Press Box Musings: World Junior Hockey Championship Preview - Group A

BUFFALO NY - JANUARY 05: Members of Team Russia pose with the IIHF World Junior Trophy after defeating Canada 5-3 during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Gold medal game between Canada and Russia on January 5 2011 in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Hey all and Merry Christmas! I hope that the holiday season is treating you well. This is a one-time feature that we will run on the eve of the 2011-12 World Junior Hockey Championships being held in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta and will be your full access guide to what you can expect at this years event. Here is Part I of our two-part World Junior preview. Keep checking up with us throughout the tournament for more Winnipeg Jets prospect coverage!

Well, for puck enthusiasts everywhere, it's that time again! Over the past decade, Boxing Day has become synonymous with international junior hockey and this year will be no different as the Russians display another highly skilled roster in hopes of repeating their success from 2010-11.

Since 2000, the Russians have claimed the gold medal at the U20 Tournament three times, second only to Canada (5) during that span.

Can Russia repeat as World Junior gold medalists for the first time since 2002-03?

Does their squad bolster enough firepower to get them past a strong Swedish team?

Follow us for our thoughts on how Group A will play out.

Without further adieu, here is Part I of our World Junior Preview:

Russia

2010-11 Performance: Gold Medal - 1st Place - (W) 5-3 vs. Canada

Players Returning: 1

Winnipeg Jets Prospects: F - Ivan Telegin, Barrie (OHL) - Drafted 4th Round, 101 overall in 2010 Entry Draft.

Players to Watch: F - Evgeny Kuznetsov (WSH), F - Mikhail Grigorenko (2012 Prospect), F - Nail Yakupov (2012 Prospect),

Dark Horse: F - Nikita Kucherov (TB)

Schedule: December 26, 2011 vs Switzerland 9:00 PM CST; December 28, 2011 vs Slovakia 9:00 PM CST; December 29, 2011 vs Latvia 9:00 PM CST; December 31, 2011 vs Sweden 9:00 PM CST

Russia faced a daunting task at the conclusion of last years Preliminary Round Robin. Losses to both Canada and Sweden to start the tournament meant that they would have to run the table for the remainder of the tournament in order to win the gold medal.

That turned out to be exactly what the Russians would do, avenging both Sweden and Canada in Elimination Rounds to capture their first gold medal since 2003 in Halifax, NS.

Gone are the services of Vladmir Tarasenko and Maxim Kitsyn who were relied upon as the teams leading scorers in last year's tournament.

Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov will be the only player returning from the gold medal squad and he needs to equal his production from 2010-11 to keep his country in the hunt (11 points in 7 games).

Kuznetsov will be aided offensively by Ivan Telegin (WPG), Alexander Khokhlachev (TB), Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko.

Yakupov and Griogrenko are both considered as two of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and could be pegged as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks with a strong performance this year.

The Russians should cruise through the early portion of their tournament due to the weakness of their competition.

Their New Year's Eve match-up with Sweden will be a Litmus Test as they take on arguably one of the deepest teams in this tournament. Without clinching the bye to the semi-finals, I find it difficult to believe they will be able to win three elimination games for the second year in a row.

Prediction: 2nd Place in Group Stage, 3-1-0-0

Final Standings: 4th Place

Sweden

2010-11 Performance: 4th Place (L) 4-2 vs. USA

Players Returning: 11

Winnipeg Jets Prospects: none

Players to Watch: D - Jonas Brodin (MIN), Rickard Rakell (ANA), F - Mika Zibanejad (OTT)

Dark Horse: F - Victor Rask (CAR)

Schedule: December 26, 2011 vs Latvia 4:30 PM CST; December 28, 2011 vs Switzerland 4:30 PM CST; December 30, 2011 vs Slovakia 4:30 PM CST; December 31, 2011 vs Russia 9:00 PM CST

Last year was widely considered one to forget for the Swedish U20 team. Gabriel Landeskog was sidelined with a high ankle sprain after partaking in the teams first pre-tournament game, putting a damper on what looked like Sweden's opportunity to win the gold for the first time since 1981.

Sweden would end up dominating Group B, capping off their round robin play with an overtime win over an upstart Canadian squad, clinching their bye to the semi-finals.

However, the gold medal would elude Sweden for the thirtieth straight year after an overtime loss to Russia sealed their fate.

In looking at their current roster, it's hard not to peg the Swedes as early tournament favorites. Though plenty of teams have won the U20 tournament without a high volume of returning players, Sweden's returnees are as high in quantity as well as quality.

