Sunday, May 3, 2015

2015 IIHF World Hockey Championship pre-tournament analysis

The 2015 IIHF World Hockey Championship is being held in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Happily for Canadian viewers, TSN has seized the opportunity presented by their loss of NHL playoff hockey and are giving the tournament wall-to-wall coverage. I hope this becomes a fixture of TSN's spring hockey coverage in the coming years.

The Russians enter the tournament as the reigning champions, having defeated Finland 5-2 in the gold medal game to take the title. The Swedes won bronze, with the Czech Republic placing fourth. The best goaltender of the tournament was Sergei Bobrovsky of Russia, the best defenceman was Seth Jones of the United States, the best forward was Viktor Tikhonov of Russia, and the MVP was Pekka Rinne of Finland. All are returning in 2015.

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.

In the charts below, I list each player's value, where they played this past season, and how many points they scored (save percentage and games played for goaltenders). I've also included a depth chart, showing potential forward trios and defensive duos (not considering what position each player actually plays at forward).

Canada has dominated in recent Olympic contests, but has struggled at the WHC. Canada hasn't won a medal since 2009, and hasn't won gold since 2007. The best hockey nation in the world, it is often said, could win with a B or a C team. And yet it hasn't. 2015 gives Canada its best chance in years.

One good reason for that is Sidney Crosby, who has opted to come over to the WHC for the first time since 2006. Crosby had an off-year by his standards, scoring 84 points for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but joins an already potent offence. Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux, Jordan Eberle, Jason Spezza, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon - all of these players would be considered for an Olympic squad, and they give Canada tons of options up front.

The defense is also the best at the tournament, led by Brent Burns, Tyson Barrie, and Calder Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad. This is a tough group that can also score.

If there is one weakness in the Canadian roster, it is in goal. Mike Smith had a rough year with the Arizona Coyotes, and Martin Jones is a back-up (though a good one) with Los Angeles. Smith will carry the load, and has done well in international tournaments in the past.

Canada always sends the best roster to the WHC, but sometimes it just doesn't click. This time they have everything they need to win a medal.

Canadian connection: Hamhuis (Vancouver), Patrick Wiercioch (Ottawa), Hall and Eberle (Edmonton).

The Russians always come to play at the WHC, and this year is no exception. They have a gold medal to defend, their fourth in the last seven tournaments.

The Russians are particularly strong on offense, with a lot of talent that played on both sides of the Atlantic. The group is led by NHLers Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko. Malkin had 73 points with Pittsburgh this year, while Tarasenko had 73 with St. Louis. Other NHLers include Artem Anisimov and Nikolai Kulemin, while KHL top talent includes Sergei Mozyakin, Danis Zaripv, Yevgeni Dadnov, and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Defense is usually a weakness for the Russians, and this is the case in 2015 as the squad has the sixth-ranked group. Dmitri Kulikov had 22 points for the Florida Panthers this past season, and is the only NHLer among the seven. Anton Belov has experience in the NHL, and Yevgeni Medvedev is a national team veteran.

But if Russia lacks on the back-end, they are the strongest team in nets. Sergei Bobrovsky posted a .918 save percentage this year for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and even that was down from his usual form. Anton Khudobin played 34 games for the Carolina Hurricanes, and Konstantin Barulin had a strong season with Avangard Omsk of the KHL.

The Russians play well on the big ice and should be a favourite to play for a medal in 2015. They just need to get a lot of scoring from Malkin and Tarasenko, as well as from their KHLers.

Canadian connection: Kulemin (former Maple Leaf) and Belov (former Oiler).

Sweden has won a medal at the WHC in five of the last six years, and took gold two years ago. They are always a tough squad to beat, and have sent a good roster to the Czech Republic this year.

Sweden's roster is solid from front to back, and particularly in front. The team will be led by NHLers Filip Forsberg (63 points with Nashville), Loui Eriksson (47 points with Boston), and Elias Lindholm (39 points with Carolina). Other NHL talent includes Joakim Lindstrom, Jacob Josefson, Victor Rask, and Anton Lander. National team veterans like Nicklas Danielsson, Jimmie Ericsson, and Joel Lundqvist add to a well-rounded group.

John Klingberg and Oliver Ekman-Larsson make up one of the most potent defensive duos in the tournament, and give the Swedes a lot of offensive strength on the blue line. The rest of the group is solid.

The Swedes will be counting on goaltending from Jhonas Enroth, who was playing well with Buffalo when he was traded to Dallas. Anders Nilsson, formerly of the New York Islanders, had a good season in the KHL.

