Facing Off: Weighing In on the World Juniors

Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks, to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Five more sleeps. No, that’s not a mathematical error — I’ve got the date circled in bold red marker.

I’m not counting down to Christmas, silly — that day is merely World Juniors Eve.

Yes, I’ve made it an annual tradition to save an extra chocolate — or miniature booze bottle — from my Advent calendar for Boxing Day, the official start of the under-20 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.

This year’s tournament is taking place in Helsinki, Finland, and promises to be intense from the opening puck-drop with North American rivals — Canada and the United States — facing off on Dec. 26th. TSN’s top-notch coverage has turned this showcase into a national pastime in Canada, something we look forward to every year — with the (unfair) expectation of gold-or-bust.

There are plenty of topics worth debating ahead of this year’s tournament, so I’m pleased to be joined by Andrew Forbes for this special edition of Facing Off.

Let’s start with the easy one, who’s going to win gold, silver and bronze? Give us your medal predictions. If you have a dark-horse in mind, give us that too.

FORBES: My gold medalist will most definitely come from Group A. Let’s be honest, that group should be the powerhouse in this tournament with the likes of Canada, Sweden and the United States. With that being said, don’t count out Russia or the home country — Finland.

I’m inclined to hand the repeat to Canada. Look, they have an incredibly tough coach in Dave Lowry. They’ll have a rested goaltender heading into the important games in Barrie’s Mackenzie Blackwood, who also has something to prove (he was supposed to be the No. 1 heading into the tournament but got suspended in the OHL). And with a number of returnees, this could be another tough, shut-down Canadian team.

The silver medal is a toss up for me — Sweden or the United States? On one hand, you have what should be the first overall pick in Auston Matthews on a strong American team. On the other, you have William Nylander (who’s expected to take on a leading role for Sweden), Dmytro Timashov and Joel Eriksson Ek, along with a number of talented Swedes. My inclination is to go with Sweden. But the U.S. could be the pick to go with.

Finally, the other team between the Swedes and the Americans will be hard-pressed to grab bronze next to a Russian team that always seems to find their way into the medal rounds. Svechnikov. Provorov. Sergeyev. If the U.S. or Sweden doesn’t grab that bronze, expect the Russians to be right there knocking.

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FISHER: Here’s hoping smart minds think alike — well, mostly alike. I don’t want to be a homer like Andrew — just kidding buddy — so as much as I believe Canada is fully capable of defending gold, I’m predicting Sweden to win it all. William Nylander really should be a force in this tournament, considering he’s the leading scorer in (arguably) the second-best professional league in the world — that being, the AHL. Andrew threw out a couple names from Nylander’s supporting cast and I’ll toss out a couple more with Adrian Kempe on loan from the Los Angeles Kings’ farm team and Axel Holmstrom, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who could use this tournament as his coming-out party. More on him later. But what really sold me on Sweden for gold, more than their offensive firepower, is their defence — it’s stacked with a bunch of future studs.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the dominance of Swedish blue-liners in the NHL, led by Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The next wave includes Jacob Larsson and Marcus Pettersson, both property of the Anaheim Ducks, and Columbus Blue Jackets first-rounder Gabriel Carlsson. Plus there’s Gustav Forsling, who was already a standout in last year’s tournament, and Sebastian Aho, another offensive-minded defender who probably deserved to get drafted this past June. William Lagesson, an Edmonton Oilers prospect, could round out that defence corps as more of a shutdown type. And Felix Sandstrom is no slouch in goal either.

I see a silver lining for Canada. I’m not as confident as Andrew when it comes to the goaltending, be it Blackwood or Mason McDonald or maybe even Samuel Montembeault. That position will ultimately decide Canada’s fate, but I could totally see a controversy brewing between the pipes as the tournament progresses and becoming somewhat of a distraction. Sure, Blackwood got a shutout and looked great against the Czechs — who have a talented team and tested him in yesterday’s 1-0 defeat — but what if McDonald blanks the Americans on Boxing Day? Then he’s got to be the go-to guy going forward, right? Canada is going to be able to roll three scoring lines and also boasts a solid defence, albeit not quite on Sweden’s level. That’s right, I’d take Sweden’s group over Canada’s. I do like Lowry leading the troops, so I wouldn’t go as far as to call Canada an underdog against Sweden. That will be one heck of a championship game if it comes to fruition, and we’ll be treated to a preview with their New Year’s Eve showdown.

