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Canada still the team to beat

The Canadian Press

12/22/2008 1:30:02 PM

A capsule look at the 10 countries at the 2009 world junior hockey championship in Ottawa starting Friday:

Canada

It's an uphill climb to gold for Canada with eight of the country's best young players in the NHL. Coaching has been the difference in four consecutive gold medals for Canada, so much rides on Pat Quinn's shoulders to get this young squad playing a confident and cohesive team game.

Player to watch: John Tavares is ready to show the world he's worthy of the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL entry draft.

Sweden

The Swedes had the best attack of all countries at the 2008 world junior hockey championship in the Czech Republic. Four forwards return from the squad that lost in overtime to Canada in the gold-medal game. The Los Angeles Kings released Oscar Moller for the tournament after the former Chilliwack Bruin had six goals and seven assists in 29 NHL games.

Player to watch: Defenceman Victor Hedman is John Tavares's main rival to go first overall in the 2009 NHL draft

Russia

Columbus released forward Nikita Filatov and winger Maxim Mayorov from the American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse to play in the world juniors. The Russians are talented up front, although they'll miss the talented Alexei Cherepanov. The first-round pick of the New York Rangers collapsed and died at the age of 19 while playing for his club team Omsk in October.

Player to watch: The Blue Jackets took Filatov with the No. 6 pick in this year's NHL entry draft. He led Russia in scoring in a bronze-medal effort at the 2008 world junior championship.

United States

No shortage of talent, but an inability to finish sums up the Americans the last few years at the world junior championship. They've played for a medal the last six years and won just two. The U.S. has heaps of talent again, including four first-round NHL draft picks on defence. If they master the art of playing as a team, the gold could be theirs.

Player to watch: James vanRiemsdyk, the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NHL draft by Philadelphia.

Czech Republic

Forward Jakub Voracek would put sizzle in the Czechs' steak, but Voracek is a regular in the Blue Jackets' lineup. Columbus isn't as willing to part with him as they are with Russian farmhands Filatov and Mayorov. The Czechs have experience on their blue-line, but a couple lean years in the NHL draft means they'll probably be mid-pack again.

Player to watch: Defenceman Thomas Kundratek. Plays for Western Hockey League's Medicine Hat Tigers and is a third-round pick of the New York Rangers.

Finland

If the last two NHL drafts are any indication, Finland's talent pool has gone shallow. No Finn was among the first 60 players taken in 2007 or 2008 and that's shown up in back-to-back results of sixth place in the world junior tournament. Finland will have to be more than the sum of its parts to contend for a medal in Ottawa.

Player to watch: Centre Niclas Lucenius is an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick who co-led the Finns in scoring at the 2008 world junior championship.

Slovakia

With the exception of their bronze medal a decade ago, the Slovaks are consistently a bottom-half team in the world junior tournament although they've managed to avoid relegation during that time. Only three Slovaks have been taken in the last two NHL drafts and none higher than the fifth round.

Players to watch: Central Scouting ranks centre Tomas Tatar the No. 1 Slovak prospect for the 2009 NHL draft.

Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs managed to qualify for the 'A' world junior championship a second straight year, which is rare for any team after promotion from the 'B' championship. They've got eight returning players from the squad that finished eighth in the Czech Republic and will fight to avoid relegation again.

Player to watch: Defenceman Evgeni Bolyakin, who plays in Russia's Continental Hockey League for Amur Khabarovsk.

Germany

Seven Germans play in the Canadian Hockey League, including goaltenders Timo Pielmeier (Shawinigan) and Philipp Grubauer (Belleville). Former NHLer Uwe Krupp is an assistant coach of the club. Germany won promotion to the `A' championship three times in the last decade, but couldn't manage to stay there and was relegated back to the 'B' championship.

Player to watch: Goaltender Timo Pielmeier is a third-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks.

Latvia

Latvia must like playing in Canada. It's just the second time since the country split with the Soviet Union that Latvia's junior team has qualified for the `A' championship. The first time was in Vancouver in 2006. Latvia has 13 players returning from the team that won promotion, but it will be tough to avoid relegation again.

Player to watch: Six-foot-five, 209-pound defenceman Kriss Grundmanis played a season in the OHL for the Toronto St. Michael's Majors.