Month: May 2021 (Page 2 of 3)

Belarus is back

Yegor Sharangovich scores for Belarus during the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Belarus is back in the top division and eager to prove that its relegation in 2018 was a blip after 14 years among the elite. The team secured promotion from Division IA at the first attempt, taking second place behind host nation Kazakhstan in 2019 and looks well placed to take advantage of this year’s relegation-free tournament as it starts to build for the future. Belarus can also take some inspiration from history: its best ever World Championship performance, a sixth-place finish in 2006, was right here in Riga.

The roster reflects a new generation of Belarusian talent, with big things expected from New Jersey forward Yegor Sharangovich (24) and plenty of interest in 20-year-old Flames prospect Igor Solovyov. Rookie goalie Alexei Kolosov, just 19, has positive write-ups from his first steps in the KHL and, if given the chance here, could establish himself as one for the future.

Goal

It’s a new-look goaltending stable for Belarus, with three players who have yet to feature in IIHF play for their country. Two years ago, Dmitri Milchakov did much of the heavy lifting as the Bison won promotion back to the top division. The 35-year-old is still playing for Metallurg Zhlobin, but gives way to players with an eye on the future in the form of Alexei Kolosov (19) and Konstantin Shostak (21). Both had a taste of KHL action this season, with Kolosov making nine appearances for Dynamo Minsk – posting a shut-out along the way – while Shostak had three outings with Severstal Cherepovets and more extensive action in Russia’s second tier with Molot-Prikamie Perm.

Another new face adds experience to the group. British-born, Canadian-trained Danny Taylor saw Deutschland Cup action for Team Canada in 2016/17. He might have been a contender for an Olympic spot the following season but took up an offer from the Senators where he played once in the NHL and 32 times in the AHL. Taylor first went to the KHL in 2014/15, joining Dynamo Minsk, and has also represented Medvescak Zagreb and Sibir Novosibirsk. He has played the last two seasons in Minsk, securing his Belarusian passport and eligibility for the national team. Now 35, he made his international debut for his new country during this season Euro Challenge action.

Defence

Four players – Nick Bailen, Kristian Khenkel, Yevgeni Lisovets and Ilya Solovyov – return from the promotion-winning team of 2019. The first three are familiar, bringing a wealth of KHL experience to the team. All three had good campaigns this time around, with Bailen compiling 35 (13+22) points while wearing the ‘A’ in Chelyabinsk, Lisovets providing a steady presence for Salavat Yulayev and Khenkel fulfilling a similar role at perennial big-hitter Ak Bars. Solovyov, meanwhile, is part of the new generation. Still only 20, this was his first season in adult hockey and he did enough in his 41 appearances for Dynamo Minsk to persuade the Flames to offer him a deal after selecting him in the 2020 NHL draft. At junior level, he impressed in the OHL with Saginaw, producing 40 (7+33) points in 53 games during the COVID-curtailed 2019/20 season and his progress has continued back home in Minsk.

Solovyov isn’t the only promising youngster involved this time around. Stepan Falkovski, who stands at an imposing 205 cm, was part of the chaotic relegation campaign in 2018. Since then, he has enjoyed a couple more solid seasons in the ECHL before returning home to play for Dynamo Minsk this season. With 20 points in 37 games in the KHL, he played his part in the team’s leap from rock bottom to playoff contender. Vladislav Yeryomenko, 22, spent his junior years in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen before joining Dynamo Minsk for the 2019/20 season. Now he has almost 100 KHL appearances and a Belarusian championship under his belt and makes his senior international debut in Riga.

At the other end of the scale, Andrei Antonov returns to World Championship action for the first time since 2009. The 36-year-old was the top-scoring D-man in the Belarusian championship, with 33 (5+28) points for Yunost Minsk. Further experience is added by Salavat Yulayev’s Dmitri Korobov and Dynamo Minsk’s Ilya Shinkevich.

Forward

Yegor Sharangovich is the big new hope of Belarusian hockey. The 22-year-old is the only active NHLer on the team, scoring 30 (16+14) points in 54 games in his rookie season with New Jersey. The Devils drafted him back in 2018 and immediately brought him over for a couple of seasons in the AHL. This summer, he was loaned back to Dynamo Minsk, where he potted 17 goals in 35 games to power a strong start to the team’s KHL campaign, before returning to North America ready to compete at the highest level.

Sharangovich looks set to inherit the status once held by the Kostitsyn brothers. This year, Andrei is absent after a frustrating campaign split between Neftekhimik and Pardubice, but Sergei returns after missing the entire 2019/20 season. He returned to the ice with the Bratislava Capitals, and did enough to earn a call-up for his seventh Worlds.

The dual-national contingent this season involves three forwards. Geoff Platt, now with Salavat Yulaev, is a familiar face in the Belarusian camp, but Francis Pare and Shane Prince are poised for their World Championship debuts. Pare won a Gagarin Cup with Metallurg under Mike Keenan in 2014, the start of an on-going KHL career that most recently brought two seasons in Minsk. Ex-Sens and Isles winger Prince also completed a second season with Dynamo this term, and his creative flair brought him 49 points in 52 regular season games. 

Pare is not the only Gagarin Cup winner on the Belarus roster, with Nikita Komarov helping Avangard to the title this season. However, the 32-year-old centre was used sparingly during the season and is generally more notable for his work rate than his production.

Young talent also gets a chance, with Alexei Protas poised for his World Championship debut. The 20-year-old was a late addition to the roster after the end of the Hershey Bears’ season in the AHL and will not be able to play until May 24, when he has completed quarantine. The centre, drafted by the Capitals in 2019, spent most of last season on loan at Dynamo Minsk, returning to North America at the end of the club’s KHL play-off campaign.

This year’s team has more players from the Belarusian championship, partly due to Mikhail Zakharov’s influence from behind the bench. Sergei Drozd, Stepan Lopachuk, and Mikhail Stefanovich have all played for Zakharov at Yunost, while German Nesterov gets the call after a good season with HC Gomel. However, the addition of 18-year-old Danila Klimovich, a centre who played in the Belarusian second tier with Minskie Zubry, might be the most eye-catching. He scored six goals in five games at the World U18s, making himself impossible to overlook for the trip to Latvia.

Coaching

Mikhail Zakharov’s appointment as head coach of Team Belarus represented something of a change of direction. In the past, the country’s hockey federation often chose to appoint foreigners who could jet in, galvanise the team and bring a fresh view for a short tournament. However, that strategy failed miserably under Dave Lewis in Copenhagen, with the Canadian dismissed midway through the group stage as a disjointed roster lurched inexorably towards relegation. 

Back in the top division, this season the call went to Zakharov, who has stepped away from club coaching to focus solely on the national program. Eight times a champion of Belarus with Yunost Minsk, the 59-year-old knows the depth of the country’s talent pool as well as anyone and, while his blunt approach can ruffle feathers, it can also get results. Zakharov led Belarus at the 2010 Olympics, but this will be his first World Championship as head coach, having previously been assistant from 1998-2001 and again in 2018.

Zakharov is assisted by Dmitri Karpikov, currently goalie coach at Yunost, and Mikhail Kravets, who was head coach of Vityaz in the last two KHL seasons.

Projected Results

Whatever happens in Riga, it can hardly be worse than the last Belarusian World Championship campaign. The 2018 tournament in Copenhagen saw Belarus in disarray off the ice, changing head coach mid-stream, and losing all seven games with a painful goal differential of 8-36. For a team used to security, if not spectacular success, it was a huge blow.

Since then, however, things have changed. A number of senior players have retired – eg long-serving defenseman Vladimir Denisov – or been replaced. At the same time, Dynamo Minsk has introduced a policy of giving more game time to local youngsters and was rewarded with a playoff spot in the KHL this season. That has an obvious knock-on effect for the national team, with more opportunities for local talent to mature.

This year’s Belarusian team is something of a work in progress, with several players getting their first taste of hockey at this level. This group will expect to be too strong for Great Britain and will fancy its chances of getting results against Denmark and Slovakia. A quarter-final place is probably too much to hope for, but Belarus will be confident of demonstrating that 2018 was an aberration and the team deserves a long-term place among the elite.

Czechs look for new heroes

Czech stars Jan Kovar, Filip Hronek and Dominik Kubalik are among the returning players from the World Championship squad two years ago

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

Like most of the world’s elite hockey nations, the Czechs are heavily impacted by a lack of NHLers. Even in years where they don’t have a lot of depth, they’re usually able to rely on stars such as Jakub Voracek, David Krejci or David Pastrnak. This year there are six NHLers but they’re all 25 or younger and don’t have a lot of top-level international experience, so it will be time for some new blood to fill the leadership and top offensive roles. 

Of the 28 players on the roster, the average age is 26.36. Thirteen of them have never played in a World Championship and only two have played more than two tournaments. However, several of them have played in U18 World Championships or World Junior Championships in recent years, which fits the mould of up-and-coming head coach Filip Pesan.

Goaltenders

The starter should be Simon Hrubec, who played two games in 2019 as a backup to Patrik Bartosak and is the only goalie on the roster with any World Championship experience. Hrubec, 29, was a long-time netminder for Ocelari Trinec but went to the KHL this past season, where he backstopped Avangard Omsk to the Gagarin Cup after being acquired mid-season from Kunlun Red Star. In 2017/18, Hrubec was the MVP of the Champions Hockey League.

Roman Will, 28, who played one game for the Colorado Avalanche back in 2015/16 but now plays in the KHL for Traktor Chelyabinsk, will challenge Hrubec for minutes between the pipes. Petr Kvaca, just 23, played his way onto this team based on a stellar season with Bili Tygri Liberec, which he backstopped to the Extraliga finals.

Defence

This Czech team’s defence is big and young. The two oldest in the group are Andrej Sustr and Ondrej Vitasek, who are both 30, and they are among four d-men who are at least 193 cm – Michal Moravcik and David Musil are the others. Sustr is an interesting story in that, despite his experience in the NHL, KHL and 2016 World Cup of Hockey, this will be his first World Championship. At 201 cm and 98 kg, he is also the team’s biggest player.

Among the nine defencemen on the roster, three are from the Finnish Liiga and two each are from the NHL and KHL and domestic Extraliga. The two NHLers – Libor Hajek of the New York Rangers and Filip Hronek of the Detroit Red Wings – are also the youngest of the group at 23 years of age. Despite that, Hronek is playing in his third World Championship and has been named one of the team’s alternate captains. Hajek impressed at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo under coach Pesan, where he helped the Czechs to a fourth-place finish with eight points in seven games. 

Forwards

The group of Czech forwards has a bit wider variation in age, ranging from three players under 22 to 33-year-old Tomas Zohorna, the oldest player on the team. The second-oldest and by far the most internationally experienced player on the team is 31-year-old captain Jan Kovar. With 29 points in 52 career World Championship games over six previous events, plus five points in six games at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the Czechs will lean on the playmaking centre for both offence and leadership. This past season, Kovar won the scoring titles for both the Swiss National League’s regular season and playoffs, won the title with EV Zug and received the playoff MVP award.

Eight of the 16 forwards on the roster are 25 or younger, including all four NHLers – Dominik Kubalik, Jakub Vrana, Filip Zadina, and Filip Chytil. With 38 and 36 points this season, respectively, wingers Kubalik and Vrana will be expected to lead offensively. The youngest player on the team is 20-year-old Matej Blumel, who is coming off a breakout season with Dynamo Pardubice. 

Dmitrij Jaskin, who recorded 137 points in 133 regular-season and playoff games combined for Dynamo Moscow over the past two seasons and has performed well for the Czech national team in the past, will miss this tournament with an injury.

Coach

Although only 43 years of age, Filip Pesan has established himself as a respected coach in the Czech Republic. He led Liberec to a national title in 2016 and guided the Czech U20 team to a semi-final berth at the 2018 World Juniors – the only time in the last 16 years that’s happened. Over the past several years he’s also played a key role in coaching and player development in the Czech Ice Hockey Association. As already mentioned, this is a young team and several of the players have played for Pesan before, so he should have no trouble getting everybody on the same page. 

If Pesan lacks experience at hockey’s elite levels, his assistants more than make up for that. Between Jaroslav Spacek and Martin Straka, the Czechs have four World Championship gold medals, two Olympic golds (both members of the 1998 team) and nearly 2000 NHL games behind the bench. 

Projected Results

The Czechs, and the Czechoslovaks before them, have never finished worse than seventh place at the World Championships, meaning they’ve never failed to make the quarter-finals since the current playoff format was adopted. Having said that, it’s probable that the Czechs will finish in the top four of Group A but not guaranteed in a group that also includes Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus and Great Britain. While Czech fans will look forward to those games against Russia and Sweden, which are both winnable, the games against the Swiss and Slovaks could be crucial for positioning, and the Czechs will have to be wary of losing points to Denmark and Belarus. With a lot of the top teams missing NHL players, a lot of mid-level squads could see this as their chance to make a move. As usual, once the knockout stage of the tournament begins, most teams remaining have a realistic chance.

Silver… or bust?

Swiss forward Nico Hischier is among the top young players in the NHL

By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

The Swiss have made it to the gold medal game twice since 2013, more times than all other nations except Canada, Finland, Russia, and Sweden. These successes have been the result of greater and more skilled player development, and suggest perhaps the start of a new era in Swiss hockey when getting to the quarter-finals is no longer seen as a success but as the starting point to playing on the final weekend of the World Championship more regularly.

Goal

The Swiss will be led by Reto Berra and Leonardo Genoni. 34-year-old veteran Berra played the U18 in 2005, his first of many tournaments over the next 15 years, notably the 2014 Olympics. He was also on both silver-medal teams at the World Championships (2013, 2018), and this will be his 8th World Championship. 

Genoni led Zug to the Swiss championship a few weeks ago. He also was a teammate of Berra at the 2005 U18 as well as at the 2018 Worlds. He will be appearing in his 7th World Championship. The third goalie is Melvin Nyffeler, a 27-year-old who is making his debut at the senior level for the Swiss.

Defence

The 35-year-old Raphael Diaz will be back for his 8th World Championship. He captained the last three tournaments, as well as the 2018 Olympic team. Alongside him will be a nice blend of youth and veteran talent. At the top end will be four players from the 2018 silver-medal team, notably Michael Fora, Lukas Frick, Mirco Muller, and Ramon Untersander. Romain Loeffel is playing in his fourth WM since 2015. 

Relative newcomers include Janis Moser, who at 20 is the youngest player on the team, as well as 21-year-old Tobias Greisser. Jonas Siegenthaler, who played three U18s and three U20s, is making his debut at the senior level. Santeri Alatalo is the year’s feel-good story. The 31-year-old has played for Zug for years but is only now representing his adopted country at an IIHF event for the first time after gaining Swiss citizenship. 

Forwards

Andres Ambuhl joins record-setting company this year as he dresses for his 16th World Championship. He ties countryman Mathias Seger for the most top-level World Championship tournaments of all time, and at 37 he still has a bit of time to improve on that. He has also played in four Olympics, won silver at the 2013 Worlds, and captained the 2016 team. 

Joining him will be three of the best young players in the NHL, starting with New Jersey’s Nico Hischier. Drafted 1st overall by the Devils in 2017, he became one of the youngest captains in NHL history when he was given the “C” this past February at age 22. 

Also accepting an invitation is Philipp Kurashev from the Chicago Blackhawks. The 21-year-old started the season in Lugano before joining the Hawks and making his NHL debut in January. And the third NHLer who has developed by leaps and bounds in San Jose is Timo Meier. The 24-year-old has been one of the Sharks’ top forwards the last few years for both his scoring and two-way play. 

Three late bloomers who have become top members of the Swiss national team later in their careers are Tristan Scherwey, Joel Vermin, and Samuel Walser, and other veteran include Sven Andrighetto and Gregory Hofmann, who scored two goals for Zug a couple of weeks ago to secure the team’s first league championship in 23 years. 

Dario Simion will be making his senior debut after a successful junior career in which he made two U18 appearances and three more at the World Juniors.  Alessio Bertaggia, 27, and Killian Mottet, 30, will also be making their belated debuts. Enzo Corvi, who finished fourth in scoring this past season in Switzerland, just behind Andrighetto, will also be in the lineup.

Head Coach

The 45-year-old Patrick Fischer is now in his fifth consecutive World Championship. He was also behind the bench for the 2018 Olympics and took the team to the gold medal game of the 2018 Worlds. He is the first Swiss coach in more than a quarter century and has taken the team to the quarter-finals in three of the previous four years. 

Projected Results

This is a formidable Swiss lineup. Take them lightly at your own risk. Given the level of commitment from the team’s best players, this is a group that would be disappointed if it didn’t at least qualify for the playoff round. After that, who knows, but a podium finish would not be out of the question or too much to expect.

Kazakhs return after five-year gap

Nikita Mikhailis, the head coach’s son, was among the key players in leading Kazakhstan to promotion

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

There’s good news and bad news for Kazakhstan. The Eagles are back in the top division for the first time since 2016 and, in the absence of relegation this year, are certain to remain among the elite for the first time since its 2004-2006 run. However, the team’s preparations were disrupted when a member of the party tested positive for COVID after a warm-up game against Belarus, and Yuri Mikhailis’ roster has been hit by the withdrawals of forward Nigel Dawes and goalie Henrik Karlsson. While two prominent dual-nationals sit it out this year, the class of 2021 features several new faces, prompting hopes that the Central Asian country might be looking at a positive handover to a new generation.

