Tuesday, May 1, 2012

10 Teams Habs Fans Should Follow at WHC

The 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championships open this Friday with 16 countries set to battle it out for the title and valuable points  for the 2014 Olympic tournament seedings.  While a country like Kazhakstan enters with the expectation of getting blown out in most of their games, the following 10 teams should hold some intrigue for Montreal Canadiens fans to watch as the tournament gets going.

10) Belarus

Over the last few seasons, Belarus was somewhat of an adopted club for many Hab fans, as Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn as well as Mikhail Grabovski spent time in the Canadiens' system and represent three of the very few NHL'ers the country has.  It is likely that there will be fewer allegiances for the nation this time around, since all three have moved on to other NHL clubs, and the Kostitsyn brothers remain in the NHL playoffs with the Nashville Predators.  Thus, the challenge will be a big one for Toronto's Grabovski with no other current North American pros on the team.  Belarus is currently 11th in the IIHF standings, with the top 9 teams getting automatic Olympic invites.  They will need a deep run to make up the 115 points that separate them from Norway.

9) Switzerland

The Swiss could have been a favourite of Canadiens fans, but both Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber had to pull out of the event as they continue to nurse injuries.  By watching Switzerland, however, Hab fans will still be able to get reacquainted with long-time National Team captain and former Montreal swingman Mark Streit, who will be supported by Anaheim Ducks defenseman Luca Sbisa and young New York Islanders forward Nino Niederreiter (who Canadiens fans will remember from his preseason altercation with Mike Cammalleri).  Another name some Hab fans might remember is Goran Bezina, a 6'4", 220 lbs offensive blueliner who played 3 games for the Phoenix Coyotes back in 2003-04.  At various points over the past few seasons, there were some reports that the Canadiens might attempt to ink the 32-year old d-man, though as he has remained in Switzerland, the odds of a return to North America for him have become increasingly small.

8) France

We covered why France is an interesting story yesterday, with the main reason being starting goaltender Cristobal Huet.  Huet last played for the Canadiens during the 2007-08 season, and left the NHL after winning the Stanley Cup (albeit as a playoff back-up) with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, becoming the first player from France to achieve the accomplishment.

7) Slovakia

I'm sure most Canadiens fans can never watch Zdeno Chara lose enough for it to get old, so the Worlds may be a great opportunity to see Chara and an undermanned Slovak club get their rear ends handed to them.  But if spite isn't enough for you, two forwards have names that should ring a bell.  First is Marcel Hossa, younger brother of Marian, who began his NHL career in Montreal as a highly touted goal scorer.  Little Hossa lacked the consistency of his older brother, however, and never found a home in the NHL, moving from Montreal to the New York Rangers and finally a brief stint with the Phoenix Coyotes, before crossing over to the KHL where he has had a fine career as an offensive star.  Next is Juraj Mikus, who never played a game for Montreal, but was selected by the team in the fourth round in 2005.  Despite putting up decent numbers for the QMJHL's Chicoutimi Sagueneens, the Canadiens elected not to sign the 6'1", 205 lbs forward, so he returned to Slovakia.  He gave North America one last shot, spending the 2009-10 season with the AHL's Manchester Monarchs, but could not earn a call-up, and headed for the KHL.  He spent the latter half of this season with Saku Koivu's former club, TPS Turku, in Finland, where he scored 10 points in just 17 games.  Mikus is still only 25, so it isn't impossible that a strong Worlds encourages an NHL team to give him a look.  In the "what are they doing now" column, Slovakia's roster includes some former NHL'ers such as Miroslav Satan and Branko Radivojevic.

6) Finland

Unfortunately, neither Saku Koivu nor Teemu Selanne will take part in this event for Team Finland, but many eyes will be on the Finns since they enter as both defending champions and the IIHF's top seed.  Saku's younger brother Mikko Koivu will wear his country's colours, joined by the likes of Kari Lehtinen, Valtteri Filppula, Jussi Jokinen, and top prospect Mikael Granlund.  While Lehtinen will be the club's starter, a player of interest for Canadiens fans is goaltender Karri Ramo.  The Habs had acquired his rights from the Tampa Bay Lightning for AHL goaltender Cedric Desjardins, but he opted to remain in Europe, where he gets an opportunity to start.  He was included in the deal that sent Mike Cammalleri to Calgary this year, so he is no longer Canadiens property.  Still, if he sees any action, it will be interesting to see how he fares against international competition.  Hab forward Petteri Nokelainen was with the club for some exhibition games, but was cut from the final roster in favour of some players currently playing in Europe, though many have NHL experience (Niko Kapanen, Jarkko Immonen, Jesse Joensuu...).

