U.S., Russia and Sweden will be pushing Canada at WJHC Staff

12/24/2009 3:16:48 PM

Beginning on Boxing Day, all eyes will be on Team Canada as they seek a record sixth-straight gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

There's no secret here on who the favorite is. Canada has dominated the tournament and features six returning members from last year's gold medal team.

That said, the best young hockey talent in the world is not just limited to the 22 players wearing the red and white Maple Leaf as nine other hockey nations will also be looking to make some noise.

"I don't really do specific predictions for this tournament, but I would say Canada and Sweden – on paper – are considered co-favourites," explains TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie. "But the Russians are also a threat for the gold medal."

Hot on the heels on the host nation will be the Swedes. They do not have any players currently on an NHL team, but boast a roster that features 18 NHL drafted players. Included in the mix are goaltender Jacob Markstrom, defencemen David Rundblad and Tim Erixon and forwards Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Mattias Tedenby, Marcus Johansson, Andre Petersson and Jacob Josefsson.

Unfortunately, the team's most prized eligible talent - Victor Hedman - will not be joining his fellow countrymen. The 18-year old defenceman, selected second overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft is making his mark with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Swedes will also be without the top defenceman of the 2009 tournament (as awarded by the IIHF) in Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. 

Russia has medaled in all but two tournaments this decade and will also be looking to improve after last year's bronze medal finish.

Nikita Filatov of the Columbus Blue Jackets, named the top prospect in 2009 by The Hockey News, appeared in 13 NHL games this year, but returned to the KHL to play for CSKA Moscow. Since his return, Filatov has five goals and five assists in six games.

They will miss defenceman Dmitri Kulikov, who is now with the Florida Panthers. Also out of the picture is 2010 first-round hopeful Kirill Kabanov, who has a wrist injury.

Team USA captured their only gold in tournament history, with a memorable 4-3 comeback win over Canada in 2004.

This year's squad could be hard pressed to make a similar challenge, but the roster has an abundance of promising talent that features Canadiens prospect Danny Kristo, Canucks blue-chipper Jordan Schroeder and Windsor Spitfires defenceman Cam Fowler - who could be a Top 3 pick in June's NHL draft. Forward Jeremy Morin has 44 pts in 32 games for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL this season, while John Carlson of the Washington Capitals leads all AHL defencemen with 24 pts in 29 games.

"I think the U.S. is a sleeper pick," says McKenzie. "Not experienced enough to rate as a pre-tournament favourite for gold but it's a young and talented team that could upset or knock off one of the gold medal threats. It's tough to bet against Canada on home ice, though."

The Czech Republic medaled just once since back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, capturing bronze in 2005. Key injuries to top players will prevent them from sending their best roster to the tournament, including forward Jaroslav Hafenrichter, who had 62 pts in 44 games for Salvia's Prague last season.

Slovakia will miss goaltender Jaroslav Janus, who helped the team upset Finland and the United States to reach the semifinals last year. Marek Celick is expected to take over in goal on a team with some firepower in Jakub Gasparovic and Richard Panik as well as Tomas Tatar of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. The defence features Adam Janosik of the Gatineau Olympiques and Czech captain Michal Jordan. The Plymouth Whalers' defenceman has 21 pts in 29 games in the OHL this season.

Other teams in the tournament include:

Latvia - The Maroons - Canada's first opponent in the round robin - didn't win a game in the round robin last year but staved off relegation with wins over Germany and Kazakhstan in knock-out play. The team comes mostly from Dinamo Riga's junior squad. But Roberts Bukarts and Roland Cinks are already playing for Dinamo's senior squad, and there are some skating in North America, including forward Leitans Edijis and goalies Ermics Raimonds and Dainis Vasilijevs.
Switzerland - After a year in the B-pool, the Swiss are back with a team pulled mainly from their domestic league. However, it should include defencemen Luca Sbisa of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Dominik Schlumpf of the Shawinigan Cataractes and forward Alain Berger of the Oshawa Generals. There is also forward Nino Niederreiter of the Portland Winter Hawks, who is the sixth-ranked skater in the Western Hockey League according to NHL Central Scouting.
Finland - There will be no jet lag for returning defenceman Tyri Niemi, a New York Islanders prospect who plays for the Saskatoon Blades. Defenceman Rasmus Rissanen of the Everett Silvertips and forward Matias Sointu of the Sudbury Wolves should also make a team steeped in physical Finnish hockey.
Austria - It is only their second trip to the top level of junior hockey. Their last was in 2004, and they were immediately relegated, a scenario almost certain to be repeated.