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2007 Karjala Cup attracting wider attention

by Bill Meltzer

Free-agent center Peter Forsberg was slated to play for the Karjala Cup for Team Sweden, but ongoing problems with his right foot forced him to withdraw.

The road to the IIHF World Championships is dotted with several smaller international hockey tournaments held during the European club-team regular season. The participating national teams can evaluate non-NHL players who may earn roster spots at the Worlds, test out line combinations and give players with less international experience a taste of what to expect.

Now in its 11th year, the Karjala Cup is a mainstay on the international hockey calendar. Held each November in Helsinki, the four-team tournament is named for its sponsor, a brand of Finnish beer, manufactured by the Hartwall beverage company (which also lends its name to tournament venue, Hartwall Areena).

The 2007 installment of the Karjala Cup will take place from Nov. 8-11. The usually low-key tournament involving Finland, Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic has attracted much wider attention than normal, especially in North America and Sweden.

The reason: Free-agent center Peter Forsberg was slated to play for Team Sweden, but he had to withdraw because of ongoing problems with his surgically reconstructed right foot. Forsberg, 34, admitted that his hockey future may be in jeopardy.

Speaking to the media in Sweden Monday, Forsberg said; “I felt almost immediately that this wasn't going to work. The foot still hurts too much, and it is the same reoccurring problem. … I am really sorry to everyone that has come here for my sake and everyone who bought tickets, but this won't work. I have embarrassed myself enough the last few years.”

While the Forsberg saga has overshadowed the tournament itself, there still are several intriguing subplots that will play out at Hartwall Areena over the next few days.

Finns look to rebound

Finland has dominated the Karjala Cup for the vast majority of the tournament’s history. In the first 11 tournaments (there were two separate legs of the Karjala Cup during the 2002-03 season), the Finns have won nine times.

Last year, however, the host nation fell flat. Team Finland scored just four goals and won once in three games (a 2-1 victory over the Czechs), while finishing last in the four-team field. The disappointment was temporary, as the Finns later grabbed the silver medal at the IIHF World Championships while knocking off gold-medal favorite Russia.

This year’s Karjala Cup roster for Team Finland is loaded with players familiar to NHL fans, with 12 former NHL players on the Finns’ roster, including goaltender Jussi Markkanen, and starting defensemen Janne Niinimaa, Ossi Vaananen (Väänänen in Finnish), Antti-Jussi Niemi and Mikko Lehtonen.

Up front, the Finns will look for offensive contributions from the likes of former NHLer Jani Rita (32 goals for Jokerit Helsinki last season, seven goals and 14 points in 20 games this season), former Colorado Avalanche forward Riku Hahl (now with Timrå IK in Sweden, and third in Elitserien with 18 points in 14 games), European league veteran Ville Leino (29 points in 20 SM-Liiga games for Jokerit Helsinki), and ex-NHLer Tommi Santala (20 points in 20 games for Jokerit).

Nineteen-year-old Washington Capitals prospect Oskar Osala (fourth round, 2006 Entry Draft) is the only player under the age of 24 on Team Finland’s roster. Now with the Espoo Blues of SM-Liiga, the 6-foot-4, 222-pound left wing earned his way onto the veteran-laden roster by totaling six goals and 15 points in his first 18 games this season.

While former Edmonton Oilers goaltender Markkanen is the better-known of Finland’s goaltenders in the tournament, Pelicans Lahti keeper Antti Niemi has had a tremendous season so far. Not only has he helped backstop his club to first place, the 24-year-old goalie leads the SM-Liiga in save percentage (.946), and ranks near the top of most other major goaltending categories.

Russians remain dangerous

This time a year ago, the Russian national team seemed destined to end the international season by breaking its gold-medal drought at the IIHF World Championships, which stretches back to 1993.

At the 2006 Karjala Cup tournament, the Russians sent a message to the other European clubs by scoring 11 goals in three games and going undefeated in the tournament. Ultimately, Russia cruised through the preliminary rounds of the 2007 World Championships in Moscow before being stunned by Finland in the semifinals and settling for a bronze medal.

