Ice Hockey

2018 IIHF World Championship: Hockey impressions

If you have yet to read the previous post on my experience at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, click here.

As you might already know, I was bunked in Copenhagen for the 2018 IIHF World Championship. And even though I only watched a handful of matches in full, parts of a few more and barely anything that went down in Herning, I still want to collect a few takeaways from the tournament and each team I followed. Without further ado:

Austria

Immediately demoted following every previous top division appearance, the Austrians arrived in Copenhagen with a single goal in mind: avoid relegation at all costs. An achievement unlocked with flying colours after their resounding 4-0 triumph over Belarus in a do-or-die situation and, impressively, just 24 hours after a traumatic 2-5 loss against fellow relegation fodder France. It’s true that way back in their tournament opener Austria had surprisingly forced Switzerland to play overtime, escalating internal expectations, but more couldn’t have been asked from a team missing star forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner.

Eventually Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl showed up to infuse some NHL skill into the lineup, notching two eye-popping goals against the Czech and four in total, while veteran goalie Bernhard Starkbaum (91.79 Sv%, 2.72 GAA) authored some of the most spectacular desperation saves in the tournament, nonetheless the Austrian’s 14th place in the final standings is generally representative of their potential.

The Austrian players kneel to thank their fans for the support in the game against Belarus (new-iihf.com).

Belarus

A team in transition now that the Kostitsyn brothers and Mikhail Grabovski are being phased out, not many expected the Belarussians to bother the big nations like they’ve done at times in the past, yet their Danish nightmare went way deeper than that. Thrashed by France (6-2) between expected routs from Sweden and Russia, five days into the competition coach Dave Lewis was relieved off his duties, however the move didn’t rally the troops and the results continued to go from bad to worse, with that embarrassing defeat to Austria sealing their first relegation since 2003.

Madly inept in front of the goal, Belarus only scored 8 times in 7 games and half of those came in a washed out finale against Slovakia, where they provided their faithful with some semblance of hope, turning a 0-2 into a 4-3, before surrendering 4 straight Slovakian markers. Disastrous.

Belarus’ players react after their 7th and final loss at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Czech Republic

There was so much to like about Czech Republic’s performance in Copenhagen, so much promise, and they still headed home empty handed for the sixth consecutive year. Pushing the Swedes like few others did, and defeating Russia in a thriller, the Czech’s group prospects were eventually undone by the crucial points dropped in those early overtime encounters against Switzerland and Slovakia, forcing an extra trip to Herning and an unpredictable quarter-final with the USA decided by Patrick Kane’s genius.

Still, another last-eight exit couldn’t overshadow the confirmation of Pavel Francouz as one of Europe’s best goalies and a smart pickup by the Colorado Avalanche nor the heady play of a relatively anonymous blueline, where Detroit’s prospects Filip Hronek (20-year-old) and Libor Šulák (24) as well as newly-signed Montreal Canadien David Sklenička (21) shone. Moreover, up front, beyond the boost provide by David Pastrňák and David Krejčí, there was a lot to get Carolina Hurricanes’ fans excited about Martin Nečas (19), Vegas fans expectant about what Tomáš Hyka (25) can do in a bigger NHL spell and confidence-building performances by Dmitrij Jaškin(25) or Dominik Kubalík (22). After some bare years, the Czech revolution is underway and it’s a just a matter of time before they barge into the podium again. And how sweet looks the prospect of doing it in Slovakia next year?

Czech center Martin Nečas is chased by his teammates after scoring a late equalizer versus Slovakia.

France

After threatening to reach the quarters last year in Paris, there were natural aspirations regarding a possible second ever top-eight (2014) finish for France, however, despite a positive tournament, they never got particularly close. Hammered by Russia (0-7) in the first day, Les Bleus rebounded to handily best direct rivals Belarus (6-2) and Austria (5-2), yet they would have liked to cause more problems to the Czech (0-6) or the Swiss (1-5).

Taking into account that their two best forwards, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and Antoine Roussel, didn’t don the sweater, Cristobal Huet is history, and the lack of alternatives to long-time mainstays such as Damien Fleury or the da Costa brothers is an inescapable reality, securing a 12th consecutive top division appearance in 2019 was not only an accomplishment but a nice way to bid adieu to retiring coach Dave Henderson.

France’s Jordann Perret reacts after scoring a goal on Belarus (Getty Images)

Russia

As I see it, you can evaluate Russia’s performance under two distinct prisms: they were without their five best players (Malkin, Kucherov, Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin) but still clinched second place in the group before falling in an hard-fought QF against Canada, which is obviously no shame and therefore qualifies Ilya Vorobyov’s first competition in charge as satisfactory. Or you could state that the Olympic Champions (…) dropped a winnable match against the Czech, were squarely beaten by Sweden and, once again, faltered in the moment of truth in a tournament they weren’t overwhelming favourites…

Not sure which option was favoured by Russian media, so I’ll just skip ahead and note that young Kirill Kaprizov put together another star-making performance in the international limelight, netting 6 goals in 8 games (Patience, Wild fans, exert patience), and together with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk rekindled the magic of Pyeongchang to form the most dominant line seen in Copenhagen. Want another KHL player to keep tabs on? SKA St. Petersburg’s Alexander Barabanov, a skilled 23-year-old, bottom-six winger who posted 4 goals and 4 assists to turn scout’s heads aplenty.

Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk in action against Switzerland in a preliminary group match (Russian Ice Hockey Federation)

Slovakia

Just like their neighbours, Slovakia hasn’t medalled since 2012. Unlike the Czech, it’s difficult to anticipate that streak will be broken soon. Sure, the 9th place obtained in Denmark is an improvement over the disastrous 14th of 2017, but that shouldn’t be the standard for one of hockey’s traditional nations, which ought to get into the last eight regularly. Pipped to fourth place in Group A by virtue of a 0-2 defeat to the Swiss, the Slovaks showed fighting spirit against Sweden and the Czechs, failing both times in overtime, yet their well-documented struggles in graduating fresh blood into the national team setup were front and centre once again.

Goalie Marek Čiliak played decently, especially against the Czech, but he didn’t steal a game, the Slovak defence was still anchored by veteran Andrej Sekera – though it was nice to see draft-eligible Martin Fehérvary getting a test run – and the attack paced by the everlasting Ladislav Nagy, who posted 10 pts (5 against Belarus) as a 39-year-old top-line winger. With just two NHL players amongst their ranks (defenseman Christián Jaroš, from Ottawa, was the other), at least the tournament gave Tomáš Jurčo (4 goals) a chance to display some signs of life, with his raw skill sticking out from the mob.

Slovakia’s Tomáš Jurčo celebrates his goal against Austria (nhl.com)

Sweden

Preliminary round success in international play is a patented Swedish tradition and they delivered. After that, things naturally get trickier, but buoyed by the yellow wave that invaded Royal Arena, the Tre Kronor surfed high expectations in Copenhagen to end up seizing a second consecutive world title. Not that the Swedes were always overwhelming  – Latvia, Slovakia and Switzerland can attest to that – however they managed to keep their nerve while trailing, continuing to pummel the opposition until they found a way to retake control of the proceedings.

And it helped, obviously, that their roster was brimming with established NHL talent and experience, headlined by the best defence corps in the tournament (Larsson, Ekman Larsson, Klingberg and Lindholm is a sick top-four) and a top forward line that clicked immediately, as Mattias Janmark (10 pts) managed to keep pace with Mika Zibanejad and Rikard Rakell (6 goals each). In any case, if that wasn’t enough firepower for opponents to deal with, Mattias Ekholm, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist soon disembarked directly from North America just to exacerbate the problem, and their supposed Achilles heel, the goaltending position, sorted itself out as Anders Nilsson ousted Magnus Hellberg’s competition before running away with Media All-Star honours (95.4, 1.09, 3 SO)..and the Cup.

Team Sweden listen to the national anthem after winning a match at the 2018 IIHF World Championship (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Switzerland

Who would have thought the same Swiss team that struggled to squeak past Austria in their opener would eventually shock the hockey world two weeks later? In fact, not just once, which can be attributed to luck, but almost three straight times in a span of four days, upsetting established hockey nations with relentless team effort and discipline. Looking back though, the turning point for the Swiss might have been that tough back-to-back against Russia and Sweden (12/13 of May), when their battle level wasn’t enough to erase deficits but inspired belief.

Afterwards, the Swiss stomped France to book a place in the QF, raided Finland in a four-minute second period blitz, and built a Cinderella story that deserved a happy ending. It wasn’t meant to be, nonetheless Switzerland paved the road to success for mid-level nations: extract tremendous contributions from your NHL players (Timo Meier, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Andrighetto notched a point per game, Mirco Mueller stepped up in the medal round, late-arrivals Kevin Fiala and Roman Josi added a new dimension), ride a hot goalkeeper (Leonardo Genoni was immense vs Canada and Sweden) and – not least – unearth a few hidden gems along the way. For the Swiss, that was synonymous with defenseman Ramon Untersander (3 goals, 7 points), sneaky forward Gregory Hofmann (4 goals) and the tournament’s revelation, Enzo Corvi, the 25-year-old HC Davos center who rode shotgun with Niederreiter and scored a beauty of an overtime winner against Austria.

Jubilant Swiss players get together to celebrate victory over Canada in the semi-final of the 2018 IIHF World Championship (Getty Images)

Canada

Connor McDavid is unlikely to be available for the Worlds for much of the next 15 years (right, Edmonton?) and the Canadians, to put it simple, blew away a great opportunity to level Russia’s (including Soviet Union) record tally of 27 gold medals in the competition. Evidently not due to the young phenomenon’s efforts, since he piled up the points (17 in 10 matches), scored an hat-trick on the Norwegians and an overtime winner that avoided embarrassment versus Latvia, but it’s still a fact that McDavid didn’t exactly rip the opposition to shreds in the playoff round. This in spite of the three assists against Russia, followed up by a frustrating match versus the Swiss, and the disappearing act in the team’s putrid effort on a bronze medal contest that epitomized Canada’s tournament, one with more valleys than peaks.

Still, positive grades go out to Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko (that cannon of a shot is a sight to behold) and all the question marks are reserved for Canada’s entire goaltending situation: a tandem of Darcy Kuemper (awful performance) and Curtis McElhinney (serviceable…)? No comments. Except we’ll take the time to report the name of Canada’s third string goalie: Michael Di Pietro. Who?

Canadians Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and Aaron Ekblad celebrate victory over Russia at the World Championship quarter-finals (Getty Images)

Latvia

Why, Latvia? Who allowed you free reign to destroy our beautiful dream, a Sweden-Denmark quarter-final? I’ll only forgive you because Latvian hockey fans are awesome and your goalies have a penchant for creating chaos. How else can we explain the fact unheralded Kristers Gudļevskis put a scare into the Canadian hearts again? Or that Elvis Merzļikins – great name, greater numbers (94.04 Sv%, 1.50 GAA, 2 SO) – shut down Denmark, forced the USA to OT and came pretty close from doing the same to the almighty Swedes?

USA

For once the Americans didn’t tank a bronze medal game! Because they still felt the sting of their semi-final debacle? Maybe. Because they cherish every opportunity to get an upper-hand on the Canadians? A bit. But I prefer to believe they badly wanted to honour Jim Johannson, the USA Hockey mainstay and mentor who unexpectedly passed away in January at age 53.

In an emotive ceremony, John Johannson, Jim’s brother, handed out the bronze medals to the American players and, afterwards, they all expressed their profound esteem for the man, yet they should know the best way to preserve his legacy at USA Hockey is to follow Patrick Kane’s lead: show up every May with a strong, committed group and establish the Americans as a force to be reckoned at the World Championships too. This was another step, as no one scored as much as the USA (46 goals) or picked up more points than Kane (20), the tournament MVP, but to claim a World title in the future, they’ll have to clean up the type of lacklustre performances that caused Finland and Sweden to pump six goals into Keith Kinkaid’s net.

