Sweden, Finland ahead of pack in WJC Group A
It took Sweden 31 years to win its second World Junior Championship gold medal. Will the third take a little less time?
Sweden enters the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship as the defending champion after its 1-0 overtime defeat of Russia in last year's gold-medal game. Six players return from that team, and among the missing are both goaltenders; a pair of top defensemen; and offensive star Mika Zibanejad, who scored the golden goal in Alberta.
"Sweden does have a team that can win again," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "That team has a lot of talent and skill."
They're not the only team in Group A that fits that description.
Finland features a lineup that includes a pair of potential 2013 NHL Draft first-round picks: Center Alexander Barkov likely will go in the top five in June, and could challenge for No. 1, and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is tough and talented at both ends of the ice.
The Czech Republic could be a dark-horse medal contender, while Switzerland and Latvia will do their best to avoid relegation-round play.
Preliminary-round games start Dec. 26, with all Group A games played in the 3,900-seat Ufa Sports Palace.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group A. The top-seeded team from the group will earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round. The second- and third-place teams play cross-over quarterfinal contests with Group B.
Coach: Miroslav Prerost
Last year: An upset of the United States in the preliminary round helped the Czechs advance to the medal round for the first time since 2008. They lost 2-1 to Russia in overtime in the quarterfinals, but beat Slovakia 5-2 in the placement game for their best finish since 2008.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Jan Stencel, a 5-foot-9, 174-pound defenseman, is No. 2 in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Czech skaters. He has 11 points and a plus-19 rating in 21 games with HC Vitkovice in the top Czech league. Goalie Patrik Bartosak, who plays for the Red Deer Rebels, is fourth in the Western Hockey League with a 2.35 goals-against average and third with a .931 save percentage.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Switzerland, 2:30 a.m. ET.
Outlook: With seven players returning, including top defenseman David Musil and likely No. 1 center Radek Faksa, the Czech Republic should at least return to the medal round. A return to the medal stand for the first time since 2005 is not out of the question.
Coach: Leonids Tambijevs
Last year: Latvia was outscored 31-8 while going winless in the preliminary round. Its only win came in overtime in its final game against Denmark to finish ninth.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Left wing Roberts Lipsbergs, who plays for the Seattle Thunderbirds, leads all Western Hockey League first-year players with 17 goals and 32 points in 34 games. Right wing Nikita Jevpalovs has 15 points and a plus-12 rating in 33 games for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 27, Switzerland, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Czech Republic, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Buffalo Sabres prospect Zemgus Girgensons, the 14th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, will be Latvia's best player. However, even with Girgensons, Lipsbergs and Jevpalovs (who scored the OT goal against Denmark), it's hard to envision Latvia making it out of preliminary-round play. The goal should be more than one win in the relegation round.
Coach: Harri Rindell
Last year: After losing to Canada in its tournament opener, Finland didn't lose again until a 3-2 setback to Sweden in the semifinals. Finland finished fourth after losing 4-0 to Canada in the bronze-medal game.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Alexander Barkov is a likely top-five pick in June. Central Scouting's top-ranked Finnish skater is dominating SM-liiga, the top Finnish professional league, with 14 goals and 28 points in 32 games. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is considered a top-end all-round defenseman who can dominate at both ends of the rink.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Latvia, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Czech Republic, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Switzerland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Finland could be the surprise team of the tournament, and its matchup with Sweden on New Year's Eve likely will decide the winner of Group A and which team gets a bye into the semifinals. Finland has talent and depth at all positions and will be well-coached. A medal is a serious possibility.
Coach: Roger Ronnberg
Last year: Mika Zibanejad scored the only goal of the gold-medal game against Russia 10:09 into overtime to give Sweden its first World Junior Championship title since 1981. Sweden had won seven silver medals since its prior gold.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Center Elias Lindholm is a potential top-10 pick already playing well against men (21 points in 32 games) with Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. Right wing Nick Sorensen, who plays for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, is scoring at near a point-per-game pace, and is No. 16 in Central Scouting's ranking of QMJHL skaters.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Czech Republic, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Switzerland, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Finland, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Six players from last year's title team return, meaning Sweden will have mostly a new squad to defend its title. However, there is a ton of talent, topped by captain and Washington Capitals prospect Filip Forsberg. The forward should supply the scoring that last year's captain, Zibanejad, provided. The goaltending is untested, and the team won't be as deep. Another gold medal is a possibility, but the road to get there will be far more difficult.
Coach: Sean Simpson
Last year: After two straight years in the medal round, Switzerland won once in the preliminary round. However, its three losses were by a total of six goals. It came back to defeat Latvia and Denmark in the relegation round and finished eighth.
2013 NHL Draft watch: After a run of skilled forwards, keep an eye on a pair of big defensemen. Eliot Antonietti (6-foot-4, 224 pounds) already is a full-time player in the country's top league with Geneve, and is No. 3 in Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Swiss skaters. Mirco Muller (6-3.25, 184), who plays for the Everett Silvertips in the WHL, is second among the league's first-year blueliners with 18 points in 34 games. He's No. 7 in Central Scouting's ranking of WHL skaters.
Schedule: Dec. 27, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Czech Republic, 2:30 a.m. ET.
Outlook: The eighth-place finish might not look good on paper, but Switzerland took Sweden to a shootout and still had a chance at the medal round before a 6-4 loss to Slovakia in a game it led 4-2 early in the third period. Though it won't have top star Sven Baertschi, the Swiss do return 12 players from a team that was less than 20 minutes from a spot in the medal round. Other teams around them have improved, so a trip to the medal round this time could be tough.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK