The IIHF World Junior Championship starts this morning in Malmö, Sweden. Here's what you need to know. Be sure to follow Yahoo Sports' junior hockey blog Buzzing The Net for all the results, breaking news and oddities.
1) The hosts are a juggernaut
Being on your home turf in just about any competition is going to help guarantee success, but it's difficult to say that Sweden's going to need it.
This is a deep and menacing team, with quality at every position, as has become the wont of the Swedes in the last several years in particular. They're coming off gold and silver in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and will certainly be looking for more with 13 kids on the roster taken in the first three rounds of entry drafts past, and three more who are going to be draft-eligible for the first time this summer.
Washington Capitals 2013 first-rounder Andre Burakovsky recently made headlines (much like Seth Jones did last year in correctly proclaiming the U.S. the best team in the tournament a week before it started) by saying that the Swedes didn't particularly feel as though Canada was any great threat to them.
“I know what Canada brings and if I look at what they have and what we have … I think I can say that we have a better team on paper,” Burakovsky told Swedish newspaper Skanskan. “Then we'll see how they play and how it goes for us.”
This was “used as motivation” by the Canadian players he slighted — including his Erie Otters teammate Adam Pelech — and that motivation led to, you guessed it, a 3-0 ritual sacrifice of the allegedly-vaunted Canadians in a pretournament exhibition. Burakovsky had two points in the contest.
The Swedes also pushed around the U.S., 4-2, in their pretournament game. So no, this is not a Tre Kronor group that is especially interested in joking around out there. They are, by any reasonable estimation, the favorite.
2) Russia's goaltending is going to be very good (again)
A thing you can typically set your watch to in international play is that Russia is going to try to score a million goals because their goaltending is typically hot garbage.
That is not going to be the case again this year. Even as the hopes that Russia's netminders in the NHL will offer reasonable options on home ice for Sochi continue to fade, predictably, there is the matter of Andrei Vasilievsky, a 2012 Tampa Bay Lightning first-round pick who's been outstanding in the KHL this season, under the circumstances.
His .923 save percentage in 19 games for Ufa isn't in the top-20 in the KHL (given that there are too many NHL washouts with .930-somethings in front of him) but for a 19-year-old, he's held in extremely high regard by the Russian Federation. How highly? Bob McKenzie said on the radio earlier this week that he's the clear starter for the junior team, and might end up winning the Sochi job as well.
Now might be a good time to remind everyone that Semyon Varlamov has a .925 save percentage in the NHL this season, and that might speak to both a lack of trust in that number and an overestimation of the quality of the KHL (where Curtis Sanford is second in the league in save percentage).
However, nonetheless indicates that Vasilievsky is looking to improve on his already-strong performance (1.81 GAA, .950 save percentage) in last year's tournament on home ice, though he split time with Andrei Makarov. Now the crease is his and his alone.
One suspects that if Russia is playing for a medal at the end of this tournament, which seems likely, the final result won't be a 6-5 win this time around.
3) A few NHLers will be playing
The above-mentioned teams will have their chances bolstered by the fact that NHL teams have deigned to loan some semi-legitimate NHL players to their junior teams. Others, meanwhile, have left their nations wanting for better players, and this is the kind of thing we hear about every year when Canada inevitably loses: “All our best players are in the NHL!” Sweden and Russia will have no such excuses.
Specifically, Sweden received the decadent holiday gifts of Elias Lindholm from the Carolina Hurricanes and Filip Forsberg from the Nashville Predators, while Russia unwrapped its very own Mikhail Grigorenko, who is 46 years old, from the Buffalo Sabres
Lindholm has 13 points in 27 games between the AHL and NHL this season, and put up nine points in 12 games in all U20 competition for Sweden last season. One assumes he's going to put up a lot more this time around. Forsberg, meanwhile, has 13 points in 18 AHL or NHL games so far this year, including 3-5-8 in six with Milwaukee, and would probably be doing better were he not coming off a concussion.
For the Russians, Grigorenko may have just three points in 18 games, but he's a veteran of 43 NHL games at this point, and that's going to prepare him well for playing against some not-quite-men. Last time he played junior competition was with Quebec of the QMJHL, where he gutted opponents to the tune of 30-24-54 in just 33 games. That's going to help.
And no, Morgan Reilly and Sean Monahan were not loaned to Canada, because their teams are run by incompetents. But what's the excuse for Nashville? C'mon David Poile, you should've loaned out Seth Jones. You're killing me.
4) There are still going to be a whole lot of bad teams
One of the most persistent problems at World Juniors every year is how awful most of the field is. You can count on Sweden, Russia, Canada, the U.S. (obviously), and sometimes one of Finland or Switzerland being pretty good, but the rest of the 10-team field is usually cannon fodder.
Case in point: Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. combined for a goal differential of plus-42 in last year's group stages alone, even though the latter three of those countries all played each other in Group B. The rest of the other two teams (the Czechs and Swiss) that advanced to the medal round because of how soft Group A was had a goal differential of plus-4.
The teams sent to the relegation round were a combined minus-46, and that's with Finland being even.
Norway comes into the big tournament after Latvia was relegated, having not won any of its seven games, and losing by a combined score of 36-12. Most group stage games are bloodbaths, and this year is going to be no different.
It is at this point frankly bizarre that the IIHF even bothers taking more than, say, six teams at this thing. Have the medal round and be done with it. The only thing groups are for at this point is seeing which Canadians can get themselves suspended by clotheslining an underweight Eastern European kid into the local hospital.
5) Canada is still doing things as stupidly as possible
If you're Hockey Canada, the organization responsible for running the national sport in what is objective the most talented hockey nation in the world, how do you approach the building of your junior and senior national hockey teams?
If you're smart, you do it by finding the several best players at their respective positions — 15 forwards, eight defensemen, three goalies; you get the drill — and you put them on a roster together and watch them cream every opponent they came across. This was how things went when the Canadians won five WJC gold medals in a row. This is now how things go now. Hockey Canada has a funny way of running things in choosing its teams, which is to say that they try to pick players that “fit the situation” or “give the team identity” or whatever, and that's how you get Kris Draper on an Olympic team.
This year's World Junior roster is little different. Coach Brent Sutter has the most skilled junior players in the world running endless battle drills because there's a perception that Canada didn't medal in 2013 simply because they're, like, not trying hard enough. As opposed to the real reason: The world is catching up and have better player development systems in place.
So yeah, Canada is going to score a thousand goals against Germany in the group stages, and they're going to struggle against actual good teams like the U.S. Because they're trying to cram round pegs into square holes. You don't ask skill guys to play hard, you ask them to have the puck the entire game and never give it up. I don't know what's so hard about this.
6) America is the best
Go America! Get used to plenty more of this: