Saturday, May 4, 2013

Forecasting the 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championships

The 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championships began yesterday in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland, pitting the top 16 countries in North America and Europe against each other. Last year, the Russians  dominated the tournament, going undefeated and winning gold against a surprising Slovak squad. The Czechs beat the Finns to take bronze.

The tournament is one of my favourite times of the year and I decided to set out to try to develop a model that could forecast tournament results. Doing so for a sporting competition is no easy task, particularly for a sport like hockey where so much of what happens on the ice cannot be measured.

The model I put together is a rather simple one. It tallies the career international point performances of those players on the starting rosters, as well as the points scored during the NHL season just ended (games played for goaltenders). Each of these are weighted, and the sum total is used to rank the teams from 1st to 16th. The results of the 2010, 2011, and 2012 tournaments were used to calibrate the model.

The performance of the model is probably as good as it can get. The chart below shows how the model performed for the last three tournaments. Overall, the model predicts the ranking of a team to within an average of 2.9 spots, and in 65% of cases the forecast will be off by three spots or less of the actual outcome. It will be off by one spot or less in 35% of cases.
Interestingly, the two cases in which the model made the biggest error (missing by eight spots) was Germany in 2010 and Slovakia in 2011. What do those two have in common? In both cases, they were the host country.

For the Germans, their roster over-achieved. Perhaps the excitement of the crowd pushed them to play better. Conversely, the Slovakians under-achieved. As the host country, the roster was stacked with NHLers but the team couldn't deliver.

Will that have an effect this year? Perhaps not. The Finns did just about as expected in 2010, while the Swedes did quite a bit worse (the two countries co-hosted last year).

The model is by no means perfect, and it is probably impossible to design a model that would give good results year after year. It might also suffer from 'over-fitting', as past years were used to develop the system. But I love the tournament too much not to try.

The rankings below are based solely on the starting-day rosters, so any additions that are made in the course of the tournament cannot be taken into account (just as they were not in the simulations for 2010, 2011, and 2012). In addition to the overall rankings, a "bias" ranking is included. This estimates how the model might be wrong, based on how it was wrong in previous years.

As this is a rather long post, I've inserted a break here. If you're still interested, the team ranked to finish first is...

After a few years in the wilderness, Russia is now a hockey powerhouse, having won three golds in the last five tournaments, and having placed in the top four in the last six events. And as Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, they will want a strong performance. They have all the ingredients needed to win.

Up front, the Russians will be relying primarily on KHL players and former NHLers, but Ilya Kovalchuk, Artem Anisimov, and Andrei Loktionov did make themselves available after their NHL seasons were done. Kovalchuk will be the leader of the team, as he has been for several years. He always plays when available, and has 63 points at the world championships in 66 career games. His season with New Jersey could have gone better, but he had 31 points in 37 games. Anisimov had 18 points in 35 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, while Loktionov had 12 points in 28 games for the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils.

Sergei Mozyakin and Alexander Radulov are the best players the KHL has to offer. The two finished first and second in league scoring, Mozyakin managing 76 points for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Radulov 68 points for CSKA Moscow. Former NHLers Alexander Perezhogin and Alexander Svitov will also provide some scoring experience.

Russia's defense is not nearly as strong and has only one NHLer. Fedor Tyutin had 22 points in 48 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and played for the Russians in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. Ilya Nikulin, a national team veteran drafted in the second round by Atlanta in 2000, will back him up. He had 34 points in 51 games for Ak Bars Kazan this year. Yevgeni Medvedev and Anton Belov each had 26 points for Kazan and Avangard Omsk, respectively.

Their goaltending is far more solid. Ilya Bryzgalov and Semyon Varlamov will battle for the starter's job. Both had difficult seasons, with Varlamov posting a 3.02 goals-against average in 35 games for the Colorado Avalanche, and Bryzgalov posting a .900 save-percentage for the Philadelphia Flyers. Varlamov, who was the starter last year and played very well (1.77 goals-against average and .939 save-percentage), has the edge.

