Month: Jan 2018

Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.

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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part I)

For most intents and purposes, the IIHF U-20 World Championship (WJC) is the only best-on-best international hockey tournament on a yearly basis and a tremendous showcase of the sport at its most frantic nature due to its singular blend of unbridled youth passion and devotion to the national cause. For the second time in seven years, the event took place at the turn of the calendar year (December 26th to January 5th) in the gloomy American city of Buffalo, NY, and there is a lot to discuss after the 10 top-division countries duelled for global supremacy in front of large TV audiences*, swaths of empty seats and, in the case of the USA – Canada game, the 44 592 die-hard fans that braved an inclement snowstorm.

While the trophy was eventually handed out to the Canadian team, who beat Sweden in a fantastic Final to secure a 17th U-20 World title (in a total of 42 editions), for a neutral like me the most exciting part of this event is getting familiarized with the players that, one day, will star for the senior national representations and the different NHL teams, and that’s precisely what led me to consolidate the notes and observations gleaned during the event into this report.

USA’s Jake Oettinger #30 watches Canada’s Sam Steel #23 chase the puck during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

This piece is divided into four sections, and in the first I’ll introduce and discuss the best players in the tournament, as selected by the IIHF directorate, the media (All-Star Team I) and …me (All Star Team II). Afterwards, I’ll scan through the ten teams in the competition (from last-place to the gold medal winner) looking to analyse their results and ramble a bit on a few significant players that caught my eye, before pivoting back to the individual sphere as I take stock of the fluctuations experienced at the top of the draft rankings ahead of the upcoming 2018 NHL draft. To cap it off, I’ll appoint the NHL organizations that rejoiced with the encouraging performances of their prospects in Buffalo, and nominate the three best goals of the tournament.

And (somewhere) along the way we’ll split this text in two posts, because I don’t want my reader(s) to get lost while scrolling down. Anyway, on to the cream of this year’s tournament.

* for a competition featuring largely unknown teenagers

 

IIHF Directorate Awards

Top Forward: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

Playing in the arena that he will call home in a near future, Mittelstadt, the Buffalo Sabres 8th overall pick in 2017, put on a show through the 10 days of competition, often times looking like a man amongst boys for his dominance of the puck and ability to control the tempo of the game.

USA’s Casey Mittelstadt #11 scores a third period game-tying goal against Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In fact, at 6’1 and 200 lbs, the Edina, MIN native doesn’t impose fear in the opposition for his physical traits, as he’s neither overly big, powerful, explosive or quick, nonetheless Mittelstadt is really difficult to knock off the puck and possesses creativity and top-end vision in spades, which results in nifty dishes and short passes against the run of play that take defenders by surprise. More of a playmaker than a scorer, Mittelstadt is dangerous off the rush for his ability to change speeds and draw defenders before distributing the puck, and his poise and wizardry in possession reminded many of Clayton Keller, the focal point of the American offense in 2017.

Unlike Keller, though, Mittelstadt’s 4 goals and 7 points weren’t enough to reach the Final – much less lift the trophy – even if his line with Brady Tkachuk and Joey Anderson was the most effective of the tournament, cycling the puck on the boards and driving possession like no other, and the 19-year-old put together, probably, the most exceptional individual performance of the tournament (3A), outdoors, not less, with the blizzard and piles of snow being no match for a star pivot determined to will the USA back from a two-goal deficit to Canada.

The tournament’s point-leader, Mittelstadt relished and demanded the puck in the big-moments, never shying away from the responsibility of leading his team, and that’s something that should excite Sabres fans, poised to have a formidable one-two punch down the middle when Mittelstadt joins forces with compatriot Jack Eichel in Buffalo.

Top Defenseman: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden)

Talk about living up to the hype.

The putative 1st overall pick in next June’s NHL draft became the first U-18 to deserve top defenseman honours against players up to two years older than him, and such feat was only possible because the HC Frolunda wunderkind is, undoubtedly, the total package.

Most hockey fans had already seen videos of Dahlin’s offensive incursions: chin up, eyes surveying the scene, puck stuck to his blade, a courageous kid evading multiple forecheckers and not afraid to dangle through set defences and create something out of nothing. There was a whole lot of it in Buffalo, but what doesn’t make most highlight-reels is everything else he already does at silly levels. Not only the pinpoint, threading passes in the offensive zone, or his vision and patience as he selects the perfect outlet when skating it out is not the best option, but the effortless skating for a broad-shouldered 6’2’’ (and growing..) man-child that dances on his edges and changes directions with absurd ease.

