While most eyes will be on the Big Four nations and their stars, teams like Switzerland and Slovakia are set to show the world what they can do starting this morning as the 2010 World Junior Championships kicks off.
The kid featured in this column at the beginning of December won't break the U20 team for at least a couple more years, so Team Slovakia must continue with the motley crew that dragged the team into contention last year.
Part of the problem is the country's development strategy. Instead of playing throughout the various senior and junior leagues like every other country, the best U20 players are selected to play for a team calledHK Orange that competes year-round in the Extraliga . It's a fine idea in theory- let your kids play adults and they'll develop quicker- but the real-world results have not been so good. Goalies and defencemen have been especially hurt by the system as they require the most mentoring and maturing. It's also telling that the WJC team's best forwards play either on other squads (Tomas Tatar) or in the CHL (Richard Panik).
However, goal and defense is exactly where the Slovaks need the most help after a key graduation. A little extra scoring wouldn't hurt either.
F Jakub Gasparovic (90): Last year, it all came down to the offensive heroics of one Tomas Tatar. So how about pairing his clutch scoring ability with someone who once scored three shorties on the same PK? Beyond that feat, Jakub Gasparovic has the three key ingredients for WJC success: age, speed and offensive touch. 19 year-olds tend to dominate the tournament and Gasparovic should prove no different; the top offensive threat for HK Orange, his 13 goals in the Slovak Extraliga are tenth in the league and one more than a guy named Ziggy Palffy.
D Martin Marincin (92): Arguably the biggest struggle European teams have in playing Team Canada is size and physical play. This is where a player likeMarincin will come in handy. One of only a few 1992s on the roster, the 6'3, 181 lbs rearguard will be tasked with shutting down the other team's stars. A strong performance would strengthen his draft stock immeasurably.
G Marek Ciliak (90): If the Slovaks are to repeat their medal round heroics, they need another Jaroslav Janus. The only problem? He's now too old. Everything for the Slovaks rests on the shoulders of 19 year-old starter Marek Ciliak. While he's out-played backup Tomas Halasz during the Extraliga season, that's not saying too much. At home, Ciliak's 5.43 GAA and 0.870 Sv% are slightly better Halasz's 5.33 GAA and 0.840 Sv% for HK Orange.
In pre-tournament play, Ciliak shut out Austria- a team not in their pool- and allowed two goals on 13 shots against Team Canada after taking over from Halasz, who allowed four on fourteen.
Boasting their best roster ever, the Swiss are set to show they're moving past the likes of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. While lead on defense by LucaSbisa and 2009 Preds pick Roman Josi, the team's best player could be a top ten pick come June.
LW Nino Niederreiter (92): One of four 92s leading the way in the emergence of the Portland Winterhawks from expansion doormat to contender, 6'2 left wing Nino Niederreiter (say that three time fast) is undrafted merely because he hasn't been eligible yet. In 37 games, the strapping power forward has 23 goals and 41 points to lead the Hawks in both categories. Niederreiter has been a fixture in our first round rankings since October but a strong WJC could have him challenging for a spot in the top ten like Anze Kopitar did in his draft year.
C Tim Weber (90): Switzerland's version of Anton Lander, look out for 6'0 181 lbs Tim Weber to be a key component of the club- even if he doesn't produce many points. Playing for MoDo's J20 team, Weber's sound defensive game and excellent skating ability earned him a brief call-up to the Elitserien earlier this year. While Niederreiter will doubtless steal the spotlight, it'll be Weber's job to dig the puck out of corners and watch the other end.
G Benjamin Conz (91): A game-stealing goalie is a must if a team is going to go far in a short tournament, and Benjamin Conz has shown the ability to that. Voted one of Switzerland's top three players at last year's U18, Conz's quick reflexes and sound style are sure to earn him some fans in Regina. His glove is especially potent but it will need to be sharper than ever to turn back the likes of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
The good news? Many of Latvia's best young players have begun to seek development opportunities outside their home country, including North America. The bad news? 'Elsewhere' is a diverse list of places, from Russia to France to the USA.
F Roberts Bukarts (90): For most prospects, being the Rookie of the Week in a men's league is a nice feather in one's cap. In Latvia, it's front page material. 6'0, 181 lbs forward Roberts Bukarts has split time this season between Latvia's junior selects team- which competes in the Belarussian senior league- and the KHL. In his first three games for HC Dinamo Minsk, Bukarts tallied two goals and was named the ROTW for November 17th.
F Rolands Gritans (91): When Latvia plays Canada later this morning, expect the story of Rolands Gritans to earn mention. A 6'2, 176 lbs forward, Gritans' journey to further his hockey career has taken him to one of the lowest rungs on the hockey ladder. The Asnières Castors play in the Federation Francaise de Hockey sur Glace Division 2, or FFHG 2 for short. But don't let the '2' fool you; it's actually the third of four levels of 'professional' hockey in France. Comprised mostly of imports under 30 who played everywhere from the NCAA to Division 1 in Sweden, it's an odd but interesting challenge for a player not yet 19.
