The Day is nearly here, the Pre-Tournament Games are done, and its time for the World Juniors. In October I did early looks and predictions on what the rosters might look like, but I think its time to update them now, as teams are being set, and the tournament is ready to go. If you want to see any of my previous articles you can find a complete listing of my them here.
Over the Next two days I will give you are preview of Each Team in the Tournament, highlighting the key players to watch, their strengths and weaknesses, and what to look forward to in the Tournament. Yesterday, we looked at Pool A, which features defending champ Sweden, the impressive Finns, the always dangerous Czech Republic, a team that is no stranger to upsets in Switzerland, and an underrated team from Latvia.
So lets move on to Pool B, featuring both Canada and the United States. But before we look at them, lets look at the hosts, and Gold Medal Contender Russian Squad, along with the Germans, and Slovaks, a pair of underdogs in the group.
Germany: Germany is back in the top division of the World Junior Championships, but have unfortunately found themselves in the tougher of the two pools with Canada, USA, and Russia all having Gold Medal hopes. Expect to see the Germans fighting in the relegation round of the tournament as its unlikely they can knock off the top dogs this year. However they will be hoping to stay in the top division for 2014.
Tobias Rieder, Centre/Left Wing: Rieder will clearly be Germany’s biggest threat in this tournament and should lead the team in all areas. He plays for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and had 42 goals and 85 points for the team last season. This year Rieder is back on the Kitchener top line and has 23 points in 27 games.
An Edmonton Oilers draftee, Rieder is offensively talented with a very good wrist shot and release, along with an excellent one timer. He also has good vision and can be a play maker even from the wing. He’s also a good defensive player who back checks hard, plays on the Rangers PK, and is pretty good at faceoffs when he gets the chance.
The knock on Rieder is that he’s undersized at 5’10”. It will be interesting to see how he performs in this tournament but keep in mind most teams will check him closely and he has very little in terms of support on the German club.
Slovakia: Much like Germany, Slovakia is not likely to advance to the medal round in this group as they just can’t challenge the group’s big 3. Expect to see the Slovakian squad also playing to avoid relegation as the tournament moves on. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, they have lost their two best players due to injury as Marek Tvrdon had an issue with a blood clot and will miss the rest of the season, and Martin Gernat has been out all year with a shoulder injury.
Peter Ceresnak, Defence: With Gernat and Tvrdon unavailable, Ceresnak takes the mantle as the only NHL drafted player on the squad. The New York Rangers 6th Round draft choice in 2011, Ceresnak plays for the Peterborough Petes in the OHL. With just four points in 32 games, its clear to see that he is more known for his defensive game than his offensive game. Expect to see him play a lot of minutes for Slovakia and to be matched against top lines, as he is a decent enough defender with some mobility, and physicality. However the Slovakians will have to look elsewhere for their goal production.
Now that we`ve gotten past the underdogs; lets move into the tournament favourites.
Russia: Hosts of the tournament, the Russians will be bringing a strong team. Last year they were silver medalists, losing 1-0 to Sweden on an Overtime goal by Mika Zibanejad. Two years ago, they pulled a shocking 3rd period comeback to defeat Team Canada in the Gold Medal game. This year they will be looking to reach their third straight final, and to take the gold again. They certainly should have a powerful team.
Nail Yakupov, Right Wing: The first overall pick from this past June’s NHL Entry Draft, Yakupov would surely be playing for the Edmonton Oilers and unavailable for the tournament if not for the NHL lockout. Instead he is playing in the KHL where the sniper has 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games so far, extremely impressive numbers given the level of competition in the KHL this year.
He’s an incredible skater with great hands, a great shot and is not afraid to get his nose dirty to score goals. Yakupov could be the most dangerous player in the tournament and will certainly get a ton of attention in the opposition’s game plans. If Russia is to realize their goal of winning gold on home ice than Yakupov will need to play to his potential and be one of the best forwards in the tournament. He’s certainly capable of doing so, and being the ultimate gamechanger/gamebreaker for the squad.
Mikhail Grigorenko, Centre: The Quebec Remparts centre and Buffalo Sabres draftee will be Yakupov’s partner in crime in what should be a dynamic one two punch for the Russian Squad. The Russians appear to want to build two balanced lines and have been playing Yakupov on the top line, and Grigorenko on the second line. Grigorenko is a talented playmaker, who also has a decent wrist shot and can play the role of sniper if given the opportunity.
Grigorenko comes into the tournament with a major chip on his shoulder after falling from a potential top 2 draft pick all the way down to 12th overall and having his heart and desire questioned. A major tournament like this could be the coming out party for Grigorenko to show that it was the combination of an injured ankle and a bout mononucleosis that were bothering him down the stretch and into the playoffs last year in the QMJHL, and that the Buffalo Sabres got a major steal on draft day.
