The IIHF U18s don't get a lot of attention, and I apologize for contributing to that to date so far. A recent illness didn't help matters, but still...
The final day of the round robin goes today as the ten teams will officially be divided between the six playoff teams and four relegation round teams. We already know where a couple of teams are headed, but it is still up in the air for most. Here's a brief summary of the action so far:
Canada (3-0-0-0): It's been a nice bounceback year for Canada, who last year opened with a 3-1 loss to Switzerland and later lost to Sweden and the USA to go into the relegation round, where they obviously didn't belong en route to a 7th place finish. The Canadians opened the tournament with a 5-0 win over the Czechs, edged Finland 5-4 and then beat Norway 5-0, which will put them in the playoffs. Now its a matter of clinching first place, which they'll do if they at least push Sweden to overtime today. It's been a lot of the same players leading the way for Canada, as likely 2011 NHL first round draft picks like Mark Schiefele (Barrie Colts, OHL), Ryan Murphy (Kitchener Rangers, OHL), and Mark McNeill (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL) are leading the team offensively. Top 2012 prospect Ryan Murray (Everett Silvertips, WHL) has also been a leader for the team, and Malcolm Subban (Belleville Bulls, OHL) has also made an impact as the team's starting goalie for two of the games. The comparatively unheralded Brett Ritchie (Sarnia Sting, OHL), ranked 36th amongst North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, leads the team in shots with twelve, but has been snakebit.
Sweden (2-0-0-1): Sweden decided to dress a lineup of all 1993 born players, so only two players at this tournament are not draft eligible. It is also an entirely Swedish trained lineup: every player is contracted to a Swedish professional club. Jonas Brodin (#3 European draft eligible according to Central Scouting), fresh off an Elitserien championship with Färjestad, just joined the team for their most recent 5-2 win over Finland, and will be a key player for the playoffs and the first place showdown with Canada today. In his absence, the #2 ranked European Mika Zibanejad led the team with seven points in three games. Sweden opened the tournament with a 2-1 loss to the Czechs, but bounced back by running up the score on Norway (winning 10-2) before their solid win over Finland. Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall and Viktor Rask are both helping their draft stock with five points a piece. Sweden could finish in a three way tie for second in the group, but they have clinched a playoff spot due to the tiebreaking formula already.
Czech Republic (2-0-0-1): Technically, they're in second place heading into the final day, but since Sweden could technically finish first, and the Czechs could still miss the playoffs, I placed them in this third position. The Czechs are led by likely 2011 first round draft picks Dmitrij Jaskin (Slavia Praha, CEL) and David Musil (Vancouver Giants, WHL), plus top 2012 prospect Martin Frk (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL). Musil actually leads the team with 14 shots, but is also last on the team with a -4 rating so far, which likely just means he played a lot vs. Canada, when the team lost 5-0. The Czechs have had strong goaltending from Brampton Battalion goaltender Matej Machovsky as well, including 44 saves in the opening 2-1 win over Sweden. The Czechs edged Norway 3-2 in their last game, and will reach the playoffs if they reach overtime against Finland.
Finland (1-0-0-2): Finland is in a must win situation vs. the Czechs, and even if they win the game they may not make it to the playoffs: they have to win by at least two goals to guarantee the spot. Likely 2011 first round draft pick Joel Armia leads the team with six assists and seven points to date, while they've also got good performances from Mikka Salomaki, Markus Granlund, and top 2012 draft prospect Olli Määtta. Their goaltending, usually a strength, has struggled to date, which isn't good news for Samu Perhonen (last name appropriately translates to butterfly), who looks to be the top goalie taken in this year's entry draft. They opened the tournament with a 5-2 win over Norway, followed by a narrow loss to Canada (5-4) and a 5-2 loss to Sweden on Sunday.
Norway (0-0-0-4): Not surprisingly, Norway is headed to the relegation round, although they were fairly competitive, with decent results against Canada (lost 5-0) and Finland (lost 5-2), while scaring the Czechs pretty good in a 3-2 loss. Steffen Søberg, their goaltender, has had a good tournament after being pretty good given the circumstances at the U20s in Buffalo earlier this year. He's unranked in the draft and plays in Norway where he likely isn't seen by NHL scouts, but his exposure at these tournaments could see him at least drafted by a CHL team, if not a NHL one. That's about it for potential NHL draft picks, at least in 2011. Norway will be in tough in the relegation round to avoid dropping to Division 1 again.
