Saturday, May 10, 2014

2014 World Hockey Championship

The first World Hockey Championship after the Winter Olympics is always a different beast. The best players in the world who made it to the Olympic Games often don't return for the World Hockey Championship, in order to avoid prolonging an already long season. But every nation is in the same boat in this regard, and these World Hockey Championship taking place in Minsk, Belarus will be a bit of a showcase of the world's up-and-coming talent.

The tournament is being broadcast in Canada on TSN. The full broadcast schedule can be seen here. TSN will be broadcasting every Canadian and American game, as well as every game in the playoffs. As Canada is in one group and the United States is in the other, this means that every team will be featured in at least one game.

What I've done below is rank the teams in terms of their relative quality. This is not meant to be a projection, but rather a comparison of one team to another. On paper, which team should be the strongest? I think this gives a good indication of the relative strengths of each team, and is a good bar with which to measure performance. The system I use is very simple, and was first described here.

Using that system gives us an indication of how well each of the teams did in Sochi. Canada, which was ranked first, did end up winning the gold while Sweden, ranked third, managed to take the silver. The United States, ranked second, played themselves out of a medal while the Finns, ranked sixth, over-achieved to win their bronze.

Other over-achievers included the Slovenians, ranked 11th, and the Latvians, ranked 12th. The Slovenians played amazingly well considering their limited resources, finishing seventh overall. The Latvians, too, performed above expectations with an eighth-place finish. The under-achievers were the Slovaks. They were ranked seventh but ended up in 11th spot.

So how is the tournament shaping up in Minsk? Here are my rankings of the 16 teams.

With a full roster of NHLers, the Canadians should be the strongest team at the tournament. But that is always the case, and yet Canada hasn't won a medal since 2009, when they took silver. The 3-2 shoot-out upset loss to France on the opening day of the tournament illustrated how getting a group of players to become a team can be difficult.

But Canada has few excuses. Their goaltending is young, but Ben Scrivens has had an incredible year with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings, finishing with a .922 save percentage. James Reimer did less well with the Toronto Maple Leafs (and worse against France), but can also get the job done. Justin Peters of the Carolina Hurricanes is capable if either Scrivens or Reimer falters.

The defense is a mix of youth and experience, led by Jason Garrison of the Vancouver Canucks, Ryan Ellis of the Nashville Predators, and Morgan Rielly of the Maple Leafs. But Kevin Bieksa of the Canucks will provide the leadership in the dressing room, and was accordingly named captain. Tyler Myers of the Philadelphia Flyers and Erik Gudbranson of the Florida Panthers complete the youth movement on the blueline.

Canada's 2018 or 2022 Olympic team is on display among the forwards, however. Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, likely Calder winner, is the leading scorer on the team, having put up 63 points this season. Kyle Turris of the Ottawa Senators (58 points) and Nazem Kadri of the Maple Leafs (50 points) can also put the puck in the net. Other young players who will bring energy to the squad include Cody Hodgson of the Buffalo Sabres, Brayden Schenn of the Flyers, Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets, Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Panthers. Veterans like Joel Ward and Jason Chimera of the Washington Capitals, as well as Alexandre Burrows of the Canucks, will need to provide some leadership to help the team gel in such a short time.

And that is the challenge for Canada. There is no reason that the team shouldn't be able to win a medal, as every contender's line-up is missing some of their greats. The forward group is the most potent in the tournament. If they can score, and Scrivens or Reimer can keep it out of the net, Canada should be able to win a medal.

If Canada sometimes has trouble getting its best available players to suit-up for the WHC, the Americans have even more. Their squad is usually a mix of third and fourth line NHLers, with barely a household name among them. Nevertheless, the USA won a bronze last year and should be able to medal again in Minsk.

Their goaltending group is their Achilles' heal, led by 40-year-old Tim Thomas of the Dallas Stars. He had an okay-year, but is the only bonafide NHLer among the trio. David Leggio of the AHL's Hershey Bears had a decent season in that league, while Connor Hellebuyck was lights out this year - but with the University of Lowell. Thomas will probably have to carry the load in Minsk.

