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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

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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)

European Tour of Sports – Finland

The Basics

Population: 5.5 M

Area: 338 424 km2

Capital: Helsinki

Summer Olympic Medals: 303 (101 G – 85 S – 117 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 161 (42 G – 62 S – 57 B)

Popular Sports and History

Host of the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland is a nation with a proud and decorated sports history despite its scant population. Having gathered 464 Olympic medals – 16th best all-time –, this vast Northern European country sits at the very top of the rankings in terms of medals and gold medals won per capita, edging neighbours Sweden and Hungary.

For geographic reasons an innate world power in many winter activities, Suomi’s No.1 sport in terms of spectators is ice hockey, where the Finns usually punch well above their weight to regularly upset much bigger luminaries such as Canada, Russia and the USA. Hence, two World championship titles (1995, 2011) and six Olympic medals – including silver in 1988 and 2006 – are part of the men’s national team trophy cabinet in large part due to the efforts of some of the game’s all-time greats, including defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numinen, five-time Stanley Cup Champion Jari Kurri, and the legendary Teemu Selänne, the Olympic record holder for most participations (6) and most points (43) in ice hockey. On the women’s side, Finland only lags behind the titanic American and Canadian teams, having finished third or fourth in every World Championships, and attained two Olympic bronze medals (1998, 2010).

Finland was crowned ice hockey World Champion for the second time in 2011

Furthermore, Finland’s top flight, the SM-liiga, is one of the strongest hockey leagues in Europe, with Tappara Tampere and TPS (Turun Palloseura) Turku collecting 10 titles each since 1975, when professionalism arrived. In total, Tappara has conquered a record 17 National Championships, usurping city rivals Ilves, who count 16 (the last in 1985), by capturing the last two titles (2016, 2017). Seven-time Champions Kärpät Oulu and Jokerit Helsinki, who celebrated six times before opting to join the pan-European Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2014, are also historical clubs of note.

Besting ice hockey in registered players and as a popular pastime, football enjoys significant popularity in Finland even if the country is far from a major international player. For instance, the men’s national team has never qualified for a finals tournament of the World Cup or European Championships, although it took part in four Olympic tournaments, whilst the women’s squad peaked by reaching the semi-finals of the 2005 European Championships exactly four years before hosting the competition. Nevertheless, names like former Liverpool FC captain Sami Hyypiä (105 caps) and Jari Litmanen, a UEFA Champions League winner with Ajax in 1994-95 who amassed a record  137 caps and 32 goals for the national team, achieved international recognition.

Jari Litmanen, the greatest Finnish footballer of all-time

At the club level, Finland’s football royalty is Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, or HJK Helsinki, which counts 27 men’s national championships and 22 women’s titles, both records, and holds the distinction as the only Finnish club to ever qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage, in 1998.

Not as ubiquitous, yet perhaps more relevant are Finland’s exceptional credentials in Athletics, corroborated on the two World Championships they organized in 1983 and 2005 and a stack of honours. In this sense, many of the 48 golds and 114 total medals hoarded by the sport at the Olympics date back to the beginning of the XX century, when Hannes Kolehmainen conquered three titles in 1912 to emerge as the original “Flying Finn” and dawn a period of excellence for Finnish athletics, especially in medium and long-distance running, that extended until World War II.

The likes of Paavo Nurmi, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist between 1920 and 1928 who set 22 world records on his career, Ville Ritola, who amassed six medals in Paris 1924, and Lasse Virén, who stormed to victory in the 5000m and 10.000m races of the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, left an indelible mark in history to transform into icons for the Finnish people. A similar fate destined to the nation’s finest in javelin throw, a wildly popular event where Finland has enjoyed steady success for more than 100 years, from the eight Olympic gold medals and five world championships to the dozens of world records set by their men and women.

Lasse Virén, the last of the “Flying Finns”, captured moments after winning the 5000m at the 1976 Olympic Games

Trending up, but still a ways to go to reach similar notoriety, Finnish basketball’s profile has increased significantly over the last decade, highlighted by an unexpected debut appearance at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and four consecutive EuroBasket participations since 2011. Finland ranked sixth on home soil in 1967, and that mark may soon be surpassed as more youngsters take on the sport and follow the footsteps of Hanno Möttölä, the first and most notable Finnish man to play in the NBA (2000-2002). Meanwhile, in volleyball, the Finnish national team is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts, returning to the World Championships in 2014 – after a 32-year absence – to place ninth, their best result ever.

Nevertheless, the country’s third team sport in terms of registered players is still floorball. A powerhouse only rivalled by Sweden, Finland’s national team has won the World Championships three times (2008, 2010 and 2016) and placed on the podium in every occasion.

The Finnish floorball team is one of the best in the world

Incidentally, this is a situation resembling what happens in another offshoot of hockey, bandy, where the Finns snatched the World title in 2004 and perennially butt heads with Russia and Sweden for the top-three positions.

