Even before the opening faceoff dropped at the ongoing World Junior Championships in Saskatchewan, there were two nations with spots locked up for next year's tournament in Buffalo. By virtue of winning their respective groups in the recent IIHF Division I Under-20 World Championships, Germany and Norway earned promotions to play in the 2011 competition.
Although the Division I tournaments are a significant step down from the elite level, there has been an increasing flow of prospects from Division I countries into recent NHL Entry Drafts. As a result, the Division I tourneys now attract many more NHL scouts than it did in the past.
This year's edition included a sprinkling of already-drafted prospects such as Dallas Stars
hopeful Scott Winkler
(Norway) and Toronto Maple Leafs
selection Jerome Flaake
(Germany), plus several other players currently suiting up in Canadian major hockey or the United States Hockey League, such as German goaltender Philipp Grubauer
of the OHL's Belleville Bulls, Team Slovenia and Portland Winterhawks center Gasper Kopitar (the younger brother of Los Angeles Kings
superstar Anze Kopitar
) and Team Denmark forward Alexander Jensen of the Waterloo Black Hawks.
Germany is a country that often shuttles between the Division I and the elite level. The program's plight at the Under-20 level is that it's far too good for the Division I level but not quite good enough to compete among the elite hockey nations apart from the occasional upset (such as an overtime win against highly favored Team USA at the 2007 tournament in Sweden). When playing at the Division I level, the Germans usually dominate to the point of making the tournament result a foregone conclusion.
This year, the inclusion of Denmark -- another country with elite level WJC experience – in Germany's pool created the potential for a more competitive race for promotion. As it turned out, though, the Germans had little problem breezing through the Group A tourney in Saint Gervais, France, which also included participation from the junior national teams representing Slovenia, Ukraine and the host nation. In going 5-0-0, Team Germany scored 27 goals while yielding just three.
Germany opened the tourney by trouncing Japan, 9-0. Relatively easy victories against Slovenia (6-2) and Ukraine (6-2) followed. With only the weakest team in the field -- France -- left on the slate before the gold-medal showdown with the unbeaten Danes, the Germans learned a valuable lesson about taking every game seriously in a short tournament.
Despite being outshot by a 29-10 margin, the French took a 1-0 lead into the third period against Germany. A small but passionate and partisan crowd of 1,057 fans smelled a monumental upset as Team France goaltender Clement Fouquerel turned back one wave of attack after another, enabling a first period power-play tally by Nicolas Ritz to stand up as the game's only goal through 40 minutes. But the French got themselves in penalty trouble at the end of the second period, and it proved to be their undoing.
After the Germans failed to capitalize on consecutive 5-on-3 advantages, Daniel Weiss finally stashed a puck past Fouquerel at the 50-second mark of the third period with 38 seconds left of remaining 5-on-4 power-play time. Relieved, the Germans went on to dominate the rest of the game. At the 8:27 mark, a second power play tally by Weiss (a promising young right winger for the DEL's Eisbaren Berlin) gave the Germans the lead for good. The Germans sealed the game to win, 2-1.
For the French, who had previously lost 4-1 to Japan and wound up being relegated to Division II, the valiant but unsuccessful effort against the Germans was scant consolation for a winless tournament. The Germans, meanwhile, moved on to play a Danish team that had won its four previous games by a combined goal margin of 21-5.
The Germans brought their best game against Denmark, forechecking and skating with a passion. Goaltender Grubauer capped a tremendous tournament (0.64 goals-against average, .973 save percentage, three shutouts) by blanking the Danes on 23 shots, while Tobias Rieder got the Germans on the board midway through the first period and later added a third-period insurance goal. Germany also tallies from defenseman Philip Riefers and a power-play goal from winger Simon Fischhaber to win 4-0 and lock up the gold medal. The Danes will have to wait another year to try to get back to the top level.
Apart from the loss to the Germans, Danish goaltender Nikolaj Noerbak played a strong tournament, finishing with a 1.26 GAA and .952 save percentage. However, after Grubauer, the tournament's most impressive goaltender was Slovenia's Luka Gracnar. The 5-foot-10 HK Jesenice prodigy belied his age with his play. Gracnar, who turned 16 years old on Oct. 31, displayed his tremendous athleticism throughout the tournament and posted a 1.48 GAA and .948 save percentage in his four starts.
Denmark's Alexander Jensen paced the scoring race in the tournament by posting 7 assists and 9 points. Japanese forward Shunsuke Shigeno led the field with 5 goals among his 6 points. Germany's Weiss and Danish forward Mark Mieritz ranked second and third in the point race with 7 points apiece, with Weiss (3 goals) scoring one more goal than Mieritz. Danish defenseman Simon Groenvaldt led all blueliners in the tourney with 5 points, including a pair of goals.
Over in the Group B competition in Poland, the host nation met the same fate that the French did in Group A. In addition to the victorious Norwegians and relegated Poles, the field included Belarus, Kazakhstan, Croatia and Italy. Norway rolled through the competition by posting four wins in regulation (including an 18-2 pasting of Croatia) and an overtime win against second-place Belarus. Overall, Team Norway enjoyed a 33-8 goal differential in their five games. Meanwhile, Team Italy was just as stingy as the Norwegians on defense, allowing just 8 goals, but could only muster 8 goals of their own.
Not surprisingly, the most impressive player in the Group B tournament was Norway's Scott Winkler
. In five games, Winkler tore apart the opposition for 6 goals and 14 points. A third-round pick (89th overall) by Dallas in the 2008 Entry Draft, the 6-foot-2 center currently plays for Colorado College. The son of a Canadian father and Norwegian mother, Winkler was born and raised in Norway and received his early hockey education in his home country before coming to North America to play AAA midget hockey before moving on to the USHL and collegiate hockey.
"Scott has very good size and sees the ice well," Stars North American scout Bob Gernander told DallasStars.com. "There are no shortcuts to his game and he is very determined offensively and defensively. He plays a physical game with a lot of detail and he has good vision of the rink."
While Winkler's game has taken some time to come around in North America, his combination of grit and anticipation was too much for the other teams in the Division I WJC tournament to cope with. Even when he wasn't putting the puck in the net, Winkler was creating havoc and controlling the puck down low in the offensive zone. Winkler's linemates, wingers Jonas Lovlie (6 goals, 9 points) and Andreas Martinsen (5 goals, 9 points) finished second and third among all scorers at the tourney.
Beyond the Norwegian trio, Belarusian forward Sergei Drodz and Croatian pivot Dominik Kanaet turned in some of the most impressive offensive performances in the Group B tournament. Belarusian defenseman Vyacheslav Raitsov led all players in the tourney with a plus-10 rating and all defensemen with 6 points. Among goaltenders, Norway's Lars Volden (1.47 GAA, .958 save percentage in four starts) was scarcely tested and rarely beaten, while Italy's Andreas Bernard (1.58 GAA, .931 save percentage) helped to keep his low-scoring team competitive.