U18 stars set to shine
U18 stars set to shine
Ten nations do battle in Grand Forks
It’s the second time the event has graced the state of North Dakota. In 2009, the only previous time the U18 tournament came to the United States, it was held in Fargo and nearby Moorhead, Minnesota.
Grand Forks boasts one of hockey’s most magnificent arenas. Located on the University of North Dakota campus, the Ralph Engelstad Arena features granite floors and seats made of leather and cherry wood. The 11,643-capacity venue opened in 2001 at a cost of $104 million.
“The Ralph” is home to the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, who had the highest attendance in college hockey this season (221,828 at 19 home games). North Dakota earned its eighth NCAA title with a 5-1 win over Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four in Tampa Bay, Florida on Saturday. Famous alumni include Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and Ed Belfour – just a few of the more than 250 UND players who have made the NHL.
Grand Forks already holds a special place in IIHF history. It hosted the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship, where Canada swept to gold with a roster widely viewed as the best in U20 history. In the final, Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, and other future Olympic champions earned a 6-1 victory over a Russian team with Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin.
So what can we expect at this year’s U18 tournament?
As always, the U.S. comes in as a leading favourite. The 2016 host nation has won nine out of 17 gold medals since the U18 tournament started in 1999, including six out of the last seven. It’s seeking a three-peat. This is a tribute to the success of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, which centralizes elite talents on a Plymouth, Michigan team that competes in the USHL (United States Hockey League), the U.S.’s top junior hockey league, and with college teams.
There are numerous players to watch on head coach Danton Cole’s team. Leading NTDP scorer Clayton Keller (13-24-37 in 23 games) has reaped comparisons to Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau. Mobile playmaking defenceman Chad Krys suited up for the World Junior team in Finland earlier this year. Fellow rearguard Ryan Lindgren augments his powerful skating and defensive presence with leadership skills.
Canada, which took bronze the last two years, is gunning for its first U18 title since 2013. It’s armed with formidable major junior talent. Jakob Chychrun, a hulking assistant captain with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, is expected to anchor the blue line. The son of former NHLer Jeff Chychrun could be the first defenceman chosen in this year’s NHL draft. Centre Michael McLeod enjoyed a breakout season with the Mississauga Steelheads (21-40-61 in 57 games) and is another projected first-round pick.
Finland won this tournament in 1999 and 2000, and lost 2-1 to the U.S. in last year’s gold medal game. En route to the World Junior crown in Helsinki in January, Finland got top-notch performances out of U18 forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine and defenceman Olli Juolevi. They’re hoping for a similar “younger is better” pattern in Grand Forks although Laine has just reached the Finnish playoff final with Tappara Tampere. Two noteworthy 1999-born players that have competed against men this season are defenceman Urho Vaakanainen (Blues) and forward Kristian Vesalainen (Frolunda). Also, Juuso Valimaki has been a blue line cornerstone for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans.
The Swedes hope to return to the podium for the first time since earning three straight silvers from 2010 to 2012. Mississauga’s Alexander Nylander, the son of Michael Nylander and younger brother of William Nylander, led Sweden with nine points at the U20. He could dominate here again. Just 16, defenceman Timothy Liljegren (Rogle) has been compared to superstar Erik Karlsson, and could vie with Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings to become the #1 overall NHL pick in 2017.
Traditional contender Russia made last-minute changes, deciding to go mostly with the players and staff of the U17 national team. It will be interesting to see how these young talents fare in Grand Forks. Some 1998-born players who play in North America could have an impact. Defenceman Mikhail Sergyachov is coming off a strong season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires and could be a top-10 pick in this year’s NHL draft.
Questions abound while surveying the remaining teams.
Are the well-disciplined Swiss ready to improve on their fourth-place finish from last year, which tied their all-time high from 1999 and 2000? Was the Czech Republic’s silver medal in 2014 just a blip or a sign of true development for this traditional hockey power? After finishing ninth in 2013, eighth in 2014, and seventh in 2015, can the Slovaks keep moving up? And can Latvia and newly promoted Denmark keep their top-division spot?
The drama leading up to the gold medal game on 24 April will be intriguing – not just for NHL scouts, but for anyone who loves watching young hockey players chasing their dreams.
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