World Juniors Preview: U.S. looks like favourite to defend, but it won't be easy
Not necessarily, according to veteran broadcaster Dave Starman, who will serve as color analyst for NHL Network's coverage of Team U.S.'s games for the third straight year.
"If the U.S. can reach the gold-medal game once again, and win it against Canada once again, then you would probably end up with the same type of drama," Starman told NHL.com. "But last year is going to be pretty hard to beat."
When pressed for a prediction, however, Starman did oblige.
"I'd be surprised if U.S. isn't playing for gold," he said. "I'd be unbelievably surprised if they weren't facing the Swedes or Canadians in the gold-medal game. I believe Team U.S. is going to be a team this year that's going to be really high octane and really physical. I think you're going to see defensemen stepping into the play like crazy, the goaltending is going to be solid and I think they're playing for an experienced staff and a head coach (Keith Allain) that's no-nonsense and extremely familiar with the international game. I think that's a huge key … he gets it."
Despite all that, Starman also feels that whichever teams survive Group B, which consists of Canada, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Norway, could be better battle-tested.
"If there's one big question, and no disrespect to those teams with the U.S. in Group A (Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland), where is there a game in that first round where the United States is going to come out of it and say, 'That was a battle, we proved something to ourselves and now we're ready for the next one.'"
Starman doesn't envision revenge being a big factor for Canada, despite last year's memorable 6-5 overtime loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game in Saskatoon.
"I think when revenge is your motive, your goals can get away from you," he said. "I firmly believe that Team Canada couldn't care if they played this tournament in Buffalo, Montreal, Stockholm or the Middle East -- they just want to play. I don't think Buffalo is that much of a disadvantage anyway because it's so close to the border. Even though they're not the home team, they're as close as you can be. It's sort of like Boston University playing Boston College -- it might not be your home rink, but it's pretty darn close."
While revenge shouldn't be a concern, Starman is wondering who will step into that leadership role for Team Canada. Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Ellis, who will be the seventh player in Hockey Canada history to participate in three WJC tournaments (Jason Botterill, Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Lindros, Trevor Kidd, Martin Lapointe, Jason Spezza), has been named the team's captain.
"The question for them is their leadership more than anything," he said. "I think when you take a look at last year's team with (Stefan) Della-Rovere, (Patrice) Cormier and Jordan Eberle, they had good, tough leadership. Those were the guys who said, 'Hey, if we have to block shots with our head, we'll do it. If we have to take a couple of hits to make a play, we'll do it.' They were the perfect guys to run a room by example because they walked the walk. This year's group is a good group, but I don't know if they are as dynamic as the group that led them last year and the group that led them last year had the advantage of being on a team that won it (in 2009)."
Four players from last year's team will be with Team Canada in Buffalo -- forward Brayden Schenn and defensemen Ellis, Jared Cowen and Calvin de Haan.
In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Sweden is another country that shouldn't be taken lightly. In fact, NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, the Swedes certainly are in the running for gold this year.
"The Swedes do have several really talented defenders, forwards and strong goaltending," Stubb said. "The leadership is also evident with guys like Tim Erixon, Adam Larsson, Patrik Nemeth and Jonas Brodin."
The tournament starts with four games on Dec. 26, highlighted by Canada facing Russia at 4 p.m. ET followed by the U.S. playing Finland at 8 p.m. Both games will be played at Buffalo's HSBC Center.
After Finland, the U.S. will play three more preliminary-round games -- Dec. 28 against Slovakia, Dec. 30 against Germany and Dec. 31 against Switzerland. Following its game against Russia, Canada will play the Czech Republic on Dec. 28, Norway on Dec. 29 and Sweden on Dec. 31.
Follow Mike Morreale at the WJC on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Coach -- Keith Allain
Assistant coaches -- Mark Osiecki, Phil Housley, Joe Exter
Last year -- Led by captain Derek Stepan, the U.S. earned its second-ever gold medal following a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory against Canada.
