World Championship Preview: Group B

Belarus By_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  10
Total WC Medals:  0
Total Olympic Medals:  0 
World/Canada Cup:  never invited
Most Recent Championship:  none, highest finish 4th at Olympics (2002)
2010 Olympic Finish:  9th
2010 World Championship:  10th

Belarus isn't the wealthiest of nations, but through the years it was part of the USSR it developed a decent program that has allowed it to sustain itself at the World Championship level for most of its independence period, and qualify for three Olympics.  Their most notable achievement occured at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where they pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in international hockey history by beating Sweden in the quarterfinals, before being beat quite handily by Canada in the semifinals and Russia in the bronze medal game.  There have been a few NHL quality players produced by the country, and three first round draft picks (Ruslan Salei, Konstantin Koltsov and Andrei Kostitsyn).  Only Kostitsyn of that group will be at the World Championships, and he'll likely won't have arrived in time to play in the opening game vs. Canada.  Salei is still in the NHL playoffs with Detroit, while Koltsov suffered a major injury this year in the KHL.  Sergei Kostitsyn is the also involved in the NHL playoffs with Nashville, so the load of the offence will fall to Andrei and Maple Leafs star centre Mikhail Grabovski

Grabovski and Kostitsyn are very strong players, so for a mid-tier nation they are doing well with them.  As for the rest of the team, 9 of the players come from Belarus' KHL team, Dinamo Minsk, with two more KHL players on the roster as well.  Defenseman Vladimir Denisov plays in the NLA, while Sergei Kolosov played in the AHL for Grand Rapids this past year, and wasn't called up by the Red Wings as a black ace for the playoffs.  The remaining two players play in the Belarussian Extraliga, often regarded as the top league outside the European elite circuit.  Their goaltending, however, is getting old:  Andrei Mezin returns as the starting goalie, but he's now 36 and was a KHL platoon goalie for Minsk.  There is nearly 400 games of World Championship experience between the squad, which is in desperate need of some star youth again.  The run of Grabovski and the Kostitsyns is in the past, and while those players are now in their prime, a few good kids could really help them out, particularly a new goalie.

Belarus has avoided the relegation round since their last promotion in 2005, but they could use a quarterfinal appearance in order to challenge for an automatic Olympic qualification spot, which they achieved for 2010.  It's a decent team, not too old or too young, and they should be fairly competitive here.

Canada Ca_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  2
Total WC medals:  24 gold, 13 silver, 9 bronze
Total Olympic medals:  8 gold, 4 silver, 2 bronze
World/Canada Cup:  6 wins, 2 runners-up
Most Recent Championship:  2010 Olympics
2010 Olympic Finish:  Gold
2010 World Championship:  7th

Canada is always competitive at any international tournament, but the attitude towards the World Championships has been a bit inconsistent.  Hockey Canada uses the Worlds as a bit of a test field for the "real" international competition, and in recent years has been pretty successful at getting the top available young talent to participate, coupled with some strong veteran leadership.  This year's team is quite strong, and even though the odds have Russia as the favourites, I think Canada is bringing the strongest roster of all the teams to Slovakia. 

The roster Canada submitted is a bare bones crew:  the minimum 15 skaters and 2 goalies, with the hopes of adding a few players after the preliminary round from the first round of the NHL playoffs.  In fact, they do have three extra players with them, and will probably use them right at the start for a full 12 forward, 6 d-man set-up.  The real international star is Rick Nash, a two-time Olympian who has had great success at this tournament.  Young stars like John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle and Evander Kane are joined by the likes of Jason Spezza, Travis Zajac and Antoine Vermette up front.  Vermette right now is the 'greybeard' of the team, at all of 28 years old.  On defence, the team is led by Brent Burns and Dion Phaneuf, with the help of younger stars who have graduated from the WJC program like Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn.  The goaltending is also quite young:  James Reimer and Devan Dubnyk are back there, although it has been reported that the team invited Carey Price, who has yet to respond.  If Price comes, he'll be the team's starter.  If not, Reimer will probably get the first shot at the job.

