Tuesday, December 21, 2004


You are Finnished, Junior! - WJC Predictions and Musings.

Only in Canada would you find 15,000+ spectators showing up (good show, Winnipeg) to a Finland/Canada exhibition game for the World Junior Championships. Only in Canada would the biggest sports channel broadcast such an exhibition game. Not that I’m complaining, but it goes to show you how big hockey in Canada really is.

Last night, the home town crowd was treated to a 6-0 Canadian victory over the boring Finns. Team Canada took this opportunity to wear those god-awful mustard coloured tributes to the Nashville Predators 1920 Winnipeg Falcons. I hope this is the last time this particular squad has to offend my eyeballs with those damn things.

Other thoughts from last night’s broadcast:

1. Team Canada looks like it has been playing together for months! The Canadians were playing systematic hockey that only a Sutter or a Lemaire could love. It wasn’t pretty to watch, except when the Canadians scored a few nice goals. Given that over half the players are from the WHL (14 of ‘em!), and that WHL teams play pretty tight hockey, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked at the level of cohesion.

2. Canada’s #1 goalie, David Glass, looks like a ton of bricks with pads on....reminded me of Roman Turek or Steve Shields.

3. Bob McKenzie made a good point about the divide that has cropped over the past few years within the Czech team. The CHL players and European-based players have clashed with different styles and personalities. The Europeans play a finesse-based game and the CHL players are now used to a straight-forward type of game. This type of hockey was also reflected in their attitudes off the ice. To help remedy this problem, the Czechs took their training camp to Grand Forks, rather than train half the squad back in Europe and have a fractured team meet up somewhere later in North America. The Slovaks, who get no respect, also did the same thing with their training camp.

4. Enough with the damn Crosby hype! Pierre McGuire felt compelled to compare young Sidney Crosby to Peter Forsberg. That’s all fine and dandy, but the level of scout’s drool and TV hype surrounding Crosby these days has me rather sick of the kid already. I have nothing against Crosby, who has been rather modest to a fault, but do we really need 30-minute TV specials about a kid not yet drafted?

Predictions are for fools, gamblers or bored bloggers. Thus, here are my wise predictions for the 2004-05 WJC. If you decide to bet any money based on this information, then I feel sorry for you.

1. Canada – Gee, what a shocker! With a deep defence, talents such as Patrice Bergeron (already an NHL regular) and Sidney Crosby (hype alert!), and more depth than a Steven King novel, Canada is an obvious favourite to win it all. There is concern that the goaltending lacks a #1 star power like a Marc-Andre Fleury...but as any Canadian fan can tell you, a star goaltender doesn’t always equal a Gold medal. As long as Glass doesn’t break under the pressure, Canada should win it all.
2. Russia – The Russians have the two most talented non-Crosby prospects in Ovechkin and Malkin, and the usual assortment of tall players who skate well. The Russians are always a complete mystery to me and most people, so I don’t know much about half of this team. From what I do know about the team, I’d consider them to be a contender for a medal.
3. USA – Last year, the US beat the Canadians with their most talented and experienced lineup ever. There is a drop-off this year, but the hometown crowd still has the potential to pull off big things. I’m glad to see Robbie Schremp was added to the team despite his ‘problems’ with the Team USA brass (They just didn’t like him). I wonder if Chris Bourque is really worth his draft position. We’ll see if he’s more than just his father’s surname.
4. Czechia – The Czechs have one ELITE player in goal (Schwarz), on defense (Smid), and up front (Olesz). The problem for the Czechs is that the rest of the roster doesn’t look too appetizing. I’m picking them 4th mainly on the fact that Schwarz can steal games for the Czechs, and Olesz could end up leading the tournament in points and/or assists.
5. Finland – If last night’s game was any judge of a team (and exhibition games aren’t the best for that), then Finland is about as potent as distilled water. I hear a lot of hype about Lauri Tukonen, so he is the young speedster to watch. Petteri Nokelainen is also one you should keep an eye out on.
6. Sweden – Sweden has been a country in deep stagnation for many years. Their economy isn’t growing, and they can’t produce many skilled hockey players. Teaching young kids to play the trap is not a great way to produce skilled hockey players, and it shows. Luckily for Sweden, this appears to be their strongest lineup in a few years. Keep an eye out for Nicklas Bergfors, a 2005-eligible player and could go in the first round.
7. Slovakia – I know, I know...what the hell do I have them doing all the way down in 7th? Well...given past results, I just want to temper my expectations.
I’ve already talked at length about my thoughts on the team, and I’ll have more to say later. Suffice it to say, the Slovak have one of their strongest teams in years, especially on defence. Why, then, do I pick them 7th?
a. Everyone is stronger! Well, not everyone...but Sweden, Canada, Russia, USA all have strong teams this year.
b. As my friend Daniel pointed out to me the other day...” don’t forget that
Slovakia plays in very strong group. I remember when Slovakia
sent one of their strongest teams to the Championships in 2000 (Radivojevic, Cibak, Kolnik, Zalesak, Surovy, Gaborik, Marc.Hossa, Kukumberg, Mezei, Stana, etc.) and they had big problems to save their position in Pool A.”
Slovakia’s first game is against Canada...no better way to jump right into the deep end of the Shark tank.
8. Germany – Umm...
9. Switzerland – Err...
10. Belarus - ...Thanks for coming...

Canada does not have a goaltender named David Glass. And Jeff faced only six shots which isn't really much to assess his abilities on (I agree, however, that he is one of Canada's weakest starting netminders ever).

And Switzerland's junior squad is more talented than their contribution to pro hockey would indicate. Expect good things from the country in the future.

As for Switzerland...they can play a tough game or two at any International tournament, but I would not expect big things from them...not for many years.

The Swiss suffer from a 'disease' that affects many of their prospects and really shows why Swiss players do not appear in the NHL often.

1. Too Comfortable at home - Life in Switzerland is great! The players get good salaries...they get to be hometown heroes...and the schedule is much lighter than the 80-game marathons we have over here. There isn't a lot of incentive for Swiss players to come to North America. Playing in the AHL is incredible undesirable compared to the Swiss Elite League.

2. Lack of confidence - Severin Blindenbacher, a talented defenseman, is the epitome is a Swiss player who will never make the NHL. Blinenbacher has the talent to succeed, but has stated publicly that he thinks he is too short to make it in the NHL. Swiss players generally believe they don't have the size that the NHL teams want (The Swiss are short, but many 'short' players do just fine) and don't believe that they will make the NHL. This lack of confidence is a real problem with the Swiss players overall. It will take one high profile prospect/player to succeed in the NHL before others will say 'Hey, I can do it'. Reto Von Arx is not gonna do it.

Switzerland has the resources to produce some talented hockey players, but this country needs an attitude adjustment before they can make the leap. It would also help if they stopped importing so much foreigners into their elite league.
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