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Ivan Hlinka Tournament features top international talent

by Bill Meltzer

Team Canada center Jared Cowen, a likely top-end pick for the 2009 Entry Draft, is competing in the annual Ivan Hlinka tournament.
Also known as the Under-18 Junior World Cup, the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament marks the unofficial beginning of the international hockey season and the start of the countdown to next summer's Entry Draft.

Unlike the Under-18 World Championships each spring, the Hlinka tourney in August is not sanctioned by the IIHF. Nevertheless, it features many of the top prospects from the world's elite hockey powers and is widely attended by NHL scouts.

"We evaluate players over the full season, but this tournament is the first one after the offseason, so it gets attention," said Philadelphia Flyers scout Ilkka Sinisalo.

The 2008 edition of the Hlinka tourney is currently taking place in Breclav, Czech Republic, and Piestany, Slovakia. Round-robin play kicked off Tuesday. In preliminary round Group A, held in Breclav, the Czechs are competing against last year's silver medalist Finland, Russia and Team USA. Group B, in Piestany, consists of Slovakia, Team Canada, defending champion Sweden and Switzerland.

On the first day of the tournament, Canada overcame a sluggish first period to beat Switzerland 5-3. Sweden used four power-play goals and a shorthanded tally to squeak past Slovakia 6-5. Finland nipped the Czech Republic 2-1 in a game decided by a shootout, and Russia downed Team USA in a penalty-filled game, 5-1.

The probable first two picks of the 2009 Entry Draft, Canadian center John Tavares and Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, are not playing in this year's Hlinka tourney. Both players are considered too advanced in their development to have much to gain by playing against 16- and 17-year-old competition and will instead start preparing to play in the Under-20 World Championships for the second straight year.

Despite the absences of Tavares and Hedman, there is no shortage of likely top-end picks in the 2009 Entry Draft suiting up for their countries. Center Matt Duchene (Canada), left wing Magnus Svensson-Pääjärvi (Sweden), center Brayden Schenn (Canada), left wing Toni Rajala (Finland), defenseman Jared Cowen (Canada), right wing Anton Burdasov (Russia), defenseman Tommi Kivistö (Finland), and center Jacob Josefson (Sweden) all have a good shot at being first-round picks.

Many scouts currently view Duchene, Svensson-Pääjärvi, Schenn and Cowan as the prospects most likely to be chosen once Tavares and Hedman are off the board. Another potential top-10 pick, Slovak center Richard Panik, was originally slated to play for his country but has withdrawn.

Last year, at the tender age of 16, Svensson-Pääjärvi and fellow Timrå IK Red Eagles prospect Anton Lander (who is yet another potential 2009 first- or second-round pick) dominated the tournament for the gold-medal winning Swedes. Svensson-Pääjärvi led all scorers in the tournament with 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists), while Lander had four goals and five points, not including a game-winning shootout goal against Canada.

Both players went on to make their debuts in Elitserien for Timrå's senior club, and Svensson-Pääjärvi became the youngest Swede (and one of the youngest players from any country) ever to play in the Under-20 World Championships. One person who came away impressed by the skills of Svensson-Pääjärvi and Lander was Team Sweden coach Stephan Lundh, who has returned to coach the "Little Crowns" again this year in pursuit of another gold medal.

"I think Pääjäärvi and Lander played a great tournament last year, said Lundh, who has separated the frequent linemates this year. "They are two players who have a good attitude and they will do their best every game and practice. They want to improve and they like to challenge themselves. Magnus gets most of the attention because of his speed and puck skills, but Anton is also a talented player."

In Sweden's opening game against Slovakia, Lander picked up where he left off last August. Centering a line with Frölunda Indians prospect Carl Klingberg and HV-71 Jönköping hopeful Martin Olsson, Lander scored a goal and added an assist. Svensson-Pääjärvi had one assist in the game, while Djurgårdens IF Stockholm prospect Josefson sealed the game with a shorthanded goal. Slovakia's Marek Hrivik from the MsHK Zilinia system had two goals in a losing effort.

Lander is confident that his Swedish team has what it takes to repeat as champions, despite the fact that highly regarded goaltender Jacob Markström (chosen by the Florida Panthers No. 31 in the 2008 draft) is no longer available.

"We have a good group this year also and it will be really cool to play in the tournament," Lander told Hockeysverige before the opener. "I absolutely believe we can win again and we have at least as good a team as last year. This year, we have a really good mix of players. We have guys playing who are skilled at holding the puck and a number of really good forecheckers, too."

If the Swedes are to repeat, however, they must go through an extremely tough field. Canada, Finland and Russia are capable of winning gold this year.

Brayden Schenn is another likely top-end pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, playing for Team Canada in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Canada, which was led a year ago by 2008 No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos (now of the Tampa Bay Lightning), still has plenty of firepower with the likes of Duchene, Schenn (the younger brother of 2008 Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Luke Schenn) and potential No. 1 pick in 2010, Taylor Hall. The Canadians have won four of the last six gold medals in the tournament.

Finland's national junior program has hit a dry spell the last few years in terms of producing top-end talent, but the Finnish crop of 1991-born players eligible for the 2009 Entry Draft is one of the country's best in years. Meanwhile, Kärpät Oulu hopeful Mikael Granlund, who won't be eligible for the Entry Draft until 2010, scored a pair of goals in the Finns' opening shootout win against the Czechs.

Russia may not have a player the caliber of 2008 Columbus Blue Jackets first-rounder Nikita Filatov this year, but it is arguably bringing a deeper and more balanced squad to the tournament than it did a year ago. Lanky right wing Anton Burdasov from the Traktor Chelyabinsk system and diminutive Severstal Cherepovets product Dmitry Orlov may be the most offensively skilled of the bunch, but there is plenty of talent to go around.

Russia showed off some its depth in the opening 5-1 win against Team USA. Five players tallied for the Russian team, including three power-play goals and a shorthanded. Goaltender Igor Bobkov, a prospect of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, was outstanding in net, holding the fort through numerous 5-on-3 disadvantages in a game where the Russians were whistled for 70 minutes worth of penalties.

Team USA, which captured gold in 2003 and silver in 2006, typically takes a different approach to the Hlinka Tournament than the other participating teams. The Americans prefer to send their "B" squad of youngsters to this competition in order to give a more diversified group some experience against the world's best players in their age category.

As a result, most of the top American prospects for the 2009 Entry Draft are not competing in the Hlinka Tournament, including 17-year-old right wing Jordan Schroeder, centers Drew Shore, Jeremy Morin, winger Kenny Ryan and defenseman David Savard. While this undoubtedly hurts Team USA's medal chances, USA Hockey officials believe the arrangement benefits the program as a whole.

Among the other teams, host nations Czech Republic and Slovakia have been dealing with a sharp decline in their junior national team programs in recent years. While the cupboard isn't quite bare, both programs are in rebuilding mode. The Czechs last medaled in this tournament in 2005, winning silver that year. However, Team Czech Republic gave the favored Finns all they could handle in the opening game this year. The Slovaks haven't won a medal since taking bronze in 1998.

The final participating country, Switzerland, has never won a medal in the Hlinka Tournament and is unlikely to do so this year. In the opener against Canada, however, center Reto Schäppi turned some heads with a pair of goals.

As round-robin play continues, there will be four games Wednesday and Thursday. After an off day on Friday, the medal round and consolation games with be held on Saturday.  The gold-medal game will be played in Breclav between the top teams in each pool and bronze-medal match will be in Piestany, pitting the preliminary group runners-up against one another.

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