BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 04: Frederik Andersen (#30), goaltender of Denmark makes a save against Robert Bukarts (#9) of Latvia during the IIHF World Championship group D match between Latvia and Denmark at Orange Arena on May 4, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
The IIHF World Championships is the largest international tournament in terms of amount of national teams involved, which makes it a fun party atmosphere but also gives us a clear group of contenders, pretenders and also-rans to deal with. Of course, with this being a tournament composed of players from almost exclusively professional leagues, the results don't tend to be as much of eyesores as they do in other international tournaments, but there is little chance for the lower seeds to gain much traction. The IIHF is introducing a new format this year, splitting the tournament into two groups of eight teams instead of four groups of four teams, which will almost certainly make it more difficult for the lower end teams to go on a run as the effect of one surprising result is diminished significantly... if Kazakhstan shocks Sweden it's just one game of seven instead of one game of three as it was in the old format.
So why the change? Well, the World Championships has long been hosted in two different cities for the preliminary rounds, but 2012 is the first year that it will be hosted in two different countries as well. To ease up the logistical issues that can cause, this means there will be no paring of Teams from 16 to 12 as there was in the past after the first six days, teams will stay in the same city for their first seven games before the playoffs bring the number of teams down to 8. It's also easier for organizers to market the games: they can sell games for the first twelve days of the tournament knowing the match-ups for each of the games.
So the potential for Cindarella teams is reduced. Also gone is the relegation round: the two teams that finish 8th in their pools in the Round Robin will play in Division 1A next year.
Kazakhstan won promotion through winning their Division 1A Group last year, and will be in tough to stay up with the big boys this year. Like the other teams in this profile, they stand no chance of finishing in the Top 9 in the World Ranking and earning automatic qualification into the Olympics as a result. To succeed, 36 year old goaltender Vitali Yeremeyev is going to have to be spectacular, building off a very strong KHL campaign for Barys Astana, Kazakhstan's lone entry in the KHL. Most of the rest of the team will be composed of players from that team, but Yeremeyev is the only significant contributor from that team on the national team. Most of Astana's top players are foreigners like Kevin Dallman (who has hoped to become naturalized and compete for Kazakhstan for the 2014 Olympic qualification tournaments*), Brandon Bochenski and Nigel Dawes. Offensively, the load is expected to be carried by KHL journeymen like Dmitri Upper and Kazakh league star Dmitri Dudarev. Unfortunately, NHL centre Nik Antropov will not be joining the team yet again this year. Antropov hasn't participated in a World Championships since he was 18, and last competed for the country internationally at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
*EDIT: So much for that, as per Adam Nowek and Doogie2K in the comments. I missed this story.
Key Players: Vitali Yeremeyev, G; Dmitri Dudarev, RW; Dmitri Upper, LW; Roman Starchenko, C.
Italy boasts a roster full of dual citizens, a lot of North American trained players who weren't strong enough to compete for Canada or USA internationally and chose to take advantage of Italy's liberal nationality requirements to play at these elite tournaments. Leading scorer Giulio Scandella, brother of NHLer Marco Scandella and nephew of Sergio Momesso, played major junior hockey in Halifax and will be counted on for offence along with former WHLer Pat Iannone. On defence, they boast a NHL prospect in Colgate University captain Thomas Larkin (a 6'5" defender drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets), as well as Matt DeMarchi, an Italian-American playing for Vasteras of Sweden's Allsvenskan. In goal, Italian born and trained Andreas Bernard will challenge longtime starter Daniel Bellisimo. Bellisimo is from Toronto and has represented Italy quite well for the last three years, but Bernard is a 21 year old goaltending prospect of SaiPa of the SM-Liiga in Finland. Italy has youth on their side when compared to Kazakhstan, most of the team is on the good side of 30 and the program is showing signs of improvement.
Key Players: Daniel Bellisimo, G; Matt DeMarchi, D; Giulio Scandella, RW; Thomas Larkin, D.