With 6 assists in the tournament, Dahlin was, as expected, an impact player offensively for the Swedes, however, in the medal round, the defensive side of his game really stood out:  the defensive reads and ability to anticipate where the puck is going, the improved stick work, how he angles before stealing the puck cleanly, the disposition to use the body in the boards or to dish hits on open-ice.

The 17-year-old was entrusted with a lot of ice time against top opposition and thrived, yet, for all the fine-tuning that’s already a hallmark of his game at a tender age, if I’m allowed some nit-picking here…can’t really say I came away impressed with his work on the man-advantage, particularly after the unit set up in the OZ. Although Dahlin manned the top of the umbrella and shot a lot (25 times in 7 games), a few too many attempts were blocked or deflected and, sometimes, he looked tentative about which option to choose. This is not exactly a knock on him but, well…it’s good to know that even a prodigy like Dahlin might still need to polish a part of his game.

Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin in action at ther 2018 World Junior Championships (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

One thing is certain, though. His compatriots Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman weren’t even close to Dahlin’s level at age 17, and the youngster possesses all the tools to become a franchise icon and, maybe, one of the best of all-time.

Top Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (Sweden)

Separating the goaltenders of the two tournament finalists is not unlike splitting hairs, but since the picks were in before the end of the Final and Gustavsson recorded better numbers than Carter Hart until Canada’s winning goal – in which he was, in no way, at fault – this selection is quite understandable.

Having a difficult time at home this season (3.04 GAA, 0.887 Sv% in 10 games for Lulea HF), the Pittsburgh Penguins second rounder (2016) embraced the challenge of backstopping a stacked Swedish ensemble in Buffalo and finished the tournament with a 0.924 Sv% and 1.81 GAA, performing at the highest level in every critical game for his team. He limited the Czech to a goal in the group stage, shut down the Slovaks late in the QF (3-2), denied the USA’s late flurry in the semi-finals (4-2), and stood tall against Canada in the decider despite facing their red-hot man-advantage in six occasions. Gustavsson’s shakiest start came against Russia (4-3), when he let in the equalizer after coughing up a bad rebound, but he responded to it with a couple of sublime saves in overtime and the shootout to snatch the victory.

The 19-year-old netminder will continue to work on swallowing pucks with his body and challenging opponents more, however his game is already at a good level, as he’s able to seal the ice quite well with his pads, push side-to-side quickly with his strong base, and use his glove effectively. Despite being a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL spot, it’s clear the current Stanley Cup Champions are blessed with a clogged goaltending pipeline since Filip Gustavsson belongs to the same organization that employs fellow youngsters Matt Murray (23 years old) and Tristan Jarry (22).

 

The 2018 All-tournament team (as selected by the media):

G: Filip Gustavsson (SWE)

(see above)

D: LD Rasmus Dahlin (SWE); RD: Cale Makar (CAN)

Despite tying for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (8) from defensemen, Cale Makar’s selection for the All-Star team took many by surprise because of his highly-specific usage under coach Dominique Ducharme. In fact, on Canada’s two most evenly-matched encounters, versus the USA and Sweden, Makar saw less than 10 minutes of ice time in each and seldom cracked the regular 5-on-5 pairings, eventually finishing the tournament as the least-used blueliner on the winning roster. Still, when he did touch the ice or, more explicitly, hopped the boards to quarterback the powerplay, Makar showed why he was the highest drafted player (4th overall in 2017) in the team.

A special talent selected by the Colorado Avalanche out of Junior A hockey last June, Cale Makar is absolutely electric with the puck on his stick, rushing up the ice at dizzying speeds while constantly assessing his options, using his great stick-handing ability to slither through the neutral zone and gain the blue line, and then distributing the puck with aplomb or wiring it to the net. Due to his propensity to walk the line, Makar’s shots are rarely blocked and usually carry the perfect velocity and weight to be tipped in front or find its way past the maze of defenders, therefore standing as no surprise that he accrues points with such ease.

When the Calgary-native eventually reaches the NHL, he’ll need to be physically and mentally able to withstand the grind of a long season, but there’s no doubt the Avalanche have a gem of a defender on their hands, a supremely-gifted blueliner with shades of Erik Karlsson’s flash.

