World Juniors preview

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

Canada

COACH: Brent Sutter

THE SKINNY: Good luck trying to find anyone who thinks Canada won't end its gold-medal skid that began with an eighth-place finish in 1998.

With 12 players back from last winter, and with Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron in the mix, few figure Canada will finish with anything less than gold.

Of course, the goalie who would lead the team to such a victory is a newcomer to the world junior scene, and that could be the only question mark with the club. It's expected Jeff Glass will get the nod as the incumbent, with Rejean Beauchemin providing relief.

Corey Perry of the London Knights was explosive in the two exhibition games. In the second tuneup against Switzerland on Wednesday, Perry was re-united with power-play linemates Sidney Crosby and Bergeron and had three assists. Perry replaced an injured Jeremy Colliton on the line and to take him off it once Colliton returns would be foolish.

Dion Phaneuf, who loves to crush people, leads a formidable defence corps, and returning forwards Jeff Carter and Ryan Getzlaf have shown they may be forces that can't be stopped. Captain Michael Richards of the Kitchener Rangers is one of the best two-way juniors in the nation.

Sutter will put up with nothing short of a complete effort, but there is no indication he will get anything less from his players.

Sweden

COACH: Torgny Bendelin.

THE SKINNY: The Swedes' medal drought is a shade worse than the Canadians' failure to win gold since 1997. Sweden earned a medal in five consecutive tournaments ending in 1996, and have not won a medal since. However, few if any observers expect Sweden to finish as low as seventh as it did a year ago in Finland.

On an encouraging note, Sweden won a tuneup event, the Four Nations tournament in Vaxjo, Sweden, in November. One NHL scout simply said this year's Swedes "are the best group in a long time for the world junior."

Goaltending should not be a problem. On its preliminary roster, Sweden listed Magnus Akerlund, who was on the team last winter; David Rautio, a top prospect for the 2005 draft; and Christopher Heino-Lindberg, a Montreal Canadiens prospect.

Up front, Robert Nilsson, the son of former NHLer Kent Nilsson and a New York Islanders prospect, leads the way with another pair of returnees, Loui Eriksson (a Dallas pick) and Johannes Salmonsson (a Pittsburgh prospect). Carl Soderberg also is capable of doing some damage.

Strength on the blue line should be provided by Johan Fransson and Alexander Tang, both of whom represented their country last winter.

If the Swedes can get past one of their hangups -- buckling when the going gets tough -- they could sneak into the top five.

Switzerland

Coach: Jakob Kolliker.

The skinny: Few countries sink as much money into their world junior programs as the Swiss but you have to wonder if it is ever going to pay off. Switzerland won bronze in 1998 and placed fourth three years ago in the Czech Republic, but it is never seriously considered for medal contention.

The Swiss finished eighth last winter in Finland and could have as many as nine players back. But they are in the same group with the U.S., Russia and the Czech Republic, so it won't matter a whole lot.

Netminder Michael Tobler saw action in two games last year and is expected to challenge for the No. 1 role. Leonardo Genoni faced Canada in an exhibition game. One player who will be familiar to WHL fans is forward Roman Wick. A teammate of Canada team members Dion Phaneuf and Colin Fraser with Red Deer, Wick, an Ottawa Senators prospect, was averaging a point a game. Wick was the lone player named to the preliminary roster who was skating in North America.

Forward Gianni Ehrensperger had seven points last winter, including five goals, and Peter Guggisberg, a Washington Capitals prospect, had six points. Veteran forward Kevin Romy (a Philadelphia pick) is expected to play a larger role this year while defenceman Philippe Seydoux (an Ottawa pick) was injured last week and isn't expected to play.

Slovakia

Coach: Dusan Gregor.

The skinny: Not unlike their former fellow countrymen, Slovakia, which plays Canada on Christmas Day, will glean much of its talent from players who have come to North America to play hockey.

That group is headed by forward Stefan Ruzicka of the Owen Sound Attack. Ruzicka, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, led Slovakia in scoring last winter and was leading Owen Sound in scoring when he left for the tournament.