Known as the “land of the thousand lakes”, no sport makes better use of Finland’s breath-taking scenery than rally driving. Rally Finland is one of the most cherished events in the World Rally Championship calendar, and Finnish drivers have dominated the overall competition for large stretches over the last decades. Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen, both four-time winners of the World Rally Championship, are the main reason Finland has celebrated a total of 14 times, tied with France for the most titles, while Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, the three Finnish Formula One World Driver’s champions, have also elevated the white and blue, Nordic-crossed flag in another of motorsports queen disciplines.

Mika Häkkinen, Formula 1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999

Since 1908, when Finland first sent a delegation to the Summer Olympic Games, the country has never failed to medal and, consequently, many sports have scored a healthy dose of silverware.

Wrestling, with 83 OIympic medals (26 golds), has picked up, by far, the 2nd largest share (Athletics), but a few others have cracked the two digits, including canoeing, shooting, sailing, boxing – which accounted for the only medal at Rio de Janeiro (Mira Potkonen) – and gymnastics, whose tally of 25 owes much to Hall of Famer Heikki Savoilainen. Medalling, at least, once in five consecutive Olympics (1928 to 1952), Savoilainen bagged the last of his nine awards on the team all-around event at Helsinki 1952 to become the oldest gymnastics medallist at the age of 44.

Lacking any international recognition whatsoever, but with a firm spot in the heart of many Finns, Pesäpallo, a bat-and-ball activity with obvious similarities to baseball, is often referred as the national sport of Finland. Also played in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Japan and Canada, Pesäpallo was a demonstration sport at the 1952 Olympic Games.

In the Winter Olympics, Finland’s debut was in 1924 and they’ve also never returned home empty-handed. As the most successful nation in ski jumping history, Finland’s row of legends is headlined by Janne Ahonen, who never captured Olympic gold despite winning five World Championship golds, two overall World Cups (2004, 2005), and a record five Four Hills Tournaments, and Matti Nykänen, the only ski jumper in history to emerge victorious at all five of the sport’s major events. Besides three gold medals at the Winter Olympics, he secured the Ski Jumping World Championships, the Ski Flying World Championships, four World Cup titles and two Four Hills Tournaments.

Matti Nykänen, probably the greatest ski jumper ever, competing at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary

Moreover, in cross-country skiing, Finland’s 76 Olympic medals only trail Norway’s total, and they can thank the brilliance of multiple Olympic, World Championships or World Cup Champions such as Veli Saarinen (1926-1934), Veikko Hakulinen (1952-60), Marjo Matikainen-Kallström (1984-89) and Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi (1982-1993) for that. As a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, Finland has also produced world class athletes in nordic combined, with Olympic Champions Heikki Hasu, Eero Mäntyranta and Samppa Lajunen preceding Hannu Manninen, World Cup winner four consecutive times from 2003 to 2007.

In alpine skiing and biathlon, the country’s accomplishments straggle way behind their neighbours, yet it’s still worth mentioning that alpine skiers Kalle Palander and Tanja Poutiainen combined to take four discipline World Cup titles in the first decade of this century, while biathlon’s Heikki Ikola and Juhani Suutarinen claimed a total of seven World Championships titles in the 1970s. Furthermore, Finland has also amassed many international honours in figure skating and speed skating, even if they haven’t secured an Olympic medal in the latter since 1968.

Star Athletes

Tero Pitkämäki (Athletics)

The 34-year-old Pitkämäki has been Finland’s leading javelin thrower over the last decade and a half, collecting several medals in international meetings in the process. A World Champion in 2007, the native of Ilmajoki enjoyed his best seasons from 2005 to 2007, the three years in which he tossed the spear over 90m, however he’s maintained a high level of performance since then. For instance, Pitkämäki threw a world-leading mark of 89.03m in 2013, which is just 2.5m short of his career-best (91.53m) set in 2005 and still the tenth best mark of all-time.

Finnish javelin thrower Tero Pitkämäki prepares for another attempt at the 2011 World Athletics Championships

Bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games, Tero Pitkämäki also ascended to the podium in three European Championships (2006, 2010, 2014) and, most recently, at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, results that merited his last two selections as the Finnish Sports Personality of the Year (he first received the award in 2007). Closing in on the end of his illustrious career, Pitkämäki probably won’t realize the dream of becoming an Olympic Champion, but he’s done more than enough to guarantee a spot on the pantheon of Finland’s greatest javelin throwers.

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (Biathlon)

A cross country skier growing up, Mäkäräinen picked up the rifle for the first time at age twenty and it wouldn’t be long before she cracked the Finnish biathlon national team. Progressing steadily up the ranks from 2004 to 2010, she finally broke out in the 2010-11 season, taking gold in the 10km pursuit and silver in the 7.5km sprint of the 2011 World Championships, and, a few weeks later, securing the triumphs in the overall classification and pursuit discipline of the World Cup circuit.

Those achievements warranted the 2011 Finnish Sports Personality of the Year award, and Mäkäräinen has since grown into one of the biathlon’s most reliable competitors, collecting four more discipline titles, divided by the individual (2015), sprint (2014) and pursuit (2014, 2015) classifications, and locking down a second overall title in 2014.

