They're back! The beloved underdogs of the WJC are in the tournament for the 3rd time in the past four years, and with an improved chance to stay up, look to make themselves a more or less permanent fixture at the top level of the tournament. And in order to do so, they turn to a rare combination: a NHL drafted forward prospect playing in one of the tournament's host cities, and a top ranked 2012 NHL Draft prospect.
Yes, this tournament for Latvia is all about Zegmus Girgensons, a highly touted 17 year old playing for Dubuque in the USHL, and Kristians Pelss, an offensively minded winger who plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. Girgensons, in particular, is the focus of this team. No Latvian player has ever been drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, and he's currently holding down the 19th spot on the ISS rankings heading into the tournament. Pelss is considerably less hyped, and has modest production for a major junior forward at this tournament at 25 points in 34 games so far. Both were instrumental in the team's promotion from Div. 1 last year, and with both a year older, they will be looked to as even bigger parts of the team in 2012.
Didzis Rudmanis runs an English language blog called the Latvian Hockey Report in English, while also contributing to Eurohockey.com and Latvian sports website Sportacentrs.com. He claims that while there is a lot of excitement about the young players on the Latvian roster, the 1992 borns (19 year olds) are "generally considered to be 'the weak year' in the Latvian hockey program." I've stated many times that this is a tournament for 19 year olds, so this will be a huge obstacle to overcome for Latvia to stay up in the elite group. Only four forwards, four defencemen, and one goaltender on the final roster were born in 1992. That being said, Latvian is talking big, with their manager announcing "that the team must earn some points already in the group stage," according to Rudmanis. If that were to happen, Latvia's best chance would be against Slovakia and Switzerland before heading to the relegation round, but clearly Latvia's main concern for the tournament will be Denmark.
As for the state of the sport in little Latvia, interest in junior hockey is relatively strong. "All the HK Riga (MHL club) home games are broadcasted by LTV7, (and) their games are regularly attended by hundreds of people" despite having an arena located well outside Riga's city limits, relays Rudmanis.
While there are few junior hockey options outside of the one MHL club (there is just two MHL B clubs and an U18 league according to Rudmanis), Latvian juniors are found in leagues all around the world. Nearly half the team plays abroad: two team members play in the USA, two in Canada, two in Switzerland, two in Sweden, and two in Finland. Despite this disparate setup, there are few concerns about the team lacking chemistry, according to Rudmanis. "Latvia is a small place, so players are more familiar with each other than in most other hockey countries. Also, most of them have played together in different U20/U18 tournaments already in the past." Indeed, only three players off Latvia's roster have not played in one of the IIHF tournaments in the past, including six returnees from last year's U20 team.
After the jump, we look at the roster in greater detail:
|Toms Andersons||F||5'9"||179||Nov 25/93||Bern U20||Elite Jr. A||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Teodors Blugers||C||6'0"||176||Aug 15/94||Shattuck St. Mary||USHS||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Maris Dilevka||LW||5'10"||176||Mar 3/92||Metalurgs Liepaja||BOL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Zegmus Girgensons||C||6'0"||172||Jan 5/94||Dubuque||USHL||Elig. 2012||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Vitalijs Hvorostinins||LW||6'0"||163||Aug 17/92||Sport Vassa U20||Jr. A SML||Undrafted||none|
|Nikita Jevpalovs||F||5'9"||161||Sept 9/94||HK Riga||MHL||Elig. 2012||none|
|Edgars Klavins||RW||6'3"||198||Mar 3/93||AIK J20||J20 SE||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Arturs Kuzmenkovs||F||6'0"||185||Dec 1/93||HK Riga||MHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (2)|
|Roberts Lipsbergs||C||5'10"||159||Jul 29/94||HK Riga||MHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Kristians Pelss||LW||5'11"||179||Sept 9/92||Edmonton||WHL||Oilers (7/181, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Davis Straupe||RW||5'7"||148||Aug 5/92||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Juris Ziemins||F||5'9"||194||Mar 22/93||HK Juniors Riga||MHL-2||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
So how will this group shake down? Well, expect Girgensons and Pelss to play together, with perhaps either the pint-sized Davis Straupe or the much larger Edgars Klavins, who is really just an average player in the top Swedish junior league. Beyond them, Rudmanis is interested in seeing how Shattuck St. Mary's forward Teodors Blugers does, and a strong performance from him could go a long way to a NHL draft selection. Rudmanis also expects a strong performance from Vitalijs Hvorostinins, who plays his junior hockey in Finland. Expect some combination of these players in the top six, although HK Riga's top forward is likely Arturs Kuzmenkovs and could play a significant role.
