Friday December 26th, 2008

The World Junior Championships in Ottawa are being hyped mainly for the host country's drive to win a fifth consecutive title. While it's never smart to rule out the Canadians, that's not likely to happen.

Sure, the Canucks boast nine NHL first-rounders, along with 2009 eligibles John Tavares and Ryan Ellis, and you can't underestimate the impact of the team's confidence. The Canadians see World Junior gold as their birthright, and they pursue it with grim determination.

But the home side has lost several important players to the NHL, forcing them to ice an undersized, smallish squad. That opens the door for the Swedes and the Americans, a pair of big, talented and more experienced teams to challenge for the gold. Of course, you never know how things will unfold at an event where hot goaltending and upsets have a way of surprising even the most dedicated observers.

Here's how I see the tournament shaking out -- and remember, you can watch all Canadian and American games in the U.S. on the NHL Network. (Click here for the WJC schedule.)

The Swedes come to Ottawa looking to exact revenge after playing bridesmaid to the Canadians in last year's gold medal match. On paper, they're bringing a lineup with enough speed, experience and high-end skill to get the job done.

Florida pick Jacob Markstrom is primed to emerge as the tournament's standout performer. He'll need to live up to his billing as arguably the top junior-aged goaltender in the world to elevate Tre Kroner into contention. The defense will rely heavily on potential first-overall pick Victor Hedman and Ottawa Senators prospect Erik Karlsson, the top blueliner at the World U-18s. As a group, they're highly mobile and excellent in transition.

That quality amplifies the potential impact of a front line that includes Calgary Flames' first-rounder Mikael Backlund (seven points at the 2008 event), Mattias Tedenby (New Jersey) and Oscar Moller, who has looked solid as a rookie with the Kings. Scouts will be watching Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, the 17-year-old winger whose speed and hockey sense make him a likely top-five pick this summer.

The one area of concern for the Swedes is depth, but if the top-end stars (especially Markstrom) live up to their billing, they have enough to win gold.

While the Canadians routinely exceed expectations at the World Juniors, the Americans always seem to find a way to disappoint. Chemistry and coaching --two hallmarks of Canadian success -- routinely bedevil them.

Those areas remain concerns, but both might be mitigated by what appears to be the tournament's most skilled, physical and experienced roster. Seven players return from last year's team, including first liners James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia), who led the tournament in scoring (5-6-11), Colin Wilson (Nashville) and 2009-eligible Jordan Schroeder. The trio should form the tourney's most explosive unit, and they'll be ably backed by skilled bangers Eric Tangradi (Anaheim), Aaron Palushaj (St. Louis) and Drayson Bowman (Carolina).

As deep as they are up front, their real strength will be on the blueline. Team captain Jonathan Blum (Nashville) of the Vancouver Giants will be one of four first-rounders in a mobile group that also includes Ryan McDonagh (Montreal), Ian Cole (St. Louis) and Kevin Shattenkirk (Colorado). With Detroit first- rounder Thomas McCollum in net, the Americans won't give the opposition much to work with. Count on them making it to the finals. The question is: do they have the heart and the leadership to finish the job?

A victim of its own development success, the host nation is familiar with the problem of losing top junior eligibles to NHL employment. This time though, the four-time defending champs might not be able to overcome the loss of potential tentpoles like Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn.

Still, no country boasts the depth of the Canadians, and that quality -- along with the undeniable benefit of home ice -- means they'll contend. There's plenty of speed and pop up front, with potential first-overall pick Tavares, Edmonton prospect Jordan Eberle and Cody Hodgson, the Vancouver draftee who had nine points in three pre-tournament exhibitions, leading the offense. But there's little size up front -- Jamie Benn (Dallas) is the biggest forward at 6-1, 202 -- and coach Pat Quinn has yet to find chemistry on the wings for Tavares.

The blueline is mobile and has a couple of redwoods in Tyler Myers (Buffalo) and Colten Teubert (Los Angeles), but it lacks experience -- only Thomas Hickey (LA) and P.K. Subban (Montreal) return.

Neither goaltender, Chet Pickard (Nashville) nor Dustin Tokarski (Tampa Bay), has asserted himself as the No. 1 starter, but whoever picks up the torch for the medal round will need to deliver a career-defining performance for the Canadians to have any chance to repeat.

Like Canada, the fate of the Russians may be dictated by who isn't there. The death of Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov left them without their expected offensive centerpiece, and the decision to leave 16-year-old Kirill Kabanov home means they'll have to do without the player some scouts are comparing to Alexander Ovechkin.

Still, the Russians always seem to generate enough offense, and with Nikita Filatov and Maxim Mayorov (Columbus), Evgeny Grachev (Rangers) and Evgeni Dadonov (Florida) up front and Kings pick Vjateslav Voynov and Dimitri Kulikov on the back end, they have the skill to run up the score. But will they have the discipline and the commitment to defense necessary to outlast the other contenders in crucial matchups? The presence of Sergei Nemchinov behind the bench should help steady the ship, but it says here they'll finish out of the medals.

The Finns won bronze the last time the tournament was held in Canada (Vancouver, 2006), but this year's team will be hard pressed to return to the podium. It looks to be a gritty, industrious group that will offer up a 60-minute effort, but one that lacks the experience and elite talent to compete with the contenders.

Goaltender Harri Sateri (San Jose) returns as the starter, and his exhibition performance against the Canadians suggests he can play the role of spoiler. Defenseman Jyri Niemi (NY Islanders) and forwards Niclas Lucenius (Atlanta), Teemu Hartikaninen (Edmonton) and 2010 prospect Mikael Granlund are worth watching, but there's not enough skill to elevate the Finns above the level of spoiler.

Czech Republic

The Czechs are fast becoming second-class citizens at the junior level, winning just one medal in the past seven years. Don't look for that to change this time around. Their roster is loaded with 15 players currently skating in the Canadian Hockey League, and that should help them transition their game to the smaller ice surface, but the talent level isn't up to par with the elite countries.

The defense, led by Michal Jordan (Carolina) and Tomas Kundratek (NY Rangers), is experienced and capable with the puck. The problem is, who do they give it to? Phoenix prospect Vladimir Ruzicka (son of the former NHLer) and Tomas Kubalik (Columbus) headline an undistinguished group up front that will pose few challenges for the medal contenders.

The Germans were promoted after winning the Division 1 title last year, but don't expect them to settle quietly into the traditional role of cannon fodder. The team features a number of players who finished in fifth place at the World U-18 championship last April, including goalie Timo Pielmeier, yet another Sharks prospect with the kind of game-stealing ability that should make every other team nervous. They won't medal, but if they stick to their stifling defensive style, they should avoid relegation, and could pull off a major upset along the way.

The Slovaks finished seventh last year and don't look to improve on that with a young roster featuring just three returnees. Forward Richard Panik is an intriguing, if little seen, prospect who could establish himself as a top-10 pick with a strong performance.

They maintained a spot in the A Pool by finishing eighth last year in Pardubice, surprising Switzerland and Denmark along the way. Their goal in Ottawa is to avoid relegation, but with most of last year's team lost to graduation, that's not going to happen.

After being routed 13-2 by the Americans in an exhibition game last Sunday, it's apparent the Latvians don't have the talent to compete with the big boys. Forwards Roberts Jekimovs and Janis Ozilinsh and the world's most boisterous fans will ensure Latvian games are worth watching, but it's hard to imagine them not being relegated back to Division 1.

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