With the defending silver- and bronze-medalists, along with a dark-horse medal favorite, Group B of the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship is a difficult one to handicap.
Sweden, Russia and Finland all bring loads of talent, including a number of players with NHL experience.
Sweden already boasted a talented group of forwards that will be bolstered by the arrivals of Elias Lindholm from the Carolina Hurricanes and Filip Forsberg from the Nashville Predators.
The Buffalo Sabres are allowing center Mikhail Grigorenko to play for Russia, and the lanky, talented forward likely will center the top line.
With Russia, Sweden and Finland all bringing loads of talent, including a number of players with NHL experience, Group B of the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship figures to be up for grabs. (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI, Getty Images)
Finland won't have center Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers) or defenseman Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins) due to their NHL obligations, but defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who had a solid start to the season with the Sabres before being sent to the American Hockey League for further development, should be an anchor on the Finland blue line.
One of those three will be on top of the Group when preliminary-round play ends; which one, however, is impossible to predict.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group B (listed in order of 2013 WJC ranking), which will play its games at Malmo Arena. A change in playoff format this year will see the top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, which will be crossover matchups with Group A. The fifth-place teams from each group will play a best-of-three series with the winner remaining in the 2015 WJC, while the loser is relegated to the Division I level.
Coach -- Rikard Gronborg
Last year -- Won the silver medal after a 3-1 loss to the United States in the championship game.
2014 draft watch -- Center Lucas Wallmark, who plays for Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League, received a B rating from NHL Central Scouting in its most recent player to watch list.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Switzerland, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, Finland, 9 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Norway, 11 a.m.; Dec. 31, Russia, 8 a.m. ET
Outlook -- After winning the silver medal last year, Sweden should be a favorite to return to the gold-medal game. As many as 10 players from last year's team will return, among them goalie Oscar Dansk, defenseman Robert Hagg and an impressive group of forwards that includes Lindholm, Forsberg and Montreal Canadiens prospects Sebastian Collberg and Jacob de la Rose.
Dansk, the third goalie at last year's tournament, could be among the best at his position this year. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is starring with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, where he leads all goalies with a 2.17 goals-against average.
Coach -- Mikhail Varnakov
Last year -- Valeri Nichushkin, now of the Dallas Stars, scored 1:35 into overtime in Russia's 6-5 overtime win against Canada for the bronze medal. It's the third straight year Russia earned a medal and the eighth time in nine tournaments.
2014 draft watch -- Ivan Barbashev, who plays for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is a potential top-10 pick in 2014.
Center - BUF
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 3
SOG: 20 | +/-: -3
Dec. 26, Norway, 9 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Switzerland, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, Finland, 9 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Sweden, 8 a.m. ET
Outlook -- With Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Andrey Vasilevskiy back in goal, Russia will be in the hunt for a top-three finish. The 19th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was second in save percentage at last year’s tournament at .950 and third with a 1.81 goals-against average. He also has WJC experience, as this will be his third tournament.
He'll have a big, strong defense in front of him, led by Nikita Zadorov, who played seven games for the Sabres before returning to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Grigorenko will be the key to Russia's offense. He was third on the team in scoring at the 2013 WJC with six points in seven games. They won't have Nichushkin, but expect two 2013 NHL draft picks, Bogdan Yakimov (Edmonton Oilers) and Valentin Zykov (Los Angeles Kings) to be big contributors.
With Grigorenko up front and Vasilevskiy in the net, Russia will be a favorite to win the gold medal for the second time since 2011.
Coach -- Collin Muller
Last year -- Switzerland advanced to the medal round by winning one of its preliminary-round games and losing three in overtime, which allowed them to pick up points. They finished sixth after losing a one-goal game to Russia in the quarterfinals.
2014 draft watch -- Yannick Rathgeb, a defenseman with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, earned a C rating from NHL Central Scouting. Also worth watching is right wing Sandro Zanger, who plays for Zurich in the top Swiss professional league. He received a C rating from Central Scouting.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Sweden, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, Russia, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 30, Norway, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, Finland, Noon ET
Outlook -- Last season was a big one for Switzerland in international hockey. The under-20 team advanced to the medal round at the World Juniors and the senior men's team won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championship.
Can 2014 see the same success? They'll have a strong defense led by San Jose Sharks 2013 first-round pick (No. 18) Mirco Mueller. And with the reconfigured tournament format that sees the top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, a berth in the medal round should be attainable. However, they'll most likely have to play one of the top two teams from Group A in the quarters, which figures to be the United States or Canada.
Could the Swiss pull a surprise? It’s possible, but avoiding relegation and a final ranking of seventh or eighth is the most likely outcome.
Coach -- Karri Kivi
Last year -- Despite having three of the top four scorers at the tournament, Finland won once in regulation in four preliminary-round games and was dropped to the relegation bracket. They won their two games there by a combined score of 19-4 to finish seventh.
2014 draft watch -- Defenseman Julius Honka, in his first season with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, earned an A rating from NHL Central Scouting.
Schedule -- Dec. 27, Norway, 11:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Sweden, 9 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Russia, 9 am. ET; Dec. 31, Switzerland, Noon ET
Chicago Blackhawks top prospect Teuvo Teravainen had 11 points at the 2013 WJC and is the tournament's leading returning scorer. (Photo: Getty Images)
Outlook -- Finland was the most disappointing team at the 2013 WJC; picked by some as a gold-medal contender, they missed the medal round completely.
They'll return a solid group starting with a top line led by Chicago Blackhawks top prospect Teuvo Teravainen. The 18th pick in 2012, Teravainen had 11 points at the 2013 WJC and is the tournament's leading returning scorer. He'll likely team on the top line with Montreal Canadiens prospect Artturi Lehkonen.
They'll miss Kasperi Kapanen, a projected top-10 pick in 2014 who will miss the tournament due to a shoulder injury. But with other big scorers like Saku Maenalainen and Joni Nikko, Finland won't lack for offense.
While Maatta won’t be available on defense, their blue line will have strength and skill with Honka, Ristolainen and New York Islanders prospect Ville Pokka.
Competing for the starting spot in goal will be Jusse Saros, a 2013 Nashville Predators draft pick, and Ville Husso, a B-rated prosect for 2014.
Finland has the talent to finish in the top-two in the group, but can they pull together as a team and become more than the sum of their individual parts? That remains to be seen.
Coach -- Orjan Lovdal
Last year -- Norway won the Division I Group A tournament last year in France, going 5-0 and outscoring the opposition 19-7 to earn a spot in the top level of international under-20 play.
2014 draft watch -- Norway has three players ranked as C skaters by NHL Central Scouting: Defenseman Mattias Norstebo and center Martin Ronnild, who play for Brynas in Sweden's junior league, and defenseman Andreas Klavestad, who plays for Frisk Asker in Norway's top professional league.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Russia, 9 a.m. ET; Dec. 27, Finland, 11:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Sweden, 11:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Switzerland, 1 p.m. ET
Outlook -- Right wing Markus Soberg, a 2013 sixth-round pick (No. 165) of the Columbus Blue Jackets who plays for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, is Norway's leading returning scorer from the 2013 tournament after totaling one goal and six assists in seven games.
Also returning is goaltender Joachim Svendsen, who was the backup on the 2013 team. He plays for Lorenskog in Norway's top professional league.
Norway did well in winning its Division I tournament to get back to the main level, but it could be a short stay as the level of talent Norway has to pick from is far behind the other countries in Group B. A spot in the relegation round is the most likely outcome, with the goal being to win the best-of-three series to remain at the top level for the 2015 WJC.