F: LW Filip Zadina (CZE); C Casey Mittelstadt (USA); RW Kieffer Bellows (USA)

A top-ranked prospect that completed 18 years of age barely a month ago, Filip Zadina’s name gained steam after he burst out of the gate strong (24 G, 46 pts in 32 games) in his rookie season in Halifax (QMJHL), however few expected him to be such a difference-maker at the World Juniors and turn into the first Czech on the All-Star team since Petr Mrázek in 2012. Playing alongside Martin Nečas on one of the Czech’s scoring lines, and on the opposite halfwall on the powerplay set up, the left winger was one of the most dynamic players around, a true force on both ends, always trying to invent, make plays and manufacture scoring changes and never afraid to mix it up with bigger, stronger players.

When Zadina had the puck, you knew he would try something different and due to his speed, skill and offensive flair, opponents soon started respecting his ability to beat them. An adept shooter (37 SOG in 7 games) with a wealth of offensive resources, Zadina scored four of his seven goals on the man-advantage, but his paramount moment came at even strength in the semi-finals, turning Canadian defenseman Kale Clague inside out before rifling one over Carter Hart’s shoulder.

Always active and smelling blood, the man likened to a shark by his coach saw his draft stock explode for his tenacity away from the puck and ability to step up and score on the clutch on the other end, and there remain few doubts he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2018 NHL draft.

The tournament top goal-scorer with 9 tallies (+ 1A), American Kieffer Bellows grabbed a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his stellar feats in the knockout rounds, where he scored five times in three games, including the corrosive bullet that served as the go-ahead goal in the third period of the quarter-final matchup with Russia. Thickly-built, Bellows maintains his balance as he bulldozes his way to the net, yet he also got the hands to go around the defenders before unleash his devastating shot. Indeed, an NHL- calibre release is the 19-year-old’s calling card, a heavy shot that blasts off his stick and which, naturally, he’s not shy of using constantly, as the tournament-high 38 shots on goal clocked in Buffalo attest.

Smart exploring soft spots in coverage, especially on the PP, and possessing the rare instinct of elite finishers, Bellows surpassed the USA single-tournament record of eight goals set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989, but he still needs to improve his footwork so that he can adjust to the higher pace at the professional ranks. If he can take that next step, the NY Islanders pick (19th overall, 2016) will torment at lot of goalies at the NHL level and, one day, might even approach the 485 goals gobbled by his father, Brian Bellows.

Tournament MVP: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

With no player clearly distancing himself from the rest on Canada’s roster, the Most Valuable Player award, voted by the members of the media, probably came down to Rasmus Dahlin or Casey Mittelstadt.

Had the Swedish star managed to found the back of the net throughout the tournament, or increase his point total in the knockout rounds, we might be having a different conversation, but Dahlin was busy excelling in other areas, and the leading scorer usually has the inside track in these kind of awards… Undeniably the top forward in the competition, Casey Mittelstadt is a worthy recipient of the MVP distinction, succeeding Canada’s Thomas Chabot.

 

Alternative All-Star team

A kind of Second All-Star team composed of the players snubbed by the media in their election.

G: Carter Hart (Canada)

For the first time in many, many years, Canada did not enter the World Junior tournament with question marks hanging over their goaltending as Hart returned for his second appearance supported by a magnificent 0.961 Sv% and 1.31 GAA in 17 WHL games. Actually, a case can be made that the Philadelphia Flyers prospect (2nd round, 2016) was Canada’s trump card in the race for the title, and he justified the lofty credentials by pacing all goaltenders in Buffalo with a 1.81 GAA and 0.930 Sv%.

Canada’s Carter Hart #31 looks on during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Calm and seemingly always in control of the situation around, Carter Hart displays above-average athleticism and technical fundaments, yet what really sets him apart is the sound positioning and how he is quick to square to the shooter before every shot. Have the Flyers finally found the answer to their incessant calls for a permanent crease solution? Sure looks like it.

D: LD Libor Hájek (Czech Republic); RD Adam Fox (USA)

The lynchpin of the Czech defence, Libor Hájek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, was wildly impressive from start to finish in Buffalo. A two-way, minute-munching blueliner without whom the Europeans couldn’t have survived, Hájek played in the top powerplay and penalty killing units, formed the go-to shutdown pair with Vojtěch Budik, and chipped in offensively frequently, tying Canada’s Cale Makar for most points amongst rear guards with 8 (1+7).

