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WJC: Group B preview

December 25, 2017
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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship is about to get underway in Buffalo on Tuesday December 26th.

A total of 10 countries will square off against one another for the right to call themselves the best hockey nation at the under-20 level. The 10 teams will be split into two groups of five, and will play four preliminary games to determine their spot for the playoff rounds. Only the top-eight teams will make it to the playoff rounds, with the two teams with the worst preliminary record having to play in the relegation round to avoid being demoted back to Division I of the tournament.

Group B of this year's tournament features two teams who are looking to find their way back to the gold medal game after falling short just last year in Montreal. Russia fell short to the Americans last year in the semifinal round, but managed to capture the bronze medal over Sweden, who has come short of finishing with a medal in the past three tournaments. Sweden will look to get back on the medal podium for the first time since 2014, and will hope to capture gold for the first time since 2012.

Also featured in Group B includes the Czech Republic, who has failed to medal in any World Junior Championship since 2005 when they won the bronze medal in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The Czechs finished in the middle of the pack in last year's tournament, and will look to have a better turnout this year in Buffalo.

After nearly being relegated in 2015 and 2016, Switzerland bounced back in 2017 with a berth in the quarterfinal round after a big overtime win over the Czech Republic and a shootout win over Denmark in the preliminary round. The Swiss team will look to continue their upward trend with the hopes of surprising many in the tournament.

And last but not least, Belarus returns to the top division of the Under-20 World Junior Championship after winning the Division I title last year in Germany. The last time the Belarusians were in the top division of the tournament was in 2016 when they were relegated by the Swiss national team. Their odds are arguably the lowest of any nation in this tournament, but Belarus is looking to surprise the hockey world and stick with the top division for another season.

The Buffalo Sabres will have three prospects to watch from this group, two of which are playing with Team Sweden. 2017 second round pick (37th overall) Marcus Davidsson was named to the preliminary roster earlier in December, while 2016 first round pick (8th overall) Alexander Nylander was a late addition, but returns to the Swedish national team for his third consecutive tournament. The last Sabres prospect to take part in this tournament is 2016 fifth round pick (130th overall) Vojtech Budik, who will make his second World Junior appearance with the Czech Republic.

Here's how Group B plays out in this tournament:

 

  • Russia

The Russians are poised to continue their reign as one of the best hockey nations in the world, but are looking to get back on top for the first time since 2011. Since striking gold in 2011, the Russians have been on the medal stand to capture the silver or bronze medal, falling short of the gold in three of the last six tournaments. Russia is certainly hoping that Buffalo will be good to them again, as the Queen City is the last place the Russians have won it all.

As usual with any Russian team in the World Junior tournament, their game is predicated on speed and skill. This year, the Russians also have a few big bodies to throw into the mix with Klim Kostin (St. Louis Blues), Mikhail Maltsev (New Jersey Devils), and Dmitri Sokolov (Minnesota Wild). While those can can be physical nightmares for the opposition, they can also make some plays and provide some good offense.

On the blue line, Russia is quite big. The defense averages a size of 6' 1", and averages 187-pounds. For a team composed of 18 and 19-year olds, that is big. However, this defensive group can play solid in their own zone, while being able to chip in on offense and be aggressive on the attack.

Perhaps the biggest question for this team will be goaltending. Vladislav Sukhachyov is the only goaltender returning to the Russians this year, but managed to grab a win in his only game over the relegated Latvians while giving up one goal. Aside from Sukhachyov, Mikhail Berdin (Winnipeg Jets) and Alexei Melnichuk will also look to get some ice-time in net for the Russians.

Aside from Sukhachyov, only forward German Rubstov (Philadelphia Flyers) is returning to this roster from last year's team.

Here's a look at the complete Russian roster:
 

Goalies:

Mikhail Berdin, Alexei Melnichuk, Vladislav Sukhachyov


Defense:

Nikolai Knyzhov, Nikita Makeyev (A), Alexander Shepelev, Artyom Minulin, Dmitri Samorukov, Vladislav Syomin, Anatoli Yelizarov, Yegor Zaitsev (C)


Forwards:

Vitali Abramov, Andrei Altybarmakyan, Georgi Ivanov, Artur Kayumov, Klim Kostin, Mikhail Maltsev (A), Artyom Manukyan, Alexei Polodyan, German Rubtsov, Marsel Sholokhov, Dmitri Sokolov, Andrei Svechnikov
 

Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: Andrei Svechnikov

Arguably the best forward available in the 2018 draft class, Andrei Svechnikov is coming off of a broken wrist suffered while playing with the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts.

