For many hockey fans, the winter holidays are one of the best times of the year.
Beginning each year on Boxing Day, the world's top hockey players under the age of 20 take to the ice to represent their home nations in the prestigious IIHF World Junior Championship.
Not only do the world juniors provide an excellent early glimpse of many of the NHL's future stars, but as the growing popularity of the event shows, it also provides some of the most exciting, entertaining hockey of the entire year.
Finland took home the 2014 gold medal back in early January thanks to a surprising overtime upset over Sweden, while Russia edged Canada for the bronze. It was the first time since 1998 where neither Canada nor the United States captured a medal, but with highly-anticipated draft-eligible prospects Connor McDavid (Canada) and Jack Eichel (United States) at the forefront of their respective teams this year that's sure to change.
This year's tournament will be co-hosted by the cities of Toronto and Montreal. The United States, Canada, Finland, Slovakia and Germany will compete in Group A, while Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark face each other in Group B.
We here at Defending Big D will be covering the whole tournament, starting with daily recaps of the previous day's games, as well as other articles throughout the tournament.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the 10 countries that will be taking part this year and what we can expect from each.
Despite a 5th place finish in 2014, the 2010 and 2013 gold medalists will be a top contender once again this year.
From top to bottom, Team USA's roster features an impressive display of balance. The forward group is a nice blend of pure skill and imposing size, the blueline has a great mix of offensive-defensemen (Anthony DeAngelo, Zach Werenski) and defensive-defensemen (Ian McCoshen, Steve Santini), and there is a solid 1-2 punch in net with Thatcher Demko and Alex Nedeljkovic.
All eyes, however, will be on budding superstar Jack Eichel, who has been obliterating NCAA defenses all season long and could easily go 1st overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He had five points in five world junior games last year playing in a secondary role, but he'll be leading the American charge offensively this year and could easily carry his team to gold.
It might seem strange to label the Canadians as a wildcard, but as recent world junior tournaments have shown, that is precisely the case.
On one hand, no other team in this tournament comes anywhere close to matching the sheer talent and depth that Team Canada boasts. Their roster has a whopping 11 1st round NHL draft picks, as well as five more 2nd rounders. That's also not including two 1st round locks for 2015 in Connor McDavid and Lawson Crouse. If the 17 year-old wunderkind McDavid lives up to his enormous hype then it'll be game over for opposing teams.
On the other hand, Canada has struggled badly at the world juniors as of late. They failed to medal the last two years and haven't won gold in five, a dramatic fall from grace for a nation that won five consecutive golds from 2005-2009. Goaltending has consistently been their Achilles Heel, and that looks to be their biggest weakness again this year.
Which Team Canada will show up this time around?
A perennial threat, Sweden is always a medal contender at the world juniors. They last won gold in 2012, and have grabbed a medal in six out of the last seven tournaments.
Depth, skill, discipline and smarts are always the calling cards of the Swedes, and that's going to be the case again this year. They won't have the same number of high-profile prospects that they've had in recent years, but they will have one game-breaking talent at their disposal in William Nylander, who thrives in international tournaments and is averaging a point-per-game this year against men in the Swedish Hockey League.
Sweden was recently dealt a significant blow, however, as projected number one goalie Jonas Johansson went down with injury and is expected to miss the whole tournament. Can the team rally behind 2014 4th round pick Linus Soderstrom?
Last year's surprise gold medalists will have their work cut out for them this year if they want to repeat as champions, but they'll certainly put up a fight.
The Finns do have some big-name talent on their roster, led by 2014 1st rounders in Julius Honka and Kasperi Kapanen. Honka was on Finland's second defensive pair last year but will be expected to lead the blueline now, while Kapanen will be looking to make an impact after missing the world juniors last year due to injury.
Finland's medal hopes, however, will rest squarely on the shoulders of goaltender Juuse Saros. Saros was nearly unbeatable last year, posting a .943 save percentage, and he'll be asked to do the same again this year.
A repeat of gold might be a stretch, but expect this team to be right in the mix of things.
They aren't the powerhouse hockey nation that they used to be, but you can never count out Russia in international tournaments. They last won world junior gold in 2011, but have taken home a medal four straight years, the longest current streak.
The Russians, like they always do, will have no shortage of talent at forward, with drafted prospects like Nikolay Goldobin, Ivan Barbashev, Valentin Zykov, Vladislav Kamenev, and Pavel Buchnevich leading the way, but will be much weaker on the back end this year. If Buffalo Sabres 1st rounder Nikita Zadorov isn't allowed to join the team then Russia could have all sorts of trouble keeping their shots against at a minimum.
One player to keep an eye on is goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who is already a KHL regular at 19. Despite not being a well-recognized name, Sorokin has the ability to steal games for his team, as showcased by a stellar 50-save win over Canada in recent exhibition play.
The Long Shots
The Czech Republic:
Once a consistent danger on international ice, the Czech Republic has struggled over the past decade to keep up with other hockey nations. They haven't won a medal at the world juniors since taking a bronze in 2005.
They're thin on talent in all areas, but have two very impressive forward prospects with David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana, who both played on the team last year, both went in the 1st round in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and are each having excellent seasons this year. Can 2nd round picks Dominik Masin, Vaclav Karabacek and Vitek Vanacek make enough of an impact to help their team finally find success again?
The Swiss haven't won a medal at the world juniors since 1998, but they've certainly made some noise in recent years, causing a few major upsets and coming close at other times.
On paper, this team has some intriguing potential. Defenseman Mirco Mueller has been playing in the NHL for the San Jose Sharks this year, but will be loaned to the Switzerland team to make his third world juniors appearance. At forward 2014 1st round pick Kevin Fiala has been excellent in the SHL, while Kay Schweri, Tim Wieser, Timo Meier and Pius Suter are all doing very well playing junior hockey in Canada, which could provide an advantage on this year's smaller ice surface.
Could this be the year where Switzerland finally breaks all the way through?
The Really Long Shots
Martin Reway, Peter Cehlarik and Matej Paulovic are the only players on this squad that have been drafted by NHL teams, and although all three are having very good seasons none are true standout prospects. Slovakia hasn't won a medal since 1999 and that trend looks like it will continue.
Denmark joins this year's world juniors group after winning the Division 1-A tournament last year and earning the promotion up. Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand are two of the best forwards in Canadian junior hockey, but have little to no support behind them. It could be a very long tournament for the Danes.
Germany took a pounding at last year's tournament, but staved off regulation thanks to promising prospect Leon Draisaitl. With Draisaitl stuck in Edmonton this year it looks like things are going to get very ugly for Germany very quickly and very often.