The Russians always play hard in the world hockey championships, and have decent talent on the attack and strong goaltending in nets. Their defense could be better, but with the exception of Tyutin the entire defensive corps played on the big ice throughout the season. Russia is the favourite to win, as always, and should be able to win a medal unless something goes wrong.

Canada has had success at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010, but in the last two world championships the team has only finished 5th, after finishing 7th in 2010. Canada hasn't won a gold since 2007, after having one silver or gold in six of seven years between 2003 and 2009. Is this the team to end the drought?

The model thinks Canada can win a medal, but it usually does. The Canadian line-up is always made up entirely of NHLers, giving them a statistical edge. But unlike some of the European teams, the roster is put together at the last minute and most players do not have experience playing with one another as the team changes in every tournament. The big ice might also be a factor.

Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, and Taylor Hall all had 50 or more points this year, and all have had recent success with the national team. Stamkos had 11 points in nine games in the 2009 tournament, Staal had six points in seven games at the 2010 Olympics, and Hall scored 12 points in six games at the world juniors in 2010. Added to this trio are Claude Giroux, Matt Duchene, and Andrew Ladd, who all had 43 points or more. Their international experience is more mixed: this is Giroux's first world championships, Duchene was pointless in seven games in 2011, while Ladd had five points in eight games last year.

Providing support will be Jordan Eberle, Wayne Simmonds, and Jordan Staal, otherwise known as leaders on their respective teams. Canada should be able to score at will.

The defense is a lot less flashy. Aside from Brian Campbell and Justin Schultz, who each had 27 points, no other defensive on the team had more than 14. Stéphane Robidas and Luke Schenn know how to handle their own end, while T.J. Brodie and Brenden Dillon are in their first world championships. The defensive group may not have a lot of very well known players, but is at least as good as any other in the tournament.

Goaltending might not be. Devan Dubnyk and Mike Smith will split the duties in front of the net. Both Dubnyk and Smith had similar stars, with Smith posting more shutouts and Dubnyk a somewhat better save percentage. Smith has no national team experience, while Dubnyk has been on the roster (but not the starter) in the last three tournaments. Both Dubynk and Smith can provide strong goaltending, but neither is the type who can single-handled steal a game.

As always, Canada is going to have the best roster in the tournament - at least on paper. Whether the roster can gel and win games is the question that is answered every year. Lately, the Canadians haven't been able to do it. This might be the year.

Norway is not likely to win this tournament or even compete for a medal. But the model likes their team very much.

The Norwegians have been improving. They placed 8th last year, and after having been a bubble team have been in the top nine in four of the last five years. More and more of their players ply their trade in the NHL, the KHL, and the very good Swedish league.

The main reason the model likes this team (which does not have an NHLer on the roster) is that it is likely the most experienced team in the tournament. Norway sends the same players to the world championships every year, and they know how to play with one another. On the attack, Morten Ask, Anders Bastiansen, Per-Åge Skrøder, and Patrick Thoresen have all scored 32 points or more at the world championships in their career.

Thoresen is the leader on the team. He played for the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers between 2006 and 2008, and had 51 points in 52 games for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. In 2012, he netted 18 points in eight games. Skrøder, Bastiansen, Kristian Forsberg, Mads Hansen, Marius Holtet, Mathis Olimb, and Martin Røymark all play in the Swedish league. The offense doesn't sparkle, but it is effective.

On the blueline, Norway has two ex-NHLers on the roster: Jonas Holøs (formerly of the Colorado Avalanche) and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Columbus and Philadelphia). Holøs had 17 points in 55 games for Växjö of the Swedish league, while Mats Trygg is a veteran national team member playing for Jönkoping.

Lars Haugen and Lars Volden handle goaltending duties, and both are talented netminders. Volden is a draftpick of the Boston Bruins, who had a 2.01 goals-against average in 11 games for the Espoo Blues of the Finnish league. Haugen, who started for the national team in 2011 and 2012, had a stellar 1.81 goals-against average and .933 save-percentage in 22 games for Dinamo Minsk of the KHL.

