By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
Latvia is participating in the top division of the World Juniors since 2013, and while they have a stronger team than the team they’re replacing, Belarus, they will have an extremely tough time trying to stay alive.
Goalies: There is no question that this is the most important position on the team, as is the case for any outmatched international hockey team. Last year’s goaltender, Matīss Edmunds Kivlenieks, graduated to the men’s age bracket so he won’t be able to make an appearance when it matters most. Gustavs Davis Grigals should be the guy to watch this year after backing up Latvia at the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in November. He has another year in him if they manage to stick up for another tournament, but the Dinamo Riga will need to play quite outstanding to get the job done since they’ll be heavily outmatched in every single contest.
Defence: The lowest ranked team in the World Juniors always has a rough time defensively, and that’s to be expected again with Latvia. But with a core group of the defensemen currently 19-years-old, that does help them a bit when playing against some tough, older competition all-around. One of the better defenders is NCAA blue liner Karlis Cukste. A fifth-round selection by the San Jose Sharks in 2015, Cukste is a big, two-way defender who will almost certainly finish as one of the top scorers on Latvia. His transition to the NCAA with Quinnipiac has seen Cukste record nine points in 19 games prior to the World Juniors, which are great stats for a rookie defenseman.
Joining him on the top pairing should be Medicine Hat Tigers defensemen Kristians Rubins. Competing in his third straight U20 tournament for Latvia, Rubins has five points in ten games in Division IA action with his country, while having competed in various other tournaments along the way. In WHL play, Rubins is also sitting at .500 when it comes to offense, scoring 13 points in 26 games after transferring over from VIK Västerås HK in Sweden over the summer. Another third-year member of the U20 team is Maksims Ponomarenko, who is seen more as a defensive defenseman. Having scored just a single goal in ten games, Ponomarenko will likely be used in a physical, shutdown role compared to the previous two defensemen. Eduards Hugo Jansons could see some time with Ponomarenko after a good pair of exhibition games against Kazakhstan early in December, while Kristaps Zile looks to impress again after captaining Latvia in 2016.
Forwards: Perhaps the best offensive option for Latvia lies in the hands of Martins Dzierkals, a third-round draft pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. This will be his third, and final time representing Latvia at the U20 level in an official IIHF tournament, with the Latvian star putting up eight points in ten games over the past two Division IA tournaments. He’ll be a leader after skating as an underaged forward the past two years, and that’s promising for a team looking at a strong result to stay alive for another year. He’ll be joined by San Jose Sharks prospect Rudolfs Balcers on the first line, with Balcers playing well with the U20 team in exhibition contests last year. Erlends Klavins should be the number one centre for the team, with the 18-year-old poised to make his U20 team debut for Latvia. Klavins performed well for the U18 team last year, putting up six points in seven games, and has been a valuable third-line option for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.
In terms of 2017 NHL Draft prospects, Latvia has a few names to choose from. One of those is Oshawa Generals forward Renars Krastenbergs, one of Latvia’s best players at the 2016 Under-18’s thanks to eight points in seven games. Just 17, Krastenbergs has impressed with ten points in 30 games in the OHL this year, but should evolve into something even stronger in the future. Deniss Smirnovs, who skates with the Genève-Servette U20 team in Switzerland, has shown strong flashes this year in Junior A and has earned attention from NHL scouts as well.
Other strong players on the roster include Erlends Klavins, who has adjusted well in his initial campaign in North America in the USHL, returning U20 forward Rihards Puide and University of Maine commit Eduards Tralmaks.
Projection: Unlike Belarus the year before, who had three players eligible to return from their Division IA winning team to the top tournament a year later, Latvia had 11 returning options to choose from. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be enough to keep their hopes alive, and their odds of a victory against the likes of Canada, Russia or USA just aren’t likely. Their best bet is to take down Switzerland or Denmark in the regulation round, but even that will be a challenge in its own.
While the team does have some bright spots, scoring won’t be their forte. Like most bottom-ranked teams, Latvia will need to rely on playing strong defensively and hoping to chip in occasionally with a few goals here and there. Just don’t expect them to compete for anything other than one of the two bottom spots.