NHL prospects -- Three players already have made their NHL debuts -- Jeremy Morin (Blackhawks), Nick Leddy (Blackhawks) and Kyle Palmieri (Ducks), and there are a few close to earning full-time gigs with their respective NHL teams, including a pair for the New York Rangers, Chris Kreider and Ryan Bourque.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- The only player eligible for the Draft is goalie Andy Iles, who plays at Cornell University. Five potential early-round selections were part of the final round of cuts Dec. 22 -- Adam Clendening (Boston University), Jamieson Oleksiak (Northeastern University), Rocco Grimaldi (USNTDP), Brandon Saad (Saginaw Spirit) and Matthew Nieto (Boston University).
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Finland, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 7 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Switzerland, 8 p.m. (NHLN-US).
Starman's take -- "I expect U.S. coach Keith Allain to implement the same type of style he preaches at Yale. It'll be an unbelievably exciting team to watch. The defensemen will be in the play, they'll hit like crazy, they'll have three legitimate scoring lines and a fourth that will knock the hell out of you."
NHL.com prediction -- Few will forget the gold-medal clash last year in Saskatoon, won by the U.S. on defenseman John Carlson's overtime goal against Canada. The last time the United States hosted the event, in 2005, the Canada won gold and the host country finished fourth. There's a lot to like about the U.S., which boasts eight returnees and nine first-round NHL draft picks. While some may consider the host team the favorite, their brothers north of the border have won five of the last six gold medals, which is why we're predicting silver for the U.S.
Coach -- Richard Jost
Assistant coaches -- Sergio Soguel, Alex Reinhard
Last year -- The 2010 WJC was Nino Niederreiter's coming-out party -- the fans in Saskatoon were chanting his name by tournament's end. He finished with 10 points in seven games as well as a spot on the tournament All-Star team as he led Switzerland to a fourth-place finish. After returning to the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, he was taken by the New York Islanders with the fifth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft.
NHL prospects -- Niederreiter had a goal and an assist in nine games for the Islanders at the start of the season before being returned to Portland.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Sven Baertschi is Niederreiter's teammate in Portland. He exhibits finesse and very quick hands, is a deft puck-handler and his fantastic vision has labeled him one of the WHL's finest puck distributors.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Germany, 12:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, Finland, 12:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, Slovakia, 3 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, U.S., 8 p.m. (NHLN-US).
Starman's take -- "Niederreiter was a force last year and it was amazing to see the Canadian fans chant his name during Switzerland's upset of Russia in quarterfinal-round play last year. Everyone knows him this time around, so I'm curious to see what kind of help he gets."
NHL.com prediction -- Behind Niederreiter, Baertschi and goaltender Benjamin Conz, we expect the Swiss to take second in the Group, giving them a legitimate shot at reaching the semifinal round for the second straight year. A fifth-place showing is more likely, however.
Coach -- Lauri Marjamaki
Assistant coaches -- Raimo Helminen, Karri Kivi
Last year -- The Finns dropped a 6-2 decision to the U.S. in the quarterfinals and beat Russia in the fifth-place game to finish fifth, a slight improvement over its seventh-place showing in 2009.
NHL prospects -- The three high-end players to circle on your roster are defenseman Sami Vatanen (Anaheim, fourth round, 2009), the team captain with MVP-type impact; and forwards Teemu Pulkkinen (Detroit, fourth round, 2010) and Joonas Donskoi (Florida, fourth round, 2010). One player who won't be there, however, is forward Mikael Granlund, the ninth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild, who is recovering from a concussion.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Forward Joel Armia, who stars for Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League and has 12 goals and 19 points in 30 games, was rated No. 1 by Central Scouting among Finnish players in its preliminary rankings.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, U.S., 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Switzerland, 12:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 29, Germany, 3:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, Slovakia, 12:30 p.m. ET.
