Team Canada Shmanada. If you're going to target the World Junior Championships for keeper league steals, you may want to look overseas. Here then is the most comprehensive look at Europe's U20 entries, and a bit of help for those in WJC pools.
Tre Kronor surprised fans when they named their roster on December 4th. Instead of putting an emphasis on matching the size and physical play of North America's entries, Team Sweden invited a crop of highly skilled offensive players.
2009 is a well-represented draft on this entry. Wunderkid Magnus Svensson-Pääjärvi (Timrå IK) is the youngest player to ever suit up for Sweden at the WJC. His vision, speed and hands have drawn comparisons to Peter Forsberg. Built solidly for a 16 year-old at 6'1, 198 lbs, Svensson-Pääjärvi has survived thus far in the SEL, and thus should have no problem staying afloat with players three or four year older.
However, it will be Victor Hedman (MoDo) that should draw the most attention. While it wouldn't be unusual for a defender to be among the best skaters on his team, Hedman, a late '90 birthday, does it while standing an incredible 6'5, 220 lbs. Already a top-four rearguard for perennial powerhouse MoDo, Hedman's introduction to North American fans should be a memorable one.
Last but not least, Sweden has perhaps the best goaltender not named Jonathan Bernier in the tourney. 19 year-old Jhonas Enroth (Södertälje) has emerged as a potential SEL MVP candidate, leading league goalies statistically while playing for a dismal squad.
A finely balanced forward group that includes offensively gifted Oscar Möller (Chilliwack), Patrik Berglund (Västerås) and Mikael Backlund (Västerås) and two-way forwards Joakim Andersson (Frölunda), Carl Hagelin (U Michigan) and Mario Kempe (St. John's) is the right mix for a single-elimination tournament such as the WJC.
Projected finish: 3rd
Unlike other countries with young phenoms waiting the wings, Finland will not bringing their greenest forwards with them, instead turning to some tried-and-true veterans to lead the way. 2009-eligible scorers Toni Rajala and Erik Haula and 1992-borns Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen would have given a potentially flat Team Finland a much-needed injection of skill. However, it will be at least one more year before Finland can join junior hockey's highest tier.
As always, Finland owns two of the top young goaltenders in the world. Riku Helenius (Seattle) is expected to start most every game, but '08-eligible Harri Sateri is up to the task if Tampa Bay's first round selection in 2006 fails. Sateri was the star of last year's U18s, posting several brilliant goaltending performances and making numerous highlight-reel stops.
One of the oldest and most experienced defensive units belongs to Team Finland. Juha-Petteri Purolinna (HIFK), Joonas Lehtivuori (Ilves) and Joonas Järvinen (TPS) all have significant experience playing with men. Lehtivuori, in particular, will be relied on to produce both offense and defense. His 16 points from the blueline leads Ilves in scoring at that position.
Defense will also be the order of the day up front. While Calgary Flames darkhorse selection Juuso Puustinen owns a blistering wrist shot, he along with Jan-Mikael Juutilainen (Waterloo), Niclas Lucenius (Tappara) and Joonas Kemppainen (Ässät) will bring faultless two-way play to the forward corps. And while he's playing in North America, Siim Liivik's relentless physical game will be an interesting new facet to Finland's attack.