The Norwegians will probably not place nearly as high as the model thinks they will. But there is reason to expect a decent performance, particularly in a year when many of the traditional powers are fielding only so-so line-ups. They've gotten off to a good start with a 3-1 win over Slovenia.

The Slovaks performed surprisingly well last year, winning the silver medal despite putting together middling roster. It was a big improvement after four disastrous years in which the Slovaks finished between 10th and 13th position, despite its tradition spot as the seventh best hockey nation (at least in terms of the production of NHLers). They opened the tournament with a big win over France yesterday, but anything but a win over the French team would have got alarm bells ringing.

Their offense does not boast a lot of NHL talent, with only Tomas Kopecky having played in the NHL last year. But he is a good player to have leading the attack, as he scored 27 points in 47 games for the Florida Panthers and led the team in goals. He potted six points in 10 games in last year's world championship.

There is a lot of NHL experience in the line-up, however. Mario Bliznak, Branko Radivojevic, Miroslav Satan, Jozef Stümpel, Tomas Surovy, and Peter Ölvecky all have previously played in the league. Radivojevic and Bliznak, who last played with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, were on the top line with Kopecky in the opener against France, but the Slovaks could lean heavily on veterans like Satan and Stümpel. The former Buffalo Sabre has been a staple for the Slovaks, having played on the national team every year since he left the NHL. Stümpel had 50 points in 52 games for HK Nitra of the Slovak league this past year.

Andrej Sekera of the Sabres will lead the defense. He scored 12 points in 37 games for the Sabres this year, and had nine points in 10 games in last year's championships. He'll be backed-up with former NHLers like Milan Jurcina, Branislav Mezei, and Vladimir Mihalik. Mezei had a good year for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, with 21 points in 51 games for the KHL team.

In nets, neither Peter Budaj nor Jaroslav Halak were available to the Slovaks so Rastislav Stana and Jaroslav Janus will split the duties. Stana started against the French after a stellar year for CSKA Moscow: 1.76 goals-against average and .934 save-percentage in 34 games for the team. Janus, a Lightning prospect, played 47 games for HC Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia's KHL team) and put up great numbers, but had a bad playoff.

In a normal year, the Slovaks would probably not be a lock for a high finish. But many of the traditional powers are sending lacklustre rosters, and with the amount of experience on top the Slovaks could pull off another surprise and finish in the top tier.

The Czech Republic is always competitive at the Worlds, having won a medal in three consecutive tournaments (starting with a gold in 2010). They can always count on a good contingent of NHLers, and this year is no different.

The Czechs opened with a 2-0 win over Belarus, a game with a scoreline that was closer than it should have been. Tomas Fleischmann and Jakub Voracek are the Czechs' two most potent offensive pieces. Fleischmann led the Florida Panthers in scoring with 35 points, while Voracek was the top Czech-born scorer in the NHL this year with 46 points for the Philadelphia Flyers. He has been relatively quiet in his last two world championship appearances, however.

Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata (both of the Phoenix Coyotes), Jiri Hudler (Calgary Flames), and Jiri Tlusty (Carolina Hurricanes) will bring their NHL talents to bear, and give the Czechs two solid lines. Former NHLers like Petr Tenkrat, Petr Vrana, and Jiri Novotny give the team some depth as well. But unlike the Slovaks, their line-up boasts less experience at the worlds.

Their defense is also somewhat lacking. Though it does have three NHLers (Jan Hejda of the Colorado Avalanche, Zbynek Michalek of the Coyotes, and Ladislav Smid of the Edmonton Oilers), there is not much beyond that. Petr Caslava, who played for the KHL Severstal Cherepovets this season, is the only one with any extensive experience on the national team.

