There are four different IIHF U20 World Junior tournaments going on this week, determining positions 11-34 in the U20 rankings for 2012. A format change this year from the IIHF sees the teams playing against their most direct competition. Rather than splitting up the Division 1 and 2 tournaments evenly, Division 1A will be between the six best teams outside the championship level, Division 1B will be between the next six teams, and so on down to Division 3. Really, Division 1A could simply be called Division 1, Division 1B is more accurately a new Division 2, and so on with Division 3 being the 5th level below the Championship Division. But for some reason, the IIHF kept the old terms, even though they use the simpler number-only system for the women's championships. More ego when dealing with the men, I suppose.
Another change this year is that instead of the top division relegating two teams to Division 1 and two teams promoted to the top division each year, only a one for one exchange will exist. That same one for one exchange exists all the way through the levels, which will make the rankings a bit more accurate, increase familiarity between similarly talented nations, but expose the teams to less nations in general (and less variety in skill level).
IIHF U20 World Championship Division 1A - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
This is the big show of the lesser levels: familiar hockey nations such as Germany, Austria, Belarus, Slovenia, and Norway are matched up with last year's surprising team Great Britain in a battle to return to the top tournament next year in Russia. With the new format, one shouldn't expect many blowouts at this tournament, and really anything can happen as a result. Heading into the tournament, I liked Germany to win gold with Austria and Norway being the main challengers, but the first day showed the unpredictability of this level. Germany edged Belarus 2-1, in a game in which the hosts outshot the Belarussians 28-19. Bernhard Keil, who plays professionally in Germany's top league for the Strabuing Tigers, scored the opening goal while Nicolas Krämmer of Acadie-Bathurst of the QMJHL scored the winner shorthanded in the second period for Germany. Belarus' team is made primarily of players in the KHL's junior circuit, the MHL, which is quickly establishing itself as a competitor with the major North American junior leagues. It is a setback for Belarus, but one that can be overcome in this tournament where any team can be victorious on any given night.
Norway dominated Great Britain as much as can be expected at this level, recording a 5-2 win in which they outshot the Brits 43-16. Maple Leafs prospect Sondre Olden had a goal and an assist with eight shots on goal, while longshot 2012 draft prospect Magnus Hoff made a nice impression with a two goal performance. Hoff plays for Vålerenga in Norway's top league, and at 5'7", will need a big showing to get onto the radar of NHL scouts. In the final game of the opening day, Slovenia edged Austria 3-2 in a shootout, led by Gasper Kopitar's goal plus shootout winner. Kopitar is the brother of all-world centre Anze Kopitar, and plays for Des Moines in the USHL.
Monday's Games: Slovenia (2 pts) vs. Great Britain (0 pts); Germany (3 pts) vs. Austria (1 pt).
IIHF U20 World Championship Division 2B - Tallinn, Estonia
At the other end of the Division 1/2 spectrum, the Division 2B tournament got underway on Saturday and has two days of action to report. Romania are the stars here, and look well on their way to promotion with two dominant victories over the hosts Estonia and Australia. Australia boasts the single best U20 player of all the countries here in Nathan Walker, who has played in the Czech Extraliga this season, but Walker is not at this tournament. That leaves Robert Rooba of Estonia as the likely top player here, who plays in the Espoo Blues junior system in Finland. Rooba has 4 goals and an assist so far, including a hat trick in a bounceback victory over Belgium. Expect Estonia to compete for the silver, likely to be decided in a key game against Serbia on Friday to close out the tournament.
While Rooba leads Estonia, Romania is led by 18 year old Roberto Gliga, who plays in the top Swedish junior circuit for Tingsryd. Mátyás Bíró is also a player worth watching, as he plays junior hockey in Slovakia and is only 17. Gliga and Bíró lead the tournament in scoring with eight points each through two games. Romania should win this tournament in a walk, and they are icing the youngest team of the group, with only four 19 year olds and 12 players that could play for their U18 team. An enterprising junior hockey scout might want to take a look through Romania's roster to see if there is interest in bringing these players outside of their home country to a tougher junior league, like Gliga and Bíró have done.
The teams take Monday off. Current Standings are: 1. Romania (6 pts, +16 GD), 2. Serbia (6 pts, +5 GD), 3. Estonia (3 pts), 4. Belgium (2 pts), 5. Mexico (1 pt), 6. Australia (0 pts).
IIHF U20 World Championship Division 1B - Tychy, Poland
Probably the most interesting nation at this level is Croatia. I mean, how can a hockey fan not be warmed to see a player named Marko Sakic in a starring role? Croatia is emerging on the international scene and seem to be doing things right by challenging their younger players by putting the best ones on their national men's team... goaltender Mate Tomljenovic was the men's team's top goalie last year and is only 18, plying his trade in Slovakia's junior leagues. But the real star is 19 year old Borna Rendulic, who became the first Croat to play in Finland's SM-Liiga earlier this year playing three games for Ässät Pori. Croatia has a team in the Austrian based EBEL, and most of the players come from the junior programs of that growing minor league. Defenceman Nicola Senzel plays in the system of the EBEL's Zagreb based team, and is the third member of the national men's team on this U20 team.
Kazakhstan, however, remains the deepest nation in this group. With a MHL team, the competition level their juniors face is definitely stronger than the other nations, and they should be in line for a promotion to the Division 1A circuit next year. Croatia might be the team in this group that is growing the most, but the French, Italian, and Polish teams all present their own challenges with well established programs. Japan will send a team of relatively experienced players playing in university leagues back home. This tournament begins on Monday.
Monday's Games: France vs. Italy; Japan vs. Kazakhstan; Croatia vs. Poland.
IIHF U20 World Championship Division 2A - Donetsk, Ukraine
Much like the Division 1B tournament, the nation making the most noise in terms of moving upwards in the world isn't the likely favourite. Hungary is sending players outside their own nation (which has also joined the Austrian based EBEL circuit as well as joining with Division 2B stars in Romania with a lot of inter-league play), and they're doing quite well. In fact, they're doing so well I'm tempted to pick Hungary as the next new nation to produce NHL calibre talent this decade. Janos Hari is doing quite well as a 19 year old in Sweden's Elitserien this year, racking up 7 points for MODO so far. Younger than him, there are three other Hungarians making noise in Sweden's junior leagues right now: Hari's 16 year old brother Norbert, 15 year old Vilmos Gallo (already a point per game player in the top U18 league), and Áron Könczei, a 17 year old who looks to be moving into the U20 circuit in Sweden. Unfortunately, of all these players in Sweden, only Janos Hari seems to be joining the team. IIHF rules stipulate that the Swedish clubs must release these players for international competition, so I'm not sure what the deal is here (it could be the player's choice not to come, as it is with Walker with Australia).
With that knowledge, it must be said that the hosts Ukraine are the favourites here. None of the other countries possess much of a challenge for them to be honest, and while Ukrainian hockey has fallen badly in recent years, this is an unexpected visit to the Division 2 level that will probably be very shortly lived. Spain and South Korea have shown some improvement in recent years, but this is likely the level they're most comfortable at for now. I expect Lithuania to be the team relegated here, but to be honest I don't know. The Netherlands should challenge for bronze.
Monday's Games: Spain vs. The Netherlands; Hungary vs. Lithuania; Ukraine vs. South Korea.