Aug 21, 2004
Training camps for the World Cup of Hockey have opened. Tomorrow exhibition games begin and continue for the next week while these national teams, mostly comprised of NHL players, try and gel as quickly as possible before starting the tournament on Monday, August 30 at 1pm EST when then Czech Republic faces off against Finland. Joe Pelletier stops by to break down the eight teams vying for the World Cup trophy.
Canada always enters every top-level tournament as the favorite. There is no exception with the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. But Canada's stranglehold to that title has lessened thanks to injuries.
The key to Canada's status as a hockey power is depth. Canada has so much depth that when the team was announced back in May, more focus was given to those who did not make the team than those who did.
But Canada's depth is going to be tested. Todd Bertuzzi remains suspended and ineligible. Team Canada legend Steve Yzerman has pulled out due to an eye injury, Rob Blake to a shoulder injury, Ed Belfour to a bad back, and Chris Pronger to an undisclosed injury. Mario Lemieux's health, despite Team Canada's reassurances, always remains a question mark. Dany Heatley's legal problems could prove to be a distraction.
The loss of any single player of this ilk could sink another nations' hope, but Canada remains the favorite.
Many nations have serious question marks in goal. Canada probably has enough quality goalies to lend one to every team in the tournament. Canada will rely on 2002 Olympic hero Martin Brodeur as the starter, but backups Jose Theodore and particularly Roberto Luongo are as good as any other goalie in the tournament.
Four of Canada's defensemen are returnees from 2002. The experience should pay big dividends. Eric Brewer, Ed Jovanovski, Adam Foote and 2004 Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer are a great combination of size, speed and puck movement. Throw in cool-handed Wade Redden and rugged Robyn Regehr and Scott Hannan, and Canada looks very solid on the blue line. Rob Blake's and Chris Pronger's absence will definitely hurt Team Canada. Without those two studs on the back line, the opposition now has a weakness to attempt to exploit.
Up front Canada features a lot of new faces. Lemieux, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth are the only perennial stars returning for this tournament. They will be looking to pass the torch to a highly skilled collection of young forwards. 2002 hero Jarome Iginla is back, and is likely Canada's best player. He'll be expected to lead a new generation of hockey heroes that includes newcomers like the Tampa Bay threesome of Vincent Lecavalier (who has replaced Yzerman), Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, World Championship hero Heatley, and Boston Bruins star Joe Thornton. Canada has a bevy of role players to round out the roster. Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Shane Doan comprise the International Grind Line. Brendan Morrow, Patrick Marleau and Simon Gagne will add some punch offensively
Canada is grooming a new generation of hockey heroes with this tournament. It seemingly has all the tools in place, but ultimately Canada will need a couple of the new generation of stars to emerge now if the World Cup is to come to Canada.
Sweden has an incredibly gifted roster, full of NHL talent that is all in their prime. These players know all too well Sweden's lack of historical success in top-level tournaments, particularly in 2002, and will be looking to make amends.
Peter Forsberg enters the tournament as arguably the best player in the world. He'll be joined by close buddy Markus Naslund to form a serious offensive threat. Another line will likely feature Mats Sundin and Daniel Alfredsson, giving Sweden two great lines.
But what makes Sweden especially scary is their depth on lines three and four. For the first time they have some true grinders who will be able to stand up to the hard hitting defenses proposed by nations like Canada. The Sedin Twins, Daniel and Henrik, are puck cycling masters. Tomas Holmstrom is a slot pain, unlike most others. Marcus Nilsson and Fredrik Modin had wonderful NHL playoffs. Jorgen Jonsson is a superb checker who would be in the NHL if he wanted to be.
Sweden's depth is not quite as obvious on the blueline. The Norris trophy was finally wrestled away from Niklas Lidstrom this past season, but make no doubt he's still amongst the best in the world. Mattias Norstrom and Mattias Ohlund are as physically demanding as any North American defenseman, and can handle any power forward. Kim Johnsson emerged as a solid NHL rearguard this past year, and will benefit from regular defense partner Marcus Ragnarsson on this team. The defense then thins out to include up and coming players like Christian Backman, Daniel Tjarnquist and power play specialist Dick Tarnstrom. Expect Lidstrom to take extra shifts.
Sweden's main question mark comes in goal. Tommy Salo's career has gone downhill since the 2002 Olympics. He is no longer in the NHL, opting to return to Sweden for the next three years to finish his career. Mikael Tellqvist and Henrik Lundqvist hardly inspire great hopes either.
Sweden has as good a group of forwards as anyone. Their defense is very solid. If Tommy Salo can find his form Sweden has a real shot at taking the World Cup to Europe.
Team USA is returning to defend the 1996 World Cup title with a veteran roster. Team USA isn't overly worried about past glory, or future success. They want to win here and now.
