With the 2013 NHL season still on life support, the under-20 World Junior Hockey Championship tournament in Russia (starting next Wednesday) has taken on added importance for hockey fans across all of North America. If you’re a hardcore hockey fan, this tournament might be the closest thing you get to NHL playoff hockey you get for a long time, at least until the Frozen Four (college) or the Calder Cup playoffs (AHL). One of the byproducts of the lockout is the inclusion of players in this tournament that would otherwise be playing in the NHL, such as Calder Trophy finalist Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Oilers or top Panthers prospect Johnathan Huberdeau, both among a stacked forward corps on Team Canada.
Normally by now we’re getting deep into the nitty-gritty of the NHL season with nearly half the schedule gone. As such, I admittedly don’t give the WJC a second thought as I’m more into the Devils and what else is going on around the NHL. However, one of the few silver linings in this lockout is the increased attention around a tournament that’s showcasing future NHL stars, as well as other younger players who won’t make the big show but have a chance to play for their country and shine on a big stage nonetheless. Being a displaced Devils fan with no hockey and really no sports right now to watch (thanks for nothing, New York Jets) I’m going to try and get into this tournament. Best case scenario, the WJC will help smooth my transition back to hockey if the warring factions known as the NHL and NHLPA achieve an armistice by mid-January and be something different to watch. Worst-case, well I’m not going there now.
As someone who’s never paid attention to the WJC before though, I’m going to use this blog to educate myself, as well as others who may or may not be knowledgeable about this tournament and who to watch in it. How am I going to do that? Lots and lots of internet research (whatever did we do in the days before the internet?). First of all, it’s useful to understand the format, which is similar though not completely identical to the Olympics. This year’s WJC is a 10-team tournament with two groups of five teams. Each team will play the other once in a preliminary round – four games in six days – with the top three teams in each group advancing to the medal round. Group A consists of exclusively European countries (defending champion Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Latvia and the Czech Republic) while Group B has heavyweights such as Canada, Russia and the USA as well as longshots Slovakia and Germany.
Each group winner gets a bye into the semifinals, while the second-place teams in each group play the third-place team in the other group in two quarterfinal matchups on January 2. In the semis the next day, the winner of Group A will play either the 2nd place team of Group B or the 3rd place team of Group A, depending on who wins that quarterfinal. Likewise, the winner of Group B will face off against whoever wins the quarterfinal between the 2nd place team of Group A and the 3rd place team of Group B. Finally, the two semifinal winners will play for the gold on January 5 with the semifinal losers facing off for the bronze earlier that same day.
Next to know is the schedule and time difference – eleven hours ahead of EST in Ufa, Russia (take note for 2014, Sochi is a mere ‘nine’ hours time difference). TSN will be broadcasting games live – likely simulcast on the NHL Network in the US, anywhere from 4 AM-9 AM depending on the schedule that particular day, and the NHL Network will be showing at least every USA game – and replays at a more convenient time of day as well. You can most likely avoid the score entirely if you’re a US resident and want to wait to watch it…maybe not so much in Canada, though. Here is the TSN Broadcast Schedule presumably including a half hour for pregame, as well as the rest of the WJC schedule in local time.
The tournament starts on the 26th and runs through the 5th of January with games every day except for New Year’s – after the group stage ends, and on the 4th, a scheduled off day before the medal games. Canada and the US will be playing in the penultimate group game next Sunday, but it’s one of the early early games so you’ll have to get up at 4 to watch it live. Or just watch NFL football during the day or whatever, then watch a replay later on.
Now that you know how the tournament works and when it is, here’s a little synopsis of who to watch for (although bear in mind rosters aren’t final for a few more days so some players could still get cut in camp), highlighting local teams’ prospects and touching on the other big names:
Team USA – Plenty of local representation here with five players in camp drafted by local teams including the last two Rangers first-rounders, winger J.T. Miller (2011) and defenseman Brady Skjei (2012). Miller was a member of Team USA in last year’s WJC, and is currently playing for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Conneticut. Miller has five goals and nine assists in twenty-six games for the Whale this year. Skjei is a freshman at the university of Minnesota and was taken with the 28th pick in the first round this year.
Right after Skjei, the Devils drafted forward Stefan Matteau with the very next pick – son of a former Ranger, and fellow US team member this year. Matteau is playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and can be counted on to spice things up, as evidenced by his consistently high penalty minute total and the fact he’s already been suspended a couple of games from his junior team the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, for a reckless hit from behind that had preveiously earned the forward a game misconduct. Also representing the Devils is 2011 fifth-round pick Blake Pietella, currently enrolled at Michigan Tech. Buffalo will be represented by its 2012 second-rounder Jake McCabe, a defenseman currently enrolled at the university of Wisconsin.
Also worth watching on Team USA is 2012 #3 overall pick center Alex Galchenyuk (Canadiens), as well as 2013-draft eligible defenseman Seth Jones – who my esteemed blog colleague Derek wrote about a while back. Long-time NHL defenseman Phil Housley will be coaching Team USA this year for the first time, and looking to improve on a dissapointing 7th place finish in last year’s tournament.
