BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 11: Frank Hordler (L)of Germany comforts team mate Dennis Endras (R) after the IIHF World Championship quarter final match between Sweden and Germany at Orange Arena on May 11, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Like I said in the first preview, the IIHF World Championships are the biggest international hockey tournament there is in terms of number of teams, and while the competition level is high, that doesn't necessarily mean there's a ton of parity. Sure, a lower ranked team can take down a top nation, but in the long run the damage is pretty limited. The first group, the longshots, are the teams that have virtually no shot at earning a medal. This second group, in a good year, might do so. But winning gold is generally the territory of a select few nations, and it would be an absolute stunner if any of the following five nations pulled that off... in the last decade, this group has won it one time: Sloavkia, in 2002. So, with that decade now out of the way, maybe it is time for one of the 6-10 ranked teams to do it again. But if they do, I will be very shocked.
Last year was a disaster for the hosts. They finished 10th with a very deep, but aging roster and the future doesn't look too bright for this small, hockey mad nation. Then the year got even worse: Pavol Demitra was one of the victims of the Lokomotiv plane crash in September, and the national team has retired his #38 as a result. Replacing what he meant to the team, and the offence he provided will be very tough indeed, but perhaps his memory will provide an inspiration to this squad, which is badly in need of a good result. They haven't made the playoffs in the past four years, and their 2010 Olympic performance is the lone shining result... a 4th place finish. The strength of this year's team will undoubtedly be the presence of Zdeno Chara, who is arguably the top player at the tournament. Andrej Sekera will also play a big role on the blueline, while up front the group is decidedly less glamorous. Tomas Kopecky is the lone NHL forward, but there are former NHLers that will be counted on like the aging Miroslav Satan, Branko Radivojevic, Marcel Hossa and Milan Bartovic. Also present is a rare promising youngster: 21 year old winger Tomas Tatar, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who played for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. Tatar had 16 points in 13 games at the U20s in 2009 and 2010, and made his World Championships debut in 2010 as well. In goal, a trio of goalies from three different European leagues will battle for time, likely led by Czech league standout Peter Hamerlik (.928 SV% for HC Trinec). Slovakia had a KHL team this past year, Lev Poprad, and their starter Jan Laco is on the roster as well as 23 year old Julius Hudacek, who posted a .926 SV% for Södertälje in the Swedish Allsvenskan.
Slovakia is ranked 10th heading into the tournament, and will need to do better than that in order to earn automatic qualification to the 2014 Olympics. In order to do this, they will have to finish ahead of the team ranked just ahead of them, Norway. The only way to really ensure that result is to make the playoffs by finishing in the top 4, but they are in a group that features Finland, Canada, Switzerland and the USA, so it won't be easy.
Key Players: Zdeno Chara, D; Andrej Sekera, D; Tomas Kopecky, LW; Peter Hamerlik, G.
Norway is set up quite nicely this year in their quest to earn Olympic qualification for 2014. Their group isn't necessarily easy, but there is a more obvious spot available to them in the playoffs then in the Helsinki Group. It's an interesting team, with zero NHLers and few prospects coming up that could challenge that. But they do have a decent amount of good European league players, led by Patrick Thoresen, Mathis Olimb and Per-Åge Skrøder up front. Former NHLers Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Jonas Holøs anchor the blueline, and expect to play a lot of minutes. 13 of Norway's players play in Sweden's Elitserien, with a couple more playing in the Allsvenskan. Only Thoresen plays in the KHL, by far the most accomplished of the players. Young, physical centre Andreas Martinsen could have an impact as well, coming off a strong campaign in Norway's top league. Lars Haugen seems to have inherited the starting role from the lovable but aging Pål Grotnes, while Boston Bruins prospect Lars Volden occupies the #3 spot, offering the best hope for Norway's future in the crease. Haugen had a strong year in Belarus, and got a one game callup to the KHL's Dynamo Minsk as a reward, while Volden is in the Espoo Blues system in Finland preparing for what is hoped to be a strong professional career.
The battle for 9th in the World Ranking will be spirited between Norway and Slovakia, but it's really unfortunate that with the new format those two nations won't be able to play each other to decide this once and for all... it's best for both teams to take matters into their own hands by making the playoffs. With Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic likely occupying three of the four spots, it'll be between Norway, Germany, Denmark and Latvia to claim that coveted final spot.
Key Players: Patrick Thoresen, LW; Per-Åge Skrøder, LW; Jonas Holøs, D; Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, D.
