World Championship Preview: everything you need to know for the 2019 tournament

The Men's World Championship kicks off Friday in Slovakia, with 16 of the top hockey nations battling it out over the next two weeks. Who are the favorites to win, and which players should you keep an eye on?
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The World Championship always provides fantastic action. Upsets, unsung heroes, close games – sounds a bit like the Stanley Cup playoffs, doesn't it?

For the next two weeks, 16 of hockey's top nations will duke it out for a chance to call themselves world champions, even if it's not best-on-best hockey like we see at the Olympics or World Cup of Hockey. But part of the World Championship's allure is the tournament's competitiveness. In the past, we've been treated to spirited efforts by smaller hockey nations such as Latvia and France, who have pulled off stunning upsets of the likes of Sweden and Russia.

At this year's event, the United States, Russia and Sweden appear to be the three favorites, and you can't count out Switzerland. Canada will need some inspired performances in order to stay in the hunt for gold, but they're always in the thick of things by the end of group play.

With the tournament set to begin Friday, here's a look at the teams taking part in the event:

Group A (Kosice)

Canada (Last year: 4th)
Canada had a rocky exhibition showing against Austria, holding on for a 7-5 victory. It was the group's first time playing together, however. That said, there are concerns about Canada's defense. Thomas Chabot and Brandon Montour are the team's top pair, and the defense corps gets weaker from there. Matt Murray struggled against Austria and he has a relatively inexperienced backup in Carter Hart. Canada lost John Tavares to an upper-body injury, but they will still have Sean Couturier, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris, who have all performed well for Canada in the past. Vegas Golden Knights teammates Stone and Jonathan Marchessault looked good in the lone exhibition contest, while Dylan Strome and Sam Reinhart had impressive regular seasons and could contribute secondary scoring.
Player to watch: Shea Theodore, D

United States (Last year: Bronze)
The Americans have often used this tournament as a way to further develop young prospects or give fringe NHLers a chance to shine. This time, however, USA is going all in. Led by Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Alex DeBrincat, the Americans are loaded offensively. That James van Riemsdyk, Dylan Larkin and Clayton Keller aren't considered among the team's top forwards says something. Plus, Jack Hughes, the undisputed top prospect for the draft this June, is coming along. The defense is young but speedy, with Ryan Suter (34) and Alec Martinez (31) the only defenders over the age of 25. Goaltending will be the team's biggest concern. Cory Schneider, coming off a dismal 6-13-4 season with the New Jersey Devils, will be the go-to guy.
Player to watch: Jack Hughes, C

Denmark (Last year: 10th)
At full strength, the Danes are a competitive team capable of battling for a spot in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, that's not a luxury with which Denmark will be blessed. Mikkel Boedker is the only current NHLer present at the tournament, and Joachim Blichfeld, Morten Madsen and Nicolai Meyer will be his supporting cast. The team won't have goaltender Frederik Andersen, either, instead relying on Sebastian Dahm, who has had some impressive outings in recent years.
Player to watch: Jesper Jensen Aabo, D

Finland (Last year: 5th)
On paper, Finland's roster looks well below average. The team will be without stars Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Mikko Rantanen (for now), and Eeli Tolvanen won't be back. The team will instead be led by projected second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko and Toni Rajala. Defensively, Finland will rely on Mikko Lehtonen, Atte Ohtamaa, Niko Mikkola and Henri Jokiharju, among others. Finland doesn't have a star keeper, and chances are Juho Olkinuora will be the No. 1 to begin. Don't expect the Finns to contend for a medal.
Player to watch: Oliwer Kaski, D

France (Last year: 12th)
France is an underdog that always seems to rise to the occasion, winning games against Canada and Russia over the past decade and making a surprise quarterfinal appearance in 2014. Last year, however, the team had more trouble than usual keeping pucks out of the net and fell flat in their first tournament sans Cristobal Huet. France showcased some speed in a recent outing against Italy, but defensive issues will make goaltender Florian Hardy a busy man.
Player to watch: Anthony Rech, LW

Germany (Last year: 11th)
Leon Draisaitl has played for Germany in the past, but he'll be asked to carry the team this time around. Germany will want to forget last year's atrocious effort that saw them win just one game in regulation mere months after coming oh-so-close to gold at the Olympics. They'll have a good shot at a quarterfinal spot, but that really depends on how good the goaltending is.
Player to watch: Moritz Seider, D 

Great Britain (Last year: 17th, promoted)
Nothing about this tournament will be easy for Great Britain, who are making their first top-division start since 1994. The team's rise in the post-Tony Hand era has been notable, but staying in the top tournament is going to be a challenge, especially after crushing losses to Italy and Slovakia in pre-tournament play. If you want an underdog player to cheer for, starting goalie Ben Bowns is going to be extremely important for the Brits.
Player to watch: Ben O'Connor, D