The defense, however, is the tournament's best - or at least the most likely to score a goal. The blueline corps is very young, led by Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets, Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators, and Dan DeKeyser of the Detroit Red Wings. All four of these players had 23 points or more in the NHL. Jeff Petry of the Edmonton Oilers is also in the line-up. This group is quick and big and skilled, but may be inexperienced.

Update (18/05/14): Jacob Trouba has been sent home with an injury, and this blows a big hole in the US defense. He was, along with Seth Jones, the most-used defenseman on the team, with three points in four games. As the United States is fighting for a spot in the elimination round, his loss will hurt.

The American offense looks thin, but that did not stop them from drubbing the host Belarussians 6-1 in their opener. Perennial Team USA standout is Craig Smith, who had 52 points with Nashville this year. Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning had a breakout year of his own with 50 points, while Tommy Wingels of the San Jose Sharks had 38 points. After that, it is scoring by committee, with the most recognizable name of the remaining players being Justin Abdelkader of the Detroit Red Wings. Tim Stapleton and Peter Mueller, both productive players in the KHL and Swiss league, respectively, bring some big-ice experience to the table. It is a mixed group, but it could be effective.

Unlike the Canadians, the American squad is not expected to be lights out. They might take some opponents by surprise. And this is a group of committed players, many of whom have experience in the US national hockey program. They could surprise - and repeat as medalists.

Though ranked in third on paper, the Russians appear to be the subjective favourites going into this tournament. After the disappointing performance on home ice in the Olympics, the Russians definitely have a chip on their shoulder. They over-powered the Swiss 5-0 in the first game of the tournament, so things are off to the right start.

The Russians have the most highly valued goaltending group in Minsk, led by Columbus Blue Jackets standout and Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. He put up a .923 save percentage this year, and should lead the Russians all the way. If he falters, however, they could do much worse than the Carolina Hurricanes' Anton Khudobin, who had a .926 save percentage in 36 games for the Hurricanes. Andrei Vasilevski is a good young goaltender for the Russians, coming off a strong season in Ufa.

The Russian defense is lacking, however, with only two NHLers among them: Dmitri Orlov of the Washington Capitals and Anton Belov of the Edmonton Oilers. Yevgeni Medvedev of Ak Bars Kazan and Maximum Chudinov are decent KHLers, but this is a blueline group that is not very dangerous.

Update (13/05/14): Injuries are taking their toll on the Russian team, as Dmitri Orlov and Andrei Loktionov have been knocked out for the rest of the tournament. That leaves a gaping hole on the Russian blueline, and cuts into the depth the Russians had on their first three lines. In the first three games of the tournament, however, the Russians are outscoring their opponents 15-3 so they may not miss these two.

The offense, however, is much better. The top-six is among the best in the tournament, led by Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals, who had 79 points this season, Artem Anisimov of the Blue Jackets (39) and Danis Zaripov of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, who scored 64 points in the KHL this year. Andrei Loktionov, Nikolai Kulemin, and Yevgeni Kuznetsov round out a talented top two lines, while Alexander Burmistrov (formerly of the Winnipeg Jets, now with Kazan) also has skill. Former NHLers like Viktor Tikhonov, Yevgeni Dadonov, and Sergei Shirokov give the Russians a good mix.

Update (24/05/14): The addition of Evgeni Malkin to the line-up improves the Russians considerably - he had 72 points with Pittsburgh, and becomes the second best player on the team after Ovechkin. With Canada and the United States out of the tournament, Russia is the highest ranked remaining team, and the favourite to win gold.

But it is all about living up to expectations. The Russians have had some difficulty with that. And though they often have a good round robin, is this a line-up that will get through the Canadians, Americans, Czechs, or Swedes at the elimination stage?

The Czechs can never be ruled out at this tournament. Between 2010 and 2012, the team won two bronzes and one gold. The squad sent to Minsk does have some talent, particularly on offense, but they will need their goaltenders to over-achieve.