Finland’s biathlon star Kaisa Mäkäräinen in action during a World Cup race

With 6 medals obtained at World Championships, 21 individual victories in World Cup races and 70 podiums, what’s missing from her résumé is Olympic success. In two previous participations (2010, 2014), the 34-year-old’s best result is the sixth place on the Mass start in 2014, therefore she will arrive in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics hungry to take advantage of what promises to be her swan song.

Kimi Räikkönen (Formula One Racing)

Showing signs of prodigious driving talent from early on, Kimi Räikkönen entered the Formula One in 2001, at age 22, through the door of the modest Sauber-Petronas scuderia. A single season would be enough to convince the higher-profile McLaren Mercedes to take a chance on him, and Räikkönen soon began fighting for victories, winning his first race in Malaysia in 2003, and finishing as the runner up in the overall classification in 2003 and 2005.

Kimi Raikkonen holds aloft the trophy destined to the Formula One Driver’s World Champion in 2007

Nonetheless, annoyed by the Mclaren cars’ unreliability, the Finn accepted the invitation from the emblematic Ferrari before the 2007 season, and he promptly secured his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship after a nail-biting season finale in Brazil.

Many though that would be the first of a few to come for the “Ice Man”, but the Espoo-native never reached the same highs again, concluding third in the overall classification in 2008 and 2012. In fact, the latter performance came at the wheel of a Lotus on the year of his return to the Formula One after an unremarkable two-year stint in the World Rally Championship (2010 and 2011) and a short detour into NASCAR racing.

Back at Ferrari since 2014, the 37-year-old has amassed, to date, 20 race victories, 88 podiums and 17 pole positions on the Formula One. A solid career indeed, but short of what his talent demanded.

Other Athletes: Petteri Koponen (Basketball), Antti Ruuskanen (Athletics), Valtteri Bottas (Formula One Racing), Mira Potkonen (Boxing), Enni Rukajärvi (Snowboard), Iivo Niskanen, Matti Heikkinen, Kerttu Niskanen, Krista Pärmäkoski, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (Cross-country skiing), Mikko Koivu, Tuukka Rask, Noora Räty (ice hockey), Tuuli Petäjä-Sirén (Sailing), Satu Mäkelä-Nummela (Shooting), Minna Kauppi (Orienteering), Roman Eremenko (Football)

Venues

The most iconic sports location in Finland is, undoubtedly, the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, the central venue for the 1952 Summer Olympics and many other international events hosted by the country, including the 1957 Bandy World Championships, the 1983 and 2005 Athletics World Championships, three European Athletics Championships (1971, 1994, 2012), the 2009 UEFA Women’s European Championships Final, and plenty of concerts.

Opened in 1938 with his distinctive contiguous tower, the stadium welcomed 70 000 during the Olympic Games, but his capacity has significantly decreased with the successive renovations, the last one scheduled to end in 2019, when the currently closed stadium will reopen with 36 000 seats, covered stands, a new track and fresh grass field.

A panorama of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, currently closed for renovation.

In the meantime, the Finnish men’s football team, the main tenant, sometimes utilizes the adjacent Telia 5G –areena, or Sonera Stadium, inaugurated in 2000 with a capacity for 10 770 spectators. Host of the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship Final, the Sonera Stadium’s artificial turf is usually operated by Helsinki’s football clubs HJK and HIFK. Also welcoming the national team in occasion, the Ratina Stadion is Tampere’s main stadium since 1965, a multi-purpose facility that seats 16 800 in sports events, including regular motorcycle speedway competitions.

Conversely, the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, named after the athletics’ legend, is, essentially, a track and field venue, bringing some of the sports’ best to the city of Turku for the Paavo Nurmi Games, a renowned annual meet where many world records have been set. Consequently, Turku’s clubs, FC Inter and Turun Palloseura (TPS), play in the Veritas Stadium, with capacity for 9 372 fans.

Meanwhile, the Lahti Stadium, which holds 14 500, is not only a football venue for FC Lahti, but also doubles, in the winter, as the setting for many international cross-country and biathlon competitions. The diverse FIS World Cups make regular stops in Lahti, and three FIS Biathlon World Championships (1981, 1991 and 2000) were held here, as well as three FIS Nordic Ski World Championships (1989, 2001 and 2017). In this case, the stadium is complemented with the nearby Salpausselkä ski jumping venue, which accommodates up to 60 000.

Lahti’s winter sports structure, including the Lahti stadium, in the background, as viewed from the ski jumping complex.

Moreover, Levi, in Finnish Lapland – deep into the Arctic circle -, hosts slalom competitions of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup, while Ruka, in Kuusamo (Northern Ostrobothnia), is a popular resort for cross country skiing, Nordic combined and ski jumping competitions on his Rukatunturi ski jumping hill, the largest in Finland.

Regarding indoor venues, Finland’s main amphitheatre is the Hartwall Arena, in Helsinki, built in 1997 for the Ice Hockey World Championships. Located next to a busy railway station, this functional, elliptical structure sits 13 349 for hockey, usually fans from local team Jokerit, and can be easily converted for basketball or entertainment shows. The Hartwall Arena was, once again, a venue for the Ice Hockey World Championships in 2012 and 2013, and also hosted games of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the World Figure Skating Championships (1999 and 2017), the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest and group stage matches of the 2017 EuroBasket.