Nick Bonino of the U.S. scores a goal in the bronze-medal match (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Finland

The mystifying tales of a talented Finnish duo that was setting Herning on fire didn’t take long to reach the Danish Capital, and just as I rubbed my hands in anticipation of the incoming circus, the party was over. Forty goals in eight games, demolitions of Canada (5-1) and the USA (6-2) interspersed by head-scratching losses to Denmark and Germany. Of course, Finland would have to draw their worst version against Switzerland. Still, 18 pts for Sebastian Aho (9 goals!) and 14 (5+9) for Teuvo Teräväinen, with the Hurricanes’ duo combining for a +29 rating in just 8 games? Absurd.

Denmark

It’s fair to call Denmark’s tournament a(n on-ice) failure. Quarter-Finalists in 2010 and 2016, they were dumped out, on home soil, by tiny Latvia in a winner-takes-all preliminary finale contested days after, predictably, achieving the most difficult: overcome Olympic silver medallists Germany and steal three points from the high-flying Finns.

It’s true that Denmark’s most explosive offensive weapons, Nikolaj Ehlers and Lars Eller, were still involved in the NHL playoffs, but the hosts still boasted the majority of their stalwarts (Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Bødker, Jannik Hansen) and none could buy a single goal against Latvia. Frederik Andersen, their joker, did all he could (94.38 Sv%, 1.65 GAA) on the other end and his titanic effort still went to waste. Bah.

Goalie Frederik Andersen leads Team Denmark’s salute to the public of Herning after the victory over Finland on May 9th (Martin Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Nothing to report: Germany, Norway, North Korea

Advertisements

Field Report: 2018 IIHF World Championship

They promised Heroes would come and when they finally departed, a trail of indelible memories was left behind: of on-ice feats that will ring for generations to come, of the visitors who fuelled an unprecedented party, of jam-packed arenas and rivals turned friends. Along with multiple accounts of parents and kids watching the sport for the first time, of locals inspired by vulcanized rubber and skates scratching the ice on a country that soon realized what it was missing on.

Fifteen years. That’s how long Denmark has squared off, spring after spring, with ice hockey’s powerhouse nations and how long it took to place the sport in the national conversation. A decade and a half of breakthroughs, milestones and small victories, but also of  painfully slow growth in dedicated infrastructures, number of participants, attendances and exposure. So much that every other (European) top-division regular exercised its right to host the sport’s annual showcase, the main IIHF World Championship, before the Danes took a leap of faith, believing that a country with just 27 rinks, 5000 registered players and an average turnout of 1300 spectators in the national league could rise to the challenge. With a helping hand from the hockey world, both in the stands and behind the scenes, Denmark aced the test, crushing expected attendance figures and administering an immaculate sports event whose financial and capital benefits will trickle down the national hockey edifice for a long time.

However, as much I would like to continue to pump the Danes’ tires, this is a post about my personal experience in Denmark as one of 1100 volunteers that helped stage the Ice Hockey Worlds and, necessarily, as a rabid hockey fan, so let’s get on with it. First, should I introduce you to my “working” space?

Inside and outside Royal Arena

Contested by the 16 best ice hockey nations, the IIHF World Championship Top Division is yearly held across two venues, with teams divided in two groups of eight that run concurrently before a knockout stage. For the 2018 competition, that meant the city of Herning, in the central Jutland Region and the country’s hockey hotbed, welcomed hosts Denmark and seven opponents at the impressive Jyske Bank Boxen Arena, while the remaining eight nations, including bordering Sweden, faced off in Copenhagen and the brand-new Royal Arena.

Royal Arena shining under the sun in the first day of the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Opened last year, the result of a private-public partnership that desired to bestow the Danish capital with a modern entertainment venue that could host major spectacles and sporting events, the Royal Arena is as conveniently located as any leading, non-central venue could be. Served by a regional training station that runs to the airport, the city centre or across the Øresund in a few minutes, and with two metro stations (Ørestad and Vestamager) in walking distance, the building is not only a centerpiece of Ørestad’s development into one of Copenhagen’s burgeoning residential districts, but also a state-of-the art, lustrous setting that blends glass and wooden details into an elegant, distinct Nordic style look.

Moreover, on the inside, the curvy concourses in all levels are spacious and delicately illuminated as to take advantage of the natural light when available, whereas the three-tiered stands came short of forming a full bowl since one of the sides ends in an adjustable walled area that can fit multiple purposes, including the installation of a provisional stand for the World Championship. With decent sightlines and dark seating all around, the arena might need a suitable audience to feel accommodating, yet, at near full capacity (12490 spectators for the tournament), the noise and colours popped out nicely to produce some raucous and genuinely fun atmospheres.

Still, there’s no arguing that the added magic of major, tournament-like sport events lies as much in what happens while the real action is going on as the festive environment before and after the matches, and that was definitely taken care off at the Worlds Fanzone. Conveniently located just across the street (Hannemanns Allé) from the Royal Arena, the 10.000m2 outdoor area staged a true manifestation of the friendly nature of hockey fans, with rival factions drinking, playing and, generally, hanging out together and behaving exceptionally well even as beer flowed freely.

A packed Fanzone awaits the start of the Final.

As someone much more used to the sectarian, markedly antagonistic nature of football fans – especially at the club level – I can’t exactly say that surprised described my feelings when I took a few minutes to enjoy the festival-like environment, but I was, definitely, a little proud of the sense of camaraderie emanating as game-time approached and the amicable banter that followed the on-ice battles.

Furthermore, with many activities and games fit for children and youngsters available, Copenhagen’s Fanzone was also a favourite of the natives, with the local organizers making a concerted effort to invite and provide arena access to schools for lower-profile matchups, and the kids, in turn, taking full advantage of the opportunity. Hopefully, a few of those boys and girls shooting a puck for the first time felt inspired to take on this beautiful sport (since they actually can, you know L).

Alas, I didn’t travel to Copenhagen to meander through the fanzone or sit in the stands, so what the hell was I actually doing?

At the Media Center

Media Center Assistant. Loooots of fun (”Czechoslovakia” speaker voice, please). No sporting event these days makes sense without the men and women tasked with disseminating its stories to the world, and making sure they possess all the conditions to do just that was the central mandate of our job.

In short, we’re talking about guaranteeing a functional working environment before, during and after the matches, from the early mornings (when teams held their practices) up to two hours after the end of the last game of the day (usually past midnight). That entailed, amongst others, distributing crucial tournament information to the people who needed it fast (and burning through an Amazonia-like tonnage of paper in the process), keep all the relevant updates available and easily accessible, sort out ways to help with any odd situations that may arise (baggage/equipment storing, for example) and, critically, make sure that they kept their minds sane in spite of the furious workload they’re subjected to during the fortnight. The secret?  Media Center’s own Holy Trinity: Coffee, bananas and cookies!

Honestly, I know that might not sound that exciting unless you really enjoy sifting though piles of all kinds of hockey statistics, glancing at game reports or checking roster updates every day (*raises hand*), but the job does come with manifold perks that would make anyone’s time worthwhile, namely premium access to the media stand and several short windows to follow the action and soak the arena’s in-game atmosphere.

Nonetheless, if you’re a media buff like me or simply a hockey enthusiast, the opportunity to contact, meet and chat with all kinds of accredited media, from acclaimed reporters, broadcasters and writers to the more inconspicuous cameramen and photographers hailing from all parts of the hockey world is probably enticing enough, and things might get even better as soon as you realized that journalists only form a portion of the tremendous amount of hockey people that prowl the IIHF World Championship Media Center on a daily basis.

Look, kid. That guy’s a hockey legend.

Have you heard the expression “a healthy scratch watching from the press box”? Well, if players want to observe their teammates or opponents in action, they do need to find a seat in the Media tribune. And with them come the coaches. And team officials. And honourable guests, from NHL General Managers to head coaches or scouts, who would very much like to socialize with fellow hockey people and grab a lineup to help follow the activity on ice.

So, now imagine if you get a bit star struck simply by bumping into TSN’s Darren Dreger, or having to interrupt the intermission chat of the best commentating duo in the business (Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro) to deliver a game report, and now magnify it when you notice that Nick Lidstrom is standing a few meters away seconds before jumping on air to provide analysis of Sweden’s debut. Also spotted in this bustling area during the tournament by this overexcited hockey nerd: legendary players like Alexei Yashin (Russia), Jiri Fischer (Czech Republic), Miroslav Satan (Slovakia) and Martin Brodeur (Canada), NHL GMs such as Ray Shero (New Jersey Devils) and Jim Nill (Dallas Stars) and Stanley Cup winning-coaches like Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking now. “Stop bragging, idiot! Also, big deal. A bunch of has beens. What about the (current) stars of the show?” Well…

The Mixed Zone

If you’ve ever followed a major sports event, such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, you’ve likely heard of the Mixed Zone, loosely defined as an area where athletes speak with the media after doing their thing in front of millions of spectators.

For a guy like Usain Bolt at the Olympics, the Mixed zone ritual is an interminable, energy-sapping labyrinth of international press that has to be navigated, and while the IIHF World Championships and most of its athletes obviously aren’t at the same level, hockey players have to deal with a similar kind of apparatus after every game, with all competitors funnelled right as they leave the ice to a room where they meet plenty of faces eager to get a money quote.

A looping area divided in four sections, the Mixed Zone is a tightly-run entity that offers broadcasters and official TV rights holders the first crack at the players, who subsequently move to face radio reporters, web media personal and the voracious print /online writers in this order.

The Mixed Zone room (after a practice session).

While not obliged to express their feelings, every dressed player (and head coach) is still required to do the full tour and since competition for exclusive time with star players is fierce, things are bound to get messy and confusing without some kind of proactive action. And that’s where we entered as in order to expedite and facilitate the process, we kept an eye on everyone to guarantee no regulations were broken (especially regarding illegal video recording), but also sought media requests, tried to liaison with the team media managers, and regularly helped spot and stop the most coveted athletes so that everyone would leave happy. Likewise, a similar procedure followed every practice session held on the main arena or the adjacent (and absolutely freezing) practice rink.

All in all, standing on the mixed zone, rubbing shoulders with reporters and standing centimetres apart from every hockey star in the tournament was, unequivocally, a highlight of my experience. And since I was fortunate enough to be assigned for it frequently and on a daily basis, might as well just spit out some loose (but innocuous) observations based  on what I saw and listened in there regarding the eight teams that formed group A plus Canada, transplanted from Herning for the quarter-finals.

Insights from the Mixed zone

  • Exactly where’s the separation between Belarus and Russia? I’m aware of the close political, cultural and linguistic ties, but it still took me a surprisingly long time (and a lot of accreditation double-checking) to pinpoint the breadth of the Belarussian contingent dispatched to Copenhagen as they diligently split allegiances, attention and resources through the group stage. Additionally, reference to the unpredictable scheduling of Belarus’ head coach(es) declarations, dizzyingly bouncing at will between off-days, post-practice, pre-game and post-game, in turn creating a few logistical problems, and to goalie Vitali Trus, winner of the “seriously, how old is this guy?” award by defying his pubescent looks for a full decade.
  • The Austrian’s post-victory routine with their travelling devotees was fascinating, but they were still, by far, the quietest bunch in terms of press interest. Virtually no domestic coverage, limited outside curiosity for a roster that lacked buzz, and a lot of expectant faces trekking the mixed zone and waiting for a chance to share their thoughts that rarely came.