Germany under Uwe Krupp had consecutive strong performances at the World Championships in 2010 and 2011, but Krupp is no longer the national team coach. Trying to build off of that foundation is Jakob Kölliker, a Swiss national who was their World Junior Head Coach in 2009 and 2010, when they made their famous run to 4th place. The team he inherits looks very much like Krupp's teams did, and fans of the last two tournaments are pretty familiar with them. Marcel Goc of the Florida Panthers is the big piece up front, but he's joined by the likes of Thomas Greillinger, Patrick Reimer, Philip Gogulla and Patrick Wolf. Also of note, Jewish-American Evan Kauffman is on the team, one of the few Jewish athletes to represent Germany since World War II. His story was chronicled earlier this year in the New York Times, and was one of the most interesting stories to emerge this year in international hockey. Christoph Schubert leads the German defence, along with Nikolai Goc, and Justin Krueger. Obscure hockey reference alert: Kevin Lavallée, one of Germany's defenders, was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the Canadian reality television program Making the Cut in 2004.
Most importantly, though, is Dennis Endras returns in goal. His North American career was cut short earlier this year as the very goaltending rich Minnesota Wild decided to let him return to Europe rather than stay in the AHL as a backup, and Endras had a strong year for HIFK Helsinki of the SM-Liiga. Germany should be able to earn qualification for the 2014 Olympics even without making the playoffs, but finishing short of the quarterfinals would be a failure for this team.
Key Players: Marcel Goc, C; Christoph Schubert, D; Thomas Greillinger, LW; Dennis Endras, G.
The Swiss are a consistently competitive team, but have not made it out of the quarterfinals since making it back to the main event in the late 1990s. Their recent finishes are littered with a bunch of 8th and 9th place finishes, and most pundits will likely place them in that range again heading into this year. It's tough to get too excited for the Swiss, who rely on a disciplined team game committed to defence with very few scoring options up front. There's some hope for the nation in that front, but it's not there yet. Nino Niederreiter will be here, but he was a NHL player in name only this past season, scoring a single goal in 55 games for the New York Islanders as a rookie. It's still expected that the team will be relying on veteran NLA players like Ivo Rüthemann, Damien Brunner, and Julien Sprunger for their goals. Also making his triumphant return, and sure to play as much of a role in the team's offence as the defence, is captain Mark Streit. The defensive corps remains Switzerland's strong point, even without Roman Josi, Raphael Diaz, and Yannick Weber from the NHL (Diaz and Weber are injured, Josi's Nashville Predators are still playing). Luca Sbisa of the Anaheim Ducks, along with former cup of coffee NHLers Julien Vauclair and Goran Bezina will help their goaltenders out big time. Tobias Stephan, another former NHLer, figures to be Switzerland's starter this time. Sorry, no Benjamin Conz on the men's team, yet.
Switzerland has all but locked up a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, so that's not a big concern for the nation. Making the playoffs again after missing out a year ago is the primary concern... and from there, finally getting over the hump and playing for a medal would be an enormous success. In the meantime, the offence waits on Niederreiter and WHL standout Sven Bärtschi.
Key Players: Mark Streit, D; Damien Brunner, RW; Ivo Rüthemann, LW; Luca Sbisa, D; Tobias Stephan, G.
Yes, in this tournament, the Americans have to be considered pretenders. In the past 10 years, the Americans have played for medal only twice, winning bronze in 2004 and finishing 4th in 2009. Their best players routinely turn down the opportunity to play, and USA Hockey treats the World Championships almost as an U25 program more than a full men's program. That being said, the Americans are clearly more talented than the four teams described above. It's just that they're as much a training team as they are a real national men's team. It's quite possible that these players aren't experienced enough to handle the discipline of a Germany or Switzerland, let alone the talent of Russia or Canada. Up front, the team has a couple of bonafide stars in Bobby Ryan and Max Pacioretty, with Paul Statsny looking to re-establish himself in that category as well. Beyond those three there is Kyle Okposo, and then a collection of NHL grinders like Justin Abdelkader, Jim Slater and Nate Thompson as well as some inexperienced players like Kyle Palmieri, Cam Atkinson and J.T. Brown. Small winger Ryan Lasch led the SM-Liiga in scoring this past year, and he could be a very nice story up front for the Americans this tournament.
On the blueline, hey look, it's Jack Johnson again! Wearing the 'C' again, he'll be counted on for big minutes, and he generally plays some of his best hockey wearing the USA jersey. Behind him, there is some real talent: Alex Goligoski, Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk and Jeff Petry are all auditioning for spots on the 2014 Olympic roster, all having a legitimate chance to make that prestigious team in two years. And in goal, the Red Wings loss was the Americans' gain as Jimmy Howard gives them one of the tournament's best goaltenders.... he's the best we've featured so far, that's for sure. Is a medal possible for USA? Absolutely. Is it likely? Well, until they actually do it more than once in a decade, it's hard to believe it'll happen in any given year...
As always, check out the excellent United States of Hockey for more coverage.
Key Players: Jimmy Howard, G; Bobby Ryan, RW; Max Pacioretty, LW; Alex Goligoski, D; Paul Statsny, C.