In last year’s Karjala tourney, former Ottawa Senators left wing Petr Schastlivy did much of the damage for Russia, scoring four goals in the tournament, including a late-game goal against the Czechs that forced overtime in a game Russia ultimately won in a shootout. Schastlivy, who has not played this season for CSKA Moscow, is not on this year’s Russian roster.

An even bigger absence is that of prolific-scoring Ak Bars Kazan right wing Alexei Morozov. The former Pittsburgh Penguins forward, who once again leads the Russian Super League (RSL) in scoring with 13 goals and 27 points through 24 games, will not be in Helsinki. Neither will his linemate, Danis Zaripov (eight goals, 26 points), but center Sergei Zinovjev (limited to 14 games so far, with 14 assists and 16 points) will play.

Defenseman Janne Niinimaa, who spent
ten seasons in the NHL, is one of twelve
former NHL players on Finland's roster.

The Ak Bars also are heavily represented on Russia’s blue line. Defensemen and Montreal Canadiens draftee Alexei Emelin, former Thrashers prospect Ilya Nikulin, and offensive-minded Evgeni Medvedev (six goals, 17 points, 57 PIM) will all be there.

The top team in the RSL this season has been Salavat Yulaev Ufa. The club is heavily represented on Russia’s Karjala Cup roster, with no fewer than five players on the roster. Ufa’s leading scorer, former Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Vladimir Antipov (seven goals, 18 points), former Montreal Canadiens forward Alexander Perezhogin (six goals 14 points in 18 games), and one-time Dallas Stars prospect Alexei Tereschenko (six goals, 17 points in 22 games) are there, along with 23-year-old defenseman Andrei Kuteikin and veteran goaltender Alexander Eremenko.

Among the sprinkling of youngsters on the roster, the most notable are Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nikolai Kulemin and Washington Capitals goaltending hopeful Semen (Simeon) Varlamov. Kulemin has emerged over the last two seasons as one of the top, young offensive players in Europe. He has scored 12 goals and 17 points to date for defending champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Varlamov, 19, has played well recently for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (2.43 GAA, .903 save percentage, one shutout) but is likely to play a backup role at the tournament in Helsinki.

Other players of note on the Russian roster include former Columbus Blue Jackets draftee Sergei Mozyakin (the Khimik Moscow forward is third in the RSL with 13 goals and 24 points), former NHLer Oleg Saprykin (14 goals, 22 points for CKSA Moscow), former NHLer Fedor Fedorov (seven goals, 14 points for Dynamo Moscow) and former New Jersey Devils prospect Anton But (10 points for SKA St. Petersburg).

Sweden does some experimenting

Peter Forsberg isn’t the only familiar name who won’t be wearing the Three Crowns (Tre Kronor) in Helsinki. Several other Team Sweden mainstays also are absent, including Färjestads BK forward Jörgen Jönsson (who holds the record for the most national team matches played for Sweden) and Frölunda Indians defenseman Ronnie Sundin.

There still are a host of Team Sweden veterans on the roster, including former New York Islanders defenseman Kenny Jönsson of Rögle BK, Elitserien leading scorer and former Anaheim Ducks forward Tony Mårtensson of Linköpings HC, veteran Frölunda Indians forward Magnus Kahnberg, former Minnesota Wild forward Rickard Wallin of Färjestad, goaltender Stefan Liv of HV-71 Jönköping and Modo Hockey defenseman Per Hållberg. But Team Sweden head coach Bengt-Åke Gustavsson and General Manager Mats Näslund have worked some newer players into the mix for the Karjala tourney.

It is not surprising that Nashville Predators prospect Patric Hörnqvist of Djurgårdens IF made the roster despite a somewhat slow offensive start this season. But the inclusion of 22-year-old Södertälje SK right wing Linus Videll (six goals, 10 points in 17 games) was somewhat unexpected. Videll was a 2003 seventh-round draft pick of Colorado. Another youngster chosen from last-place Södertälje was highly regarded 19-year-old Buffalo Sabres goaltending prospect Jhonas Enroth (2.16 GAA, .925 save percentage in 11 starts). While Enroth is slated to back up Liv, his inclusion on the roster shows how high the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation (Svenska Ishockey Förbundet) is on his potential.

Former NHL forward Vaclav Varada, now with HC Davos in Switzerland, will compete for the Czech Republic.

