Team Canada Shmanada. If you're going to target the World Junior Championships for keeper league steals, you may want to look overseas. Here then is the most comprehensive look at Europe's U20 entries, and a bit of help for those in WJC pools.
2009 is a well-represented draft on this entry. Wunderkid Magnus Svensson-Pääjärvi (Timrå IK) is the youngest player to ever suit up for Sweden at the WJC. His vision, speed and hands have drawn comparisons to Peter Forsberg. Built solidly for a 16 year-old at 6'1, 198 lbs, Svensson-Pääjärvi has survived thus far in the SEL, and thus should have no problem staying afloat with players three or four year older.
However, it will be Victor Hedman (MoDo) that should draw the most attention. While it wouldn't be unusual for a defender to be among the best skaters on his team, Hedman, a late '90 birthday, does it while standing an incredible 6'5, 220 lbs. Already a top-four rearguard for perennial powerhouse MoDo, Hedman's introduction to North American fans should be a memorable one.
Last but not least, Sweden has perhaps the best goaltender not named Jonathan Bernier in the tourney. 19 year-old Jhonas Enroth (Södertälje) has emerged as a potential SEL MVP candidate, leading league goalies statistically while playing for a dismal squad.
A finely balanced forward group that includes offensively gifted Oscar Möller (Chilliwack), Patrik Berglund (Västerås) and Mikael Backlund (Västerås) and two-way forwards Joakim Andersson (Frölunda), Carl Hagelin (U Michigan) and Mario Kempe (St. John's) is the right mix for a single-elimination tournament such as the WJC.
Projected finish: 3rd
As always, Finland owns two of the top young goaltenders in the world. Riku Helenius (Seattle) is expected to start most every game, but '08-eligible Harri Sateri is up to the task if Tampa Bay's first round selection in 2006 fails. Sateri was the star of last year's U18s, posting several brilliant goaltending performances and making numerous highlight-reel stops.
One of the oldest and most experienced defensive units belongs to Team Finland. Juha-Petteri Purolinna (HIFK), Joonas Lehtivuori (Ilves) and Joonas Järvinen (TPS) all have significant experience playing with men. Lehtivuori, in particular, will be relied on to produce both offense and defense. His 16 points from the blueline leads Ilves in scoring at that position.
Defense will also be the order of the day up front. While Calgary Flames darkhorse selection Juuso Puustinen owns a blistering wrist shot, he along with Jan-Mikael Juutilainen (Waterloo), Niclas Lucenius (Tappara) and Joonas Kemppainen (Ässät) will bring faultless two-way play to the forward corps. And while he's playing in North America, Siim Liivik's relentless physical game will be an interesting new facet to Finland's attack.
Primed for a breakout is Eetu Pöysti. Team Finland's most energetic forward, Pöysti's speed, passion, wrist shot and vision should improve his draft stock for 2008. His heart and soul play smacks of Daniel Alfredsson.
Projected finish: 6th
It should be no surprise, then, that Team Slovakia 2007 is a middling group full of useful but potentially offensively impotent forwards. However, a stellar group of goalies, four above-average defenders and a lethal top line still make the squad worth watching.
Fans across the pond will get their first real look at Zdenko Kotvan (HK SR 20 Púchov). After dominating Slovak junior last year with a 2.26 GAA and 7 SOs in 44 games, Kotvan ultimately went unseen and undrafted. Similarly, Tomas Hiadlovsky's 1.93 GAA and 0.928 Sv% for Trencin U20 was not enough to earn him a draft choice. Both could earn such an opportunity with a strong showing at the WJC.
Much like Sweden, Slovakia is bringing a smaller, quicker defensive core anchored by a larger presence. 6'5 Juraj Mikuš, a 5th round choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs, will keep forwards honest while Marek Biro (Windsor) Michal Kozák and Marek Ďaloga generate offense from the backend.
Slovakia's hopes obviously rest on scoring. Here the team has turned heavily towards players gaining experience in North America. Július Šinkovič (Val-D'or), David Skokan (Rimouski), Patrik Lušňák (Sudbury) and Tomáš Marcinko (Barrie) will be relied on to produce when required. 19 year-old Marek Slovak may endear himself to fans. A prodigious junior league scorer, the 5'8 winger transitioned seemlessly to the Extraliga last season, posting five points in 23 games.
Projected finish: 7th