Saturday, December 27, 2014

Devils focus on positives of unique coaching trio


NEW YORK -- Game 1 under the New Jersey Devils' coaching triumvirate is in the books, and it yielded similar results to the previous 36 games played under former coach Peter DeBoer.


One day after firing DeBoer, Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello unveiled his three-man operation Saturday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Adam Oates and Scott Stevens were added to the coaching staff to work behind the bench with Lamoriello, who is in a supervisory role for an undetermined about of time.


Although the tune was familiar, a 3-1 loss that dropped the Devils (12-18-7) to second-to-last in the Eastern Conference and 11 points out of the second wild-card spot, the vibe on the bench was positive.


"First of all, it was interesting watching and listening and seeing what was transpiring," Lamoriello said. "I thought it was extremely positive. The bench was extremely alive. We never got overly frustrated at any given time."


Lamoriello coached his first game since Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Ottawa Senators. He oversaw a Devils team that played hard but was victimized by defensive-zone breakdowns and a Travis Zajac turnover that led to Derek Stepan's shorthanded goal at 18:14 of the first period.


"I didn't find [coaching] any different than it was before," Lamoriello said. "It's certainly a different perspective as far as the plays that you see; you see a lot more there, there's no question there. Up top, you see things that the coaches on the bench can't see. And also on the bench, you see things that can't be seen upstairs. So it was extremely positive to get to know the players in a different way, which was the whole objective as far as some of the thoughts we have.


"I thought [the interaction] was excellent in my opinion. But the only thing that counts is winning, so how good can it be?"


The result left the Devils with three wins in their past 17 games (3-9-5). Entering the game 28th in NHL scoring at 2.1 goals per game, New Jersey failed to score more than one goal for the 11th time in its past 21 games.


"As I said, we're taking this a game at a time," Lamoriello said. "You have to feel good ... and that's the important thing; you have to start to feel good about what you're doing and feeling good about each other. Winning breeds success and success breeds winning, so you just have to keep at it."


Under Lamoriello, the Devils have made 13 coaching changes in the past 15 seasons, more than any team in the NHL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He stepped behind the bench for the third time as GM, this time in what he called a unique situation.


Oates, 68-47-17 in two seasons as Washington Capitals coach and an assistant under DeBoer for the 2011-12 Devils who reached the Stanley Cup Final, ran the offense and power play. Each new coach spoke between periods, with Oates addressing the offense and Stevens, an assistant under DeBoer who resigned before the start of this season, the defense.


"He was really calm," Eric Gelinas said of Stevens. "He doesn't want you to think too much. He doesn't want you to panic if you make a mistake. You make a mistake and try to correct it. I think he brings patience and a lot of calm down there.


"I think everyone worked hard. We were helping each other, we were talking to each other, we were positive. I think that's the main key here."


The Devils will practice Sunday before playing the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Monday.


"Nobody is going to say anything bad about Pete because he's an outstanding coach, but that's part of the business," center Scott Gomez said. "That's one thing about it, this group hasn't been negative. No one has been getting on each other. We've been a team and we're going to get out of this. It has to happen now."


Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNHL



Big events, venues made up 2014 hockey


Outdoor games and the Olympic Games made 2014 the year of the big event in the NHL.


Before the hockey world turns its full attention toward Washington, D.C. for the next big event, the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day, a trip down memory lane of the year that is soon to be takes us to The Big House, Chavez Ravine, the Bronx, a resort city on the coast of the Black Sea, Vancity, and a venerable football stadium along the shoreline of Lake Michigan.


Beyond the big events, the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs featured historic comebacks, emotional lifts, and overtime heroics. A modernized approach to evaluation became popular. Legends were lost, and others retired or moved on. Coaches and general managers were hired and fired.


Here is an overview of what 2014 was to the NHL:


Signature moments, marquee events


The hockey world rang in 2014 with a historic afternoon at Michigan Stadium, a.k.a. The Big House, on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.


Amidst a wintry mix of snow, sleet, and wind making up a gametime temperature of 13 degrees Fahrenheit, the 2014 NHL Winter Classic featured Toronto Maple Leafs winning 3-2 in a shootout against the Detroit Red Wings in front of an NHL record 105,491 spectators.


The 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium highlighted an NHL schedule that included six outdoor games. (Getty Images)


"It was the best experience I probably ever had playing hockey," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said.


The League traded in the snow, sleet, and wind for palm trees and hockey under the Southern California stars in front of Hollywood stars on Jan. 25 with the first of four 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games.


Dodger Stadium was the host venue as the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks played the first NHL outdoor game in a warm climate. The temperature at gametime was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. The teams entered side by side through the center field wall and were flanked by palm trees with a makeshift beach volleyball court off in the distance.


The Ducks won 3-0 in front of 54,099, but the balmy night will be remembered more for the atmosphere and the entertainment, featuring KISS, an opening ceremony with legendary L.A. broadcasters Bob Miller and Vin Scully, and a ceremonial opening faceoff with Wayne Gretzky dropping the puck between Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Brown.


"It was a real special experience," Ducks starting goalie Jonas Hiller said after making 36 saves.


As Los Angeles was experiencing its hangover on Jan. 26, the Big Apple was waking up to a big show at the big ballpark in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium was packed to capacity for the first of two NHL Stadium Series games featuring the three Tri-State area teams.


The New York Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils 7-3 as the snow fell on top of them. The gametime temperature was 24.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The announced attendance was 50,105.


Three nights later the Rangers did it again, defeating the New York Islanders 2-1 at Yankee Stadium on a cold night that didn't seem to bother the 50,027 people who walked through the turnstiles to see hockey under the lights in the Bronx.


"It was another amazing night," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after making 30 saves.


Two weeks later, the biggest tournament in hockey started with two games in Sochi, Russia. With due respect to the outdoor games, the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics was the most anticipated event on the calendar.


For the fifth time the NHL shut its doors for two weeks to allow its players to participate in the Olympics. The tournament started ran from Feb. 12 through Feb. 23.


Canada, the defending gold medalists from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, were the favorites. The United States, silver medalists in 2010, thought gold was attainable for the first time since 1980. Russia, the host country, faced the most pressure.


Russia bowed out in the quarterfinals with a 3-1 loss to Finland.


After overcoming a scare from Latvia in the quarterfinals, Canada ended the United States' dreams of winning gold with a 1-0 win against the Americans in the semifinals.