The Americans also get my bronze but, unlike Andrew, I have them beating the host Finns in the third-place game. With that said, Matthews could steal the show and carry his country to gold. Playing pro in Switzerland this season, he’s another guy already averaging more than a point-per-game against men. But I’m not convinced the Americans are bringing their best possible roster to Helsinki, nor do I have a ton of confidence in their defence beyond Zach Werenski and Brandon Carlo. The forward group is potent but still leaves a bit to be desired too, with the boys left back at home. Team USA isn’t a medal lock by any means.

Finland is my dark-horse, ahead of Russia, to win a medal on home ice. It certainly wouldn’t shock me. Finland’s goaltending and defence might not stack up, but the Finns are going to fill the net. Kasperi Kapanen and Mikko Rantanen are first-round NHL draft picks, while Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are expected to join them in that club come June. Those four, along with a few other Finnish forwards, have the potential to light it up in this tournament much to the delight of the partisan crowd.

Third Man In

DENNIS SCHELLENBERG (Swiss-based independent scout covering European hockey and prospects for THW): The past couple of years, the medals have been given to the five big nations with the exception of Slovakia’s upset last year against Sweden in the bronze-medal game. The gold selections of my colleagues, Andrew and Larry, are therefore making sense — Canada is always able to win a medal, same goes for Sweden.

Having a look at the Canadian roster shows the deep pool of talent this country has, although I am with Larry on the goaltending position — this could become an issue for the team, but doesn’t necessarily need to be one. The firepower and skill on this roster is immense, they have kids who play a solid two-way game, have size, skilled and speedy puckhandlers, in fact nearly every aspect to win the tournament. Personally, I am disappointed that Jakob Chychrun won’t suit up for the Canadians, but they still have a very solid defence.

Sweden, Larry’s gold-medal prediction, amazed me as well when I saw their invitation list for selection camp. What I really like about their roster is the level of experience they bring to the table. Holmstrom, Kempe, Forsling, William Nylander and Andreas Englund are already core players in professional leagues. They are balanced and strong at each position. However, if they lose against both USA and Canada in the preliminary round, the Swedes could face a very strong team in the quarter-finals already. Additionally, they have to face the tougher underdogs with Switzerland and Denmark compared to the other group.

My own selection for winning the gold medal would be the U.S. and I have three reasons for this selection. First, they are a tournament team, meaning they are playing their best hockey when it really matters. I am convinced they will pick up the pace as soon as the playoffs start. Second, I am a big fan of their National Development Program. They did a great job over the past years in developing young talents, many U18 gold-medal winners will now compete in Helsinki as well. Third and last, they have Matthews, the best player at this year’s WJC.

The silver medal will go to Canada and the bronze to Finland, which will beat Sweden in the third-place game. The arrival of Kapanen and Rantanen could make the difference for the hosts.

Maybe that was too easy. Who’s going to win the tournament MVP, top scorer, top defenceman and top goaltender? Give us your award predictions.


FORBES: My MVP and (likely) top scorer is William Nylander. The 19-year-old is tearing up the AHL for the Toronto Marlies and has the skill-set to dominate this tournament as well. Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk definitely won’t be far behind, and nor will Mitch Marner of Team Canada.

As for defensemen, this category is always a toss-up. A dark-horse to watch is Kitchener’s Dmitri Sergeyev of Team Russia. He has 13 points (2g-11a) in just 25 games this season in the OHL and could be a major factor for the Russians. Werenski on Team USA is also going to put his hat in for the top blue-liner of the tournament. The eighth overall pick for Columbus in 2015 has 12 points (4g-8a) in just 15 games for the University of Michigan.


