It's back. The return of the two week event termed "The Tournament of Small Sample Sizes" by Jonathan Willis. No other hockey event, even the Memorial Cup Playoffs, turns hockey scouts into tunnel-vision critics and less-than-balanced pundits into puddles of quivering goo. The entire hockey world needs to take a deep breath and remember that for the next two weeks, a bunch of 18-year-olds playing shinny will dominate national headlines and re-sort the NHL prospects of dozens of 2012 draft eligible players.
But I digress. The tournament is an enjoyable annual tradition because it coincides with Christmas vacations and new year celebrations. Oh, and because it's a bunch of 18-year-olds playing shinny flat out on an enormous stage. Imagine how much fun you'd have if your beer league found a world stage.
As always, there are only four teams that can win the tournament: Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States. As always, I'm rooting for the underdog Finns to shock the world, though this time it's to find out if they country will celebrate by disrobing and leaping into fountains in the dead of winter, as they did this summer for the World Championships.
I'm also rooting for Latvia or Denmark to steal a couple of points from the big boys and win a relegation game, because the bottom four teams in this tournament are nothing but fodder and the bottom two are just one-year guests. If either team could avoid relegation, it would be a small, feel-good story and maybe give junior-level hockey some footing in one of those countries.
*All times Mountain.
Finland shouldn't have a chance in this tournament, but they've got a small army of highly-skilled, NHL-bound forwards on this roster. It's the deepest group of forwards I can recall: Armia, Donskoi, Granlund, Granlund, Pulkkinen, Ruuttu, Salomäki are all capable of carrying this team through a period or even a game. And there's this matter of Mikael Granlund. As Bruce Peter put it:
The show-stopping star of the men's World Championships was in the scoring lead of Finland's SM-Liiga when he left for the WJCs, which quite simply, DOES NOT HAPPEN. Teenagers don't lead top men's leagues in scoring, it's a well known fact.
It's a real shame that Pierre McGuire doesn't get to call the tournament this year, his over-the-top screams about Granlund would be fun to laugh at.
Those forwards should give Canada's defense their stiffest test of the tournament and the Oleksiak-Pysyk pairing should draw the Granlund assignment.
Unfortunately for Finland, the Canadian forward grouping is as strong as the Finnish group, but the Finnish defense isn't nearly as good as the Canadians. This could be a scoring duel, especially with shakiness in the Canadian goal.
Latvia could very well unseat the Swiss or the Czechs with a bit of luck, but they have little chance against a well-stocked Swedish team. The Latvians bring just one NHL-drafted player to the tournament, Edmonton's Kristians Pelss, but they do have one of the best players in the entire tourney, forward Zegmus Girgensons, a top 10 pick in the 2012 NHL draft. But after the two of them, there isn't much scoring depth to rely on and certainly not enough to hang with the Swedes, who boast a wealth of future NHL talent.
The Swedish forwards are certainly impressive, but I'm more intrigued by the Swedish defense, a group including future NHL players Backman, Brodin, Claesson, Granberg, Klefbom, Klingberg, and Nemeth. If there is a group of defensemen who can run with the Canadians, it's the Swedes.
Denmark is supposed to be the next Switzerland, a team in the midst of building a hockey tradition by sending talent to the NHL - six of the seven Danish players to ever make the NHL are in the league right now ((Mikkel Bodker, Lars Eller, Jannik Hansen, Philip Larsen, Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin) - and win a couple of games on the international stage. Unlike the Swiss teams, the Danes don't have much firepower, nor do they have Benjamin Conz in goal, so they're going to try to squeeze the life out of the Americans with a variety of trapping tactics and hopefully win the game with counter-attacks and special teams.
The Americans have one of the best groups of forwards they've ever assembled for this tournament. Bjugstad, Tynan and Zucker are in the midst of tremendous seasons in the NCAA and Etem, Miller and Saad are doing the same in the CHL. This group isn't big, though Bjugstad, Watson, Coye and Saad don't lack for size, but they are extremely fast and possess a ton of talent.
The Americans have collected yet another group of enormous defensemen, led by Forbort, Tinordi and Johns. Like the Swedes, this is a collection of NHL talent and have the capability of shutting down anyone in the tournament.
As long as the Americans don't mind pushing the puck down the sidewalls and battling their way into the offensive zone each possession, they should have no problems with the Danes. If, however, they get frustrated with the constant trap and take a couple of stupid penalties, the Danes could make them pay.
Switzerland (0-0-0) vs. Russia (0-0-0)
8:00 p.m. | Television - TSN2
The defending champions don't have the forward depth they had last year when they won gold, but they have unmatched high end forward talent in Grigorenko, Khokhlachev, Kucherov, Kuznetsov, Telegin, and Yakupov. The Russians should roll through Switzerland without issue.
The Swiss aren't nearly as stout on the back end as they have been in recent years when they've established themselves as the sixth-best U20 team in the world, but they do have some talent up front led by Sven Bartschi, a Flames draft choice who may be the best player in the CHL right now.