Ice-level view of the stands.

  • How big is hockey in Czech Republic? I figured I had a good idea, but it was still impressive to notice the all-hands-on-deck coverage on every platform, from TV to web and print. Including, I was told, plenty of eminent on-air talent reporting from Denmark, and large amounts of backstage/TV production equipment on site.

In addition, the frenzy around the team noticeably piqued after the arrival of the two NHL Davids – even if one persisted in trying to skip part of his media obligations – whereas the distinct change of the guard was also evident in the mixed zone. While Tomáš Plekanec’s presence barely registered a blip, Martin Nečas prominence ratchet up by the game. Oh, and Philadelphia’s Radko Gudas is a surprisingly affable guy off the ice… or maybe his invaluable contributions to the Penguins playoff cause were simply too fresh on my memory to cloud my judgement.

  • Allez Les Blues. Putting aside the fact that I’m still bummed Stéphane da Costa somehow evaded my watchful eye, the French definitely shot up my preferences during the tournament. A rather small but polite and welcoming group of journalists, players thrilled to answer every request regardless of the origin, and our unofficial award for the finest media managing work claimed by Team France’s Valérie Thibault. Well, the free keychains/pins helped too, I guess.
  • The Russians. Ever-present in all media areas, they were clearly better left on their own unless you happened to speak the language as both players and media looked noticeably uninterested in making much of an effort to speak English. In fact, such trump card was repeatedly played by many of their KHL-based elements, which further increased the international media burden on the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Artem Anisimov (btw, we missed you, Ovi). Get ready, Mr. Kaprizov, that’s what the near future holds for you, sir. Outside of ridiculous offensive stats on the ice and female worshipping of it, of course.
  • If clinging to the past defines the current state of Slovakian hockey, shipping one of the less than a handful of radio reporters working in the tournament is its media-equivalent, right? Anyway, kudos to coach Craig Ramsay for the gracious way he handled the pressure of the Slovak media after the early exit, and to captain Andrej Sekera, also their runaway leader in the number of post-game engagements. Meanwhile, he didn’t play much, but the tournament’s youngest participant, 18-year-old Martin Fehérváry, drew his fair share of curiosity in the mixed zone.

Rikard Rakell doing extra hours in the mixed zone after one of Sweden’s early matches

  • For geographical reasons, Sweden’s media contingent was, by far, the biggest in the competition and, naturally, it just kept growing as the Tre Kronor marched to the title. Already a premium ticket for their blend of talent, recognizable faces and English proficiency, all Swedish mixed zones were wild, especially in the print media area, unbearably crowded by the end. Still, no one could ever criticize the players’ effort as the Swedish stars held court multiple times and rarely rushed out of the loop. The patience displayed by the likes of Rickard Rakell, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mika Zibanejad and the late arriving Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist was truly commendable.

On the contrary, it was disconcerting to notice that a guy like Hampus Lindholm flies as much under-the-radar at home as in the NHL and even captain Mikael Backlund’s low-profile from Calgary held up. Young Elias Pettersson broke a finger midway to cut short his tournament, but I can report his media education is going quite well (the same can’t be said of his physical maturation), such was his cordiality and generosity in repeatedly answering the same questions about Vancouver, whereas head coach Rikard Gronborg really strikes an imposing presence, his mastery in contact with the media and ability to spew out words without actually saying much the final proof that an NHL opportunity is right around the corner.

  • Not unlike their hockey team, Swiss media was hardly noticeable throughout the first week of the tournament, displaying the usual Helvetian reserve and efficiency, but as the group increased and the Eisgenossen soared, they made their presence felt. For instance, by taking over the final corner of the print section and diligently waiting for their heroes to navigate the rest of the maze, which also made our job easier. Moreover, there seemed to be a real sense of togetherness that extended from the team to the media, regardless of language differences, and that probably contributed to make Patrick Fischer’s ritual though the media zone more enjoyable, as the 42-year-old head coach steadily ploughed through all the requests in the country’s three official languages (Italian, French and German).

As for the players, there was a healthy mix of interest dispensed to both the European-based guys, especially the breakout names, and the NHL guys, but Roman Josi, unsurprisingly, proved to be on a different level, brushing aside a disappointing end of the season and all the miles logged in the last two seasons to show up in Copenhagen ready to handle almost as much off the ice as inside.

  • How can you infer that it is time to scale back your hockey-time allocation? When you can identify TSN’s Tessa Bonhomme in the flash zone area without having to check her accreditation card…Anyway, Canada relocated from Herning, and while I obviously can’t speak to their approach in the preliminary stage, their press managers definitely meant business in Copenhagen after the elimination games, escorting players from stop to stop and making sure they didn’t talk more than the absolutely necessary.

McDavid? He dutifully stopped by TSN’s place and then moved straight to the print section, where this happened: “Connor, Connor, anyone wants Connor?” – Cue pandemonium and mass migration, with reporters pushing and elbowing each other and a major scrum forming in a matter of seconds, an indistinct melee of phones, audio recorders, heads and arms. 97 fielded a pair of questions and onward he went, with whoever missed him left to grab someone else. Amongst the frontrunners I can nominate Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Colton Parayko, but it was Aaron Ekblad who drew my biggest chuckle throughout the experience at the mixed zone: A “Do you want to join too?” directed at a volunteer too animated in his attempts to not let another Canuck slip away from a web request.

Extras:

  • To Team USA’s press manager: Please return my semi-final sheet. Or, at least, next time make sure any of the inquiries is met. Tks. Also, props to Patrick Kane, the American captain who answered the call even after their embarrassing semi-final performance to honour his much-appreciated commitment to the competition.

A few American players kick a ball around before the third-place playoff.

  • The Finnish players never landed in Copenhagen, but the amount of media (and fans) that still showed up for the medal games was impressive.

Press Conferences are only held at the World Championship from the quarter-finals forward, which means I was present at just two (CAN-RUS and USA-CAN) of the six scheduled for Copenhagen, but I’ll still leave two notes.

  • The third place match really highlighted the lack of North American interest in the tournament. Outside of the TSN crew, there was one (I think) Canadian reporter looking for Bill Peters’ takes on the game. Meanwhile, the victorious American coach, Jeff Blashill, literally held a one-on-one exchange with reporter Julie Robenhymer.
  • Why ask your coach anything in English when you can just swarm him and start the deposition after the press conference is called off, right Russian media?

And that’s it for behind-the-curtain fodder I’m willing to share. A few more sections remaining in this post though.

Five favourite players to watch during the tournament

  1. Connor McDavid

The (next) best hockey player in the world performing in front of my eyes and I didn’t even had to cross the Atlantic? Pretty cool. Still, If only he hadn’t forgotten to sip his coffee before the bronze medal match…

  1. Rikard Rakell/Mika Zibanejad

They made some sweet music together on the ice, and repeatedly staying late in the mixed zone meant I could actually listen to their views on the game.

  1. David Pastrňák

The entire gulf in intensity between the NHL playoffs and the IIHF World Championship expressed in one night. Although Patrick Kane didn’t appreciate my hot take enlisting Pastrňák as the tournament’s second best player and the Czechs suffered in result.

  1. Pavel Datsyuk

A legend walking amongst the mortals.

  1. Filip Forsberg

I was on the edge of my seat (if I had one, duh) every time he received the puck in the offensive zone. A magnetic presence that deked the hell out of Sweden’s rivals.

Five memorable games

  1. CZE 4-3 RUS (OT), Group Stage

A rivalry always incensed by massive political and sporting backdrops, the temperature rose quickly at Royal Arena when the Russians opened the score early to break the game apart in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. Fuelled by the fire-branding talent of reinforcements David Krejčí and David Pastrňák, two sleepless demons who combined for 7 points on the night, the Czech should have claimed the three points in regulation, however the 3-3 scoreline was upheld until OT.

Eventually the irrepressible Pastrňák deftly banked the winner to cap an exciting extra session, but the dropped point would make all the difference to separate both teams in the final group standings.

  1. RUS 4-5 CAN (OT), Quarter Final

It’s a shame that hockey’s premier arch nemesis contested an afternoon tilt in a Royal Arena short of full capacity (9.017), but the hockey more than made up for the tepid ambience.

The vaunted Canada-Russia QF matchup

It all started with a Colton Parayko howitzer from the point, the first of three crucial powerplay goals for Canada, and after Russia rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the second, the teams went head-to-head in a wacky third period that demanded extra innings. An overtime hero in PyeongChang a few months ago, Kirill Kaprizov’s debatable penalty opened the door to Canada and Connor McDavid took advantage, threading a sweet pass that was deflected into the winner by Ryan O’Reilly. In a blink, Russia’s dream of an Olympic / World Championship double in the same calendar year went up in smoke.

  1. CAN 2-3 SUI, Semi-Final

There are few things a neutral sports fan enjoys more than a monumental upset, and even if this wasn’t the best possible Canadian team, hats off to the underdog Swiss for taking full advantage of the opportunities, mustering timely secondary scoring (Scherwey, Hofmann and Haas hit the twine) and surviving countless periods of intense Canadian pressure without capitulating or taking penalties.

With a 45-17 discrepancy in shots on goal, Switzerland’s victory was only possible because goalie Leonardo Genoni stood on his head, including a last-second desperation save on Connor McDavid, yet the way the Swiss collapsed in front of the net and kept play to the outside said a lot about the team’s mettle and validated this historical result.

  1. CZE 3-2 SVK (OT)

If someone needed a reality check on how much this tournament means for European nations, this was it. A vibrating, electric atmosphere inside a stuffed hockey arena in the second day of the tournament, a Saturday delight sponsored by a reported 7000 travelling Czech fans and a mass of boisterous Slovaks, an engaging party disguised as a hockey game  between two abutting, brotherly nations with so much in common.

On the ice, the favoured Czech carried the play, but the points belonged in full to the scrappy Slovaks until Martin Nečas found a hole on Marek Čiliak’s armour with just 10 seconds to go in the third period, blowing the roof off the building in the process. Later it fell to teammate Dmitrij Jaškin the responsibility to put an end to a wonderful contest in overtime, picking the puck off his own shot before slipping a backhand over the Slovak goalie’s leg, and outside went both sets of fans, eager to continue the festivities through the night.

  1. SWE 3-2 SUI (SO)

Going into the final day, I knew it would take a majestic decider to take that Czech Republic-Slovakia encounter off the higher perch, and even if history was millimetres away from being made in Copenhagen, the tournament’s climax ultimately delivered enough drama to nudge just ahead.

A Swiss defender lugs the puck up the ice during the Final against Sweden

Taking the lead twice to stun the mostly yellow-clad crowd, the Swiss once again relied on a spectacular Genoni to keep the Swedes in check on this reedition of the 2011 Final, yet the prohibitive tournament favourites managed to puncture the red wall enough times to level at two and force sudden-death. Then, a spine-tingling 20 minute, 4 on 4 extra session featured incredible chances for both sides, particularly Kevin Fiala’s point-blank shot denied by Anders Nilsson’s glove and Adam Larsson’s ping at the final buzzer, however destiny had reserved the abhorrent shootout format as the ultimate tiebreaker. Inching closer to an unprecedented World title, the Swiss again took the lead (Andrighetto) only to watch as Sweden responded with back-to-back conversions authored by NHL All-Stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Filip Forsberg. The weight of the world fell on Nino Niederreiter’s shoulders, but he failed to deceive Nilsson and assured Denmark’s maiden tournament would crown their neighbours and a repeated Champion.

Notes on Copenhagen (and Malmö)

You know the drill. This ain’t a travel blog, but I can still summon a few general thoughts on the setting, can’t I?

