Day one at the World Juniors went pretty much to plan. The powers that be - Canada, United States, Sweden- dominated their openers, combined for 28 goals against Finland, Denmark and Latvia. The enigmatic Russians were badly outplayed by the Swiss and had their defense exposed, but managed a 3-0 shutout anyway.
The significant storyline has become injuries. Canada lost Devante Smith-Pelly for the tournament, though it's not a huge loss, as he was one of the "lunchpail" selections Canada has become famous for in recent years. Finland lost both starting goaltender Sami Aittokallio and likely 2012 first-round selection defenseman Olli Maatta. The United States lost forward Connor Brickley and Sweden lost top centre Johan Larsson. And pundits wonder why NHL and NCAA teams seem reluctant to release players for this tournament.
We learned some interesting tidbits about each team yesterday, top among them:
- Kyle Rau orbits Nick Bjugstad like a moon orbits a planet. Bjugstad is an enormous kid, 6'4", with a ton of skill and playing with small guys like Rau against a small team like Denmark made him look like Zdeno Chara.
Ryan Strome reminds me of Taylor Hall in that he's fast and fearless and tries to do everything at top speed.
- Zegmus Girgensons is very good and the only roster he wouldn't be a part of in this tournament is Canada's. He's going to play for the University of Vermont next year, but given the kid's skill level, I can't see him staying for more than one year. He's an amazing talent.
One other note - I talked about Nathan Walker, an Australian playing in the Czech Extraliga in an attempt to get to the NHL. Walker scored a goal for HC Vitkovice in their game against Team Canada in the Spengler Cup yesterday and added an assist against HC Davos today. Prior to yesterday, I didn't believe the 5'9" 176 lb forward from Sydney would be drafted in June, but Corey Pronman from Hockey Prospectus has him ranked 90th. If Walker's name is called on Day 2 of the draft, it will be the beginning of an amazing story.
The Czechs are light on defense, but strong up front. Even without Martin Frk, the Czechs will be able to score goals on most teams - if the defense can get the puck out of the zone. They'll count on Oilers' prospect David Musil (#31 - 2011) to play enormous minutes on the blueline. He's part of the shutdown pairing, the top power play unit and the top penalty kill unit.
Denmark tried to trap and grind the U.S. for all of three minutes before they gave up and moved into the vaunted "Dear lord please just get the puck out of the zone" system. The Czechs don't have the same enormous talent level that the Americans have, but their forward groupings can still dazzle given some room. They'll put that same amount of pressure on the Danes and without Jacques Lemaire behind the bench, the Danes need some luck just to hang.
These are interesting times for the Slovaks. They are bereft of forward talent, but boast an enormous defensive corps with four NHL-drafted talents. They're anchored by Oilers' prospect Martin Marincin (#46 - 2010) who had an excellent 2011 Championship run until his embarrassing exit from the tournament. But he's not alone as a legitimate talent on the blueline for Slovakia. Adam Janosik, Martin Gernat and Peter Ceresnak (a similar talent to that of Marincin) can all play a high-level game. The group is not a bunch of shutdown guys, either. They're good with the puck and can lead the breakout. Slovakia is going to rely on them to smother Latvia and start the counter-attack.
The bad news for Latvia is that they were terribly out-classed by Sweden. The good news is that they were able to put up four goals in spite of the talent differential. Based on Day 1, Latvia is significantly better than Denmark and should stick around for the 2013 tournament in Ufa.