That's why Team USA’s roster features so many veterans. Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch seemingly have always played for Team USA. Hobey Baker probably would too if he didn't die in World War 1. Brian Rafalski and unheralded veterans Aaron Miller and Ken Klee are also on the blue line. Jordan Leopold is the only fresh face on a savvy, experienced blueline. Veterans Eric Weinrich and Hal Gill will attempt to fill the vacant skates of Derian Hatcher and Mathieu Schneider.
USA is hoping age isn't a factor given that this tournament is so early in the season. Canada tried a similar strategy in 1996 in order to combat some youthful American forwards. It didn't work.
There's a similar story up front. Keith Tkachuk, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, and Tony Amonte are back for one more kick at the can. The Americans will be looking for bigger roles out of two-way stars like Craig Conroy, Brian Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner. While the talent level drops off from there, the likes of Jason Blake, Jeff Halpern, and Chris Drury can fill some nice roles for Team USA. The talent is there, although Team USA will be looking for someone to emerge as a go-to guy.
Some politics appear to be being played by Team USA. Team USA doesn't have to worry about IIHF rules which prevent players from playing with other countries in IIHF events such as the Olympics. It is surprising that Team USA hasn't added Czech born star turned proud American citizen Bobby Holik to the lineup. Perhaps even Russian deserter Alexander Mogilny could have been coaxed into playing.
At least Team USA righted one wrong when they finally included young and talented Scott Gomez. Too bad his inclusion came at the cost of Jeremy Roenick's head injuries. Gomez is one of the few established young stars in the American hockey scene. There is little depth to replace other possible injured players.
While age has both pros and cons, USA's biggest question mark is in goal. Gone is the legendary Mike Richter, who has joined Olympic miracle workers Jim Craig and Jack McCartan as international goaltending legends. Will Ty Conklin, Rick Dipietro or Robert Esche be able to handle the load? Esche showed some promise in the NHL post season, but will he have recovered from surgery in time for the World Cup?
The World Cup is a short tournament where all that matters is who is hot on particular day. Team USA will be hoping one of these goalies can take the torch and lead them to the light.
As just mentioned, the World Cup is a short tournament with single game eliminations and the worst fear of any team is a hot goalie on the opposing team. Finland enters the tournament with the hottest goalie of all - Miikka Kiprusoff.
During the regular season Kiprusoff posted a 24-10-4 record with a 1.69 goals-against average. In Calgary's postseason run to the Stanley Cup Finals, he was 12-7 with a 1.90 GAA. Kiprusoff can show the world his emergence was no fluke with a strong showing at the World Cup. He'll be backed up by Kari Lehtonen, who many consider to be the best goaltending prospect in the world.
Unfortunately the remainder of Finland's roster is not as impressive.
The defense is serviceable and underrated. Elder statesman Teppo Numminen returns to guide the next generation that includes Kimmo Timmonen, Joni Pitkanen, Sami Salo, Tony Lydman and Ossi Vaananen.
Up front there is an abundance of hard working talent, with a decent blend of speed and guts. Sami Kapanen, Saku Koivu, Antti Laaksonen and Jere Lehtinen add the speed, while Jarkko Ruutu, Ville Niemenen and Riku Hahl add the guts.
The Finns are known for their team play, and that could suit them well in a short tournament. But ultimately they need a super star to step up and carry them to the promise land like no Finn has done before. Teemu Selanne has tried before, but given the downturn in his career as of late it is questionable if he can be the guy this time around. Maybe big Olli Jokinen can put in a performance similar to that of Mats Sundin in the 1991 Canada Cup. Or perhaps highly touted rookie Tuomo Ruutu, Jarkko's brother, can seize the opportunity and become the poster boy of Finnish hockey.
This tournament features a number of question marks in goal. Finland has none, giving them a good head start. If they play their traditional team game plan, and get a hot scorer and a couple of lucky bounces, maybe Finland can finally make the final jump to hockey supremacy.
Slovakia is blessed with incredible skill and speed up front. This team can score goals unlike any other team in the tournament. Peter Bondra, Pavol Dimetra, Miro Satan, Jozef Stumpel and Richard Zednik have been world-class players for years. Even scarier is the new generation of Slovakian slingers led by Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Ladislav Nagy. Michal Handzus provides a great two way presence. The Slovakians are doing an incredible job developing elite forwards.
It's a good thing Slovakia can score goals, because they'll need to try to outgun opponents at the World Cup. The Slovakians have no proven NHL goaltender, and only one top quality NHL defenseman.
Norris trophy finalist Zdeno Chara is one of the world's best, but he has little help on the blueline. Even the most ardent of NHL followers know little about a group that includes Richard Lintner, Ivan Majesky, Branislav Mezei, Jaroslav Obsut and Martin Strbak. Lubomir Visnovsky adds the only other established NHL presence on the Slovakian blueline, although Radoslav Suchy, son of perhaps the greatest Slovakian hockey player never to play in the NHL Jan Suchy, is nearing that category too.
Even worse than the blueline is the goal crease. Slovakia has no NHL goaltender. Peter Budaj, Rastislav Stana and Jan Lasak will be under incredible pressure. The lack of defense will hurt Slovakia.