Their goaltending might also be a problem. Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets was slated to be their starter, but he is apparently sick and so did not make it on the starting roster (and so can't be counted by the model). He may be in the line-up before the round robin is over, and if so that could put the Czechs in a better position than the Slovaks. Alexander Salak, who played two games for the Panthers in 2009-10, started against Belarus and is coming off a great season with Färjestad of the Swedish league.

The Czechs have the offense, but the defense may be a little thin. Goaltending could be an issue once the elimination round begins if Pavelec doesn't come back, but even if he does the Czechs aren't as solid as they could be as Pavelec had a rough year with the Jets. He also played a grand total of 64 games this year in the Czech and Finnish leagues and the NHL, and could be a little worn out. He was outstanding for them in 2011, however. If their NHLers perform and if they get the goaltending, the Czechs should challenge for another medal.

The Swiss can under-perform at the world championships. They placed 11th last year, their worst showing since 1997. They often finish between 7th and 9th, but should be able to repeat their 5th place finish in 2010 more often.

With the exception of Damien Brunner, currently with the Detroit Red Wings, the Swiss have struggled to produce top-flight forwards. Scoring should be a problem for them again this year. They will look to national team veteran Martin Plüss and Nino Niederreiter to lead the attack. Niederreiter struggled with the New York Islanders last year, scoring just one goal in some 50 games, and played the entire season with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers this year. He did well, with 50 points in 74 games. But Niederreiter has been held pointless in 10 games at the world championships. He will need to break his slump if the Swiss are to have any chance. It seems he may be off to a good start with a goal against the Swedes in yesterday's opener.

Ryan Gardner could also produce for them, as he had 42 points and 25 goals in 50 games for SC Bern of the Swiss League. Andres Ambühl will also have to provide some scoring.

They might have more luck getting goals from the back-end, where the Swiss have traditionally been strong. Only one NHLer is on the line-up, though, and that is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. He had 18 points in 48 games for the team, and has produced for the Swiss national team at the under-18, under-20, and worlds. Mathias Seger, who has played 89 games for the Swiss team in the world championships, should also be productive: he had 32 points in 50 games for Zürich this year. Severin Blindenbacher, Philippe Furrer, and Julian Vauclair can also contribute.

Jonas Hiller is busy with the Anaheim Ducks in the playoffs, so Switzerland will look to Martin Gerber as their starter. Gerber is an NHL veteran who has played with Anaheim, Carolina, Ottawa, Toronto, and Edmonton, and this year had decent stats on a struggling Rögle team in the Swedish league. He'll be backed up by Reto Berra, who did not have a strong year with EHC Biel of the Swiss league.

Switzerland's roster rarely changes much, so the line-up has more familiarity with each other than most teams. But the Swiss have never scored much. If the defense stands tall and Gerber plays well, the Switzerland could pull a few upsets. But competing for a medal is probably not in the cards with Brunner, Mark Streit, or Raphael Diaz on the roster.

The United States rarely sends a good roster to a tournament held in Europe. They have finished in the top four only once in the last eight years, and was only seventh in last year's tournament. In 2010, their team was so weak that it had to fight to prevent relegation. The Americans haven't won a medal since 2004, but they are starting to realize they need some experienced players at the tournament, and have been relying on a lot of the same people to help out year after year.

But the USA is unlikely to challenge in 2013. Their attack will be led by Paul Stastny, who had 24 points in 40 games for the Colorado Avalanche. He has been a good producer on the international stage, scoring 17 points in 15 games at the world hockey championships.

He won't have much support. The next highest scorer in the NHL this season was David Moss, who had 20 points for the Phoenix Coyotes. Ryan Carter (15 points), Nate Thompson (15), Stephen Gionta (14), Craig Smith (12), and Bobby Butler (11) will provide the rest of the offense. It will be a hardworking group, but the talent isn't quite there.

