Day: May 17, 2021

Brits look to the future

Ben Bowns may again be among the busiest British players at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

It’s been a difficult season for British hockey. While the country’s more prominent sports have been able to continue playing behind closed doors thanks to TV and sponsorship deals, the Elite League was unable to start. At lower levels, the enforced closure of indoor arenas for much of the past 12 months halted opportunities for individual on-ice practice. Several players sought opportunities in Europe, others were out of action until Britain’s domestic leagues were able to organise mini-tournaments funded by selling access to broadcast streams. These abbreviated competitions at least gave a chance for most players to get some game time in preparation for the trip to Latvia.

Since the roster was announced at the end of April, Team GB has gathered in Coventry for a training camp. However, there have been no warm-up games and the team has not played together in competition since February 2020’s Olympic Qualification tournament in Nottingham. Head coach Pete Russell was not involved at that stage, as he was competing in the DEL2 play-offs with Freiburg. And the mastermind of Britain’s climb to the Elite pool will not be going to Latvia, with his assistants Corey Neilson and Adam Keefe taking charge.

With several new faces on the team, plus recalls for other players who did not feature in Slovakia two years ago, the British roster in Riga is built with an eye on the future as well as the current championship.

Goaltending

In 2019, Ben Bowns was the star of the show for GB, coping admirably with an onerous workload and giving his team the chance to snatch that vital victory over France. Despite expectations that he might move overseas, he remained with Cardiff for another season and was, once again, the winningest Elite League goalie in the abortive 2019/20 campaign. This season began in Graz after a move to the EBEL, but injury slowed his progress. The 30-year-old was back home in time to backstop Nottingham Panthers to victory in the four-team Elite Series in spring and should keep his #1 spot on Pete Russell’s team in Riga. Another Panther, Jackson Whistle, returns after playing the understudy in Slovakia and there’s a call-up for 24-year-old Jordan Hedley, who played for Russell at Milton Keynes Lightning and most recently featured for Coventry Blaze.

Defence

It’s a new-look defensive unit for the Brits in Latvia. Long-serving blue liner Mark Richardson is the most notable absentee. The 34-year-old had been in every senior national squad since 2005, clocking up 72 appearances at various levels of the World Championship. Stephen Lee, another long-serving D-man, also misses out this time, while Tim Billingsley – who made his international debut at the 2019 Worlds – has not played at all this season. The team’s lynchpin, Ben O’Connor, is also short of game time after his appearances were limited to a spell with Sheffield Steeldogs in a pre-Christmas behind-closed-doors series set up by the second-tier NIHL. However, the 32-year-old keeps his place on the roster.

Three players will get their first taste of IIHF play as David Clements (26), Jordan Tetlow (23) and Sam Jones (23) get the call, part of Britain’s bid to use this tournament to develop a roster for 2022. There’s also a recall for Mark Garside, who last played for his country in the successful Division IB campaign of 2017. Paul Swindlehurst shrugged off an injury concern to complete the roster after coming through the Elite Series without any problems.

Forwards

Scoring goals was a big problem from Britain in 2019. True, leading scorer Mike Hammond (4+0) outscored Alexander Ovechkin (2+1), but the team managed just nine goals in seven games, four of them in that overtime survival showdown against France. Hammond is back this time, as are the experienced Robert Dowd and Ben Davies, who potted that vital overtime tally to keep GB in the top division. Elsewhere, though, new faces are charged with bolstering British firepower in Latvia.

Lewis Hook and Ciaran Long are the new faces on offence. Hook, 24, has seen his profile steadily rise in recent seasons with some impressive Elite League performances for Belfast. Now, along with Liam Kirk, once of Peterborough Petes, and Sam Duggan, who played several seasons in Orebro’s youth system, he’s part of a trio of prospects tasked with turning potential into points as Britain looks to nurture a new generation.

Long’s story is rather different. Aged 30, this is his first international call-up. He was close to making the 2019 roster after posting 60 (25+35) points in 60 games for Manchester Storm in that season’s Elite League, a return that saw him named British player of the year in the import-heavy national championship. However, a move to Belfast saw his productivity drop in 2019/20 before he returned to his prolific best in Manchester during the Elite Series.

Brendan Connolly returns to the team after making his GB debut in last February’s Olympic Qualification tournament. The Alberta native was part of Alaska’s ECHL-winning team back in 2014 before acquiring British eligibility via seasons in Belfast, Glasgow and Sheffield. This year he divided his time between ECHL and Elite Series action.

Some familiar names are making way. Robert Farmer, the man who came up with the clutch goal in Budapest to earn GB promotion to the top flight, then struck again during that fightback win in Kosice, is absent this time. He hasn’t played since leaving Lausitzer Fuchse in December. In addition, Britain’s record scorer Colin Shields retired at the end of the 2018/19 season. Joey Lewis is another absentee from the 2019 roster.

Coaching

Less than a week before the start of the tournament, Britain was surprised by news that Pete Russell would not joining the team in Riga. The 46-year-old has been away from his family for nine months while coaching in Germany’s DEL2, and felt that it would be wrong to jump straight on a plane after coming home.

“I came home and just spending time with my daughter, it become apparent it would be tough for me to go away again straight away,” he said. “To come back after nine months and leave two days later would be pretty heartless.”