The U.S. left Sochi without a medal after losing 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game.


Canada won its second-consecutive gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Getty Images)


Canada's stifling defense brought it the gold medal for the second consecutive Olympics. The Canadians beat Sweden 3-0 in the gold-medal game. Canada allowed three goals in six games. That it scored less than three goals per game (17 goals in six games) didn't matter, and even prompted Babcock, Canada's coach, to do his version of a dropped-mic exit to end his press conference after the gold-medal game.


"Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care?" Babcock, Canada's coach, said after winning gold. "Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See ya."


The NHL went back outdoors less than a week after returning from the Olympic break. Canadian Olympians Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby led their respective NHL teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, on the ice at Soldier Field for the fourth and final 2014 NHL Stadium Series game on March 1.


A little snow, swirling wind, and a gametime temperature of 17.4 degrees didn't stop the Blackhawks from rolling over the Penguins 5-1 in front of 62,921, the fourth largest crowd to witness an NHL game.


"It honestly did feel like we were playing shinny hockey in the backyard," Toews said.


The final stop on the NHL's big-event tour was Vancouver on March 2 for the 2014 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic at BC Place. Although it was technically indoors, this was not even remotely close to a regular regular-season game.


The Ottawa Senators beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2 in front of 54,194 spectators, bringing the total attendance figure for the six combined Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and Stadium Series games from Jan. 1 - March 2 to 376,837, an average of 62,806 per game.


"Our teams and our players displayed the very best qualities of our sport to over 375,000 fans in-person and an international viewing audience of millions more," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said after the Heritage Classic. "We look forward to an exciting run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs."


Ah yes, the playoffs. Big events weren't the only big thing to happen in the NHL in 2014.


A postseason like no other


Kings defenseman Alec Martinez wrote his name into the record books, becoming the first player in NHL history to score the series-clinching goals in overtime in the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final.


Martinez capped a classic Western Conference Final series between the Blackhawks and Kings with the overtime winner in Game 7. His overtime winner in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers brought the Kings its second championship in three years.


"I blacked out," Martinez joked on the ice not long after he scored his Cup-winner.


The Kings' path to the championship was rocky and historic.


Alec Martinez beat Henrik Lundqivst in double-overtime to give the Los Angeles Kings their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons. (Getty Images)


Los Angeles became the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games, and the first team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Final by winning three Game 7s.


The San Jose Sharks outscored the Kings 17-8 in the first three games of the Western Conference First Round; the Kings won the next four games by outscoring the Sharks 18-5.


The Kings rollercoaster continued against Anaheim in the Second Round, when they won Games 1 and 2, lost the next three, before winning Games 6 and 7 to reach the Western Conference Final.


The classic series against Chicago featured the Kings going ahead 3-1 before losing Game 5 in double overtime. They lost Game 6 by one goal. Game 7 looked booked for Chicago until Marian Gaborik tied it at 12:43 of the third period. Martinez won it at 5:47 of overtime.


Before losing three games in overtime in the Cup Final, the Rangers had a surprising and emotional run through the playoffs.


New York beat the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round before rallying from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Penguins in the Second Round.


Rangers forward Martin St. Louis unexpectedly lost his mother, France, on the offday between Games 4 and 5 of the series against Pittsburgh. St. Louis didn't miss a game, providing inspiration to his teammates as he played while grieving.


He scored a goal in Game 6 and had an assist on the series-clinching goal in Game 7. As fate would have it, the Rangers were playing the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final. Montreal is across the river from St. Louis' hometown of Laval, QC.


The entire Rangers team attended the funeral for France St. Louis on May 18, in between Games 1 and 2 of the Conference Final.


"The New York Rangers family has been touched by a little Quebec family in a deep, profound way," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the funeral.


New York won the series in six games, but was aided by the fact that Montreal goalie Carey Price didn't play after Game 1, when he was injured in a collision with Rangers forward Chris Kreider.


The year of analytics


Traditional statistics such as goals, assists, points, goals-against average, save percentage and plus-minus were met by new "fancy stats" such as Corsi, Fenwick and PDO in a big way in 2014.


The analytics community has been talking about these possession- and shot-based statistics for several years, but they were ushered into the mainstream this year as a number of teams either hired or developed their own analytics department.


The Maple Leafs made arguably the most notable move when they hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as the assistant general manager on July 22. Dubas, who was a general manager in the Ontario Hockey League, is widely considered an analytics guru, even though he hates the term.


The progressive move by the Maple Leafs, spurred on by president of hockey operations Brendan Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis, signaled a change in the analytics game. Toronto soon created an analytics department by hiring Darryl Metcalf, who ran the popular analytics site ExtraSkater.com, and analytics bloggers Cam Charron and Rob Pettapiece.


The Devils, Flyers, Capitals, Penguins, Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets are among several teams who hired people previously not associated with any NHL team to be their analytics gurus. Several other teams, including the Blackhawks and Kings, have been using their own form of analytics for several seasons.


"Analytics is a term everyone uses, but right now hockey is at such a primitive stage," Dubas told NHL.com in September. "We're just beginning to know which metrics are meaningful, and which ones are noise. We're still in those beginning stages of it."


A legend passes


For decades, the regal presence of Jean Beliveau was omnipresent around the Montreal Canadiens, so it's no surprise that his funeral on Dec. 10 became a national event in Canada attended by the prime minister, Quebec premier, Montreal mayor, two former prime ministers, and a who's-who of executives and Hall of Fame members from the hockey world.


An estimated 1,500 people packed inside Mary Queen of the World Cathedral with countless more watching on video monitors outside eight days after Beliveau passed away at his home at the age of 83.


Beliveau's name is on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, including 10 as a player. His No. 4 is retired by the Canadiens, and is now placed over his seat in Bell Centre, where he would watch his former team play alongside his wife Elise of 61 years.


"His presence didn't diminish others but made others better," former Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden said during his eulogy.


Beliveau's loss was preceded by the passing of Pat Quinn and Gilles Tremblay in November.


Moving in, moving on, staying put


This yearalso marked the end of some legendary runs and the dawn of new eras across the NHL:


* Teemu Selanne played his final game at the age of 43. He retired from after 21 seasons, 1,451 games, 684 goals, 1,457 points, and a Stanley Cup championship in 2007. He captained Finland to the bronze medal in Sochi, his fourth Olympic medal.


