By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
The 2017 Karjala Cup is upon us. Here’s a look at all six teams participating at the first leg of the Euro Hockey Tour this season.
If you weren’t from one of the four participating countries, you likely haven’t paid much attention to the Euro Hockey Tour or the Karjala Cup in previous years. Sure, it’s a men’s level tournament and features a lot of players trying to make future national teams, but without many big stars each year, it stayed as a tournament that was only important to Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
But for this year’s Karjala Cup, the tournament has seen the addition of Switzerland and Canada, who aren’t even from Europe. For all six teams, this tournament means more than usual thanks to it being part of the lead-up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. The tournament will take place from November 8-12, mostly in Helsinki, Finland, and will serve as the first real pre-Olympic competition since the Sochi Hockey Open back in August.
In order to prepare for the first leg of the Euro Hockey Tour for 2017-2018, let’s take a look at all the teams participating in this week’s international break event.
It all starts in goal for Canada, and Ben Scrivens is Canada’s go-to guy leading up to the Olympics. Scrivens has had a few tough seasons in the NHL after stealing the show with the Los Angeles Kings back in 2013-2014 when Jonathan Quick was injured. In 2014, Scrivens out-played former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie partner James Reimer and earned Canada’s starting role heading into the quarter-finals. He had some so-so moments at the Nikolai Puchkov Tournament but for the most part, he looked good enough to get the job done.
Saying Andrew Ebbett could be one of Canada’s best players sounds extremely odd when given some of Canada’s key players at previous Olympics. But for Canada, it’s a reality. The former AHL star has proven to make a good partnership with SC Bern teammate Mason Raymond and will be a big duo a few months from now. But at the Karjala Cup, both will get a chance to showcase the skill they showed at the Spengler Cup last December and the Sochi Hockey Open in August.
Former second line forward Rene Bourque is someone who will need a good tournament to help further his chances at a spot. Bourque wasn’t on the radar during the summer, but with a great start this season in Sweden, he’ll be given a chance. Chris Lee, a defenceman who couldn’t secure an NHL deal after a good year in the KHL, will make his national team season debut at the tournament just months after shining at the World Championships.
Linden Vey never had much of an NHL career, but the former Calgary Flame has been battling for the top scoring spot in the KHL with Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev all season long. That alone gives him a chance to be a top six contributor at the Karjala. And don’t sleep on Eric O’Dell, Canada’s top line centre for much of the Sochi Hockey Open, and forwards Brandon Kozun and Wojtek Wolski, two forwards with a lot to prove in hopes of some day returning to the NHL.
The last team to announce their roster and perhaps the weakest team on paper, the Czech Republic will have a mountain to climb if they want to win just their second tournament title ever. Champions back in 2012, the Czech’s, like many teams, were hit big due to the NHL keeping players from competing at the Olympics.
But unlike Canada, Russia or USA, the team doesn’t have that big of a pool to choose from. In fact, despite bringing many long-time national team players to the Karjala Cup, the team doesn’t have a talent pool chock-full of NHL castoffs waiting in the wings.
The team’s goaltending, however, do have a familiar face. Marek Mazanec was a back-up in the NHL for many years before signing with HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL this past season, where he currently acts as the starting goalie.
Former NHLers Ladislav Smid and Jiri Sekac will get extended roles with the squad. Smid missed all of last season with the Calgary Flames and signed in his native land to hopefully get his career back on track. Sekac’s failed NHL experiment lasted only two seasons between four teams before joining AK Bars Kazan last year, and after a good start this season, he’s done a good job to keep himself going strong.
Dominik Kubalik, the top scoring player in the Czech league over the past two years, will likely receive extensive ice time up front for a team that will be desperate for goals. Jan Kovar isn’t up to his usual KHL scoring numbers with Metallurg but after ripping it up last year with 12 points in seven Euro Hockey Tour games, this could be the way to turn his season around.