  • Yes, the Danish Capital is laughingly expensive. But one of the World’s most liveable cities is also absolutely gorgeous when the sun is shining, with locals (and expatriates) rushing to sprawl on the parks, streets and cafes. And boy, the glorious weather decided to bless the World Championships with delightful regularity, I’m happy to report.
  • As an advocate of the “walk-until-your-feet-hurt” city exploration method, it can’t get much better than Copenhagen’s accessibility and compactness in terms of major venues and sights. It’s a pedestrian paradise without the bustle of Amsterdam, and still brimming with canals, water and green everywhere you look.

Frederiksberg Have

  • Getting back, for a minute, to my hockey fan persona. What was up with the complete absence of outdoors publicizing the biggest sporting event in the country’s history around the city center? One banner tucked over one of the side exits of the main train station won’t cut it for the majority of tourists oblivious to the competition, much less shoddy advertisement in some peripheral metro stations on the way to Ørestad.
  • Speaking of Ørestad: if you find yourself in the area and enjoy modern architecture, take the time to admire some of the edgy residential buildings.
  • With minimum research you’ll discover the must-watch sights and tourist traps (one rhymes with idle barmaid), so I’ll leave you with my own non-hockey fanboy moment: Lingering around Christiansborg’s courtyard half-expecting Birgitte Nyborg to turn up and start whispering with political adversaries under the arcades.
  • Favourite places to walk: Frederiksberg Have, Fælledparken (admittedly because of all those football fields marked on the grass) and the lakes area (also quite good for people’s watching, if you’re into that).
  • Favourite place to Bike: Kalvebod Fælled, in Amager. A splendorous wild area of protected wetlands, forest, and lakes rich in wildlife. It’s massive, but you can reach the outer edge in ten minutes from Brygge Islands, just across the canal from the city center.
  • Finally, definitely reserve one day to visit Malmö, just across the Øresund. The views from the bridge crossing are worth the train fare, and the Swedish city has undeniably eschewed for good the bad reputation that stemmed from its industrial past, social divisions and multi-cultural makeup.

If you can tell why I framed this Malmö location, we’re friends for life.

Be aware that Malmö has a charming yet small historical centre (Gamla Staden). Blink and you might miss it coming out of the train station. Thumbs up for the tons of green spaces, the two modern sports venues (Malmö Arena and Swedbank Stadium) and the upscale Västra Hamnen district. Especially its waterfront, a stone throw away from the Turning Torso, which offers great views of the coast, the bridge and the Øresund.

Ok, now that’s really all I have for you in this post. Although not the totality of my “coverage” from the 2018 IIHF World Championship. If you care to read my hockey thoughts on the tournament, head here. If not, thanks for reading.

2018 Winter Olympics review: Final Takeaways

We’ve figured out who were the best athletes and our favourite moments of the 2018 Winter Olympics, but before closing the book for another four years, I wanted to touch on a few other topics to deliver a more comprehensive picture of what the action in PyeongChang entailed and what we can derive from it, especially on a country-by-country basis.

However, before we delve into the results, let’s award a few special mentions that could complement the previous chapters of this Winter Olympics review.

Best duel: Alina Zagitova vs Evgenia Medvedeva

Friends, training partners and compatriots, but also opponents with distinct skating styles and artistic concepts. The 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, despite her ballerina manners, is all athleticism and poise, exploding off the ice for breath-taking sequences of jumps and twists that she lands with age-defying efficiency. Three years older, Evgenia Medvedeva is eminently gracious and creative, an artisan who pours her soul into the routines and disappears into character, sublime in the technical aspects though not quite able to pull off the same physical exertion of her rival.

Standing head and shoulders above anyone else in the ladies’ figure skating competition, a mere 1.31 pts separated them in the end; Zagitova’s advantage secured with her world-record short program and controversially kept by the jury when the two teenagers scored the same total in the free skate. Superior in the choreographic and interpretative elements, the World Champion Medvedeva was left to rue her luck as Zagitova’s strategical decision to backload her act with the most difficult jumps to leverage extra points paid off. And so the fledgling prodigy beat the established star for Olympic gold, and one girl sobbed while the other smiled, still insensible to what had she had accomplished.

Russian teenagers Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova shared the podium in PyeongChang (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Similarly to gymnasts, the career of female figure skaters, particularly those that explode at such a young age, is difficult to handicap, but if Medvedeva and Zagitova can keep the flame burning, watch out. This could be a rivalry for the ages.

Eye-watering (non-sport) moment: Team Korea

We all know the world didn’t change because North and South Korean athletes and officials walked out together in the Opening Ceremony and waved the same flag, depicting a unified Korean Peninsula, but if PyeongChang is to be remembered as a miniscule step towards a political agreement that ends a decades-long stalemate, we can all agree that it was worth it. Platitude or not, sport really does have the power to unite people and nations like few else, and even the most cynical person would have to breach a smile at the sight of players from both countries battling and celebrating together on the ice while forming bonds off it.

And if, ultimately, this concerted effort by both nations’ leaders and the IOC means nothing, every person caught on that arena when Randi Heesoo Griffin scored Korea’s first goal will always have one historical moment to look back on. As will all the members of North Korea’s delegation that got to spent two weeks outside of their secluded state, including the mesmerizing “army of beauties” who trudged from venue to venue, unmistakable on their matching outfits and physical features, waving props, dancing to the beat, clapping and singing catching tunes like “Be Strong” and “Win. Win.”. Ok, the chants were bad but that’s not really what counts, is it?

Worst storyline: The brutal wind

After the mild temperatures found in Sochi 2014, the Winter Olympics were back in the appropriate environment, with freezing conditions castigating the athletes right from the Opening Ceremony, yet the Games could have been staged without the merciless gusts of wind that wrecked competitions and forced multiple delays, particularly in the first week.

Amongst all sports, the alpine skiing calendar was the most affected, with many races postponed to dictate a schedule compression that compelled star athletes (Mikaela Shiffrin, for instance) to drop events, while both biathletes and ski jumpers endured conditions that hampered their ability to shoot straight or land safely.

Course crew slide slip to the finish area after the women’s giant slalom was postponed due to high winds at the Yongpyong Alpine Center (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Nonetheless, the really problematic situations happened in the women’s snowboard slopestyle and women’s aerials (freestyle skiing) events, which shouldn’t have gone ahead because of the whipping wind. Turning the competitions into a mess or mere survival battles, the unpredictable conditions led to a parade of ugly falls and swaths of athletes restraining from attempting their riskier acrobatics, and that’s a real shame for the IOC. Athletes shouldn’t work four years with a single goal in mind, only to be forced to stake their physical well-being beyond the reasonable for the sake of a sporting competition.

Best venue atmosphere: Short track speed-skating

The Gangneung Ice Arena doubled as the figure skating venue, yet no other ticket in town was a sought-after as an invitation to the electric nights of short track, when locals regularly lost their marbles in the face of their favourite winter sport, the excitement palpable even for those watching on television.

Already one of the most action-packed, chaotic disciplines in the Winter Olympics, every short track race where the national athletes took part was an adventure on its own, with fans enthusiastically cheering name introductions, saturating the building with nervous tension, puffing at the sight of a fall and exploding in hysterics every time a South Korean moved up the pack to close on victory or contest a sprint. And let’s not even get to the outrage and rebelling raining from the stands when any home favourite got disqualified…

Local favourite Choi Min-Jeong strides to victory in the semi-final of the 1500m as two of her opponents wipe out in behind (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images)

Country-by-country roundup:

Non-traditional nations that accomplished milestones

A record 30 National Olympic Committees gained medals in PyeongChang, and among those stand out a few that reappeared on the list after long absences. For instance Hungary, one of the most decorated Summer Olympic nations, who reached a podium for the first time since 1980, and couldn’t have asked for better from their short track men’s 5000m relay team, which made the national anthem sound for the first time in a Winter Olympics. Encomiums are thus in order for Viktor Knoch, Csaba Burján and siblings Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandór Liu, born in Budapest to a Chinese-father and key parts of the country’s seventh Winter medal since 1924.

Meanwhile, Spain hadn’t medalled in 26-years when Regino Hernández finished the men’s snowboard cross competition in third place, and they didn’t have to wait much more for another since figure skater Javier Fernández twirled his way to a deserved bronze medal in the men’s singles event contested two days later. Although, if we’re rewarding the quickest rebound from feast to famine, New Zealand takes the cake, tripling its all-time count in Winter Olympics in a matter of minutes due to consecutive bronze medals from a pair of 16-year-olds, freestyle skier Nico Porteous (men’s halfpipe) and snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women’s big air), the first Winter medallists from the Pacific nation since 1992.

Javier Fernández celebrates with the Spanish flag after winning a bronze medal on the men’s singles figure skating event (David J. Phillip)

Sick of watching their northern neighbours hoard medals in speed skating, Belgium coaxed a bit of glory when Bart Swings finished second in the men’s mass start to snag the country’s first medal since 1998, whereas alpine skier Tina Weirather finally fulfilled her Olympic destiny, placing third in the women’s Super-G to reopen Liechtenstein’s account after 20 years. With Weirather’s success, now 7 of the 10 medals obtained by athletes from the tiny Principality belong to the same family since Tina’s mother, Hanni Wenzel, and uncle, Andreas Wenzel, also achieved podium positions in representation of the only country to hold medals from the Winter Olympics but not the Summer Olympic Games.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

Stripped of the national flag, anthem and colours in result of a scandalous doping scheme, the Russian athletes were placed on the eye of the storm and the results they delivered in strenuous circumstances underwhelmed, with the country’s representatives falling way short of the 11 golds and 29 medals that, to this day, make the official tally from their home Games in 2014.

A total of 168 athletes were cleared by international federations to don the special OAR tracksuits in PyeongChang, however, deprived of leading figures such as short track star Viktor Ahn, biathlon’s Anton Shipulin or cross-country’s Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Legkov, the distinctive performances amongst the group were few and far between, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia totalling 17 medals and just two golds.

While true that those came in iconic events, men’s ice hockey and women’s singles figure skating, it’s no less legitimate to affirm that discomfort from not possessing enough clean athletes to compete in team events in biathlon or speed skating was galling, and things would have looked even bleaker if not for a tremendous up-and-coming generation of cross-country athletes headlined by Aleksandr Bolshunov, Denis Spitsov and Yulia Belorukova, who amassed a surprising 8 medals, almost half of the team’s final sum.

Ice hockey delivered one of just two gold medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Furthermore, despite all the back spinning going on at the IOC, who seemed desperate to reinstate the Russian Olympic Committee in time for the Closing Ceremony, the OAR delegation still found a way to undermine their own chances, producing two of the four doping cases of the 2018 Olympics: the bizarre failed test of curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who had to return his mixed doubles bronze medal, and the burlesque positive of bobsleigh pilot Nadezhda Sergeyeva, who had modelled a “I Don’t Do Doping” t-shirt just days before the start of the Games.

Still, Russia’s NOC was eventually welcomed back right after the dust settled, and mediocre results slipped under the radar at home because Vladimir Putin got the last laugh and the one thing he really desired: Olympic gold hanging from the necks of his ice hockey heroes.

China

Four years before the winter sports show stops in Beijing, China got an idea of how much work it still has ahead if hopes of making waves in 2022 are to be realized. In PyeongChang, Chinese athletes collected just 9 medals, the same number of Sochi, yet only one was mined from the most valuable metal and, critically, no improvements could be discerned in most sports despite the army of foreign experts brought on board to expedite the process.