Czech Republic defenseman Libor Hajek controls the puck during the second period against Canada in a semifinal in the IIHF world junior hockey championships Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Strapping but not highly physical, Hájek moves well and has the stamina to handle a large workload, takes pride in taking care of business in his own zone, and is then proactive with the puck, making crisp outlet passes and pinching to keep the attack going. He was, arguably, the most influential defender in the entire tournament and, definitely, the best outside of the top-three rosters.

Wearing an “A” on his second participation at the WJC, Harvard’s Adam Fox took the reins of the American defence from Charlie McAvoy, last year’s All-Star, and mustered a hell of an impersonation. With slick puck skills and the eagerness to jump into the rush and follow the action deep into the offensive zone, the Calgary Flames third rounder (2016) was the catalyst of many odd-man rushes and in one of those was rewarded with the game-winning goal that downed Finland.

No slouch in the other side of the puck either, with the mobility, anticipation, quickness and feistiness of Fox and partner Dylan Samberg accelerating interceptions, puck recoveries and the succeeding breakouts, the native of Jericho, NY, might do well, though, to use his remaining two years of college eligibility to bulk up, gain strength and round out his game before turning pro.

Honourable mention: Conor Timmins (Canada)

F: LW Brady Tkachuk (USA); C Martin Nečas (Czech Republic), RW Jordan Kyrou (Canada)

With illustrious bloodlines, Brady Tkachuk’s presence at the 2018 tournament was assumed to be a growing experience before he could dominate in 2019, but there’s a non-negligible chance that he may not be available next year due to NHL duties. Standing at 6’3’’, it’s almost a requirement for a Tkachuk to love throwing the body around and play a menacing, “power-forward“ type game, but Brady doesn’t go out of his way looking for hits and already displays a much-more well-rounded game than expected.

USA’s Brady Tkachuk #7 scores a shootout goal against Canada’s Carter Hart #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Versatile and smart enough to play in all-situations, including critical defensive moments, Tkachuk boasts a heavy shot, a really nice set of hands in tight to pair his big frame, and an attitude that exudes passion and commitment in every shift. The 3 goals and 9 pts obtained at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old are, seemingly, just the tip of his immense potential.

After making the Carolina Hurricanes out of training camp and enjoying a sip of NHL action in anticipation of a loan back to HC Kometa Brno, Martin Nečas featured as one of the must-watch players in the tournament and he didn’t disappoint. It’s not usual that a player from the Czech Republic ties for the tournament lead in scoring, but Nečas’ 11 pts (3 goals) matched Casey Mittelstadt’s total, and he could have racked up even more if not for the need to sacrifice offense to attend other needs, including some penalty killing work and defensive zone assignments.

With the puck on his stick, though, Nečas also excelled, especially off the rush, with the 2017 12th overall pick showing an appetite for dropping deep to gather the puck in full flight, speed through the neutral zone and distribute or fire on goal. Capable of executing at top speed, Nečas high-skill level and creativity jump out, and he’s also an elegant skater with impressive agility and ability to change directions in full stride. The jury is still out on whether he’ll grow into the star center the Canes desperately need but, at worst, he should evolve into an impact top-six middleman.

Rumoured as a potential option for a Canadian Olympic roster that could use high-end skill in the absence of NHL players, Jordan Kyrou made clear at the World Junior Championship why his profile has increased so much since being taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 35th pick of the 2016 NHL draft.

Incredible in transition, jetting away from backcheckers, slipping checks and feathering passes through sticks, Kyrou creates space for himself and teammates when the puck is under his control since he can set up a teammate or fling at goal to catch goalies by surprise, but he also works hard in pursuit of the biscuit and keeps the cycling game going despite his slim figure. The OHL top-point getter when he left for Team Canada’s training camp, Kyrou continued his prolific ways in Buffalo, collecting a team-best 10 pts (3 goals), and with the help of additional muscle, it’s possible to envision him as a right wing on a Blues’ scoring line sometime down the road.