The defense will be led by Matt Carle, who had 22 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 48 games. He was a +1 on a non-playoff team, and the top scoring defensemen in Tampa Bay. Justin Faulk, who had 15 points for the Carolina Hurricanes, had eight points in eight games (including four goals) in last year's tournament. Erik Johnson, Matt Hunwick, Jamie McBain, Jeff Petry, Chris Butler, and Jacob Trouba all have experience with the national team at various levels.

Goaltending will begin and end with Ben Bishop, who had a .920 save-percentage in 22 games for the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. He will need to carry the team, as the two other goaltenders on the roster have not played in the NHL. Cal Heeter had a mediocre year on Philadelphia's AHL affiliate, while John Gibson played most of his year with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.

Once again, the United States have sent a roster to the world hockey championships that will likely keep the USA in the middle of the pack. They won their opener against lowly Austria by only a 5-3 margin. Until they can get a few more stars to pack their bags, the United States will continue their medal drought.

Denmark is an up-and-coming hockey nation, having produced the likes of Frans Nielsen, Jannik Hansen, Lars Eller, and Peter Regin. Unfortunately, none of them are available this year.

But Mikkel Bødker will be leading the way, after scoring 26 points in 48 games for the Phoenix Coyotes. But aside from him, the offense is very thin. For support, Bødker will need to rely on the services of veterans like Kim Staal, Morten Madsen, Morten Green, and Mads Christensen. Madsen had 19 points in 55 games for MODO of the Swedish team, while Green, Christensen, and Julian Jakobsen played in the DEL this year. Nichlas Hardt, who played in the Finnish league this year, and Kirill Starkov, drafted by Columbus in the sixth round in 2005, will need to produce as well.

The defense is better, and will be led by Oliver Lauridsen, who appeared in 15 games for the Philadelphia Flyers. Daniel Nielsen, Mads Bødker, and Stefan Lassen are veterans with the national team, but the line-up is thin on talent and high-level experience.

The same goes for its goaltenders. The team would be better off with Fredrik Andersen, who is in the Anaheim Ducks' system and so unavailable. Patrick Galbraith started for the team in 2008, 2009, and 2010, but only appeared in five games for Frölunda of the Swedish league, playing most of the season in the second-tier league instead. Simon Nielsen did not have very strong numbers in 13 games for Lukko of the Finnish league.

Unless Denmark can add some players in the preliminary round to surround Bødker, the Danes could be in real trouble. A top ten finish would be a good result with this roster.

Once upon a time, Germany had a strong claim to be the world's eight best hockey team. They were the eighth team invited to the World Cup in 2004. That claim is long gone, as the Germans are one of the most inconsistent teams in the tournament. They finished 12th last year, 4th in 2010, 15th in 2009, and 9th in 2007. Where they might end up this year is anyone's guess, but the line-up is good enough to avoid relegation - as they did by a technicality in 2009 (they were hosting the next year's tournament).

The attack begins and ends with Marcel Goc, the only NHLer among forwards on the team. Goc had 19 points in 42 games for the Florida Panthers, but was pointless in seven games in last year's tournament. Felix Schütz, who had 41 points in 50 games for Kölner Haie of the German league, and André Rankel, 54 points in 48 games for Eisbären Berlin, will support Goc. Thomas Greilinger and Michael Wolf, two good producers from the DEL, should also contribute, while Marcel Noebels will be interesting to watch. He was drafted in the fourth round by Philadelphia in 2011, and played this year with their AHL affiliate, scoring 23 points in 43 games.

Germany's defense will be led by Christian Ehrhoff of the Buffalo Sabres, who had 22 points in 47 games this year. He was a team best +6 and led the Sabres' blueline in scoring. Frank Hördler, who had 24 points in 52 games for Berlin, is a good player but the German defensive corps is lacking the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Korbinian Holzer, and Christoph Schubert.

Rob Zepp started in Germany's opener against Sweden, allowing four goals in an overtime loss. Dennis Endras may get the call next time. He had a strong season for Adler Mannheim, and was instrumental in Germany's fourth place finish from 2010, when he had a 1.15 goals-against average and .961 save percentage in the tournament. He has been unable to repeat that success at the world's since, however.