In reality, between the Nordic disciplines (alpine skiing, cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping) and the three sliding sports (luge, skeleton and bobsleigh), the Chinese failed to place a single athlete in the top 10, and even though they picked up some honours in freestyle skiing, snowboard, figure skating and speed skating (first podium appearance), the only sport where they’re undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with remains short track speed skating, where they’ve conquered 30 of 53 all-time medals. And, naturally, China’s only title in South Korea was conquered at the Gangneung Ice Center, with 23-year-old Wu Dajing setting two world records on his way to an impressive, wire-to-wire victory in the men’s 500m.

Short track speedskater Wu Dajing was the only Chinese athlete to leave PyeongChang with a gold medal (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Japan

For only the second time, and first outside of their home soil, the Japanese reached double digits in terms of Winter Olympics honours, and the secret behind that progress were the remarkable results achieved in the Gangneung Oval by their ladies, whose rejuvenated speed skating program tabbed 6 of 13 Japanese medals, and three of the four Nipponic golds.

Accordingly, the highlight of the Japanese performance in South Korea was, arguably, the spectacular victory in the women’s team pursuit over the mighty Dutch trio, though the star of the delegation was still figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who defended his title by finishing ahead of compatriot Shoma Uno in the men’s competition despite concerns over a nagging right ankle injury. As for the less expected outcome, it would pertain the third-place obtained by the women’s curling team, which spelled a first ever medal in the sport for the country.

Japan’s Miho Takagi (left), Ayano Sato (center) and Nana Takagi race in the women’s team pursuit final en route to a gold medal. | KYODO

South Korea

The unified ice hockey team grabbed the headlines at home, particularly during the first week, and that may have been exactly what the rest of the South Korean contingent needed to shake off the nerves and deliver an outstanding fortnight, eventually ensuring that the proverbial host nation bump signified a doubling of the medal tally from Sochi (8 to 17).

As expected, most of the load fell on the speed skaters, not only in the short track (3 golds, 6 medals) but also on the longer course (1 gold, 7 medals), whereas figure skating retreated into the shadows on the wake of Yuna Kim’s retirement to cede the stage to a swath of unprecedented successes in disciplines that hold significantly less following in South Korea.

Members of the South Korean women’s curling team celebrate after their semifinal victory over Japan (Aaron Favila / AP)

The case in point would be the success of the “Iron Man” Yun Sung-bin, who tamed the Alpensia track like no other skeleton competitor, but the nice stories extended farther, comprising the four-man bobsleigh unit, who shared the podium with two German sleds, snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, who became the first Korean athlete to win a medal over snow when he finished in the runner up spot of the parallel giant slalom, and the lovely women’s curling team. Nicknamed the Garlic girls for their city of origin, they notched an incredible 8-1 record in group stage before securing silver in what was the country’s first ever participation in the sport.

Sweden

A traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse, Sweden’s delegation left PyeongChang one medal short of Sochi’s total (14 instead of 15) but, probably, in a much better mood by influence of the seven Olympic titles, which equalled the record haul of Torino 2006.

In fact, the total of 2014 was enormously dictated by cross-country (11 of the 14 medals), and while it wasn’t ideal that they got eclipsed by rivals Norway in endurance skiing this time (6 medals against 14), the Swedes found a way to compensate elsewhere, with the most unexpected news travelling from the biathlon centre, where a young team shone brightly to score four podiums and two brilliant gold medals (women’s individual and men’s relay) that bested their neighbour’s record.

Fredrik Lindström heads to the finish line in front of the Swedish crowd in the final moments of biathlon’s men’s relay (Getty Images)

Moreover, in another major battleground for Sweden, the slopes, veterans Frida Hansdotter and André Myhrer claimed a surprising sweep of the alpine skiing (individual) slalom events, while both of the nation’s curling teams played the respective finals in front of the visiting King Carl XVI Gustaf. Unfortunately, the men skipped by Niklas Edin couldn’t resist an American group on a mission, settling for silver, but Anna Hasselborg’s foursome completed the job and made up for the disappointing results in ice hockey, where both Swedish teams failed to reach the last four.

Netherlands

For the second consecutive Olympics, the Netherlands lodged inside the top-five in the final medal standings and, this time, they even showcased a bit of range, spraying some of their speed skating expertise to success in the short track, which accounted for a fifth of their twenty podiums. Including a first ever gold medal, captured by Suzanne Schulting in the 1000m, and a remarkable bronze snatched in the women’s 3000m relay after the Dutch got relegated to the B Final!

Dutch athletes Yara van Kerkhof and Lara van Ruijven rejoice after learning about their unlikely bronze medal in the women’s 3000m relay (ANP)

As for the proceedings in the Oval of Gangneung, the winners of a staggering 23 of 36 medals in Sochi 2014 garnered 16 of 42 (two mass start races added) in Pyeongchang, and 7 of 14 titles, a tally that seemed on the rise when they picked up six in the first seven speed skating events contested before falling flat. Regarding podium sweeps, after the incredible four of 2014, the Dutch swayed just one this time (women’s 3000m) and that can’t be disassociated from the decline in performance of their two legends, Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst.

The veteran duo, though, still managed to pick up medals number 9 and 11, respectively, to become the most decorated speed skaters in Olympic history, and they were not the only flying Dutch to rewrite the history books since teammate Jorien ter Mors will be immortalized as the first female to medal in two different sports at a single Olympics, winning the 1000m in the long track and bronze with the 3000m relay in the smaller ice rink a few days later.

United States of America

Ranked fourth in both the gold medal (9) and total medal (23) counts, the United States produced their worst Winter Olympics showing since Nagano 1998 because they metamorphosed into the team of the “Almost”.

Indeed, an uncharacteristic 35 American athletes finished between fourth and sixth, however the most worrying trend is another, which keeps popping up at every four year cycle: despite all the money, the USA have grown increasingly reliant on the X-Games events – added in 1992 – to keep a meaningful slice of the pie, and that is manifested in 11 of 23 medals originating from the plethora of freestyle skiing and snowboard showdowns.

17 year-old Red Gerard won the first medal for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics (Mike Blake/Reuters)

At one point, the four Olympic titles obtained by American athletes belonged to snowboarders, with 17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim pairing repeat Champions Jamie Anderson and Shawn White in the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions, but the final picture wind up getting a fresh coat of paint in the form of the three standout gold-medal performances amongst the entire American contingent: by the women’s ice hockey team, which ended Canada’s domination, the cross-country’s women’s sprint team, which secured the first ever Olympic title in the sport, and the men’s curling team, with John Shuster’s band of renegades charging to gold over Sweden.

Other positive surprises included a first ever singles medal in luge, courtesy of Chris Mazdzer, and the unmatched ability to generate contributions from 11 of 15 sports, though that shouldn’t disguise clear underperformance from the likes of bobsleigh, both speed skating disciplines – even if the women’s team pursuit salvaged bronze after the embarrassing goose egg in the Oval of Sochi – and figure skating, whose disastrous overall display in the women’s event was just the tip of the iceberg. In a minor level, reference to biathlon – the only Olympic sport where the USA have yet to reach the podium – and alpine skiing, which had to live with floundering men and the three medals gathered by Mikaela Shiffrin (gold and silver) and the departing Lindsey Vonn (silver).

Canada

Eight years after Vancouver, which marked a first look at the results of the “Own the Podium” program, Canada signed off from PyeongChang boasting a new record tally of medals (29) and a total of 11 golds, ranking third in both categories (and ahead of the USA, it should be noted), however these notable achievements couldn’t completely wash out the bittersweet taste left by what they missed out on.

Ice hockey and curling are Canada’s national past times and the proud holders of the four Olympic titles attributed in both sports were left to lick their wounds after relinquishing every single one of them in South Korea. They picked up the title in the novel curling mixed doubles event, but that’s small consolation since both genre’s foursomes finished off the podium, something that had never happened to Canadian men or women since the sport debuted in 1998. In addition, on the other sheet of ice, the women’s hockey team capitulated to the USA in the Final and the men had to settle for bronze in a tournament contested without NHL players.

Canada forward Meghan Agosta (2) and forward Marie-Philip Poulin (29) react after losing to the United States in the shootout of the women’s Olympic final Olympic (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On the positive side, Canada’s beloved figure skating pair won two golds in PyeongChang, with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir leading the way in the team event before recovering the ice dancing title, and to the four figure skating medals acquired, the country appended a healthy five in short track speed skating, with Kim Boutin snagging one in each individual event, as well as four golds and an admirable seven podiums in freestyle skiing, a sport where they hold the all-time lead.

Furthermore, Canada medalled for the first time in luge, with Alex Gough hitting the top-three in women’s singles and as part of the relay, Dutch-born Ted-Jan Bloemen became the first Canadian athlete to win an individual Olympic speed skating event in 34 years, and the bobsleigh two-man unit piloted by Justin Kripps stunningly tied for gold with a German sled, repeating the unusual circumstances of Nagano 1998, when Canada and Italy couldn’t be separated in the first gold medal dead heat in bobsleigh’s Olympic history.

Germany

Anointed as the pre-Olympics favourites to top the medal table, the Germans fell just short of the goal, bagging a mere 31 (the maximum are still 36 at Salt Lake City) in spite of matching Norway for a new winter record of 14 titles, nonetheless their authorities should be thrilled with the performance.

Improving massively on the haul of 8 victories and 19 podiums collected four years ago, Germany was only blanked once in 16 days of competition and managed to keep their usual strongholds, sweeping the gold medals in the Nordic Combined, including the entire top-three in the Individual large hill/10 km event, and bobsleigh, where they had been shockingly shut out in Sochi, and coming close in luge, with the fourth triumph flying wayward due to Felix Loch’s mistake.

World champion Johannes Rydzek led a German one-two-three finish in the Pyeongchang 2018 Nordic combined individual Gundersen large hill/10 kilometres event (Getty Images)

In truth, between the three sliding sports, the Germans bagged a record six golds at the Alpensia Sliding Center – more than all the other countries combined – and 11 medals, but there was much more to be excited about, from the 3 titles and 7 podiums heaped by biathletes in spite of Laura Dahlmeier’s “modest” contributions, to the four medals conquered by ski jumpers.

Regarding the rest of the contingent, a deserved reference to the gold captured by 34-year-old Aliona Savchenko (partnering Bruno Massot) in the pair’s figure skating competition of her fourth Olympics, and the surprising silver in men’s ice hockey, where the underdogs eliminated the reigning World Champions (Sweden) and Olympic Champions (Canada) on the way to a first medal since 1976.

Norway

I have no idea if Norway’s success in winter sports is based on their reticence to keep score below the age of 13, allowing the kids to fall in love without the pressure of competition, or some truth to the old adage that Norwegian children are born with skis on, however I’m convinced the future is unlikely to bring another Olympics where so many things go right at the same time for this Nordic nation.

Landing in PyeongChang with the 10th largest commission (109 athletes), the Norwegians not only blitzed past the United States’ Winter Olympics record of 37 medals (Vancouver 2010) and destroyed their previous best, totalling an unprecedented 39 after the 26 of Lillehammer and Sochi, but also matched Germany (2018) and Canada’s (2010) marks with a record 14 gold medals at a single Olympics.

Simen Hegstad Krüger waits for team-mates Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund as Norway completed a clean sweep in the men’s 15 kilometres + 15km skiathlon (Getty Images)

It’s well known that Norway’s national sport is cross-country and, unsurprisingly, their athletes drove the bus in South Korea to erase memories of a tepid performance four years ago, racking up an unparalleled 14 medals which comprised 7 golds, a podium sweep in the men’s 30km skiathlon, five metal biscuits for the legendary Marit Bjørgen, three titles for wunderkind Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and, amazingly, 0 honours for the reigning World Cup and Tour de Ski Champion Heidi Weng….