Inside Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena during an ice hockey match

Located in Turku, on the Southwest coast, Turkuhalli, currently Gatorade Center due to sponsorship reasons, is Finland’s second biggest indoor arena. Opened in 1990 to function as the main building for the 1991 men’s Ice Hockey World Championships, it also played a part in the 1997 and 2003 editions of the tournament. With 11 820 seats, it is the home of HC TPS (hockey), TPS (floorball) and Turun NMKY (Basketball).

Tampereen jäähalli, or Tampere Ice Stadium, is the main venue in the country’s second city, welcoming up to 7300 spectators for the games of Ilves and Tappara, of the Finnish Liiga. The first and oldest ice hockey arena in the country, this hall was erected for the 1965 Ice Hockey World Championships, and has received the competition a few more times since then, as well as European and World Championships of boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate. As for the fledging national basketball team, it calls home the Energia Areena, in Vantaa, with capacity for 3500 fans.

Finally, any inventory like this wouldn’t be complete without a mention to the gravel roads over which the cars of the World Rally Championship fly during Rally Finland. Full of jumps and blind crests, the paths around Jyväskylä, in Finnish Lakeland, make for a thrilling motorsport spectacle in spectacular scenery.

A car soars through the air during a stage of the Rally Finland

Yearly Events

If you find yourself in Finland, don’t miss the chance to catch some live sports action, especially if you’re not accustomed to low temperatures and the complementary sports disciplines.

The exciting ice hockey season runs from September to March, with playoffs until late April, and develops concurrently with floorball’s Salibandyliiga, whose final is contested at the Hartwall Arena. The bandy national championship (Bandyliiga) is scheduled from November to February, while football matches dot the calendar from April to the end of October. For motorsport fans and outdoors lovers, attending the competitive Finnish Rally Championship is a great option. It starts in late January, with the Artic Lapland Rally, and ends in late September.

For other yearly sporting events, including an abundance of various winter sports World Cup stages, peruse the list below:

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Lahti, December/January/February

Artic Lapland Rally, Rally Racing

Rovaniemi, January

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Lahti, February

Kontiolahti FIS World Cup event, Biathlon

Kontiolahti, March

The FIS Biathlon World Cup makes a stop in Kontiolahti every March

Paavo Nurmi Games, Athletics

Turku, June

Rally Finland (WRC event), Rally Racing

Jyväskylä, Late July/early August

Helsinki City Marathon, Athletics

Helsinki, August

Helsinki Tallinna Race, Sailing

Helsinki – Tallinn (Estonia), August

Helsinki International Horse Show (FEI World Cup), Horse Jumping

Helsinki, October

Karjala Cup, Ice hockey

Helsinki, November

Levi FIS World Cup event, Alpine Skiing

Levi Ski Resort (Kittilä), November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Ski jumping

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Kuusamo, November

My crystal ball and the World Cup of hockey preliminary rosters

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey is seven and a half months away and the first names that will compete in Toronto from September, 17th to October, 1st were announced last Wednesday. Every nation (err..every Team) had to name 16 of the 23 players that would bring to the tournament, with at least two of them being goalies, and that meant that we would get to start the always entertaining game of projecting the names included, the major snubs and the potential surprises. To be clear, the subjects I consider “entertained” here are hockey nerds, hockey writers with columns to fill and people with too much time on their hands.

Anyway, in advance of the announcements, I took a couple of hours off my busy schedule to speculate on every player that would appear on the rosters’ lists (and not the ones I believed should have been selected), and then proceeded to evaluate my performance. This article describes my choices and rationales, and tries to impart into the thought-process of the management teams that actually had to do the job. I also sprinkle in a few predictions about the players that will be added until June 1st, when complete rosters have to be delivered.

A few months ago, I filed in a post about the construction of Team Europe’s roster (which you can read here and here ), so I plugged in some info from the analysis I did back then, and I am currently working on a detailed report on Team North America that will follow much of the same structure, thus refrained to share (or rehash) some ideas in this post regarding those two squads.

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey official logo

My main resource to speed up the process of compiling the potential preliminary rosters of every nation was this website , where you can sort out every NHL player that played in a season for nationality and position. It really saved up the time of scouring all NHL rosters, and I would also like to thank the European Teams for trying to restrict their players’ pool to the NHL. Especially Team Russia, who expediently announced the first 16 names would all be NHLers.

The article is naturally separated by each competing team, with each section starting with a resume of my mishaps, as OUT are players I wrongly named in my projection and IN are the ones who took their spot. I then transcribed my forecasted rosters and bolded the names I got right while expressing some ideas about every group (forwards, defenseman and goalies).

All the “real” preliminary rosters can be found here

 

Team Sweden

Out: C Carl Soderberg, G Jhonas Enroth
IN: D Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings), G Jacob Markstrom (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Loui Eriksson (Boston Bruins), Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators), Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), Carl Soderberg (Colorado Avalanche)

Sweden was the only team to name just eight forwards and they’re all pretty much unassailable, forming a formidable staple up front. I’m pretty confident Soderberg will be part of the final group of 13, with his versatility and experience playing both left wing and center, but the amount of great candidates for the other four spots is staggering.

