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2021 IIHF Men’s World Championships: There’s never been a tournament quite like this one

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Parity may have come to international hockey at last.

(L-R) The Latvian, the Canadian and the Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championships is set to begin at the end of this week. but with a difference or two. Because of the unusual timing of both the NHL playoffs and the World Championships itself. there aren’t as many NHL players available. And, frankly, there are fewer who were willing to jump in another bubble for weeks on end.

The last Men’s Worlds was in 2019 in Slovakia and marked the second straight win for Finland. The 2020 event was cancelled, and while most players this year have had some place to play, a lot of them have experienced a lot of new procedures, quarantines and bubble or quasi-bubble events. Worlds will be more of the same.

The normal roster approach for Worlds is that teams leave some openings and pad out the roster with first-round NHL exits. That’s out the window this season since quarantine was required, so some creative solutions have been found. Some teams have gone mining for talent in the undrafted prospect pool, and others have looked at the opposite end of the age spectrum. There are also a host of lower-ranked European teams that just draw from the local leagues, and have had varying levels of luck in getting players to play in a bubble format once again.

The event is in Latvia this year, in two venues in Riga. Originally, Minsk, Belarus was to be the co-host, but given a lot of time and heavy lobbying, particularly by European teams — notably Finland, the IIHF realized that staging a tournament in an authoritarian dystopia was not a good idea after all. However, Belarus still gets to participate, as no changes to the team list was made.

Teams

The lower-level championships that determine seeding for the entire world of men’s hockey have all been cancelled for two years, so the rankings are frozen as of 2019, and there will be no relegation or promotion out of or to next year’s tournament. Just like this year’s WJC, there’s no penalty for coming last this time.

The teams in their two groups are:

Group A

  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • Czech Republic
  • Switzerland
  • Slovakia
  • Denmark
  • Belarus
  • Great Britain

Group B

  • Canada
  • Finland
  • United States
  • Germany
  • Latvia
  • Norway
  • Italy
  • Kazakhstan

Schedule and Format

Each team plays each other in their group once in the round robin. The quarterfinals then follow a crossover format where the teams that finished first and second stay in their original venue and host the fourth and third place teams of the other group.

The round robin runs from May 21 to June 1, and the playoff rounds last to the medal games on June 6.

Notable Players to Watch

Note: rosters are not yet official, and there might be last-minute cuts.

Kristians Rubins was loaned by the Marlies to the host nation.

Signed to a two-year NHL deal in 2020, Rubsins, 23 and an undrafted defenceman, began this season in Denmark. In 21 games in the Metal League, he scored two goals and had five assists. He joined the Marlies when they began playing, and has three points in 22 games. A third-pairing, big-reach defender, Rubins went from the WHL to the Marlies on an AHL deal, playing his first season on the Growlers, and winning the cup there.

He last played for Latvia in 2018 at worlds and had two points in eight games there. He has been on his country’s national team since he was very young, and played in the WJC three times. He will be joined by former Leafs pick Martins Dzierkals on a team that needs their goalies to steal some games for them to make the playoff round.

Pontus Holmberg and Filip Hållander are both on Team Sweden, and this year’s Swedish team will be unlike any for a long time. There are very few NHL players on the team and no NHL goalies. The best player is likely Rickard Rakell, and SHL players like Holmberg and Hållander will need to fill a big void.

Joining them are former Leafs Pär Lindholm and Viktor Lööv, and the net will likely belong to Viktor Fasth, the (other) goalie from Homberg’s team, or Adam Reideborn, a KHL netminder of some note.

Axel Rindell is on Team Finland. Chosen by the Leafs as an overager, he’s worked his way onto the national team at 21 and coming off a good year as a power play specialist top-pairing defender in the Liiga.

Prospects

It’s rare for a first-year draft eligible to play at Worlds, but there are a few this time who aren’t European overagers. The big two are Owen Power and Matt Beniers who will play for Canada and the USA.

There are a host of young players already drafted or signed by NHL teams that have yet to make their mark in the NHL.

Click through for the full list.

Canada has chosen goalie Micheal DiPietro, The just drafted Braden Schneider and Cole Perfetti as well as Leafs nemesis Liam Foudy.

USA has goalie Jake Oettinger and some older drafted players like Alexander Chmelevski and Jack Drury, who was on Holmberg’s SHL team and was outstanding all year.

Finland has Anton Lundell (silly Panthers, you could use him right now) and Arttu Routsalainen.

Germany has pinned their hopes on the youth movement, adding all three of their recently highly-drafted players, Moritz Seider, John Peterka and Lukas Reichel but not Tim Stützle. Sweden, usually stacked with NHL and KHL talent has a clutch of players younger than Holmberg.

One More Chance at Glory

Worlds always features some veterans who never say no to more hockey. Petri Kontiola and Marko Anttila will be there for Finland again, and it wouldn’t be worlds without Korbinian Holzer playing for Germany, but they’ve been playing league hockey. There are a few players who decided to try to turn this tournament into a springboard for one more year.

Brian Boyle, who didn’t play this season and Justin Abdelkader, who played a bit in Switzerland, are both on Team USA, and are looking to get noticed. Joining them is Chris Wideman, who exited the NHL after leaving Ottawa, and has laid down two excellent seasons, one in the AHL and one in the KHL. He will get renewed NHL attention.

Parity

The very thin sprinkling on NHL players has led to a flattening of skill across the teams. Unlike the last Olympics, Russia hasn’t sent a powerhouse squad either. The result might come down to goaltending, which wouldn’t be new.

If Darcy Kuemper has a good run, Canada might win it all. Cal Petersen and Jake Oettinger can win it for the USA. Everyone else has goalies from the KHL or lesser leagues. Some are good, but none are quite the level of what Canada and the USA have brought.

Broadcast and Information

As usual, the tournament is on TSN in Canada. Full schedules and rosters are available at the official IIHF site. Team Canada faces the host Latvia on May 21 at 1:15 p.m. Toronto time.