Moreover, keeping up with the best practices over two planks, ski jumpers pitched in 5 medals, including the first ever gold in the team event, biathletes contributed with 6, even with a single individual triumph from star Johannes Thingnes Bø, and the strength of their vaunted “Attacking Vikings” – which finally netted a maiden gold in the men’s downhill (Aksel Lund Svindal) – was supplemented with the first podium appearances for female alpine skiers since 1932.

Freestyler Øystein Bråten also joined the ski party by triumphing in the men’s slopestyle, and even the lack of individual medals (silver in team event) in the Nordic Combined, where the country leads the all-time standings, was eventually offset by the timely return to glory of Norway’s once-dominant speed skating team, who hadn’t won a title since 1998 before claiming the men’s 500m (Håvard Lorentzen) and men’s team pursuit in PyeongChang.

Havard Bokko, Sindre Henriksen, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen of Norway celebrate after winning the gold medal during the Speed Skating Men’s Team Pursuit Final (Dean Mouhtaropoulos /Getty Images)

Throwing the bronze medal in curling’s mixed doubles – rescued after the OAR disqualification – into the pile, 8 of the 11 sports where Norway competed chipped into the pot, and that summons their approach: capitalize on what you’re good at and leave the other chips to fall where they may.

2018 Winter Olympics review: Best Moments

The best thing about any Olympic Games, what keeps us glued to the television after all, are the athletes and the beautiful ways they inspire the generations to come. The second best thing? The memories created along the way, from those hair-raising, spine-tingling instances that will get discussed for eternity and immortalized in video, photography or gif-form, to the less widespread occasions that resonate on a more personal level and around niche audiences.

Consequently, mobilizing the perspective to sort through the many moments that could fill this category is more challenging than it looks, yet that’s what I’m (not) paid to do, so here you go: five moments I’ll cherish from the PyeongChang Olympics, in a mixture of monumental upsets and emotional breakthroughs recounted in detail, followed by a list of others that could have easily been featured.

  1. Biathlete Hanna Öberg romps to startling 15km Individual triumph

The Individual races are biathlon’s longest solo efforts, and far from the most thrilling format when we take into account that they’re contested against the clock, with the favourites spread across the start list and competing detached of references. Still, these are also events where shooting accuracy is of paramount importance, and a clean slate can do wonders on the way to smashing surprises.

With a couple of top-seven finishes under her belt, Swedish Hannah Öberg had already shown good form in Pyeongchang when she departed for her third race of the Winter Games sporting the No. 24 of 86 competitors, however few would have fancied her chances of a medal at the time.

Positioned outside the top 50 in the 2017-18 World Cup ranks and having never medalled amongst the elite, the 22-year-old would remarkably down every single target on a day of instable weather conditions, going 20-of-20 on the range before motioning fast enough through the tracks to hold off a blazing skiing performance by Slovak Anastasyia Kuzmina (2 misses). When Öberg crossed the line to set the fastest time, she collapsed of exhaustion and soon the nerve-racking process of waiting on her luck began.

A perfect shooting performance set the stage for Hanna Öberg’s incredible triumph (REUTERS)

As the minutes trickled in, one by one the big names did just enough to fall out of contention, and realization that a medal was coming her way started to creep into Öberg’s face on the rest area as the number of athletes still to finish dwindled rapidly. Donning bib 80, double Olympic Champion Laura Dahlmeier represented the last roadblock to a major upset, yet the German flagged in the last loop around the circuit and could only clock the third best time, consummating the young Swede’s delight.

In a perfect representation of the Olympics’ magic, overnight Hanna Öberg went from complete unknown into a national star brimming with confidence, and she punctuated her breakout performance by authoring an incredible comeback in the women’s relay a few days later, vaulting Sweden from eight to second in her anchoring leg to leave PyeongChang with two medals in tow.

The unheralded Swedish biathlete scored two surprising medals in PyeongChang (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

  1. Yun Sung-bin wins historical gold for South Korea in skeleton

In an era where hosting the Olympic Games is an humongous enterprise suited only for a rotating cast of economic powerhouses, historical breakthroughs in home soil can be characterized as a thing of the past, yet it wasn’t that long ago that host nations capitalized on the ultimate Olympic honour by funnelling resources into areas of weakness in order to enjoy major strides in sports that never before formed part of the national conversation.

For South Korea, the Winter Olympics have always been about excelling in ice skating sports, namely figure skating and short track speed skating, and not in the sliding disciplines rooted in Europe and North America, however that changed when Yun Sung-bin’s triumphed in men’s skeleton. Only six years after taking the sport, and four since placing 16th in Sochi, the 23-year-old took full advantage of his familiarity with the Alpensia Sliding Center to record the largest margin of victory in Olympic skeleton history or any sliding event since 1972.

Yun Sung-bin captured the imagination of his compatriots with a dominant performance in men’s skeleton. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters)

Sung-bin accumulated a ludicrous 1.63 seconds less than silver medallist Nikita Tregubov by posting the best time in all four runs, and he not only became the first Asian to medal in skeleton, but the first man born outside of the two leading continents to win an Olympic sliding event. And just so the symbolism wouldn’t be lost in the Olympic daily shuffle, after breaking the track record in the final descent, Sung-bin was serenaded by a venue overflowing with beaming compatriots, the local fans flocking in a national holiday to see their new hero complete history.

  1. Jessie Diggins out-sprints Stina Nilsson to secure USA’s first ever Olympic gold in cross-country

There’s no shortage of snow, wilderness or funds that might justify the fact that the United States had never won an Olympic title in cross-country skiing, still that piece of information ringed unequivocally true. Traditionally dominated by Norway, Sweden and Russia, the only previous American honour in the sport dated back to 1976, when Bill Koch claimed silver in the men’s 30km, but that would change on February 21st and in stirring fashion.

Jessie Diggins rejoices after securing the United States first medal in cross-country skiiing in more than 40 years (Lars Baron / Getty Images)

One of the most engaging races in cross-country’s Olympic agenda, the women’s team sprint consisted of 6 by 1.25km sprints alternating between 2 teammates, and when the last exchange took place, favourites Norway, Sweden and United States had already wrapped the three podium positions, leaving only the medal distribution to hang on the efforts of American Jessica Diggins and the reigning individual sprint Champion and runner-up, Stina Nilsson (Sweden) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (Norway), respectively.

The Norwegian was the first to make a move on the final lap, but the others glued behind, leapfrogged in the descent and entered the stadium in front, with Falla lagging as Swede and American prepared for the decisive rush. In earnest, Nilsson surged ahead off the final curve, seemingly on her way to victory by way of her formidable finishing speed, but the 26-year-old Diggins jumped out of her shadow and started to erase the deficit stride by stride to arise in front at the finishing line, winning an exhilarating final sprint for Olympic immortality.

Quickly mauled by Kikkan Randall, the teammate with whom Diggins had also won the team sprint at the 2013 World Championships, disbelief and joy irradiated from the American pair’s emotional embrace, a moment that symbolized more than four decades of national frustration leading up to the United States’ first ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing.

  1. United States finally overthrows Canada for women’s ice hockey gold.

How is it possible that these two teams never disappoint? That United States vs Canada in women’s ice hockey is always synonymous of drama and chaos, enduring moments, heroic performances and everything else that makes hockey great. Four years after a bouncing piece of vulcanized rubber, a post, a soul-crushing ping and Marie-Philip Poulin denied the American players of Olympic glory in Sochi, redemption was once again in their hands, the chance to end Canada’s string of four consecutive gold medals and write a fresh chapter in a sports rivalry with so many twists and turns except when it matters the most.

Twenty years later, the tables finally turned between USA and Canada (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

Superior in the team’s group stage encounter in PyeongChang despite falling to Canada by 2-1, the Americans started the Olympic Final on top, scoring on a powerplay deflection by Hilary Knight in the closing seconds of the first period, but the script flipped quickly in the second, with Haley Irwin batting one home before the inevitable Poulin, who had scored the game-winning-goals in the 2010 and 2014 deciders, drove a dagger into the US heart by taking advantage of some sloppy defence. For the next 26 minutes of playing time, frenzied American pressure and superb goaltending by Canada’s Shannon Szabados hailed no changes, and just as it looked like Poulin would be the hero again, a lackadaisical line switch afforded Monique Lamoureux-Morando a breakaway that she buried for the leveller with less than 7 minutes to go in regulation.

For a second consecutive Olympics, the path for Gold would require the sudden-death, anxiety-inducing overtime, but this time Canada couldn’t convert on a late powerplay, and a delightful Final resorted to a skills competition or, as they call it, the (f*ckin) shootout.

One on one against the goalies, Gigi Marvin (USA) and Meghan Agosta (CAN) scored in consecutive attempts, Amanda Kessel (USA) rifled one to answer right after Melodie Daoust (CAN) pulled off “The Forsberg”, and then, on the sixth American shot, Justine Lamoureux-Davidson carried out the move of a lifetime, faking a backhand before dragging the puck across the body of an helpless Szabados and sliding it into the cage.

Leading 3-2 in the shootout in extra innings, all the Americans needed was a save from Maddie Rooney on Agosta, and the 20-year-old, cool as a cucumber and smiling through her mask, kicked out the final shot of the women’s tournament to end an Olympic drought that mirrored her age. At last, time had come for the tears of frustration and sadness to rain from the eyes of the woman clad in red as blue sweaters piled on top of each other a few meters away.

  1. Ester Ledecká rocks Alpine skiing world in dazzling Super-G run

“You are first. You are the winner.

Noooooooooooo.

You are!”

I can’t pinpoint the last time TV spectators were treated to a raw exchange between an athlete and the men manning the camera, yet standard procedure went out the window when the object of attention finished the race and stared slack-jawed at the pandemonium spawning, clearly failing to comprehend what the senses were communicating to the brain. The uproar, the flashes, the flabbergasted faces looking at her and, most definitely, that bright green light flaring up on the screen in front. Shock, disbelief, bewilderment and excitement blending inside Ester Ledecká’s head and invading those lucky enough to catch one of the most extraordinary moments in Olympic history.

But let’s rewind the tape. In alpine skiing, the top-10 contenders for each race are allowed to pick their starting positions, choosing odd numbers between 1 and 19. The next group of ranked athletes are assigned the gaping digits (2 to 20), and the remaining names are tucked to the end, completing their runs when the snow is much softer and irregular. Hence, the last participants are not only less qualified, but usually impaired by worse conditions, and that’s why so many declared Austrian Anna Veith, the defending Champion, as the impending winner of the Olympic Super-G shortly after her compatriot Cornelia Huetter (bib 19) clocked the 7th best time. More than half of the 45 competitors were still buying their time in the starting house, yet none had ever finished a Super-G race amongst the elite and, surely, that wouldn’t happen at the friggin’ Olympics.

Czech Ester Ledecka on her way to gold in the Super G (Getty Images)

Now, slot bib 26 into the narrative, a number that belonged to Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká. A full-fledged snowboard star that had accumulated sporadic appearances in the Alpine skiing World Cup since 2016, she only caught the full attention of onlookers some 40 seconds into her run by speeding past the second checking point in a time 0.18s faster than Veith’s. Definitely an interesting mark, though far from unheard off since 14 others had accomplished the same and the much more relevant intermediate three loomed downhill to restore normality. Except, against all odds, it didn’t and green radiated again, this time enclosing a tiny – 0.04s.

Over the next 20 ticks, as many held their breath, Ledecká negotiated a couple of turns, tucked for a long jump, landed nervously and raced to the line, stopping the clock at 1:21.11. Just one hundred of a second better than the previous best, the minimum separation accepted in Alpine skiing, yet more than enough to turn an unassuming 22-year-old from Prague into a household name at home and abroad.

 

Also in the running:

Martin Fourcade and Simon Schemp produce closest finish in biathlon’s history at men’s mass start.