All told, there are nine players from the club that finished in sixth last year who were invited to play in the U.S. Goalkeeper Jaroslav Halak, a Montreal Canadiens pick who toils for Lewiston in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, played in all six games for Slovakia last winter. Defenceman Andrej Maszaros, a first-round pick by Ottawa last June and a member of the WHL's Vancouver Giants, is the go-to guy on the blue line. Ivan Baranka, Juraj Liska and Milan Hruska all can return to the defence corps, giving Slovakia a nice nucleus to build around if it so chooses. Baranka, of the WHL's Everett Silvertips, is a New York Rangers prospect. Boris Valabik of the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL and Michael Sersen, a teammate of Sidney Crosby with Rimouski of the QMJHL, are a pair of newcomers who could have a positive impact on the blue line. Valabik, a 6-foot-7 giant, was drafted 10th overall by Atlanta this year.

Branislav Fabry, Vladimir Kutny and Tomas Bulik also are eligible to return.

Opponents of Slovakia can count on this much: The Slovaks won't be pushovers and will be capable of a few upsets.

Russia

Coach: Sergei Gersonsky.

The skinny: The Russians tumbled to fifth place last winter after a pair of gold medals and there's reason to believe Russia will return to the medal podium this year.

If you're opponent of Russia's, feel free to pick your poison. Either Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin can do you in. Those two talented forwards were among six players who were eligible to return from last year in Finland. One newcomer who could be another threat at forward is Roman Voloshenko, a second-round pick by the Minnesota Wild last year. Voloshenko had 11 points in the 2004 under-18 world championship, a total that put him in a tie for the scoring lead.

Defencemen Denis Ezhov (Buffalo) and Dmitry Kosmachev (Columbus) also are eligible to return from last year. So too are forwards Grigory Shafigulin (Nashville) and Dmitry Pestunov, as well as Ovechkin and Malkin.

Goalie Anton Khudobin, who was listed on the preliminary roster with No. 20, the number of the legendary Vladislav Tretiak, will try to answer critics who figure Russia's netminding may not be up to snuff. The defence corps isn't as good as it has been in recent years either.

It's expected Russia will have a nice influx of players from its gold-medal under-18 team, but the lack of experience at this level could hurt. Winger Alexander Radulov was a first-round pick by Nashville earlier this year, while forward Enver Lisin (Phoenix), defenceman Kyril Lyamin (Ottawa) and forward Mikhail Yunkov (Washington) all were second-rounders.

Finland

Coach: Risto Dufva.

The skinny: The Finns have won the bronze medal in each of the past three world junior tournaments but their medal run, barring a small miracle, likely will end next month.

Usually, there is nothing wrong with the Finns' effort, and they play as close to a North American style than any other European nation. But just five players from last year are eligible to return. One of them is centre Petteri Nokelainen, who was taken 16th overall by the New York Islanders last June. In a summer tournament earlier this year, Nokelainen worked well with fellow returnee Arsi Piispanen. The latter is a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, drafted in 2003.

Finland has become something of a goalie factory in recent years, with such netminders as Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen emerging, and at this tournament 17-year-old Tuukka Rask could make some noise. Rask is the top-ranked goalie in the Scandinavian country for the 2005 NHL draft.

The Finns named three Western Hockey League players to their preliminary roster. Centre Aki Seitsonen was third in scoring with the Prince Albert Raiders, while left winger Masi Marjamaki was averaging more than a point a game with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Marjamaki was a second-round choice by the Boston Bruins in 2003. Defenceman Mikko Kuukka is in his second season with the Red Deer Rebels.

Winger Lauri Tukonen, another returning veteran, was taken 11th overall last June by the Los Angeles Kings.

Germany

Coach: Ernst Hofner.

The skinny: The Germans return to the world junior championship after a one-year absence. There were 12 players from last year's team that won the Division 1, Group A event eligible to return this year, but that doesn't mean Germany will come close to a medal. Still, opponents will need to keep an eye on centre Marcus Kink, who had five goals and 11 assists last year to help Germany earn a berth in the U.S. this winter. Kink is one of seven of Germany's top 11 scorers who can suit up again this year. Others who could have an impact are forwards Ulrich Maurer and Fabio Carciola.