As for the top goaltender, I honestly think that Blackwood will come in for Canada and use the suspension as motivation to have the tournament of his life. Look for him to steal a couple games for Canada and notch a gold-medal win for the red and white.

FISHER: OK, I guess this isn’t getting any tougher. Nylander is, indeed, the odds-on favourite to win tournament MVP and top scorer — he was my pick for both as well. Matthews will almost certainly be in the running too, along with Marner and/or Brayden Point of Canada. I’m not nearly as high on Tkachuk as Andrew. He’s a draft-eligible prospect — the son of Keith Tkachuk — but I don’t see him cracking the top 10 in tournament scoring. Rantanen could make some noise for the Finns, and I think we’ll see a Russian right up there too — perhaps Evgeny Svechnikov or Denis Gurianov. Of course, if Boston loans David Pastrnak to the Czech Republic, then he’s going to pile up the points despite coming off a foot injury. I definitely agree that the tournament MVP will be a forward this year.


I see the top defenceman award as a battle between two Philadelphia Flyers first-rounders — Russia’s Ivan Provorov and Canada’s Travis Sanheim — with Sanheim ultimately winning thanks in part to greater team success. I think Sanheim could have a Darnell Nurse-type impact for Canada, and Nurse probably should have won this award last year over Russia’s Vladislav Gavrikov. If Forsling picks up where he left off on this stage — and if Sweden does win gold — he could steal top-defenceman honours too. I can also understand Andrew making a case for Werenski, who is going to be an all-situations workhorse for the Americans. But Andrew caught me by surprise with Sergeyev, a name that is relatively foreign to me. I mean, I’ve heard of him, but not in such high regard, so now I’ll be keeping a closer eye on Sergeyev after Andrew’s lofty praise. I still think his teammate, Provorov, is more of a frontrunner for this award.

It has been seven years since a Canadian won top goaltender — not since Steve Mason (2008) and Carey Price (2007) won in consecutive years — and I don’t think Blackwood is going to join that elite company. As mentioned, I’m not even sure Blackwood will regain his projected No. 1 role when he returns for the third game of the tournament against Switzerland. If he starts, and wins, against Sweden in the preliminary-round finale, then Blackwood’s chances are as good as anybody’s going into the medal round.

The goalie to really watch out for is Russia’s Ilya Samsonov, the Washington Capitals’ first-rounder drawing favourable comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Russia is such a wild-card in this year’s tournament and its medal hopes hinge heavily on Samsonov’s ability to stymie the opposition. Again, if Sweden is winning gold, as per my prediction, then Sandstrom will warrant his share of consideration for this award, and also don’t count out Daniel Vladar of the Czech Republic, especially if Pastrnak joins their fold. It’ll be interesting to see who claims the U.S. crease, my money is on Brandon Halverson or fellow OHLer Alex Nedeljkovic, but either of them could emerge as difference-makers. Now that I’ve put a half-dozen names out there, I’ll go with Sandstrom as the somewhat surprising winner here.

Third Man In

DEREK NEUMEIER (covering the Dallas Stars for THW, with a keen interest in prospects): Well, it doesn’t make for much of a debate, but I have to agree with the both of you that William Nylander is going to be the tournament MVP this time around. He was spectacular for Sweden last year, scoring 10 points in seven games, and he’s been dominant against older competition in the AHL so far this season. He’s one of the best hockey players in the world that’s not currently in the NHL, and he’s likely to feast upon the competition at the WJC.


Where I will disagree, however, is that I think a different player will score the most points: Canada’s Dylan Strome. If Strome plays with Marner, like is being projected, that immensely talented duo is going to pad their stat-lines with reckless abandon. He’s less individually dynamic than both Nylander and Marner, but with his combination of size and hands, Strome’s going to have the puck pretty much every time he steps on the ice.

Best defenseman is probably the toughest award to call here. There are a lot of very qualified candidates. That being said, I’m going to go with Provorov. He’s having a fantastic season in the WHL and he’s going to get a ton of minutes for the Russian team. He’ll produce gaudy offensive numbers, which usually go a long way when it comes to awards, while also wowing onlookers with his sublime puck control at both ends of the ice.

