The IIHF World Championships starts Friday, May 6, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Due to the time difference, most games will be played in the morning or early afternoon Toronto time. TSN will have coverage of every game of the tournament, beginning with the Canada-USA game on Friday morning at 9am.
The IIHF Worlds are held every year at about this time, and you'd be forgiven these days for getting them confused with the World Cup of Hockey, due to take over Toronto in September. The World Cup, with funky new entrants Team North America and Team Europe augmenting the big six, is run by the NHL. The World Championships are a product of the governing body of international hockey, the same guys who run the hockey portion of the Olympics, the World Junior Championships, the Women's World Championships, etc.
This year's tournament is in Russia and runs from May 6 to May 22. The timing of the tournament puts it after the European league playoffs are over and right smack dab in the middle of the NHL and AHL playoffs. Meanwhile, the World Cup overlaps the start of the KHL season and conflicts with other European league training camps.
If that sounds like a fight for control of hockey nationalism between the IIHF and the NHL, that's because it is.
It's easy to look at who's busy in the playoffs right now and decide that Worlds is just the bad team Olympics and forget about it. That's exactly what it is. But don't forget about it because, as every Leaf fan knows, even teams that are bad on purpose still have excellent players. If that's not enough, getting a chance to see top draft prospects Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine play should be reason enough to watch.
Worlds have a lot more teams than just the big six who are the core of the World Cup, maybe too many. The format splits the teams into two pools, and as is often common, they play in two different cities. In Moscow, in the new high capacity Ice Hall is pool A:
- RUS - Russia
- SWE - Sweden
- CZE - Czech Republic
- SUI - Switzerland
- LAT - Latvia
- NOR - Norway
- DEN - Denmark
- KAZ - Kazakhstan
The home team is obviously the big draw here, and they have a fairly light group to play against with Sweden the only other top contender and the Czech Republic as the most likely spoiler who can take games off of anyone on a good day. The seeding is determined by the previous year's tournament finish order, so this easier group isn't a gift to the home team, just good luck.
Newly promoted Kazakhstan will have their work cut out for them. Norway, even with Mats Zuccarello, will be in very tough as will Denmark and Latvia. Switzerland is a bit of a question mark. They have some NHL talent on the team, and their chances to win some big games may depend on which Reto Berra shows up, the one who was the worst goalie in the tournament last year, or the one who lit up the NHL on a hot streak earlier in this season before Canada's Calvin Pickard took his job.
Pool B is going to get most of the attention:
- CAN - Canada
- FIN - Finland
- USA - USA
- SVK - Slovakia
- BLR - Belarus
- FRA - France
- GER - Germany
- HUN - Hungary
As returning champion, Canada gets top seed, and the two big draft eligible stars are on opposing teams with the USA and Finland. This group plays in St. Petersburg in the Yubileyny Sports Palace with a capacity of only 7,000, much smaller than the nearby arena where SKA St. Petersburg play. It's a fairly common choice at Worlds for the second group to use a smaller arena, but given the teams in this pool, I wonder if they aren't going to be highly sought after tickets. There might be duels fought over the press box seats as well.
While the top three are stronger than in Pool A, the rest of the field is extremely weak, with only Belarus as a potential sleeper team. They usually ice a team that's mostly made up of Dinamo Minsk players and their familiarity is their strength.
Relegation and Rosters
At the end of the tournament, the bottom two teams will be relegated to the lower division to make way for the top two Division I Group A teams, Slovenia and Italy to come up. (There is a chance that Italy may not play next year due to rules about the home team needing a spot, but that's an outside chance.)
Teams have to submit an initial roster of players on Thursday evening before the tournament begins. It needs to have a minimum of 15 skaters and two goalies, up to a maximum of 22 skaters and three goalies. The players on this initial roster have to actually be in attendance, so teams can't include NHLers just eliminated from the playoffs who haven't arrived yet.
After that, players can be added at any time up to the maximum, as long as they're added two hours before the game they play in. This does give teams the flexibility to add players from second round NHL playoff losers.
The Big Six
Team Canada is heading to Russia with an excellent squad of forwards, two very young untested goalies and some big questions on defence.
