Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Spengler Cup

I've always been a hockey fan, following the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators closely. But I've also always enjoyed international hockey, perhaps even more than the NHL. So why not share my hobby a little?

The Spengler Cup is an invitational tournament, and the oldest international hockey tournament in the world. The first was held in 1923. The tournament is hosted by HC Davos, a team from the Swiss Nationaliga-A. The other five teams invited to the tournament changes from year to year, but since 1984 one of those has always been Team Canada. Unlike the other teams invited to the tournament, Team Canada is the only non-club team, and is made up of Canadian players plying their trade in the European leagues (mostly the Swiss Nationaliga-A). In addition, club teams are allowed to invite up to four other players to their roster for the tournament.

Games can be watched this year on TSN. Their broadcast schedule is here.

In this year's tournament, the other four teams are CSKA Moscow of the KHL, HC Vitkovice Steel of the Czech Extraliga, the Rochester Americans of the AHL, and HC Genève-Servette of the Swiss Nationaliga-A. The teams are divided into two groups of three (Vitkovice, Canada, and Davos in one group, Moscow, Rochester, and Genève-Servette in the other) and each team plays the other teams in their group once before the elimination round begins.

HC Vitkovice Steel

Vitkovice is not the strongest team in the Czech Extraliga, which in turn is not the strongest league in Europe (the KHL, Swedish, and Swiss leagues could make that claim). The team is currently ninth in a 14-team league. In Ondrej Roman and Rudolf Huna, however, they do have two of the top scorers in the Czech Republic. Roman, selected in the fifth round of the 2007 entry draft by the Dallas Stars, is more of a play-maker than a goal-scorer, however, with only seven goals and 26 assists for Vitkovice in 33 games this year. Vladimir Svacina would be the third most potent player on the team. Karol Sloboda and Richard Stehlik are two solid Czech defenders.

Vitkovice's starting goaltender, Daniel Dolejs, is suiting up for the Czech national junior team, leaving the goaltending duties to veteran Roman Malek and third-string Filip Sindelar.

The Czech team has no standouts, though Roman, Huna, and Svacina are good Czech-league players. Malek is a decent goaltender but Sindelar opened against the Canadians in a game the Czechs could have won. I don't think Vitkovice has the depth to keep it up, however, and is probably the weakest team of the six.

Rochester Americans

AHL teams aren't usually in the Spengler Cup, and you have to go back more than ten years to find one participating. But it is an interesting opportunity to see how a team of minor leaguers stacks up against some decent European-league squads.

So far, it is not going well for the Americans. They fell 5-0 to Genève-Servette in their opener. Their AHL season is not going so badly, second in the North Division to the Toronto Marlies but on the bubble in eighth spot in the Western Conference. As the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, the team does not have a lot of upside.

Their top three forwards in the AHL and competing in Switzerland are Philip Varone (27 points in 30 games), Luke Adam (20 points in 18 AHL games, he has also played nine games in the NHL this season), and Matt Ellis, who has 10 points in 25 games and has a few NHL games of experience under his belt as well. But these aren't exactly top-draw talent, even by AHL standards. Their defense is better, led by Brayden McNabb, who has 15 points in 19 AHL games, and Chad Ruhwedel (14 points in 26 games). Matt Hackett, who has played some games in the NHL, is not having a terrific year in the AHL but is their starter. Youngster Nathan Lieuwen may get a chance after Hackett's poor start against Genève-Servette.

Considering how poorly Rochester performed against Genève-Servette, and their pending match-up against Moscow, it is hard to imagine that the Americans will go very far in this tournament.

HC Genève-Servette

This Swiss team has a few names on the roster that might be familiar to NHL fans. Ranked seventh in a 12-team league, Genève-Servette is a middling Swiss squad but they should be able to do some damage in this tournament.

The team is led by NHL alumni like Matthew Lombardi (28 points in 32 NLA games), Kaspars Daugavins (25 points in 29 games), and Cody Almond (25 points in 32 games). European veteran Goran Bezina anchors the defense, along with Garrett Stafford, on loan from the Swedish league. Their goaltending is decent, with duties to be split between Robert Mayer (on loan from the Hamilton Bulldogs) and Swiss veteran Tobias Stephan (who played a few games with Dallas in the NHL a few years ago). Genève-Servette has a pretty good line-up, but is likely to struggle against the top three teams.

Team Canada

The defending champions don't have the likes of Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, and Jason Spezza in the line-up this year. The lockout was good to Team Canada in 2012, but this roster will not be able to dominate so easily. The Canadians are usually a good team, but it is also usually a close contest for them.

The offense is led by Brett McLean (third in scoring in Switzerland, for Lugano, and a veteran of almost 400 NHL games), journeyman Alexandre Giroux (fourth in league scoring, for Ambri-Piotta), and Glen Metropolit (also a veteran of some 400 games, who last played for the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL). Other familiar names include Darren Haydar, Anthony Stewart and Jason Williams.

The defense is headlined by NHL veterans like Jim Vandermeer, Joel Kwiatowski, Brendan Bell, and Derrick Walser. They should get a lot of offense from the back-end. Their goaltending is back-stopped by former NHL veteran Chris Mason, who is now plying his trade in the Italian league. AHL/ECHL journeyman Allen York will back him up.

This is a good squad, but it might not be as good as some of the teams Canada has sent to Davos in the past. It will be a challenge to repeat as champions.

HC Davos

You can never count out the hosts, and HC Davos is having a good year running fourth in the Swiss Nationaliga-A. Among the players on the roster in the tournament, Marcus Paulsson, Peter Guggisberg, and Dino Wieser should provide the offense. Swedish ringers for this tournament include Niklas Persson and Nicklas Danielsson, who have had success in the Swedish league and the KHL.

The defense is solid, if not flashy. It should be led by Ville Koistinen and Beat Forster and ringer Zdenek Kutlak, who played a few games in the NHL back in the day. Davos's goaltending is among the best in the tournament, led by Leonardo Genoni (.927 save percentage in the Swiss league) and veteran Mika Noronen.

The home team advantage is always an important one in the Spengler Cup, and Davos has a deep line-up. Their goaltending should be very good, and they have every reason to contend for the Cup.

CSKA Moscow

The best team in the tournament, though, has to be the KHL's CSKA Moscow. CSKA is second in their division in the KHL and in the top ten in the 28-team league. The KHL is easily the second best league in the world, and to have one of its top teams in the Spengler Cup makes a win by them a safe bet. From 2008 to 2010, KHL teams had claimed the top prize.

The offensive line-up boasts some NHL talent, including Alexander Radulov, Alexander Frolov, Vladimir Zharkov, Oleg Saprykin, Alexei Morozov, Ivan Nepryayev, Fedor Fedorov, and David Nemirovsky. Sergei Fedorov is even supposed to come out of retirement (he manages the team) to put on his skates. And with top KHL talent like Nikolay Prokhorkin, Igor Grigorenko, and Ilari Filppula, Moscow has the most potent offense in the tournament - by far.

The defense is not nearly as full of recognizable names for North Americans, but it has a number of KHL veterans. Denis Denisov, Yakov Rylov, and Georgi Misharin give them a good base.

Their goaltending is mixed, with veteran Slovakian goaltender (who once played six games for the Washington Capitals) Rastislav Stana and KHL veteran Ilya Proskuryakov splitting the duties. They have both been having good years for Moscow in the KHL.

But with the power the team has up front, Stana and Proskuryakov could probably let in three or four goals per game and still come out of it undefeated. CSKA Moscow has to be considered the favourite to win - we just need to see if the team will take their opponents seriously.