Honourable mentions: Klim Kostin (Russia), Elias Petersson (Sweden)

Team by team analysis

  1. Belarus (relegated)

Newly-promoted from the Division 1, group A, Belarus will be right back to where they came from after a tournament where they lacked a touch of luck and killer instinct to take full advantage of their third-ranked PP and PK units.

The Eastern European side pushed eventual semi-finalists Czech Republic in a narrow 6-5 defeat, and ended the group stage with the same goal differential as Switzerland (10 GF – 20 GA), yet in the decisive encounter with the Swiss they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third and had to settle for the relegation playoff. In the best-of-three series, Belarus once again failed to close the deal in Game 1, allowing Denmark to rally from 4-2 down with three tallies in the last 11 minutes, and their destiny was sealed after a SO loss in Game 2.

Belarus celebrates a second period goal by Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 against Denmark during the relegation round. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Belarussians will be replaced by Kazakhstan next year, but don’t be surprised if both nations trade places again in 2020 since many of Belarus top players can fight for promotion in 2019, including powerplay quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko, an undrafted defenseman plying his trade for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), and captain Maxim Sushko (PHI), the only drafted player in the roster and someone who rose to the challenge in Buffalo by tallying 8 pts (2G) in 6 games.

  1. Denmark

Missing blue-chip prospects mirroring the pedigree of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danes posted an ugly 2-26 goal differential during a terrible round robin showing that broke a streak of three consecutive QF appearances, but they were still able to redeem themselves by avoiding relegation in the playoff.

Forwards Jonas Røndbjerg (LV) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJ), two of just four drafted players on the roster, inspired their crucial comeback in Game 1 vs Belarus, and the duo also proved a step above the rest of the squad throughout, amassing 7 (2+5) and 6 (3+3) pts, respectively, while none of their teammates could collect more than a pair.

Team Denmark watches the Danish flag being raised during the national anthem following the team’s victory over Belarus in relegation round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Almost half of Denmark’s roster can return in 2019, and every bit of experience will be necessary to extend their unprecedented run of five consecutive presences in the top-division, already three more than they obtained in the three preceding decades.

  1. Switzerland

These days it’s quite unusual for Switzerland to struggle so much in international competition, but the putrid results in Buffalo have an explanation. The Swiss group included a single drafted player, big defenseman Tobias Geisser (WAS), already a fixture of EV Zug’s blueline, and they submitted the youngest roster among the competitors, with 14 players eligible for the 2019 competition.

Switzerland’s Nico Gross #16 controls the puck against the Czech Republic’s Daniel Kurovsky #15 during the preliminary round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Nonetheless, beyond edging Belarus in their must-win round robin encounter, the Swiss competed well against the Swedes and the Czech, keeping the score close until the third period, and revealed a few promising talents that should be taken in the early rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (1+2), a slick playmaker who plays for the Québec Remparts (QMJHL), and powerful winger Nando Eggenberger, a regular for HC Davos, are two good examples, but 17-year-old Nico Gross, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) defenseman, was the player that had scouts raving on his second appearance at the U-20 level.

  1. Slovakia

The Slovaks authored the shock of the tournament in day 3, upsetting the title-favourites USA in front of the home crowd, however they wouldn’t go on to repeat the heroics of 2015, when a fabulous performance by goaltender Denis Godla netted a bronze medal.

Clobbered by Canada in the opening session, the Slovaks also fell to Finland and thrashed Denmark before putting a scare (2-3) on the rampant Swedes in the quarter-finals. All in all, a respectable performance for a country that selected only two players with NHL-ties, top-center Adam Růžička (CGY) and RW Marian Studenič (NJ), but was still able to bother the favourites with their aggressive style supported by good goaltending.

Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 makes a pad save against USA during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Roman Durný, their 19-year-old goalie, stopped 43 of 45 shots against the US to prop a 0.928 Sv%, while left winger Samuel Buček had an amazing tournament, picking up 3 goals and 7 pts in five games, including a memorable three-point night versus the Americans that comprised two primary assists for linemate Filip Krivošík and a spectacular individual effort on the GWG. Ignored at the 2017 draft, Buček, who plays for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, may well hear his name called next summer alongside the draft-eligible Adam Liška (LW, Kitchener Rangers) and Miloš Roman (C, Vancouver Giants).

