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Canada considered favorite to win World Juniors

by Adam Kimelman /
The 2009 World Junior Championship is being billed as Canada's "Drive for Five." And, as the host nation, the Canadians will be the favorite in the tournament, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Ottawa.

"People I talk to think this roster is as good or better than any they've had in the last five years," said Dave Starman, who will be part of the NHL Network broadcast crew that will televise the games.

Part of that roster strength comes from the four players returning from last year's gold-medal winners -- forwards John Tavares and Zack Boychuk, and defensemen P.K. Subban and Thomas Hickey, this year's captain.

"(Michigan hockey coach) Red Berenson used to say you're never going to be a good team without good seniors," said Starman. "Canada has guys that have won gold medals; those are their good seniors."

Another senior that helps Canada is coach Pat Quinn. Quinn is fourth all-time in NHL games coached (1,316) and wins (657), has won a pair of  Jack Adams awards and coached two teams to the Stanley Cup Final.

"Everyone is in love with the fact that Pat Quinn is running this team," said Starman. "Quinn always has had this knock that he doesn't work well with young players. But when I've spoken with people in Hockey Canada, he took this job … to show NHL people he could work with prospects. He's out to show a lot of people he can work with young kids in a high-pressure situation."

So can any team derail the host nation's quest for a fifth-straight gold medal? It will be tough, but Starman believes there are a few clubs that could serve as more than speed bumps for the Canadian Express.

"I think the Swedes have a pretty good team," he said. "After watching them against Canada the other night (a 4-2 Canada win in an exhibition game), I think they can skate with them.

"I think you'll see the U.S. play in the final four because they're deep. I think the Russians have a pretty good team. After that, it's kind of up in the air. Some say they like the Czechs, but nobody knows what they can do yet. The Finns are always a really good skating team, but do they have the depth in the third or fourth lines or fifth and sixth defensemen to skate with an elite team? You're looking at the U.S., Canada, Sweden and I think Russia has an outside chance."

Which team will bring home the ultimate prize? handicaps the tournament.



The Skinny:
The centerpiece of Canada's team will be John Tavares, one of four players who won gold at last year's event. Coach Pat Quinn already has Tavares penciled in as the top-line center, and he'll be expected to perform like one. He had 4 goals in a somewhat limited role last year; this year, he'll be the player other teams gear up to stop.

The Canadians lack a traditional big forward, but they certainly have size on the back end, led by 6-foot-6 Keith Aulie and 6-7 Tyler Myers.

The injury bug hit Canada before the tournament, as Dana Tyrell, who likely was going to play on a line with Tavares, was knocked out with a knee injury; he was replaced by Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane. Depth, though, shouldn't be an issue for the Canadians, who could field a competitive B team for this tournament.

Player to watch: Cody Hodgson captained Canada's entry at the 2008 Under-18 World Championship to the gold medal, where he made quite the impression on Pat Quinn, who coached that team. "He's a special young man and he had a lot to do with our success," Quinn told the Web site for Hodgson's junior team, the Brampton Battalion. "I've had a lot of guys a lot older than him who don't conduct themselves like he does. We played him against the other teams' top lines and he didn't leave us short in any area."

2009 Draft-eligible players: Tavares can cement his standing at the top of the 2009 Draft board with a big tournament. Defenseman Ryan Ellis, fourth in the Ontario Hockey League in scoring, will be a power-play specialist.

X Factor: Jamie Benn is third in the Western Hockey League with 24 goals in 27 games for the Kelowna Rockets. The left wing could slide into Tyrell's spot next to Tavares. Said Starman: "(He) can snipe. … Benn's got a great wrist shot."

Canada will win if: They don't get outmuscled by bigger teams. Benn (6-1, 202 pounds) and Patrice Cormier (6-1, 201) are the team's two biggest forwards, which puts them at a disadvantage against a team like the U.S., which has five forwards 6-1 or taller, and three weighing in at above 210 pounds. Of Canada's lack of size, Starman said, "I don't think it's a huge factor, but when you're playing a professional schedule, seven games in 11 nights, those big bodies might hold up better."


The skinny: The Czech national junior program has been in a state of disarray for much of the current decade, winning just one medal -- a bronze in 2005 -- in the last seven years, and they've finished fifth for two-straight years.
A mass exodus of top and mid-range prospects to Canadian junior teams has created a situation where the players often play like strangers when they suit up for the national team. Coach Marek Sykora faces the challenge of getting his squad to jell and play consistent hockey.

