibition opener against Finland, Subban has yet to stake a claim on the No. 1 job, let alone display the steely sense of invulnerability that used to be the hallmark of Canadian goalies.
Of course, if all goes according to plan, Subban and Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues) simply need to channel their inner Grant Fuhr to secure a win. They'll get plenty of help from a defense that features four first-rounders—Dougie Hamilton (Boston), Morgan Rielly (Toronto), Ryan Murphy (Carolina) and Griffin Reinhart (New York Islanders) -- and looks to be the best that Canada has dressed in years. So does the lockout-enhanced offense that includes explosive scorers like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg), Ryan Strome (Islanders) and Brett Ritchie (Dallas) plus gritty depth from Boone Jenner (Columbus), Philip Danault (Chicago), Anthony Camara (Boston) and Ty Rattie (St. Louis). It's a talented mix that seems prepared to dictate the tone of a contest. More important, it seems to be an emotionally mature group capable of adjusting to any in-game situation. That's a critical component for a team that allowed brief meltdowns to scuttle its chances in each of the past two tournaments.
As long as Subban or Binnington make the saves they have to make -- and mix in a five-alarm special every now and then -- that should be enough.
The Americans return just three players from a team that failed to advance to the medal round in 2012, but all three will play critical roles. Goaltender John Gibson (Anaheim) can be frustrating to watch at times, but he always seems to make the big save when his team needs it. He may not steal a game, but he won't be the guy that loses one, either.
Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg), the team's top defender as an underage player in Alberta last year, joins potential first overall pick Seth Jones to lead a typically stout American blueline. There won't be many shifts without one of those two on the ice, but Pat Sieloff can fill in and play a shutdown role. The Calgary prospect plays a nasty physical game that demands opponents keep their heads on a swivel. Already a legend in the OHL, Sieloff is one big hit away from becoming an international sensation.
Puck magician Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal) leads an offense that's high on skill, but the team's ultimate success could come down to the effectiveness of a second line that features 6'-2' returning center J.T. Miller (Rangers) skating between 5'-6" Johnny Gaudreau and 5'-6" Rocco Grimaldi. The diminutive collegians -- whose height may be slightly embellished -- play the game low to the ice at high speed and can weasel their way virtually unnoticed to the high-value scoring areas. Still, they're a couple of lightweights trying to punch their way through a much heavier class. If they're ineffective, the Americans won't be able to match up against Canada.
Looking to avenge a 1-0 OT loss in the 2012 final and playing in front of their home crowd give the Russians focus in their bid to recapture gold. That could come in handy as they try to compensate for what looks to be a gaping hole on the blueline.
The team returns both Andrei Vasilevski and Andrey Makarov from the 2012 squad, giving Russia the best depth in the tournament. The hot hand will get the call. The offense will be quick and creative as usual, headlined by Nail Yakupov (Edmonton), Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay) and Alexander Khochlachev (Boston), but it also boasts a healthy dose of grit so scoring won't be a problem. Draft-eligible Valeri Nichushkin could emerge as the team's breakthrough star.
The questions surround the defense. 6-5, 230-pound bruiser Nikita Zadorov was expected to provide some menace, but he was a shocking last-minute cut. Mikhail Naumenko, who otherwise would have led the corps, is hurt. Tampa Bay picks Nikita Nesterov and Artem Sergeev will pick up the slack, but as a group it doesn't stack up well against Canada and the US. For the Russians to win, they'll need a superlative effort in net and enough offense to cover for their inevitable mistakes on the back end.
The Finns boast one of the tournament's must-watch players in draft-eligible center Aleksander Barkov, Jr., but it will be their cohesive, junkyard dog style that keeps them in contention. There won't be any easy games against this team.
Slovakia: Things are looking sketchy for the usually competitive Slovaks. The 1993 birth year didn't produce a lot of elite talent and the top two from that class -- Marek Tvrdon (Detroit) and Martin Gernat (Edmonton) -- are both injured. Stuck in the Group of Death with the three medal favorites, they'll be hard-pressed to survive. Forward Marko Dano is one to watch.
Latvia: Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo) and Teddy Blugers (Pittsburgh) lead an offense that has some punch, but the graduation of goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis and a blueline that lacks shutdown ability suggests the Latvians won't make the A Pool cut. Keep an eye on Rihards Bukarts, a dazzling sniper who could generate some first-round buzz in 2014.