Other big names for the Czech’s include Detroit Red Wings prospect Lukas Radil, Michal Repik and Michal Birner. Still, while the team have some players who have represented the squad in various international tournaments, there isn’t a lot of game-changing players that will help them win the Karjala Cup.
When you ask fans which teams will have a strong Olympics, Finland seems to be almost a for-sure choice in the top four. Their Euro Hockey Tour team may not have a whole lot of star power, but with a solid goaltender, strong defense and a couple of highly-touted prospects, the team is set up for success this year.
The Finns could have one of the top goaltenders in the entire tournament with Mikko Koskinen. Sure, he’s lost his starting role for SKA St. Petersburg to 21 year old Igor Shestyorkin, but losing your job to one of the best goalies in the league isn’t a knock on his ability. They still give him a lot of starts, and his stats, albeit on the KHL’s most dangerous team, have been great. Koskinen is always one of the best goalies when called upon in Euro Hockey Tour action and Finland in general, especially at the 2016 World Championships.
Up front, the team will hope to get some good offense out of 2013 World Championships star Petri Kontiola. At 33, he’s lost some of his speed and isn’t producing like he used to in the KHL but when he does get called upon for Finland, they tend to get a good performance out of the former Chicago Blackhawks prospect.
There will be a lot of eyes on Nashville Predators first-rounder Eeli Tolvanen. The 18-year-old is extremely quick and is a magician with the puck, whether it be his wicked release or his accurate passing ability. He’s close to a point-per-game in the KHL with Jokerit this season, which is an impressive task given how he played in the USHL the past two seasons, He was one of Finland’s few bright spots at last year’s World Juniors and can use his experience when he makes his men’s team debut this week.
Former Edmonton Oilers forward Teemu Hartikainen is also off to a good start in the KHL this year, fifth with Ufa. He has a tendency to disappear in international events for Finland, but with no NHLers to worry about over the next few months, he could prove his offensive worth. Veli-Matti Savinainen was one of Finland’s best players in international play last year and will be counted on to replicate his strong performance again this year.
On the back end, there’s no question veteran Sami Lepistö will be the leader in almost all situations. Dallas Stars first-rounder Miro Heiskanen will also earn lots of ice time thanks to a great start in Liiga play this year with HIFK. Overall, Finland should be a competitive squad on home ice, but with a deeper talent pool this year overall, they’ll have to get scrappy.
2018 Olympic champions, Russia? Sure, that’s the expectation, but the Karjala Cup is just the next step for Russia on their quest for gold.
It all begins in net with Igor Shestyorkin, who could very well compete for the top goalie award in the KHL this season. Henrik Lundqvist’s future replacement in New York, Shestyorkin’s 15-1-2 record to start off the year has been too much to handle for most other teams. Russia does have other good veteran goalies to choose from, but Shestyorkin is having too good of a season to ignore at this point, even if his team has been lights out at every other position.
The Russians will be without scoring stars Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Vadim Shipachyov, but that shouldn’t hurt them too much. The all-time KHL leading scorer, Sergei Mozyakin is, well, good, even at 35. He lead the league in scoring last year and already is playing at over a point-per-game midway through the season. Then there is Mikhail Grigorenko, who was arguably Russia’s best player at the Sochi Hockey Open in August following a brutal few years in the NHL. How about future Minnesota Wild and upcoming Russian superstar Kirill Kaprizov? He had four points in three games in last year’s EHT and has dominated the scoring charts in practically every event he’s played in internationally.
Nikita Gusev has garnered NHL chatter in recent months and for good reason. Vegas recently acquired his rights from Tampa Bay and if he ever makes it over, he’ll be an immediate top six scoring star. Sergei Plotnikov, Sergei Shirokov and Ivan Telegin will act as veteran role players to supplement youngsters Valeri Nichushkin and Pavel Kraskovsky.
Russia’s biggest issue? Defence, but with the amount of goals they’ll likely score, they should be able to follow up their championship at the Karjala a year ago with another title.