Slovakia (Last year: 9th)
Since losing in the gold-medal game in 2012, Slovakia hasn't been able to advance past the quarterfinal. In fact, they've finished ninth in four of the past five tournaments and that's unlikely to change this year. Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik are the lone NHLers on the initial roster and will need to pick up the scoring slack. While inexperienced, the Slovaks do have a solid young defense group that features Martin Fehervary, Erik Cernak and Christian Jaros. Detroit Red Wings prospect Patrik Rybar is the likely No. 1 netminder entering action, but 2015 World Junior Championship star Denis Godla is capable of stealing a win or two. This should also serve as Ladislav Nagy's swan song, given his retirement from pro hockey back in March.
Player to watch: Michal Kristof, C

Group B (Bratislava)

Austria (Last year: 14th)
Austria remains in the top tournament for back-to-back years for the first time since 1999, but they're not safe from the wrath of relegation. Michael Raffl, coming off of a career-low six-goal season with the Philadelphia Flyers, is the lone NHLer on the roster. Once again, Bernhard Starkbaum will need to be spectacular in goal to get the job done for Austria, who'll likely need to beat Italy in their final game to avoid relegation.
Player to watch: Konstantin Komarek, C

Czech Republic (Last year: 7th)
The Czechs haven't won a medal since 2012 and haven't moved past the quarterfinal since 2015, but they always seem to do enough to be a contender. The team has a solid top six, with Jakub Voracek and Michael Frolik expected to be important offensive contributors. As usual, the team's defense should be active. Goaltending won't be a strength, but the Czech crease is serviceable. The Czechs should be able to secure at least three wins in the round robin and earn a spot in the quarterfinals. Anything beyond that is unlikely.
Player to watch: Jakub Vrana, LW

Italy (Last year: 18th, promoted)
Italy has been in the promotion-relegation conveyer belt for the past decade. Their last stint in the top tournament that lasted longer than one year was from 2006 to 2008. The team has since focused more on growing the game locally instead of outsourcing to Canada and the United States, and they're beginning to reap the rewards, finishing second in Division IA one year ago. That said, goaltending will be an issue, as will winning a single round-robin game, something they've done just three times since 2006.
Player to watch: Anthony Bardaro, C

Latvia (Last year: 8th)
Not having Zemgus Girgensons won't help, but Latvia is usually good enough as a unit to threaten for a quarterfinal spot. Getting Elvis Merzlikins, who played tremendously in Switzerland this season, is huge. Teddy Blueger had a good season with the Pittsburgh Penguins but will miss the tournament with an injury. Rudolfs Balcers, who had a notable campaign in the AHL, will be counted on for goals in his place. Latvia always finds a way to battle and win important games and that shouldn't change this year. Fun fact: 21 members of the team's preliminary roster were born in Riga.
Player to watch: Edgars Kulda, LW

Norway (Last year: 13th)
Last year's tournament was difficult, as Norway won one game and scored just six goals in seven games. Goaltending is always a concern: some years, like in 2017, Lars Haugen has been capable of stealing games. But this year, Haugen won't be available, leaving Henrik Haukeland to carry the load. Former Edmonton Oilers forward Patrick Thoresen will be Norway's most important player. His 49 points make him the second-highest scorer in tournament history for Norway. Not having Mats Zuccarello hurts, though.
Player to watch: Jan Holos, D

Russia (Last year: 6th)
Arguably the most impressive roster. They have a Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevsky, NHL top scorer Nikita Kucherov and the greatest goal-scorer of his generation, Alex Ovechkin. The list goes on: Evgeni Kuznetsov, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Gusev, Evgeni Dadonov and Kirill Kaprizov will also be at the tournament. Even Ilya Kovalchuk is joining in on the fun. Defensively, Russia could do a lot worse than Dmitri Orlov and Mikhail Sergachev. Russia's overall depth makes this one of the most impressive rosters in recent tournament history. They are one of the favorites for gold.
Player to watch: Nikita Gusev, LW

Sweden (Last year: Gold)
Despite no big-time superstar, the Swedes do have one of the tournament's most stacked lineups. That starts with Vancouver Canucks duo Elias Pettersson and Loui Eriksson – yes, Eriksson is typically really good for Sweden – and Elias Lindholm is coming off quite the season with the Calgary Flames. Defensively, you can't go wrong with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson and Mattias Ekholm, while Jakob Markstrom and Henrik Lundqvist could split the time in the crease.
Player to watch: William Nylander, RW

Switzerland (Last year: Silver)
Expecting the Swiss to contend for gold again is somewhat unrealistic given their inconsistency from year to year. But the Swiss always find a way to take down some of tournament's behemoths, and this is a better team than last year. As usual, most of the Swiss core remains the same. The blueline will be led by Roman Josi and Raphael Diaz, and the Swiss have the added benefit of having Nico Hischier in the lineup. He'll be making his debut after scoring four goals in six exhibition contests. Goaltending shouldn't be an issue. Leonardo Genoni is the favorite to start Switzerland's opener.
Player to watch: Philipp Kurashev, C

Prediction:

  1. Russia
  2. USA
  3. Sweden
  4. Canada
  5. Switzerland
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Finland
  8. Germany
  9. Denmark
  10. Latvia
  11. Slovakia
  12. France
  13. Norway
  14. Austria
  15. Italy
  16. Great Britain

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