* Daniel Alfredsson played his final game at the age of 41. He retired following 18 seasons, including 17 with the Senators. Alfredsson, who played last season with the Red Wings, was brought back to Ottawa earlier this month so he could retire a Senator.


Martin Brodeur signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues after playing 1,259 games with the New Jersey Devils. (Getty Images)


* Martin Brodeur played his 1,259th and final game as a Devils goalie on April 13; he played his first NHL game not as a Devils goalie on Dec. 4, shortly after he signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues.


* St. Louis' run in Tampa Bay came to an end on March 5, when he was traded to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan and what turned into New York's first-round draft picks in 2014 and 2015.


* Roberto Luongo's ongoing saga in Vancouver finally came to an end on March 4, the day before the NHL Trade Deadline, when he was traded to the Florida Panthers.


* The Blackhawks ensured their fans that Toews and Kane aren't going anywhere by signing the superstars to identical eight-year, $84 million contract extensions.


* The Florida Panthers selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft on June 27 in Philadelphia. Ekblad is currently third among rookies, and first among rookie defenseman, with 19 points. He is averaging 22:05 of ice time per game.


* Shanahan left the NHL and his position as the head of the Department of Player Safety to run the Maple Leafs hockey operations department.


* After 17 years in Nashville, Barry Trotz's contract was not renewed by the Predators, who replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Trotz landed in Washington. He was hired by new general manager Brian MacLellan, who replaced longtime GM George McPhee.


* The coaching business overall remained as fluid and fickle as ever in 2014 as 10 teams changed coaches -- Jets, Canucks, Penguins, Predators, Capitals, Hurricanes, Panthers, Senators, Oilers and Devils.


* It wasn't any easier on general managers as the Sabres, Avalanche, Hurricanes, Flames, Flyers, Penguins, Canucks and Capitals changed general managers.


---



Friday, December 26, 2014

Panthers prospect Grimaldi fine-tuning game in AHL


Before Rocco Grimaldi arrived under his tutelage, San Antonio Rampage coach Tom Rowe already knew a fair amount about what exactly the 5-foot-6 wing could do on the ice.


"I watched him on video quite a bit, and I'd watch him on TV, which sometimes isn't the best way to do it, but it gives you a good idea," Rowe said. "I loved the fact that he's quick, and he moved the puck well and could beat guys one-on-one. Those were the things that stood out to me."


Finding Grimaldi wasn't hard. A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of North Dakota, the California-born 21-year-old had already won three gold medals in international play before the Florida Panthers selected him No. 33 at the 2011 NHL Draft. He added a fourth gold medal with the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships, scoring twice in a 3-1 win against Sweden in the final game.


"Both of those programs really taught me how to be a professional, not just play professional, but act professional as well," Grimaldi said. "I think it definitely shaped me, but I also had coaches growing up who had played at the pro level or had coached guys that are at the pro level now, so I think I always sort of had it running through me."


Grimaldi was introduced to hockey by a friend of his older sister who played the sport. After the entire family went out to a game, Grimaldi, like many who see the game for the first time in person, fell in love. First, it was roller hockey, then a swift graduation into ice hockey. Those humble beginnings were shared with San Jose Sharks forward, Matt Nieto, another California kid whose path to the NHL included stops with the U.S. National Team, Boston University and time in the American Hockey League.


During his draft year, there were rumblings about his height, but for Grimaldi, even-keeled and highly skilled, the concerns of others always bounced right off of him.


"People say a lot of stuff. You've just have to take it in one ear and out the other," he said. "I knew that I was created at this size and there's nothing I can do about that, but there is something I can do about how hard I work and the time I put in and shaping my skills and things like that. It never has really bothered me."


Rowe, too, is in his first full season with the Rampage after replacing Peter Horachek last November when Horachek became interim coach of the Panthers. Most professional hockey coaches demand a lot from their players and Rowe is no different. But with Grimaldi, the drive to succeed and to continue fine-tuning his game is already there, already integrated into his play and his mindset.


"He competes. He'll compete as hard in practice as he does in a game, which has really been impressive to watch," Rowe said. "He's an extremely focused young guy. He obviously wants to be a pro, wants to be in the NHL like everybody, but he is dialed in."


Grimaldi has made a few impressions. He made his NHL debut on Nov. 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers and scored his first NHL goal on Nov. 22 at the Nashville Predators. Most notably on Nov. 18, he became one of the rare players in pro hockey history to play games in two leagues on the same day.


Starting the morning with the Rampage's annual school-day game, Grimaldi was pulled aside before the start of the third period, told to go home, pack a bag and get on the next flight to Los Angeles to be ready in time for warm-ups with the Panthers that night against the Los Angeles Kings. The proximity from Staples Center to his southern California home allowed Grimaldi's parents and grandparents, one of his former coaches, and a small group of childhood friends to see the game, making it one for the books.


"You know, I woke up that morning and was only focusing on playing Oklahoma City," Grimaldi said. "Then our general manager pulled me aside and said, 'You're leaving right now,' so I was like, 'Well, OK.' It was in my hometown, too, so if I wasn't excited for that game, I don't know what would excite me."


Grimaldi has 10 points in 22 games in San Antonio and one goal in seven games with Florida. He's adjusting nicely on the Rampage roster after scoring 77 points in 86 games for North Dakota. When asked about his goals for the season, Grimaldi, who will graduate in May as a communications major with a leadership minor, doesn't immediately reel off a laundry list. Instead, he repeats a nugget of advice recently given to him: Set goals that are attainable and do things each day to actively improve. For instance, if he goes out there and actively counts his goals and his points, he says his focus narrows, and if the production doesn't come, his confidence falters and his game suffers.


"I just try to develop everything that I can right now, and I really take that advice to heart," he said. "I'm developing my shot, and I'm just trying to develop all the little areas in my game. I know a lot of people say that I'm a goal scorer, or an offensive player, but I really take pride in being a defensive player, too. I really take pride in the little things that nobody notices."


For the latest news, scores and stats from around the American Hockey League, visit theahl.com .



Resilient Crawford focused ahead of Winter Classic


CHICAGO -- It's difficult to find a word that adequately describes the season Corey Crawford is having for the Chicago Blackhawks.


Impressive, steady and dazzling could all work for the majority of his outings. In 20 games, Chicago's No.1 goalie is 12-6-2 with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage, and one shutout. He's playing noticeably better under the guidance of first-year Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite, and is a big reason Chicago is leading the NHL in penalty-killing.