  1. Finland

Determined to put to bed the disastrous performance of 2017 (9th place), the Finns were hailed as a darkhorse for the title due to the amount of talent at their disposal this season. Counting on 15 players that won the 2016 U-18 World Championships, Finland’s roster was stock full of top-prospects, especially on defence, but, strangely, things never clicked into gear, with their usual conservative and deliberate approach clashing with the need to hit higher notes against top opposition.

Canada’s Sam Steel #23 scores a first period goal against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukonen #1 while Urho Vaakanainen #23 and Miro Heiskanen #2 battle with Taylor Raddysh #16 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Finns shrugged away Slovakia (5-2) and Denmark (4-1), and couldn’t be faulted for their competitive performances against the USA (4-5) and Canada (2-4), yet the expectations called for, at least, a semi-final appearance and they would be denied that by the Czech (3-4), ultimately falling in the shootout despite holding a lead deep into the third period.

With 16 goals allowed in five games (3.13 GAA), part of the responsibility falls into the less-than-stellar performance of goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), who carried the load start to finish and only notched a 0.879 Sv%, yet their illustrious defence, which encompassed five first round picks, also underperformed as a unit.

Olli Juolevi (VAN), competing in his third straight tournament, bounced back from a poor 2017 showing with 4 pts and 21 shots, looking active and transitioning up the ice alongside the offensive-oriented Henri Jokiharju (CHI), but more was expected of Miro Heiskanen (DAL), whose eye-popping offensive totals at home (9 G, 14 pts in 20 games for HIFK) didn’t translate internationally. The 2017 3rd overall pick was still noticeable on his ability to skate out of trouble and break plays in his own zone, and formed a steady top pair with captain Juuso Välimäki (CGY), whose reach, maturity and NHL-size stood out.

Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen #13 skates with the puck while USA’s Andrew Peeke #20 chases him down during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Meanwhile, up front, Finland was betrayed by its lack of depth, particularly down the middle. Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) didn’t nail the top-line assignment, and despite the best efforts of Aapeli Räsänen (EDM), a pass-first center who stumbled into 4 goals, the Finns relied too much on their two top-end forwards, Eeli Tolvanen (NAS) and Kristian Vesalainen (WIN). Tolvanen, who has been ripping up the KHL (17 goals in 40 games), is characterized as a gifted goal-scorer with an accurate, varied shot and deadly release, but he could only net once (5 assists) in 30 shots directed on goal and a few more that clank off the iron. For his part, Vesalainen, a burly power-forward, was never afraid to fight through the opposition or command the puck, and ended up rewarded with 2 goals and 6 pts.

This duo will seize important roles in the NHL sooner than later, but questions remain of their cohort of attackers, including Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), the speedy WHL point-machine (71 in 29 games) who started the tournament well (2 G) before fading out.

(Continues in the next post)

What I’m thankful for in 2017

I closed the books in 2016 with a piece on the sports-related items that enhanced my life in some capacity throughout the preceding twelve months, and since the goal was always to circle back to it at every calendar turn, here I am again.

Obviously, there’s no fun in rehashing the same subjects over and over again, therefore, with full admission that living in the same age of Lionel Messi or being able to enjoy the tail end of Jaromír Jágr’s career (just to name two examples from last year’s list) is still an absolute pleasure, this time I had to tweak my approach to capture more of the year in hand and what has brought a smile to my face. This was much easier starting from a clean slate, but after a lot of indecision I eventually decided to go way overboard on a handful of paramount choices and then rattle off a few more, leaving the door open to explore the latter on another opportunity if justified.

All right, that’s more than enough talk, time to say graces before welcoming 2018:

Sports activism

Although the blend of politics and sports has been a perennial point of contention for decades, it’s fair to say that in few instances have we seen so many sports figures join the public discourse, advocate for what they believe and express strong personal views on complex, troublesome subjects.

In a time of societal unrest and with social media serving as a powerful amplifier, it was inspiring and, more notably, extremely important that NFL players stood (or knelt) together, in a peaceful manner, to bring attention to racial inequality and brutality against minorities. But also that basketball superstars with worldwide followings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took the lead to confront bigotry and social injustice, risking the ire of fans, their reputations, marketing opportunities and, ultimately, a lot of money. Or “rich, white male dudes”, such as prominent NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, eloquently expressed their opposition to the causes supported by their right-wing employers. That a behemoth like the NBA delivered a loud statement against discriminatory legislation by pulling its All-Star Game from the state of North Carolina. That hundreds of athletes, including those that have to battle every day to make ends meet in “niche” sports, weren’t shy about sticking their neck out and showing disgust for the buffoon inhabiting the White House and his ilk.