United States of America (3-0-0-0): This tournament is the one men's IIHF tournament where the Americans dominate, and this year looks no different. A tough first game against Swtizerland (a 2-1 win) was followed by a blowout of Slovakia (8-1) and a tense win against the Russians (4-3). This quick start has actually secured the Americans first place in the group, and they'll play for a medal by advancing straight to the semifinal. NHL Central Scouting isn't as big on the Americans this time around for the draft, but there is still a lot of talent here. USNTDP members J.T. Miller, Rocco Gimraldi, Reid Boucher, Robbie Russo and Travis Boyd form the core of the team, and have the advantage of having all played together during the season. John Gibson also provides familiarity in goal, and could be the top goalie taken in this year's draft as well. USA plays Germany today, and with the game being meaningless to them, maybe they can do their gracious hosts a favour?
Russia (1-1-0-1): The Russians are always a favourite at any international tournament, although they didn't medal last year in Minsk. Russia blitzed Slovakia 8-2 to open the tournament, but needed a shootout to knock off an inspired German team 5-4 before nearly coming back against the Americans (4-3 loss). They've had some goaltending issues to date, much like the U20 team, splitting time with Pavel Shegalo and Andrei Vasilievski. Nikita Kucherev is the leading scorer, and also the top ranked Russian for the Entry Draft, although he isn't projected to go early. Perhaps he should be up a lot higher: his ten points leads the tournament, and he was a top player in the MHL this year as a 17 year old (he has a July '93 birthdate), captaining his team and playing in eight games in the KHL for CSKA Moscow. For the most part, Russia's top players are younger: along with Vasilievski, who projects as one of Russia's better goalies in the future (he's a July '94), there is OHL rookie sensation Nail Yakupov (Oct '93) and Mikhail Grigorenko (May '94), a duo that seems destined to be battling it out for #1 overall in 2012 with Ryan Murray and Martin Frk. Grigorenko (a centre) has seven points and is already listed at 6'3", 194, while Yakupov has four points after beating Steven Stamkos' rookie records with the Sarnia Sting this past year (49 goals, 101 points at 17 years old). Russia still needs to beat Switzerland to ensure a spot, likely as the second place team, in the quarterfinals.
Germany (1-0-1-1): The Germans have been given great fan support so far, which has helped them open the tournament with a 4-1 win over the Swiss, the exciting shootout loss to the Russians, but faced with the chance to clinch a playoff berth against Slovakia, the Germans stumbled to a 4-0 loss. The team is young, and features only one likely NHL draft pick in Tobias Reider (Kitchener Rangers, OHL), but the chance to impress both professional and CHL scouts has seen some strong performances so far. Daniel Fishbuch, Lars Grozinger, and Huba Sekesi have done well, but its been 2012 draft eligible goaltender Marvin Cupper who has shone the brightest, posting a .923 SV% to date. The Germans are in tough against the Americans on the final day, but with the Americans playing for practice, the rare upset has a bit more of a chance of happening. They'll advance to the quarters as long as Russia beats Switzerland as expected.
Switzerland (1-0-0-2): The Swiss played the Americans tough, but have only managed to beat Slovakia to date, and their 4-1 loss to Germany could be the difference that puts them into the relegation round. As for top players, no one has emerged statistically from the pack, although goaltender Luca Boltshauser has a .942 SV%, giving hope for the U20 team next year in their first post-Benjamin Conz year. Sixteen year old winger Dario Simion (Lugano, NLA) leads the team with two goals, and the country's top 2011 draft eligibles were both late 1992 birthdates (Sven Bartschi, Gregory Hoffman). Defensemen Samuel Guerra is apparently a longshot to be drafted, but I think he's worth a look, having already played 51 games for the best NLA team in HC Davos. Switzerland plays Russia today, and need to pull off the upset to advance to the quarterfinal.
Slovakia (1-0-0-3): A shutout win against Germany when the Slovaks were already eliminated from the quarterfinals was all that the team could do in the opening round, getting blown out by the Americans and Russians while losing to the Swiss 3-2 when facing elimination. Slovakia's top homegrown draft prospect this year is their captain, defensemen Peter Ceresnek, who is the 35th ranked European skater by Central Scouting. The Slovaks don't have any CHL players on their roster, so Ceresnek is as good as it gets for the team. Hopefully, with the arrival of the KHL (and subsequently the MHL), the Slovaks can improve their junior programs, but they face the strong prospect of relegation this year at the U18 level, which would be a massive embarassment to this proud hockey nation.
The playoffs start Thursday. Today's games are as follows:
- Russia vs. Switzerland - 3:30 PM local, 9:30 AM EST - broadcast on RTR (Russia)
- Finland vs. Czech Republic - 3:30 PM local, 9:30 AM EST
- USA vs. Germany - 7:30 PM local, 1:30 PM EST
- Sweden vs. Canada - 7:30 PM local, 1:30 PM EST - broadcast on TSN/RDS (Canada)