If you're looking for a nation that is very quietly putting together a solid national program, look no further than France. It's tough for the nation, their national league is still very small and not the home of a lot of notable players. There's always been some random players making it on the big stage for the nation, but this is no longer just Cristobal Huet and a bunch of nobodies. Stephane Da Costa didn't stick with the Ottawa Senators this year, but put up a very good first professional season in the AHL and will be asked to be a big part of France's offence. Also emerging as an effective offensive player in a strong league is Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, who had 19 goals this past year for Skellefteå in the Elitserien, adding 12 points in 15 playoff games. Damien Fleury had 12 goals in the Elitserien this year between Luleå and Timrå, while former Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Yorick Treille and his brother Sasha are both Czech Extraliga professionals. On defence, 22 year old Yohann Auvitu was a regular for Finnish Champions JYP, and figures to be a big part of the national team for years to come. France still is more likely to be relegated than compete for a playoff spot at the men's Worlds, but they are quietly building a program that could see them qualify for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, which will feature the top 12 nations in the world.
Key Players: Stephane Da Costa, C; Cristobal Huet, G; Fabrice L'Henry, G; Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, C; Yorick Treille, RW.
It's only getting tougher from hockey's most passionate fanbase. Luckily for them, they are getting some unexpected help. Despite the fact that the Philadelphia Flyers are still in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it appears that Oskars Bartulis will be released by the club to play for Latvia, without the possibility of being recalled. That's a big add for this team, now coached by former NHL Coach of the Year Ted Nolan. Relegation shouldn't be a realistic possibility, but Latvia will have to be sharp in their preliminary round to make sure of that. They are capable of upsetting some of the higher ranked clubs, playing a very tough and frustrating style of hockey, and their fans will be in full force, crossing the Baltic Sea to have a party. Ottawa Senators forward Kaspars Daugavins is the other big name on the roster, while the top duo from Dinamo Riga of Mikelis Redlihs and Janis Sprukts should be enough to put the team past the lightweights and maybe even challenge for the final playoff spot in the group. To do that, they'll need top goaltending form Edgars Masalskis, who is capable of spurts of brilliance.
Key Players: Kaspars Daugavins, LW; Oskars Bartulis, D; Janis Sprukts, C; Georgijs Pujacs, D.
I've written a lot about Denmark on this site, they've grown remarkably as a small nation without a lot of winter, in the shadow of their larger Scandinavian cousins in Sweden. Denmark is producing NHL prospects with regularity now, and perhaps the hottest goaltending prospect outside North America is going to be their starter. Frederik Andersen used his performance at the 2010 World Championships to get selected by the Carolina Hurricanes, and this past year he absolutely destroyed the Elitserien as a 22 year old rookie. Andersen posted a .943 SV% for Frölunda, leading the league by 8 points. The team also now boasts a legitimate NHL defenseman in Philip Larsen of the Dallas Stars, the first Dane make a mark in the world's top league at that position. Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders is considered one of the top defensive centres in the world, and Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens and Jannick Hensen of the Vancouver Canucks fit that two-way mould quite nicely. They will be without NHL playoff star Mikkel Bødker, but his older brother Mads will be there, fresh off another strong season defending in the Elitserien. The team is littered with players playing professional hockey in Sweden, a sign that the talent level is improving quickly. Denmark will still be in tough to finish in the top 8 again like in 2010, but the goal for the team is Olympic qualification... and that might not be far off.
Also of note for Denmark: the national federation will submit a bid to host the 2017 World Championships after withdrawing from the 2016 bids last year. The nation has never hosted the event.
Key Players: Frederik Andersen, G; Frans Nielsen, C; Lars Eller, C; Jannik Hansen, RW; Philip Larsen, D.
Speaking of future hosts (though of a much more controversial nature), Belarus enters a team this year trying to turn the tide of recent years which saw the nation go from a pretender to this longshot category. They've been passed recently by Norway and need to start getting some better results again. They are down the Kostitsyn brothers, who are currently involved in the NHL playoffs for the Nashville Predators, but Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the nation's top player, is here. Vitali Koval is now the nation's top goaltender, posting a .930 SV% for Torpedo of the KHL, and is definitely capable of pulling off an upset to get Belarus into playoff consideration. Like Kazakhstan, Belarus' KHL entry, Dynamo Minsk, relies heavily on foreign players for offence (this isn't the case for Latvia's Dinamo Riga, for example). Some older players like Konstantin Koltsov and Alexei Kalyuzhny are playing key roles on other KHL clubs, but the nation's lone club seems to have a hard time producing prime offensive talent. Most of Belarus' team plays in strong professional leagues, but outside Grabovski and Koval, few are excelling. It's a tough time for Belarussian hockey, but they remain capable of posting a strong result here. They're also capable of slipping even further... France isn't far off.
Key Players: Mikhail Grabovski, C; Vitali Koval, G; Konstantin Koltsov, RW; Viktor Kostyuchyonok, D.