Goalies

Henrik Karlsson, Kazakhstan’s naturalized Swedish goalie, is unavailable for this year’s tournament. The 37-year-old was unable to agree an extension after five seasons with Barys Nur-Sultan in the KHL and does not wish to risk injury while he looks for a new contract elsewhere. Sergei Kudryavtsev, often Karlsson’s understudy for club and country, played just five games in 2020/21 and is not expected to be involved in Riga. No other Kazakh-eligible goalie featured in the KHL this term, so the door is open for the goaltending prospects learning their trade in Kazakhstan’s Pro Hokei Ligasy. Nikita Boyarkin, 22, recently backstopped Saryarka to that championship and got the nod for Kazakhstan’s warm-up game against Belarus on May 13. He did his hopes no harm with a shut-out in a 2-0 victory.

Andrei Shutov (Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk) and Demid Yeremeyev (Temirtau) complete the goaltending line-up. Both are youngsters preparing for their first major international tournaments as adults.

Defence

The contribution of several of Kazakhstan’s dual-nationals may be a matter for debate, but the performances of Darren Dietz are universally welcomed. Dietz, an Alberta native, joined Barys in 2017 with the unenviable task of filling Kevin Dallman’s skates. And the 27-year-old has delivered in fine style. A leader on and off the ice for club and country, he has also won favour with local fans for his willingness to engage with local culture, reciting Pushkin – in Russian – at the 2020 KHL All-Star Game and referencing the great Kazakh writer Abai during last year’s anniversary celebrations. At times, he can be poetry in motion on the ice as well, with an impressive record of 141 (50+91) points in 213 KHL games, plus 10 (3+7) in eight competitive games for the national team.

Dietz is joined by two other imports, Jesse Blacker and Viktor Svedberg. Blacker debuted for Kazakhstan in Olympic qualification in Feb. 2020, while former Chicago Blackhawk Svedberg is poised to make his first appearances for Kazakhstan this month. Previously the Gothenburg native played 10 exhibition games for Sweden but has since transferred his sporting citizenship.

There are no survivors from the 2016 roster this time as Kazakhstan looks to promote a new generation of players. Among the home-grown talent on display, there is excitement about Valeri Orekhov, a 21-year-old who has already established himself on the Barys roster in the KHL. Samat Daniyar, 22, makes his senior international debut after securing himself a place in the KHL, while 25-year-old Ivan Stepanenko of Beibarys is the only representative from the Pro Ligasy on the blue line.

Forwards

Nikita Mikhailis, son of head coach Yuri, isn’t in the team just because Dad says so. Two years ago, the 25-year-old led the scoring as Kazakhstan won Division IA gold on home ice. Mikhailis potted 6 (4+2) points in five games there. He also cleared 30 points in his last three seasons with Barys, despite competing for ice time with the team’s imports. He’ll be expected to lead the offence in Riga, along with Kirill Panyukov, a 23-year-old who caught the eye in the recent KHL play-offs. The Astana-born left winger scored 7 (4+3) in six post season outings, reminding everyone of the potential that saw him captain Kazakhstan’s juniors in 2017 and earning himself a recall to the national team plus a move to KHL powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan.

Panyukov isn’t the only Kazakh forward heading to a big Russian club. Dmitri Shevchenko is set to join Gagarin Cup winner Avangard after four seasons with Barys. The 25-year-old centre isn’t a prolific scorer, but his physical presence – 195 cm, 101 kg – make him a formidable opponent on both sides of the puck.

In the past, Kazakhstan has called on several dual-national forwards – Dawes, most prominently, but also the likes of Brandon Bochenski and Dustin Boyd. This year, however, Curtis Valk is the only import on the forward line. The 28-year-old, whose solitary NHL appearance came for the Florida Panthers in 2017/18, made his international debut in last year’s Olympic Qualifying tournament and recently signed up for a fourth season with Barys.

Three players return from the previous team to represent Kazakhstan at this level: Roman Starchenko, Yevgeni Rymarev and Alexander Shin all played in Moscow in 2016. The latter is one of four players from Pro Ligasy to be in contention, along with Sayan Daniyar (Nomad Nur-Sultan), Artyom Likhotnikov and Kirill Savitski (both Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk).

Coaching

Yuri Mikhailis takes charge of his country’s team for the first time at these championships. The 52-year-old spent most of his playing career on the blue line in his home town of Karaganda and had four seasons in the Russian top flight immediately after the break-up of the USSR. His coaching career began in 2007 with Barys-2 and he has worked almost exclusively within the Barys organisation since then. Mikhailis’ first international experience came in 2010 when he was an assistant coach for the U18s Division I campaign and he has since contributed at all levels, including the Asian Winter Games and the Universiade.

In 2014, Mikhailis was named head coach of Nomad Astana, the Barys farm club, and he led the team to the Kazakh title in 2017. This season was his first behind the bench in the KHL with Barys, where he led the team to the play-offs despite struggling with strict COVID restrictions in Kazakhstan and playing almost the entire season without spectators. Mikhailis admitted that stepping up to coach in the KHL and at international level represented a significant learning curve, but hopes that his team can make an impact in Riga.

“At one of our early meetings, I told the players that the national team won’t face the same pressure as usual,” he said in an interview with KHL.ru. “That’s liberating, and when we have the right to make mistakes, that can play into our hands. In every other season that Kazakhstan played in the elite division, there was always this big task to halt the elevator and preserve our status. Of course, that piled on the pressure, the guys often got nervous and risked burning out in some games. Now, though, everyone is preparing in a good mood, everyone is getting into shape and looking forward to it.”

