The U.S. National Junior Team will be playing as part of Group B at the World Junior Championship. There’s always one side of the tournament that is lopsided with top teams and this year it’s Group B.
The U.S. will have a tough road to the medal round as a result. With both host Russia and perennial powerhouse Canada in the group on top of a better-than-most-realize German team and always sneaky Slovakia, there’s no true easy game for the U.S.
When the puck drops Thursday between the U.S. and Germany, Team USA will have to set an early tone for the rest of the tournament. Friday brings a date with host Russia, before Sunday’s anticipated tilt with rival Canada. Team USA closes out group play with Slovakia on Monday, which, depending on how things go in the previous two games, could be do-or-die for the U.S.
As last year’s team became painfully aware, the margin for error is incredibly thin at the World Juniors. A mistake hear or there can really be the difference in medal round or staving off relegation. In a group this tough, that only intensifies.
Coming up after the jump a look at each of Team USA’s four Group B opponents.
vs. USA Dec. 27, 9 a.m. ET
Head Coach: Ernst Hofner
2012 Finish: Promoted from Division I
Top Players: F-Tobias Rieder, F-Sebastian Uvira, F-Nickolas Latta, G-Marvin Cupper, F-Leon Draisaitl
As the opening opponent for Team USA, Germany is not to be overlooked. Sure, they’re one year removed from playing in Division I, but the Germans are developing more players of late. The 1993, 1994 and 1995 birth years have some good talent. Germany has made it to the medal round in each of the last two World Under-18 Championships, which is a good sign for the World Juniors. Only one team gets relegated and I don’t believe it will be Germany this year.
That said, the U.S. should be able to outmatch Germany with much better depth and a lot more skill. As long as the U.S. doesn’t consider Germany a throwaway game, it should be a good tilt to start off the tournament and focus on building some chemistry and confidence.
However if Germany is able to be opportunistic with its chances and get some good goaltending, there’s potential for this to be a trap game.
Tobias Rieder and Leon Draisaitl have good offensive ability and can get teams in trouble from time to time, but this squad will struggle to score goals. There’s some size and good skaters on the back end, but it is yet to be seen if the German defense will be able to slow the speed of teams like the U.S.
On paper the teams aren’t close, but Germany belongs in this tournament and will do everything they can to prove it.
vs. USA Dec. 28, 9 a.m. ET
Head Coach: Mikhail Varnakov
2012 Finish: Silver
Top Players: F-Nail Yakupov, F-Mikhail Grigorenko, F-Alex Khokhlachev, D-Nikita Nesterov, F-Nikita Kucherov, G-Andrei Vasilevski, etc.
The list of top players could go on and on as Russia is long on skill. The host nation will be a very tough out no matter who they play. The home ice advantage should be just that for Russia as the home crowd will be as tough as any most of these players have seen.
Russia should be a team that scores a lot of goals throughout the tournament, so slowing down that offensive attack will be key for any team. Though the defense is only OK, the goaltending should be outstanding with a dynamic pair in Andrei Makarov and Andrei Vasilevski both returning from last year’s silver-medal squad.
The scoring depth for this group is what stands out in a big way. From Yakupov to Grigorenko to Khokhlachev to Kucherov to Slepyshev and everyone else in between, there is going to be scoring talent on each line.
With the bigger ice and the speed and skill of this group, it should be a legitimate contender for gold at home. The pressure is on and how they deal with that pressure will likely determine Russia’s success.
The U.S. can expect a viciously partisan crowd and a motivated opponent when the pair square off in Ufa.
vs. USA Dec. 30, 4:30 a.m. ET
Head Coach: Steve Spott
2012 Finish: Bronze
Top Players: F-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F-Jonathan Huberdeau, F-Ryan Strome, D-Dougie Hamilton, D-Ryan Murphy, F-Mark Scheifele, etc.
Aided by the NHL Lockout, Canada has its full boat of talent. After failing to win gold in each of the last three tournaments, patience is wearing thin. That despite Canada’s stretch of dominance from 2005-2009 in which it won gold each year. It’s always going to be gold or bust for Canada at the World Juniors.
This team has strength upon strength upon strength. There’s nothing scrappy about this bunch and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Canada is the best team in the tournament on paper and should be favored for gold.
With six returnees from last year’s team and a change in philosophy, focusing on bringing in more skill as opposed to beef, Canada has all the pieces to end their three-year drought.
The Achilles’s heel for Canada, as always, is its goaltending. While Malcom Subban and Jordan Binnington give Canada an awfully solid tandem, there’s always added pressure on whoever is between the pipes wearing the Leaf. Should Subban falter, it is likely the hook would be quick. How that plays out should be interesting.
Regardless of what happens, Team Canada’s depth will be negatively impacted for its first three games of the tournament as Boone Jenner was suspended by the IIHF for his late hit on Sweden’s Jesper Petterson.
Canada will be down to at least 12 forwards (assuming no injuries) with Jenner’s suspension against the U.S., meaning Team USA will have to attempt to capitalize and wear the Canadians down. Team USA can’t match the depth, but of all the teams in the tournament, it might be the U.S. that matches up best with Canada overall.
Canada will remain favored to win the Group’s bye to the semifinal, but with taking on the U.S. and Russia in the prelim round, it certainly won’t be a walk in the park.
vs. USA Dec. 31, 5 a.m. ET
Head Coach: Ernest Borkros
2012 Finish: Sixth
Top Players: F-Marko Dano, D-Peter Ceresnack, F-Tomas Mikus, F-Martin Reway
The Slovakian U20 program has been a bit of a disappointment overall. Sometimes looking like it’s teetering on the brink of relegation, the lack of success has been a bit confounding. There’s never been much shortage of skill players in Slovakia, but the depth of talent is beginning to disappear.
This year is no different, but Marko Dano is one of those guys that looks like he can be a leader for Slovakia at the WJC. Currently playing in the KHL, he’s been doing well against pros. Additionaly, youngster Martin Reway looks quite promising and could play an established role for Slovakia in this tournament.
The depth isn’t there for this squad to compete with the top teams, but Slovakia is never a team to overlook. The U.S. may need this fourth and final group play game for a shot at the medal round, depending on how things go.
With good size on defense and some decent talent in net, Slovakia isn’t going to be a pushover. This truly is the group of death and Slovakia is a big contributor to its deadliness.
The U.S. is a better team overall and has more depth, but with stakes as high as this game is likely to have, it’s going to be a tough one.
Over on the other side in Group A lies defending champ Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland. The Finns are looking more and more like the favorite while both Sweden and the Czechs should be able to make it into the medal round. The depth of that group pales in comparison to that of Group B. If the U.S. makes it to the medal round, it would have to face one of those top three teams in the crossover, which would provide another difficult challenge on the road to a medal.
When it comes right down to it, the World Junior Championship is a tough tournament to win. No matter how much talent a team has, it doesn’t take much for things to go wrong. If the U.S. can go at least 2-0-0-2, it should be safe for a spot in the medal round. A pair of regulation wins will be key with the IIHF on a three-point standings system.
There are always a lot of crazy scenarios that can play out, so to help you follow the tournament format, click here.
Coming up later today, more Team USA WJC preview content including a look at the most important questions the U.S. will have to answer over the course of the tournament.