The Germans are always capable of a surprise, but this line-up is one of the weaker ones they have sent to the world championships in recent years. They might be lucky to finish in the top ten.

Sweden is always a challenger for a medal, but this year's line-up is surprisingly weak considering they are a host. That they could rank behind Germany and Switzerland in the model is testament to the poor line-up they have - at least on paper. They lost their opener to the Swiss, though, so perhaps it is not an anomaly.

Loui Eriksson is the best forward on the roster, as he had 29 points in 48 games for the Dallas Stars (he had 13 points in eight games in last year's tournament). Gabriel Landeskog is the only other attacker who played in the NHL this year, and he struggled with 17 points in 36 games. Joel Lundqvist is the only other forward with some NHL experience - he played for Dallas between 2006 and 2009.

Jimmie Ericsson and Oscar Lindberg, who both had good seasons with Swedish champion Skellefteå, could be useful on the roster. Calle Järnkrok started the year with Detroit's AHL affiliate, and put up 42 points in 53 games for Brynäs. Martin Thörnberg had a good year with Nizhny Novgorod of the KHL, and had six points in nine games in the 2011 tournament.

Sweden's defense is similarly mixed, with Erik Gustafsson (Philadelphia Flyers) and Henrik Tallinder (New Jersey Devils) being the only NHLers. Gustafsson had eight points in 27 games, while Tallinder had four in 25. Staffan Kronwall, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Calgary Flames had 22 points in 50 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL.

Jacob Markström of the Florida Panthers got the call against the Swiss yesterday, and lost. He played the most games for the Panthers this year, but his numbers were not stellar. Markström was stellar the last time he suited up for Sweden at the world's, however. Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres is the second goalie. He had better stats than Ryan Miller did, but appeared in only 12 games.

With this line-up, the odds that Sweden will be able to do better than their sixth place finish last year are low. After 11 consecutive top-four finishes, Sweden seems to be in a rut.

Finland seems to be running an experiment with this year's line-up. Despite hosting the tournament, not a single NHLer was on the starting roster. Finland placed fourth last year and won gold in 2011. They will almost certainly not do anywhere near the good this year.

The Finns will need to rely on veterans like Petri Kontiola and Janne Pesonen for their scoring. Both had decent seasons in the KHL this year, and both have had limited stints in the NHL in the past. Antti Pihlström and Niklas Hagman, also of the KHL, have more recent NHL experience. But if these are the team's top four, Finland will be in trouble. Aside from them, only Juhamatti Aaltonen and Juha-Pekka Hytönen have ever scored a point in a world hockey championship, the rest of the line-up has been held scoreless or is in their first stint at this level.

The defensive corps is more experienced, including the likes of Lasse Kukonen, Teemu Laakso, Sami Lepistö, and Ossi Väänäen. All have played in the NHL, while Laakso and Lepistö were both in the KHL this past year. Juuso Hietanen and Tuukka Mäntylä are both effective players.

The goaltending is a bit of a mystery, however. Finland has been a goaltending producing machine in the last decade, but have gone with Joni Ortio and Antti Raanta as their tandem for this tournament. Ortio started against the Germans, and had a decent year with HIFK of the Finnish leage. He played for Abbotsford of the AHL in 2011-12, and started the under-20 team in the 2010 and 2011 tournaments. Raanta had a very good year with Ässät of the Finnish league, posting a 1.33 goals-against average and .955 save percentage in his team's championship playoff run. He has no national team experience, however.

The Finnish line-up has become a bit of a joke going into the tournament, with the IIHF's tongue-in-cheek power rankings suggesting that the team's players would not be let into the arena because no one has ever heard of them. It isn't that bad, but the Finns will struggle without a lot of top talent. They may be able to handle the minnows and middling teams, but against the Slovaks, Czechs, Russians, Canadians, and even Americans, they will be an easy target. Their best chance is if they are under-estimated, and over-achieve.

