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World Junior Hockey Championships Preview

December 26, 2009

You’re probably still recovering from Christmas and since you’re a reader of this blog, watching hockey all weekend seems like a fantastic idea. The holiday season means one thing to hockey fans, the World Junior Hockey Championships. Honestly I didn’t follow the WJHC much until the last few years thanks to the NHL network and extended breaks from college. At first I was a bit dismissive, but after watching multiple years of the WJHC, I’m a huge fan. Also, just because you don’t recognize the names doesn’t mean this tournament is without talent. The WJHC is where players make a name for themselves. Recent tournaments have featured players such as Johnathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Michael Frolík. Any of those names ring a bell?

For those of you that aren’t too familiar with the World Junior Hockey Championships, it is a tournament featuring the best players in the world under-20. For some this is NHL players, but mainly this is a tournament of college kids and those in the junior leagues such as the OHL, QMJHL and WHL. The main tournament features the top 10 national teams in the world. Essentially every tournament features either the Canadians or the Russians/Soviets in the finals. Canada is currently riding a five year winning streak going into this year’s tournament which is being held in Saskatoon.

Since I’ve already given an overview, I suppose I’ll give a full-blown preview.

Canada has an edge going into this year’s tournament as they hold home ice advantage. Adding to this is that we’re only a few months removed from the Olympic Games in Vancouver and one must wonder if this will be treated as a warm-up tournament for Canadian fans getting ready to cheer on their countrymen in the Winter Games. Canada is majorly favored in this competition not only for this competitive advantage, but also due to the high number of returning players from the last tournament. Our neighbor’s to the north are banking on that experience to help carry them to a record setting, sixth consecutive title.

Sweden also enters this tournament as a team to watch. The Swedes have met the Canucks both of the last two years in the tournament final only to come up short. Sweden currently boasts an abundance of players currently in the NHL system including goaltender Jacob Markstrom. This is quite an experienced team and could legitimately pose a threat to Canada’s streak.

Russia is always a threat in international hockey, regardless of the level. Currently they have the second most championships in WJHC history and that’s excluding Soviet championships. With some KHL talent on the roster it seems that Russia can remain in a position to at least medal, but with the talent of both Sweden and Canada ahead of them, I doubt they can win it all.

The United States is a popular sleeper pick going into the tournament, but I’m not buying it. After watching a few warm up matches it seems as though this team is not clicking and it’s expected considering the team has not been together very long. The talent is there, but in a game that depends so heavily on teamwork, I doubt they can  beat some of the better teams in the tournament. There is a little Indiana flavor on this team as former Indiana Ice standout and first round pick John Carlson will be playing for Team USA. Expect some sort of Carlson-watch after USA games.

The Czech Republic and Sloviakia are always dark horses in these tournaments and often surprise. Both of these teams are not to be taken lightly and could potentially knock off a top team without warning.

After that, the talent seems to decline in the last four teams. Switzerland, Finland, Austria and Latvia are all teams that will probably find they collective ways to the relegation round of the tournament, to fight for the right to remain in the top level of U-20 hockey. Although of these teams, Finland stands the best chance of avoiding what seems like a sure fate.

Players to watch:

Taylor Hall (CAN)

Jordan Eberle (CAN)

Nikita Filatov (RUS)

Jacob Markstrom (SWE)

Magnus Paajarvi-Svensso (SWE)

John Carlson (USA)

Jordan Schroeder (USA)

Predictions:

Gold Medal Game: Sweden 5, Canada 3

Bronze Medal Game: Russia 3, Czech Republic 1

A full TV schedule can be found here: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=509998&navid=DL|NHL|NHLNetwork

Here’s the USA round-robin schedule:

December 26th

USA v. Slovakia 8 pm

December 27th

USA v. Switzerland 4 pm

December 29th

USA v. Latvia 4 pm

December 31st

USA v. Canada 8 pm

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