In Russell’s absence, his assistants from the 2019 World Championship in Slovakia step up to the top job. Corey Neilson, who was also coaching in the DEL2 last with Lausitzer Fuchse, and Adam Keefe of the Belfast Giants are taking charge of the team.

Prospects

In a normal season, GB would be a massive underdog at this level. Despite the heart-warming finish to the 2019 campaign in Kosice, this was a team that suffered some heavy beatings on its return to the Elite Pool after a 25-year absence. And the pandemic has not been kind to British hockey: the country’s rinks have been largely closed since March 2020, the Elite League season was cancelled and belatedly replaced with a series of behind-closed-doors games to help players shake off some of the rust that accumulated during a long, enforced lay-off from competitive action. An opening game against a Russian team selected from guys with a full season of NHL or KHL action behind them could hardly be a greater challenge.

On the positive side, there is no relegation this year, so the Brits have something of a free hit in Riga. And the expanded 28-man roster presents a rare opportunity to give precious international experience to emerging youngsters without worrying too much about immediate results. Thus, GB will look to strike a balance between proving that it can compete with its immediate rivals at the lower end of the Group A table and laying the foundations for another successful survival bid in Finland 12 months from now.

Americans looking for podium

Jake Oettinger will be one of the goaltenders in the U.S. net after a good rookie season in the NHL

By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

The Americans have had a good run the last several years with younger teams, winning bronze medals in 2013, 2015, and 2018. And with 19 of 26 players on the roster coming from the NHL this time, this should be a fit and energetic group that competes in Riga.

Goal

Jake Oettinger had a good rookie season with Dallas in 2020-21, posting a 2.36 GAA and .911 save percentage in 28 games. International fans know him from the 2016 U18 and 2018 U20, where he won a bronze medal both times while producing a perfect 6-0-0 combined record. 

He’ll be joined by Cal Petersen and Anthony Stolarz. Petersen just finished his third year with the L.A. Kings and was the third goalie for the Americans back in 2017 at the World Championship. Stolarz has been a backup with three NHL teams, most recently Anaheim. 

Adam Clendenning, a 28-year-old with Cleveland of the AHL this past season, has the most IIHF experience on the American blue line. He won back-to-back gold with the U18 team in 2009 and 2010, and in 2012 he also played at the World Juniors. 

Zac Jones made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers this past season and is the youngest player at 20. Chris Wideman is the veteran. The 30-year-old played for Nizhny Novgorod in Russia this past year and also has 181 NHL games to his credit. He also played at the 2016 Worlds when the U.S. finished 4th. Christian Wolanin played at the 2019 Worlds but hasn’t played much the last couple of years.

Connor Mackey, Matt Roy, Ryan Shea, and Matt Tennyson are all making their USA Hockey debuts in Riga. In all, the defence is mobile and quick and will be counted on to move the puck quickly from defence to offence.

Forward

The 34-year-old Justin Abdelkader will lead the American offence. He won bronze with the U.S. at the 2007 World Juniors and later played at two World Championships as well as the 2016 World Cup. At the other end of the spectrum will be 21-year-old Matt Beniers, who played at the World Juniors in Edmonton this past January. He’ll have company in Jack Drury, also 21 and the nephew of Chris, who played in the 2019 and 2020 World Juniors. Drafted 42nd overall by Carolina in 2018, Jack had a successful year in Sweden with Vaxjo. 

An interesting addition to the lineup is Brian Boyle. The 36-year-old didn’t play at all in 2020-21 but trained hard up until the trade deadline, hoping to catch on with a team for the playoffs. At 6’6” (197 cm) and 245 lbs. (111 kg), he will be easy to spot on the ice.

The San Jose Sharks have done their part for the team, contributing three forwards to the roster – Sasha Chmelevski, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Labanc. Chmelevski was a late round selection by the Sharks four years ago, and he made his NHL debut this past season. Donato is a former Olympian, having played at the 2018 Games, where he had five goals in as many games, tied for the tournament lead with gold-medal players from Russia, Ilya Kovalchuk and Kirill Kaprizov. Labanc is the most established NHLer, having been a full-time member of San Jose for the better part of five years. 

Tage Thompson brings a perfect record of sorts to the team. He has played in three IIHF events for the Americans – and won three medals – gold at the 2015 U18, gold again at the 2017 U20, and bronze at the 2018 Worlds. The 21-year-old Jason Robertson is a fine pickup for the team. He established himself as a bona fide NHLer this past season with Dallas, scoring 18 goals and 45 points in 51 games.

Coaching

Jack Capuano has been the associate coach in Ottawa the last two years after seven seasons as head coach with the New York Islanders. Although this is his first position behind the USA bench at an IIHF event, he has previous experience as head coach of the U18 team at the 2005 Five Nations Cup. He was also an assistant coach at the 2017 World Championship and the 2016 World Cup.

Projected Results

All in all, the Americans have a relatively young team with plenty of U18 and U20 experience. They will be quick and won’t lack for confidence, and if Boyle and Abdelkader can come in and provide some stability and expertise to the dressing room, there is no reason this team can’t go far. But given the pandemic and uncertainty of various rosters, it’s not clear just yet what exactly they’ll be up against. That being said, any entry from the U.S. is a de facto medal threat – execution will be the determining factor.