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
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. (
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.
That quality amplifies the potential impact of a front line that includes Calgary Flames' first-rounder
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
As deep as they are up front, their real strength will be on the blueline. Team captain
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
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
The blueline is mobile and has a couple of redwoods in
Like Canada, the fate of the Russians may be dictated by who isn't there. The death of Rangers prospect
Still, the Russians always seem to generate enough offense, and with
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.
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
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
The Slovaks finished seventh last year and don't look to improve on that with a young roster featuring just three returnees. Forward
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