Stubb's take -- "Without playmaker Mikael Granlund, it might be difficult for snipers Pulkkinen, Donskoi, Toni Rajala and 17-year-old sensation Joel Armia to find the net."
NHL.com prediction -- Granlund's absence is big, but the Finns traditionally rely on teamwork, intensity and attitude. That said, Finland shouldn't have much of a problem finishing in the top three in the Group and reaching the quarterfinals. Armia, who could be this year's Niederreiter, will be called upon to carry the offensive load, but it might be too much to ask on North American ice. We anticipate a sixth-place finish.
Coach -- Stefan Mikes
Assistant coaches -- Miroslav Marcinko, Frantisek Kucera
Last year -- The Slovaks finished 1-3 in Group A and finished eighth after beating Austria and losing to the Czech Republic in the relegation round.
NHL prospects -- Look for defenseman Martin Marincin (Edmonton, second round, 2010), an all-round stopper with a good reach, to bolster the blue line while forward Richard Panik (Tampa Bay, second round, 2009), who is competing in his third WJC, snipes on offense.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Saint John Sea Dogs forward Tomas Jurco of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is a possible early-round draft choice, while defenseman Peter Ceresnak of Dukla Trencin Jr. enters as the No. 1-rated 2011 Entry Draft prospect in Slovakia, according to NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings.
Schedule -- Dec. 27, Germany, 7 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, U.S., 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Switzerland, 3 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, Finland, 12:30 p.m. ET.
Stubb's take -- "The Slovaks (national junior team) have been playing under the name Orange 20 Puchov in the Slovak League and haven't had success, but they still believe in the system. The key games in Buffalo will be against Finland, Switzerland and Germany. There's a small chance Panik can take his team to the quarterfinal, but there's just not enough overall talent here."
NHL.com prediction -- Slovakia will be hard-pressed to medal, despite the fact several members of the team already play in North America, including standouts Panik (Guelph, OHL) and Marincin (Prince George, WHL). A seventh-place finish is the guess here. The country last medaled in 1999 with a bronze.
Coach -- Ernst Hofner
Assistant coach -- Uwe Krupp
Last year -- Playing at the Division I level, Germany won all five of its games while outscoring the opposition 27-3 to earn promotion to the top level.
NHL prospects -- Forward Tom Kuehnhackl (Pittsburgh, fourth round, 2010) and defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser (San Jose, sixth round, 2010) are the up-and-comers to watch. Kuehnhackl has 17 goals and 33 points in 33 games for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, while the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Abeltshauser has 3 goals, 13 points and 22 penalty minutes in 32 games with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Keep an eye on forward Tobias Rieder of the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, No. 6 on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings for players in the league, and Mathias Niederberger, the top-rated German goalie playing domestically.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Switzerland, 12:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, Slovakia, 7 p.m. ET; Dec. 29, Finland, 3:30 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, U.S., 7 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Starman's take -- "Not a lot expected of the Germans but you never know. They earned the chance to compete in the tournament, so might as well give it your best shot."
NHL.com prediction -- Beginning in 2003, Germany has been in and out of the main draw of the WJC -- making this their fifth appearance in nine years. In 12 appearances overall, the team never has finished higher than seventh; we're guessing an eighth-place finish in Buffalo.
Coach -- Dave Cameron
Assistant coaches -- Bob Boughner, Andre Tourigny, Ryan Huska
Last year -- Canada's string of five straight gold medals was snapped in 6-5 overtime loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game. Still, forwards Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle were catalysts on offense and Alex Pietrangelo was outstanding on defense. Eberle and Pietrangelo were named the best at their position in the tournament.