Martin Thörnberg, a left wing for HV-71 Jönköping, was a member of Team Sweden at the 2007 World Championships (scoring a pair of goals), but until recently was not a regular member of the national team. The 24-year-old has solidified his Tre Kronor spot this season by posting 17 points (including six goals) and a plus-10 rating in 17 games this season to place sixth on Elitserien scoring charts (third among native Swedes).

On a Team Sweden roster that seems to be a bit thin on scoring punch, players like Thörnberg, former NHLer Johan Davidsson (five goals, 14 points in 14 games with HV-71 and the top Swedish goal-scorer at last year’s Karjala Cup), Frölunda’s Kahnberg (six goals, 13 points in 17 games) and former New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild right wing Mattias Weinhandl (10 goals in 16 games for Linköping) will have to come through. The Swedes also will need some contributions from the blue line.

Last year, the Swedes finished third in the tournament, winning a 1-0 decision over their Finnish archrivals, but they gave up a combined 10 goals in losses to Russia and the Czech Republic. When Tre Kronor is at its best, it plays strong team defense.

Czechs feature veteran-heavy look

The overall quality of the Czech Extraliga has suffered in recent years with the exodus of young talent to the North American junior and minor leagues and the inability of most Czech teams to compete financially with the offers clubs in Russia, Switzerland and Sweden make to established Czech veterans.

These trends are reflected on the Team Czech Republic roster for the Karjala Cup. The Czechs will have 12 players who are playing elsewhere in Europe this season -- five in Sweden, four in Russia, two in Switzerland and one in Finland.

North American fans should be familiar with many of the Czech players who spent time in the NHL. The Czech Roster has plenty of experience, and not much youth. There are only two players under the age of 25 on the squad, compared with seven who are at least 30, and another two who will celebrate their 30th birthdays before the end of the 2007-08 season.

The Czech roster features the likes of Vaclav Varada (now with HC Davos in Switzerland), Josef Melichar (now playing for Linköping in Sweden after starting the season with Czech club HC Ceske Budejovice), Jan Bulis (now with Khimik in Russia), HC Pardubice’s Petr Sykora (formerly a member of the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals), former Los Angeles Kings right wing Jaroslav Bednar (HC Slavia Prague) HC Trinec defenseman Vlastimil Kroupa, former Colorado Avalanche first-round pick Vaclav Nedorost (HC Vitkovice), Tomas Zizka (Slavia Prague) and goaltender Milan Hnilicka (HC Bili Tygri Liberec).

Five of the top eight scorers in the Czech Extraliga this season made the roster, including Sykora (16 goals and 19 points in 18 games), Liberec’s Leos Cermak (11 goals, 19 points), Slavia’s Roman Cervenka (11 goals, 11 points, 44 penalty minutes), Bednar (nine goals, 16 points), and former Washington Capitals prospect Viktor Hübl (eight goals, 16 points). Zizka (seven points, plus-17 in 18 games) will be counted on to anchor the Czech defense.

The youngest players on the Czech roster are defenseman Josef Hrabal and right wing Roman Cervenka, both 23. Hrabal, an eighth-round Edmonton Oilers pick in the 2003 draft, has played with Russian team Severstal Cherepovets the last two seasons, showing some of the offensive promise he displayed during his time at home with HC Vsetin. Cervenka, who has scored 11 goals this season for Slavia, was a prolific scorer at the Czech junior levels and has blossomed in the Extraliga this season.

One notable omission from the Czech roster at this year’s Karjala Cup is former NHLer Pavel Brendl, who has played in Sweden the last two seasons. The high-scoring (at least in Europe and the WHL) former first round pick played at Karjala, but won’t be playing for head coach Alois Hadamczik’s squad this go-round.

Last year, the Czechs opened the tourney with a 5-4 win over the Swedes but came within one second of being shut out by Finland in a 2-1 loss (Josef Straka scored a meaningless goal at the 19:59 mark of the third period), and then dropped a 3-2 heartbreaker to Russia in a shootout. The Czechs led 2-1 with less than two minutes to play but were unable to protect the lead, as Petr Schastlivy forced overtime and Nikolai Kulemin scored the winner in the shootout.


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