Latvia has some of the most raucous fans in the world, and the team over-achieves considering Latvians tiny population. They have finished between 7th and 14th for the last 17 tournaments, unable to breakthrough into the top ranks but safe from regulation. They should expect a similar result this year.

At least four of Latvia's forwards play for Dinamo Riga of the KHL: Andris Dzerins, Miks Indrasis, Gints Meija, and Vitalijs Pavlovs. Of the group, Indrasis will get the most attention as he managed five points in seven games in last year's tournament. Martins Cipulis and Janis Sprukts are veterans of the team, Sprukts having played a few games with the Florida Panthers a few seasons ago. Roberts Jekimovs had 27 points in 54 games for SaiPa Lappeenrante of the Finnish league, while Ronalds Kenins suited up for the ZSC Lions of the Swiss league this year. This is the usual group, but the Latvians do miss Kaspars Daugavins (Boston Bruins) and Mikelis Redlihs.

Arturs Kulda is the most recognizable name on the back-end, having played for the Winnipeg Jets and St. John's Ice Caps last season. He had 15 points in 50 games for Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL this year, while Krisjanis Redlihs had 20 points in 43 games with Riga. The rest of the squad is low on experience.

Edgars Masalskis will once again be the rock for Latvia in nets. He did not have a bad year with Yugra-Khanty Mansisk of the KHL, but was very good in last year's tournament (.920 save percentage). He'll be backed-up by Maris Jucers, who struggled as Riga's back-up goaltender in the KHL but was good in two games last year.

The Latvians should be able to keep themselves outside of relegation, but they may struggle more than they have in previous years.

Belarus is having a bad year. They were under a lot of pressure from their government ("the last dictatorship in Europe") to qualify for the Olympics, and they failed. They are hosting next year's tournament, and want to have something to build on. Two consecutive 14th place finishes will not do the job, especially after having placing in the top ten in four of the previous five tournaments.

Without the likes of Mikhail Grabovski or the Kostitsyn brothers (not even Alexei Kalyuzhny), the Belarussians will not have an easy time in this tournament. The attack will need to be led by veterans like Dmitri Meleshko, Alexei Ugarov, and Konstantin Koltsov (formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins). KHL players like Alexander Kitarov, Yevgeni Kovyrshin, Alexander Kulakov, and Andrei Stas will need to pick up their games. The talent that drove the Toronto Maple Leafs to draft Mikhail Stefanovich could be useful, but Stefanovich has flamed out after good performances in the QMJHL. He did have 46 points in 49 games for HK Gomel of the Belarussian league this year, but that is not a top league.

The defense lacks experience, perhaps as punishment for their dismal Olympic qualification attempt. Only Pavel Chernaok, Oleg Goroshko, and Roman Graborenko have any experience at this level. Graborenko played in the AHL this year, scoring five points in 34 games for the Albany Devils, and could lead the squad.

In goal, the reins have been handed to Vitali Belinski, who started the game against the Czechs. Belinski had a good performance, and had a decent year with the second-tier Russian league team in Minsk. He'll probably split duties with Dmitri Milchakov, who played two games in last year's tournament. But without Vitali Koval or Andrei Mezin, Belarus does not have the veteran presence they need in net.

No scorers and inexperience in defense and in nets. Belarus could go down in flames and only avoid relegation due to their 2014 hosting duties, or this new line-up could work. We'll see.

The Austrians will hope to build on the momentum of their win in the Olympic qualifying tournament. They will be one of 12 teams at Sochi in 2014, quite a feat for a team that has been relegated in their four last appearances in the world championships.

If that qualifying tournament is any indication, they have a good chance of sticking around this time. A lot of it will depend on Thomas Vanek, who had 20 goals and 41 points for the Buffalo Sabres. He led the team in scoring despite missing 10 games, and has been a big contributor to the national team when he has been on the roster (which he hasn't been since 2009).