He’s playing well right now with 29 goals and 50 points in 30 games for the Remparts.
Alexander Khokhlachev, Centre/Left Wing: Everyone is talking about the big duo on this squad, and rightly so, but with players like Khokhlachev the Russians will be an offensive powerhouse and have strong secondary scoring as well. Khoklachev appears to be the Russians first line centre and he will be providing the set-ups for Yakupov.
He’s a fast skater with good acceleration and top end speed which makes him extremely dangerous off the rush. He’s also a good stick-handler and has an excellent shot and release making him a dangerous sniper whether he plays in the middle or off the wing.
If there is a weakness here though, its his defensive game, and other squads may be able to take advantage of him in his own end, as his positioning is not good, and he just doesn’t seem to give the same effort along the boards in his end of the rink as he does in the offensive end.
Anton Slepyshev, Left Wing/Right Wing: I was absolutely shocked that Slepyshev was not drafted in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. This is a kid who has the talent to be a late first round pick, but fell due to the KHL factor. The only possible explanation is that NHL teams do not believe he will come over to North America, however this doesn’t change the fact that he’s talented and will be a huge secondary scoring threat for the Russians teaming with Grigorenko on a powerful second line.
He’s a good skater, despite a very choppy technique, as he has good top end speed and acceleration. Slepyshev loves to shoot and his wrist shot and snap shot both are hard, accurate, and feature a quick release. Slepyshev has very good hands, and is able to dangle around defenders. He’s not afraid to drive the net and generated chances in close with his quick hands. He is a hard worker engaging in and winning numerous puck battles along the boards, and is willing to take abuse in front of the net. He is also strong defensively and could see time on the Russian penalty kill unit. After a string of impressive international performances, one more could get Slepyshev drafted with a later pick in 2013.
Valeri Nichushkin, Centre – Nichushkin really impressed me in the Subway Super Series. He’s a dynamic skater, who has a great stride, very good top end speed, and outstanding acceleration. He is able to use quick changes of pace to attack defenders off the rush and is especially effective driving wide on defenders. He creates plays with his great puck protection and stickhandling skill and has a good shot. He is signed to a three year KHL contract (this season and two more). This could really hurt his final draft position depending on interviews, but the talent says top 10 pick and Ufa could be a coming out party for the youngster.
Defence: The Russians come into the tournament with a very mobile defence, and this should really help them on the big ice surface in Ufa. Playing on the wider ice, mobility is the key and the Russians have it in spades.
Nikita Nesterov, Defence: The 2011 fifth round draft pick of the Tampa Bay lightning has been playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL this year. After putting up 31 points in 41 games in the MHL last year, he was ready to make the jump to playing against men. It hasn’t gone so well as Nesterov has been getting limited ice time and is still looking for his first point of the season. But he’s held his own at times and the experience he is getting will be invaluable in this tournament.
Nesterov has a very good point shot, and good passing skills and should be an important part of the Russian powerplay. Given the strength of the Russian Forwards, he should be able to rack up points on the unit, especially as he is a smart and talented puck distributor.
Nesterov has good size, and mobility and uses both effectively in the defensive end of the rink. He plays a solid positional game and cuts down passing and shooting lanes well. Nesterov has also been known to play physical, and lay some big hits when given the opportunity. He should be a top 4 defenceman for the Russian squad and will get some pretty big minutes leading the back end for Russia.
Andrei Vasilevski/Andrei Makarov Goaltenders: The Russians return the goaltending tandem that led the squad to the silver medal at last year’s tournament.
Vasilvevski was incredible for them (a 953 SV% in the tourney) for all but about 20 minutes last year, nearly having a third period collapse in the semi-final against Canada, and turning a 6-1 lead into a narrow 6-5 victory.
Makarov had to come in and shut the door on Canada’s comeback attempt, and ended up playing a great game in the gold medal match, only giving up the one goal in overtime.
I expect that with another year of experience Vasilevski will take the job and run with it this year. He may be the younger of the two goalies, but he’s also more talented, at least from my perspective. He’s got great size and his good technique and quick legs take away the bottom of the net extremely well. He’s a tremendous athlete with good lateral movement and a great glove hand.
The goaltending battle will be intriguing to watch, in this group and in this tournament as Canada has Malcolm Subban and Jordan Binnington and the United States has Jon Gibson meaning that all three clubs should have stellar netminding. The big difference here though is the presence of Makarov, as the Russians have the best backup of the bunch if any of the starters falter.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to join Max Vasilyev and I on Wednesday Nights at 11:00pm when we host the hockey radio show, “Puckheads”, on the Last Word Radio Network. You can listen in live or to our past podcasts by clicking here, or by searching for us on iTunes.