Corey Perry is the captain with Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene as alternates. Behind those three top NHL forwards there are some more big names. The forwards are big on scoring power and the skill seems endless.
Max Domi and Sam Reinhart—two names that could have been considered for the Calder—plus Connor McDavid, who is a nominee, are the rookies. They're joined by Taylor Hall, Mark Stone, Brad Marchand, Brendan Gallagher, Mark Scheifele and Boone Jenner.
Calvin Pickard, who became the Colorado Avalanche backup goalie of choice during various parts of the last two years, has still spent a lot of time in the AHL. He's joined by Edmonton's Cam Talbot, a man who had a down and then up year for the Oilers after impressing as the Rangers backup a year ago. They're both capable of great performances as well as not so great. And how hot they get might determine Canada's fate.
On defence there's Morgan Rielly as the class of the group, along with Chris Tanev, Matt Dumba, Ryan Murry, Ben Hutton, Codi Ceci and Michael Matheson. You'd be forgiven for not knowing some of those names; Matheson is an AHL prospect of the Florida Panthers who has appeared in three NHL games.
Team Canada would never consider someone like Chris Lee, who scored the goal that won the Gagarin Cup for Metallurg. They just don't look outside the NHL for players, so the defence for this team is going to be an adventure to watch.
Canada has left spots so far for one goalie and a few skaters, so they could be hoping for some late additions to beef that blueline up.
He'll be the buzz of the tournament, it's inevitable, and USA Hockey jumped at the chance to announce Auston Matthews would be a member of the team before most other countries had given it much thought.
The American team is often made up of whatever NHL talent is available fleshed out with college players. Last year, the very young team won a silver medal on the strength of outstanding performances by a pair of young goalies. Oh, and Jack Eichel helped too.
This year, Auston Matthews, swept out of the Swiss league playoffs after four games, must be more than ready for another opportunity to play some meaningful hockey.
The goaltending is not the quite as stellar as last year. NHLers Mike Condon and Keith Kincaid are joined by newly signed Vancouver Canuck Thatcher Demko, who is right out of college.
Up front with Matthews are captain Matt Hendricks, Nick Foligno, Dylan Larkin and Patrick Maroon, along with AHL rookie of the year Frank Vatrano and Hudson Fasching, who barely got his feet wet in the NHL with the Sabres.
The college boys might be the more interesting group: JT Compher, Kyle Connor, Tyler Motte and Miles Wood. Add Matthews, Vatrano and Fasching to this group and you have some very high-end young talent there.
The defence is a mix of young guys with NHL experience like Noah Hanifin, Jake McCabe, Connor Murphy, with some even younger ones mixed in: Brady Skjei, who looked fine for the Rangers in the playoffs and Steven Santini from Boston College. Overseeing them are David Warsofsky and Chris Wideman who are 25 and 26, making them the veterans.
If that reminds you of the Leafs defence late in the season, you're not alone. This team is going to need the Mike Condon who wows you to show up for every game. Either that or Thatcher Demko needs to steal his spot and do the same. But if that happens, they could be a serious medal threat again. They have a few spots open up front, so there may be additions.
All eyes not on Matthews will be on Patrik Laine, but Leaf fans should be watching Leo Komarov do the thing he loves, playing for his country. He is expected to play in both this tournament and the World Cup in the fall.
Also of note is AHL rookie of the year (there were two this year) Mikko Rantanen, and several solid NHL players such as Jussi Jokinen, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Teemu Pulkkinen and Aleksander Barkov
In net, which is usually the Finns' biggest strength is a curious trio of the 21 year old Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros, the 38 year old Calgary Flame Niklas Bäckström, and the 27 year old SKA St. Petersburg starter Mikko Koskinen, who was the top goalie in the KHL playoffs, but very much not the top man in the regular season.
A mix of KHL, Liiga and SHL players round out the roster, which always makes this team tough to handicap. Their scoring talent is very good, but the defence and goaltending might not be quite up to last year's team that set a shutout record with Pekka Rinne and Saros in net.
If the defence holds—and remember that was the knock against the Finnish World Junior team—they could be hunting for the gold medal.
