If you aren’t familiar with the IIHF World Junior Championship, the tournament is split into two groups. This year, thanks to its first place finish, Team USA plays in Group A. While Canada, Russia and Sweden all find themselves in Group B. If this were the World Cup, Group B would be considered the “group of death.”
That said, Group A has some interesting offerings. The U.S. will play each team within its group once, with each providing a unique challenge. At the World Juniors, no team is to be taken lightly. The U.S. has been shocked before early in the tournament, so they have to be ready to go.
So let’s take a look at the teams that will look to make Team USA’s road to the medal round a tough one:
FINLAND – vs. Team USA 12/26 – 8 p.m. EST
Finnish teams always play tough in these tournaments. They play more of a North American style. They are tough to play against and won’t back down from contact. They are tough to take out of the game. The big downside for Finland this year is that they will be without its most dynamic and well rounded player in Mikael Granlund. Losing him hurts. He’s the type of player than can put a team on his back, if needed. Finland should challenge the U.S. for the top spot in Group A, despite being without Granlund.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Finland is lucky though, because they have a few offensively gifted forwards, decent size on the blue line and solid goaltending. The Finns will need a big tournament from national team stalwarts, Toni Rajala and Teemu Pulkkinen. Those are the two guys that should be able to find the net on a regular basis. I am also excited to watch University of Minnesota product Erik Haula. I’ve long been impressed with his game and he should be a solid contributor for Finland. On the back end, Rasmus Rissanen, who plies his trade with the Everett Silvertips is a big, physical defenseman. He’ll be relied heavily.
SLOVAKIA – vs. Team USA, 12/28 – 8 p.m. EST
I think Slovakia is coming in a little under the radar and its understandable why, but I don’t think they should be taken lightly. They won’t get outstanding goaltending and their defense is only OK. That said, they have some very skilled player on this club. This is a team that can sneak up on you and put the puck in the net. I think this Slovakian team has a very good chance to be one of the three teams that get out of this group.
PLAYERS TO WATCH – Martin Marincin is a big defenseman. He plays a very physical game and has been getting some experience with Prince George in the WHL, which suits his game, from what I’ve seen. At the U18 Worlds, he was a physical presence for the Slovakians. Richard Panik is a guy that has a lot of talent as well. He’s going to need a big tournament to help this team get out of the group. He’s definitely a threat.
GERMANY – vs. Team USA 12/30 – 7 p.m. EST
This German team is up against it a little bit. They took a loss today to Switzerland, but give them credit. They made a big comeback over the last two periods after going down 4-0 in the first. The problem is, their goaltending has to be good. Philipp Grubauer has played in big games in North America, especially last year with the Windsor Spitfires. However, he was pulled after giving up the four goals in the first period agains Switzerland. That had to be unnerving for Germany. Many have them picked last in Group A and I agree. However, they may be able to avoid relegation once they get to that round. It will be a tall order, but the German 92s and 93s are promising and it would be nice to see them in next year’s tournament.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Philipp Grubauer is still on my list, because he’ll have to bounce back to give Germany a prayer. They can be confident that they were able to come back. However, if Grubauer isn’t the guy, Niklas Treutel filled in capably, not allowing a goal against Switzerland. Is there going to be a goaltender controversy for the Germans? Will it matter? Probably not. Lastly, Tom Kuhnhackl is widely considered to be one of the finest German prospects in the game. He’s got a lot of tools and can be a difference maker for this team.
SWITZERLAND – vs. Team USA 12/31 – 8 p.m. EST
Switzerland may have gotten a bit of a wake-up call when they got pasted by Canada, 8-0, in exhibition. They got another one after going up 4-0 on Germany and picking up a narrow 4-3 win. Switzerland finished just shy of a medal after a bit of a dream run last year. This year, the road will be slightly tougher. The key battle for them will come against Slovakia. Odds are, the winner of that game will join Finland and USA in the medal round. They lost some key contributors from last year’s club, but they still have El Nino, Nino Niederreitter. He’s a game breaker. So let’s take this to the players to watch…
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Nino Niederreiter. Don’t know if there’s much left to say about this top-five NHL. He needs to be the go-to guy for this team, and I can’t see how he won’t be. As long as he plays his game, he’s dangerous. The Swiss do have other players that will be fun to watch, however. Benjamin Conz is actually a pretty solid goaltender in most cases. He’s small, but athletic and can make some big saves. Reto Schappi is a hulking forward at 6-4, 205. It always helps to have a big ole forward to keep the defenseman looking over their shoulder in the corners. Should be a fun team to watch.
This is a very solid group that will be fun to watch. Team USA won’t have any games handed to them and will have to come ready to play every night. The great thing about the World Juniors, and the fact that its televised in the U.S., is that we get to see all of these great prospects now. These are the crucial years of their development, when they are on the cusp of the NHL. Some players will emerge, some will wilt under the spotlight. This tournament is a great indicator of who the next stars in the NHL are. So sit back, and enjoy.