"Commend him on getting off to a great start," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Crawford earlier this season. "His focus has been excellent every day on the ice, the practice days as well, but he really seems like he’s concentrating on the next shots, the next situations. His preparation has been excellent."


Crawford's fortunes elsewhere have been just the opposite, which is why words like frustrating, challenging and disappointing could just as easily define Crawford in Chicago's first 35 games.


He would've started the majority of the 14 games he missed with two separate injuries, and the time off allowed backups Antti Raanta and Scott Darling to shine in his place. Raanta has twice fought off impressive bids by Darling to replace him as the primary backup, but the result of that competition opened some eyes to a deep stable of viable goaltending options for the Blackhawks.


In that respect, Chicago is feeling a lot better about its organizational goaltending depth as the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA) nears. Quenneville showed just how confident the Blackhawks are last week, when Crawford was getting to set to return from his second injury.


"The way we're succeeding with our goaltending, we're almost expecting it now," Quenneville said recently. "Game in, game out, the quality of the goaltending we've had has been unbelievable. So, it was almost like, 'OK, when [Crawford] gets back, he gets back.' It's almost like we didn't feel that [urgency] or need to expedite [his] return here, and he was showing patience with it as well."


Crawford lost 3-2 in a nine-round shootout at the Columbus Blue Jackets in his return this past Saturday, and then took the loss Tuesday after being pulled early in a 5-1 loss at home against the Winnipeg Jets.


The game was two days after the Blackhawks learned shocking news about the death of Clint Reif, their 34-year old assistant equipment manager, so Quenneville cut every player some slack. That included Crawford, but the 29-year old goalie might still have to play his way out of the coach's dog house for another reason.


At the time of his second injury, which involved his left leg, Quenneville made it clear he didn't like the cause of it. A misstep by Crawford while leaving a concert during an off day prompted the ailment, which caused him to miss eight games in a two-week stretch.


It put pressure on Raanta and Darling to weather the storm, which they did, but Crawford stewed about his plight while recovering. He detests missing time, and was furious with himself for the accidental misstep. An undisclosed upper-body injury in October had already cost him six games, so it's no surprise Crawford seemed a little cranky in footage from the first two episodes of "EPIX presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic."


It's a good segue into more descriptive words that could be said about Crawford: resilient, determined and even a little self-loathing. Prior to returning against the Blue Jackets, Crawford left no doubt who was starting the next day.


"I’m going to play," he said. "I’ve been feeling really good in practice and working really hard. The quickness is there, the quick feet and quick recoveries to rebounds is there too. Right now, I feel good."


The Blackhawks feel the same seeing him back in his usual spot on the ice.


No matter what's happened with injuries, Crawford's teammates have come to expect a high level of play from him.


"He's rock-solid pretty much every time he's in there," right wing Patrick Kane said. "He's a very confident goalie and we have all the confidence in the world in him too."


Crawford, who will turn 30 on Jan. 31, is looking to rebuild his own confidence. His six-year contract extension, worth a reported $36 million, started this season, and he's intent on proving the $6 million charge against the NHL salary cap is worth it.


He's not daydreaming much about playing the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park on New Year's Day, or thinking about sharing more ice time than usual with Raanta.


"I’m thinking about the first shift, the first shot [of a game], that’s all I can worry about," Crawford said recently. "I don’t want to get ahead of myself."



Thursday, December 25, 2014

Jonathan Toews beat Dubinsky

Fantasy top 30 goalies: Schneider needs time


Every Thursday during the season, NHL.com's Evan Sporer will provide you with in-depth analysis of goaltenders. From updated weekly top-30 rankings to trending players and more, Sporer will be your go-to guy for advice on fantasy goalies all season long.


UPDATED TOP 30 GOALIE RANKINGS Of the items on the checklist for New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer to begin the regular season was to make sure goaltender Cory Schneider knew he was the team's starting goalie. He's accomplished that and more. Schneider started the Devils' first 20 games of the season, a stretch that broke Martin Brodeur's New Jersey record for most consecutive starts. Schneider is on pace to shatter his own single-season record for games started. Already with an NHL-high 32 games played this season, Schneider easily should start more than the 45 games he did last season, which was his personal high entering the season. The numbers Schneider has compiled this season don't reflect the same high standard when he played fewer games in previous seasons. His save percentage is down, his goals-against are up, and fantasy owners who were expecting Schneider to continue to produce while playing more frequently are looking for answers. Schneider, like many before him, is making the adjustment from backup to full-time starter. No position in the League is more taxing than goaltender. The best skaters in the League hope to play 82 games; the best goalies in the League usually will play somewhere in the 60s. A backup making the move to starter is similar to a starting pitcher making the jump from Triple-A baseball to the major leagues. NHL coaches won't put a games-played cap on goalies transitioning from backup to starter, but the question remains as to how effective one can expect a goalie to be during that transition. For Schneider, the uptick in minutes hasn't gone as smoothly numbers-wise as his fantasy owners would have hoped for. His .917 save percentage would be the worst of his career for any full season; the same goes for his 2.51 goals-against average. And while Schneider is on pace to win 25 games, which would be a career-high, he's also on pace to start 73 games. In 2011-12 Schneider won 20 games in 28 starts. That 73 number is probably a bit high; since starting the Devils' first 20, Schneider has appeared in a more regular (from a historical standpoint) 12 of 16. If he starts 75 percent of the Devils' games from now until season's end, he'll end up with around 67 starts, which still is a very high number. There have been plenty of goalies before Schneider who have faced the same transition. The Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask is an excellent comparable, especially from a situations standpoint. Like Schneider, Rask spent years as a backup. Also like Schneider, one could argue Rask plays in a system that inflates goalies' numbers. Rask took over as starter in 2012-13. In a 48-game season Rask started 34 times (an 82-game equivalent of 58 starts). He was third in the League with a .929 save percentage, sixth in GAA at 2.00 and his 19 wins were tied for 11th.

