By Chapin Landvogt
As IIHF President Rene Fasel declared the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship closed, it was once again the USA that raised the victor’s trophy.
It was the USA’s second gold in a row and sixth in the past seven years. In fact, the USA has medalled at this tournament for 12 straight years, taking eight times gold, three silver medals and one bronze.
The program will of course hope to achieve a gold medal hat trick at next year’s tournament, which will be held in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a town with a strong college hockey tradition and that is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Canadian border. With Winnipeg just around the corner, the organizers will look forward to a strong turnout not only from locals, but particularly the neighbour to the north.
For those unfamiliar with how and why the U.S. has become the dominant world power at this level, one look no further than what is called the United States National Team Development Program, which yearly recruits top-flight players from across the country to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they then become part of a two-year program that, as the program explains, is committed “to prepare student-athletes under the age of 18 for participation on U.S. National Teams and success in their future hockey careers. Its efforts focus not only on high-caliber participation on the ice, but creating well-rounded individuals off the ice”.
These players then live with billet families and attend one of two high schools while regularly training, practising and playing with each other over a two-year span. The program is intense.
Their goal is to win gold at this tournament – and it is one that this year’s team repeated resoundingly. For the second year in a row, the team went undefeated after losing their first tournament contest. Unlike recent teams, this year’s squad presented an offensive explosion that few teams ever have. In its seven total games, the USA fired 46 pucks into opponent goals, and this despite having only scored once against Russia, and then being held to just two hard-to-earn goals by silver medallist Finland.
But the victory goes deeper than that.
Czech coach Petr Jakub referred to Team USA as a “machine” after his country’s 7-2 quarter-final loss to the Americans. This is an opinion shared by many. The U.S. game year for year is based on an incredible propensity for puck possession and management. The team regularly emphasizes minimizing turnovers and allowing the opponent to shoot as seldom as possible.
In the meantime, the team churns and works the corners relentlessly, displaying a form of body positioning in battles that has opponents in fits and often forces them to take penalties, because they just can’t gain puck possession away from the respective U.S. player. The team attacks in a very organized and well-planned manner that regularly creates or makes use of holes in the opponent’s defence. Once in opponent zones, the cycling and passing often knows no end until a player, usually in a prime shooting location, fires the puck on goal.
Despite the tournament’s strongest first line, featuring centre, U18 top scorer, and tournament MVP Auston Matthews (14 points), widely believed to be odds-on favourite to go first overall in the 2016 NHL draft, along with left wing Matthew Tkachuk (12) and right wing Jack Roslovic (11), the team got scoring from all over the chart. The gold medal game winner was sniped in by Jack White, who had six goals and nine points. The pass for that goal came from linemate Jeremy Bracco, who accounted for three goals and 13 points. The 1-1 against Finland came from underager Clayton Keller, who had four goals and nine points.
In all, a total of 16 players collected four or more points in the tournament. For comparison’s sake, the relegated Germany only had one player with that many points, namely underager Tobias Eder.
As the gold medals awarded and the championship cup show, no team in this tournament could compare to the USA.
For silver medallist Finland, the tournament was a resounding success. Having only lost to Canada 3-2 in the preliminary round and then the USA 2-1 in the gold medal game, the team was basically neck-and-neck with the two other medallists. Finland brought one of its brightest generations of players to Switzerland and one can only guess what might have been possible if Sebastian Aho, who provided one of the tournament’s best passes for Finland’s goal against the USA, hadn’t been busy winning the Finnish pro league championships right on up to the night before the gold medal game. From the tournament’s top statistical goaltender in Veini Vehvilainen to the officially named top defenceman Viili Saarijarvi to top goal scorer and all-star team member Patrik Laine, Finland competed in all ways all over the ice and got contributions from everywhere in the roster. When all was said and done, the country was one overtime goal away from a gold medal.
The bronze went to perennial power Canada, a country that finds itself year for year putting together its U18 team just weeks before the tournament, almost completely dependent on who is available from primarily junior CHL clubs no longer participating in their respective playoffs. This is usually enough to compete for a medal and that’s exactly what Canada did. Despite hardly being able to throw four lines onto the ice to begin the tournament, the Canadians’ only loss came against archrival USA in the semi-finals, to whom they fell 7-2. A 5-2 victory over Switzerland earned the team bronze and showed once again that Canada will continually play for a medal despite rarely featuring its best overall players eligible, in this case primarily Connor McDavid, expected to be the first overall NHL draft pick this summer. Underager Zach Sawchenko stood in goal and every game saw different players make contributions.
For host Switzerland, a fourth-place finish has to be seen as a complete success. Who would have thought that the tournament’s basically youngest and lightest team would be able to leave established powers Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic behind it in the standings. More importantly, these young men not only got to test their mettle and succeed, but discovered that they can enjoy yet unknown success with a nation behind them that just about filled the house for its 5-0 win over Russia and especially its close 5-4 OT loss to Finland. For Jonas Siegenthaler, who seemed to be on the ice at all times, as well as the incredibly fun-to-watch first-line of all-star team member Denis Malgin and his French-speaking compatriots Auguste Impose and Damien Riat, the tournament served to show the entire hockey world that it’ll be seeing much more from Switzerland and these young men in the years to come. Many of this year’s participants are expected to be at next spring’s event.