Sweden has the potential to be very dangerous offensively. If Enroth can play well, the Swedes are a lock for the medal round.

Canadian connection: Oscar Klefbom, Lander (Edmonton), Lindstrom (Toronto).

The difference between the Olympic and WHC rosters of no country is greater than that of the United States, who year after year fail to send a strong line-up to the yearly tournament. The bronze the USA won in 2013 was the country's first medal at the WHC since 2004.

It is more interesting to go through the list of who isn't in the Czech Republic than who is: Nick Foligno, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk - all players whose teams did not make the playoffs. And that doesn't even consider the first round exits.

Nevertheless, the Americans have enough talent in the line-up to challenge for a medal. The offence is led by a trio of NHLers: Anders Lee (41 points with the Islanders), Brock Nelson (42 points, also with the Islanders), and Nick Bonino (39 points with Vancouver). KHLers like Steve Moses and Dan Sexton can help with their knowledge of the big ice.

If the offence is weak (ranked eighth), the defence is the second best in the tournament. Justin Faulk had 49 points from the blue line in Caroline, while Torey Krug had 39 for Boston. Seth Jones was named the tournament's best defenceman last year, while Jake Gardiner had 24 points for Toronto. This is a good group, if young.

Connor Hellebuyck had a good year with St. John's of the AHL, while Jack Campbell had a less successful campaign with Texas. But these two can get the job done. But how do they stack up to the Canadian and Russian forwards?

If their goaltending is solid enough, and if the team gets a lot of scoring from the back-end, the Americans could do well at this tournament.

Canadian connection: Gardiner (Toronto), Bonino (Vancouver), Matt Hendricks (Edmonton), Hellebuyck (St. John's/Winnipeg).

There is always a lot of pressure on the hosts. Worse, the Czechs need to make up for two years of medal drought, and their last gold was in 2010. But the Swedish hosts won in 2013, so the Czechs can do it too.

The Czech's have the third-best forward group, led by Jakub Voracek (81 points with Philadelphia), Martin Erat (32 points with Arizona), and the ageless Jaromir Jagr (47 points with Florida). Tomas Hertl is the only other NHLer among the forwards, though Vladimir Sobotka, Roman Cervenka, Jiri Novotny and Jakub Klepis have all had stints in North America.

The defence is not as strong, and has only two NHLers: Jan Hejda and Michal Jordan. National team veterans like Ondrej Nemec, Petr Caslava, and Jakub Nakladal will have to play well.

Despite coming off a very strong season with Winnipeg, Ondrej Pavelec did not start until Alexander Salak was pulled in the second game of the tournament. If the Czechs have any sense, they'll keep Pavelec between the pipes. He backstopped the Jets' playoff run and can win the tournament for the Czechs.

That is if the pressure doesn't get to them. The crowds are thick and noisy, and if the Czechs can feed off of that, and get good performances from their NHLers, they could make a run.

Canadian connection: Pavelec (Winnipeg), Cervenka (former Flame).

The Finns tend to be over-achievers at the WHC, performing well-enough with a roster that should struggle. The team won bronze last year, despite being sixth in my ranking. They could do it again.

Finland's forward group is not particularly strong, led by NHLers Jussi Jokinen (44 points with Florida), Aleksander Barkov (36 points with Florida), and Leo Komarov (26 points with Toronto). But they always get good performances out of their European-based talent, like Janne Pesonen, Jarkko Immonen, Antti Pihlstrom, and Petri Kontiola.

The Finns' defence has only one NHLer (Jyrki Jokipakka of Dallas), but a few with North American experience, including Sami Lepisto and Anssi Salmela. This can be an effective group.

But the teams' chances rest entirely on Pekka Rinner, who had a stellar season with the Nashville Predators. He'll be backed up by Juuse Saros and Atte Engren, but it should be Rinne all the way.

If Rinne plays as good as he did in 2014, the Finns will challenge for a medal. But if he doesn't, the team is not deep enough or potent enough to make up for middling goaltending.

Canadian connection: Komarov (Toronto), Teemu Hartikainen (former Oiler).

The Slovaks are my favourite under-dogs, and they can sometimes pull off an upset. They won gold in 2002, but more recently took silver in 2012.

With a strong forward group, the Slovaks could do some real damage. Tomas Tatar (56 points with Detroit), Marian Gaborik (47 points with Los Angeles), and Marko Dano (21 points with Columbus) make for a dangerous top group, while Tomas Jurco, Richard Panik, and Tomas Kopecky all played in the NHL this year as well.