NHL prospects -- There's a rumor going around that Canada is considered an underdog -- really? There are 15 first-round NHL picks on the roster -- one goalie, six defensemen and eight forwards. A few of the most notable are Erik Gudbranson, taken by the Panthers with the third pick of the 2010 Entry Draft. He's the first defenseman from the Kingston Frontenacs to ever make Team Canada. Ryan Ellis, taken by the Predators with the 11th pick of the 2009 Draft, will serve as team captain and is playing in his third WJC. Forward Brayden Schenn, the fifth pick of the 2009 Draft, started the season with Kings before being returned to Brandon of the WHL. Schenn, Ellis, and defensemen Calvin de Haan (N.Y. Islanders, No. 12, 2009) and Jared Cowen (Ottawa, No. 9, 2009) are the only returning players from last year.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Sean Couturier of Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is the only draft-eligible player on the roster. The two-way forward, who could be the first player taken in June, will provide great energy and offense to boot. His agent, Gilles Lupien, compared him to Hall of Fame forward Darryl Sittler.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Russia, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 28, Czech Republic, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 29, Norway, 7:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 31, Sweden, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN).
Starman's take -- "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."
NHL.com prediction -- The last time Canada lost the gold medal to the U.S., Canada rebounded with a gold-medal winning effort on U.S. soil in 2005. Canada would like nothing more than to repeat that scenario in Buffalo, and if they survive Group B, will do just that despite the fact goaltenders Olivier Roy or Mark Visentin lack international experience.
Coach -- Roger Ronnberg
Assistant coach -- Robert Ohlsson
Last year -- After earning two straight silver medals, Sweden dropped a 5-2 decision to the U.S. in the semifinal round but recovered to beat Switzerland 11-4 to take home a bronze medal.
NHL prospects -- Goalie Robin Lehner, a 2009 second-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, gives the Swedes a formidable force between the pipes. Other key players will be defenseman Tim Erixon (Calgary, first round, 2009), two-way forward Calle Jarnkrok (Detroit, second round, 2010) and team captain Anton Lander (Edmonton, second round, 2009).
2011 Entry Draft watch -- All eyes will be on power forward Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Adam Larsson. Landeskog, who captains the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, has great hands, a powerful shot and a feistiness reminiscent of two of the game's grittiest Swedes, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings. The 6-foot, 200-pound left wing is the second-ever European-born and -trained player to captain an Ontario Hockey League team. Larsson, meanwhile, is being touted as the top blueliner for the upcoming draft, and is a candidate for the No. 1 pick.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Norway, 4 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, Russia, 4 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, Czech Republic, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 31, Canada, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN).
Stubb's take -- "The best European team, with tons of talent and several future stars. Sweden is in a tough group but should at least reach the semifinal. With a bit of luck, they'll be in the final behind strong goaltending, a very good defense and several world-class, forwards."
NHL.com prediction -- It's a pretty formidable group up front, led by Lander, Landeskog and Carl Klingberg. Along with Larsson and Lehner, Sweden will give Canada and Russia a run for their money in Group B. A third-place finish is the pick here.
Coach -- Valery Bragin
Assistant coaches -- Evgeny Koreshkov, Yuri Novikov
Last year -- It was a disappointing tournament for Russia, which lost to Switzerland in overtime in the quarterfinals on the way to a sixth-place finish. It marked the first time in six years Russia failed to medal at the WJC.
NHL prospects -- A pair of forwards taken in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft will be on the team -- Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis, No. 16) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington, No. 26). Goalie Igor Bobkov (Anaheim, third round, 2009), who was solid in last year's tournament, could be the team's MVP by tournament's end.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- Defenseman Nikita Zaytsev, who went undrafted in 2010, has keen awareness in his zone and solid, if unspectacular, puck skills. The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder, who plays for Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL, would raise his stock with a good tournament.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Canada, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 28, Sweden, 4 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, Norway, 7 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, Czech Republic, 7 p.m. ET.
Stubb's take -- "There are no real superstars on the Russian team but several players who had a good fall playing regularly in the KHL, such as Tarasenko, Kuznetsov and Maxim Kitsyn. There's tons of speed, skill and talent, but the big question is can they put a team together."
