Your Guide to the 2012 World Junior Championships

If you’re a fan of the World Junior Championships, you know that they never disappoint. Year after year, they bring us some of the most exciting hockey you’ll ever see – particularly for Canadian hockey fans, who have been absolutely spoiled with gold medals and great memories.

Cue the goosebumps:

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I’m gonna give you a quick run-down of this year’s tournament, starting with the hometown red and white. Here’s Canada’s 22-man roster for the 2012 World Junior Championship (click to enlarge):

Forwards

If Canada is going to win gold at this year’s tournament, team captain Jaden Schwartz will need to play a big part. Schwartz made the team last year, but after injuring his ankle in only the 2nd game, he was forced to miss the rest of the tournament. Though he’s a small player (5’9), he’s quick and incredibly skilled with the puck, and will be relied on to jump start the offence, particularly on the powerplay.

Brett Connolly is another returning player who will be looked to for his scoring touch this year. After a great NHL training camp this fall, Connolly managed to stick around with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And though he’s only scored 4 goals through 28 games, he should be far more effective playing against teenagers as opposed to men. He has a goal scorer’s touch and should be amongst the tournament leaders in goals if he plays the in which he’s capable.

Mark Scheifele is already familiar to many Canadian hockey fans because of the way he played in the NHL’s exhibition season, and is very well-known amongst Jets fans. After a brief NHL stay, Scheifele has done nothing but tear it up since returning to junior, collecting 36 points in only 19 games. Scheifele will centre one of Canada’s top-2 lines, and should make his teammates better because of his great hands, vision, and on-ice awareness. Although they say the World Juniors are a 19-year-old’s tournament, Scheifele’s skill and maturity go well beyond his 18 years.

Brendan Gallagher is a phenomenally talented player who’s limited only by his size. Though he’ll almost always be out-muscled, rarely will he be out-skilled, out-skated, or out-hustled. He had a great training camp with the Montreal Canadians this fall and nearly made the team, but was instead returned to junior hockey, where he’s continued to impress, scoring 24 goals in just 28 games. Team Canada Head Coach Don Hay knows first hand just how good this guy is, as he also happens to coach Gallagher’s junior team, the Vancouver Giants. Gallagher should be one of Canada’s leading scorers, and a definite fan favourite.

Speaking of fan favourites, meet Devante Smith-Pelly. At 5’11, 210, he’s built like a truck, and hits everything that moves. But Smith-Pelly isn’t just a grinder – he can play. That’s why the 19-year-old has spent the year with the Anaheim Ducks, scoring 3 goals thus far. He was also a key contributor to last season’s OHL championship team, the St. Mike’s Majors, where he scored 15 goals in just 20 playoff games. Like Connolly, Smith-Pelly should find a bit more room to breathe here than in the NHL, and should contribute some offence as a result.

Ryan Strome has had a disappointing year thus far. After posting 106 points last season, and seeing his draft stock soar to 5th overall (New York Islanders), he’s put up only 33 points this season. Furthermore, those who observed the junior selection camp said he didn’t perform particularly well. Despite this apparent inconsistency, Strome is a dynamic player who could make some key plays for Canada as the tournament wears on.

Mark Stone and Tanner Pearson are certainly late bloomers. It’s rare that you’ll see a player of Stone’s caliber drafted in the 6th round of the NHL draft, but that’s exactly the case for the WHL’s leading scorer. Meanwhile, Pearson – the OHL’s scoring leader – hasn’t been drafted at all. Nevertheless, these two should help carry the offensive load, particularly Stone, who has been thoroughly dominant all year long. Pearson, may take a bit of time to adjust, as he’s never played at this level before.

Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden are both key players who come into the tournament as question marks. Huberdeau is easily the most talented player on the team, but is still getting back into game shape after breaking his foot on November 7. Meanwhile Howden, one of the team’s 4 returning players, suffered a minor concussion in selection camp after being crushed by teammate Devante Smith-Pelly. Each of them played on Dec. 23 against Switzerland, but will take a while to get their timing and conditioning back. With the tournament being so short, it’s hard to imagine that either of them will be at their best.

At this point, Canada’s least acclaimed forwards are Freddie Hamilton, Michael Bournival, and Boone Jenner. Though none is a high draft pick, or having a particularly dominant season, each made the team for a reason.  Hamilton is both talented and versatile, and can play centre or right wing. Bournival is yet another skilled player who could move up the lineup if more talented players struggle to score. Finally there’s Jenner, who will be be looked upon to provide grit for Team Canada, despite the fact that he leads his junior team (the Oshawa Generals) in scoring.