The defence is a little weaker, with just Andrej Meszaros having played in the NHL this season. But a few others have good European experience, and Milan Jurcina was very recently an NHL regular.

Goaltending is a bit of a concern, as Jaroslav Halak did not make the journey over, and neither did Peter Budaj. But Jan Laco had a good season in the KHL, while Julian Hudacek plays in the tough Swedish league.

Laco and the defensive group just needs to play well enough to let Tatar and Gaborik light it up at the other end. But Slovakia lacks depth, and a deep run in the tournament will be difficult.

Canadian connection: Panik (Toronto), Michal Sersen (former Rempart and Oceanic), Meszaros (former Senator), Juraj Mikus (former Marlie), Mario Bliznak (former Canuck).

Discount or dismiss the Swiss at your own peril, as many teams did in 2013 when the Swiss won a silver medal.

This group might not be as dangerous, though. No current NHLer can be found among the forwards, and the closest is Damien Brunner, who started the season with New Jersey but ended it in Switzerland. National team stalwarts like Andres Ambuhl, Kevin Romy, and Denis Hollenstein can get the job done, but are never very flashy. One player to watch is Kevin Fiala, a Nashvile prospect.

The top Swiss paring on the back-end is very good, though. Roman Josi had 55 points for Nashville this season, while Mark Streit had 52 points. They can do a lot of damage from the blue line. Robin Frossman and Felicien du Bois are veterans.

Reto Berra will have to protect the Swiss net after a decent season as a back-up in Colorado. Leonardo Genoni and Daniel Manzato are capable Swiss leaguers.

The Swiss can outwork opponents, but they might not have enough scoring to win a lot of games.

Canadian connection: Berra (former Flame), Streit (former Canadien).

The Slovenians are my pick for the biggest surprise of 2015, as after being promoted from Division I last year I now have them in ninth. And I think they could even manage it - maybe!

The Slovenes have a few quality pieces. The first is, of course, Anze Kopitar, who had 64 points with Los Angeles this year. Everyone knows about him. But Jan Mursak had 43 points in the KHL, while Rok Ticar had 30 points in the same league. Ziga Jeglic had 23 points in the KHL as well. The quality drops off after these four, but that is more than the Slovenes have been able to say in quite some time.

On the back-end, Mitja Robar and Blaz Gregorc played in the decent Czech league, while Ziga Pavlin and Ales Kranjc suited up in the Swedish second tier league, which is better than most in Europe.

The team has some goaltending options: youngster Luka Gracnar, who had played very well at the international level, and veteran Robert Kristan, who played in the Czech league this year.

If the Slovenes can win their games against other minnows, and they can, they could avoid relegation. Having Kopitar is half the battle.

Canadian connection: Marcel Rodman (former Peterborough Pete).

The Germans are usually a bubble team, but they may be able to avoid that this year.

All but two members of the German squad played outside of Germany this year, and one of them was Tobias Rieder. He had 21 points with Arizona this year, and will lead the team's offence. Patrick Reimer, Daniel Pietta, Yasin Ehliz, and Patrick Hager had good seasons in the DEL this year.

The other non-DEL player was Justin Krueger, who had 17 points for SC Bern in the elite Swiss league. The rest of the German group is relatively low profile, as a lot of the veterans appear to have been passed over or declined to participate. Moritz Muller, Nikolai Goc, and Benedikt Kohl have experience.

The Germans produce decent goaltenders, and Dennis Endras is the favourite starter. But Timo Pielmeier and Danny Aus den Birken also had good DEL seasons.

The Germans will be playing to avoid relegation, and maybe they can manage it this year. But they will not be a flashy group.

Canadian connection: Rieder (former Kitchener Ranger).

The French are an up and coming hockey nation, avoiding relegation every year since 2008 and finishing eighth last year. Top 10 finishes will occur more often in the future, I believe.

The French offence will be led by two players with NHL experience: Stephane da Costa, formerly of the Ottawa Senators and a top-scorer in the KHL this year, and Antoine Roussel, who had 25 points for the Dallas Stars. Charles Bertrand, who had 47 points in the decent Finnish league, also adds to the group. Laurent Meunier, Damien Fleury, and Sacha Treille ply their trades outside of France,

Defence is the weakness of the French, with only Yohann Auvitu and Kevin Hecquefeuille playing in half-decent leagues. They will have to lead the group. Watch Benjamin Dieude Fauvel, who played a little in the AHL this past year.