Cory Schneider



Goalie - NJD


RECORD: 11-16-4

GAA: 2.51 | SVP: .917



A goalie who just last season made the same transition was Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bayh Lightning. After never starting more than 21 games in his career (that occurred during 2012-13, which constituted 43.7 percent of the schedule), Bishop started 61 times last season. Like Rask, Bishop championed the promotion. His .924 save percentage and 2.23 GAA both ranked seventh in the League. Schneider is no stranger to being "the guy," he's just new to it at a professional level. In his final season at Boston College, Schneider started all 42 games, including eight back-to-backs. Another 12 of his starts were made with one day of rest between them. If Schneider's numbers are down a bit this season, the main culprit more likely is his teammates' performance in front of him. The Devils are 21st in the League in Corsi-For percentage and 25th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Those numbers are out of Schneider's control but very directly affect his statistics. It's not easy to take on significantly more starts as a goalie in the NHL, and a lot is going against Schneider right now in terms of aiding in that adjustment.


TRENDING UP

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars -- I expect the Dallas Stars to make a run at a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and recently Lehtonen has been pretty good. He's 4-2-0 in his past games starts; he got pulled and didn't factor in the decision against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 21. Excluding the Edmonton game he's got a .928 save percentage during that stretch. Lehtonen is 7-2-1 since Nov. 20, and appears to be helping the Stars begin to turn things around.


TRENDING DOWN



Darcy Kuemper



Goalie - MIN


RECORD: 11-10-0

GAA: 2.64 | SVP: .901



Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild -- I think the Minnesota Wild will be a team that challenges for a spot in the postseason, but Kuemper isn't making things easy for them at the moment. He is 2-5-0 in his last eight games; he was pulled from a game against the Nashville Predators on Dec. 20 after allowing three goals on 14 shots. He's allowed 25 goals in those eight games. The Wild have increased their scoring from 24th in the League last season in goals per game and to 11th in 2014-15. However Kuemper has been struggling despite the added run support. Minnesota has even tried Niklas Backstrom in three of its past four games. KEEP AN EYE ON

Cam Talbot, New York Rangers -- No, Talbot isn't going to usurp Henrik Lundqvist on the Rangers depth chart, but the backup is posting stellar numbers for the second consecutive season. He shut out the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 21 to earn his third win this season, all of which have been shutouts. The Rangers and coach Alain Vigneault are learning they can lean on their backup more now to ensure a fresher Lundqvist down the stretch, and Talbot, currently the 13th-ranked Yahoo fantasy goalie, has made good on those minutes.




TOP 30 FANTASY GOALIES


These modified re-rankings are a projection of a goalie's fantasy output for the entire season. Our ranks are based on volume categories like games played, wins, saves, goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%). The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from last week (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). It is important to note that our rankings reflect sheer fantasy value, not talent. A less-talented goalie could be ranked higher due to their team's strong defense and offense.































































































1Pekka Rinne, NSH (SAME)16Cory Schneider, NJD (SAME)
2Corey Crawford, CHI (+1) 17Craig Anderson, OTT (+1)
3Carey Price, MTL (+3) 18Michael Hutchinson, WPG (+10)
4Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (+3) 19Kari Lehtonen, DAL (+2)
5Marc-Andrew Fleury, PIT (-1) 20Jake Allen, STL (-1)
6Tuukka Rask, BOS (-1) 21Braden Holtby, WAS (-1)
7Jonathan Quick, LAK (+1) 22Semyon Varlamov, COL (NR, IR)
8Jaroslav Halak, NYI (+1) 23Antti Raanta, CHI (+1)
9Frederik Andersen, ANA (+3) 24Martin Jones, LAK (+1)
10Antti Niemi, SJS (+2) 25Calvin Pickard, COL (-2)
11Jonathan Bernier, TOR (+1) 26Cam Talbot, NYR (NEW)
12Roberto Luongo, FLA (+2) 27Alex Stalock, SJS (NEW)
13Jimmy Howard, DET (-3) 28Darcy Kuemper, MIN (-6)
14Sergei Bobrovsky, CBJ (+1) 29Steve Mason, PHI (+1)
15Ryan Miller, VAN (+2) 30Karri Ramo, CGY (-1)

Dropped out: Robin Lehner, Jhonas Enroth


Key injuries: Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, John Gibson, Jonas Gustavsson


NR - IR : Not ranked last week because of injury


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Finland faces challenge for World Juniors repeat


The Finland National Junior Team will look to become the first in seven years to win back-to-back gold medals when the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship takes center stage this week in Montreal and Toronto.


Canada was the most recent repeat champion, winning five straight golds between 2005 and 2009. They'll be one of nine other teams looking to deny the Finns a second straight gold medal at the 11-day event, which runs Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, 2015.


The Group A field, which consists of Finland, Canada, the United States, Slovakia and Germany, will play preliminary-round games at Bell Centre in Montreal.


The schedule-makers provided quite an offering for fans on opening day with the defending champion Finns playing against the United States at 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com).


"If playing Finland doesn't catch your attention right from the get-go than I can't help you," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "Knowing we are playing Finland definitely gets you focused and will help us in that area."


Osiecki, currently in his second season as an associate coach for the American Hockey League affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Rockford IceHogs, is using all his resources.


"I've been joking with the guys that with [Finland's Teuvo Teravainen and Ville Pokka] here in Rockford, we're trying to steal all the secrets and pick their brains to try and get the upper hand," Osiecki said.


Canada coach Benoit Groulx, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of bringing to an end the country's five-year gold-medal drought.


"We are very comfortable with the choices we made," Groulx said. "We tried to have a balance between skill, speed, strength and size. When you look at the roster, we have that."


Here is a look at the five teams in Group A.


CANADA


Coach: Benoit Groulx


Last year: Canada rebounded well after a 5-4 shootout loss to the Czech Republic in its second preliminary-round game on the way to earning the top seed in the group with 10 points (3-0-1). After a 4-1 win against Switzerland in the quarterfinal round, Canada lost 5-1 to eventual champion Finland in the semifinals. Canada than had its medal hopes ended by Russia for the second consecutive WJC with a 2-1 loss in the bronze-medal game. It also marked the fourth straight tournament in which Canada lost to Russia in the medal round: 5-3 in the 2011 gold-medal game, 6-5 in the semifinals in 2012 and 6-5 in overtime in the 2013 bronze-medal game.


2015 Draft watch: All eyes will be on center Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, who is projected by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. McDavid returned to game action Dec. 21 in an exhibition victory against Sweden after sitting five weeks with a broken bone in his right hand sustained Nov. 11. McDavid had one goal and four points in seven games for Canada at the 2014 WJC; he was the sixth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the event, joining Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Wayne Gretzky. Also on the roster is left wing Lawson Crouse of the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound power forward might be one of the hardest hitters in his league.


