After avoiding relegation in last year’s tournament, Team Latvia will have to fight hard this year too, as the program didn’t make significant steps forward to have bigger ambitions. With a few returnees from last year’s squad, the Latvians may use some experience, and hope in some luck, to do some damage in the Group A, which will also see Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and the host team, Slovakia. The 2017 edition is the third time Latvia will play in the elite division, after getting promoted in 2014, when the team captain was Vancouver Canucks prospect Rodrigo Abols.
Team Latvia’s starting goalie is most likely going to be Niklavs Rauza. The goalie is in his third year in Finland, and has posted very good numbers at both U18 and U20 level. He also skated in Team Latvia training camp before the U20 WJC this winter, but didn’t make the cut. The other two goalies will be Normunds Borskovics, and 2000-born Janis Voris, both playing at home. It is to be expected that Rauza will face a lot of shots during the tournament.
Latvia has struggled to consistently produce talent on the blue line, and the latest few WJC squads, at both U18 and U20, confirm this. The Latvians have two defensemen playing in North America, Niks Krollis, playing for the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and Regnars Udris, representing the St. Louis Jr. Blues of the NA3HL. Both defensemen have good numbers, but they need to be tested against better competition, and they will surely find plenty at the U18 WJC. The rest of the defensemen plays at home, either in the Latvian league or in the MHL, except for Sandis Smons, who is skating with Geneve-Servette in the Swiss junior league. The Latvians will have to work very hard to overcome a defensemen group that doesn’t seem good enough to keep the pace with the other teams.
Jr Blues Dman Regnars Udris scored his 1st goal of the year while adding a assist and finishing the game +5 pic.twitter.com/aL6nd1YnVW
— Jr Blues Gameday (@JrBluesGameday) November 27, 2016
Forwards seem to be better than defensemen for the Latvians recently and this year too. The team will feature three players who were included in the NHL Central Scouting draft list, Emils Gegeris, Lukass Sicevs, and Deniss Smirnovs. Smirnovs, who is playing in Switzerland for Geneve-Servette, has already played at the U20 WJC this season. Another interesting player will be Viktors Jasunovs, who is skating in Sweden, and was previously not known whether he would play for Latvia as he also holds a Swedish passport. Jasunovs, born in 2000, had very good stats in Sweden, and most likely will be one of the players to watch for the Latvians at the tournament.
Another interesting player will be Verners Egle. As a rookie in the USHL, he scored three goals and 12 points for the Madison Capitols. He is a returnee from last season, and also the younger brother of NCAA player Haralds Egle. Forwards seem to be overally better than forwards, but three or four good players may be not enough to guarantee a spot in the elite division.
— Madison Capitols (@MadCapsHockey) February 25, 2017
The Bottom Line
It won’t be an easy tournament for the Latvians, and the team will have to fight bravely to try to avoid relegation to Division 1 next year. The most likely result will be the relegation playoffs against Team Belarus, who has the most chance to end up last in the Group B. The Latvians will start their 2017 U18 WJC on April 13 against Team Canada.
With a couple of heads-up by Latvian journalist Didzis Rudmanis.