Prospects

Although Kazakhstan’s Minister of Sport and Culture, Aktoty Raimkulova, believes that Kazakhstan has every chance of following its promotion in 2019 by making the playoffs in Riga, few others share that optimism. An elevator team since 2006, the Kazakhs will be hoping that this season, in the absence of relegation, they can start to build a team capable of establishing itself in the top division for an extended period. Outperforming Italy will be regarded as a minimum target this time around, while signs of success against the likes of Norway, Latvia or Germany would be evidence of genuine progress.

Sweden heavy on SHL, KHL talent

Oscar Lindberg, the leading KHL scorer among Swedes this season, won IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold in 2013 and 2017

By Lucas AykroydIIHF.com

A Swede in an Oliver Ekman-Larsson jersey walks into a bar and sits down with a Finn in a Marko Anttila jersey. They order beers. After a long silence, the Swede raises his glass and says: “Cheers!” The Finn says: “Are we here to talk about all your NHL players or are we here to drink?”

In a typical recent IIHF World Championship year, this variation on an old joke about Swedes and Finns would ring true. In 2020, IIHF.com reported there were more than twice as many Swedish NHLers (113) as Finnish NHLers (50). Sweden’s last two gold medals featured a big NHL turnout in 2017 (19 NHLers) and 2018 (20 NHLers), while its classic Nordic rival relied on KHL and Liiga players en route to gold in 2011 and 2019.

However, 2021 is, of course, not a typical year, and Swedish head coach Johan Garpenlov has announced a roster with just five NHLers. We can still expect smart, well-structured team play, and securing a quarter-final berth should not pose a problem. Yet memories of the 2018 Olympics – where Germany stunned an NHL-free Sweden 4-3 in overtime in the quarter-final – are still fresh, and the 2019 Worlds – where the Swedes (21 NHLers) fell 5-4 in overtime to an unheralded Finnish squad in the quarter-final – reinforced that there are no guarantees.

In 2006, Tre Kronor made history by winning Worlds gold in Riga after claiming Olympic gold in Turin. Another triumph in the Latvian capital is possible, but it won’t be easy.

Goal

Sometimes, men have a mid-life crisis in their late 30’s. Top Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth is showing no signs of that. One of 11 SHL players on Garpenlov’s roster, the 38-year-old Fasth just backstopped Vaxjo Lakers to their second championship in four years. During the regular season, his 1.79 GAA and 93.4 save percentage led the league.

The former Anaheim Duck and Edmonton Oiler, whose last IIHF run was at the 2018 Olympics, has seen it all in international competition. Fasth was named tournament MVP and Best Goalie 10 years ago when Slovakia hosted the Worlds for the first time, but those honours were tarnished by Sweden’s 6-1 loss to Finland in the gold medal game. He held down the fort for Sweden in the preliminary round at the 2017 Worlds until Henrik Lundqvist took over en route to gold in Cologne. This could be Fasth’s final hurrah on this stage, so he’ll want to make the most of it.

Samuel Ersson, 21, enters these Worlds on a positive note after his first season as an SHL starter with Brynas IF (42 GP, 2.96 GAA, 91.1 save percentage). Even though his club had to battle HV71 to avoid relegation to HockeyAllsvenskan, Ersson outdueled ex-NHLer Jonas Gustavsson in a 4-1 series victory.

Adam Reideborn, 29, joins Ersson as a Worlds rookie, and he’s looking to showcase himself for a new contract somewhere after two seasons with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan. Reideborn was sidelined with COVID-19 in November, but still amassed creditable numbers (1.82 GAA, 93.1 save percentage) in a team-leading 29 starts. He took a back seat to Timur Bilyalov as Kazan marched to a seven-game conference final exit versus eventual champion Avangard Omsk.

Defence

“Solid rather than spectacular” sums up this year’s Tre Kronor blue line. Certainly, Garpenlov doesn’t have a proven offensive catalyst like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or John Klingberg to lead the rush or ignite the power play.

That said, it’ll be intriguing to see if Nils Lundkvist’s rapid ascent continues in his first Worlds. Lundkvist, a 2018 first-round pick of the New York Rangers (28th overall), joined some elite company recently, as the 20-year-old Lulea star led all SHL defencemen with 14 goals and took home the Salming Trophy. A mobile presence who sees the ice well, Lundkvist should be able to shoulder his responsibilities in Riga as he seeks an upgraded IIHF medal – he owns bronze medals from the 2018 U18 Worlds and 2020 World Juniors.

Henrik Tommernes ranked second among Swiss NLA rearguards in scoring (13+24=37 in 44 GP), and if that carries over into his Worlds debut at age 30, so much the better. KHL veterans like Klas Dahlbeck (CSKA Moscow) and Victor Loov (Jokerit) can offer steady defensive play and measured physicality. But to reiterate, don’t expect to see the second coming of Victor Hedman here.

Forward

Multiple Swedish attackers are seeking a reset in Riga, and Rickard Rakell tops that list.

The talented Anaheim Ducks left winger dazzled in 2018, scoring a career-high 34 NHL goals and winning gold in Copenhagen with a tournament all-star performance (6+8=14). In this abbreviated 2020-21 season, Rakell sagged to 28 points (9+19=28 in 52 GP). The three-time World Junior participant, who captured gold in Calgary in 2012, recently described participating in this year’s Worlds as a “no-brainer.” If he rediscovers his scoring touch under Garpenlov, that might also put him back on the minds of Tre Kronor’s management for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Rakell’s Anaheim teammate Isac Lundestrom (6+3=9 in 41 GP) will make his Worlds debut at age 21. Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson, who was seventh in 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy voting experienced a nightmarish campaign this year, but still came second in team scoring (13+19=32 in 56 games). The 26-year-old Ornkoldsvik native could be a trigger man on the power play.