Russia left the tournament in a state of shock. After spending the preliminary round going undefeated, including an incredible 3-1 victory over the USA to kick things off, many felt they had the best starting position in the whole playoff round by ‘only’ having to face a Swiss team that had just two points earned in overtime against Latvia. Instead, the team was shocked in a 5-0 loss to the tournament hosts. Despite huge showings from goaltenders Ilya Samsonov and Anton Krasotkin, as well as very strong performances from no less than Yegor Rykov, Dmitri Zhukenov, Danil Yurtaikin, Kirill Kaprizov, and especially goal-scorer Denis Guryanov, the team came up short as just one hiccup along the way sent them packing early. The team will likely see roughly a quarter of this team return for next spring’s tournament.
Sweden had what can only be understood as its worst U18 World Championship campaign in years. After coming out of the gate with an unexpected 3-1 loss to Slovakia, the team could simply not compete over sixty minutes with the USA and Russia, losing 6-4 and 7-4 respectively. Thanks solely to a 6-1 victory over Germany, one that only first was truly established over the final 30 minutes of the game, the team ended up making the playoffs. Despite putting on a slightly improved showing, the team lost that game 5-3 to Canada, which actually scored for Sweden when a pass from one teammate missed its partner and went into an empty goal on a delayed penalty call. For many, probably none more than the Swedes themselves, this was a very surprising turnout considering many of these young men are expected to be drafted by NHL teams this summer. Where exactly has likely changed for the worst after this showing and Sweden will hope that youngsters such as Carl Grundstrom will profit from this experience and make sure it was only a blip on the radar next spring in Grand Forks. Sweden has been seen as an almost unparalleled producer of talent in Europe in recent years, but this tournament didn’t necessarily back that impression.
The Czech Republic got off to a slow start losing 6-1 to Finland. It managed to improve game for game, but never really gelled. This circumstance just didn’t change in time for the quarterfinal match-up against the USA, which was lost 7-1. Despite a line-up chock full of talented players, most notably Pavel Zacha and Jakub Zboril, key members of the silver medal team last spring, it was evident that the combination of injuries during the year and the inability to get all of its players to the tournament at the same time, especially in light of star centre Filip Chlapik just barely being able to make it, took its toll and never allowed the team to find its mojo. Of course, the challenge always becomes greater after you make it to a gold medal game and teams appeared far more ready not to underestimate this Czech club, which clearly missed players such as Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak.
Slovakia also departed in the quarter-finals, but didn’t necessarily have to feel this was a disappointment. After the above-mentioned victory over Sweden and then an important 4-3 OT shootout win over Germany, the Slovaks safely made the playoffs and also could build on a close and well-fought 4-2 loss to Russia. Believing very much in its ability to upset, Slovakia was actually only down 1-0 to Finland until the third period and put on an impressive defensive display until it lost 3-0. If anything though, this team lacked a sustained attack and the ability to generate goals. In addition, Slovak players found their way to the penalty box far too often. Particularly forward Filip Lestan, who had 10 penalty minutes, wandered off to the penalty box at often very inopportune times. Also promising was the play of young forward Samuel Solensky, a kid the program hopes will one day be what Marko Dano and Martin Reway have been in recent years. Slovakia will continue to be happy to settle with the bronze medal earned at the World Junior Championship.
The relegation round featured the newcomer Latvia, a country that proved to be one of the true feel-good stories of the tournament. Aside from an opening 11-6 loss to Canada, which nonetheless showed that the team could score, the Latvians played close games against each the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland, first having lost to the Swiss in overtime. With the preliminary round having boosted their confidence, Latvia proceeded to convincingly beat Germany 5-3 twice to retain the class and guarantee its ticket for Grand Forks. A wonderful achievement also considering that a number of these kids will be returning and word is, a few good talents are on the way. For one of the most lightly populated ice hockey crazy countries on the planet, this tournament was a very positive sign that things are on the right track and other countries will need to take note.
As positive as the Latvians can look at this tournament, it will be looked upon as a very negative point in the direction of the German ice hockey program. Aside for a 4-3 overtime loss to Slovakia, where Germany often controlled play and could have walked away with a victory had it made better use of its 42 shots, the team was not able to compete with any of its other competitors, including Latvia. In the first relegation round game, Germany was never in it and spent much of the game looking like the boys had never played together. The Germans came out stronger in the second leg of the best-of-three series, but got beat badly over the final 35 minutes of the game and had no choice but to accept the fact that it was the weakest of the ten teams this spring.
The relegation is the third for the program in this young year, having seen its U20 and women’s national team already be sent down in previous tournaments. Very unfortunate also considering that 16-year-olds Eder and Mirko Pantkowski looked very capable of effectively playing at this level.
All in all, the tournament featured excellent ice hockey, a world of young talents, excitement, drama, thrills, and the most nerve-wracking gold medal game battle since the USA beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime at the 2011 U18 Worlds in Crimmitschau, Germany.
Word is, the town of Grand Forks is already very excited about hosting next spring’s event.
It definitely should be.