Marit Bjoergen caps her Olympic career with runaway 30km victory.

Canada and Germany tie for Bobsleigh two-man Olympic title.

Marcel Hirscher and Henrik Kristoffersen implode in the men’s slalom.

“The Rejects” get hot at the right time to earn first curling gold for the United States.

Twin sensations Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva dazzle in women’s figure skating final.

Felix Loch blows three-peat with catastrophic error in final run of men’s luge.

Shaun White uncorks back-to-back 1440s to reclaim men’s snowboard halfpipe.

2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

Arriving to PyeongChang, South Korea, from all corners of the World, athletes from 15 different sports will battle for the 102 sets of medals available during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifices in the name of a dream.

Unfortunately, this writer won’t be one of them, which means I can’t do much more than sit back, monitor the proceedings from my living room on the other side of the planet…and try to look smart doing so. But how? Well, by predicting the Olympic medal winners in advance and before the wind, unexpected temperatures, injuries, illnesses or just plain bad luck conspire to reshape the course of history.

Now, forecasting 100 different events is a lot for a single person, and since I won’t bother to trick you into thinking I have any idea who is going to take the freestyle skiing ladies’ aerials gold, let’s narrow the field to 28 events and my own Fab Four: Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Ice Hockey and Ski Jumping.

For full disclosure, the projections released by Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the statistical genius at Gracenote were consulted before publication, but the future will certainly prove my brilliance in comparison with the so-called experts and machines. Or not. Still, on a related note, can we, reasonable people with a functioning brain, agree that biathlete Laura Dahlmeier won’t leave Pyeonchang with six gold medals? Great. Let’s get down to business then.

 

Alpine Skiing

The Pyeongchang Games are expected to coronate overall World Cup leaders Marcel Hischer and Mikaela Shiffrin, but exactly how much metal can this star duo accumulate? Moreover, is Lindsey Vonn going to add a few extra Olympic honours to the 2 medals obtained in Vancouver 2010, further padding an already stellar career? Is comeback King Aksel Lund Svindal destined for greatness on his final Olympic appearance? There’s no shortage of intrigue ahead of the alpine skiing events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

American Mikaela Shiffrin shined as an 18-year-old in Sochi 2014 and she’ll be looking for more gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

World Champion Beat Feutz leads the downhill standings this season by virtue of 3 victories and 2 runner-up finishes in 7 races, and he’s the man to beat in the fastest of the alpine disciplines. Svindal should return to the Olympic podium at age 35, making up for the disappointment of Sochi, while an Austrian always seems to sneak into the podium in these occasions. My money is on defending Champion Matthias Mayer, wildly inconsistent but someone who’s been showing signs of life recently.

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

Kjetil Jansrud defends the crown from Sochi and leads the World Cup charts at the moment, but he’s going to have his hands full with the Austrian armada. Between Franz, Kriechmayer and 2015 World Champion Hannes Reichelt, the most decorated Alpine country has nice probabilities of snatching multiple medals, and I believe the 28-year-old Franz is the man to devise the perfect run.

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

Alexis Pinturault has topped the Alpine combined standings in four of the last 5 seasons and he’s due a major title. The French will pick up gold after holding off the slalom charge of Marcel Hirscher. Veteran Peter Fill clocks the best time of the downhill run and then clings to the podium in the ensuing slalom.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

If you’re as much as a casual alpine skiing spectator, you probably know Hirscher has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. That will end in PyeongChang, and as occurred in many previous instances this season, Henrik Kristoffersen will fill the bridesmaid role. After a first season podium on the GS of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Ted Ligety won’t approach the top two nor impact the fight for his succession, but the American still manages to shrug away the opposition for bronze.

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

Triumphant in six of the seven slalom events he’s contested this season, Hirscher is the odds-on favourite for the Olympic crown, but Kristoffersen will, undoubtedly, be lurking around if the six-time overall World Cup Champion commits the most insignificant of mistakes. Aerni, the 24-year-old who won the Alpine Combined at the 2017 Worlds, pipes Michael Matt (Austria) for third.

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

Vonn and Goggia starred on the final speed events ahead of the Olympics and they’ll again put their friendship on the line in South Korea, with the American prevailing to reclaim the downhill Olympic title. Mowinckel wins bronze to clinch Norway’s first ever medal for a female Alpine skier (all previous 29 were collected by men).

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Four years after crashing in a downhill training run in Sochi, Tina Weirather finally emulates her mother, Hanni Wetzel, and becomes the second Olympic Champion from Liechtenstein. Fourth in 2014, current Super-G World Cup leader Lara Gut climbs two steps to claim silver, while Nicole Schmidhofer, the reigning World Champion, is bested by Lindsey Vonn for the final podium position.

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

Repeating the triumph of last year’s World Championships, Wendy Holdener creeps ahead of Shiffrin, the Slalom Queen, to savour her maiden Olympic title. In an all-Italian battle for third, Brignone knocks Sofia Goggia and Marta Bassino out of podium contention while Lindsey Vonn straddles a gate in the slalom to DNF.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

The most consistent GS competitor of the season, Rebensburg recaptures her Olympic crown four years after placing third in Sochi, therefore ending Shiffrin’s bid for 3+ titles in a single Olympics. A World Champion in 2013 and 2015, Tessa Worley makes up for the deception of missing the 2014 Olympics by rescuing the bronze medal.

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

With an advantage of over one second, Mikaela Shiffrin blows the competition apart to secure a second consecutive gold medal in her signature event. The in-form Holdener settles for second, while 32-year-old Frida Hansdotter takes advantage of Petra Vlhová’s tentative run to steal third place from the Slovak’s hands.

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

Marcel Hirscher will bookend a spectacular Winter Olympics by guiding Austria to the top of the podium on the first Team event in Olympic history. A talented Switzerland ensemble guarantees silver by upsetting the France of Pinturault, Worley and Mathieu Favre in the semis, though the French rebound to push Sweden out of the picture in the small final.

 

Biathlon

Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Bø have monopolized attentions this winter by hoarding 14 of the 15 individual competitions staged so far in the biathlon World Cup season, and their multiple clashes are bound to set alight the Alpensia Biathlon Center, nevertheless don’t sleep on the women. Laura Dahlmeier will be looking to reproduce her unconceivable five gold, six-medal performance of last year’s World Championships, and she’ll be up against a smattering of powerful opponents, including Sochi’s dominant figure, Darya Domracheva, and the current World Cup leader, Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

Johannes Thingnes Bø (L) and Martin Fourcade (R) will renew hostilities in PyeongChang (biathlon-hochfilzen.at)

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

Despite leading the sprint World Cup standings, Fourcade has only one victory to Bø’s three in this discipline in 2017-18, and the Norwegian has generally looked faster from the get-go at every World Cup stop. Therefore, we expect Johannes to take the first assault in Pyeongchang, with Martin Fourcade stopping the clock a few ticks later for silver. The steady Jacov Fak, World Champion in this discipline in 2012, concludes the podium lineup due to a clean shooting performance in a day where most of the other contenders will miss more than usual for lack of acclimation to the track and Olympic atmosphere.

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

Staying ahead of Fourcade during the Pursuit following his sprint successes hasn’t been a problem for Johannes Thingnes Bø this season, and we predict the same will happen at the Olympics. The 32-year-old Svendsen has picked up an Olympic medal in every other biathlon discipline between the 2010 and 2014 Games, and it would be neat if he managed to complete his set at the Pursuit.

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

The hectic Mass start is a race that gets Fourcade’s emotions flowing like no other, and the French will outlast his Norwegian rival here, erupting to victory by a comfortable margin. For his part, Johannes may string a few misses on the day, but his magnificent skiing form should pull him out of trouble and back into medal territory. Tarjei Bø will take a ride with his younger brother and land on the last podium position.

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Martin Fourcade is the reigning Olympic Champion in the 20km individual and he won three consecutive World titles in this event before the third place of Hochfilzen 2017. The clear favourite since the race suits his deliberate shooting style and skiing prowess, the French will win ahead of Erik Lesser in a repeat of Sochi’s results. Meanwhile, Johannes Bø is not at his best in biathlon’s longest individual effort, but this season he tied his rival in the discipline’s standings by capturing a victory and a third place, and the Norwegian has the legs to make ground on the rest in spite of one, maybe even two, extra misses.

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

Anchored by the two stars of the season, the men’s relay is expected to come down to the Johannes Bø – Martin Fourcade final showdown, with the French likely to start a few seconds late. In top form, a Norwegian group with Svendsen, the Bø brothers and Ole Einar Bjorndalen would be nearly unbeatable, however the legend was left off the team and Lars Helge Birkeland, while a steady athlete, doesn’t have as much international experience as the French trio supporting Martin. Simply because I’m still salty due to the absence of the greatest Winter Olympian ever, I’ll edge my bets on France.

With an experienced and reliable group, the Germans only need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot to secure third ahead of Austria, Italy and the Swedes, who recently triumphed in Oberhof. Russia, who won at home soil four years ago, couldn’t clear enough athletes to form a team for PyeongChang.

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

Dahlmeier has yet to showcase the dominant skiing form of 2016-17, yet I sense she’ll explode off the gates in South Korea, shooting clean to overcome Anastasiya Kuzmina, the sprint Champion from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. Tiril Eckhoff is usually at her best on the sprint, and the easy shooting range combined with an up-and-down track should suit her qualities, guiding the Norwegian to a second individual medal after the Mass Sprint of Sochi.

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

Shut out of medal contention on the last two Winter Olympics, Kaisa Mäkäräinen will break her duck on the Pursuit, bursting ahead of Dahlmeier after the standing shootout to clinch an emotional victory. Denise Herrmann, the ultimate wild card with her lightning fast skiing and erratic shooting, will enjoy a good day in the office and power up the field to take the final podium position.

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

Although Dahlmeier won’t amass five gold medals like last year, she’ll still head home with a stuffed trophy case. This race will provide her with another opportunity to ascend to the highest podium level, while Domracheva, the 2014 Mass start Champion, will scamper away from the opposition with the finish line in sight to secure silver. Building back her form through the week after an untimely illness, 21-year-old Justine Braisaz will claim bronze and a first career medal.

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

Returning to the World Tour after a couple of lost seasons due to mononucleosis and pregnancy, Domracheva is unlikely to repeat her haul from Sochi, but she won’t leave empty-handed either. I trust the Belarussian will keep her cool on the shooting range, defend her Olympic title and be joined on the podium by her teammate Nadezhda Skardino, who will shoot clean to secure the top-three for a second consecutive Olympics. Dorothea Wierer, the winner of the last 15km individual race in Ruhpolding, showed clear progression as the Games approached, and that will merit a silver medal on the event where she’s tallied three of her four World Cup victories.

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

Winners of seven of the last eight women’s relays, the German ladies should lock the Olympic title without too much trouble, and that will ring true even if they opt to save their trump card, Laura Dahlmeier, after the mixed relay. Surprising Champions in Sochi amidst political turmoil back home, Ukraine returns all four athletes and they’ll be in the mix again, but I just like more the blend of experience and youth on the French team. Moreover, Italy’s relay is filled with sharp-shooters and in Dorothea Wierer they have an excellent anchor, which should be enough to drive Ukraine away from the medals.

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

Swapping Tora Berger and Bjorndalen for Marte Olsbu (or Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold) and Johannes Thingnes Bø shouldn’t have a major effect on the strength of Norway’s relay compared to Sochi, yet the opposition looks stronger this time and the race difficult to handicap. Provided Martin Fourcade is in the lineup, France will exhibit a formidable unit, and Germany would be a pain to deal with if Dahlmeier checks out in front.