With Jakub Voracek playing in the NHL for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the task this year got that much tougher. Players such as Columbus prospect Tomas Kubalik and Tomas Knotek will have to fill the gap. The Czech team's biggest asset on paper is its experienced group of puck-moving defenseman.

Players to watch:
Big things have been expected from Phoenix Coyotes prospect Vladimir Ruzicka, because of his size and his famous family name. When he's focused and motivated, Ruzicka, the son of former NHLer Rosie Ruzicka, has the natural skill level to be a high-end offensive talent. On the back line, Carolina Hurricanes prospect Michal Jordan will see extensive ice time for the Czech squad, as well defensive defenseman Tomas Kundratek, a New York Rangers prospect.

2009 Draft-eligible players:
Right wing Tomas Vincour has NHL-caliber size and skating ability. The 18-year-old currently is tied for third on the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings with 13 goals.

X Factor: Goaltender Dominik Furch is capable of stealing games for the Czech team. Like many Czech goalies, his style is sometimes unorthodox, but the Slavia Prague netminder can get on a roll and make spectacular saves.

Czech Republic will win if: The team can grab some early leads and force opposing teams into mistakes. The Czechs like to play a skating game and know how to bury chances when they get odd-man rushes. When playing the medal favorites, the Czechs cannot afford to beat themselves. They've usually been competitive in the medal round but have only won one medal (a bronze in 2005) in the last seven years.


The skinny:
In recent years, Germany has yo-yoed between the elite level World Junior Championship and Division I. The team's goal this year is to avoid relegation. Nevertheless, the Germans make for a dangerous opponent for any team that takes them too lightly.

The Germans were relegated two years ago, but not before they shocked the U.S. in overtime in the opening game, beat Slovakia and hung close to Canada for 30 minutes. The current squad is capable of similar upsets. Coach Ernst Hofner's lineup features a handful of players from the Canadian junior ranks and several returning players from last year's squad that dominated the Division I tournament.

Starman compared the Germans to the 1995 Stanley Cup champs.

"Everybody pooh-poohs Germany, but they're like the '95 Devils," he said. "They try to jump on team's mistakes. People think Germany could be the next great young haven for players. They have as good a chance as anybody."

Players to watch: The Germans boast a fine goaltender in San Jose Sharks prospect Timo Pielmeier, voted the best goaltender of last year's Division I WJC. He has more than held his own this season in the high-scoring QMJHL, posting 18 wins and a 2.47 goals-against average. Left wing Toni Ritter is effective when he uses his size to his advantage; he posted 5 points in his first 10 QMJHL games after joining Montreal from a German second-division team.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Right wing Daniel Weiss tallied 4 goals at the Under-18 World Championship earlier this year. The 18-year-old plays against men with Eisbaren Berlin in the DEL (Germany's top pro league).

X Factor: Toronto Maple Leafs draftee Jerome Flaake dominated the German junior ranks before moving to the Cologne Sharks of the DEL, and he was a standout in last year's Division I tournament, posting 9 points and a plus-5 in five games.

Germany will win if: Pielmeier holds his team close in games and other teams underestimate the German's capabilities. Germany usually gets out-chanced, but rarely gets outworked or intimidated. The Germans have little to no chance of winning a medal, but are capable of avoiding relegation this time around.


The skinny:
Last year virtually every pundit slated newly promoted Kazakhstan for relegation to Division I. Instead, the Kazakhs held their place in the elite level, shocking favored Switzerland and downing Denmark. 

"Everyone is in love with the fact that Pat Quinn is running this team. Quinn always has had this knock that he doesn't work well with young players. But when I've spoken with people in Hockey Canada, he took this job … to show NHL people he could work with prospects. He's out to show a lot of people he can work with young kids in a high-pressure situation."
-- Dave Starman, NHL Network announcer

While it's not impossible for the Kazakhs to duplicate last year's feat, coach Oleg Bolyakin's roster has seen a lot of key players age out of qualifying for the tournament. Nevertheless, most of the players are familiar with playing together. The Kazzinc Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk program produces the vast majority of national-team caliber talent from Kazakhstan, and most of the skaters came up together in the Torpedo system.