At the time of his injury though, Svechnikov was running away with the rookie scoring race in the OHL. Heading into the World Junior Championship, Svechnikov has 14 goals and 21 points in 16 games played in Barrie.

The 17-year old put up some impressive numbers playing in the United States Hockey League as a 16-year old last season, scoring 29 goals and registering 58 points in 48 games played, and was named as the USHL's rookie of the year. At the Under-18 World Championship in Slovakia last season, Svechnikov went on a tear with four goals and nine points in seven games as the Russians went on to win the bronze medal.

While Svechnikov can build up some more weight heading into the NHL Draft in June, he has the size, speed and playmaking skills to be a potential NHL forward come the start of the 2018-19 season. Look for Svechnikov to be an offensive juggernaut for the Russians in Buffalo.

 

  • Sweden

What an incredible run the Swedes have been on throughout the recent years in preliminary play of the World Juniors. Sweden has not lost a game in the preliminary round since 2007, and have won a remarkable 18 straight games in regulation during group play.

However, Sweden's success in the playoff rounds has not been so pleasant with three straight losses in the bronze medal game. Their last medal came in 2014 when they lost to Finland in the gold medal game on home ice. Overall, Sweden has only claimed the gold medal twice since the tournament became official in 1977.

This year's Swedish team is locked and loaded, poised to finally get over the hump and try to claim the gold once again.

The offense is loaded with five players returning from last year's team, three of which are first round NHL picks. Alex Nylander (Buffalo Sabres) returns to the team for a third consecutive year, while Lias Andersson (New York Rangers) and Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks) will look to provide some top-six scoring for the Swedes this time around. The other returning players on offense is Tim Soderlund (Chicago Blackhawks) and Fredrik Karlstrom (Dallas Stars), who will also be relied on to provide some offense for the Swedes.

Along with Finland, Sweden may have one of the strongest defensive groups in the entire tournament. All eyes will be glued on 17-year old Rasmus Dahlin, who came into the spotlight last year as a 16-year old with the Swedish national team. He will likely be Sweden's top defenseman, and will eat up a ton of minutes playing in just about every situation imaginable. The blue line will also be very well kept with some notable names like Erik Brannstrom (Vegas Golden Knights), Jacob Moverare (Los Angeles Kings), and Timothy Liljegren (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Goaltending should not be an issue for the Swedes once again as they have Filip Gustavsson (Pittsburgh Penguins) returning to the net for a second year. Gustavsson appeared in one game last year, giving up just two goals on 36 shots faced in a 5-2 win over the Czech Republic. However, if Gustavsson should struggle in net, Sweden has a couple of young and talented goalies behind him in Filip Larsson (Detroit Red Wings) and Olle Eriksson Ek (Anaheim Ducks).

Can the Swedes break their slump and get back to the medal stand this year? They will certainly be one of the favorites to do so as one of the best put together teams in the tournament.

Here's a look at the entire Swedish roster:
 

Goalies:

Olle Eriksson Ek, Filip Gustavsson, Filip Larsson


Defense:

Erik Brannstrom (A), Rasmus Dahlin, Linus Hogberg, Timothy Liljegren, Gustav Lindstrom, Jacob Moverare (A), Jesper Sellgren


Forwards:

Lias Andersson (C), Jesper Boqvist, Marcus Davidsson, Axel Jonsson Fjallby, Glenn Gustafsson, Fredrik Karlstrom, Linus Lindstrom, Isac Lundestrom, Alexander Nylander (A), Elias Pettersson, Tim Soderlund, Oskar Steen, Fabian Zetterlund


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson

Nylander returns to the Swedish national team for a third consecutive season, looking to finally come away with some hardware.

The 19-year old has had some considerable success in this tournament in the past, with a combined nine goals and 21 points in 14 games played. Last year in Canada, Nylander finished tied for the tournament lead in points with five goals and 12 points in seven games. However, Nylander went cold in the last two games of the tournament, only registering an assist in Sweden's semifinal game against Canada and going pointless in the bronze medal game against Russia.

Nylander has not played all that much this season after suffering a lower-body injury in September that put him out of action for over two months. Since returning in November, Nylander has only produced two goals and six points in 15 games played with the Rochester Americans. Nylander playing in this tournament should not be seen as a knock on his development, but more of a chance to re-gain some confidence in his game and excel against some of the best young players from around the world.

Expect Nylander to put up some similar results in this tournament, if not eclipse what he did last year with the hopes of him coming away with a medal by the end of the tournament.

As for Davidsson, expect him to play a much more limited role on this Swedish team. But just because he will be playing as the third or fourth line center doesn't mean that he won't be relied upon to be an impactful player.