Schedule: Dec. 26, Slovakia, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Finland, 8 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, United States, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook: Canada will have the home-country support, but can goaltenders Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) step up to the challenge in their biggest tournament to date? The additions of forwards Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) and Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators) on loan from their NHL teams was a huge bonus. The experienced Lazar will serve as captain. Canada cannot rely on just one or two point-producers, but instead show some measure of consistency throughout all four lines. The prediction here is Canada finishes first in Group A.


UNITED STATES


Coach: Mark Osiecki


Last year: The United States opened the tournament with three straight victories, outscoring the opposition 19-4, but lost 3-2 decision to Canada on New Year's Eve to finish second in Group A with nine points. A 5-3 loss to Russia in the quarterfinals eliminated the U.S. from medal contention for the second time in three years.


2015 Draft watch: Boston University freshman Jack Eichel is a potential top-two pick at the draft. He is averaging 1.69 points per game, a higher mark than Zach Parise (1.56) during his draft-eligible freshman season at the University of North Dakota in 2002-03. Eichel and defensemen Noah Hanifin (Boston College), Zach Werenski (University of Michigan) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City, WHL) are A-rated skaters on the NHL Central Scouting players to watch list for the draft. The roster also includes forward Auston Matthews of the USNTDP, a 17-year-old native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who could be the top pick of the 2016 draft.


Schedule: Dec. 26, Finland, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Slovakia, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Canada, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook: The challenge for Osiecki is having his team ready right from the start with Finland looming as the opening-day opponent. There are a lot of new faces throughout the lineup, but many were teammates on the gold medal-winning 2014 World Under-18 Championship in Finland in April. Eichel, who will serve as U.S. captain, had five goals and 10 points in seven games in that event. Look for the United States to finish second in Group A.


FINLAND


Coach: Hannu Jortikka


Last year: The Finns defeated Sweden 3-2 in overtime in the championship game to earn their third gold medal at the tournament and first since 1998. It marked the first medal of any kind for Finland since earning a bronze medal at the 2006 WJC in Vancouver. The loss also avenged a 4-2 loss to the Swedes in the preliminary round, which dropped the Finns into second place in Group B with seven points entering the playoff round. Finland defeated the Czech Republic (5-3), Canada (5-1) and then Sweden for the gold when defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo Sabres) scored 9:42 into OT.


2015 Draft watch: Finland has one player considered by NHL Central Scouting as an A-rated prospect, right wing Mikko Rantanen, who is a regular on the second line with TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. "He plays a mature game and works hard both ways; he has surprising mobility for a player his size (6-foot-3, 211 pounds)," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. There are two B-rated skaters, right wing Sebastian Aho and left wing Roope Hintz. Additionally, right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, who starred for 2014 Liiga champion Karpat last season, earned a roster spot despite not being eligible until the 2016 draft. "[Puljujarvi] has the same scoring instincts and skill set as Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers)," Stubb said of the 16-year-old.


Schedule: Dec. 26, United States, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 11 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, delay); Dec. 29, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook: Finland may have the strongest goaltending tandem in the tournament with incumbent starter Juuse Saros (Nashville Predators) and Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues). That and a formidable defense corps led by Julius Honka (Dallas Stars), along with plenty of speed up front, should push the defending gold medalist to a third-place finish in the group.


SLOVAKIA


Coach: Ernest Bokros


Last year: Slovakia has placed no higher than sixth at the WJC since 2009, when it finished fourth. At the 2014 WJC Slovakia beat Germany 9-2 for its only win on the way to an eighth-place finish. Sweden eliminated Slovakia from medal contention with a 6-0 victory in the quarterfinals.


2015 Draft watch: The roster features two players regarded as potential draft picks, right wing Radovan Bondra (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and defenseman Erik Cernak (6-3, 192). Cernak is listed as a B-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list; Bondra is a C-rated skater.


Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Finland, 11 a.m. (NHLN-US, delay); Dec. 29, United States, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook: Slovakia has some talent on the roster and may be able to keep games close in the early stages, but it comes down to depth and strength along the blue line and Finland, Canada and the United States are just better. Look for Slovakia to finish fourth.


GERMANY


Coach: Pat Cortina


Last year: Germany stunned the Czech Republic with a 3-0 win in preliminary-round action, but were outscored 24-4 in their other three games to finish fifth in Group A. Leon Draisaitl, who was selected No. 3 in the 2014 draft by the Edmonton Oilers, had two assists to lead Germany to a 3-1 win against Norway to survive the relegation round and earn a third straight appearance in the WJC top division this season.


2015 Draft watch: Four players on the roster are considered C-rated skaters on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list: defensemen David Trinkberger (Muskegon Lumberjacks, United States Hockey League) and Kai Wissmann (Eisbaren Berlin Jr., Germany), and forwards Dominik Kahun (Munchen, Germany) and Maximilian Kammerer (Salzburg, Austria).


Schedule: Dec. 27, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, United States, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Slovakia, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Finland, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook: Germany doesn't have a Draisaitl to lean on this year and most of the 2015 draft-eligible prospects are considered fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round picks. They'll probably need to survive the best-of-3 relegation round for the right to return to the 2016 WJC.


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Unmasked: Canada playing catch up in goal


There may not be the crisis declared by some observers after Canada stretched its gold-medal drought to five years at the IIHF World Junior Championship with a non-podium finish in 2014. But as the country prepares to host the 2015 tournament after two years without any medal, there is little question Canada has lagged behind in the goaltender arms race.


The fact Hockey Canada has spent two years building a national goaltending development model, which will include the country's first goalie-coach certification program, is as strong an admission as possible.


Sweden instituted a similar national plan a decade ago and its formation is credited for its rise up the international goaltending ranks, just as Finland improved its goaltending with the introduction of their groundbreaking program almost 20 years earlier.


So it's not surprising Hockey Canada recently sent a six-person advisory group to those countries to learn more about their goaltending programs.


"This is stuff that should have been done 10 years ago but better late than never," said Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and goalie coach who is now consulting for Hockey Canada and was on the trip to Scandinavia. "We recognized it and we're doing something about it."