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in September (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The USA and civil rights issues, for the reasons we all know, proved the rallying center for the most high-profile demonstrations of 2017, yet it would be foolish not to prolong this point to include another bubbling matter which surfaced under much dimmer lights as athletes came together to demand change. We’re talking about gender discrimination, with women’s sports’ increasing status and relevance fuelling significant breakthroughs, especially in team sports, which historically have lagged behind individual disciplines in such issues.

Building on the US Women’s football (soccer) team’s suit against wage prejudice that gave way to an improved collective bargaining agreement, their ice hockey counterparts threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship if demands for a fairer pay scale, and equitable support on wide-ranging matters such as youth development, equipment, travel accommodations, and marketing weren’t met. Standing together and supported by the unwillingness of professional, amateur and youth players to break rank, they succeeded in the boardrooms (and later on the ice) and inspired football teams throughout the world to fight for better conditions. The results were significantly improved working and financial pacts for players in countries such as Argentina, Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland and New Zealand, and a ground-breaking deal in Norway, where the national federation devised a deal that’s (essentially) equal for the men’s and women’s national teams.

The USA ice hockey women’s national team triumphed on and off the ice in 2017.

More examples of sports figures making a difference could be cited, including the athletes, Olympic Champions et all, that jumped out of the shadows and to the forefront of the on-going movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment, nonetheless, as a sports aficionado and fan of many referenced above, the bottom line is my appreciation for all the men and women who decided to wield their (enormous) influence and lay so much on the line so that future generations could benefit from a fairer, inclusive, united and more generous sports world and society. May more join them in 2018, when a major event such as the FIFA World Cup will be contested in a country known for dubious human rights practices….

2017 UEFA Women’s European Championship

As a sports fan, few things give me more pleasure than following a major event from start to finish, taking note of the trends emerging over the weeks of competition, the ups-and-down in performance, who rises and falls along the way, which teams burn under the pressure or defy expectations. At the women’s Euro 2017, I could do it all and beyond. Prepare diligently and grow excited as the tournament kick-off drew closer, sit back and watch every minute of action in the Netherlands building up to a riveting Final, and revel in the aftermath as conclusions were drawn and the best of the best celebrated.

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Thousands celebrated the Dutch Women’s National Team in Utrecht after victory at the Euro 2017.

A three week period I will cherish because it represented the first international appearance for my nation, and the chance to experience the pulsating orange throngs that lifted Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Vivianne Miedema and alike to victory, however my investment was rewarded by so much more. The unflinching self-belief of Pernille Harder as she hauled the Danes to the Final. The dogged determination of underdogs Austria. The Dutch footballing lecture instructed on favourites England in Enschede. The Earth-shattering end of Germany’s titanic reign. The decline of Sweden, a reality-check for the ambitious Spain and yet another French fiasco. The reunion with Icelandic fans. Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Tessa Wullaert (Belgium) and Caroline Weir (Scotland) waving goodbye too early, and the acrid tears exuded by Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hederberg and Norway.

Truth be told, there was no team that failed to struck a chord (even you, Russia), no game I desired to shut down or moment I preferred to skip. Gosh, I’ll say it: the 2019 World Cup can’t come soon enough.

The 2017 WTA Tour season

On a year that, for many tennis fans, was all about the return of Rafa and Roger to the top of the game, the female Tour quietly produced a remarkable season that oozed unpredictability, upsets and compelling narratives.

Back in January, the fact that Serena Williams collected an Open era, record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam in Melbourne hardly caught anyone by surprise, but that would soon change with news of her on-going pregnancy, and as the Queen left the stage to join the onlookers, the windfall of remarkable incidents started to transpire on a weekly basis.

The swift eclipse of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitová’s incredible recovery after the gruesome attack that damaged the tendons in her left hand. The perplexing hiccups of Simona Halep with the World No.1 on the line and the brief stints on-the job for Karolína Plíšková and Garbiñe Muguruza. The teenage naivety of Jeļena Ostapenko en route to the title at Roland Garros, and Sloane Stephens’ lightning journey from foot rehab to the US Open throne. Johanna Konta’s journey in front of her compatriots in Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina’s breakthrough season capped with a WTA-best five titles, and Caroline Wozniacki’s successive slips at the final hurdle until she found redemption in Singapore. The late season explosion of Caroline Garcia at the same time compatriot (and recent foe) Kiki Mladenovic crumbled to pieces. The universal reverence of Venus Williams, a stunning two-time Grand Slam Finalist and WTA Finals’ runner-up at age 37.