This is a very young team that would probably benefit from a veteran presence.  Former Team Canada mainstays like Ryan Smyth, Shane Doan and Ray Whitney have become available, but its not certain if they are coming or were even invited.  If Canada doesn't medal here, the lack of experience could be a big factor.

France Fr_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  15
Total WC Medals:  0
Total Olympic Medals:  none
World/Canada Cup:  never invited
Most Recent Championship:  1924 European Championship
2010 Olympic Finish:  did not qualify, 20th overall
2010 World Championship:  14th

The French have been around for a long time in international competition, but have never broken through as a consistent top level nation.  There is some hope, though, as the national league (Ligue Magnus) is gaining in popularity and the team has a NHL quality goaltender in Cristobal Huet, and a strong prospect in Stephane Da Costa, who made his NHL debut for the Ottawa Senators last month.  Both players are here, which could give the team a shot at pulling off an upset in the preliminary round.  Huet is obviously the key player to make that happen...  he had a strong season in the NLA this year while making $5.675m from the Chicago Blackhawks, how couldn't fit him under the salary cap this year as he had been relegated to backup duty.  The team has been practicing together for a long time, with only Da Costa really being added to the team at a later time, and even he's been with them for a couple of weeks now.

Da Costa will be counted on for a lot of offence, and he'll get help from his older brother, Teddy Da Costa.  The other key players will be Elitserien forward Pierre-Éduoard Bellemare, captain and DEL forward Laurent Meunier, big Czech league forward Sacha Treille, and top French league player Julien Desrosiers.  On defense, Kevin Hecquefeuille will probably be the key player, as he was at a near point per game pace in the French league this year.  Huet will get the bulk of the goaltending, if not all of it, although Fabrice Lhenry is a pretty capable goalie as well.

The key games will be against Switzerland and Belarus, where they might have a 20% chance at an upset with a strong goaltending performance.  Against Canada, this team stands no chance.   If the team does as predicted and goes to the relegation round, they'll be on pretty even footing with their competition, unless there's a shocker team like the USA in there again.

Switzerland Ch_medium

Pre-Championship World Rank:  7
Total WC Medals:  1 silver, 8 bronze
Total Olympic Medals:  2 bronze
World Cup/Canada Cup:  never invited
Most Recent Championship:  1926 European Champion
2010 Olympic Finish:  8th
2010 World Championship:  5th

Swiss hockey has improved dramatically in recent years, and the country is consistently producing a couple of NHL draft picks per season now.  The NLA is getting stronger every year compared to the other European leagues, and is in fact becoming the top league in Central Europe as the Czech and Slovak leagues bleed talent to the KHL.  The national team used to prominently feature naturalized Canadians on their team, but this year's entry has only one:  Ryan Gardner, who should be on Switzerland's second line. 

It's a fairly veteran group this year for Switzerland.  The team's top young talent, players like Nino Niederrieter and Roman Wick, are still involved in their respective playoff seasons.  Forward has been the slowest of the positions for Switzerland to develop, but it's starting to come around.  Still, this team will rely heavily on veterans like Martin Pluss, Ivo Rüthemann, and Andreas Ambuhl for success.  On defence, Luca Sbisa is the emerging star for the country, and is the lone NHLer on the roster.  There's a chance Yannick Weber could join the team, but there isn't a lot of room to add him at this point.  Veterans like Julien Vauclair, Goran Bezina, and captain Matthias Seger will see a lot of minutes.  In goal, it's anyone's guess between Leonardo Genoni, Tobias Stephan, and Daniel Manzato who will get the call:  all of them have been quality goalies in the recent past.

Switzerland will be relying on experience, which could help them against the younger Belarus and Canada.  They should advance to the next round, and are sitting pretty comfortably for automatic qualificaiton to the Olympics, so there's not a lot of pressure on this group.  A quarterfinal appearance is expected, but not a guarantee.

Schedule:

  • Apr 29:  Switzerland vs. France (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • Apr 29:  Belarus vs. Canada (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)
  • May 1:  Canada vs. France (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • May 1:  Switzerland vs. Belarus (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)
  • May 3:  Canada vs. Switzerland (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • May 3:  France vs. Belarus (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)

Predicted Finish:  1.  Canada, 2.  Switzerland, 3. Belarus, 4.  France

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