Davidsson has been playing well as of late in the Swedish Hockey League with Djurgårdens IF. In 23 games this season, Davidsson has two goals and seven assists, while adding three goals and an assist playing with Djurgårdens' junior team.

Davidsson will be able to add some offense during this tournament, but look for him to play in more of a shut down role for the Swedes as a bottom-six forward.
 

Draft Eligible prospects: Rasmus Dahlin and Isac Lundestrom

When a young draft eligible prospect starts to draw comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Leetch and Erik Karlsson, that should really start opening some eyes.

Dahlin, 17, is arguably the most highly sought after defensive prospect in quite some time, and is likely to be the first defenseman drafted first overall since 2014 when the Florida Panthers drafted Aaron Ekblad.

There is no doubt that Dahlin has all the tools to be a top defenseman in the NHL with his skating, his puck movement, the way he handles the puck, his shot, his playmaking abilities, and the list goes on and on. Dahlin has five goals and eleven points this season in 26 games as a 17-year old while playing in just about every situation for Frolunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League.

What's so unique about Dahlin is his offensive capabilities and what he can do when the puck is on his stick. Watching him make grown men look absolutely silly with his skill set makes teams in the NHL out of the playoff mix drool over the possibility of landing a top defenseman like him.

At last year's World Juniors in Canada, Dahlin came into the spotlight with a goal and an assist in seven games as a 16-year old. Dahlin was a force for last year's Swedish team, and we should expect plenty more where that came from this year. Dahlin may very well dominate the field at this year's tournament, and if he does, what a treat we are all in for.

As for Lundestrom, the 18-year old is a high-tempo, crafty puck handler who is getting some mention as a good mid-to-late first round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. In 24 games played this season with Lulea HF in the SHL, Lundestrom has three goals and 10 points. Last year at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Slovakia, Lundestrom stood out in the tournament with a goal and four assists in seven games, and was all over the ice with his speed and making plays.

While Lundestrom can make some creative plays with the puck on his stick, he sees the ice very well and has good anticipation to make plays at the best time. Lundestrom also has decent size to protect puck, giving him more time and space to really make a nice play.

With a good output in the 2018 World Juniors, Lundestrom can establish himself as a wanted commodity when it comes time for the NHL Draft in June.

 

  • Czech Republic

This Czech squad is a younger group with just seven players returning from the 2017 team in Canada. If they want to find a way to make a run at this year's tournament, they will have to find ways to score against teams like Sweden and Russia.

The forward group has three returnees, including Carolina Hurricanes 2017 first round pick (12th overall) Martin Necas. Necas scored a goal and added two assists in five games last year, and will be looked upon to be a top scorer for the Czechs this year.

Another top draft pick in the NHL Draft who will be relied upon by the Czechs is Filip Chytil, who was loaned to the team from the New York Rangers. In 15 games with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford, Chytil has five goals and 12 points total in his rookie season in North America.

The Czech Republic blue line is going to play a tough and physical style of play that is typical of this team, but that doesn't mean that they won't be able to chip in offensively. Players like Libor Hajek (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Ondrej Vala (Dallas Stars) will lead the charge for the Czechs on the blue line, with the rest of the group chipping in as well.

In goal, the Czechs will most likely look to Jakub Skarek, who played in three games last year as a 17-year old while posting a 3.34 goals-against average and an .884 save-percentage.

Here is the entire Czech roster:
 

Goalies:

Josef Korenar, Jakub Skarek


Defense:

Lukas Doudera, Filip Haman, Frantisek Hrdinka, Jakub Galvas, Vojtech Budik, Ondrej Vala, Libor Hajek, Filip Kral


Forwards:

Filip Helt, Petr Kodytek, Daniel Kurovsky, Martin Kaut, Martin Necas, Radovan Pavlik, Marek Zachar, Albert Michnac, Ostap Safin, Filip Chytil, Kristian Reichel, Filip Zadina, Krystof Hrabik, Jakub Lauko


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: Vojtech Budik

Budik was a late addition to the World Junior team last year in Canada, but managed to get into two games with no points registered.

This year, Budik returns to the Czech roster to provide some two-way depth on the blue line.

So far this season with the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League, Budik has scored two goals and registered eleven points in 32 games. Budik was Buffalo's fifth round pick (130th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Budik may not be a high impact player for the Czechs this year, but he will play a significant role on this year's Czech roster.
 

Draft Eligible prospects: Filip Zadina and Jakub Lauko

Filip Zadina is already being pegged as one of the top offensive prospects in the 2018 NHL Draft.