The remaining NHL forwards include Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) and Marcus Sorensen (San Jose Sharks). Both bring five years of NHL experience, but Sorensen is a Worlds first-timer, while Kempe showed at his two previous Worlds (2017, 2018) that he’s capable of more offence (5+9=14 in 18 GP) in IIHF play than in North America.

For Skelleftea fans, this tournament should be fun to watch. Oscar Lindberg, a Skelleftea native and ex-NHLer who led all KHL Swedes in scoring (11+25=36) with Dynamo Moskva, has a chance to win his third gold medal (2013, 2017). Jesper Froden joined forces with longtime Skelleftea men Par Lindholm and Andreas Wingerli as the northern Swedish club incurred a tough 3-2 semi-final series defeat against Rogle BK. 

It’s unlikely this forward group will spearhead the kind of offensive charge we saw in 2018 (43 goals) or 2019 (45 goals), but they should still outscore most Group A teams.

Coaching

This is a monumental opportunity for Johan Garpenlov. The 53-year-old, who logged 609 NHL games and added Worlds gold in 1991 and 1992 as a player, served as Rikard Gronborg’s assistant coach at the last three Worlds and the 2018 Olympics. Despite the disappointing fifth-place finishes in Korea and Slovakia, Garpenlov isn’t going to reinvent the wheel in his IIHF debut as head coach by steering Sweden away from its traditional puck possession game. (With all due respect to Hardy Nilsson and his “Torpedo Hockey” experiment of the early 2000’s.)

Going back to the Finns (ahem), this is really more about whether Garpenlov can pull a Jukka Jalonen, so to speak, by coaxing gold out of the least formidable Swedish Worlds roster on paper since 2016’s sixth-place crew. If he, along with assistant coaches Marcus Ragnarsson and Markus Akerblom, can produce at least a top-three finish in 2021, it enhances his odds of going to Beijing in 2022.

Projected Results

If things go according to form, Sweden will vie for top spot in Group A with the Russians, possibly facing a challenge from the NHL-bolstered Czech Republic. However, “if” is a key word, given the unusual construction of this year’s rosters.

While Sweden’s blue line corps isn’t Hall of Fame-worthy, don’t forget that the non-NHL roster at the 2018 Olympics limited opponents to a mere five goals in four games. Ultimately, success or failure in Riga is more likely to come down to whether the Swedes build enough offensive chemistry to score at key times in the playoffs or not. A medal of some shade is viable.

Latvians optimistic at home

Veteran forward Kaspars Daugavins will for the second time after 2006 play a World Championship on home ice

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

While they aren’t expected to have much in the way of fan support in the arena, the Latvians are nonetheless playing at home and hoping that can be an advantage. They probably won’t have any full-time NHLers, but they will have an internationally experienced lineup of players used to playing with each other and for coach Bob Hartley, they should prove to be a tough opponent for any team in the group and strongly contend for a quarter-final berth. Beyond the quarter-finals is usually nothing more than a pipe dream for a team like Latvia, but are the conditions right for that to happen this year?

Goal

Historically, this has been a position of strength for Latvia, with Arturs Irbe, Edgars Masalskis, Kristers Gudlevskis and Elvis Merzlikins minding the nets and turning in big performances over the past two decades. However, with the Merzlikinses expecting a baby this off-season, the team will be looking for somebody new to come up big between the pipes. 

At this point, the starting job looks up for grabs between three men: Janis Kalnins, Matiss Kivlenieks and Ivars Puninovs. Kalnins, the oldest of the three at 29, has established himself as bonafide No. 1 goalie in the KHL with Jokerit Helsinki over the past three seasons, 24-year-old Kivlenieks, Merzlikins’s understudy in Columbus, played two NHL games this season and eight for the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, and 26-year-old Ivars Puninovs, a long-time Swiss resident who starts for the SCL Tigers in that country’s National League. Kalnins and Puninovs appeared in one game each at the 2017 Worlds in Cologne,  behind starter Merzlikins, while Kivlenieks was the team’s No. 3 man in 2018.

Defence

Latvia’s preliminary roster includes six defencemen who have all played in at least two World Championships previously, led by 34-year-old Kristaps Sotnieks of Dinamo Riga, who will be playing in his 12th championship and 32-year-old Arturs Kulda, a former NHLer and KHLer who played this past season in Germany with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers. In addition to those two, Czech-based Oskars Cibulskis (33) and Ralfs Freibergs (29) bring plenty of experience to the back end.

Added to the roster from the AHL are Kristians Rubins of the Toronto Marlies and Janis Jaks of the Bakersfield Condors. At 195 cm and 100 kg, 23-year-old Rubins brings size and youth but even he has World Championship experience from 2018. Flexible Gunars Skorcovs could slot in as a seventh defenceman or a 13th forward. 

Forwards

The forward lines are also chock full of World Championship experience, led by Mikelis Redlihs, who will be appearing in his 13th tournament, and followed by Gints Meija, Andris Dzerins, Kaspars Daugavins, Lauris Darzins, Miks Indrasis, Ronalds Kenins and Roberts Bukarts, who have all played at least seven times previously. Other than Kenins, who plays for Lausanne HC and has played most of his junior and professional career in Switzerland, the core of Latvia’s forwards all play in the KHL. Darzins and Daugavins are both players who have produced a fair bit of offence for Latvia in the past, and Daugavins is coming off a 49-point season with Vityaz Podolsk. A younger player that may get a look is 25-year-old centre Rodrigo Abols, who brings size (193 cm, 93 kg) and skill. He’s just coming off a season where he produced 35 points in 47 SHL games with Orebo HK and then put up 10 points in nine playoff games. Despite his age, he’s already appeared in four World Championships, so he knows the system.  