Daniel Oberkofler led the team in scoring in the qualifiers, though he had a so-so year with EHC Linz of the Austrian league. Thomas Koch, a veteran leader, had 51 points in 44 games for Klagenfurter AC in their championship-winning season. Michael Raffl was fifth in scoring in the Swedish league's second tier, while Gregor Baumgartner was second in national team scoring in last year's Division 1 tournament, and was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 1999. They will all provide support for Vanek, but he will have to carry them if they are to stay out of the bottom two spots.

André Lakos, Robert Lukas, and Gerhard Unterluggauer will secure the back-end, as they have traditionally done for the Austrian team. They'll be led by Thomas Pöck, who had 33 points in 62 games for the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL, and who has played 118 games for the New York Rangers and Islanders between 2003 and 2009.

Bernard Starkbaum had a very strong season in the Swedish league, with a 2.06 goals-against average and .933 save-percentage in 46 games for MODO. He led the team to its Olympic qualification, and was the starter last year when Austria won promotion. Whether Austria can stay in the top 16 will depend on his play. René Swette will back him up, after a stellar playoffs with Klagenfurt.

Only three countries in the tournament have a larger population than France, and so the French team should have a larger pool of players to choose from than most countries. But they don't, and several of their players were born in Canada or played junior on this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the French have been decent in recent years, finishing ninth in last year's tournament after placing 12th to 14th in the previous four. They have been in the top division only since 2008.

Antoine Roussel will be the lynch-pin of France's hopes. He had 14 points for the Dallas Stars, only one of two French players to suit-up in the league this year (the other was Ottawa's Stéphane Da Costa). Roussel will have some veterans around him, particularly Laurent Meunier, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, and Yorick Treille. Bellemare had 22 points in 29 games for Skellefteå of the Swedish team this year, while Meunier had 28 points in 50 games for the Straubing Tigers of the DEL. Treille played in Austria this year (and was once a draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks) while his brother Sacha played in the Czech league.

Tim Bozon will be an interesting player to watch. The son of former NHLer Philippe, Bozon was second in scoring for the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL this year, and was drafted by Montreal in the 3rd round in 2012.

France's defense is capable enough. Yohann Auvitu had 12 points in 44 games for JYP of the Finnish league, while Kevin Hecquefeuille had 19 points in 24 games for Karlskrona of the second-tier Swedish league. Vincent Bachet is a veteran national team player, while Antonin Manavian player for Acadie-Bathurst and Gatineau of the QMJHL in his junior days.

If Cristobal Huet plays as well as he used to with the Montreal Canadiens, the French could go far. But Huet may be a little rusty, having played this year in the second-tier Swiss league. But he can always be counted upon to play for France when available. Fabrice Lhenry is another veteran, and will back-up.

With Roussel and Huet, the French should be able to avoid relegation. Will they?

Like Austria, the Slovenians surprised many to qualify for the Olympics in 2014, even without their NHL star player, Anze Kopitar. The Slovenians will try to stay in the top 16 this year, again with Kopitar, which should be difficult.

There will be a Kopitar on the roster, however: his brother Gasper, who played in the second-tier Swedish league this year. Their father, Matjaz, is also the head coach.

But the team will rely on Tomaz Razingar and Marcel Rodman, two veteran producers, who both player in the second-tier German league this past year (Rodman had 67 points in 31 games, and may be remember as a top scorer for the OHL's Peterborough Petes between 1999 and 2001). Jan Urbas, who played in the top tier of the Swedish league for Växjö, should be a leader as well. But Slovenia's attack would be much better off with Anze Kopitar and Jan Mursak, who has played with the Detroit Red Wings in the last two seasons.

Ales Kranjc and Mitja Robar will bring their veteran presnce to the blueline, while Ziga Pavlin of the Swedish league's Rögle will be an important part of the defensive corps.

Robert Kristan, Slovenia's traditional starter, had a decent year with Medvescak Zagreb of the Austrian league and will need to be sharp if Slovenia has any hope of avoiding relegation. Their odds are not good.