Player to watch: The coach's son, Evgeny Bolyakin, is one of the team's best players. A returning member of last year's surprising Kazakh entry, Bolyakin will play in all situations. Torpedo forward Yakov Vorobiev, who played five games with the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League, is one of the senior members of the team and will be counted on to provide offensive punch and stability.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Offensive defenseman Leonid Metalnikov was bypassed in the 2008 Draft but could work his way into the draft picture with a strong tournament. Although small (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), Metalnikov moves the puck effectively and has potential to produce points. He had 3 goals and 6 points at the 2008 Division I Under-18 World Championship.

X Factor: Konstantin Savenkov, an 18-year-old forward, cracked the Kazakh roster last year and scored a goal during the tournament. As a returning player, the Torpedo forward will play a more central role this time around.

Kazakhstan will win if:
The squad grabs a point or two in the preliminary round by holding opponents to regulation ties and winning outright in matches against the other relegation candidates. The blueprint already is in place from last year, and Kazakhstan is playing with little pressure.

United States

The Skinny:
The U.S. roster is stocked with big, fast, physical, offensively gifted players, and coach Ron Rolston has crafted an attacking style which he believes best fits his team.

"When you look at the USA roster and how it's constructed, they have unbelievable speed, especially on the back end," said Starman. "In a tournament like this, where you're going to fight for space, when you have a guy that jumps into open ice, they have guys that can manufacture opportunities and manufacture goals."

The key will be figuring out when to go full-force and when to pull back on the throttle.

"The overall factor for them is picking their spots offensively," Starman said. "They're so skilled offensively. The challenge for them is protecting a 2-1 lead, being able to shut it down defensively when all they want to do is go, go, go. I think if they find that balance they could win the whole thing."

Players to watch: Mike Hoeffel and Jim O'Brien are big forwards with the ability to skate and contribute offensively. "They're big, strong, power forward-type guys," said Starman. "If a Colin Wilson or a James van Riemsdyk get hurt, you can take a kid like Hoeffel or O'Brien and move them into that (top-line) role."

2009 Draft-eligible players: Jordan Schroeder is the top-rated college player and a probable top-10 draft pick in June. Said Starman, who also is the top college hockey analyst for CBS College Sports Network: "Schroeder is by far the best passer in college hockey. In a dark room he could get a pass tape to tape."

X Factor: Matt Rust will be the U.S. team's top penalty killer and defensive forward. "He's a great penalty killer, a great shut-down forward," said Starman. "He's got great foot speed and skills; he can turn around a game killing a penalty. He's an offensive threat in a defensive situation."

The U.S. will win if: They get good goaltending. On a team that plans on playing an up-tempo, attacking style, the combination of Josh Unice and Thomas McCollum will have to make some big saves. "They've got two kids with great pedigrees," said Starman. "Unice has won an OHL championship and played in a Memorial Cup. He's proven he can carry the mail. McCollum is a high (NHL) draft pick. I think McCollum has a great economy of motion, pretty even-keeled. If those two kids do what they're supposed to do (the U.S. can win)."



The skinny:
Coming off a silver medal at last year’s World Junior Championship, Sweden enters the 2009 tournament as a medal favorite. The roster will have several key contributors from last year returning, while also featuring more depth (at least on paper) than many "Junior Crowns" entries of the past decade.

The team also features one of the world's top goaltending prospects in Jacob Markstrom, a 2008 second-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers. At just 18, he's already established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the Swedish Elite League.

"There's a lot of confidence on our team, but of course it's a very tough competition," said head coach Par Marts. "In a short tournament, you can't afford a letdown." 

The hallmark of a Swedish team is its speed and two-way play. The big question is depth and how the team responds to an opponent that plays a physical, in-your-face style. Last year, a well-balanced Swedish team beat Canada once and gave it all it could handle in the gold-medal game. The same could happen again.

Players to watch: Forwards Oscar Moller, Joakim Andersson, Mikael Backlund and defenseman Victor Hedman were members of last year's silver-medal winning squad who return to provide skill and leadership to this year's roster. Andersson is a fine two-way player and likely will draw the assignment of playing against other teams' top lines. Moller brings 30 games of NHL experience this season with the Los Angeles Kings.

