2016 World Junior Hockey Championship Preview
Which nation will take home this year's gold?
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.
Canada won the gold medal last year in a thrilling 5-4 victory over Russia, while Slovakia provided a stunning 4-2 upset of Sweden in the bronze game.
This year's tournament will take place in Helsinki, Finland. Split into two groups, Group A is composed of Canada, the United States, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, while Group B consists of Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Belarus. Inter-group games will take place in the preliminary round, with the results setting the stage for the combined playoff round.
Due to the event taking place in Finland, games will be played in the morning and early afternoon in North American time zones. A full list of the games can be found here. Television schedules will vary by region, but the NHL Network schedule can be found here.
We here at Defending Big D will have you covered every step of the way, with daily recaps of the games as well as additional information.
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.
The defending champions have stocked up their arsenal and have their sights set firmly on a repeat. Like most recent iterations of the world juniors, the Canadian roster will feature the highest number of 1st round NHL draft choices (12 in total this year) of any team in the tournament.
Forwards Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner have been terrorizing the OHL this season and will provide the brunt of the offense here, but there's no shortage of firepower behind them. The Canadian roster is a lot smaller at forward than previous years, but finesse players like Brayden Point, Mathew Barzal and Travis Konecny are not the types of guys that you want to try to defend against on a bigger ice surface. Their blueline lacks some of the star power of previous years, but all seven defenders are still elite when it comes to puck possession.
Canada's only real question mark will be in net. Mackenzie Blackwood is the expected #1, but will be forced to sit his team's first two games due to a suspension. If he can't hit the ground running in his first start then the Canadians could face some tough choices with their goaltending.
Despite some controversial omissions, Team USA and their head coach, former NHL bench boss Ron Wilson, are confident that they've brought the right mix of players needed to bring home a gold medal.
The center of attention will undoubtedly be Auston Matthews, the electrifying forward that is heavily projected to go 1st overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. He's been tearing it up this season against older competition in Switzerland's top hockey league and should be a dominating force every time he touches the ice. Right behind him are three of the OHL's top four scorers in London Knights teammates Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak, and Alex DeBrincat, who has a staggering 33 goals in 30 games.
While scoring goals will be no trouble for the United States, preventing them could be a concern. Zach Werenski and Brandon Carlo are the only high picks on the blueline, but the hope is that smaller puck-movers, such as Louis Belpedio and Brandon Fortunato, will be able to control the pace of the game. The starting goalie job is wide open between Brandon Halverson and Alex Nedeljkovic.
Don't let last year's 4th place finish fool you: the Swedes are still the real deal. They've won six medals in the last eight tournaments and will have a fire lit under them to bounce back this time around.
There's no secret about who Sweden's most dangerous weapon is going to be this tournament, but good luck trying to shut down William Nylander anyway. Nylander is one of the best hockey players in the world that's not currently in the NHL, and after lighting up defenses and goalies in the AHL this season as a teenager he's going to have an absolute field day against competition his own age. Sweden isn't a one-trick pony, however, as they will be able to comfortably roll all four forward lines and might even have the best all-around defensive group in the entire tournament. Their overall depth should make up for a relatively lower number of star players than they've had in recent years.
It might seem like a small thing, but Sweden will have a large number of returning players from last year's squad, which could be a huge difference-maker for them.
The nation of Russia is still churning out plenty of fantastic individual hockey players, but like recent WJC rosters, has a bit of trouble producing the same sort of immense depth that is seen from Canada, the USA, and Sweden.
As such, this Russian team will be very front-heavy, but it's still a pretty impressive front. Vladislav Kamenev, Evgeny Svechnikov and Kirill Kaprizov will be the main players to watch on offense, while they will have one of the tournament's best defensemen in Ivan Provorov and one of the best goalies in Ilya Samsonov.
Will it be enough? Russia has grabbed a medal in five straight years, including gold in 2011, but their roster's best players will need to be some of the event's best players if they want that streak to continue.
Much like Russia, Finland will be heavily reliant on a few select individuals, but with a much more intriguing twist.
Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are two of the top draft-eligible prospects heading into the 2016 entry draft, and could very easily go #2 and #3 behind Matthews. They're both still just 17, but each has great size and an abundance of talent. They could really open things up for Finland, but if they're not quite ready, returning 1st round picks Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen will be there and contributing.
The team's biggest wildcard, however, will be in net. Veini Vehvilainen was stellar for Finland at this past spring's IIHF World U18s and has a .930 save percentage right now in The Liiga at just 18 years of age.
So close, and yet so far. That's been the story for a Swiss team that's had some remarkable moments in recent WJC history, but still hasn't been able to take home any hardware.
There are some notable players on their roster this year, such as 2015 1st rounder Timo Meier and 2nd rounder Jonas Siegenthaler, but the team as a whole will need to produce a couple more miraculous upsets if they hope to win their first medal since 1998.
Once a great hockey powerhouse, the Czechs have fallen on hard times when it comes to producing young talent. They have failed to medal since 2005 and were eliminated in a 3-0 upset at the hands of Slovakia in last year's tournament.
Pavel Zacha and Jakub Zboril should make some noise, but the biggest question for the team will be whether or not forward David Pastrnak will be allowed to attend by his NHL organization, the Boston Bruins. If he's there they might have a chance, but without him (as well as the injured Jakub Vrana) their chances look quite bleak.
As impressive as their bronze medal finish last year was, don't expect Slovakia to recapture that magic this time around, especially without last year's tournament MVP Denis Godla. New goalie Adam Huska, who was great for his home nation at the 2015 U18s, might steal a game or two, but he's not going to have a lot of support around him.
The Danes fought their way up to the highest division of the world juniors thanks almost entirely to the play of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, but both of those players are gone this year. They're going to need all the help that they can get with such big absences, though it doesn't look like there are any reinforcements coming.
The winners of the 2015 Division 1 A tournament, Belarus replaces the relegated German team this year. Unluckily for them, the top players that won their team's right to advance and got them here are now all too old to be eligible. Pray for the Belarusians, who are in for some truly David vs. Goliath games.