Marcus Kruger may be an ideal checking pivot to slot behind Henrik Sedin, Zetterberg and Backstrom, but Mika Zibanejad and Mikael Backlund are also in the run, while on the wings they can mix and match with the tenacity of Patric Hornqvist, the skill of Gustav Nyquist and Jakob Silfverberg or the speed of Carl Hagelin, Rickard Rackell and Andre Burakovsky.

Defenseman (5): Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes), Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks)

Erik Karlsson (L) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (R) will command Team Sweden’s defence

The Tre Kronor’s blueline is once again absolutely stacked and I did hope they would leave two spots open for the wealth of options available. Niklas Kronwall’s decorated history with the national team proved too important, and moved out, for now, John Klingberg, who, for much of the first half of the NHL season, kept pace with Erik Karlsson in terms of offensive production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the steady Anton Stralman was recognized, and should continue to be paired with Victor Hedman, a notable absence in Sochi 2014.

If Sweden makes the mistake of leaving Klingberg home, Johnny Oduya (Chicago Blackhawks) and Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators) should be the next in line, even if you can’t discount Alexander Edler, who, mind-bogglingly, was selected to cover for Karlsson on the top pair in 2014. Alas, let’s just hope the new coaching staff is smarter and joins the forces of Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson, creating a delightful, mouth-watering partnership.

Goalies (2): Henrik Lundqvist (NY Rangers), Jhonas Enroth (LA Kings)

If some teams opted to name three goaltenders, Sweden probably would have liked to leave it to Lundqvist, their only NHL starter. Enroth was considered the best goalie at the 2013 World Championships the Swedes won, and I thought that would give him the edge, but Markstrom and his never-truly-realized immense potential were favoured. The third slot may be decided by a coin flip between Enroth, Eddie Lack (Carolina Hurricanes), Robin Lehner (Buffalo Sabres) and even Anders Nilsson (St. Louis Blues).

Team Finland

Out: C Joonas Kempainnen, D Jyrki Jokipakka, D Sami Lepisto
IN: C Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks), LW Lauri Korpikovski (Edmonton Oilers), D Esa Lindell (Dallas Stars)

Forwards (9): Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild), Jussi Jokinen, Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jori Lehtera (St. Louis Blues), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild), Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs) , Joonas Donskoi (San Jose Sharks), Joonas Kemppainen (Boston Bruins)

Finland never possesses the flashiest attack in senior competitions and that won’t change in the World Cup, since none of the first eight forwards above is a goal scorer. Donskoi is definitely the less known commodity but he’s had a fine debut season in the NHL and his selection was expected.

Lauri Korpikoski ‘s omission from my list was in favour of 27-year-old Kemppainen, part of last year’s World Championship squad before settling in Boston, while the below-expectations season put on by the talented Teuvo Teravainen convinced me he wouldn’t make the cut. Erik Haula, the third-year Minnesota Wild centre, is also a strong candidate to be a part of the final roster.

Scoring by commitment, always the foundation of Finland’s success internationally

Defenseman (5): Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo Sabres), Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins), Sami Vatanen (Anaheim Ducks), Jyrki Jokipakka (Calgary Flames), Sami Lepisto (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, KHL)

A grand total of six Finnish defensemen have suited up for NHL teams in 2015-16, and only four have played more than 10 games. Thus, this screening process wasn’t exactly difficult, even if the youth of the group is a really big concern. Ristolainen (21 years-old), Maatta (21) and Vatanen (24) are all relatively inexperienced, even if the last two were already key components in Sochi 2014, so I searched a bit to bring up the name of Lepisto, a 31-year-old former NHLer with two Olympic bronze medals in his résumé. He’s no Kimmo Timonen, but his experience will definitely be appreciated.

The offensive-minded Esa Lindell, another 21-year-old, jumped in front of Jokipakka, who just a few days ago was his teammate on the Stars organization, despite only 4 NHL appearances against more than 90 amassed by the 24-year-old.

Goalies (2): Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators), Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins)

Rinne and Rask are studs and will battle it out for the starting spot, with Boston’s mainstay having the edge. The Dallas Stars duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should extend their on-going confront to the national team, with the latter in advantage at this time.

Team Russia

Out: D Alexei Emelin, D Fedor Tyutin, D Evgeni Medvedev
IN: C Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Dmitry Orlov (Washington Capitals), G Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Forwards (9): Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals), Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov (Chicago Blackhawks), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning), Nikolai Kulemin (NY Islanders)

Six of the top 25 point producers in the NHL are Russian forwards, and you just need to look at their names to confirm that they won’t lack firepower and copious amounts of offensive skill. The nine names picked up are non-brainers and Vladislav Namestnikov is a tenth no one disputes.

Right now, the question is where two all-world talents like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov fit in, since someone has to backcheck and kill penalties on that group. Datsyuk, Kulemin and Anisimov won’t be enough, so I expect Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg Jets) to be one of the late picks, with Viktor Tikhonov (Arizona Coyotes) also expected to carve his spot. A final note for Russia’s depth down the middle, significantly improved with the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who joins Malkin, Datsyuk, and Anisimov.