That is, perhaps, their Achilles' heel. Both Jakub Kovar and Alexander Salak are very good KHL goaltenders, but will need to be at their best when facing NHL shooters. But either can be good enough to win it all.

The defensive group is mixed for the Czechs, led by NHLers Jakub Kindl of the Detroit Red Wings and Roman Polak of the St. Louis Blues. Martin Sevc and Ondrej Nemec are decent KHL-calibre defensemen, but their third pairing may struggle against more powerful opponents.

Update (12/05/14): The addition of Michal Jordan, who had a good year with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, gives the Czechs more depth on the back-end.

Update (13/05/14): On the other hand, Jordan cannot make up for the loss of Roman Polak to injury. The Czechs are off to a rough start, with just one overtime win in three games, and so Polak's departure is hardly a good sign.

The offense, however, will be able to hold its own. Led by the ageless Jaromir Jagr, who put 67 points for the New Jersey Devils this year, and Jiri Hudler, left off the Olympic roster despite a strong season in Calgary, the Czechs can be dangerous. Vladimir Sobotka and Tomas Hertl round-out the NHL contingent, and both are quality players. Hertl, especially, may have something to prove after an injury-shortened season. Roman Cervenka, Jiri Novotny, Jakub Petruzalek, and Jakub Klepis, all playing in the KHL, have NHL experience to bring to the table as well.

Update (18/05/14): The offense gets a boost with the arrival of Michal Vondrka, who had 24 points with Bratislava of the KHL. The Czechs need some scoring help, as they are fighting for a playoff spot.

Update (24/05/14): The offense gets even better with the addition of Martin Ruzicka, who had 55 points in the Czech league.

So the Czechs have some strong pieces. If they can score enough to make up for their more lacklustre back-end, the team could medal.

The Swedes are perennial medal contenders at the World Hockey Championship, finishing on the podium in four of the last five years. They may struggle to reach the medal round with this line-up, however.

Their goaltending is usually a strong-point, but Anders Nilsson has not proven himself to be an NHL starter yet with the New York Islanders. Joacim Eriksson, a prospect of the Vancouver Canucks, had a decent year in the AHL but struggled in his one outing for the Canucks.

The Swedes have a decent top-four on defense, led by Tim Erixon (coming off a strong season for the Springfield Falcons of the AHL), Erik Gustafson of the Philadelphia Flyers, Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators, and Magnus Nygren, who split the year between Hamilton and Karlstad of the Swedish league. Johan Fransson and Jonas Ahnelov are capable Swedish league defensemen as well.

The offense will lean heavily on top Swedish league scorers like Joakim Lindstrom, Simon Hjalmarsson, Linus Klason, and Oscar Moller. But Gustav Nyquist put up 48 points in a shortened season for the Detroit Red Wings, while Mikael Backlund played the full year in Calgary. Calle Jarnkrok, who spent most of the year in the AHL, is another up-and-coming prospect for the Swedes.

Update (12/05/14): The addition of Dennis Rasmussen, who has 40 points with Vaxjo of the Swedish league, beefs up the Swedes' top nine.

Update (18/05/14): Niclas Burstrom, who had a decent year in the Swedish league, arrives as reinforcement for a banged-up, but so far very successul, line-up.

If the Swedes get good goaltending from either Nilsson or Eriksson, they could do some damage. The roster has a lot of experience on the big ice and the Swedes often do well with Europe-based players.

Speaking of upsets, the Finns got off on the wrong foot with a 3-2 loss to Latvia in the opener. They will need to do much better if they want to have a hope of advancing to the medal round.

Much lies on the shoulders of Pekka Rinne, who had a shortened season with the Nashville Predators due to injury but is still one of the best goaltenders in the league. Mikko Koiskinen had a stand-out year in the KHL, and could step up to the plate if Rinne hasn't yet found his game.

The Finns will be relying on a lot of European league talent throughout the line-up, but no more so than on defense. Juuso Hietanen had a great year in the KHL, while Jere Karalahti (a former NHLer) played well in the Finnish league. Tuukka Mantyla and Ville Lajunen are reliable as well, but the defensive group does not have a lot of recognizable names.