The results can be seen at all levels, including the makeup of the goaltending fraternity in the NHL. During the past 15 seasons, the number of Canadian goalies to appear in at least one NHL game has decreased from 62 in 1998-99 to 39 last season.


Sweden and Finland have filled that void. Last year, 22 goalies from those two countries played in at least one game; 15 seasons ago it was one goalie.



Goalies who played at least one game






































Country1998-992003-042013-14
Canada625439
United States121318
Sweden1313
Finland079



Some of the changing numbers in the NHL may be the result of increased opportunity and awareness about European goalies in a League often slow to try new things but quick to copy those who have success doing so.


But Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the New York Rangers, said the numbers are more telling back in his native Sweden, where he grew up watching that country's top professional league fill goaltending spots with imports.


Between 2001 and 2008, almost half of the starting jobs in the Swedish Hockey League were filled by import goaltenders, according to statistics provided by Thomas Magnusson, Sweden's head of goaltending development. Swedish goalies accounted for 54 percent of the No. 1 positions in that time. Since 2008, however, 78 percent of the starting goalies are Swedish. Last season, 12 of the 13 top jobs in the league were filled by Swedes.


"I watched when I was back home (during the 2012-13 season) and I was really impressed by how high the standard was compared to when I played there," Lundqvist said. "When I played 11-12 years ago it was me and a couple of other guys and a lot of imports. Now you have young Swedish goalies playing really well, so I think we're seeing the results. There's a lot more younger goalies now."


In Canada, the impetus for change comes from a lack of goalie depth which, in part, has manifested itself at the World Juniors, a tournament which is very important to Hockey Canada.


"Absolutely," said Hirsch, who is working as a TV analyst for Sportsnet. "Since Carey Price (in 2007) and Steve Mason (in 2008) we've had good goalies, but with the number of registered goalies in Canada we should have five or six Carey Prices and a battle because they are all so good. We're not getting that. We're getting one or two and hoping they are going to be good at the World Juniors."


Hirsch stressed that's not a knock on the two Canada goalies at the 2015 tournament, Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) and Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens). It's more about the lack of depth behind those two goalies in a country that had 518,009 registered minor hockey players in 2014, more than 10 times Sweden (41,521) or Finland (39,263).


"For us to be searching high and low for a Carey Price, it shouldn't be that way," Hirsch said. "We should have five or six to choose from."


The problem is not a lack of quality goalie coaches in Canada, Hirsch said. The concern is access to that coaching.


Much of the goaltending development in Finland and Sweden is carried out through their equivalent of minor-hockey programs. In Canada, much of the goaltending development takes place privately. Though some Canadian minor-hockey organizations hire private coaches to work with larger groups during the season, a lot of position-specific development is limited to summer camps, which is ironically when Europeans focus on developing goalies as athletes off the ice.


"We're not behind teaching goaltending," Hirsch said. "We just don't have enough knowledgeable coaches available to all these kids."


Canada's certification program is designed to ensure more qualified coaching is available to more goalies outside of the private industry, even if it's volunteers teaching basics to pre-teens.


The Swedes and Finns gather annually for goaltending conferences, sharing ideas to constantly improve and evolve their development models. Consensus among top coaches is shared with regional coaches, who take those messages back to their hometowns to teach it to grass-roots coaches, ensuring a consistent message is preached from the pro team right down to novices learning the position.


That's easier to implement in a smaller country, but Canada's plans are similar, and they are not alone in their quest.


Russia started its own program after the MHL, a junior affiliate of the Kontinental Hockey League, purchased and translated the Swedish hockey program. Germany has worked with Sweden to start its own goalie plan.


Don't be surprised if the United States builds one soon.


"I feel the [Warren Strelow Goalie Mentor] Program has experienced tremendous success, but we are informally and unofficially looking at ways to further advance and expand the program," Kevin Reiter, goaltending coach for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, wrote in an email. "I feel more can be done to structure goalie development in the U.S. Currently, our Strelow Mentor staff is researching different ideas and potential solutions to certain obstacles USA Hockey faces regarding goalie development. Last summer we had Justin Goldman spend time in Sweden and Finland with their top goaltending coaches to get a better understanding of their approach. He came back with great insight and a plethora of ideas that we are currently researching to see what is feasible."


The goal of expanding beyond current high-performance camps would be to ensure more quality coaching is available to more players without adding costs to a position that is traditionally the sport's most expensive.


Having more coaching available during the season should also slow the need for too many goalie camps in the summer, which can limit opportunities to develop physical literacy by playing other sports.


"We have goalie coaching on an almost daily basis here and that's within the program, nothing you pay extra for," Magnusson said. "So there's no need to focus on goaltending for three or four weeks in the summer privately because they had it all year."


Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne is one of the NHL's best at making glove saves. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI)


The concept of physical literacy manifests itself in things like Pekka Rinne's amazing glove, which he credits to the focus on catching pucks in the Finnish goalie program and playing a Finnish version of baseball growing up.


"Our kids don't play baseball anymore, they don't play catching sports, they don't play football, all these other sports that are going to develop other skills that will help you become a better goalie," Hirsch said. "You wouldn't believe the goalies that I had, even up in the NHL, that simply couldn't catch the puck. It was crazy."


For all the focus on young goalies, part of the problem at the World Junior Championship may stem from the primary feeder systems, the Canadian Hockey League and the NCAA, where goalie coaches are rarely full-time.


Most CHL teams only have a part-time goalie coach who is with the team one or maybe two weeks a month. With many earning as little as $10,000 a season, some good goaltending coaches pass on CHL jobs because they lose money compared to private lessons. The CHL ban on European goalies may have increased opportunities for North Americans, but the amount of coaching support for those goalies lags behind.


So as Canada's goalies prepare for the World Junior Championship they often do so with considerably less in-season goalie coaching than their peers from Finland and Sweden.


"Most on the junior level from age 16 to 19 have goalie coaching for six ice sessions a week," Magnusson said. "Probably two-to-three daytime of individual skill training with goalie coaches and at least half of the night sessions will also have a goalie coach there for practice."


Some may see that as overkill. But if the numbers and international results aren't enough to show the programs are working, Canada's belated push to arrive at something similar should be ample evidence.



Group B favorite Sweden aims to reclaim WJC gold


The journey is different but the destination remains the same for Sweden.


As the host nation for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, Sweden was counted among the favorites. And they lived up to challenge, reaching the gold-medal game for the third straight year.