As the reigning World Champions, I’m picking the Germans to outlast a fierce French challenge for the title, with Norway dropping to third. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Italy, a credible threat to replicate the bronze of Sochi if Lukas Hofer and Dominik Windisch manage to keep their erratic shooting in check…

 

Ice Hockey

Canada swept the titles in the two most recent Winter Olympics, but without NHL players, they’ll be in a tough spot to emerge victorious out of the deep pool of candidates on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s event should feature another North American battle between the Americans and the Canadians, and history has proven anything can happen when those two meet.

Canada beat the United States in the women’s ice hockey Final in Sochi 2014. These two teams should reconvene at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

Youngster Rasmus Dahlin steals the show and goaltender Viktor Fasth slams the door shut on the high-powered Russians, who leave the tournament disgruntled in spite of managing their best result since 1998. The makeshift Canadian team edges the hard-working Finns in a low-scoring bronze medal game.

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

The four-time defending World Champions USA finally get the best of Canada, ending their neighbours’ run of four consecutive Olympic gold medals after yet another memorable chapter of one of world sports most underrated rivalries. Before that, Finland’s star goalkeeper Noora Räty almost steals a Final birth, but Canada eventually progresses out of the semi-final in OT, leaving the much-improved Finns to outduel Sweden for third place.

 

Ski Jumping

Kamil Stoch reigned supreme in Sochi four years ago, and the Pole’s name is again at the very top of the shortlist of favourites, but duplicating the achievement won’t be easy as his path to victory is brimming with talented Germans and Norwegians.

Kamil Sotch jumped for imortality at Sochi 2014. He’ll try to reach the same heights in South Korea (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports Eric Bolte )

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

Five weeks after an historical Four Hills Tournament sweep, Kamil Stoch defends his Normal Hill title by upstaging the dynamic German duo of Andreas Wellinger and Richard Freitag. Junshiro Kobayashi falls to fifth after posting the best mark of the first round, and he’s not the only Japanese to miss the mark since 45-year-old Noriaki Kasai also fails to follow up an excellent first attempt.

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

Poland’s Kamil Stoch is pestered by difficult wind conditions on his first jump and he wastes the chance to repeat the double triumph of Sochi. The 22-year-old Andreas Wellinger flies to victory, while reigning World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft finds his stride at the right time after a difficult season start. Daniel-André Tande scores an individual medal to lead a Norwegian team that places 4 men inside the top 10.

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

The World Cup leaders from Norway extract revenge from the poor showing of Sochi by riding their balanced foursome to the Olympic title. Poland’s Kamil Stoch sets a new hill-record on his final jump to push Germany in the battle for silver, but Richard Freitag answers the call in response to limit the losses for the 2014 Champions.

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

Maren Lundby, the runaway World Cup leader, battles the nerves to win the second ever women’s gold medal in ski jumping. After a field-best first attempt, four-time World Cup overall winner Sara Takanashi finds redemption from the fourth-place of Sochi by securing the runner-up spot, while Katharina Althaus, second on the World Cup standings, has to settle for bronze ahead of compatriot – and defending Champion – Carina Vogt.

 

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.

430defe800000578-0-image-a-33_1502142361473

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.

Five NHL rookies turning heads in the first month of the season

For everyone getting their feet wet in a new work environment, starting on the right foot is extremely important to establish rank and quickly earn the confidence of colleagues and bosses. The NHL is no exception, and for many fans one of the most satisfying parts of the NHL regular season is keeping track of the league newcomers, from those that arrive showered with praise and high expectations, to less heralded players that had to work their tail off to ascend from lower leagues and the college ranks.

Up to October 25th, 99 players (93 skaters + 6 goalies) have featured in, at least, a game in 2017-18 and are considered rookies eligible to receive the Calder Memorial Trophy*. Among those, the likes of Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning), preseason favourites for the award, stand out at the top of the leader boards, yet it’s not on the high-profile constituents we will cast a shining light here.

Instead, we’re looking for under-the-radar names that have popped out so far, seizing important roles in the respective teams even if few – outside of their home markets – had them pegged for such fast starts. To further limit our pool, we restricted  our evaluation to players that have logged over 18 min per game, in the case of defenseman, or forwards with an TOI/GP above 15 min, thereby claiming what can be roughly defined as top-four D/ top-six FW usage. Let’s meet the five most interesting cases from the lot.

* To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Beginning in 1990-91, to be eligible for this award a player must not have attained his twenty-sixth birthday by September 15th of the season in which he is eligible.

 

Victor Mete (D, Montreal Canadiens)

The lone beacon of hope on the Canadiens dreadful start, Victor Mete is a 2016 fourth-round pick that wasn’t supposed to make it to the big league on his draft +2 year, much less grasp such an important role for the group (not) shielding Carey Price.

Smallish at 5’9″, 184 pounds, the 19-year-old is surprisingly soaking up almost 20 mins (19:41) of ice time, playing regular shifts with captain Shea Weber on the Habs’ top pairing, drawing the toughest matchups and still coming out in the black on most possession metrics (Adj 51.55 CF%). Moreover, while his -5 rating is ugly, it is much more a product of poor team play, as no Canadiens player is in positive territory, and bad luck (94.8 PDO) than explicit defensive shortcomings.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete protects the puck behind the net (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, Mete, a flashy puck-moving defenseman with elite skating ability, is already the only Montreal blueliner that can consistently elude forecheckers, hurry the puck up the ice, complete a quick pass out of the zone and join the rush, leading the offense-starved Canadiens in (individual) transition plays and both scoring changes for (78) and high dangerous shot attempts (40) when on the ice.

A left-side blueliner that has filled the void created by the departure of veteran Andrei Markov, Mete has the speed to get back on the play and recover loose pucks, but, naturally, still struggles against stronger players in the wall or in front of the net, reasons that explain why he’s yet to be thrusted into the penalty kill by Claude Julien. He’s made for it on the powerplay, though, handling 2:58 mins per night and picking up two primary assists on the man-advantage, where his shot and quarterbacking ability inspire predictions of gaudy offensive totals further down the road.

Alex Iaffallo (LW, Los Angeles Kings)

One of the last players added to the Kings training camp roster, Alex Iaffalo stunned everyone by not only making the roster, but also snatching the plum assignment on LA’s top forward group, playing left wing to Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and being an integral part of the team’s excellent beginning of regular season.

LA Kings forward Alex Iafallo joins line rushes during a warmup session (Harry How/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old had excelled in his last college season, amassing 21 goals and 51 pts as a senior at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, and his noticeable speed caught the eye of several NHL organizations, with Iaffalo opting to sign for the Kings, a team in dire need of his attributes. A great skater that can keep possession of the puck despite being light (6’0’’, 185 lb), the undrafted forward also received rave reviews for his release and accurate shot, possessing the ability to slot in either wing or in the middle.

Nine games into his NHL career, Iaffalo is yet to find the twine, having collected just 3 assists, but he’s fired 21 shots on goal – with an additional 13 missing the net – and looks active, engaged and fast complementing the heavy, grinding style of his line mates. The Kings premium attacking trio has clicked so far, with Iaffalo boasting a +7 rating in 16:48 min of TOI/GP and good possession/scoring chances numbers (53.13 adj CF%, 50.0 SCF%,53.23 HD CF%), thus expect him to keep the ball rolling for the next while.

Robert Hagg (D, Philadelphia Flyers)

After making his NHL debut in the last game of 2016-17, Robert Hagg has taken advantage of the youth movement steadily revamping Philadelphia’s defensive outlook to grab a top-four spot, his blend of size, smarts, mobility and two-way acumen assisting partner Shayne Gostisbehere to a prolific season start (11 pts in 9 matches).

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg in action against the Carolina Hurricanes (Getty Images)

A former 2nd rounder (2013) who took his time getting acclimated to the intricacies of the North American game, the Swedish blueliner fits the mould of a modern shutdown defender: big (6’2’’), strong in the corners and physical – his 26 hits lead the team -, but also a good skater that keeps it simple in possession and can dish a sound breakout pass. Hagg topped at 20 pts in 3 AHL seasons, indicating limited offensive ceiling, however there’s every reason to believe the 22-year-old could be an excellent complement on the Flyers’ blueline to a more dynamic partner, be it Gostisbehere, promising 2014 1st rounder Travis Sanheim, or even the fledging Ivan Provorov on the top pair.

With one assist in 9 appearances, and a +5 rating clearly propped up by a sky-high 110.4 PDO, Hagg’s underlying numbers haven’t been spectacular (45.58 adj CF%, SCF 44.54%), yet it’s obvious coach Dave Hackstol trusts him, deploying the Uppsala-native for 18:14 mins per game, including 1:44 mins on the PK, where size and strength make it certain his usage is only going to increase.

Anders Bjork (RW, Boston Bruins)

As a former U-20 World Championships standout for the USA, and one of the top forward prospects in the Bruins organization, Anders Bjork’s name may not be as unfamiliar as the rest of this list, nevertheless he was consecutively overshadowed by teammate Charlie McAvoy in early season previews and his nice season start warrants the spotlight.

Boston Bruins winger Anders Bjork tries to evade a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman in a preseason game (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

A fifth round pick by Boston back in 2014, the winger cracked the Bruins roster after three seasons at Notre Dame where his point totals increased steadily (22 to 35 to 52), and he’s done nothing but impress so far due to his notable work rate and willingness to chase pucks, provoke turnovers and disrupt the breakout.

Praised over the years for his hockey sense and 200-foot game, Bjork was once expected to grow into a speedy, aggressive checking-line forward with some scoring touch, but there’s probably more to him, his versatility, slick hands and offensive instincts looking the perfect fit on the right side of Boston’s top line, flanking Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

This trio played together in preseason before Bergeron got injured, and the 21-year-old then moved to the David Krejci unit – with fellow rookie Jake DeBrusk – for the first five games, with his possession numbers suffering as a consequence (48.29 Adj CF%, 46.15 SCF%, 37.50 CF%) but not the scoring acumen. In 7 games, Bjork has already picked up 3 goals and 3 assists, and with Bergeron’s return, that pace shouldn’t decrease precipitously from here on. Except if he injures another preeminent teammate in practice, like recently happened with goalie Tuukka Rask.

Jesper Bratt (LW, New Jersey Devils)

It’s been 22 years since a teenager drafted as low as Jesper Bratt, the 162nd pick in 2016, played in the NHL, and if we add that he scored just 14 goals in 94 games on Sweden’s Allsvenskan (2nd tier) the last two years, it’s fair to say the Devils rookie completely came out of the blue.

Swedish winger Jesper Bratt skates in a game against the New York Rangers (NHL.com)

Few on his own organization expected the 19-year-old to make the team, but a mandate to inject speed into New Jersey’s roster worked on his favour and there he was, bursting onto the scene with six points in his first three games to get pundits scrambling. It’s true that Bratt is currently mired on a five-game pointless streak, still he has forged his niche inside John Hynes’ lineup as a special teams expert that can impact the game with his pace and creativity.

Moreover, in 8 games, the Swedish left winger has amassed a +5 rating and a pair of powerplay and shorthanded points, his average ice time of 15:16 mins entailing close to 6 mins of combined action in both situations. Coming in at 5’10’’ and 179 pounds, Bratt is small but explosive, an adept skater with a knack for reacting quickly and reaching loose pucks while outnumbered, as well as a skilled, intelligent offensive player with a puck control and shot that can prove lethal on the man-advantage. The production is not there yet at even-strength, partly explaining why he’s been shuffled down from the second line (Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson) to play with Pavel Zacha and Brian Gibbons, but it will eventually come with experience.

 

All stats mentioned in this post updated until October 25th and gathered from NHL.com or naturalstattrick.com.

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.