Artemi Panarin will be one of the young Russian forwards to watch at the World Cup

Defenseman (5): Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens), Alexei Emelin (Montreal Canadiens), Dmitri Kulikov (Florida Panthers), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets), Evgeni Medvedev (Philadelphia Flyers)

Markov and Kulikov, who was left off the 2014 Olympic Games’ roster, were easy picks but Russia’s decision to ignore all the veteran blueliners caught me off guard. After all, the 31-year-old Tyutin participated in the last three Olympics, Medvedev is a regular fixture on their World Championships representations’, and Emelin’s physical style is pretty uncommon in the rest of their defensive options. No doubt the trio has seen his best years but I fully expect to see them on the final roster.

Dmitry Orlov (Capitals) has impressed with his offensive instincts this season for the Capitals and provides some much needed puck-moving ability to the group, thus the 24-year-old was always on the radar to be one of the seven rearguards on the list. Another player that has those types of qualities is Slava Voynov (SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL) but he’s persona non-grata for the NHL and NHLPA, hence the pressure to leave him at home is significant.

Goalies (2): Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets)

With Anton Khudobin buried on Anaheim’s depth chart, there were only three regular NHL goalies to choose from, so I guess they just decided to put the subject behind their back for all. The inconsistent Varlamov and a Bobrosvky coming off a nightmarish season will square off for possession of Russia’s crease, with Andrei Vasilevsky on the lookout in case both falter.

Team Czech Republic

Out: RW Jaromir Jagr, RW Radim Vrbata, RW Jiri Hudler, D Zbynek Michalek, D Marek Zidlicky
IN: LW Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks), RW David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), D Andrej Sustr (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Michal Kempny (Avangard Omsk, KHL), G Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets)

Forwards (10) : David Krejci (Boston Bruins), Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers), Tomas Plekanec (Montreal Canadiens), Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Hudler (Florida Panthers), Martin Hanzal (Arizona Coyotes), Radim Vrbata (Vancouver Canucks), Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay Lightning Lightning), Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets), Vladimir Sobotka (Avangard Omsk, KHL)

Doing this prediction on a couple of hours was bound to lead to some blunders, and indicating Jagr is among those, as the 44-year-old and the team’s brass had already agreed to wait for the legend to decide on whether he wanted to represent his country one last (more?) time.

Vrbata and Hudler also fall in a similar category, as both were bizarre and glaring exclusions from the roster on the 2014 Olympics. Two years later, Vrbata is 34-years-old and going through a tough season in Vancouver, thus I can understand where they’re coming from. However, Hudler (32) is still productive, even if at a level significantly below his 2014-15 career season, and would have helped this team. Anyway, it’s not the first time the Czech take some strange decisions in terms of roster construction, and seems now clear that neither player is on their plans.

Tomas Hertl missed the 2014 Olympics due to a knee injury, but he should in Toronto come September

Nevertheless, looking at the entire group of 16, no player is older than 30, and going with the youthful exuberance and tremendous speed of Hertl and Pastrnak, two of the few exciting talents produced by the country recently, is definitely defendable. In the end, it won’t be the vital difference between failure and success.

To round out the forward group, the energetic Vladimir Sobotka is a great pickup, and I expect to see a couple more European-based players added later. Dmitri Jaskin, the 22-year-old St. Louis Blues forward, was the odd man out when I finished my preliminary group, but I believe he’ll also be part of the 23-man roster.

Defenseman (4): Zbynek Michalek (Arizona Coyotes), Roman Polak (San Jose Sharks), Radko Gudas (Philadelphia Flyers), Marek Zidlicky (NY Islanders)

My mishaps predicting the Czech roster extended to the blueline, where the unassuming Andrej Sustr, a regular on last season’s Stanley Cup finalists, was left off my roster. Although, in my defence, I can note that the 25-year-old is a bottom-pairing guy for his team and never represented his country on senior international competitions before.

The absence of Michalek is truly surprising, as the 33-year-old is an extremely reliable defensive presence boasting a long history with the national team. Meanwhile, Zidlicky is another notable omission because, despite being 39-years-old, his powerplay prowess and passing ability aren’t approached by any other Czech rearguard.

In contrary, out of nowhere came Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old undrafted defenseman that plays on the left side… and that’s all we know about him. As for Polak and Gudas, they will use all means necessary to keep the opponents in check, so their adversaries definitely hope they’re not paired together.

Goalies (2): Petr Mrazek (Detroit Red Wings), Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia Flyers)

Just like Russia, there were only three real options to consider here, so makes sense that Pavelec’s inclusion was already taken care off. Nevertheless, at least this time, he won’t be the starter on the tournament, with the Czech hopes’ resting on the shoulders of the much more trustworthy Petr Mrazek, a star in the making.