Sloane Stephens surprising triumph at the US Open was just one of the many great stories of the WTA Tour in 2017 (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Through four contrasting Grand Slam winners and seven major finalists, five different World leaders, and plenty of movement in and out of the top-ten, it was a banner campaign for the WTA Tour which few cared to enjoy. I sure did.

The IIHF World Junior Championships

It’s closing on a decade that my holiday season is engrossed by the brightest young prospects in hockey and the tournament that matches the U-20 elite of the world never stops to daze. Understandably, many disregard the event as just another youth tournament packed with kids that won’t ever reach the highest ranks of the sport, but I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity to fill some dark, winter hours with fast, electric hockey played by talented individuals whose inexperience leads to action-packed, captivating encounters spiced up by national pride.

Moreover, simply by taking the plunge, I improve my personal hockey database and, with every passing edition, get to engrave some instant classics in it, most courtesy of the NHL superstars of tomorrow.

American John Carlson beats Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the overtime game winning goal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships Final (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at this collection, just off the top of my head: the heroics of John Tavares and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa 2009; the overtime snipe of John Carlson in Saskatoon 2010; Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko leading Russia’s stunning comeback from a three-goal disadvantage to Canada in Buffalo 2011; Mika Zibanejad breaking the deadlock in OT in Calgary 2012; the impervious John Gibson stealing the show in Ufa 2013; Rasmus Ristolainen shocking a loaded Swedish team in Malmo 2014; Connor McDavid erupting late in Montreal 2015 to power Canada to a first title in six years; Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho running circles around the opposition in Helsinki 2016; Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy going head to head in Toronto 2017 as the Americans stole gold north of the border once again. Not bad, eh? I recommend you jump on the fun ahead of the 2018 knockout rounds scheduled for Buffalo in a few days.

Sports writing

I enjoy reading and it’s only natural that I also derive major satisfaction from dipping into thoughtful, insightful, well-written sports pieces. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that around the World Wide Web, and since I intend to compile a list of the best sports reads of 2018 to pluck in here, might as well just mention a few personal favourites (English, only).

Due to its global reach, the football writing community is one of the most diverse and prolific, but I’m still to find a better place than These Football Times for long-form articles on the beautiful game from an historical and/or modern perspective. Additionally, In Bed with Maradona (IBWM), on the interception of football and culture, and Outside the Boot, with excellent youth prospects and tactical analysis, are great resources to tap on, while staying updated on Gabriele Marcotti’s musings on international football is something I try to do.

In hockey media, few write better features than Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, but Kristina Rutherford and her Sportsnet colleagues come close. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is an essential weekly read for any NHL fan, Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) cracks me up time and time again, and Dimitri Filipovic is my favourite among the analytics-inclined gang (also, his work is not behind The Athletic’s paywall, like so many of his counterparts, which is nice).

For all-things tennis, Jon Wertheim (SI) is my go-to-guy, especially his weekly mailbag write-up, and I’ll invariably make the time when Louisa Thomas dabbles into the sport. Finally, Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur always strikes the nail whatever is the subject of his daily column, and you can’t go wrong with anything published at The Players Tribune.

Rapid Fire

The (Winter) Olympics to come; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić, the new kings of European Basketball; Tom Dumoulin, shaking cycling’s World Tour one step at a time; Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, the present and future of swimming; PK Subban and Nashville’s flourishing hockey scene; Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel (sorry, not sorry); Juan Martin Del Potro and his flair for the dramatic; Karsten Warholm, Europe’s new track star; Jackie Groenen, the Dutch “Ant”; the half-pirouettes and no-look passes of Isabelle Gulldén (recency bias, wee).

Tom Dumoulin, of the Netherlands, holds up the trophy after winning the Giro d’Italia. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

My teams

What’s better than hitting the jackpot once? Doing it twice. In consecutive years. Even if, as privileged as I feel for what happened over the last two seasons, the taste of the latest months is one I want to eschew. Quickly.