Due to injuries and impending free-agency, eligible NHLers Zemgus Girgensons and Rudolfs Balcers won’t be playing for Latvia this year, and Teodors Blugers is currently playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Coach

It’s been a good season for Latvian national team head coach Bob Hartley, who just finished guiding Avangard Omsk to a Gagarin Cup title in his third season behind the KHL team’s bench. Hartley can add that ring to a trophy case that includes a Stanley Cup, a Swiss title, and a Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year. Hartley is a highly respected coach and this will be his fourth World Championship behind the Latvian bench. In each of the first three, the players bought completely into his system, were competitive in every game and finished either fourth or fifth in their group. With a roster of players that have all played for him before, the former coach of the Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames can probably expect more of the same on home ice in Riga. 

Projected Results

Latvia is always in the mix to make the quarter-finals and there’s no question that this a realistic goal for the team this year. While the four top-ranked teams in Group B – Canada, Finland, the United States and Germany – will be missing NHL players to varying degrees and icing lineups that are not terribly experienced internationally, the Latvians will pretty much have the same lineup they always have and should feel confident about their ability to take enough points from those teams to make the cut-off. On the other side of the coin, the Latvians will have to watch out for Norway, Kazakhstan and Italy and make sure they don’t give away any points to those teams. Their four pre-tournament games this spring against Group A teams Slovakia and Switzerland were all close and low-scoring, with one win and three losses. 

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.

Hope springs eternal for Norway

Norway’s Jonas Holos, who will play his 15th IIHF World Championship in Latvia, averaged 23:11 in ice time per game at the last Worlds in 2019

By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com

In hockey, you’ve got to stay in the moment and keep your eyes on the puck. Yet in the uncertain year of 2021, with the Beijing Olympics looming, you’ve also got to look toward the future. That reality will affect the shape of Norway’s IIHF World Championship squad in Latvia, with several key veterans opting to save their strength for the home-ice Olympic qualification tournament in late August.

The Norwegians, heading into their 15th consecutive top-level Worlds, haven’t cracked the quarter-finals since 2012, and they came 12th at the last tournament in 2019. That said, their eighth-place finish at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics equalled their previous best from Sapporo 1972. If everything goes perfectly, another top-eight finish in Riga isn’t out of the question for coach Petter Thoresen’s troops, many of whom earn their living in Sweden or Germany. Let’s dig into how they might fare in Group B.

Goal

There could be a real battle for crease time among the three goalies returning from the 2019 Worlds.

Henrik Haukeland, who won the 2020 Gullpucken as the Norwegian Player of the Year, performed creditably as an SHL starter in 31 games with Farjestad BK (2.55 GAA, 91.0 save percentage). Meanwhile, Jonas Arntzen, who didn’t see the ice in Slovakia, has matured at age 23. Serving as 2013 Worlds gold medalist Jhonas Enroth’s backup with Orebro HK (2.87 GAA, 90.4 save percentage), Arntzen stepped in and made 30 saves in a 2-1 overtime win versus Leksands IF to complete a four-game quarter-final sweep.

You can’t count out Henrik Holm, who enjoyed the lion’s share of starts (five) at the last Worlds. The 30-year-old, a six-time champion with Stavanger Oilers, put up elite numbers (2.03 GAA, 92.5 save percentage) before the Norwegian season was officially cancelled in mid-March due to COVID-19 concerns.

Defence

Jonas Holos has anchored the Norwegian blue line like a tireless, indestructible cyborg for years. The 33-year-old national team captain, who wore an “A” with Linkoping HC for the second straight season, sits at 95 career Worlds games, and can join the 100-game club in his 15th Worlds. Among active players, Holos ranks second only to 37-year-old Swiss forward Andres Ambuhl (107 games played), who is set to tie countryman Mathias Seger’s all-time record for most tournaments (16).

Alexander Bonsaksen, a 34-year-old three-time Olympian who captains Liiga’s KooKoo, is out due to hip surgery. That will increase the demands on other veterans like Erlend Lesund (Rogle BK) and Johannes Johannesen (Dusseldorfer EG). Not overly physical as a group, the Norwegian D-men must rely on solid positional play and good first passes to avoid getting eaten up against Group B powerhouses such as Canada and Finland.

Forward

Alas, the biggest names aren’t coming. Mats Zuccarello, Norway’s all-time NHL points leader, is preparing for another playoff run with the Minnesota Wild, and Patrick Thoresen, whose 39 points as Storhamar’s captain topped the Norwegian scoring race, is resting up for the Olympic qualification. But that doesn’t mean Norway lacks hope.

Centre Mathis Olimb, still a nifty playmaker at age 35, led Wolfsburg Grizzlys with nine points in 10 games en route to the DEL final. His younger brother Ken Andre Olimb, with whom Mathis enjoys some Sedin-like chemistry, could be a difference-maker too in his first Worlds since 2018.

If Valerenga captain Tobias Lindstrom can repeat his 2019 team-leading performance (4+2=6), that would be a major plus. And watch out for the skill and speed of 21-year-old Mathis Emilio Pettersen, fresh off his AHL rookie campaign with the Stockton Heat, Calgary’s affiliate. The 21-year-old is healthy after struggling with injuries this season. Dubbed the “Norwegian Gretzky” for his YouTube moves as a preteen, Pettersen will be eager to make an impact in his Worlds debut.

Coaching

Norwegian hockey is a tight-knit family, and head coach Petter Thoresen – Patrick Thoresen’s father and a five-time Olympian as a player – knows he must cultivate that family feeling for these underdogs to succeed. That’s especially true since Norway, with a limited player pool, continues to lean on its core of aging veterans.

The 59-year-old must manage his team’s morale and energy properly during back-to-back struggles against Finland and Canada (25 and 26 May). It’s about making sure they have enough left in the tank for host Latvia (28 May) and the also-winnable group finale against Kazakhstan (31 May). The Norwegians will likely do better 5-on-5 than on special teams, as their power play was ranked 12th (13.6 percent) and their PK 13th (69.5 percent) at the last Worlds.

This will be Thoresen’s fourth straight Worlds since taking over from longtime bench boss Roy Johansen. So far, his best result has been 2017’s 11th-place finish.

Projected Results

Let’s take a moment to dream. Despite not icing a star-studded roster, the Norwegians could potentially win four games in Group B. History is on their side.

They face Germany in their opener. They haven’t lost a Worlds game to the Germans since 2007, with wins of 3-2 in 2008, 12-4 in 2012, and 5-4 (shootout) in 2018. Norway also pushed Marco Sturm’s eventual Olympic silver medallists in a 2-1 shootout loss in group play in PyeongChang. Then, Game Two is versus Italy, whom Norway hasn’t lost to since 2001. Thoresen’s troops can go out and play pressure-free since there is no relegation in 2021. It all creates a fairly rosy picture.

Yet ultimately, the likelihood is that there’ll be a few slip-ups along the way, and the Norwegians will once again end up around their current position in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking (11th).

Paek inspiring South Korea as coach of national team

By William Douglas – NHL.com

Jim Paek had a special clause in his rookie contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“My father convinced me to put in my first contract an education clause,” he said. “If things don’t work, out the team is responsible for four years of tuition and books.”

The backup plan wasn’t needed.

Paek made history as the first South Korea-born player in the NHL when the defenseman debuted against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 13, 1990.

“I was a ninth-round pick (No. 170 in the 1985 NHL Draft), you don’t have nine rounds in the draft anymore,” he said. “So it was a long hard road for me to get to where I was able to play in the NHL and to play with great players.”

Paek played on the Penguins’ 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup championship teams and scored his first NHL goal in Pittsburgh’s 8-0 win at the Minnesota North Stars that clinched the Cup in Game 6 of the 1991 Final.

The jersey he wore that game hangs in the Hockey is for Everyone display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The jersey he wore that game hangs at the Hockey Hall of Fame

The 54-year-old continues to build his legacy as coach of South Korea’s men’s national team, which competed in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics; it qualified for the first time under his tutelage.

“Jim Paek is a very, very impactful in terms of his presence and contribution to the game itself, not just in Korea but in general for the young kids,” said Alex Kim, a Korean-American former professional player who coaches the Anaheim Jr. Ducks 16 AAA program. He’s also a trainer who has worked with Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson and his younger brother, Toronto Maple Leafs forward prospect Nicholas Robertson; each is Filipino-American. “He was a role model for me as a player and now as a coach. He’s a torch-bearer, if you will.”

Paek said he didn’t think about the significance of his accomplishments early in his NHL career; he was too busy in the moment playing. But he came to recognize his impact when members of the Korean community began telling him he was an inspiration.

“When those young kids say, ‘I’m Korean and playing hockey because of you,’ it’s just a fantastic feeling,” Paek said, “and it brings you back home, brings you back that you are Korean and what a great honor that is.”

Paek was born in Seoul, South Korea, on April 7, 1967, and his family moved to Canada about a year later. His parents, Bong-hyeon and Kyu Hui Paek, maintained their Korean heritage, speaking the language at home to their four children and serving dishes of their homeland.

The family also quickly embraced the ways of their new country. For Paek and his older brother, Phil, that meant playing hockey.

“If you wanted friends, it you wanted something to do, you’re playing hockey,” said Paek, who scored 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) in 217 NHL games for the Penguins, Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators from 1990-95. “Saturday night was family night around the TV watching ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ Hockey was a lifestyle and if you didn’t embrace that you’d be alone.”

inspiration to young Korean kids

Paek rose through the Toronto youth hockey system but didn’t dream about becoming an NHL player until he was drafted by Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League.

“I’m thinking, ‘I might make it, I might make the ultimate goal here,'” he said. “So you push harder, you focus more, become uncomfortable more and get better every day.”

He found himself in new territory when the Penguins called his name in the 1985 draft. No one in his family had ever pursued an athletic career.

“My parents thought education was important,” he said. “I have an older sister who’s a doctor, brother who’s in pharmaceuticals, my younger sister is a lawyer. This was an opportunity to try something different and try to become a professional athlete. I convinced my parents, I convinced my family and they supported me 100 percent.”

Paek played three seasons for Muskegon of the International Hockey League before he made the Penguins roster out of training camp in 1990.

“He earned it,” said Phil Bourque, a Penguins radio color analyst and former teammate. “You can’t think of one thing and say, ‘Wow, Jimmy Paek is really good at this.’ He was just so steady and a great teammate who added some value to the chemistry of our team. … He wanted to win, he wanted to succeed so badly that he became a very important piece to our puzzle.”

Paek played in three regular-season games his rookie season, unable to crack a veteran defense corps that included Hockey Hall of Famers Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.

Pittsburgh sent him to the Canada national team to get him ice time and recalled him as a “black ace,” a depth and practice player, on the Stanley Cup Playoffs roster.

“I’m skating around as a ‘black ace,’ a ninth defenseman and (coach) Bob Johnson comes up to me and says, ‘Keep smilin’, Jim, keep working hard, you never know what’s going to happen.'”

Johnson proved prescient. Three Penguins defensemen — including Coffey — were injured and Paek was thrust into action in the Patrick Division Final against the Washington Capitals.

“Johnson’s words were great advice and it sure paid off,” Paek said. “I played in the (Stanley Cup) Final and I got a goal. You couldn’t write that story any better.”

Paek is name is engraved on the cup twice.

Paek won the Cup again with the Penguins in 1992, this time with four assists in 19 playoff games.

For the next chapter, he hopes to get his men’s national team into the 2022 Beijing Olympics. They are scheduled to play in a qualifying tournament Aug. 26-29.

Paek’s longer-range goal is returning to North America to coach in the NHL. He was an assistant for Grand Rapids, the Detroit Red Wings American Hockey League affiliate, for nine seasons before joining the South Korea program in 2014.

“As a coach, I want to coach at the highest level,” he said. “Hopefully, one day a general manager will give me an opportunity to coach a team in the NHL.”

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