2009 Draft-eligible players: There are three likely first-round picks on the Swedish roster, two of whom were members of last year's team. Hedman, a potentional No. 1 overall pick in this June's Entry Draft, combines massive size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) with the puck-rushing ability of a much smaller player. He is considered a potential franchise player. Forward Magnus Paajarvi, 17, made history last year as the youngest player ever to suit up for Sweden in the under-20s. This year, the speedster with the uncanny ice vision should receive more ice time. The highly skilled Jacob Josefson could surprise if he gets enough ice time.

X Factor: Simon Hjalmarsson was a top-notch goal-scorer at the Swedish junior level; this year, the 19-year-old St. Louis Blues prospect has proven he can play -- and succeed -- against men, with 10 goals and 22 points for HC Boras in Allsvenskan (Sweden's top minor league). With opposing teams likely to focus their checking lines elsewhere, a player like Hjalmarsson could stand out for Sweden.

Sweden will win if: Markstrom plays as well for the junior national team as he has in the Elitserien this season. The Swedes typically get out-chanced in games against Canada and Russia, and the Swedes will need Markstrom to duplicate, or even surpass, the performance turned in by Jhonas Enroth last year.


The skinny:
While the senior Finnish national team has won medals (silver or bronze) like clockwork in recent years, the under-20 squad has been inconsistent and unimpressive. World Junior Championships usually are dominated by 19-year-old players, and Finland's crop of 1989-born players is weak. However, there is a very promising younger group on the way. As a result, the Finns will send out a younger team than many of the other "elite" countries.

"In recent years, there have been a lot of fourth line-type energy players on the Finnish junior teams," St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said before the season.

This year's squad may not be able to match the firepower of other teams, but like most Finnish squads they will play a hard, gritty game. Case in point was Sunday's exhibition game, a 7-3 loss to the Canadians that featured 58 penalty minutes.

While the Finns aren't expected to win a medal this time around, the Lions remain a dangerous opponent that can knock off anyone in a given day. The young nucleus is in place to earn a spot on the podium in 2010 or 2011.

Players to watch: Atlanta Thrashers prospect Niclas Lucenius should receive massive ice time for the Finns after tying for the team lead in scoring last year. The defense nucleus of Joonas Jarvinen, Jyri Niemi (who will be a key contributor on the power play), Ari Grondahl and Jesse Jyrkkio should provide quality minutes. San Jose Sharks prospect Harri Sateri will need to come up big in goal for the Finns to surprise.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Forward Toni Rajala has been hyped for several years as a potential high-grade NHL offensive player. Although he lacks size (5-foot-9, 158 pounds), he is crafty and dangerous from the blue line in. Defenseman Tommi Kivisto plays with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, giving him familiarity with the North American-size rink.

X Factor: Mikael Granlund is a name to file away for the future. Eligible for 2010 Entry Draft, the 16-year-old forward has rocketed through the Karpat Oulu development system and is considered one of the most exciting Finnish offensive prospects to come down the pike since Olli Jokinen. He will gain valuable experience simply by being on the national roster this year.

Finland will win if: The youngsters emulate the Finnish senior teams of recent years and perform at a level greater than the sum of its parts. Finnish teams are used to being the underdog and they rarely get outworked. Staying out of the penalty box, capitalizing on counterattacks and getting leak-proof goaltending are musts if the Finns are to win a medal this year.


The skinny:
Latvia enters the 2009 World Junior Championship with one goal -- avoid relegation. None of the players are well-known to North American fans, but the Latvians bring an experienced squad to Ottawa, featuring 13 players from last year's team that earned a promotion by hosting and winning a Division I tournament in Riga.

However, the team's top two scorers from last year, Kaspars Daugivins and Andris Dzerins, plus defenseman Oskars Cibulskis, are too old for the under-20 tournament.

Players to watch: Riga 2000 forward Janis Ozolins averaged a point per game at last year's Division I tournament and is capable of putting the puck in the net at the elite level, especially on the power play. A pair of players plying their trade in Sweden, forward Roberts Jekimovs (8 points in five games in last year's tournament) and defenseman Alberts Ilisko (a plus-6 last year) will see extensive ice time, as will former Toronto St. Michael's Majors defenseman Kriss Grundmanis.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Forward Janis Straupe is widely considered to be one of Latvia's best young talents. The 19-year-old has been bypassed in previous drafts but remains eligible for '09. One of the youngest members of the Latvian squad is Miks Indrasis, who was a standout for the Latvian national team at the under-18 level and the SK Riga junior team.

