By Steven Ellis –

When Belarus participated at the 2016 World Juniors, it’s fair to say they were one of the worst newly-promoted teams in many years. With all their stars from the previous year graduated to the next level, the squad was left with little hope and nothing to show for.

Now they’re back, but it’s a different story. Sure, the team still has little chance at staying up in the top group, but didn’t everyone say that about Denmark in 2015? Belarus has something they didn’t have two years ago, and that’s familiarity. Many of their key players from a year ago are back, and even some guys return from the 2016 tournament with more experience under their belt.

Goaltending: Every time a team comes up to the top division, it’s expected that their starting goalie will need to be incredible. Mareks Mitens was spectacular at points for Latvia last year, and George Sorenson was one of the best stories of the 2015 tournament. Is it time for Andrei Grishenko to be the answer for Belarus? After being one of the main reasons why Belarus survived the relegation round at the recent Under-18 tournament, he better be. Grischenko had a good Four Nations tournament in mid-November and helped lead his team to the tournament victory for the second straight year. Acting as Belarus’ U20 starter in the domestic league, Grischenko has been one of his team’s best players and will need to keep that momentum going on the big stage in Buffalo.

Defencemen: The goaltending will need to be spectacular, mainly because the defence will be so overworked and overmatched by some of the game’s best junior hockey players. They’ll be counting on Vladislav Yeryomenko, who has been an integral piece for the Calgary Hitmen alongside future NHL defenceman Jake Bean. Sitting at nearly a point-per-game in his second WHL campaign, Yeryomenko will end up smoking last year’s offensive total out of the water and will bring a two-way presence to the Belarusian blueline. He was Belarus’ best player at the recent Under-18 tournament and was integral in helping get Belarus promoted to the top tournament, so expect him to get a heavy workload this year.

As an 18-year-old a year ago, Vladislav Martynyuk had quite the campaign with Belarus’ U20 team in league action, finishing third in team scoring with 24 points. Midway through the year, he helped Belarus win the gold medal at the Division IA World Juniors, leading the tournament in assists by a defenceman with four. A year prior, he was named the U18 Division IA top defenceman after leading the defencemen with six assists, also helping his team earn promotion.

Another returning name from the team a year ago, Dmitri Deryabin, could also earn some time in relief of Belarus’ two biggest blueline assets. He currently leads all Belarus U20 defencemen in team scoring and has definitely earned his ice time. Losing Prince Albert Raiders defender Sergei Sapego to a hand injury definetly will hurt the squad, but it will give a chance for some of their local guys to get some ice time. Whatever you do, though, don’t expect Belarus to be strong overall in the defensive department.

Forwards: Belarus won’t be beating any teams in the scoring department and may not actually lead a game until (maybe) the relegation round. Having your key players score at the domestic level is fine, but when it comes to shooting on future NHL star goaltenders, it’s a totally different story. Second-year Owen Sound Attack forward Maksim Sushko will be counted upon to drive pucks to the net, and after spending the first half of the season as a point-per-game forward at the age of 18, he’s had a nice start to the campaign. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect didn’t have that great of a tournament for Belarus at last year’s DIA event, but as a 17-year-old, that was expected. He was Belarus’ top player on the 2016 Under-18 World Junior team, posting six points in five games to help Belarus on their run to gold.

It starts to thin out a bit CHL-wise after Sushko, however. Artyom Baltruk started the season with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings but parted ways with the club after just five games. Baltruk hasn’t overly adjusted to life back in Belarus, but in a bottom six role, he could offer the team some depth due to his ability to switch between center and winger. Igor Martynov has had a better season in the WHL, putting up 14 points in his first 25 games of action as a third line winger for Victoria.

Minsk native Alexander Lukashevich will be used frequently as a 19-year-old. With over a point-per-game halfway through the year, Lukashevich has been able to find the net on many occasions and currently leads the club in scoring. Then there is Nazar Anismov, who’s as good of a goal scorer as Belarus could get. One of Belarus’ top players at the most recent Four Nations event, Anismov has graduated from an explosive division two season a year ago to become one of the most dangerous scoring threats on Belarus’ U20 club team. Paired with Lukashevich and potentially Sushko, Belarus has at least one decent forward combination to work with.

Outside of their top scoring threats, Belarus will need a couple of goals out of the rest of their depth. Viktor Bovbel comes to mind after a nice Four Nations tournament and a good season in Belarus. Ivan Drozdov has also been fantastic for Belarus, moving over to Belarus’ U20 team after recording five points in four games with Yunost Minsk. Don’t forget about his impressive seven-point performance at the Belarus Cup earlier in the season, either.

Projection: Belarus has some offensive weapons, but after that? Not much to work with. It’ll be a tough tournament for the team, that won’t score much and will need a miracle of a goaltending performance to steal a game or force another to overtime. Getting points at any point they possibly can is essential, but with games against Sweden and Russia to kick off the tournament, they’ll spend most of their time playing catch-up. Expect them to meet up with Denmark or Slovakia in the relegation round.

By now, the Czech’s have got to be sick with mediocrity. When they won their only World Junior tournament back in 2000, Jarmoir Jagr was the NHL’s best player, still in the midst of one of the greatest career’s hockey has ever seen. Now, Jagr is nearly 46 and has played on eight different teams. If you look at the roster that won gold that year, the team’s top scorer, Milan Kraft, was out of the NHL by 2004 and only one player, Martin Havlat, really had much of an NHL career.

So now we’re heading into 2018. The Czech’s haven’t won a medal since 2005 and finishing in fifth or sixth is as common as Canada hosting the tournament. Last year, they fell behind Denmark, who were able to win their first regulation game EVER at the top World Junior level.

But two years removed from an unlikely Hlinka Memorial Tournament championship over the United States, there’s finally a bit more hope for a Czech team trying to turn their fortunes around.

Goaltending: Having played on various Czech national junior teams over his career, many without much to work with, Jakub Škarek’s stats when playing internationally may not look all that impressive. When you dig a bit deeper, however, it’s clear Škarek looks prepared to lead a Czech team with a bit more promise than usual. Škarek represented his nation at the juniors a year ago, during a season that saw him win the most Czech division two league wins and push his team into the top division for the current campaign, on top of an impressive Hlinka Memorial gold medal. He’s had good stats in his first season in the top Czech league, beating out former Boston Bruins prospect and Norwegian national team goalie Lars Volden for the starting role on HC Dukla Jihlava. He’ll be counted upon as an 18-year-old to lead the Czech’s as far as they can go, and if he does return next year, he has the potential to be one of the best goalies in the tournament. That’s a lot of pressure for a young guy, though, so the Czech’s will need to do a good job of protecting their net.

Defensemen: The influx of young stars looking to have their name called at the NHL Draft in June are expected to lead this young team over the next two years. Filip Kral is one of those players. Currently in his first season with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, Kral was given lots of ice time and his offensive nature has been able to flourish. Kral has had a busy year, having played for three different teams in three different leagues, as well as two Champions Hockey League contests.

The lone NHL-drafted prospect on the blue line is Jakub Galvas, a defender Chicago hopes will blossom into a useful player down the line. A strong, two-way defenseman with the ability to be aggressive on a forecheck, Galvas was instrumental in helping the Czech’s win the 2016 Hlinka Memorial tournament, leading all defenders in scoring with two goals and five points in five games. Galvas is currently in his second season with HC Olomouc of the Czech league, where he has already seen his production rise from a season ago. Galvas has looked good against men and may be their best bet on the blue line.

After that, though, the Czech’s start to thin out. In terms of shutdown defenders, Ondrej Vala, who played in three games with the AHL’s Texas Stars a year ago after signing with the club back in September of 2016, has been good for the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. Offensively, he doesn’t put up much, but the Czech’s have used him at every international level, including last year’s World Juniors. Vala will get lots of ice time for the Narodnitym, so expect him to be busy.

HC Plzen defenseman David Kvasnicka is also returning, helping the experienced back end, even if he only played one game with the team a year ago. Kvasnicka was also apart of the dream Hlinka Memorial team back in 2016 and a few months later, he would be the Czech’s best defender at the World Junior A Challenge in Canada. With lots of experience on the international stage, Kvasnicka knows what every emotion feels like when donning his nations colors, but will that translate into any form of success for him and his teammates? They’ll be worked rather hard, after all.

Forwards: The Czech’s, for once, appear to have a very strong forward group to choose from, meaning they’ll have more weapons than usual. Leading the charge is Filip Zadina, a prospect that’s expected to be one of the first five picks in the upcoming draft. The third top scorer at the Hlinka Memorial two years ago, Zadina has done everything right in his young career and is simply a scoring machine. One of the QMJHL’s best players, Zadina transferred over from the Czech league, where he had just two points in 25 games, and has become one of the best imports the CHL has seen in years (something Halifax is really good at). Zadina has been a polarizing figure wherever he’s played and had a whopping 31 points in 22 games with the Czech U18 team last year. If all goes well, Zadina will be the team’s top left winger throughout the tournament and be counted on for big goals throughout his first World Junior tournament.

One of the biggest question marks was whether or not Filip Chytil would be able to play following an injury in early December. After missing just a few games, Chytil was ready to represent the Czech’s just months after getting drafted 21st overall by the New York Rangers. In his first season with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the dynamic offensive player was playing at nearly a point per game in the AHL and has even seen a few games with the Rangers, too. Chytil was one of the Czech’s best players at both the Under-18’s and Hlinka Memorial last season while also playing a full season in the Czech league. Chytil has done everything right at a young age and it’s hard to believe the team should be able to retain him next season unless he makes the jump up to the NHL.

Carolina Hurricanes prospect Martin Necas is one of the better European prospects right now, and it’s hard to believe the team will get him for what could be three tournaments overall, especially after being one of the tournament’s best draft-eligible prospects a year ago. Necas has been magnificent any time he’s represented his nation and the Czech’s clearly value him, having made him captain at the 2016 Hlinka Memorial tournament. Necas made the Hurricanes out of training camp but was returned to HC Kometa Brno where he’s currently playing in his second season of professional hockey in the Czech Republic. Necas continues to impress on a team that includes former NHLers Martin Erat and Tomas Vincour and should be a fascinating prospect to follow in Buffalo.

Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin has been around the point-per-game mark all season long with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs and has proven that coming to North America was smart for his future. A big offensive contributor at the U18 level for the Czech’s, Safin has always been among the best against his peers and his shot is one of the scariest in the tournament. You typically won’t have to worry about Safin getting too fancy with the puck, but he gets the job done and is always a factor in his own zone.

The Czech’s have some great depth up front, including centre man Kristian Reichel. The son of former NHLer Robert, Kristian has been good at every international level for the Czech’s, including the past two World Junior A Challenge tournaments. This will be his second World Junior tournament, and with the experience he has, the Czech’s won’t hesitate to use Reichel, even if it’s mainly in a bottom six role. Then there’s Albert Michnac, who, out of nowhere, became the Mississauga Steelheads best player by the time training camp opened up. A 19-year-old with limited experience with the Czech’s, this will be the biggest tournament of his international career, which is fitting given how good he’s been with the defending OHL finalists.

Projection: If the Czech’s are to surprise anybody, they’ll need a near-perfect tournament. This is as good of a squad as they’ve brought, with great depth up front and a solid goalie to work with. Their only glaring concern looks to be their weak back end, but the team has enough talent and chemistry to be a true contender, at least more than in recent years. Expect them to actually compete for a medal this year, but don’t expect anything better than the bronze medal game at best.