One of the only recognizable names among the forward group is Olli Jokinen, the only NHLer among the skaters on this team. He had a decent year in Winnipeg with 43 points, and will need the support of former NHLers like Jarkko Immonen, Petri Kontiola, Leo Komarov, and Petteri Wirtanen if the Finns are to have any hope of scoring.

Update (18/05/14): After a slow start, the Finns have found their footing. The arrival of Erik Haula increases the firepower of the offense considerably. Haula had 15 points for the Minnesota Wild after being called up from the AHL, where he was having success. He also had a good playoffs for the Wild. The Finns have had trouble scoring (only Germany has scored fewer goals so far in the group) so Haula is a much-needed addition.

It makes a medal finish a tall order for the Finns. With their opening loss to the Latvians, the Finns are unlikely to cause much further damage as the tournament wears on.

The historic silver medal of last year will be a tough act to follow for the Swiss, and their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Russians did not start things on the right foot for the team. But the Swiss surprised their opponents in 2013. There's no reason they can't do it again in 2014 - though they have fewer tools to do the job.

Reto Berra had a difficult year with Calgary and Colorado, but has had much success at this tournament. Swiss hopes count on him. Leonardo Genoni is a good Swiss league goaltender, but if Berra does not get the job done Genoni may not be able to do it.

The Swiss have a good defensive group, thanks in large part to the presence of Roman Josi. He scored 40 points for the Nashville Predators this year and is a top defenseman in the league. Yannick Weber of the Vancouver Canucks, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, is a quality player as well. Mathias Seger is a workhorse and veteran leader for the Swiss.

Update (18/05/14): Tim Ramholt, a national team regular who has some North American experience, boosts a decent blueline. The Swiss need the help, as a playoff spot is currently not in the cards.

As usual, the Swiss may have difficulty scoring. But they do have some NHL experience to bank upon. Damien Brunner had 25 points for the New Jersey Devils this year, while Sven Bartschi had 11 points with the Calgary Flames. Simon Moser of the Nashville Predators is an interesting prospect. Swiss league top-scorers like Luca Cunti, Benjamin Pluss, Dennis Hollenstein, and Reto Suri will have to up their game.

Update (13/05/14): The loss of Bartschi to injury is catastrophic for the Swiss. He was one of their few offensive weapons. And the Swiss need goals. Their losses to Russia and the United States were, perhaps, expected. But falling to Belarus is a worrying sign for the team. The departure of Bartschi has also dropped the Swiss in the rankings to seventh, behind Finland.

If the Swiss stick to their team concept, and if Berra plays better in Minsk than he did in Calgary, the Swiss could pull off another upset. But it would still be an upset.

The host Belarussians are under the most pressure (all the more so in a country called the last dictatorship in Europe). They are giving themselves their best chance to place higher than the norm, though the opening loss to the Americans was painful.

Their goaltending group is experienced, with Vitali Koval and Andrei Mezin the traditional national starters. Each of them is capable of playing a strong game, though Koval will likely have to carry the ball for the rest of the tournament.

The defensive group is thin, but does have an NHLer in Dimitri Korobov, who played a few games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and had a good season Syracuse of the AHL. Roman Graborenko, a prospect of the New Jersey Devils, has promise, while Vladimir Denisov is a capable KHLer. The rest of the group will struggle to keep up.

Among the forwards, the Belarussians can field two decent lines. Mikhail Grabovski did not have a great year with Washington, but is still the best player the Belarussians can put on the ice. Former NHLers Sergei Kostitsyn and Andrei Kostitsyn have hardly thrived since moving over to the KHL, but still have some skill in them. Geoff Platt (an ex-pat Canadian) and Alexei Kalyuzhny put up decent numbers in the KHL, as did Andri Stas and former NHLer Konstantin Koltsov.

The Belarussians do not have the talent to skate with the big nations, but will certainly be able to put up good numbers among the lower tier teams. That may be enough for the hockey-mad Belarussians.

The Slovaks are still struggling to develop a new generation of NHL-calibre players since the split of Czechslovakia, but some of their brightest young talent will be on display in Minsk.

