2012 IIHF World Championships Preview: The Contenders

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 15: The team of Finland celebrate after winning the IIHF World Championship gold medal match between Sweden and Finland at Orange Arena on May 15, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

And now, for part three of the special: the top five world ranked teams in the tournament. It's this group of teams that have walked away with the title most often in recent years, although for some of them it's starting to be a real drought again. Canada last won in 2007, Sweden in 2006, and Russia in 2009, which is surprising since these are the three teams most commonly picked to win the tournament by the experts. As a result, the pre-tournament World Rankings might look a bit whacky. In reality, those rankings points don't mean a whole lot as a predictive measure, although they will mean something for how the groups are divided for the 2014 Olympics.

(5) Canada Ca_medium - Helsinki Group

This is a very deep Canadian team. Unfortunately for Canada, it won't feature emerging top defender P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens as they had hoped, as he had to return to Canada with a knee injury suffered in a pre-tournament game. Canada features stars at every position, though: the top four defenders will feature Duncan Keith, Dion Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester and Marc-Édouard Vlasic, better than any such group in the tournament. Up front, the team is loaded with both established stars like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, as well as young stars like John Tavares, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner and Jordan Eberle. To compliment them, they only have high end players like Patrick Sharp, Ryan O`Rielly, Jamie Benn, Alexandre Burrows and Andrew Ladd. It's tough to know who will emerge as a star for the team, but John Tavares has twelve goals and four assists the last two years, making him a likely focal point for the team's offence.

In goal, the team boasts a potential starter for their 2014 Olympic squad in Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes. This is Ward's third World Championships, having been one of Canada's goalies for their last gold medal win in 2007. Recently unemployed NHL coach Brent Sutter will be tasked to lead the team back to glory, and he has a stellar international record from the World Juniors in 2005 and 2006, never losing a single game. There's always a few players that say no to representing Canada, and while Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews would've put this team over the top, there's so much depth here in both experience and talent that it's hard to think of Canada as anything but the favourites. 2012 Draft Eligible defenceman Ryan Murray is with the squad, although it is uncertain if the team will put him on their official roster or hope that some other NHL talent comes available when the second round of the NHL playoffs winds down.

Key Players: Ryan Getzlaf, C; John Tavares, C/LW; Duncan Keith, D; Cam Ward, G; Corey Perry, RW.

(4) Czech Republic Cz_medium - Stockholm Group

The 2010 Champions boast a very strong group of forwards but lack a single current NHL defenceman or goaltender on their roster. KHLers Miroslav Blatak, Lukas Krajicek, Petr Caslava, Ondrej Nemec and Jakub Nakladal will be relied on to help lead what could be a very balanced group in terms of ice time. Tomas Mojzis is another one to look for in a key role offensively, while the team might be breaking in 20 year old Jakub Krejcik this tournament, too, though that has yet to be confirmed. Krejcik has not ever represented the Czech Republic at an U20 or U18 event, so his inclusion is an indication of a strong growth in his play this season with Slavia Prague. In goal, it looks like Jakub Stepanek will again be the go to guy, and at 25 the SKA St. Petersburg starter is the team's oldest goalie... World Junior sensation Petr Mrazek joins the team along with 23 year old Jakub Kovar, a former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who posted a .926 SV% for Ceske Budejovice of the Extraliga.

The forwards, as mentioned, are the team's true strength. They're led by NHL stars Tomas Plekanec, Ales Hemsky, Milan Michalek and David Krejci. A lot of the other names are familiar to international hockey fans, be they NHL regulars like Michael Frolik and Dallas Stars rookie Tomas Vincour, former NHLers Petr Prucha, Petr Tenkrat and Lukas Kaspar, or the 40 year old Petr Nedved, making his IIHF debut for the Czechs. Nedved, of course, famously defected to Canada and represented Canada internationally at the 1994 Olympics, but he did represent the Czechs at the NHL run 1996 World Cup. This is Nedved's first, and almost certainly his last, World Championship. He's still a top scorer in the Extraliga, captaining the White Tigers of Liberec. There are some notable Czech players still playing in the NHL playoffs, so we'll see how their initial roster looks to see if the team is holding out hopes for reinforcements from there as the quarterfinals approach.

Key Players: Milan Michalek, LW; Ales Hemsky, RW; Tomas Plekanec, C; David Krejci, C; Jakub Stepanek, G.