But much like 2013, when Sweden lost to the United States in the championship game in Russia, Sweden this time lost to Finland 3-2 in overtime.


While the 2014 WJC didn't end the way Sweden wanted, it's something the players and coaching staff have no intention of reliving heading into the 2015 tournament, which will be held in Montreal and Toronto.


"That was a different journey," Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said. "Everyone wants to stand on the top of the mountain. But at the same time it's a different journey, different challenges."


Among the challenges Sweden will face in Group B in the preliminary round will be Czech Republic, which will feature a number of the players that won the silver medal at the 2014 World Under-18 Championship, and Russia, which has won the bronze medal the past two tournaments.


Group B will play its preliminary-round games at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.


Here is a look at the five teams in Group B.


CZECH REPUBLIC


Coach -- Miroslav Prerost


Last year -- It was an up-and-down tournament for the Czechs. They won twice in the preliminary round, including a 5-4 shootout win against Canada; they also lost twice, including a 3-0 defeat against Germany two days after their momentous win against Canada. They lost 5-3 to Finland in the quarterfinals and finished sixth.


2015 Draft watch -- Pavel Zacha, who plays with the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League, is expected to be a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound center has made an easy adjustment to North America; he's fourth among OHL rookies with 19 points in 21 games. Zacha also has WJC experience; he played five games for the Czechs at the 2014 tournament. Another draft-eligible player to watch is 5-11, 187-pound center Michael Spacek, who plays for Pardubice in the top Czech league. "He's a hard-worker with a good skill set," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "Good decisions, smart passer and playmaker. A classical Czech technical, quick, mobile forward. He's an all-around player with a nose for the net."


Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Sweden, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET.


Outlook -- Having forwards David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) and Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals) on the team puts the Czechs among the medal contenders. Zacha gained a lot from last year's tournament, and with a half-season of adjustment to smaller North American rinks won't be intimidated by anything. Vitek Vanecek (Washington Capitals) should be solid in goal and give the Czechs a good chance to finish second in the group and contend for a medal.


DENMARK


Coach -- Olaf Eller


Last year -- Went 5-0 to win the Division I Group A tournament in Sanok, Poland.


2015 Draft watch -- Left wing Mikkel Aagard led Denmark in scoring at the 2014 WJC I-A tournament with eight points in five games. Now with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, the 5-11, 186-pound forward has five goals and 10 assists in 28 games.


Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Russia, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Czech Republic, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).


Outlook -- With Nikloaj Ehlers (Winnipeg Jets) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus Blue Jackets), offense won't be hard to find. Denmark's game against Switzerland on the final day of group play likely will be for a spot in the medal round.


RUSSIA


Coach -- Valeri Bragin


Last year -- Russia beat the United States in the quarterfinals but lost to Sweden in the semifinals. Against Canada in the bronze-medal game, Russia scored twice in the first period and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 win. It was the second straight tournament Russia beat Canada for the bronze.


2015 Draft watch -- Defenseman Ivan Provorov, who plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, is an A-rated skater by NHL Central Scouting and earned an invitation to the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. The 6-foot, 197-pound defender leads all WHL rookies with 37 points in 35 games. He's second among all WHL defensemen in points and tied for third with 10 goals.


Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Sweden, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, vs. Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET.


Outlook -- Goaltender Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) could be one of the better players at his position in the tournament. Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers) is a goal-scoring machine. He was a point-per-game player for Russia at the 2014 WJC and has 10 goals and 21 points in 32 games with Cherepovets in the Kontinental Hockey League. It will be close between Russia and the Czechs for second place in the group.


SWEDEN


Coach -- Rikard Gronborg


Last year -- Sweden beat Russia 2-1 in the semifinals to advance to the gold-medal game for the third straight year. Christian Djoos' goal late in the third period forced overtime against Finland, but Sweden had to settle for the silver medal for the second straight tournament.


2015 Draft watch -- Defenseman Oliver Kylington, among the top prospects playing in Europe this season, won't play in the tournament because of an undisclosed injury. One player who will be there is 6-foot, 180-pound right wing Jens Looke, who earned an A rating on NHL Central Scouting and who has two goals and six points in 28 games with Brynas in the Swedish Hockey League. "Good skater with acceleration," Stubb said. "A highly skilled playmaker who sees the ice very well. He uses his good hands and passing ability to move the puck through traffic. Is alert and dangerous around the net and has a quick shot. Plays a very competitive two-way game and is mature."


Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, vs. Switzerland, 1 p.m. ET.


Outlook -- With Buffalo Sabres prospect Jonas Johansson unable to play because of an illness, Sweden now has a question mark in goal. Samuel Ward is a regular with Asploven in Sweden's second division and could be the choice. Other options are Fredrik Bergvik (San Jose Sharks) and Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders), but neither has top-level pro experience. That position is Sweden's only weakness, however. Robert Hagg (Philadelphia Flyers) will lead a deep, talented defense that can attack offensively and shut down top players. Two players taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings), will be the leaders on offense. Despite the issues in goal, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Sweden not only win the group, but advance to the championship game for a fourth straight tournament.


SWITZERLAND


Coach -- John Fust


Last year -- Switzerland won one of its four games in the preliminary round and then lost 4-1 to Canada in the quarterfinals.


2015 Draft watch -- Timo Meier, who plays for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has 21 goals and 46 points in 33 games. He earned an A rating from NHL Central Scouting and an invitation to play in the NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game. Center Denis Malgin is listed at 5-8 and 163 pounds but earned a B rating from Central Scouting. His play has improved against better competition since a promotion to Zurich in the top Swiss league. "He is very small, but stocky and physically strong," Stubb said. "He has a great set of skills. Excellent speedy forward who can create scoring chances with his speed." Another player to watch is Malgin's Zurich teammate, 6-2, 220-pound defenseman Jonas Sieganthaler. Stubb said Sieganthaler's maturity and poise have been impressive this season.


Schedule -- Dec. 27, vs. Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, vs. Denmark, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. ET.


Outlook -- Kevin Fiala (Nashville Predators), the 11th pick of the 2014 draft, will be the go-to scorer. Mirco Mueller (San Jose Sharks) likely will be named captain and lead what could be an impressive defense. Among the defense group is Phil Baltisberger and Yannick Rathgeb, both of whom play in the OHL, so the small ice and physical play won't bother them. It's likely Switzerland's medal hopes will come down to its final-day game against Denmark.


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