Sweden could end up going with either Jhonas Enroth or Magnus Hellberg in net. Both goalies have NHL experience in recent years, but there’s a good chance that Enroth will get an extra start to eep Sweden in the Karjala title contention. Enroth will likely get the nod due to his past experience with the team and overall better record in pro hockey, but Hellberg, being a young gun, will want to take every opportunity he can to make himself the starter when it matters most in February.
The top defence pairing will likely consist of at least one of Patrik Hersley or Steffan Kronwall. Hersley, a former draft pick of the LA Kings, is a big defenceman capable of creating plays from his own zone effectively. A member of the super SKA St. Petersburg squad in the KHL, Hersley is on pace for career-high numbers with 23 points in 25 games this season. Hersley has never played for Sweden at the World Championships, but he’s always a major fixture in Euro Hockey Tour play. For Kronwall, the former Toronto Maple Leaf is a proven veteran who shines every time he’s called upon for Sweden and will end up being a major leader heading up to the Olympic games.
All eyes, however, will likely land on Rasmus Dahlin. The consensus favourite to go first overall at the upcoming NHL Draft, there’s a chance Dahlin could play at the Karjala Cup, Channel One Cup, Carlson Hockey Games, Sweden Games, World Junior Championships, World Championships and U18 World Championships this season alone. Dahlin played in two exhibition contests last year for the men’s team, but this will really be his first chance to prove himself against men in international competition.
Sweden will have a good mix of speedy forwards that can chip in a few goals every now and then. Oscar Moller, a former LA Kings forward, fits that bill. In 16 games with Skellefteå AIK this season, Moller has been good for 15 points, already beating his total from last year. Moller has a lot of experience in EHT tournaments and is always a top contributor each season, making him worth a watch. Anton Lander, an Edmonton Oilers castoff, had a really good season with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors last year but his initial foray into the KHL hasn’t seen much offense with just two goals in 27 games. Dick Axelsson, Linus Omark and Johan Ryno bring valuable skill to the team and should grab a few points each, while Joakim LIndstrom, Robert Nilsson and Joel Lundqvist all bring veteran experience and some offense to boot.
No matter what event it is, the Swiss never seem to just lay down and take what’s giving to them. They always put up a fight, and their first ever Euro Hockey Tour event is going to be a challenge, no doubt. But with a team full of players that have stuck together for years, it’s no question the team could steal a game or two against some of the stronger hockey powers.
Leading the way between the pipes will be Jonas Hiller, Switzerland’s goalie at the previous two Olympics. The former Anaheim Ducks star played for his nation at the World Championships last year for the first time since 2007, and it’s safe to say it was a rocky run. Hiller could be called upon due to his experience, but if he falters at any point, Gilles Senn will be called upon to make just his first tournament start for the Swiss.
On defence, former NHL depth defender Raphael Diaz will be the go-to guy to get the puck moving. Diaz doesn’t score that often, but he does a solid job of making plays happen and creating scoring opportunities for his teammate. Diaz will be counted on to be a workhorse defencemen, perhaps paired with veteran Eric Blum. Blum had only skated in five games prior to getting named to Switzerland’s roster or the Karjala Cup, but has looked decent when he has played. He’s represented the Swiss in international competition for many years, and with no Roman Josi to worry about, Blum will need to step up.
The Swiss always have a lot of familiarity on their roster, and this year is no different. The roster features seven HC Davos players, including star Andres Ambuhl. Ambuhl has been one of Switzerland’s best players in international in recent years and has had a good season with Davos this season. Reto Suri, Pius Suter, Simon Moser, Denis Hollenstein, Gregory Hofmann, Fabrice Herzog, Cody Almond and Luca Cunti are all veterans of the national team will some good scoring ability, while Vincent Praplanis fresh off of leading Switzerland in team scoring at last year’s World Championships.