Team Europe

Out: C Lars Eller, RW Marian Gaborik, RW Nino Niederreiter
IN: C Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers), LW Tomas Vanek (Minnesota Wild), RW Jannik Hansen (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Anze Kopitar (LA Kings, SLO), Marian Gaborik (LA Kings, SVK), Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings, SVK), Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks, SVK), Mikkel Boedker (Colorado Avalanche, DEN), Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens, DEN), Mats Zuccarello (NY Rangers, NOR), Frans Nielsen (NY Islanders, DEN), Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild, SUI)

Leon Draisaitl’s development can have a huge impact on Team Europe’s chances

The big standout from the initial roster is Leon Draisatl, the 20-year-old Oilers centre who took full-advantage of Connor McDavid’s injury to go on an offensive tear and seal his status as an NHL-ready middleman. With only Kopitar engraved as a high-end star pivot for Team Europe, the German may jump from the outside looking in right towards the 2nd line, pushing down the likes of Lars Eller and Zemgus Girgensons, who may be in direct competition for a lower-line role. Meanwhile, instead of Niederreiter, who I pencilled on the fourth-line’s right-wing, Team Europe’s management surprised by nominating Jannik Hansen, whose merits I defended ferociously on the aforementioned post.

Vanek and Gaborik were the skilled veterans on the downswing I mulled before my ninth forward indication. While I believed the Slovak’s familiarity with Kopitar made him a near sure thing, his knee injury, compounded with the 34 birthdays, probably scared some and contributed to Vanek’s appointment.

Defenseman (5): Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins, SVK), Roman Josi (Nashville Predators, SUI), Andrej Sekera (Edmonton Oilers, SVK), Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers, SUI), Dennis Seidenberg (Boston Bruins, GER)

I originally only had four defensemen on the preliminary roster, but ultimately believed that Seidenberg’s strong play as of late would erase any doubts that could exist. I was right, and now it’s up to Christian Ehrhoff to find his groove back and validate my original six. I overlooked Vancouver Canucks’ Yannick Weber before, but he’s on the race for the 6th/7th position with compatriot Luca Sbisa.

Goalies (2): Frederik Andersen (Anaheim Ducks, DEN), Jaroslav Halak (NY Islanders, SVK)

Andersen and Halak were absolute locks, but the terrible season of Calgary’s Jonas Hiller blew the door wide open for Thomas Greiss to step in, which will be a mere formality if he can maintain his lead amongst NHL goalies in Sv%.

Team North America

Out: C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, LW Boone Jenner
IN: RW JT Miller (NY Rangers), G Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Forwards (10): Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche, CAN), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames, USA), Sean Monahan (Calgary Flames, CAN), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers, CAN), Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Ryan Nugent – Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, CAN), Jake Eichel (Buffalo Sabres, USA)

I don’t want to spoil my incoming article, but I’m also still unsure where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fits in the lineup for this team. However, Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers GM, co-picked the roster and it is still complicated to see him discard one of his guys. RNH is currently nursing an injury, which muffles the subject, but Edmonton’s media will create a uproar if the snub is repeated in June.

Like Hansen on Team Europe, I’m a passionate supporter of Boone Jenner’s possible contributions to this squad, yet his name was forgotten this week in favour of JT Miller, who appeared on the radar with a breakthrough season for the Rangers but no one expected to see nominated so early. Although there was definitely a need for a right-winger with speed and decent size on the top nine, my preference went for a more polished offensive player.

Chiarelli and Stan Bowman cautioned for the necessity to watch closely the ups-and-downs experienced by rookie players, hence I was reluctant to include Eichel and Larkin on the initial roster, but, in the end, their pedigree and impeccable track record representing the USA at International tournaments pointed me in the right direction.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Murray (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Seth Jones (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers, CAN), Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs, CAN)

Ryan Murra (L) and Seth Jones are forging a partnership in Columbus that should extend to Team North America.

Ekblad, Jones and Reilly comprise the trio of blueliners that will be asked to anchor the Young Guns’ defence, and Murray’s dependability, coupled with a flourishing chemistry with his Columbus’ partner, turned him into a favourite to land on the top 4. Nailing down the last three men will prove more difficult, but I’ll take my crack soon…

Goalies (2): John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks, USA), Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets, USA)

Team North America’s prospects on goal look way more promising now than last summer because all three men selected have exceled this season. Gibson was invited to the NHL All-Star game, and both Hellebuyck and Matt Murray got some games under their belt against the best in the World. The Jets goaltender string more than two dozen starts, and thus held the advantage to be the second name announced, but Murray’s first four presences were so impressive that no more scouting and evaluation was deemed necessary.

Team Canada

Out: RW Corey Perry, LW Brad Marchand, D Alex Pietrangelo
IN: C Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars), D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks), G Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks)

Forwards (10): Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins), John Tavares (NY Islanders), Jeff Carter (LA Kings)

Tyler Seguin will wear Canada’s colours for the first time on a best-on-best tournament.

Canada’s embarrassment of riches up front produces enough headaches just to trim down the group to 13 forwards, so imagine trying to pick only nine. I saw Crosby, Toews, Benn and Bergeron as locks, and Stamkos and Tavares were right behind alongside Perry, whose duo with Getzlaf is seldom broken. With so many centres in the mix and Perry’s slow start on the rear-view, his absence is head-scratching, but should be corrected in June. Getzlaf’s high standard of play over almost a decade was taken into account, while Jeff Carter was a hunch I was reasonably comfortable with. The LA Kings forward performed strongly at the 2014 Olympics on a depth role, and his speed, versatility, two-way ability and experience have always been greatly appreciated by every Canadian management group.