Goaltender Thomas Greiss, who could form the netminding tandem with Youri Ziffzer, was the only German taken in the 2004 NHL entry draft when the San Jose Sharks called his name with the 94th pick.

Former NHL defenceman Uwe Krupp, who perhaps could use his Stanley Cup ring from his days with the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche as inspiration, is an assistant coach.

There was a time when Germany didn't fare too badly, relatively speaking, at the world junior. From 1992-1995 inclusive, Germany finished seventh. Battling Belarus to stay out of the basement this year, though, seems to be Germany's fate.

Czech Republic

Coach: Alois Hadamczik.

The skinny: If the Czechs look familiar to fans who attend the tournament or watch on TV, it's no wonder. As many as 18 players who were part of the Czechs' preliminary roster play in the Canadian Hockey League. And if hockey success begins in goal, then the Czechs are solid with St. Louis Blues prospect Marek Schwarz. A member of the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants, Schwarz was a major reason why the Czechs placed fourth in the 2004 world junior in Finland.

Schwarz is one of four Czechs who were taken in the first round of the NHL entry draft in June. Each of the four also played last winter for their country. Centre Rostislav Olesz, picked seventh overall by the Florida Panthers, defenceman Ladislav Smid, who went ninth to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and forward Lukas Kaspar, taken 22nd by the San Jose Sharks, join Schwarz as a formidable nucleus.

Overall, there are eight players who were eligible to return from a year ago. Since winning back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2001, the Czechs have not been back to the medal podium. Smothering defence (or boring, predictable hockey, depending on your choice of words) has been integral in the Czechs' past success.

If Schwarz is unconscious, the Czechs could surprise and leave the U.S. with medal.

Belarus

Coach: Mikhail Zakharov.

The skinny: If only the rest of the Belarus team had the kind of world-junior experience that forwards Andrei Kostsitsyn and Konstantin Zakharov boast. Kostsitsyn, a Montreal Canadiens prospect who is playing for Hamilton of the AHL this season, and Zakharov, a St. Louis Blues prospect who is toiling for Worcester of the AHL, both are eligible play in the world junior championship for the fourth time. They would be up for their fifth had Belarus not been relegated to Division 1 last winter. Zakharov had 14 points in five games in that tournament last year to lead all scorers.

A couple of NHL draft picks from last June --defenceman Siarhei Kolasau by the Detroit Red Wings and forward Sergei Kukushkin by the Dallas Stars -- also are eligible to return. Kukushkin is skating for Indiana of the United States Hockey League.

Although the final roster had not been set, goalie Dzmitry Milchakou was being tabbed to at least share the netminding duties.

Belarus can have 14 players overall back from last year, but it's not as though that will vault them into anything resembling contention. The best finish for Belarus at the world junior came in 2002 and 2001 when it finished ninth. This year, Belarus has the depth to equal that high and it should get past Germany to do so.

United States

Coach: Scott Sandelin.

The skinny: Before anyone goes and gives Canada the gold medal outright, remember that the U.S., the defending champions, have eight players back from last winter. Included in that group is goalie Al Montoya, who is better than whoever it is that will become the No. 1 puckstopper for Canada. Defenceman Ryan Suter and centre Patrick O'Sullivan will compete in the world junior for the third time. They're three nice pieces to build around, especially since they each represent one of the three positions.

Others with world junior experience include forwards Dan Fritsche (who is hoping his fragile shoulders stay intact), Drew Stafford and Jake Dowell and defencemen Jeff Likens and Matt Hunwick. NHL scouts will monitor the play of forward T.J. Hunsick and defenceman Brian Lee, who are highly ranked prospects for the 2005 NHL draft.

A couple of other newcomers who will draw attention are Rob Schremp, who has been integral for the London Knights this season, and Chris Bourque, the son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque.

Despite its depth, the U.S. will be under pressure to demonstrate that last year's gold was not a one-shot deal. Also, it will be interesting to see how the team responds to playing at home, although the crowd support should be a motivating factor. Many world junior observers figure the U.S. will again meet Canada for the gold medal following last year's come-from-behind victory by the Americans in the final.


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