Jaroslav Janus and Jan Laco will likely split the duties. Janus played a full year with Slovan Bratislava in the KHL, but Laco has had more success at this stage. Neither has the talent of Jaroslav Halak or Peter Budaj, but neither of those did the job for the Slovaks in Sochi.

On defense, Martin Marincin is the only NHLer, and will struggle to lead this blueline group, who primarily play in the Czech league. The more powerful line-ups may be able to eat the Slovak defense alive.

Update (18/05/14): The Slovaks are having a rough tournament, and may not make the playoffs. The addition of Vladimir Mihalik, who has some NHL experience, boosts a weak blueline. The addition of Marcel Hascak, who played with Riga of the KHL this season, gives the offense a bit more depth.

They will have a harder time containing the offense, led by young NHLers Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings and Richard Panik of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Veterans Ladislav Nagy and Miroslav Satan have a lot of experience to bring to the table as well. Michel Miklik and Juraj Mikus have been decent KHLers as well, while Martin Reway is a young prospect with a lot of upside.

Update (12/05/14): The addition of Andrej Statsny (no relation), who played with Bratislava in the KHL, gives the team a bit more higher-level experience.

But the Slovaks are unlikely to do much damage at the tournament. They do not have the experience on defense. At the same time, however, the Slovaks can pull off an upset or two.

The Danes could certainly have benefited from the presence of Fredrik Anderson of the Anaheim Ducks, because otherwise they have a respectable line-up.

Patrick Galbraith and Simon Nielsen will try to carry the load. Both are capable of playing well but consistency will be hard to maintain for the duration of the tournament.

The defense is led by three players with North American experience: Philip Larsen of the Edmonton Oilers and Markus and Oliver Lauridsen, who plied their trade in the AHL this year. The rest of the line-up, however, has little experience at this stage.

The Danes have three NHLers among their forward group, which will give them some options. Mikkel Bodker had 51 points with the Phoenix Coyotes this year, and will be difficult to contain. Jannik Hansen and Nicklas Jensen are two good Danish players with the Vancouver Canucks organisation. On the other side of the pond, Morten Madsen and Morten Green are coming off good years in the German league, while Jesper Jensen and Frederik Storm had decent years in the second-tier Swedish league.

Update (18/05/14): Thomas Spelling, who had 51 points in the Danish league, provides the Danes with more scoring options up front.

An upset or two is possible for the Danes, but they should be able to handle weaker opponents quite well. They should be in no danger of relegation.

The Germans may struggle more. They do have Philipp Grubauer, who had a good year with the Washington Capitals, to back them up, but they will struggle otherwise.

The defense will be led by Justin Krueger, who has played in North American and played this year in the good Swiss league. Among the German league defenders, Benedikt Kohl, Frank Hordler, and Constantin Braun round-up the top two pairings.

Update (13/05/14): The addition of Dennis Reul, who had 15 points with Mannheim this past season, boosts a lacklustre blueline. The Germans are off to a good start, with wins against Latvia and Kazakhstan.

The offense will struggle with no NHLers among the roster. Felix Schutz, who had a good year in the KHL, and Tobias Rieder, who had a decent year in the AHL, will have to lead the squad. Alexander Barta, Daniel Pietta, and Thomas Oppenheimer are coming off good years in the German league. Leon Draisaitl, who had 105 points for the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL, could be interesting to watch.

Update (18/05/14): Yasin Elhiz, who had 37 points in the DEL this year, boosts a low-scoring offense. But the Germans are probably not going to make the playoffs at this point. Nevertheless, they should avoid relegation at this stage.

The Kazakhs will be looking primarily to avoid relegation, and they may have a good shot at it.

Vitali Yeremeyev, who played a few games for the New York Rangers ages ago, gives them a decent chance in any game, while Alexei Ivanov had a so-so year in the KHL.

The defensive group has the advantage of familiarity, as five of them played together with Barys Astana. Roman Savchenko, Yevgeni Blokhin, and Maxim Semyonov will lead this group.

