The 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship figures to be another compelling 11-day journey for 10 countries seeking national pride.
The 2015 WJC in Toronto offered plenty of high drama, but Canada came away dominant, winning seven straight games while outscoring the opposition 39-9. The Canadians possessed the depth, speed, shutdown defense and chemistry required in any international tournament run.
It was a long time coming for Canada too. After a two-year hiatus on the medal stand and questions about the selection process for its national junior team, Canadians were able to celebrate the first gold medal-winning effort in six years following a 5-4 victory against Russia in the championship game.
It was the 16th gold medal in the country's history at the tournament and first since 2009.
Former NHL player Dave Lowry will look to maintain the level of excellence as coach for Canada at the 2016 WJC in Helsinki, Finland. Lowry was an assistant under coach Benoit Groulx for the 2015 WJC, so he's familiar with building a national power.
"If you're playing with the puck, you give yourself a chance to win," Lowry said. "The big thing is we want to be a fast team, but we want to be a team that has four lines that can not only score, but they have to be responsible when they don't have the puck."
Canada will play in Group A with the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark, at the 8,200-seat Helsinki Ice Hall. The Group B field includes Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Belarus out of Hartwall Arena, which seats 13,349.
Here are 12 things to look for during the 2016 WJC that begins Saturday and concludes with the gold-medal game at Hartwall Arena on Jan. 5, 2016, at 1:30 p.m. ET.
Canada aided by top Maple Leafs' prospects
Toronto Maple Leafs prospects Mitch Marner and Travis Dermott are expected to play a big role for Canada. Marner, selected in the first round (No. 4) in the 2015 NHL Draft, is expected to do it all on the top line with Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes). Marner, who won a gold medal for Canada at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, has 22 goals and 58 points in 25 games for London in the Ontario Hockey League. On defense, Dermott, taken in the second round (No. 34) of the 2015 draft, has 25 assists and 27 points in 29 games for Erie (OHL). He's an intelligent two-way player who doesn't force plays, but knows when to take chances.
The top 2016 NHL Draft-eligible prospect at the WJC
United States center Auston Matthews of Scottsdale, Ariz., will be the focal point of every scout in attendance. Matthews has spent the season playing for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland's top professional league, so he's accustomed to the big ice and the space it will afford him. "You want to personally play well, but in the end it's all about coming home with hardware, and that's really the only option when it comes to this tournament," Matthews said. "You have to put your personal pride aside and do whatever you can to help the team win."
Can the United States succeed under Ron Wilson?
The U.S. is looking to improve on disappointing back-to-back fifth-place finishes after winning gold at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia. Hoping to bring some pride back to the country will be Wilson, who will be coaching his first WJC event. The players consider Wilson a laid-back type, with great composure and know-how on the bench. He's surrounded himself with top assistants, including U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Chris Chelios, USA Hockey's National Team Development Program coach Danton Cole and USNTDP goalie coach Kevin Reiter.
The country with most experience
William Nylander (Maple Leafs), who led all American Hockey League players in scoring for the Toronto Marlies with 34 points in 27 games prior to leaving for Finland, is one of 12 players from Sweden that played in the 2015 WJC. Joining him are goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders), defensemen Sebastian Aho, Andreas Englund (Ottawa Senators), Gustav Forsling (Vancouver Canucks) and William Lagesson (Edmonton Oilers), and forwards Christoffer Ehn (Detroit Red Wings), Axel Holmstrom (Red Wings), Anton Karlsson (Coyotes), Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings), Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia Flyers) and Jens Looke (Coyotes).
Forces in Finland
Finland coach Jukka Jalonen will have four of the most dynamic players in the tournament at his disposal in wingers Mikko Rantanen (6-foot-3, 216), Kasperi Kapanen (6-0, 179), Jesse Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) and Patrik Laine (6-4, 206). Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche) has 10 goals and 24 points in 20 games for San Antonio in the American Hockey League, and Kapanen (Maple Leafs via trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins) has five goals and 10 points in 17 games for Toronto in the AHL. Puljujarvi and Laine are A-rated prospects on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft. Puljujarvi has five goals, 12 points and 90 shots on goal in 31 games for Karpat. Laine has eight goals, 16 points and 136 shots in 24 games for Tappara.
The top five point-scorers in the Ontario Hockey League will be starring in this year's tournament: Christian Dvorak (65 points), Matthew Tkachuk (59 points) and Alex DeBrincat (56 points) of the United States; and Marner (58 points) and Strome (53 points) of Canada.
Brothers join forces for Sweden
Center - TOR
Goals: - | Assists: - | Pts: -
Shots: - | +/-: -
William and Alexander Nylander will get a rare opportunity to combine their efforts for the first time in their playing careers on an international level when they play for Sweden. William, almost two years older than his brother, was selected by the Maple Leafs in the first round (No. 8) in 2014 and has spent the past two seasons in the AHL. Alexander, an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list, has 21 goals and 49 points in 33 games for Mississauga in the OHL. "To be able to play with my brother would be just amazing," Alexander Nylander said. "It's something I dream of, actually."
The last time the Czech Republic medaled at the tournament was 2005, when it won bronze in North Dakota. The country is led this year by forward Pavel Zacha (New Jersey Devils) and defenseman Jakub Zboril (Boston Bruins), each first-round picks in 2015. The top 2016 draft-eligible prospect is left wing Simon Stransky, an A-rated prospect on Central Scouting's November players to watch list.
'Bragin' about Russia
Russian national junior team coach Valeri Bragin will be behind the bench at the WJC for a fifth time. As one of the most successful international coaches in recent years, the 59-year-old led Russia to a gold medal in 2011 and silver medals in 2005, 2012 and 2015. He also won a gold medal at the 2004 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Russia will play against Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Belarus at Hartwall Arena during the preliminary round. Russia's team features four players selected in the first round in 2015: forwards Evgeny Svechnikov (Red Wings) and Denis Gurianov (Dallas Stars), defenseman Ivan Provorov (Flyers) and goaltender Ilya Samsonov (Washington Capitals).
The Slovaks earned their first medal since 1999 when they took home bronze at the 2015 WJC, due in large part to 5-11, 176-pound left-handed goalie Denis Godla, who faced the most shots (242) and made the most saves (224) in the tournament. This year, defenseman Erik Cernak (Kings) and goaltender Adam Huska (New York Rangers) will be at the forefront. Huska is 11-6-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in 17 games for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League.
Belarusian big man
Belarus won the WJC Division I tournament last year to earn its promotion into the top tier, but the country isn't expected to contend for a medal. Still, fans won't miss 2016 draft-eligible defenseman Stepan Falkovsky, a C-rated skater on Central Scouting's November players to watch list. At 6-7, 224, Falkovsky will be on the radar of many scouts in attendance. He has seven goals, 17 points and a plus-10 rating in 32 games for the Ottawa 67's in the OHL.
Left wing Nikolaj Ehlers will not represent Denmark this year because he's performing so well with the Winnipeg Jets as a rookie. His cousin, Alexander True (6-5, 194), will look to pick up the slack. True, considered a skilled, playmaking forward, has 10 goals (five power-play goals) and 19 points in his second season in the Western Hockey League for the Seattle Thunderbirds. He is eligible for the 2016 draft, so a solid showing could go a long way to possibly being considered by an NHL team in the later rounds in June.