Tyler Seguin was overlooked in 2014 and, despite his outstanding offensive array, I thought they would overthink his selection and leave the decision for later, much in the same way it will happen with Claude Giroux. As for Marchand, his evolution from pest to one of the elite left wingers in the game has been so surprising that I wagered things would just keep going his way “off the ice”. It wasn’t meant to be and he’ll have to keep his hot streak going, because I believe he’s in direct competition with Taylor Hall for a spot.

Defenseman (4): Drew Doughty (LA Kings), Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues)

Doughty, Keith and Weber were seen as untouchables on Canada’s defence entering the 2014 Olympics and their importance stands, even if Weber’s slow decline has been well documented and he may no longer be an NHL top pairing D. Pietrangelo carried Jay Bouwmeester, his St. Louis Blues’ partner, to Sochi, and I thought that gave him an inside path, but it seems that Vlasic’s steadfast style caught more admires there. The Shark being a left defenseman, which balances the group of four, was also important on this equation.

Riskier options, like PK Subban, Kris Letang and Brent Burns, all righties, will have to wait a few months, while a third left-handed blueliner should be added, with Calgary’s duo of TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano in the mix.

Goalies (2): Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

The lack of details regarding Price’s mysterious injury are concerning, but at the end of the day he’s still the best goaltender in the planet, and nothing indicates there’s a chance he won’t be fully prepared to play in September. Holtby is the odds-on Vezina front-runner and the best man to backup the Canadiens’ reigning MVP, while Corey Crawford forced his way into the conversation with a stellar campaign for the Stanley Cup Champions. Even if Roberto Luongo wills the Florida Panthers to an unlikely Championship run, it won’t matter, since the Blackhawks’ goaltender convinced Team Canada’s management that he’s as essential as the other two.

Team USA

Out: C David Backes, C Brandon Dubinsky
IN: LW Justin Abdelkader (Detroit Red Wings), C Derek Stepan (NY Rangers)

Forwards (9): Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets), Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), Ryan Kesler (Anaheim Ducks), Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), David Backes (St. Louis Blues), Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals)

Team USA’s attack also encompassed a few slam-dunks (Kane, Pavelski, Parise) and others almost no one would contemplate to leave out, namely Pacioretty, in spite of being in the middle of a frustrating season in Montreal, and Kesler, whose effectiveness has slipped slightly over the last couple of years. Wheeler, one of the NHL’s most underappreciated offensive dynamos, belongs in that group, and his rise as the second best American right-wing pressed Phil Kessel into a corner where his pure goal-scoring prowess may be left at home, a foolish cogitation not too long ago.

Will “Little Joe” Pavelski also be named Team USA’s captain?

Backes and Dubinsky are just the type of rugged, physical two-way players John Tortorella loves, but I have to disclose that their inclusion on my list had less to do with that, as I didn’t remembered who the coach was, and more with the USA’s usual fascination with that kind of players. Just remember Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan’s presence in Sochi and the unexpected call up of Justin Abdelkader, whose experience complementing top players in Detroit was brought up as a basis for the selection.

I was unsure about Oshie’s early inclusion until I realized the shootouts will be there once again, while Derek Stepan is a safe choice to provide some centre depth that can chip in regular offense, something the American’s don’t have in spades. To fill out the group, some tough decisions will be made on the wings, where, besides Kessel, stand out the candidacies of James Van Riemsdyk (who may not play another game this season), Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo and Chris Kreider.

Meanwhile, Brandon Saad and Johnny Gaudreau would have been shoe-ins on this roster, but will have to settle for Team North America.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Ryan McDonagh (NY Rangers), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets)

Suter, Carlson and McDonagh formed the backbone of the American defence in Sochi and their place was never in doubt. Byfuglien’s impact every time he steps over the boards is so remarkable at both ends of the ice, that he just bullied his way to a spot and no one bat an eye. He’s not yet someone Tortorella will fully trust to defend a lead late, but his cannon shot and strength cannot be ignored like happened in Sochi, when the USA could have used a catalyst of change during the showdown with Canada.

There’s also a balance between lefties and righties on this top four, and, if five blueliners were appointed, Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes) was the next man up. I’m confident the veteran Paul Martin, still playing top-line minutes in San Jose, won’t be neglected, with the seventh spot turning into a bloodbath for a plethora of names, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, Erik Johnson, Matt Niskanen, Jake Gardiner, Keith Yandle..

Goalies (3): Cory Schneider (New Jersey Devils), Jonathan Quick (LA Kings), Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning)

With so many teams naming three goalies, at least it wasn’t the only one I thought would do it to buck the trend. Quick and Schneider, two goalies that interpret the position in entirely different ways, will continue to push the envelopes for their teams in hopes of securing the starting spot, while Bishop, despite being in the middle of a career-season, departs a step below. Quick, a third-string goalie in Vancouver 2010 and the leading man in Sochi 2014, may get the nod, but Schneider’s numbers are better across the board since he was elevated to top status in New Jersey.

Final Record: 105/128 ≈ 82%