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2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Preview

Ten nations enter, but only one will leave with gold

Arizona Coyotes v Ottawa Senators Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

For many hockey fans, the winter holidays are one of the best times of the year.

Beginning annually 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 gold last year on home ice, defeating Russia 4-3 in a thrilling overtime finale thanks to incredible performances from Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi. It was their second gold medal in the last three tournaments. The United States received bronze after decisively beating Sweden 8-3.

This year’s tournament is split between the two host cities of Toronto and Montreal. Divided among two main groups for preliminary round action, Group A will consist of Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark, while Group B has the United States, Canada, Russia, Slovakia and Latvia.

Games will be broadcast live on the NHL Network in the United States and on TSN in Canada. A full schedule of games can be found at this link.

We here at Defending Big D will be covering the tournament daily, with a recap every night after the day’s games have been completed.

Let’s now take a closer look at all 10 teams that are taking part, including how good their chances are and which prospects will be worth watching.

The Heavyweights

Canada:

Despite a stunning and disastrous 6th place finish last year, you can never count out the Canadians in this tournament. From top to bottom, this is a roster that’s going to be stacked with talent.

Dylan Strome and Mathew Barzal, who both made their NHL debuts early this season, give Canada a terrifying 1-2 punch at center and the potential to dominate on the powerplay. The rest of their forward group isn’t quite as star-studded, but there will be plenty of skill on every line and the ability to beat teams in different ways, whether with size or with speed.

Canada’s biggest weakness at the WJCs is usually in net, but this year could be a different story. The WHL tandem of Carter Hart and Connor Ingram is the best goaltending duo that the country has sent to this tournament in a long time, and with an impressive group of skilled puck-moving defensemen in front of them, scoring goals against this team won’t be easy.

United States:

Team USA made a big statement at the end of last year’s tournament, smashing Sweden 8-3 in the bronze medal game after missing the finals for the third straight year, so expect them to be a very driven club this time around.

With puck magicians Clayton Keller and Jeremy Bracco quarterbacking from the walls, Luke Kunin and Kieffer Bellows as triggermen, and plenty of transition support from the back end, the U.S. should be absolutely lethal on the man-advantage. The rest of the forward group is deep and diverse, giving them more than enough ability to roll four dangerous lines.

Charlie McAvoy is a returnee and a bonafide number one defenseman, but there are some issues with size and depth with the rest of the blueline. Luckily for the U.S. they’ll have strong support in net, as all three goalies currently in camp are more than capable of taking over the starting job.

Sweden:

Sweden continues to churn out more and more of the world’s top hockey prospects. Will this year see them get rewarded for it with their first WJC gold since 2012?

A 17 year-old Alexander Nylander tore up this tournament last year with nine points in seven games, so expect the dynamic forward to be a major catalyst again this time around. He’ll be primarily supported by players like Rasmus Asplund, Carl Grundstrom, Elias Pettersson and Lias Andersson, all of whom are succeeding against men in Sweden’s top two professional leagues.

Jacob Larsson and Oliver Kylington have both played in North America this season, which gives them an edge on North American ice over many other European defenders. They’ll keep the puck moving briskly. The 6’4” Gabriel Carlsson will be tasked with physically shutting down opposing teams in big moments, but he’ll need some help in that area. Between Felix Sandstrom and Filip Gustavsson, goaltending shouldn’t be an issue.

Russia:

Coming off of back-to-back silver medals, the Russians are going to be hungry for redemption after repeatedly falling so painfully short.

This year’s Russian team is a little lighter on high-end forward talent than previous rosters, but there are still some names to watch out for. Denis Gurianov was excellent for his home nation at the 2015 IIHF U18s and has been honing his game this season in the AHL. Conversely, Kirill Kaprizov stayed in Russia and is currently lighting up the KHL. He could be a challenger for the scoring lead in this tournament.

Russia’s biggest weakness is usually on defense, but that could change this time. Mikhail Sergachev is exceptional, and Yegor Rykov is a returnee that looked great last year. Keep an eye out for Sergei Zborovsky as well, a big two-way defender that is having a phenomenal season with the WHL’s Regina Pats. Ilya Samsonov will be the undisputed starting goalie and could single-handedly carry his team all the way to the finals.

The Middleweights

Finland:

With Laine and Puljujarvi now in the NHL, the defending champion Finns are facing an uphill battle in their quest to repeat.

Could another pair of 17 year-olds steal the show once again? Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen are two of the top prospects heading into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and could be difference-makers here, just as they were while winning gold at the 2016 IIHF U18s. Finland’s biggest strength, however, will be on the back end, led by a prospect that consistently comes through in big games in Olli Juolevi. Juuso Valimaki and Vili Saarijarvi nicely bolster the group.

Uncharacteristically, goaltending is the team’s biggest question mark right now. Veini Vehvilainen is inconsistent, while Markus Ruusu and Karolus Kaarlehto are untested in this kind of competition.

Czech Republic:

The Czechs haven’t won a medal since 2005, so it’s hard to consider them a true contender, but there are a few pieces on their roster this year that will give them a fighting chance.

Daniel “Darth” Vladar is a mammoth netminder that is currently playing in the AHL, and his team is desperately going to need him to be sharper than he was in previous international showings. Jakub Zboril and Libor Hajek aren’t flashy players, but their smart, reliable, two-way games made them both high draft picks. Filip Chlapik has been fantastic so far this year in the QMJHL and could carry that over in his second WJC appearance.

In all major areas, however, the Czechs lack depth. They’re going to need some heroic performances from their top players if they want to succeed.

The Lightweights

Switzerland:

One Swiss player is going to draw a lot of attention this tournament, and that’s 2017 draft-eligible Nico Hischier, who is looking more and more like he could be a Top 5 pick in June. The highly-skilled 17 year-old is going to have his hands full as he’ll be targeted by the top shutdown players on opposing teams.

Jonas Siegenthaler is a serious minute-muncher on the blueline, and draftees Damien Riat and Calvin Thurkauf can score, but the rest of the roster needs work. The Swiss should still be better than last year’s 9th place finish, though.

Slovakia:

How far can a hot goalie take a team in a tournament like this? There also seems to be one at every WJC that steals games for an underdog country, and Adam Huska is a prime candidate to be that guy this tournament. A quality prospect that flies under the radar, he’s been great this season in the NCAA and has plenty of experience playing internationally.

Erik Cernak and Radovan Bondra, who are both spending their junior careers in Canada, are the two other main players to watch. A couple of unexpected names will need to step up in a big way if they want to reach the medal games.

The Featherweights

Latvia:

Latvia has been on a bit of a roll in recent years in junior international hockey, at least relatively speaking for them. They’ve fought their way up to the top divisions at both the U18s and the WJCs thanks in large part to a capable core of 1997 birthdays that includes Martin Dzierkals, Rudolf Balcers, Karlis Cukste and Kristian Rubins, who will all be playing in this event as well. Could they win a couple of games? Stranger things have certainly happened at the World Juniors.

Denmark:

The WJCs are always a very top-heavy tournament, and every year there’s at least one team that is, unluckily for them, dramatically outgunned. That team this year is indisputably Denmark. They scraped out a surprising 2-1 round-robin win over Switzerland last year to avoid the relegation round, but the same kind of result should not be expected this time around. NHL draftees Mathias From, Joachim Blichfeld and Nikolaj Krag Christensen are the key prospects of note.