International Ice Hockey Federation

Formidable foes in Group A

Formidable foes in Group A

USA, Canada, Sweden among favourites

Published 25.12.2015 22:47 GMT+2 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Formidable foes in Group A
Along with Sweden, Canada and the U.S. are legitimate gold medal contenders in Group A. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images
If recent World Junior history is any guide, odds are excellent that the winner of the 2016 tournament will emerge from the preliminary round’s Group A.

Four of the six gold medals won so far in the 2010’s have gone to the United States (2010, 2013), Sweden (2012), and Canada (2015).

The picture is similar with the overall medal count. These three nations have combined for 11 of the 18 medals in this decade. Canada has two silvers (2010, 2011) and a bronze (2012); Sweden has two silvers (2013, 2014) and a bronze (2010); and the U.S. has one bronze (2011).

Their dominance in developing junior talent is also reflected in the annual NHL Draft. In 2015, Canada led the way with 80 picks, while the Americans were second with 50, and Sweden third with 20.

Yet of course, history alone won’t determine how this tournament in Helsinki plays out. Let’s take a quick look at some of the names that could grace the gold medal game on 6 January.

The North American rivalry will be front and centre with an opening-day battle between Canada and the U.S. on 26 December. And the prodigiously talented Auston Matthews, projected as the number one overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, will be under the microscope at the Helsinki Ice Hall. Starring under ex-NHL coach Marc Crawford with the ZSC Lions Zurich, the powerful 18-year-old U.S. forward has amassed 25 points in 22 Swiss National League A games this season.

Some other U.S. attackers to watch include hard-shooting Brock Boeser (University of North Dakota) and stickhandling virtuoso Sonny Milano (Lake Erie Monsters). U.S. coach Ron Wilson, the winningest American bench boss in NHL history, has a sizable, deep blue line with returnees like Zach Werenski (Michigan Wolverines) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City Americans). On paper, the Americans may be the class of these World Juniors. They're eager to improve on last year's disappointing fifth-place finish.

This year’s Canadian team is unlikely to match the firepower of last year’s championship squad, which saw Sam Reinhart, Nicolas Petan, Connor McDavid, and Max Domi finish 1-2-3-4 in tournament scoring. Nonetheless, coach Dave Lowry’s group, heavy on 18-year-olds, shouldn’t be a slouch in the red light department.

The playmaking smarts of Dylan Strome (Erie Otters) and the sniper sense of Mitch Marner (London Knights) on the top line could be a treat to observe. While power forward Jake Virtanen (Vancouver Canucks) will set the tone physically, the Canadians will aim to defend their title primarily with speed and smarts this year.

With one returning defenceman in Joe Hicketts (Victoria Royals), and an ambiguous goaltending situation due to a two-game suspension to Mackenzie Blackwood (Barrie Colts) from OHL play, Canada must show a strong work ethic in its own zone to defend its title.

If Sweden hopes to top the podium for just the third time in history (1981, 2012), it might take an MVP-calibre performance from William Nylander (Toronto Marlies). The creative 19-year-old centre, returning for his second World Juniors, is dominating at the AHL level with a team-high 34 points in 27 games. Fellow 19-year-olds Adrian Kempe (Ontario Reign) and Oskar Lindblom (Brynas) joined Nylander as top-10 scorers at last year’s tournament, and they will be eager to help him avenge Sweden’s stunning 4-2 loss to Slovakia in the 2015 bronze medal game.

Although armed with a solid defence that includes 2014 tournament all-star Gustav Forsling and reliable netminding, coach Rikard Gronborg doesn’t have quite as powerful of a team as the one that took silver in Malmo 2014 (Filip Forsberg, Andre Burakovsky, Elias Lindholm et. al). But still, a medal of some shade should be the minimum goal.

What about the other two Group A participants? Switzerland and Denmark will count themselves fortunate if either is able to secure a point against the three elite Group A teams. The battle to avoid the relegation round may well come down to their head-to-head clash on 27 December.

Since scoring ace Kevin Fiala (Milwaukee Admirals) will not be joining the Swiss squad, goals will be even harder to come by. It places extra pressure on Timo Meier (Halifax Mooseheads), who is among the QMJHL’s most dangerous forwards. The Swiss can usually rely on well-coordinated team defence, but they’re unlikely to come anywhere near their second medal of all time after 1998’s bronze.

Depth will be an even bigger problem for the Danes. Oliver Bjorkstrand (Lake Erie Monsters) scored four of the team’s 10 goals last year, but is too old to return at 20. Ultra-flashy winger Nikolaj Ehlers (Winnipeg Jets) is firmly ensconced in the NHL. Ehlers’ strapping cousin, Alexander True (Seattle Thunderbirds) is making some headway as a WHL sophomore centre, and could make a difference if he steps up offensively. But realistically, it will be a tough road. Despite approaching this tournament with heart and soul and coming off an eighth-place finish last year, Denmark is the most likely candidate for relegation play in Group A.

The Helsinki Ice Hall hasn’t witnessed a championship team since HIFK Helsinki went all the way in 2011. But the groundwork for World Junior gold could well be laid here between now and New Year’s Eve.


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