Of the twenty-three players on their final roster, four (!) of them were drafted in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (Zibanejad, Klefbom, Brodin, Rakell).

Goaltending will be a point of contention for Sweden, but early indications are that it will be Johan Gustafsson's job to lose.

If the Minnesota Wild prospect can be to Sweden what Jacob Markstrom was as recently as 2009-10, then Sweden will be in the championship game.

Prediction: 1st Place in Group Stage, 4-0-0-0

Final Standings: Silver Medal (2nd Place)

Switzerland

2010-11 Performance: 5th Place (W) 3-2 vs. Finland

Players Returning: 4

Winnipeg Jets Prospects: none

Players to Watch: F - Sven Bartschi (CGY), Alessio Bertaggia (undrafted), F - Christoph Bertschy (2012 Prospect)

Dark Horse: D - Dario Trutmann (undrafted)

Schedule: December 26, 2011 vs Russia 9:00 PM CST; December 28, 2011 vs Sweden 4:30 PM CST; December 30, 2011 vs Latvia 9:00 PM CST; December 31, 2011 vs Slovakia 5:00 PM CST

The Suisse did rather well for themselves last year, claiming a fifth place finish in which they rode New York Islanders prospect Nino Niederreiter as far as he could take them.

Though he was unable to improve on his impressive 2009-10 tournament, amassing only 4 points all tournament (he had 10 points the previous tournament), he was still the teams leading scorer and largely factored in his countries final standings.

With Niderreiter no longer eligible to take part in this tournament, Switzerland will look to the WHL tandem of Sven Bartschi (CGY) and Alessio Bertaggia - both of whom rank in the top 50 of WHL scoring - to carry a team that lacks pure goal scorers.

Valiant as the efforts of Bartschi and Bertaggia may be, they alone will not be able to keep up with the likes of Sweden, Russia and Slovakia and I find it improbable that they will finish higher than fourth place in Group A.

Prediction: 4th Place in Group Stage, 1-2-0-1

Final Standings: 8th Place

Slovakia

2010-11 Performance: 8th Place (L) 5-2 vs. Czech Republic

Players Returning: 8

Winnipeg Jets Prospects: none

Players to Watch: F - Tomas Jurco (DET), Martin Marincin (EDM), Marek Tvrdon (DET)

Dark Horse: G - Dominik Riecicky (undrafted)

Schedule: December 27, 2011 vs Latvia 9:00 PM CST; December 28, 2011 vs Russia 9:00 PM CST; December 30, 2011 vs Sweden 4:30 PM CST; December 31, 2011 vs Switzerland 5:00 PM CST

After a disappointing showing last year, the Slovaks are looking to recapture some of the magic from their run in the 2008-09 tournament where they finished in fourth place.

Memorial Cup Champion Tomas Jurco will return for his second tournament as will top defenseman Martin Marincin and six other Slovaks who took to the ice in Buffalo, NY.

Though not as deep as Sweden or Russia, team Slovakia features enough top end talent to hold their own in round robin play and has greater depth than their biggest competition in Switzerland.

Look for the Slovaks to have a decent tournament as their large crop of returnees are primed to hold their own.

Prediction: 3rd Place in Group Stage, 1-2-1-0

Final Standings: 6th Place

Latvia

2010-11 Performance: 1st Place - Division IA

Players Returning: 5

Winnipeg Jets Prospects: none

Players to Watch: F - Zemgus Girgensons (2012 Prospect), G - Kristers Gudlevskis (undrafted) F - Kristians Pelss (EDM)

Dark Horse: F - Arturs Kuzmenkovs (undrafted)

Schedule: December 26, 2011 vs Sweden 4:30 PM CST; Decemebr 27, 2011 vs Slovakia 9:00 PM CST; December 29, 2011 vs Russia 9:00 PM CST; December 30, 2011 vs Switzerland 9:00 PM CST

The Latvians will return from a one year absence in the U20 Tournament after being relegated following their 2009-10 performance in Ottawa, ON.

2012 NHL Draft prospect Zemgus Girgensons will look to put himself on the Central Scouting radar at this tournament as he lead the Latvians to a 5-0-0-0 record in last years Division 1 A pool.

Team Latvia comprises mostly of players from lower European Leagues, so don't expect any upsets from a team destined to be relegated by the end of the tournament.

Prediction: 5th Place in Group Stage; 0-4-0-0

Final Standings: 10th Place (relegated)

Thank you for reading our preview for Group A of the 2011-12 World Junior Hockey Championships. Our Group B preview will run tomorrow!

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