Canada and the United States are favorites once again, but as always Europe- and one particular country who handed the red and white an exhibition upset- are potential spoilers at the IIHF World Under 18 Hockey Championships in Minsk, Belarus.
Like Canada, Team Sweden has the individual pieces to be a dominant U18 squad. Adam Larsson spent most of the year chasing the Elitserien U22 points record, while Gabriel Landeskog is projected to be a top fifteen pick in 2011 thanks to his rugged style of play. However, offense- usually a non-issue for Tre Kronor- could be a problem as few of the team's forwards possess elite skill.
Who to Watch:
LW/RW Victor Ohman- Forgotten for most of the year due to a less-than-plum assignment in the Allsvenskan, Victor Ohman finally gained some notice when- imagine this- the talented winger was given a spot on the top line. Ohman finished both the Allsvenskan and J20 (27 points in 21 games, 2-0-2 in two playoff games) seasons strong and is once again on the radars of NHL clubs. A reckless winger who drives the net with abandon, the 6'1, 203 lbs winger will see prime ice-time on a team that is all-together large but lacking pure skill.
C Ludvig Rensfeldt- The best all-around talent on the J18 roster, 6'3, 196 lbs pivot Ludvig Rensfeldt is set to have a star-making tournament. After quietly netting 21 goals and 50 points in SuperElit play with Brynas, the large pivot finally gets a large audience- much to the chagrin of the teams that watch Sweden closely. With a pedigree as more of a puck distributor- he had as many goals this past year as he's had all together since 2007-08- Rensfeldt could surprise at the Draft; a strong skater with excellent to elite vision and a reputation as a winner and vocal leader (J18 and J20 Champion), this Anze Kopitar clone is a darkhorse to be picked in the middle of the first round.
G Johan Gustafsson- A 6'2, 203 lbs goaltender with a last name strikingly close to Gustavsson? You know who the Leafs will be drafting at some point. Gustafsson with an 'f' is a draftable prospect even without that pedigree. Like Ohman, Gustafsson spent most of the year playing in a league with little chance at exposure- Division 1. As a true 17-year-old in a men's league, he didn't fare too poorly, racking up a 2.86 GAA and 0.894 Sv%. Gustafsson wouldn't have been in the league if he didn't have a strong resume, and he does: tops in GAA and save percentage last year at the U18 level, he was also named Top Goalie at the prestigious Tv-Pucken tournament. Gustafsson would have done his draft stock better to play in J20, but he'll still be taken in 2010- how high depends on how strong he is in net against his peers.