I’m going to go way, way out of left field for best goaltender, but I’m still pretty confident in my pick: Veini Vehvilainen of Finland. He went undrafted this past summer — easily the biggest, most puzzling omission of the entire NHL entry draft — but was a tournament All-Star at the 2015 IIHF U18 World Championship and currently has a sparkling .938 save percentage in the Liiga. Playing on home soil is going to give him an extra boost.

Rosters are still being finalized up until Christmas Day, but have you been surprised by any of the cuts or snubs so far?

FORBES: I’m a little surprised that Nikolai Ehlers never joined Denmark. Look, he’s started off hot but kind of dipped lately for the Winnipeg Jets. Not only would this tournament be a good spot for him to grab back some confidence, but it’s a chance of a lifetime for this kid to represent his country. For Canada, I’m a little surprised by the cuts of Michael Dal Colle and Jakob Chychrun. I know, I know, they didn’t exactly show everything that they had in the early part of camp, but these are two kids that really have legitimate skill. Both have to ability to add something offensively to your lineup while their play in their own end is worth noting as well. Surprising, but when you have the roster that Canada has, it’s not hard to believe they’re going to cut some significant players.

FISHER: I tried my hand at predicting Canada’s roster and it backfired with three of the first four cuts having made my team, including Dal Colle and Chychrun. Spencer Watson was the other, I had him as the 13th forward, but he was very much a long-shot as an undersized seventh-rounder. Dal Colle was outplayed during selection camp by fellow first-round power forward Brendan Perlini and then lost his spot upon the addition of another player with a similar skill-set, when Jake Virtanen was loaned by the Vancouver Canucks. Chychrun is a draft-eligible player thus very young by world-junior standards, so Canada’s staff obviously preferred some older talents on the back end. Those decisions will be ridiculed if Canada doesn’t come home with a medal, but at least those players were invited to selection camp and had a chance to play their way onto the team.

I was actually less surprised by Canada’s final four cuts announced Sunday — forwards Nick Merkley and Jayce Hawryluk, along with defencemen Noah Juulsen and Jérémy Lauzon. I knew Merkley would be on the bubble, especially after he was separated from Kelowna teammate Rourke Chartier, who scored Canada’s only goal against the Czechs to secure his roster spot. Had Merkley lit the lamp instead, I think they both would have made the team. Hawryluk was hurting at the start of selection camp and never got up to speed. Juulsen must have tailed off because he was great against the Russians for Team WHL in that November showcase and was one of only two right-handed defenders auditioning for Canada’s roster. I had Juulsen ahead of Roland McKeown, the other righty, but that was a close call. Lauzon was a late addition, replacing the injured Jake Walman, so he was always on the outside looking in. Canada cut a total of eight players and I had six of them on my roster — counting Merkley, Hawryluk and Juulsen — but I can’t really sit here and say I disagree with any of Lowry’s decisions. They were difficult decisions, no doubt — but, reality is, some guys played their way onto the team and others played their way off.

The Americans, on the other hand, really missed the boat by failing to invite a handful of top forward prospects in Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Alex Tuch, Jeremy Bracco and Conor Garland. I’d take any and all of them over at least eight of the 16 forwards at Team USA’s camp — in no particular order, Paul Bittner (since injured and not replaced), Kiefer Bellows (already cut), Anders Bjork, Ryan Hitchcock, Clayton Keller, Scott Eansor, Ryan MacInnis and Ryan Donato. Seriously, what were they thinking?

As for Ehlers, I think that decision was similar to Leon Draisaitl not getting loaned to Germany by the Edmonton Oilers last year. If Ehlers was eligible to play for Canada, he’d probably be at the tournament but, realistically, Denmark isn’t winning a medal and, aside from Oliver Bjorkstrand, there isn’t a lot of talent for Ehlers to work with there. So the Jets probably didn’t see the purpose of sending him, especially at the risk of injury, with Ehlers already on Winnipeg’s payroll for this season.

