With the start of the Olympic hockey tournament two weeks away, I thought I would do this since I know a good amount about the lesser known teams in the IIHF. I figured tonight would be a good time too since we don't have a game to watch and discuss, and there isn't much Isles news otherwise (Woohoo, Trevor Gillies!).
We all know the big guns going into Vancouver, but I'd thought I would give a quick primer on the lesser known countries so that you won't feel totally ignorant when watching Canada or the USA crush Norway, or see Belarus upset Sweden again (You'll never live that game down, Tommy Salo). I will go by group, starting first with Group A's Norway and Switzerland.
Due to some confusion for qualification, I will elaborate on the qualification process.
Qualification was as follows (12 Team Field)
The host nation, in this case Canada, automatically qualifies for the tournament.
The top eight teams in the IIHF rankings on May 18th, 2008 excluding Canada qualified automatically. These teams (In no particualr order) are USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finalnd and Switzerland.
The final three sports were determined by three qualification tournaments that took palce on February 5th-8th 2009:
Oslo: Norway defeated Denmark, Kazakhstan and France
Riga: Latvia defeated Italy, the Ukraine and Hungary
Hannover: Germany defeated Austria, Japan and Slovenia
IIHF Ranking: 11
Last Olympics: 1994 (Host Nation), Last Qualified in 1992
How Qualified - Defeated Denmark, France and Kazakhstan in Qualification Tournament
Medals?: None, Best Finish 8th in 1972
NHLers?: 1, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (
Goalies: Norway's number one for the past five World Championships, Pål Grotnes, will again be the starter in Vancouver. He will be backed up by youngsters Andre Lysenstøen and Ruben Smith . None of the three play in a league that would be considered a high level of competition, Grotnes and Smith play in Norway and Lysenstøen plays in the second tier of Finnish hockey.
Defense: This will be the key if Norway are going to make any noise in Group A. They are a defensive-minded team and this group has been together a while. All but one played for the Norwegian team at last two World Championships. The most recognizable name is Tollefsen, formerly of Columbus and now a healthy scratch for the
Flyers, Red Wings. The captain and elder statesman of the team is Tommy Jakobsen. The diminutive 39 year old has played in 17 World Championships and the last two times Norway made the Olympics, this is probably his swan song. Keep an eye out for Jonas Holøs, the Colorado draft pick has been playing well in the Elitserien this year and will probably be playing his trade in North America next year.
Forwards: There are a few familiar names among Norway's forwards. Patrick Thoresen (Link) is an ex-NHLer, of almost ruptured testicle fame, currently lies 4th in the KHL in scoring. Marius Holtet is a former 2nd round pick of the
North Stars. Most of the forwards play in either the Elitserien (Mats Zucarello-Aasen, Per-Age Skrøder, Martin Ylven Laumann, Mathis Olimb, Kristian Forsberg, Holtet, Mads Hansen and Martin Røymark) or the DEL (Tore Vikingstad, Morten Ask and Anders Bastiensen). There are some scorers in Thoresen, Zucarello Aasen (2nd in the Elitserien) and Skrøder, but for the most part they are a defensive minded group.
Key Player: Pål Grotnes. This is a defensive team, but for the system to be effective Grotnes needs to perform. He has in the past, in the 2008 WC in Halifax. He held off the Canadian onslaught for two periods before he came back down to earth and had an overtime loss to Finland.
Player to Watch: Mats Zucarello-Aasen. On a MoDo team that has Peter Forsberg, Marcus Naslund and Niklas Sundstrom, the young Norwegian is the offensive star. He is small (5'7", 161) but has averaged over a point per game since moving to the Elitserien two years ago. He is small, shifty and an ace in the shootout.
Outlook: 4th in the group. You would think that the NHL size rink would be a detriment to such a Euro-Centric team but Norway's recent success on the International stage came in Halifax on the NHL rink. But, they will be the sacrificial lambs for USA and Canada, and I don't think they have enough offense beyond Thoresen and Zucarello Aasen to overcome the Swiss defense and goalies.
IIHF Rank: 7
Last Olympics: 2006
How Qualified: Automatic (Top 8 IIHF ranking)
Medals?: 2 Bronzes, 1928, 1948
NHLers?: 2+, Mark Streit (NYI, duh), Jonas Hiller (ANA), Yannik Weber (Split time between NHL and AHL), Luca Sbisa (split time between NHL and WHL)
Goalies: Hiller will probably be the number one backed up by former NHLer and current KHLer Marty Gerber. Former Dallas prospect and Sound Tiger Tobias Stephan will likely be watching most of the tournament from the press box. Hiller has played well for Anaheim this year, supplanting J.S. Guiguere as starter.
Defense: Like Norway, this is Switzerland's strength. Mark Streit will be captaining his home country for the third Olympics. He will be joined by promising youngters Luca Sbisa, Yannick Weber and Roman Josi. The remaining members of the blue line (Blindenbacher, Bezina, Diaz and Seger) are all veterans of the NLA. This groups will be fun to watch, as it does contain the only Islander and three promising young players.
Forwards: This is a weak group, as Switzerland had to recruit Canadian, ex-Whaler and all around awesome name Hnat Domenicelli, who has been playing in the NLA for the past seven seasons. The rest of the forwards feature Hartford Wolf Pack-er Andres Ambuhl, and a bunch of NLA vets. The Swiss decided not to put 17 year old phenom, Lucas Sbisa's newest teammate and BC's Favorite (and future Islander?) Nino Niederreiter on the roster. This is probably for the best, as while they could use his offense it is better for his long term development not to play against the big boys quite yet.
Key Player: Mark Streit. He is the Islanders only Olympian, and it isn't his first time on this stage either. He was captain of Switzerland in 2002 and 2006, and has played in eleven WC's. As team captain and head of the defense, he will be logging big minutes for the Swiss. Expect to see him in all situations and probably teamed up with one of the two youngsters Sbisa or Josi.
Player to Watch: Roman Josi. The 19 year old, 2nd round pick of Nashville has a big shot (9 goals in 24 games for Bern) and a fairly productive WJC. I give him the slight nod over Sbisa and Weber to watch because he isn't state-side yet. He will probably be playing for Nashville's AHL team next year.
Outlook: 3rd in group, Loosing to Canada and USA, beating Norway. Defense and Goalies keep games vs. USA and/or Canada close, Defense shuts down Norway's 1 line and a cloud of dust offense.
Let me know in the comments if you like this and want me to continue with the other two groups (B, Latvia and C, Germany and Belarus) sometime next week. If you don't like it, I won't continue. If I steppend on anyone's toes by doing this too, I'm sorry.