Update (13/05/14): The addition of Yevgeni Rymarev, a high-scoring defenseman in the second tier Russian league, boosts the third defensive pairing for the Kazakhs.

Ever wonder what happened to Nikolai Antropov? He will lead this team, after coming off a mediocre season in the KHL. Again, familiarity is an advantage here, as five of the top-six forwards played with Astana in the KHL this past season. Roman Starchenko and Talgat Zhailauov are the most prolific scorers among these, while Vadim Krasnoslobdtsev had a decent year with Nizhni Novgorod.

Thanks to their surprise win over the Finns, the Latvians are probably safe to avoid relegation at this tournament.

Kristers Gudlevskis, who got a brief call-up with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of the season and in the playoffs, demonstrated in the Olympics against Canada that he can (nearly) steal a game. Veteran goaltender Edgars Masalskis can take up the reins if Gudlevskis falters.

On defense, the Latvians are rather thin. Arturs Kulda is the best among them, and will need to have good support from Kristaps Sotnieks, Georgijs Pujacs, and Guntis Galvins if the Latvians are to repeat their success against the Finns again.

The Latvians do have some decent forwards, Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres first among them. Former NHLer Kaspars Daugavins has thrived in the Swiss league, while Miks Indrasis, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, and Mikelis Redlihs have some skill.

If they don't rest on their laurels, the French can probably coast on their surprise victory over Canada to avoid relegation.

The French have a handful of NHLers in their roster, the most important of which is Cristobal Huet, formerly of the Chicago Blackhaws and Montreal Canadiens. He played well against the Canadians and had a strong year in the Swiss league. The French may be able to lean on him throughout the tournament.

The defense is the weakest in the tournament, with only Yohann Auvitu playing in a competitive league. Veterans like Nicolas Besch and Baptiste Amar can also do the job.

Among their forwards, however, the French are starting to develop some decent players. Antoine Roussel had 29 points with the Dallas Stars this year, and Stephane Da Costa has done well with Binghamton of the AHL. His few call-ups with the Ottawa Senators have been less impressive. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who scored the shoot-out winner against the Canadians, is a good player in the strong Swedish league, while Laurent Meunier, Anthony Guttig, Teddy Da Costa, and Damien Fleury are playing outside of the France.

Update (12/05/14): Add addition Eliot Berthon, of Genève-Servette of the Swiss league, to that list.

The Norwegians are usually one of the surprisingly good teams at this tournament, but they may be at risk of relegation in Minsk.

Lars Haugen and Lars Volden are good goaltenders for the Norwegians, with Haugen being a starter in the KHL.

Former NHLer Jonas Holos leads a weak defensive group. He had a decent year in Yaroslavl, but the rest of the line-up plays in the Norwegian league. Mats Trygg, Alexander Bonsaksen, and Daniel Sorvik are national team veterans.

Update (12/05/14): Nicolai Bryhnisveen had a good year in the Norwegian league, and gives the defense a little more scoring potential. Steffen Thoresen, also of the Norwegian league, adds to the forward group.

The Norwegian offense is better, but is lacking their strongest players like Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers and Patrick Thoresen of the KHL. They will have to rely instead on Mathis Olimb and Per-Age Skroder, both of the Swedish league, along with Morten Ask, Ken Andre Olimb, and Martin Roymark. But this group may struggle to score more than most Norwegian line-ups.

The weakest team in the tournament, by a fair margin, is Italy. They will almost certainly be relegated, losing 3-0 to Norway in their first outing.

There are a few players who may punch above their weight, however. Andreas Bernard played the year in the decent Finnish league, and could steal a game or two. Defenseman Thomas Larkin played a few games in the AHL for Springfield as well as with Evansville of the ECHL, while Alex Trivellato had six points with Berlin of the German league.

Among the forwards, Brian Ihnacak is an interesting player. He had 81 points in the Italian league, good enough to get a call from Malmo of the second-tier Swedish league. Diego Kostner also played the season in Switzerland, scoring 19 points with Lugano. But overall, the Italians should be over-powered by almost every team in the tournament.