The Latvians enter the 2017 World Junior Championship with a very good roster for their standard, but considering the quality of players and the opposition, the team will hardly have a goal much higher than trying to escape relegation.
Differently from a few years ago, the Latvians will have a number of NHL-drafted players in their lineup. The San Jose Sharks will be interested in checking the progress of their two recent draftees Rudolf Balcers and Karlis Cukste, both playing in North America, while the Toronto Maple Leafs will turn their attention on Martins Dzierkals, whom they drafted in 2015 with a third round pick. All three players are returnees from last year’s squad that earned back promotion to the elite division after winning the 2016 Division IA tournament in Vienna, Austria. Cukste was named the Top Defenseman of the tournament (and the top scorer of the team was the Vancouver Canucks’, now graduated prospect Rodrigo Abols). It’s to be expected that the three will have to bring the team on their shoulders, especially Dzierkals, who is having a great second season in the QMJHL with the Rouyn-Nouranda Huskies.
Dzierkals never gets held off the scoresheet for long these days though. Here’s his goal yesterday: pic.twitter.com/WksnVUdfHH
— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) October 29, 2016
The Latvians will bring many undrafted players to Canada, but there are a couple of them who can really raise their stock with a good tournament. Defensemen Kristians Rubins and Kristaps Zile are promising, reliable players who are developing into solid young players with a good reputation. While Rubins decided to move abroad to develop, playing first in Sweden, then now in the Western Hockey League, Kristaps Zile took a more traditional path and is now getting regularly called up to play with Dinamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey League. Although he became popular for a hit that became a must-see on YouTube, which you can see later, he is more of an offensive player with a solid skating abilities and a good reading of the game. The Latvian’s defensive core is better than you can expect from a relatively low-caliber team.
The Best of the Rest
Team Latvia will have a good couple of lines, which will be completed by a player like Rihards Puide, currently playing in Switzerland. Goalies are not as good as the ones from the top teams like Russia or Canada, but Mareks Mitens is playing well in the North American Hockey League with the Aston Rebels and will most likely be the first choice as a goalie. Another interesting player can be Deniss Smirnovs. The 1999-born is playing in Switzerland and is showing good offensive potential, although his ice time will probably be pretty limited as he is still very young. It will also be interesting to see in action Ontario Hockey League player Renars Krastenbergs, who is having a decent rookie season with the Oshawa Generals.
The Bottom Line
This team has a few strengths, like the presence of some very talented players, a good goalie, and a solid defensive core, although they lack defensive depth and some of their top players are just coming out of injuries. Moreover, the Latvians also lost Eriks Zohovs to an injury. Losing one of the top NAHL scorers may be a huge blow for a team who lacks offensive power. That being said, the Latvians will pretty much have to win a single game, against Team Slovakia, to stay afloat. The game against the Slovaks is scheduled for Dec. 31. On a side note, former NHL head coach Bob Hartley, who has just been hired as senior Team Latvia head coach, will join the team as a consultant.
Team Latvia will seek to avoid relegation in a cutthroat battle against Team Slovakia.
With a couple of heads-up by Latvian journalist Didzis Rudmanis.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso