International Ice Hockey Federation

Welcome to Buffalo!

Welcome to Buffalo!

2018 World Junior stars ready to shine

Published 27.12.2017 15:46 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Welcome to Buffalo!
The great U.S.-Canada rivalry will be just one highlight of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Defending champion USA and neighbouring rival Canada will play the outdoor game on 29th December at the New Era Field. It will be a re-match of the 2017 final. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Buffalo would love to witness a fairy tale ending. And in one way or another, the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship is sure to provide it.

The host city has endured its share of pro sports disappointments, including the Buffalo Sabres’ two losses in the Stanley Cup finals (1975, 1999). But refreshingly, the World Juniors offer a celebration of youthful exuberance and national pride before its hopefuls refocus on the quest for big bucks in the NHL, KHL, and other pro leagues.

So what will fans at Key Bank Center and Harborcenter have to get excited about between 26 December and 5 January? Lots.

At this tournament, the days of dynasties are done. In an era of growing parity, no nation has won consecutive World Junior titles since Canada’s five-peat in 2009 in Ottawa. Yet the defending champion Americans just might buck that trend in Western New York’s biggest city.

Returning head coach Bob Motzko, who led the U.S. to a dramatic gold-medal shootout victory over Canada last January in Montreal, has oodles of firepower at his disposal. That includes two NHL-experienced forwards in nifty sniper Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oilers) and towering centre Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators). Kieffer Bellows, who scored twice in last year’s final, and Casey Mittelstadt, a 2017 Buffalo first-rounder sometimes compared to a young Phil Kessel, are other names to watch on a roster that also boasts strong defence and goaltending.

Canadian fans will pour across the border to cheer on their team as they seek revenge for 2017’s disappointing denouement. With seven returning players, the ever-dangerous motherland of hockey should play for a medal in Buffalo, as it has at 18 out of the last 19 tournaments. Top goalie Carter Hart has elevated his game this season with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. Current OHL scoring leader Jordan Kyrou, power play quarterback Kale Clague, and Montreal Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete will all get their chance to shine as well. Beating the Americans in the outdoor game at New Era Field on 29 December would make a big statement.

What about Sweden? After three consecutive fourth-place finishes, the Juniorkronorna are hungry to get back on the podium. Fourth-time coach Tomas Monten, who got silver in 2014 on home ice in Malmo, can look to elite youngsters like wispy centre Elias Pettersson, vying for the SHL points lead with Vaxjo Lakers, and rushing defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, the 17-year-old Frolunda prodigy projected as the 2018 NHL Draft’s first overall pick. Alexander Nylander, the top Sabres prospect returning for his third straight tournament, has 21 points in 14 career games, and Michael Nylander’s second son may join the top 10 all-time scorers in World Junior history.

It’s inconceivable the Finns will fare worse than in 2017, when they fired coach Jukka Rautakorpi mid-tournament and came ninth. They won gold in 2014 and 2016, and bench boss Jussi Ahokas, who took gold at the U18 in North Dakota in 2016, could keep that every-second-year trend alive. With Jokerit, gunner Eeli Tolvanen has already matched Yevgeni Kuznetsov’s KHL record for the most points by an 18-year-old (17-15-32). He’s one of six Finnish first-round picks in this year’s NHL draft, including blueliners Miro Heiskanen (#3 overall to Dallas) and Juuso Valimaki (the 2018 captain) and power forward Kristian Vesalainen – all of whom will play in Buffalo.

Can the Russians renew their love affair with the city where they last won gold in 2011? While they don’t have elite forwards like Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Artemi Panarin this time, they already have bragging rights – or make that Bragin rights. Inspirational coach Valeri Bragin has taken his World Junior squads to the final in five out of his six stints. The 61-year-old former Soviet league winger will aim to get back there after settling for bronze last year. Among the attackers, flashy, diminutive Vitali Abramov (Victoriaville Tigres), gifted returnee German Rubtsov (Acadie-Bathurst Titan), and potential-laden Klim Kostin (San Antonio Rampage) will cause problems for opposing goalies. It will be interesting to see how the less-heralded defence and netminding hold up.

Outside those “Big Five” nations, no one has won gold since the Czech Republic in 2001. Under highly touted new coach Filip Pesan (Liberec), the Czechs will lean heavily on offensive forwards Filip Chytil, Martin Necas, and Filip Zadina. They’re a long shot to medal for the first time since 2005’s bronze. Improving on their usual sixth-place finish (2014, 2015, 2017) would be welcome. The slim hopes of neighboring Slovakia, whose lone recent highlight was 2015’s bronze, could lie with forwards Adam Ruzicka (Sarnia Sting) and Marian Studenic (Hamilton Bulldogs).

Denmark will host the senior Worlds for the first time ever in May (Copenhagen and Herning). Can this U20 squad possibly better 2017’s fifth-place finish? The Danes excelled in last year’s preliminary round with wins over Finland and the Czechs, but that’ll be tough to replicate in Group A with the North American superpowers and Finland. Coach Olaf Eller’s roster, though, includes key returnees like goalie Kasper Krog and forwards Jonas Rondberg and Joachim Blichfeld, and even without a bona fide gamebreaker, anything is possible if they play solid team defence.

Speaking of Cinderella teams, the Swiss would love to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their only World Junior medal (1998’s bronze) with another exciting playoff run. Although they gave the U.S. a scare in last year’s quarter-final (a 3-2 loss), they will be hard-pressed to equal that this year, with due respect to the dynamic Philipp Kurashev (Quebec Remparts) and intriguing 17-year-old defenceman Tim Berni (GC Kusnacht Lions),

Newly promoted Belarus, which lost 14-0 to the Americans in a 20 December exhibition, will be in survival mode. The Belarusians have never finished better than ninth (2001, 2002) and will struggle to crack the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Canada (Vancouver and Victoria).

There’s no doubt about it: each of these 10 teams has a chance to craft its own fairy tale next to the Buffalo River over the holidays. This tournament is quick, intense and passionate – like youth itself. Get ready for unfettered, unpredictable drama, because no international hockey tournament delivers more of it than the World Juniors.

 

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