(3) Russia Ru_medium - Stockholm Group

A rankings system that puts Russia in 3rd and Canada in 5th just seems wrong, but that's what we're looking at heading into the tournament. Russia is very secretively assembling their final roster, slowly adding pieces as they see fit. But down the middle this team boasts Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, something no one in the world can match. Right now, finding the right trios seems to be an issue, as Malkin was lined up with young star Yevgeni Kuznetsov, calling their first practice together 'awkward'. We'll see if they can develop something together. Another problem for Russia was the fact that two of their players were banned for testing positive for banned substances, being KHLers Maxim Rybin and Anton Belov. Other highlights of the forward group include Vladamir Tarasenko, Alexander Burmistrov (he of all those KHL contract rumours), Nikolai Zherdev, Alexander Svitov and Nikolai Kulemin. On defence, things are even less clear: KHL mainstay Konstantin Korneyev looks like the team's leader on defence, but impressive young NHLers Alexei Emelin and Nikita Nikitin. Ilya Nikulin and Dmitri Kalinin will also be there, but I'm a bit disappointed not hearing emerging Florida Panthers defender Dmitri Kulikov's name thrown into the mix as well.

In goal, this could be another chance for Konstantin Barulin to showcase himself for audiences who don't get to see him in the KHL, although NHLer Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche will likely split time with him. Varlamov had an up and down NHL season, but is definitely talented enough to produce a strong showing here and take the pull position for a potential starting role on the 2014 Olympic team. Wonderfully named former Soviet defender Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will be making his IIHF debut as Head Coach this year, although he was Russia's Head Coach at the 2004 World Cup. I don't quite know what to expect from him strategy wise on the national team, but he is used to dealing with a lot of talent as Ak Bars Kazan's bench boss for six seasons.

Key Players: Evgeni Malkin, C; Pavel Datsyuk, C; Yevgeni Kuznetzov, LW; Konstantin Korneyev, D.

(2) Sweden Se_medium - Stockholm Group

The Stockholm crowds have great reason to be excited about this year's national team. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, providing a wealth of Swedish NHL talent to boast the roster as they play their group games in front of their home fans. Daniel Alfredsson will be the team's captain, but up front he's a complimentary piece, letting Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson and Johan Franzen take the centre stage. Youth is also served on this team, with likely NHL Rookie of the Year Gabriel Landeskog joined by Elitserien MVP Jakob Silfverberg, Marcus Krüger and Calle Järnkrok. It's a deep and talented group, but more impressive is their team's defensive corps: Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson is joined by Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Jonas Brodin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Mattias Ekholm and veteran NHLer Jonathan Ericsson. In all honesty, a lot of these players are auditioning for spots on the 2014 Olympics team, and it's a great chance to leave a good impression with national team coach Pär Mårts.

In goal, Buffalo Sabres backup Jhonas Enroth will likely split time with Elitserien star Viktor Fasth, who couldn't quite get it done for Sweden a year ago, losing in the gold medal game. Redemption will be a key motivating factor for Sweden, who were thoroughly overmatched a year ago in the gold medal game against Finland, who are this year's hosts. Winning gold in Helsinki would be a great way to rebound... in fact, there probably isn't a bigger motivator than that.

Key Players: Henrik Zetterberg, C/LW; Erik Karlsson, D; Niklas Kronwall, D; Loui Eriksson, LW; Gabriel Landeskog, LW.

(1) Finland Fi_medium - Helsinki Group

The defending champions face a tough battle in their quest to repeat for their boisterous home fans. Head Coach Jukka Jalonen made some tough calls on the roster before the tournament, leaving Tuomo Ruutu and Sami Vatanen off the final team due to injuries apparently (the translation sucks). Finland has always relied a bit on their depth players, and without these two top players, they will have to do so again. Not a single NHL defenceman is on this team, while only four players total from the NHL are here, a bit shocking considering the amount of talent available and the fact that it is an opportunity to represent the defending champions in front of their own fans. Mikko Koivu is again tasked with being the team's captain, and he'll again be joined by young phenom Mikael Granlund, his future NHL teammate with the Minnesota Wild (that's if he signs, which still hasn't happened yet). Valtteri Filppula will help give the Finns depth at centre, along with veterans Petri Kontiola and Niko Kapanen. Jussi Jokinen is the other NHLer up front, and will be relied on heavily for his speed and creativity from the wing.

On defence, this is a team with familiar names but not a lot of star power: Ossi Väänänen, Lasse Kukkonen, Janne Niskala and Anssi Salmela look like the leaders of the group here. Mikko Mäenpää will be looked at as a powerplay specialist coming off a 14 goal, 36 point season for Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL. As usual, this will have to be a total team effort for Jalonen's group, something they have little trouble selling to their players when they put on the Suomi blue. In goal, the team looks like it'll be lead by Dallas Stars starter Kari Lehtonen, although both Karri Rämo and Petri Vehanen have had strong years in Europe and are capable of stepping up if Lehtonen should falter at any point.

With the target squarely on them as the defending champions and hosts, it'll be interesting to see how Finland does in the spotlight. They were an underdog champion last year, but they will be expected to be a top team again this year. On paper, it doesn't look all that great for Finland, but that's never stopped them before...

Key Players: Mikko Koivu, C; Mikael Granlund, LW/C; Janne Niskala, D; Kari Lehtonen, G.

I'll make my predictions tomorrow before the puck drops. This year's tournament looks like it'll be a lot of fun!

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