#6 Czech Republic
There was a time when I considered the Czechs to be a possible #2 behind Canada. Then Robert Lang pulled out with an injury, breaking up the potent one-two punch with Jaromir Jagr. Then coach and Czech legend Ivan Hlinka died in a car crash just days before training camp was to open.
No one is sure how the Czechs will respond to their fallen coach's death. They could be dejected and have a terrible tournament, or they could use it as a rallying call like USA did in 1991 when Bob Johnson was dying in hospital.
The Czechs do have some serious talent up front, with Jaromir Jagr, Milan Hejduk, Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias leading the goal scoring charge. Martin Havlat, Martin Straka, Radek Dvorak, Martin Rucinsky and Vinnie Prospal add support to a forward unit that drops off in offensive quality soon after. Czech forwards are generally very responsible defensively.
The loss of Robert Lang is particularly disappointing. He challenged for the NHL scoring lead last season, and has a great chemistry with Jagr. Lang's pulling out for unspecified reasons really hurts the Czechs' chances.
The team's blueline is serviceable if unimpressive. The Kaberle brothers, Tomas and Frantisek, are joined by the likes of Marek Zidlicky, Jiri Slegr, Marek Malik, and Roman Hamrlik.
If the top end forwards, particularly Jagr who is still capable of being the best offensive player on the planet, can catch on fire, the Czechs can be in good shape. As long as Tomas Vokoun is healthy, they have no worries in net. Buried in Nashville, Vokoun is one of the NHL's best kept secrets and the main reason Nashville made the playoffs last year.
There seems to be a general whisper that the Czechs could be the surprise of the tournament. In a short tournament like the World Cup, all you need is a hot goalie and a hot scorer. The Czechs have the goalie already. Can Jaromir Jagr deliver the knock out punch?
How the mighty have fallen!
The Russian national team was once the greatest team in the world. Now they are hockey's greatest soap opera.
The Russians still have the skill and ability to win the World Cup in 2004, but all the sideshow antics greatly reduce the likelihood that they will.
First and foremost, so many players don't want to play. Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Zubov deserted the team years ago. Nikolai Khabibulin dropped out after originally agreeing to play, as has Daniil Markov who also needs surgery. Sergei Fedorov, Valeri Bure, Alexei Zhamnov, and probably Alexei Zhitnik have all jumped ship. Throw in injuries to Pavel Bure, and the team is extremely shorthanded.
Much of the source of malcontent was the status of the legendary Viktor Tikhonov as head coach. The Russian version of Mike Keenan was replaced by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, but that appears to be a bandage solution that might not hold. Many players are upset that now-retired Igor Larionov was not put in charge of the team as general manager. Larionov would have imported Canadian great Larry Robinson as coach, which was the main reason why Larionov was not granted the post.
The team still has talented players Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Yashin, Sergei Gonchar, Pavel Datsyuk and 17-year-old sensation Alexander Ovechkin, but hopes of being able to overcome all the discontent appears to depend on the knee of goaltender Evgeny Nabokov. With Khabibulin out of the picture, Nabokov, an import from Kazakhstan, became Russia's only option in net. However, Nabokov still hasn't gained permission to play by doctors following knee surgery. Even if he does get clearance, he hasn't been able to properly train all summer. And if he can't play, Russia will be forced to go with one of three goalies, Bryzgalov, Fomichev, or Sokolov, that even the most ardent NHL fans know little about. By the way, goaltending great Vladislav Tretiak said in a Russian language interview has said Bryzgalov, an Anaheim farm hand, will be the number one goalie because he is used to the NHL sized ice.
Russia is the team with the most question marks.
The main question mark surrounding Germany's involvement in the World Cup is: Why are the Germans here?
Sorry if that sounds blunt. Fact is there are seven hockey powers in the world, all who are capable of winning the World Cup. But a tournament needs that eighth team for logistical reasons, so Germany was deemed to be the eighth best team in the world. They do have a history in the Canada Cup/World Cup.
They only have five NHL players, which is quite an improvement for them over the years. Olaf Kolzig remains as the most recognizable name on the German roster. The goaltender will have his hands full with the opposition. Philadelphia Flyer Dennis Seidenberg and San Jose Shark Christian Erhoff will patrol the blue line, while Sharks Marcel Goc and Marco Sturm, assuming his leg injury allows him, and Buffalo Sabre Jochen Hecht will skate up front.
Germany usually puts in a good effort, as evidenced with the strong goaltending of Karl Friesen in 1984 and the shocking 7-1 victory over the Czech Republic in the 1996 World Cup. They'll play with heart and admiration, but have no real chance of winning the World Cup of Hockey 2004.
Then again, experts probably said the same about Greece's chance to win soccer's Euro 2004.
Pelletier has two books, The Legends of Team Canada and The World Cup of Hockey. He is also the creator of 1972 Summit Series.com
In Book Stores Oct. 2004
THE LEGENDS OF TEAM CANADA
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