Finland made their final roster cuts early, and they have left no extra spaces.
Last year Russia flew in two big stars at the last moment in Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. This year, they could add one of the pair if they're willing. The Russian team is powerfully built and while the talent is more KHL and less NHL than the other top teams, they are not to be counted out.
They have the best goaltending tandem of the tournament in Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky to build on. If that's not enough, they added Ilya Sorokin the young star of CSKA Moscow who carried his team to the edge of winning it all.
On the blueline, Leaf fans can check out Nikita Zaitsev, and Alexei Yemelin and Alexei Marchenko are the other NHLers on the roster. Joining them are a host of top KHL names including Denis Denisov, Zaitsev's usual D partner for CSKA.
You may be surprised to discover that Vyacheslav Voynov, now of SKA St. Petersburg, is on the team. As unpleasant as it is to consider, he is in KHL terms, a star. His presence here was inevitable, as Russian hockey seems to have decided that his criminal conviction for spousal assault is in the past and can be forgotten.
Up front the names get bigger, the star power brighter. Gagarin cup champion Sergei Mozyakin is joined by rival Alexander Radulov and some NHL names of note: Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Kalinin, Artemi Panarin and Alexander Burmistrov.
There are some very, very big KHL names on the roster too, but one of those not so big to watch out for is Ivan Telegin. He is a Winnipeg Jets draft pick who never worked out, missed an entire year of hockey and looked extremely interesting at times for CSKA. He might be a late bloomer who deserves another look.
This is a rock solid team, built from the net out and culminating with Datsyuk and Panarin. They have to be the favourites for the gold medal, and with their relatively easy pool, they should cruise to the final game. The question will be, who will be there to meet them?
The roster right now is oversized and will need to be cut for the final list presented on Thursday evening. It's not known if they will leave a space for the loser of the Pittsburgh/Washington series.
One recent Swedish press report started out, "No after no after no," referring to the answers coach Pär Mårts was getting as he tried to form a team. It's not just Swedish NHLers turning him down, it's also SHL and KHL stars. A lot of it is injuries—Joel Lundqvist who was excellent in last year's tournament is rehabbing a fractured knee cap, and various NHL players have injuries they aren't being very candid about. But some of it is the World Cup.
With Henrik Lundqvist expected to be in net in the World Cup, and a long list of NHL stars to draw from, Sweden has to expect to be a serious contender in that tournament. At the very least they can hope to match their Olympic performance from 2014, where they got to the finals and ran headlong into Team Canada.
Most of the top players available from the NHL said no to Tre Kronor. Given that, it's not a surprise that they at least asked about William Nylander. Not that that worked out in their favour; he's busy in the playoffs. But when you're excited that Gustav Nyquist could join the team, you're perhaps in some trouble.
They don't have either Lundqvist, but they do have Ilya Sorokin's unused backup from CSKA in Viktor Fasth and Jacob Markström from Vancouver. They have a few NHL players like Alexander Wennberg and Adam Larsson and a mix of KHL and SHL players. There's more Skellefteå veterans than NHLers.
The team was absolutely humiliated in a pre-tournament loss to the Czechs, and no one is expecting much from the squad. Maybe that can be their strength. They are a very tight group with a lot of familiarity for each other. They look like they'll be chewed up and spat out by the Russians, but in tournament hockey, surprises happen.
The roster seems to be full, so they have all the yes answers they could find ready to go in Russia. Just as soon as the coach shows up. Mårts missed the plane because he brought the wrong passport. Not an auspicious beginning for what may be his last international coaching job.
Once a solid member of the big six, the Czechs are not as strong as they used to be. The number of Czech players in the NHL is declining lately, partly due to KHL opportunities, but the team is now closer to being on par with Switzerland than with Finland or Sweden.
This year they have David Pastrnak, Tomas Plekanec, Jiri Sekac and Michal Jordan from the NHL. The rest of the team is mostly KHL and Czech league players, led by the outstanding Jan Kovar from Metallurg.
They will have to try to make up for the lack of star power with pride and a burning desire to beat the Russians in Moscow.
They also have an oversized roster that needs cutting, so additions are unlikely.