Canada – Surprisingly, there isn’t as much local representation up north although Islander fans will be very interested in watching their last two first-rounders, center Ryan Strome (#5 overall in 2011) and defenseman Griffin Reinhart (#4 overall in 2012). Strome is a playmaking center currently playing for Niagra of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and won a bronze medal in last year’s WJC. Reinhart is currently playing for Edmonton in the Western Hockey League (WHL), and is also the son of a former NHL player – Paul Reinhart.
Among the other players to watch include the aformentioned fowards Nugent-Hopkins (#1 overall in 2011) and Huberdeau (#3 overall that same year). While Nugent-Hopkins has plenty of big-time experience being a Calder finalist for the Oilers last year, he’s currently still young enough to play not only for Oklahoma City in the AHL during the lockout – but also this year’s WJC after missing last year’s tournament because he was playing in the NHL. He’s already shown an ability to be a dynamic playmaker at the highest level and should be a man among boys in this tournament. Huberdeau was ticketed for a possible spot in the NHL this year, before the lockout hit. Still in the QMJHL for Saint John, he’ll be playing for a second time in the WJC this year.
Other forwards to watch include Winnipeg’s 2012 first-round pick (#6 overall) Mark Schiefle, currently playing for Barrie in the OHL, and 2013 draft-eligible Nathan McKinnon – a possible #1 overall pick next year. McKinnion’s currently playing for Halifax of the QMJHL. Canada’s defense is loaded with former high first-round picks including Dougie Hamilton (#9 in 2011 – Boston) and Ryan Murphy (#12 in 2011 – Carolina) joining Reinhart and fellow top five selection Morgan Reilly, who was selected by Toronto at #5 overall in 2012 – the very next pick after Reinhart was selected by the Isles.
Surprisingly there are fewer drafted players on team Russia, perhaps because NHL teams have the willies over drafting non-top prospects for fear they won’t come over. 2012 #1 overall pick right-winger Nail Yakupov (Oilers) is clearly the man to watch here. Currently playing for Sarnia in the OHL, Yakupov will probably be joining Nugent-Hopkins and the other young, dynamic Oilers soon after the lockout ends…whenever that is. Also worth watching is Sabres first-round center Mikhail Grigorenko (#12 overall). Grigorenko’s currently playing for Quebec of the QMJHL. As a team, Russia has plenty of recent success in the WJC, winners in 2011 and silver medalists last year.
Among the Swedes to watch are 2012 first-rounders defenseman Hampus Lindholm (#6 overall to Anaheim) and forward Fillip Forsberg (#11 overall to Washington). Lindholm is currently playing for Rogle of the Swedish Elite League, while Forsberg is playing for Leksands. If he plays, second-rounder Oscar Dansk (#31 overall to Columbus) will also be worth keeping an eye on in goal. Dansk is currently with Brynas. Eligible – but contreversially left of the Swedish team – is 2011 first-rounder Mika Zibanejad, because Ottawa wouldn’t let him leave his AHL team in Binghamton to play in the WJC.
Scandanavian rivals Finland only have ten players drafted by NHL teams, including Sabres 2011 draftee forward Joel Armia and Isles 2012 draftee Ville Pokka. Armia, a right-winger, was the Sabres’ first-round pick in 2011 (#16 overall) and is currently playing for his club team Assat in Finland. Pokka, a defenseman, was a second-round pick (#34 overall) currently playing for Karpat – also in Finland. Also worth watching from the Finns are 2012 first-rounders forward Teuvo Teravainen (#18 overall to Chicago) and defenseman Olli Maata (#22 overall to Pittsburgh).
Only six players from the Czech Republic have been drafted by NHL teams, though two were 2012 first-rounders with centers Radek Faksa (#13 overall to Dallas) and Tomas Hertl (#17 overall to San Jose). In addition, 2011 second-round pick defenseman David Musil (#31 overall to Edmonton) is another to watch from a perennial darkhorse hockey nation. By contrast, rivals Slovakia only have one NHL draftee – 2011 Rangers sixth-round pick defenseman Peter Ceresnak, currently playing for Peterborough of the OHL. Switzerland has two 2012 Minnesota Wild draft picks (forwards Christoph Bertschy and Tanner Richard) on its roster, and that’s it for their NHL representation. Germany’s lone NHL draft pick is 2011 fourth-rounder Tobias Rieder, property of the Oilers. Latvia has two 2012 NHL draft picks on its squad, including Sabres first-round pick center Zemgus Girgensons (#14 overall), currently playing for Rochester of the AHL with one goal and four assists in twenty games. Penguin second-round center Theodor Bleuger is the only other NHL draftee for Latvia.
I’m not even going to attempt to handicap this tournament…I’ve pretended to be an expert long enough. Much thanks to Wikipedia and TSN for helping me do the lion’s share of research.