5) Denmark

Montreal's Lars Eller should feature in a starring role for the Danes, though he will get help from NHL'ers Jannik Hansen, Frans Nielsen, and Philip Larsen.  It will be a tough role for Eller who has struggled with his offensive consistency, but certainly it is a good experience for the soon-to-be 23-year old all the same.  Denmark currently ranks 12th in the IIHF standings, and while climbing into the top 9 for an Olympic berth won't be easy, if they can maintain a top 12 spot, they will get to host one of the final qualification events, giving them an edge in that tournament which will take place next winter.  Denmark is only 5 points ahead of 13th place Latvia, but also only 15 points back of Belarus, so this is an important tournament for them.  Lars's younger brother, Mads Eller, played for Denmark at this year's World Junior Championships despite being only 16, but is still too young and inexperienced to make the Men's team for this event.  He most recently had 3 assists in 6 games at the World Under 18s.

4) Czech Republic

The Czechs have a dynamic offense, led by a one-two center punch of the Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec and Boston's David Krejci.  They will be flanked by the likes of Ales Hemsky, Milan Michalek, Michal Frolik, and Tomas Vincour.  After Montreal was eliminated from the playoffs last year, Plekanec joined the Czechs and had a sensational tournament, scoring 6 goals and adding 4 assists in just 8 games.  Banking on that success, the Czechs named Plekanec their team captain for this year's Worlds.  One other interesting story on the Czech roster is 40-year old Petr Nedved.  Yes, that Petr Nedved.  Nedved - who had obtained Canadian citizenship - won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 1994 Olympic Games.  The veteran of just under 1,000 NHL games left North America following the 2006-07 season and has since played in the Czech Elite League where he has been a dominant offensive player.  Aside from the 1995 World Cup of Hockey, this event will be the first time he has played for his homeland, though based on his five goals in six European Hockey Tour tune-up games, it may very well not be his last.

3) United States

The American entry into this tournament is lacking in starpower, but contains enough depth that they are sure to battle hard against any opposition.  The team will count on Montreal's Max Pacioretty to carry over his goal-scoring prowess from a great NHL campaign, playing on the top line with Paul Stastny and Bobby Ryan.  While that line may be impressive, there is a steep drop-off to the second line duo of Jim Slater and Kyle Okposo, though they were rather dominant in an exhibition game win over Sweden this morning (Sweden played without most of its NHL contingent).  The team should be solid on the back-end, with Cam Fowler, Jack Johnson, Alex Goligoski, and Justin Faulk anchoring a top 4 in front of Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard.  The U.S. sits sixth in IIHF rankings, 150 back of fifth place Canada and 55 ahead of 7th place Switzerland, so the event is unlikely to change their Olympic ranking either way barring some inspired performances.

2) Russia

Montreal's Alexei Emelin figures into his National Team's top 4 on the blueline, currently paired with former NHL'er Dmitri Kalinin, who now plays for St. Petersburg in the KHL.  Emelin, who just celebrated his 26th birthday, is coming off his rookie campaign in North America where he quickly became a fan favourite thanks to his thundering body checks.  With only one NHL season under his belt, he is no stranger to the large ice surfaces, and he has played for Russia in this very tournament three times before.  Another top d-man for the team will be Konstantin Korneev (Korneyev in Russian).  At 5'11", 181 lbs, he doesn't have Emelin's size, but he is solid defensively and has a more developed offensive game, making him a true two-way d-man.  Korneev was a 9th round pick by the Canadiens in 2002, but remained in Russia ever since rather than attempting a transition to North America.  This will be his sixth straight season taking part in the World Championship for his country, but though he is still only 27, the odds of seeing him in blue-blanc-rouge someday seem very minimal.  Offensively, Russia boasts superstars Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, but the team is largely composed of KHL veterans.  One such player is former Canadiens Alexander Perezhogin, who as a first round pick in 2001 was once seen as an up-and-coming star, but left North America after the 2006-07 season and currently plays for the KHL's Avangard Omsk.  He had a bit of a difficult year, with 27 points in 53 games being a career low for him in Russia.

1) Canada

Looking at the rosters, there should be little doubt that Canada enters the event as the favourites, solid at every position.  Certainly Canada is always a point of focus for Hab fans, but even moreso when there is a Canadien on the squad, which we have this year in P.K. Subban.  Subban started the first exhibition game on a top pairing with Chicago's Duncan Keith, but suffered a minor lower body injury early on, and did not return, also set to sit out today's tune-up.  The team won't confirm whether or not Subban will be available for Friday's WHC opener, but it seems he shouldn't miss too much time if any.  Canada has a deep and dangerous offense, and should get solid goaltending from Cam Ward.  To give you an idea, here is a projected line-up:

Alex Burrows - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry
Jamie Benn - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
Jeff Skinner - John Tavares - Patrick Sharp
Evander Kane - Ryan O'Reilly - Teddy Purcell
Andrew Ladd

Duncan Keith - P.K. Subban
Marc Methot - Dion Phaneuf
Jay Bouwmeester - Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Luke Schenn

UPDATE: Unfortunately, it was announced this afternoon that Subban's injury will keep him out two weeks, and as such he is returning to Montreal and will miss the World Championships.  Unfortunate for him as undoubtedly he was looking forward to again representing his country, but at least it isn't anything too serious that will derail his summer training.

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