Cristobal Huet continues to backstop the French. He had a good year with Lausanne in Switzerland. Florian Hardy, who played well last year, can back him up ably.

The French should be able to avoid relegation with this line-up, but may struggle to get into the playoffs this year.

Canadian connection: Huet (former Canadian), da Costa (former Senator), Roussel (former Sagueneen).

The Latvians are always fun to watch (they have the best fans) but should not pose too much of a challenge this year.

Kaspars Daugavins leads the offense, after scoring 37 points for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. Mikelis Redlihs and Miks Indrasis are important parts of Riga's KHL team, and will have to back him up. After these three, though, the quality drops off tremendously.

The defence is not bad, though, led by Lauris Darzins (32 points with Riga) and Krisjanis Redlihs. National team veterans Kristaps Sotnieks, Guntis Galvins, and Maksims Sirokovs will need to play hard to keep Latvia out of relegation.

Edgars Masalskis is always reliable, though he played a shortened season in Switzerland this year. Ervins Mustukovs, of the Danish league, may be out of his depth.

One advantage Latvia has is that so many of its players play together with Dinamo Riga. That team chemistry can mean a lot.

Canadian connection: Daugavins (former Senator).

The Norwegians, rarely an easy out at the WHC, should again find themselves outside of relegation, but also outside of the top 10.

The offence is led, as usual, by Patrick Thoresen, who had 27 points in the KHL this season. Mathis Olimb, Mats Rosseli Olsen, and Martin Roymark of the Swedish league will need to carry their weight without the likes of Per-Age Skroder or Mats Zuccarello.

Jonas Holos and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, two players with NHL experience, remain the most important players on the Norwegian squad. They'll need a lot of help from the likes of Alexander Bonsaksen and Mattias Norstebo.

Lars Haugen, a good goaltender in the KHL, gives them a quality stopper in nets. Lars Volden, who plays in the second-tier Swedish league, is also good.

The team lacks depth, however, and will find it hard to play with the big boys. They need to win their points against the other minnows.

Canadian connection: Thoresen (former Oiler).

The seventh-place showing for host Belarus last year would have surpassed the most reasonable expectations, but the Belarussians could be let down this year.

Belarus can count on one good line, as usual. The Kostitsyn brothers had decent years in the KHL this past season, while Alexei Kalyuzhny remains their most reliable KHL talent. But after these three, the team will struggle to score. Alexander Kulakov may be the best of the rest.

Dmitri Korobov is a good defenceman, playing with Atlant Mytishi this year. Nikolai Stasenko, Ilya Shinkevich, and Yevgeni Lisovets all played in the KHL as well.

Canadian ex-pat Kevin Lalande had good year with CSKA Moscow, and will likely lead the team in this tournament. Veteran Vitali Koval is effective when called upon.

The Belarussians can play with a lot of energy, but if the Kostitsyn brothers do not carry the team, Belarus could face relegation.

Canadian connection: The Kostitsyns (former Canadiens).

The Austrians were promoted to the WHC this year, and are a prime candidate to be sent back this year.

The one bright light on this team is Michael Raffl, who had 28 points with the Philadelphia Flyers this year. But virtually the entire rest of the team plays in the weak Austrian league, and he will have trouble getting support. Raphael Herburger, Thomas Raffl, and Brian Lebler are his best hopes.

Florian Iberer and Dominique Heinrich had successful offensive seasons in the Austrian league from the blue line this year, but this group lacks a lot of experience at this level.

Bernhard Starkbaum, who had a good season with Brynas Gavle of the Swedish league, gives the Austrians a fighting chance.

Canadian connection: Brian Lebler is from British Columbia.

The weakest roster in the tournament is, surprisingly, Denmark, another up and coming hockey nation. The reason is simple: no Philip Larsen, Mikkel Bodker, Jannik Hansen, Nicklas Jensen, Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin, or Frederik Andersen.

Not a single NHLer is on the team, and not even a former NHLer. No other country can say that in Prague and Ostrava.

Nichlas Hardt and Patrick Bjorkstrand are the only forwards playing in a top European league, while Morten Green, Morten Madsen, and Julian Jakobsen play in Germany. Morten Poulsen, Jesper Jensen, and Anders Poulson play in the second tier Swedish league.

The defense is better, with Markus and Oliver Lauridsen having played the past season in the AHL. Jesper Jensen plays in the Swedish league. These three will need to be good.

Patrick Galbraith plays in the second-tier Swedish league, and will also need to be very good.

But altogether, the Danes are lacking in talent and experience at a high level of play. They will be lucky to avoid relegation.