NHL.com prediction -- The biggest challenge for Bragin, who replaces Vladimir Plyushchev as coach, is to have his troops work as a team and not individual stars. It won't be easy. Still, the Russians are coming off their first Super Series triumph in the eight-year history of the tournament in November against the best junior-age players in the Canadian Hockey League. Kitsyn, the youngest player to score a hat trick in the KHL, and Nikita Dvurechensky tied for the team scoring lead. A fourth-place showing is expected in Buffalo.
Coach -- Miroslav Prerost
Assistant coaches -- Jiri Fischer, Terry Christensen
Last year -- Czech Republic survived relegation by beating Latvia and Slovakia to finish seventh.
NHL prospects -- Returning from last year's team are a pair of forwards currently playing in the Canadian Hockey League -- Roman Horak of the Western Hockey League's Chilliwack Bruins and Andrej Nestrasil of the P.E.I. Rocket of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Horak, a 2009 fifth-round pick of the New York Rangers, is second on the team with 15 goals and 38 points in 30 games. Nestrasil, a 2009 third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, has 13 goals and a team-high 36 points in 29 games.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- It remains undetermined whether Vancouver Giants defenseman David Musil would be available. Musil, who Central Scouting rated No. 4 among WHL skaters in its preliminary rankings, suffered a hairline fracture in his right fibula Dec. 7. Defenseman Jakub Jerabek of HC Plzen is rated No. 5 on Central Scouting's preliminary ranking for Czech players. Also, keep an eye on power forward Martin Frk, who isn't draft eligible until 2012. The 17-year-old right wing has 11 goals, 31 points and 41 penalty minutes in 34 games as a rookie with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.
Schedule -- Dec. 27, Norway, 7 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, Canada, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 30, Sweden, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 31, Russia, 7 p.m. ET.
Stubb's take -- "A main reason for today's poor state of Czech junior hockey is the fact so many young Czech players leave for junior hockey in North America. The Czech's most talented player, winger Dmitri Jaskin, is injured. Besides that, the chances of the team beating Canada, Sweden or Russia in their group are very small."
NHL.com prediction -- The Czech Republic has struggled on the international stage recently, not having placed higher than fifth in the WJC since winning bronze in 2005. Without high-end prospects like Musil and Jaskin (knee), that trend likely will continue. Look for a ninth-place finish.
Coach -- Geir Hoff
Assistant coaches -- Paal Guldbrandsen, Jarl Eriksen
Last year -- The Norwegians won four of five games at the Division I level while outscoring their foes 33-8 to earn a spot in the main draw this year.
NHL prospects -- Forward Sondre Olden, a third-round draft choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs last June, made the move to Sweden's junior league in 2009-10, and jumped from Sweden's Under-18 division to the Under-20 as a 17-year-old. He spent the fall with Modo in the Swedish Elite League.
2011 Entry Draft watch -- There's a good chance 6-foot-3 goalie Lars Volden, who sported a 1.47 goals-against average and .958 save percentage in four Division I games last year, could keep the games close. In 17 games with the Espoo Blues Under-20 team in Finland, Volden has a 2.68 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Sweden, 4 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, Czech Republic, 7 p.m. ET; Dec. 29, Canada, 7:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN); Dec. 30, Russia, 7 p.m. ET.
Stubb's take -- "Norway is in the same 'elevator category' as Germany, Latvia, Denmark and Belarus -- too good for the 'B' pool but not good enough to stay in the 'A' pool. Norway has worked hard with their junior program for years, but hockey just cannot take the next step in the Norwegian sports society. The average attendance for league games in the capital, Oslo, is under 1,000. In Buffalo, they'll play their big games in the relegation pool and it would be a big surprise if they can finish better than ninth or 10th."
NHL.com prediction -- Norway is competing in the main draw of the WJC for the seventh time in their history -- the last coming in 2006, when the team placed 10th. Look for Norway, which finished an all-time high sixth in 1990, to be relegated back to Division I next year following another 10th-place showing.