The U.S. National Junior Team will face a very competitive field playing in the IIHF World Junior Championship’s Group B. Starting with Denmark tonight, the U.S. will meet Finland, the Czech Republic and Canada in preliminary-round action, providing a challenging path to the medal round.
The U.S. shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to the medal round, but achieving the bye to the semifinal, while not as important as you might think, will be a tougher task.
A complete preview of each of Team USA’s Group B opponents comes after the jump…
vs. Team USA, Dec. 26, 8 p.m. EST
The Danes have an uphill battle in simply avoiding relegation this year (see today’s Beginner’s Guide to the World Juniors for an explanation of the relegation system). That said, Denmark has a pretty impressive player in Nicklas Jensen, who plays for the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. Still, this is a team that’s going to struggle to win games. In the pre-tournament competition, Denmark lost 8-0 to Sweden and 5-1 to potential relegation-round opponent Latvia. Still, there’s a reason they’re in this tournament and you still have to play the games. It might take a miracle for Denmark to beat the U.S., or anyone else, but stranger things have happened.
Key Player: F Nicklas Jensen
Other notes: Forward Anders Schultz plays for Cedar Rapids in the United States Hockey League. Head coach Todd Bjorkstrand is a native of Minneapolis. He played four years at the University of Maine and spent over 10 years playing professionally in Denmark. Barry Smith, a former Vancouver Canucks assistant coach, who was the video coach for last year’s U.S. National Junior Team, is an assistant coach for Team Denmark.
vs. Team USA, Dec. 28, 3:30 p.m. EDT
Finland might not have great depth, but it’s top two lines are among the best in the tournament. Featuring one of the best prospects in all of hockey, Mikael Granlund, who is also featured on a stamp in his home country, Finland has some incredible skill up front. On top of Mikael Granlund, there’s Teemu Pulkkinen, who once scored 10 goals in the World Under-18 Championship and Joel Armia, a first-round choice by the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, not to mention Joonas Donskoi and Markus Granlund (Mikael’s brother). The Finns also have stereotypically strong goaltending featuring Christopher Gibson and Sami Aitokallio. What Finland lacks is depth, particularly on the blue line and this is also a fairly young team. The talent is there for Finland to compete and Finnish teams typically don’t go away without a fight. Finland is likely the third team to make it out of Group B into the medal round.
Key Players: F-Mikael Granlund, F-Teemu Pulkkinen, F-Joonas Donskoi, F-Joel Armia
Other Notes: Finland’s roster includes three 1994-born defensemen, Olli Maatta, Ville Pokka and Rasumus Ristolainen. Maatta may be a first-rounder in June, while Pokka has been rapidly moving up the charts as well. Ristolainen won’t even be draft eligible until 2013. While these are high-end 1994s, that much youth on the blue line doesn’t bode well in a 19-year-old’s tournament. Another player to watch is 1995-born Aleksander Barkov. He just might be a top-five pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, despite the fact that he just makes the draft age cutoff by 10 days. He is dynamic and one of the youngest players in this year’s World Junior Championship.
vs. Team USA, Dec. 30, 3:30 p.m. EST
The Czech Republic always seems to hang around in these tournaments, but has clearly found itself outside of the group of elites. The Czechs have more in common with Slovakia and Switzerland than they do with Russia, Canada and the U.S. That said, the Czechs should give some teams fits with their good skill level and pretty solid size, particularly at forward. Goaltender Petr Mrazek will likely be the difference in the games the Czechs find success. He’s been solid for the Ottawa 67s in the OHL, but will have to be all-world to give his team a shot at the medal round. We’ll take a much detailed look at the Czech Republic ahead of the game Thursday.
Key Players: G-Petr Mrazek, D-David Musil, F-Tomas Hertl, F-Dimitrij Jaskin
Other Notes: Czech forward Jiri Sekac was a standout for the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL before moving onto the KHL.
vs. Team USA, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. EST
New Year’s Eve gets a heck of a lot more fun when the U.S. and Canada find themselves in the same Group. The last meeting between these two clubs on New Year’s Eve resulted in a shootout win for Canada in what turned out to be an absolute classic. It set the stage for a truly memorable gold-medal game. There is a very good chance this game will be the unofficial Group B championship game with the winner earning a bye to the semis. If that’s the case, it makes this already compelling game all the more interesting. This game will be covered extensively on Friday.
Key Players: F-Jaden Schwartz, F-Devante Smith-Pelly, F-Brett Connolly, F-Jonathan Huberdeau, D-Brandon Gormley
Other Notes: Schwartz played Junior hockey in the United States Hockey League and skates for Colorado College in the NCAA. He is Team Canada’s captain. Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak was expected to play for the United States internationally, but as a dual-citizen born in Canada decided to play for his birth country. Oleksiak was part of Team USA’s pre-tournament camp last year, but was cut. He announced his decision in the summer that he’d play for Canada.
Group B is certainly the stronger of the World Junior Championship’s two pools, but here’s a brief look at Group B.
The defending gold medalists might be the tournament favorite. With some serious skill up front and good speed, Team Russia is going to be a force.
Key Players: F-Nail Yakupov, F-Mikael Grigorenko, F-Nikita Kucherov, F-Yevgeni Kuznetsov
The Swedes may not be getting enough respect as a medal contender for this year’s tournament. They’ll give Russia all it can handle in the preliminary round in fighting for a bye. The Swedes have struggled in the big games on the World Junior stage, so they’ll have to prove that’s a thing of the past.
Key Players: F-Mika Zibanejad, F-Johan Larsson, F-Filip Forsberg, F-Victor Rask, D-Oscar Klefbom, D-Jonas Brodin
The Swiss national program has produced so many excellent players and some surprising results internationally. This Swiss team could really use Nino Niederreiter right now, but have some very impressive forwards. Might be tough to go very far for Switzerland, but they’ll have a great shot at the medal round.
Key Players: F-Sven Bartschi, F-Christoph Bertschy, F-Sven Andrighetto, F-Gergory Hofman
Slovakia has really struggled of late and is a far cry from its days with Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and the like. Still, this is a very physical team, more physical than most European clubs. There’s also some pretty solid skill up front.
Key Players: F-Tomas Jurco, D-Martin Marincin, F-Marko Dano, F-Filip Vasko, D-Adam Janosik
The new relegation rules could end up helping Latvia, which would appear to be the fifth best team in Group A. With only one team getting sent down now, the Latvians should be able to stick in the top flight, at the very least.
Key Players: F-Zemgus Girgensons, F-Teddy Bluger, F-Kristians Pelss
The 2012 World Junior Championship should be an exciting one. The top five teams are elite and each will have a good shot at getting to the tournament’s final game. It should be a lot of fun to watch.