Defence

Look for this to be Brandon Gormley‘s coming out party. Gormley probably would have made the team last year, but suffered an injury just prior to selection camp. His game is best described as sound, with virtually no weaknesses to speak of. He’s also a leader, evidenced by the fact that he’s the only defencemen with an ‘A’ on his jersey.

Dougie Hamilton is probably the best long-term NHL prospect on the roster, and brings a little bit of everything to the table. Despite his team-leading 45 points with the OHL’s Niagra Ice Dogs, Hamilton isn’t a pure skill defenceman, but his combination of size, smarts, and puck handling ability make Hamilton a force at both ends of the ice.

Ryan Murray is probably the most gifted defenceman on the roster, and is expected to be drafted in the top-5 in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He’s been injured much of the year, playing only 11 games so far this season for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, but if he’s fully ready to go, his wonderful combination of skating and puck handling will be a welcome addition on the powerplay and at even-strength.

Like his future Montreal Canadians teammate Brendan Gallagher, Nathan Beaulieu had a great NHL camp; there was even some talk he might stick around the NHL for a while. Instead, the slick playmaker was returned to his junior team – last year’s Memorial Cup Champs, the  St. John’s Sea Dogs. Beaulieu has grown accustomed to an up-tempo style of hockey, helping to lead the Sea Dogs’ high powered offence, and is expected to be the offensive catalyst on the blueline for Team Canada.

There’s only one way to describe Scott Harrington‘s game – solid. He won’t do anything flashy, but he’s that stabilizing force that will block a shot, clear the puck, and take the body at every opportunity. You’ll never see Harrington on the powerplay, but he may not leave the ice much when Canada is on the penalty-kill.

Mark Pysyk will be playing in his own backyard at this year’s tournament. The native of Sherwood Park, AB – an Edmonton suburb – was one of the final cuts from last year’s team, and brings a dependable two-way game to the ice. Like Gormley, his game won’t necessarily blow you away you, but he should see regular minutes in all situations for Don Hay’s team.

At 6’6, and over 240 lbs, Jamie Oleksiak is a beast. His role will be to punish opponents in front of the net and in the corners, and lead the pk. Like Harrington, you won’t see Oleksiak out on the powerplay, but he’ll play an important role in trying to make life difficult for the opposition’s best players.

Goaltending

Though Mark Visentin is the incumbent goaltender from last year’s squad, he isn’t ncessarily the opening day starter. After a poor 1st period in Monday’s exhibition game against Sweden, where he gave up 4 goals, newcomer Scott Wedgewood was solid in relief, stopping all 10 shots he faced. Furthermore, most believed that Wedgewood was the best goaltender in selection camp. Both goaltenders will get a chance to play in the tournament, but if the opening day starter plays well, it will be hard for the other goalie to get back in the net come the medal round.

**Update**: Visentin has been named the starter for today’s game vs. Finland

Missing in Action

As per usual, Team Canada Head Coach Don Hay has a formidable squad, which should compete for a gold medal at this year’s tournament. Of course, should they not win, the story would quickly turn to who isn’t here, and the list is impressive. The NHL has claimed some of Canada’s best under-20’s, including Ryan Johansen (Clb), Sean Couturier (Phi), Erik Gudbranson (Fla), Tyler Seguin (B0s), Jeff Skinner (Car), and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edm). With those players in the lineup, there’d be almost no doubt that Canada would win gold, but as it stands, things will be interesting.

Other Medal Contenders

Russia

To say Russia is stacked with talent would be a gross understatement. The team is led by Evgeni Kuznetsov, who was spectacular in last year’s tournament, scoring 4 goals and 7 assists, and leading Russia to an upset, comeback win over Canada. The 1st round pick of the Washington Capitals also garnered tournament all-star honours. Then there’s Alexander Khokhlachev, an early 2nd round pick of the Boston Bruins, who leads the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in scoring. Nikita Kucherov was one of the most dominant players at last year’s U-18 World Championships, scoring 21 points in only 7 games. Ivan Telegin is a Winnipeg Jets prospect who at his best, resembles a toned-down version of Evgeni Malkin. If all that weren’t enough, there’s draft darlings Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko – the two players who are competing to go #1 in this June’s NHL Entry Draft. With Canada’s best offensive players in the NHL, no one can match Russia’s potent offensive arsenal.

