Well, it wasn't pretty, but the Division 1B U20 World Junior Championships began in Bled, Slovenia, on Sunday with three highly uncompetitive games. The format change can't come soon enough.
The Danes, who are my pick to win this group, showed a lot in their opener. They outshot the Kazakhs, generally a decent opponent for them, 48-25, including a 19-6 difference in the 2nd period when the result was still in doubt. American born Head Coach Todd Bjorkstrand, who you may remember from my piece on Danish hockey during the Men's World Championships, had eleven different players record a point for him, including two goal performances from two of his own players for the Herning Blue Fox of Denmark's AL-Bank Ligæn, Thomas Spelling and his son, Patrick Bjorktstrand. Spelling is a potential draft pick, a 1993 birthdate who is the top ranked Danish trained player according to Central Scouting. To further show Denmark's dominance, Kazakhstan took eleven minor penalties, while Denmark only surrendered four.
While there is reason to believe Austria isn't as strong this year, you can't make too much judgment based on this game. Lithuania are the Group II qualifiers from last year, and offered little resistance as Austria dominated the play, outshooting them 40-19, including 31-11 through the first forty minutes before letting up in the third. Konstantin Komarek, a late 1992 birthdate out of Lulea in Sweden who will be draft eligible in June, led the team with a two goal performance. The easy game for Austria should serve them well, as they take on a more difficult team in Kazakhstan tomorrow.
There may be a Sakic on the Croatian team, but they were no match for their neighbours on their home ice. Slovenia blitzed Croatia, outshooting them 57-25, led by captain Eric Pance's 3 goal, 1 assist performance. The team's most famous player is Gasper Kopitar, the brother of Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar. Gasper moved to the USA with his brother and plays hockey for Des Moines of the USHL, failing to crack the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He only had one assist in the rout. It doesn't get easier for the Croats: they play Denmark tomorrow.
Join me after the jump for a look at the other Div. 1 and 2 action that is slated to go on Monday:
Division 1, Group A in Belarus
This group is the Latvia vs. Belarus group when it comes to who will earn promotion to the championship group in 2012 in Calgary and Edmonton. Belarus holds home ice advantage, while Latvia boasts more recent experience at the top level, returning nine players from last year's team that finished ninth. The Belarus-Latvia game is the last of the tournament, and both teams are expected to be perfect, or close to it, by that game. Ukraine and Italy should battle for 3rd, while Great Britain will try and knock off Japan to stay at the Division 1 level next year. Here's my prediction:
- Great Britain
I'll pick Great Britain to stay just as a bit of an upset, and because of Robert Farmer (even though he's been lousy to date this year). Here's the schedule tomorrow:
Division 2, Group A in Estonia
This group isn't really interesting at all: France should take this in a cakewalk. It'll be interesting if anyone keeps within three goals of them. There are a couple of interesting sixteen year old players worth keeping an eye on in this group, just for curiosity: Tony Ras of the Netherlands, who is currently in the junior system of Kolner Haie of Germany's DEL, and Björn Róbert Sigurdarson of Iceland, who is on Mälmo of Sweden's Allsvenskan J18 Elit team. Iceland are probably in over their heads at this tournament, though Belgium could be ripe for the picking. I'll predict good things for the host Estonians, making the third place cutoff point:
- The Netherlands
Division 2, Group B in Romania
There's an off chance for the home side to win here, but it'll likely come down to Poland and Hungary for promotion. The host Romanians are the true wild card, capable of pulling off the upset as well as finishing 4th. Unfortunately for Hungary, their best player, Janos Hari of the Montreal Junior of the QMJHL, is not at this tournament, but it is the national team debut of late 1994 born Balazs Sebok, who plays junior hockey in Oulu Kärpät of Finland's SM-Liiga's U18 team. Sebok turns 16 on Tuesday, so he's quite the baby at this U20 event. Korea, China, and Australia round out the group, with the Koreans being the strongest of the three Asia/Pacific nations.
- South Korea
Division 1, Group B in Slovenia
And back to where we started. I've already mentioned that Denmark is the team to beat here, but the host Slovenians could do quite well. Here's my prediction:
- Kazakhstan vs. Austria
- Croatia vs. Denmark