X Factor: The goaltending tandem of Nauris Enkuzens and Dainis Vasiljevs backstopped Latvia to victory in Riga. The older Enzukens got most of the playing time last year, but many observers consider the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Vasiljevs the better long-term prospect.

Latvia will win if: The team can avoid relegation. Like most teams from the former Soviet Union, opponents must respect Latvia's speed and ability to pass the puck into scoring position.


The skinny:
The tragic death of New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov has overshadowed Russia's preparations for the World Junior Championship, as he likely would have been one of their featured forwards for the third-straight year. 

Without Cherepanov, and with few key players from last year's bronze medalists eligible to return, the Russians will need to spread around the scoring. The lion's share of the attention will go to Nikita Filatov, but this is a deep group that should be in the medal hunt.

Beyond Los Angeles Kings prospect Vyacheslav Voinov, however, the big question mark for the Russians is the defense. This year's group does not seem as strong on paper as last year's squad.

During the course of the past decade, goaltending has been a trouble spot for Russia at the junior level. Hulking Florida Panthers prospect Sergei Gayduchenko (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and Dynamo Moscow hopeful Vadim Zhelobnyuk are the most experienced goalies available for the Russians this time around.

Player to watch: The spotlight will shine brightly on Filatov every time the Russians take the ice. After a standout tournament last year (4 goals, 9 points in seven games), the pressure will be on Filatov and Maxim Mayorov to carry the load without Cherepanov, Artem Anisimov and Viktor Tikhonov. Beyond Filatov, coach Sergei Nemchinov will rely on returning players such as Quebec Remparts forward Dmitry Kugryshev and Evgeny Dadonov to provide leadership and stability.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov plays for Drummondville in the QMJHL and is the No. 2-ranked skater in the league in NHL Central Scouting's Preliminary Rankings. He also was invited to the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game Jan. 13-14. Kulikov leads the league's defenseman with 30 assists, and he's second with 35 points.

X Factor: Defensemen Maxim Goncharov (a Phoenix Coyotes prospect) and Igor Golovkov will have to use their size and strength to clear traffic from in front of the Russian net. This will be especially important when the Russians play North American opponents.

Russia will win if: Filatov elevates his game even higher than last year and the team uses its speed and puck-possession ability to create scoring chances. Nemchinov was a very defensive-minded player during his career and he wants to shape a roster that plays a defensively responsible game.


The skinny:
The Slovak national junior program took a bold step last year when it formed its own club team to compete domestically against senior-level opposition. The Slovaks' once-proud program had fallen on tough times and was in danger of relegation; but the team accomplished its mission last year by winning three games and steering clear of relegation. Hopes for a first WJC medal in a decade, though, remain slim.

Last year, the core of players from the national U-20 club team played greatly improved team defense, holding opponents to an average 2.67 goals per game. It will be crucial for coach Stefan Mikes' team to improve that number. None of last year's top offensive players (Marek Slovak, Erik Caladi, Tomas Marcinko, Ivan Rohac) are around this year, so other players will have to step up in order for the Slovaks to scratch out some victories.

Players to watch: Adam Bezak is familiar with North American rinks after playing a season in the QMJHL with Moncton. Defenseman Marek Daloga is in his second season with the Slovakia U-20 squad and should see a lot of ice time.

2009 Draft-eligible players: Center Tomas Tatar of HKm Zvolen has a chance of being chosen at some point in the 2009 Entry Draft. He has been an offensive standout in Slovak junior leagues and now is with an Extraliga (top league) team. Only three Slovaks have been taken in the last two NHL drafts (none higher than the fifth round), but Tatar is a solid talent.

X Factor: The Slovaks had a surprisingly good power play at last year's tournament, going 9-for-43 (20.9 percent), which was better than higher-echelon teams Russia and the Czech Republic. With the familiarity of the U-20 players, special-teams situations could play out the same way this time around.

Slovakia will win if: the team plays up to its capabilities against lower-echelon teams in the tournament. The Slovaks figure to be a middle-of-the-pack team once again, but are capable of upsetting a favored team if taken too lightly. Correspondent Bill Meltzer contributed to this report. Contact Adam Kimelman at
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