USA

The USA roster doesn’t have as many blue-chip prospects as in years past, but they still have tremendous depth. At forward, they have Florida’s 2010 1st round pick, Nick Bjugstad, who’s having a great sophomore campaign at the University of Minnesota with 16 goals through 20 games. Then there’s Anaheim 1st round pick Emerson Etem, who has 30 goals in 34 games with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers. Other 1st round picks include Charlie Coyle, (Minnesota), J.T Miller (New York Rangers), and Austin Watson (Nashville). Then there’s Brandon Saad (Chicago), and Jason Zucker (Minnesota) – two 2nd round picks who are quickly making fools of all the teams that passed on them in the 1st round. T.J Tynan is the USA’s version of Brendan Gallagher – a player who’s small but very skilled. On defence they boast 1st round picks like Derek Forbort and Jared Tinordi, as well as 2nd round pick Jon Merril. Each of them is physically imposing – particularly Tinordi, who stands 6’7. And in goal, they have Jack Campbell – the guy who came in in relief and led the USA to 2010 World Junior Championship gold. He’s also a 1st round selection of the Dallas Stars, and, on paper, the best goalie in the tournament.

Sweden

The Swedish attack is led by  Mika Zibanejad – last year’s 6th overall pick of the Ottawa Senators. Zibanejad started the season in Ottawa, but with the team struggling early, they thought it best for him to continue his development at home in Sweden. He’s big and fast, with great hands and a great shot, and will give defenders nightmares throughout the tournament. Forward Rickard Rakell was a late 1st round pick of Anaheim, while Victor Rask was an early 2nd round pick for Carolina. Both play in the CHL and lead their teams in goal scoring. Meanwhile centre Filip Forsberg (no relation to Peter) is expected to be a top-5 pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. On defence, the team boasts two 1st round picks – Jonas Brodin (Minnesota), and Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton). Brodin brings great skating, passing, and intelligence to the ice, while Klefbom is big and fast, with a hard shot. They happen to play for the same Swedish pro team (Farjestad), and they complement each other well.

Notably absent for the Swedes are forward Gabriel Landeskog and defenceman Adam Larsson, both of whom are playing in the NHL. They of course were drafted 2nd and 4th in last year’s draft – to Colorado and New Jersey respectively. Nevertheless, the Swedes are still a force, as evidenced by their surprising exhibition win over Canada this past Monday.

 

Other Players to Watch (NHL team in backets)

Finland – Mikael Granlund (Min), Joel Armia (Buf), Teemu Pulkkinen (Det)

Slovakia – Martin Marincin (Edm), Martin Gernat (Edm), Tomas Jurco (Det)

Switzerland – Sven Bartschi (Cgy)

Denmark – Nicklas Jensen (Van)

Latvia – Zemgus Girgensons (2012 draft eligible)

Seeding

The team’s are split into two pools – A & B – like so:

Pool A: Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Switzerland, Latvia

Pool B: Canada, USA, Finland, Czech Republic, Denmark

After a 4-game round robin where every team plays each other once, the top-3 teams in each pool get a chance to advance through the medal round. Barring any surprises, look for Russia or Sweden to finish top-2 in Pool A, and Canada or the USA to win pool B. Slovakia is my bet to get 3rd in Pool A  – though Switzerland isn’t a bad opponent – and Finland has a slight edge over the Czech Republic in Pool B, due, if nothing else, to the sheer dominance of centre Mikael Granlund.

In the medal round, the 3rd place team from Pool A plays the 2nd place team from Pool B, and vice versa, while the 1st place team from each pool gets a bye to the semi-final. If we assume that Russia and Canada each win their pools, that would mean a classic quarter-final match-up of Sweden vs. Finland, and a slightly less classic USA vs. Slovakia. The winner of Sweden-Finland would then play Canada, while the winner of USA-Slovakia would take on Russia.

I don’t want to predict a winner because I really don’t have a strong opinion, but I feel like Russia and Canada are the top-2 teams. That being said, the USA and Sweden are also excellent, and could just as easily make up the final.

Last year I didn’t think Canada was good enough to win, and they surprised me all the way till the 3rd period of the gold medal game, when they were overwhelmed by the Russians. This year they’ve gotten a nice boost from NHL’ers like Connolly and Smith-Pelly being available to join the team, and they boast a well-balanced attack up front. The questions will be on defence, where all 7 defenceman are World Junior rookies, and in goal, where Wedgewood/Visentin will be tested against the USA in round robin play, and against Sweden and/or Russia is the medal round.

Regardless of the outcome, it should be a very compelling 11 days of hockey! Sit back and enjoy.

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