Which players are you most excited about and looking forward to watching this year?


FORBES: I’m really interested in seeing what Matthews and Tkachuk can bring to the U.S. squad. Both are offensive threats with significant upside and will be the centre of attention as they look to prove just how valuable they are to NHL squads.

On another note, having covered the Maple Leafs, I’m interested in seeing just how well Marner can continue his success this season. Can he bring it from London and help carry this Canadian team to a championship? Or will he raise more questions than answers for the Leafs in the coming year?

Nylander is another guy I’ll be watching closely. After being sent over, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said that it was time for Nylander to show just how much he can develop into a leader. It’s not all about his offensive ability this year, as the Leafs (and of course myself) will be watching to see how he takes to this Swedish club and leads by example on the ice and on the bench.

FISHER: This topic might be a bit redundant, because how can you not be excited about Matthews and, to a lesser extent, Nylander? This is Matthews’ tournament much like last year was Connor McDavid’s tourney, so all eyes will be on the projected first overall pick’s every move — for better or worse. There will be pressure on Matthews as the face of this U.S. team, having impressed in Jack Eichel’s shadow at last year’s tournament despite the Americans bowing out in the quarter-finals.


I’ll be paying close attention to all the draft-eligibles, especially those Finns — Puljujarvi and Laine — with the latter considered a riser heading into this showcase. If Laine shines here, he could climb into the top 10 and potentially even the top five. Ditto for Canada’s Julien Gauthier, who looks to be getting a good opportunity on a line with New York Islanders first-rounders Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier. It is a “young” tournament in general, with more draft-eligibles than usual, scattered throughout almost every roster, so that’s exciting for all the draft junkies, myself included. It’s only one tournament, but I tend to take a lot of notes from the world juniors for my annual mock draft.

Canada’s top line with Dylan Strome centering Marner and Lawson Crouse is going to be fun to watch, and the Russians are really intriguing to me too, especially Gurianov, who was drafted higher than expected (12th overall) by Dallas.

Any sleeper prospects we should be aware of heading into the tournament? Speak up now, so you can say ‘I told you so’ afterwards.

FORBES: Obviously Matthews and Tkachuk, but those two are givens, right? Sweden’s Alexander Nylander should be an interesting player to watch — playing with his brother, William, and on a squad that always seems to show their magical hands at this yearly event.

Another guy to watch for is USA’s Alex DeBrincat. The Erie Otters forward has 56 points (33g-23a) in 30 games. He seems to have the abilities of a pure goal-scorer but the sight of a playmaker as well. He’s going to enjoy showing off his talent at the international level and should be a guy that everybody keeps an eye on.

FISHER: I’m going to throw out three names here and, go figure, two of them are Detroit Red Wings prospects. Nobody finds diamonds in the rough better than that franchise. Holmstrom was a seventh-rounder for crying out loud, and he’s already trending towards becoming the next Henrik Zetterberg (seventh-rounder) or Gustav Nyquist (fourth-rounder) — two fellow Swedes that turned into steals. Holmstrom isn’t as flashy as those guys, perhaps more in the mould of Johan Franzen or that Tomas Holmstrom character, who was a 10th-rounder back when there was a 10th round. No relation there, between the Holmstroms. The second-coming of Holmstrom is already signed by the Wings and will likely be bringing his talents to North America for next season after putting them on display in this tournament.

Another guy I wanted to mention earlier, but purposely saved for here, is Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov, a fifth-rounder for the Minnesota Wild this past June. In just his second season in the KHL, Kaprizov is enjoying a breakout campaign with nine goals and 23 points in 40 games. Those are really impressive numbers for an 18-year-old, so I’m expecting Kaprizov to do some serious damage at the world juniors. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished in the top 10, possibly top five, in tournament scoring. If he’s in the top five, Russia’s probably playing for a medal.

