Merry Christmas to you all. Another year is in the books and we fans get ready for one of the greatest tournaments the new year has to offer. This year’s World Junior Hockey Championship will be taking place across the pond in Ufa, Russia, which is a drag for me and the rest of the East Coast who have to set their alarm clocks to 4 A.M. to catch any action.
This unfortunate circumstance will not, however, deter me from making my yearly WJC predictions. Last year’s predictions were a little off, so bear with me on these.
Biggest Underdog: Czech Republic
The team lost the goalie sensation of the tournament last year, Petr Mrazek. Still the Czechs have a formidable lineup from the goal line up. Patrik Bartosak has been putting up great numbers in Red Deer and currently owns a 17-7-2 record. Their blueline is headlined by David Musil, the Edmonton Oilers second-round pick in the 2011 draft. The top-six forwards look very strong with Radek Faksa, Martin Frk, Dmitri Jaskin, Tomas Hertl, and Tomas Hyka. They are a team you may want to keep your eye on as the tournament gets moving. They certainly have the capability of making a splash in the rankings and shocking a few of the higher profile teams.
Best Goalie: Andrei Vasilevski
What Mrazek was to 2012, I think Vasilevski will be to 2013. He already has a silver medal to his name from last year’s team. Although Andrey Makarov started and ended the gold medal game last season, Vasilevski has done nothing but be a bright spot this season. He’s quick, agile, and has great rebound control. His play last year was a main reason he was selected in the first-round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Look to see him ride his hot hand into the tournament and best Russia’s performance last year with a shot at gold.
Biggest Impact Player: Aleksander Barkov
One thing I was right about last year was the Impact Player. When I picked Mika Zibanejad, I was expecting a big tournament, but he took it to the next step and got the gold medal-winning overtime goal. So let’s see how well I fare with this year’s pick.
Barkov is already poised to be a top-five pick in the NHL draft this year and a solid performance at the World Juniors certainly won’t hurt his cause. He mixes a blend of size and grit that will benefit him in the tournament. He has soft hands around the net, a quick and powerful release, and smart playmaking abilities. A major advantage is that he has played in the SM-liiga against men much older and physically more mature than him for the past two seasons. He is not afraid to use his body to shield the puck or lay a hit. Having a solid team surrounding him will give Barkov the chance to shine and give Suomi a chance to get into medal contention, a position they unfortunately missed out on last season.
Best Defenseman: Rasmus Ristolainen
I’ve been keeping tabs on him for quite some time and saw him play in the USA/Finland game a little while ago and he has exceeded my expectations of him. Ristolainen was ranked in the ISS’s December Rankings as 10th overall, but can certainly move up a few draft boards if he continues to progress and have a big showing in Ufa.
He reminds me very much of an Alex Pietriangelo type of defenseman. For a big man (6’3″) he is a very fluid skater and extremely poised with the puck on his stick. He slows the game down to his speed where he can control the play. You will rarely find him out of position and he likes to use his size to his advantage – mainly pokechecking. A blueliner who isn’t afraid to join the rush and chip in offensively, Ristolainen will feature prominently for Finland, even though he’s the youngest defenseman on the squad.
Tournament MVP: Nail Yakupov
This was a very difficult decision. Canada has some of the best forwards in the tournament, but most of the time, every line will be scoring, which may take away from point-producing favorites like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jonathan Huberdeau. Russia has a lot of offensively gifted forwards as well, but Nail Yakupov will be relied on heavily – along with Mikail Grigorenko – to supply much of the offense behind Russia’s onslaught.
Yakupov is, in the most pure sense of the word, a sniper. When the puck his on his stick, you’re bound to see something magical. He has very shifty hands and a powerful release for a player who only stands 5’10”. He has transitioned nicely to the KHL and will be a leader for Team Russia in this year’s tournament.
Biggest Upset: Team Sweden and Team USA
Let’s start with the good ol’ U.S. of A. After an abysmal performance last year in Calgary/Edmonton, Team USA has done its best to revamp its squad to be a medal contender again. After watching a few games, while the team looks pretty solid on paper, they don’t look nearly as cohesive on the ice. I’ve seen too many botched plays, bad chemistry between lines, and flat out awful efforts from a few players. Their 5-1 loss to Finland is what broke the camel’s back for me. Call it premature since they have yet to play a game but this Team USA doesn’t look to me like they can fight for a medal. As an American fan, it pains me to say it, so I’d like nothing more than for them to prove me wrong in Ufa and come out as gold medalists.
Team Sweden is another story. It’s difficult to repeat as champions in the World Juniors. It’s just as hard to even medal. But I can’t see this Swedish team giving enough of a fight like last year’s team did. They lost a ton of key players. For starters, their gold medal savior, Mika Zibanejad was not allowed to go this year, forwards Johan Larsson and Max Friberg are now too old to play in the tournament, along with top defensemen Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin. I think that core of players was the difference in last year’s gold medal team, but this year they don’t have those kind of players to have a strong enough showing in Russia.
2013 IIHF World Junior Champions: Finland
I know! It’s a shocker! How can Canada not win the tournament with NHL-caliber players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele, Ryan Murphy, Dougie Hamilton, etc.? I believe they will get caught up in the same problem as Team USA. Cohesiveness and team chemistry play a big role in tournaments like this. Even with top-notch talent, some of the best teams tend to falter in pressure situations. Canada has already lost to Finland in exhibition and barely squeaked out a shootout win against Sweden.
Finland, on the other hand, seems to have the perfect formula of solid starter in net, a mix of skill and defensive mindedness on the blueline, and a plethora of potent offensive players. That trifecta will turn out to be lethal in this tournament. Don’t overlook the other key players in the tournament either.
Finland’s defense boasts 2012 draft picks Olli Maatta and Ville Pokka. Add in returning vets like Markus Granlund and Mikko Salomaki, along with first-round picks Joel Armia and Teuvo Tervainen, putting Finland as the gold medal favorites doesn’t seem so farfetched. If they do pull out the win in Ufa, it will be their first gold medal since 1998 when they won it in their home country.
1. Finland – Gold
2. Russia – Silver
3. Canada – Bronze
4. United States
6. Czech Republic
What say you?