In nine games for the Castors, Gritans has a whopping 15 goals and 28 points. Amazingly, that's not even the best on his team, let alone the league; the highest scorer in all of theFFHG 2 has 40 points in 11 contests.
Gritans may not be a force in the tournament, but his is an example of what many in the 'developing countries' of hockey are willing to do to get noticed.
D Karlis Kalvitis (91): One of three Latvian U20 players currently playing in North America, 6'4 Karlis Kalvitis is unarguably playing at the highest level. While one of his countrymen is in the Atlantic Junior League and the other plays at an level lower level,Kalvitis suits up for Shattuck St. Mary's Midget AAA team (not to be confused with their prep team). Kalvitis is second in scoring among defenders on the squad with 12 points in 26 games.
F Markus Pöck (92): The Pöck family is hockey royalty in Austria. Markus' older brother is former Islander and Ranger Thomas, and his cousin Max Wilfan also plays on the U20 team. The only first-time eligible player on the roster, Markus already has NHL size at 6'2, 182 lbs. At the Swiss U20 level Pöck collected 12 points in ten games before being called up to Klagenfurter AC's senior team. He has just one goal in 21 games and is well behind his brother's totals at the same age (5-15-20 in 46 games).
LW Konstantin Komarek (late 92): The second-youngest player in the entire tournament and just four days older than Adam Larsson, Komarek is a key piece in the Austrian offense despite his young age. Playing in Swedish junior, the 5'10 forward has eight points in 18 games for Luleå J20. However, of special note is his 41 PIM- a sign he won't be pushed around despite his size.
D Stefan Ulmer (90): A December 90 and thus eligible for the first time in 2008, 5'10 Stefan Ulmer has quietly blossomed into one of the top rushing defenders in the WHL. After winning a Memorial Cup during his rookie year with Spokane, Ulmer exploded last season posting 40 points. At the D1 WJC, Ulmer continued his offensive heroics, scoring the most points in the entire tournament as Switzerland earned promotion to the first level. Ulmer is on pace for around the same amount of points as last year, but is fourth on the entire squad in points. He is a long-term project who could develop into a Mark Streit-type defender.
C Stepan Novotny (91): Briefly the WHL's scoring leader at the beginning of the year, the 6'2 pivot has slowed down but not entirely flatlined. Traded to Swift Current in preparation for a Mem Cup run by the Broncos, Novotny is top 25 in goals. A strong, creative center who can stickhandle like few others on the Czech squad, a breakout tournament would ensure he earns a better fate next summer; after being undrafted, the Edmonton Oilers invited him to junior camp but elected not sign him.
D Radko Gudas (90): Another Czech player here in Canada, 6'0 Radko Gudas has been a surprise contributor for the Everett Silvertips. Where to start? A terrific physical presence that has racked up six fights and 86 PIM, Gudas' 20 points lead the Tips blueline. However, few stats are more impressive than his league-leading +27. While not as sound defensively as that might indicate, Gudas' soft hands and patience have created more goals than he's been on the ice for. Watching him join the rush or pinch is a treat as he has the puck skills of a forward and knows it.
G Pavel Francouz (90): It's likely that if Pavel Francouz had jumped to North America, he'd be considered one of the top imports in the CHL. As it is, having ridden the pine for most of the year in the 02 Extraliga, the 19 year-old has not been able to show off as much as he did last season. In 20 starts for HC Plzen's junior team, Francouz posted 1.74 GAA and 0.953 Sv%. Francouz relies on reaction and acrobatics; while it hasn't endeared him to the Plzen braintrust- he's gotten into just seven games- it's the right fit for a tourney where the shots and cross-seam passing will be coming fast and furious from Sweden, Russia and Finland.
LW Vyacheslav Kulemin (90): Russia's failures- and successes- in the past at the World Junior level have everything to do with the country's reliance on pure skill. The last few years have seen that change, and while Team Russia will always dress more flash than smash, players like Slava Kulemin are necessary to fend off 'North American' hockey.
Kulemin has a great deal in common with 2008's Russian surprise, Viktor Tikhonov. Both were older players who had never been considered for the national team before, but their mix of size- Tikhonov is 6'2, Kulemin 6'1- and defensive awareness make them perfect bottom sixers.
The comparison may soon stretch to draft pedigree. On the strength of 12 points in 43 RSL games, then 19 year-old Tikhonov cracked the first round. Kulemin is on pace for the same amount, and if NHL teams were impressed with Tikhonov's soft hands, they'll love Kulemin's energy and tenacious forechecking game.