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World Championship Underway

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Beginning on Friday in eastern Canada, hockey teams representing 16 nations will begin vying for the 2008 IIHF World Championship. Among the players playing for their respective countries in the tournament are 11 players whose NHL playing rights currently belong to the Washington Capitals.

Eight teams will play in two pools of four teams in each of two co-host cities, Quebec City and Halifax. Group A is based in Quebec City and consists of Sweden, Switzerland, Belarus and France. Group D is also based in Quebec City and consists of the Czech Republic, Russia, Denmark and Italy.

Group B is based in Halifax and is comprised of Canada, the United States, Latvia and Slovenia. Group C will also play its preliminary round games in Halifax. Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Norway are the four teams in Group C.

At the close of the tournament, the top nine teams in the IIHF World Ranking will receive automatic berths in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The three remaining Olympics berths will be contested in qualification tournaments in the fall of 2008 and/or Feb. 2009. A total of 12 teams will skate for Olympic gold at Vancouver in 2010.

Here’s a quick overview of the teams in the upcoming World Championship tournament:

Group A
Sweden is usually among the powers in the international hockey spectrum. It has won nine World Championships, it won the gold as recently as 2006 and has medaled in five of the last seven years. Former Caps great Bengt Gustafsson is behind the bench for Sweden; he coached the team to gold in 2006 and helped the Swedish national team to Olympic gold the same year.

Gustafsson has a bare bones roster with which to work this spring, and a medal would be a great accomplishment for the Swedes. Phoenix Coyotes backup goaltender Mikael Tellqvist is the likely netminder for Team Sweden. The Swedish blueline is led by ex-NHL defenseman Kenny Jonsson and includes NHLers Anton Stralman (Toronto), Magnus Johansson (Florida), Alexander Edler (Vancouver) and Nicklas Wallin (Carolina).

Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom – a 20-year-old Calder Trophy nominee – has the highest profile of all the Swedish forwards. Along with Marcus Nilson (Calgary) and Robert Nilsson (Edmonton), Backstrom is one of just three forwards on the Swedish roster who played in the NHL last season. The Swedes do have a handful of players with some previous NHL experience.

Switzerland boasts two NHL goaltenders in Ottawa’s Martin Gerber and Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller. Those are the only two players on Switzerland’s roster who played in the NHL last season.

The Swiss team also features Caps forward prospect Peter Guggisberg, a 23-year-old winger whom the Capitals chose with their sixth-round pick (166th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Guggisberg had 11 goals and a career high 20 points for Davos of the Swiss League in 2007-08.

The Swiss team is led on the ice by 37-year-old center Paul DiPietro, a former NHLer who scored eight playoff goals for the 1993 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. Winnipeg-born Ralph Krueger has coached the Swiss National team for a decade now, and he has coached the team to some stunning upsets in that time. Even so, the Swiss will be longshots for a medal.

Belarus is led by former Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser, and ex-Caps bench boss Glan Hanlon serves as an assistant. Hanlon coached the Belarus entry in this tournament in both 2005 and 2006. Hanlon guided Belarus to a sixth-place finish at the Worlds in 2006, the best showing in the nation’s history in this tournament. Without a single NHL player on its roster, the Belarus entry will be hard-pressed to approach the lofty height to which Hanlon led them in 2006.

France is represented by Caps goaltender Cristobal Huet, who tended goal for his country in both the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Coming off the busiest season of his NHL career, Huet will be getting his first taste of World Championship hockey. France also features ex-NHL forward Sebastien Bordeleau, whose 22 goals were tied for seventh in the Swiss League in 2007-08.

Sweden is the best team in the Group on paper, but a case for an upset could be made by any of the other three Group A entrants.

Group B
Team USA will be bidding for its first international championship of any kind since it won the 1996 World Cup. Team USA has been team turnover in recent years, as it tries to change a graying roster into a green one before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

The 23 skaters for the 2004 Team USA entry in the World Cup of Hockey averaged 33 years of age, and included ancients such as Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch. Mathieu Schneider and Brett Hull. That group of 23 skaters had accumulated 17,135 regular season NHL games worth of experience, an average of 745 per player. Despite its experience, that team went 1-2 in North American pool play and was 2-3 in the tournament overall.

The Team USA squad assembled for this spring’s World Championships is decidedly younger. Ex-Cap Jeff Halpern – the captain of the team – is the oldest player on the roster at age 32. Halpern is five years older than any other skater on the roster, and he is also the only player who also skated for Team USA in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey who will wear the red, white and blue in Halifax. With 597 NHL games played, Halpern has nearly twice as much experience as the next most experienced skater (New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin has 305).

Despite its youth, the American team is skilled. Eight of its forwards scored 20 or more goals in the NHL in 2007-08, led by Dustin Brown’s 33. The 20 Team USA skaters average 24 years of age and just 186 games of NHL experience. If they get good enough goaltending from Tim Thomas (Boston), Craig Anderson (Florida) and Robert Esche (Ak Bars Kazan in the Russian Super League), Team USA could come away with a medal. More likely, they’ll bank some international experience in preparation for Vancouver.

Canada is the defending champ of the tournament and the class of Group B. The Canadians have won gold in three of the last five Worlds and they’ve medaled in four of the last five. The Canadians took the gold for the 24th time last spring; that’s one more than the U.S.S.R./Russia has managed in its history.

Carolina’s Cam Ward backstopped Canada to the gold in Moscow in 2007, and he’ll be back in 2008. Ward is joined by Pascal Leclaire of Columbus and Mathieu Garon of Edmonton in the Team Canada nets.

Caps blueliner Mike Green, Phoenix veteran Ed Jovanovski, Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester, Minnesota’s Brent Burns and Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis highlight a deep and diverse group of defensemen that no other team in the tournament can match.

Team Canada left wing Rick Nash was the MVP of last year’s tournament, and he was a dominant force throughout. Nash will be on this year’s roster, too, but he is recovering from minor throat surgery and may not be tip-top this spring. With Derek Roy (Buffalo), Patrick Sharp (Chicago), Eric Staal (Carolina), Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza (Ottawa), Shane Doan (Phoenix), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim) and Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay), the Canadians have plenty of scoring depth behind Nash.

The Canadian roster for the preliminary round is composed exclusively of NHL players. Blue Jackets bench boss Ken Hitchcock is the head coach.

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