Lastly, I’d like to give Finnish defenceman Vili Saarijarvi some pre-tournament exposure because I think he’ll play a key role in his country’s medal chances. A third-rounder for Detroit in this year’s draft, Saarijarvi has made a smooth transition to the North American game despite getting caught up in that Flint gongshow where the Firebirds’ owner fired the coaching staff because his kid — who shares the blue-line with Saarijarvi — wasn’t getting enough ice-time. Saarijarvi played in the USHL last season, but the OHL is a significant step up and he’s put up 19 points, including five goals, in 28 games on a bottom-feeder. Saarijarvi only had one point, an assist, in his last eight games before leaving for the world juniors, so playing at home should be a nice confidence boost for the kid — by all accounts, he’s got a bright future.

Third Man In

RYAN PIKE (Calgary Flames beat writer and prospect guru for THW): As usual, the world juniors are going to be jam-packed full of strong prospects. In terms of some lesser-known guys that could suit up, the Flames are very high on prospective Team Canada blue-liner Brandon Hickey. This 2014 third-round pick isn’t an amazing offensive talent, but his excellent skating and mobility could be a huge asset for the Canadians on the big ice against some really speedy European teams.

Sweden’s Carl Grundstrom could be suiting up for his country, too. He’s draft-eligible this season and is a speedy winger who’s currently in his second season with MODO in the Swedish Hockey League, despite just turning 18. He’s getting a good amount of draft buzz for the middle-round group of players. London Knights blue-liner Olli Juolevi is also gaining some draft buzz. He could suit up for Finland, and his mobility could also be a big asset for them.

And American defender Chad Krys — another 2016 eligible player — has turned a lot of heads with his strong play with the U.S. National Development Team. He’s being talked about as a potential mid-to-late first-round pick with good attributes and a lot of upside.


What is your favourite world-junior memory? Or memories, if you can’t choose just one? Video clips welcomed.

FORBES: The one I can remember going crazy over (and I’m still relatively young so it’s somewhat recent) is when Jordan Eberle notched the late goal against the Russians to send it to overtime. The goal — which came off a broken play — happened with about five seconds left and it was a deke I’ll never forget.

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The arena went wild. The bars went wild. The house I was in erupted. And, as poetic irony would have it, Eberle went on to score in the shootout followed by John Tavares and Canada went on to win the semifinal game against Russia. The feeling of adulation was unbelievable in that single moment for a kid that was just happy to be wearing the red and white and playing the game of hockey.

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FISHER: Ahh, yes, the 2009 tourney was a beauty, and I also remember that sequence of events like it was yesterday. That Eberle was an Oilers prospect — the team I followed religiously back then — made it all the more special. I was at the Apex Mountain Resort near Penticton, B.C., glued to the many television sets inside the Gunbarrel Saloon (yes, that’s a legitimate pub name), and I don’t remember much more of that day or night, but boy did we celebrate like it was 1999.

Since Andrew stole that “classic” from me, and since I’m also too young to really remember the Punch-up in Piestany, I’ll have to share my second-favourite memory. The year was 2007 . . . and many of you already know where I’m going with this. Again, it was a semifinal showdown that overshadowed Canada’s third straight gold medal in the drive-for-five that culminated with Eberle’s heroics. On this day, the stage belonged to Jonathan Toews as an epic clash between Canada and the United States came down to a shootout. The rest is history, as they say. I could describe the play-by-play because it’s etched into my brain — complete with Pierre McGuire’s commentary — but it’s best you just watch it (AGAIN) for yourself.

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With that, a legend was born, and Toews has been delivering in the clutch ever since, helping the Chicago Blackhawks hoist three Stanley Cups in the last six seasons. Yet, if you ask him about “2007”, I’m sure Captain Serious’s face will light up with joy and a smile will stretch from ear-to-ear. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Or does it? We’ll have to wait and see what’s in store for this year’s tourney. Let the games begin!

If you’ve got another half-hour to kill, and you just can’t get enough of the world juniors, like us, check out this video too:

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Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want to see us face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.

Andrew Forbes is in his third year of covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for THW, while also serving as fantasy hockey editor and Tape2Tape columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewGForbes.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, and has been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.