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2017 IIHF World Championships preview

You can’t go to Paris or Cologne this spring, so William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Miro Aaltonen are going for you.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs have three players going over to Europe for the World Championships, for what we hope is the last time ever. It makes for an odd tournament, where what every NHL player wants is to not be there, but they still want to play well, represent their country with pride, and win games.

Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Miro Aaltonen are doing just that.

Tournament Format

The IIHF top men’s division now has 16 teams in it and that makes the tournament so big it absolutely requires two arenas of good size in a host city as well as some practice facilities. This is a problem for some modestly sized cities or places outside hockey-mad countries like Russia and Sweden. The IIHF has been solving that by using two cities to host. Even last year in Russia, the round-robin portion was played in two cities, one for each group of teams.

This year, the tournament is in two different countries, with Group A playing in Cologne, Germany where the final medal round will be held, and Group B playing in Paris, France. Google tells me you can get from one city to the other in about five hours by train.

The top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals, which is a crossover format. The top teams in each group play the fourth place team in the other and the second place teams play the third place team in the other group. The semifinals will all be in Cologne, but the quarterfinals are played in both cities, meaning a few teams have to travel and home ice advantage is a real advantage.

Aside from that home ice advantage, the difference between second and third is largely irrelevant, but the differences between finishing first and second, and third and fourth can be hugely important. Canada is in Group B, so coming fourth in Group A is a bad life plan.

The Groups

The teams are ranked and sorted by group partly based on last year’s placement, but things are different this year.

Group A

  • RUS - Russia
  • USA - USA
  • SWE - Sweden
  • SVK - Slovakia
  • GER - Germany
  • LAT - Latvia
  • DEN - Denmark
  • ITA - Italy

The powerhouse in this group might be Sweden not Russia. Sweden have the best defender corps in the tournament, good forwards, with William Nylander clearly the star, and sketchy goaltending.

They have such good defence, that heralded defender and rumoured Maple Leafs target, Calle Rosén is not on the roster for the first game as the team leaves spaces open for potential second round NHL losers.

Russia has excellent goaltending in Andrei Vasilevskiy backed up by two very hot KHL prospects Igor Shestyorkin (Rangers) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders). The have very good forwards, led by Nikita Kucherov and Artemi Panarin, and the second ever Vegas Golden Knight, Vadim Shipachyov. But they are sketchy on defence. Without Nikita Zaitsev, they are missing one of their top defenders.

The USA, who played above expectations for two years running with some college kids topped up with first Jack Eichel and then Auston Matthews have Eichel back this year. But without Matthews, James van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty, or other Americans who were available, they are relying on Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau to carry the offence. They have the best goaltending crew in the tournament though, with Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider.

This was exactly the same trio that couldn’t carry them to victory in the World Cup, with a poorer class of skater in front of them. The man behind the bench this time is Jeff Blashill, however.

None of the other teams in this pool have a hope of doing more than challenging for the honour of playing the top Group B team in the quarters.

Denmark doesn’t have Frederik Andersen, so they are less likely to pull their Cinderella trick this year.

Slovakia might end up the sacrificial lamb even without any of their top players from the NHL on hand. Martin Marincin was told by the Leafs to rest his injured back and not play.

Germany is a dark horse candidate as host, but without their best player in Leon Draisaitl, they might have trouble scoring.

Group B

  • CAN - Canada
  • FIN - Finland
  • CZE - Czech Republic
  • SUI - Switzerland
  • BLR - Belarus
  • NOR - Norway
  • FRA - France
  • SLO - Slovenia

Canada can easily build a stacked roster out of whoever feels like playing and is available. When that whoever includes Mitch Marner, they have the start of a dynamic team. Add to him Matt Duchene, who might be auditioning for the scouts as he anticipates a trade this summer, Claude Giroux, Nate MacKinnon, Brayden Point, Mark Scheifele, Jeff Skinner, and you have a young, fast, dynamic goal-scoring team.

That roster calls for the right coach, and Hockey Canada picked the assistant coach of the young Team North America from the World Cup, Jon Cooper.

The Canadian defence starts with Marc-Eduard Vlasic and Tyson Barrie and includes Michael Matheson of the Panthers, who caught everyone’s eye at this event last year. Morgan Rielly is not playing, and that’s good since his injury needs to heal properly before he trains.

Canada’s goalies are a weakness. Eric Comrie, Calvin Pickard and Chad Johnson are the trio in net, so the team will be looking to win by outscoring any weaknesses on the back end, and hey! That sounds familiar!

Mitch Marner will be wearing #13 in this tournament. That also sounds familiar. Updated: he switched to his usual #16. I am sad.

Finland is nothing like the team that wowed everyone last year with Patrik Laine stealing the show. He leads the list in players not returning this year. One Finnish reporter, Filip Saxén, said that none of Finland’s defenders would make the cut on Team Sweden.

Their top centre is Valtteri Fillpula, and they are missing all the top Finnish NHL players. The door is open for the Leafs’ Miro Aaltonen to make an impression, but the team is going to struggle to maintain a good standings’ position.

Aaltonen played well in a trio of pre-tournament games and is moving up to the top line with Jesse Puljujärvi moving down the lineup to thirteenth forward for the opening game. This moves takes Aaltonen out of the centre spot and puts him at wing with Fillpula and Sebastian Aho.

The weakness of the pool will help the Finns, and it will help Switzerland and the Czechs to get in the medal round. Don’t count out Belarus. They always have a good overall cohesive team that is well coached and has excellent structure. Co-host France is looking to avoid relegation, not get a medal.

Relegation

Unlike at other tournaments like the WJC, there is no playoff to determine relegation. The two lowest ranked teams are out for next year. However, since Denmark is the host next year, they cannot be relegated even if they come last.

The most likely relegation candidates are Italy, France and Slovenia.

Schedule

Play gets under way on Friday, May 5, with the first games at 10:15 a.m. Eastern Time. There are some games played at 6 a.m. on weekends, but the more interesting matchups are in the evening local time. Those evening games will be at 2:25 p.m. Eastern Time.

Television and Streaming

The games are carried on TSN and RDS as usual. You can expect all Team Canada games to be shown on the main channel, and most other games will be available as well. TSN and RDS also have exclusive streaming rights in Canada, so you need their online service to watch.

In the United States, USA Hockey has announced that NBC and NHL network are carrying the games. The list of what will be shown and when is on their site.

Official Rosters

The official rosters had to be handed in to the IIHF earlier in the week. They are available on the IIHF site. Some teams are waiting to see who is out in the second round of the NHL playoffs before they make more additions.

For tracking the teams and looking up players you don’t know, Elite Prospects has their World Championship page up and running.

All information, including, scores, schedules, highlights and live game trackers are available on the main tournament site.