The 6' 1" and 192-pound winger is blowing people away in his first season with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 24 goals and 46 points in 32 games. Zadina is tops in rookie scoring in the QMJHL, and is second overall in scoring and goals.

Zadina plays a similar style to how fellow Czech forward Pavel Zacha did when he was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the 2015 NHL Draft, but he enters the draft as more of a goal scorer than an overall playmaker.  Zadina may be a bit smaller than Zacha was coming into the draft, but he has a knack for taking the puck to the net and is not shy about shooting the puck and shooting often. Zadina is fourth in the QMJHL in shots on goal, scoring on 17-percent of his chances.

Zadina is very strong on his feet, and uses his size to take advantage of the opposition while handling the puck. He also uses his strong feet to generate speed to create more scoring chances for himself and his teammates.

In a tournament in which the Czechs need to score some goals to compete, look for Zadina to be shooting the puck a lot and generating a ton of chances.

As for Jakub Lauko, the 17-year old brings a lot of energy to his game and it shows on the ice. While Lauko may still need to build some muscle to his 6' 1" frame, he plays a strong wall game while using his blazing speed to generate some scoring chances.

Playing in the Czech Republic's top professional league at his age, Lauko has two goals and five points in 28 games. The youngster has the chance to make a name for himself in this tournament with his draft stock sitting low at this point. However, if he stands out like he can with his on-ice flair, expect many to take note.

 

  • Switzerland

Switzerland brings a very young roster to the 2018 World Juniors with five players under the age of 18 taking part in this tournament. One of which, Valentin Nussbaumer, not even eligible to enter the NHL Draft until 2019.

The Swiss have seven players returning this tournament, including two of their top goaltenders with Matteo Ritz and Philip Wuthrich. However, neither goalie saw action during last year's tournament, so it will be an open competition for the vacant crease, along with 17-year old Akira Schmid.

Of the five 17-year olds on the roster, three of them reside on the blue line, including Nico Gross who played on the 2017 roster as a 16-year old. Gross has made the jump to North America this season, playing in the Ontario Hockey League with the Oshawa Generals. In 29 games in his rookie season, Gross has three goals and eight points.

Up front, Switzerland will need to find ways to score if they want to advance past the preliminary round for a second straight season. It may be tough without Nico Hischier, who is currently playing with the New Jersey Devils after going first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. Switzerland's leading offensive producer last year who returns to the national team is Marco Miranda, who had a goal and an assist in five games.

Here's a look at the entire Swiss roster:
 

Goalies:

Matteo Ritz, Akira Schmid, Philip Wuthrich


Defense:

Davyd Barandun, Tim Berni, Dominik Egli, Tobias Geisser, Nico Gross, Simon Le Coultre, Elia Riva, 


Forwards:

Marco Cavalleri, Nando Eggenberger, Andre Heim, Ken Jager, Philipp Kurashev, Sven Leuenberger, Guillaume Maillard, Marco Miranda, Nicolas Muller, Valentin Nussbaumer, Dario Rohrbach, Justin Sigrist, Axel Simic


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

  • Belarus

After winning the Division I title of the Under-20 tournament last year, Belarus returns to the top division after being relegated in 2016.

Belarus has always brought a big lumbering team to the tournament at the top division, but the hill they have to climb every tournament has been a tough one.

The key for Belarus is to play everybody tough, play some solid defense, and try to find ways to score and keep in games. If they are able to get some offense from some of their top performers while staying strong in net and on defense, they may have a chance to stay in the top division for another year.

Here's a look at the entire Belarus roster:
 

Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

Goalies:

Andrei Grishenko, Dmitri Rodik, Nikita Tolopilo

Defense:

Dmitri Burovtsev, Dmitri Deryabin, Vladislav Gabrus, Andrei Gostev, Vladislav Martynyuk, Dmitri Savritski, Vladislav Sokolovski

Forwards:

Nazar Anisimov, Arseni Astashevich, Viktor Bovbel, Ivan Drozdov, Dmitri Grinkevich, Igor Martynov, Ilya Litvinov, Alexander Lukashevich, Vladislav Mikhalchuk, Maxim Shusko, Sergei Pishuk, Vladislav Ryadchenko, Yegor Sharangovich


Players to Watch:

Sabres prospects: NONE

Draft Eligible prospects: NONE

 

Projections:

  1. Sweden - 4-0-0-0 (12 points)
  2. Russia - 3-0-0-1 (9 points)
  3. Czech Republic - 1-1-0-2 (5 points)
  4. Switzerland - 1-0-1-2 (4 points)
  5. Belarus - 0-0-0-4 (0 points)*

* - To play in relegation round

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