But the focus for both fans and scouts alike will be on Girgensons. In Latvia, Rudmanis claims the hype around Girgensons amongst fans is massive. "Latvians are obviously already expecting that there is a great NHL career in front of him. They expect him to be nothing less than the Latvian Kopitar or Vanek. Some regret Girgensons committing to (the Unviersity of Vermont) next year, believing he could instead already fight for a place in the NHL." Latvians don't get many chances to gush over a high-end player, and it seems they're taking full advantage of this rare occurrence this time around.
|Kristers Freibergs||5'11"||176||Jul 3/92||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Krists Kalnins||6'1"||183||Sep 13/92||AIK Härnosänd||Div. 1||Undrafted||none|
|Nikita Kolesnivkovs||6'4"||205||Oct 30/92||Blainville-Boisbriand||QMJHL||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Kriss Lipsbergs||5'11"||168||Apr 3/93||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Kristaps Nimanis||6'0"||185||Jul 21/93||Red Ducks||Fin3||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Arturs Salija||5'11"||181||May 15/92||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Edgars Siksna||6'0"||183||Jan 15/93||Metalurgs Liepaja||BOL||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Pauls Zvirbulis||5'7"||172||Feb 24/93||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
The defence group is a little older than the forward group, and the team has elected to keep eight D around and only 12 forwards, which is quite a normal setup in Latvia. Nikita Kolesnivkovs is going to be one of the leaders here, as will Edgars Siksna, who plays professionally with a Latvian club in the Belarusian league. Rudmanis also recommends Kristaps Nimanis, who was the U18 team's captain last year. Returning defender Arturs Salija should also log some key minutes for the team, though he might be a penalty box regular, as he has 34 PIMs in just 11 IIHF tournament games in his career.
|Rihards Cimermanis||5'10"||154||Mar 22/93||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Kristers Gudlevskis||6'3"||187||Jul 31/92||HK Riga||MHL||Undrafted||U20 (1)|
|Elvis Merzlikins||6'1"||183||Apr 13/94||Lugano U20||Elite Jr. A||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
While all three of the Latvian goalies seem to be putting up good numbers this year, it is 19 year old Kristers Gudlevskis who should get the call as the team's starter. There is some belief that he could be the national team's future starting goalie, but as Rudmanis points out, that belief is common for every U20 team's starting goalie:
"Gudlevskis didn't have the most successful beginning of the season, however he played magnificiently last year, even earning a recall to Dinamo Riga. He is sometimes expected to be the national team's starting goalie of the future, however, to be fair, most U20 goalies having good seasons are expected to be the next solid Latvian goalie. For example, Nauris Enkuzens had a superb 2009 WJC (Latvia finished 8th), was invited to the 2010 Washington Capitals development camp, but he currently plays in the Finnish third tier league."
Overall, the Latvians will do quite well to finish 9th overall and return the next year, where they'll have a better shot with an older team and on Russian ice. While they are in the easier grouping and can some years compete with the likes of the Slovaks and Swiss, I'm not sure that they can do that this year. The good news for the team was their solid result against Denmark in the pre-tournament game, winning 5-1, although it should be noted that it was only an exhibition game.
Prediction: 5th in Group A.