Latvia has everything going against it coming into the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship. It’s a U20 tradition that the promoted teams are bounced right back to the lower division. Also, the Latvians have easily the youngest and most inexperienced roster at this year’s championship. But don’t tell these guys that the cards are stacked against them. In the pre-tournament exhibition games, this team played like a contender…or at least a team that wasn’t definitely destined for relegation. The young squad kept it close against Finland, losing 3-1, and scored a surprise 5-1 victory against the Slovaks. Overall, 11 of the 22 players on Latvia are 1987- or 1988-born, which could hurt them. But so far, this plucky squad has been playing like they’ve got nothing to lose.
Coaching: Oleg Znaroks is back for another stint behind the bench with the Latvian U20 team. He’s served in that role for the last two years, and managed to get his country promoted last year. In 2004, the team finished a disappointing fourth at the Division I level, but rebounded with first place in 2005, which many considered to be a big surprise, as the group was loaded with the likes of Denmark, Slovenia and Poland. So Znaroks has the experience, but the top division is an entirely new challenge.
Goal: Both Latvian goaltenders were on the team that earned the promotion from last year’s U20 Division I Championship. Kristaps Stigis, a 1987-born player, didn’t see any action as the emergency goalkeeper, but Ugis Avotins did earn a win in his only game. While one game doesn’t really constitute “experience,” it does give Avotins the slight edge. The two players are teammates with the HK Riga 2000 club, a perennial powerhouse in Latvia. They will have plenty of company, as a total of 16 Latvian players are from the HK Riga 2000 system.
Defence: The youth of the Latvian defence could prove to be a big problem. Of the eight blueliners, half were born in 1987 or later, including Kriss Grundmans, who is the youngest player on the squad, born in 1989. But what Grundmans lacks in age, he makes up for in size. At 1.94 meters, he is the tallest player on the team. Oskars Bartulis of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats brings good experience competing on the smaller rinks. The rest of the Latvian defence also boasts respectable size, which may help them compete with the larger teams. After all, Slovakia has some of the largest players at this year’s tournament, like Boris Valabik and Vladimir Mihalik, and that didn’t intimidate the Latvians in the exhibition game 5-1 victory.
Forward: The Latvian offence could be like A Tale of Two Cities, representing the best and worst of times. In the two exhibition games, the forwards were either anemic or enormous. Against Finland, the team netted just one paltry goal, while against the Slovaks, the teams exploded with five tallies. Three of the forwards (Sergejs Pecura, Martin Karsums, and Toms Hartmanis) play outside of Latvia. Pecura is gaining valuable experience in Russia in the Khimik system, and Karsums is here in Canada with Moncton, while Hartmanis is playing in Uppsala, Sweden. The forwards are also the most experienced of the team, with the bulk of the 1986-born players in the position. It will be up to this group to set the tone and lead the Latvians.
Projected Results: Different teams come with different goals to the World Junior Championship. Canada’s goal, for instance, is gold, but at the other end of the spectrum, the Latvians would be very happy to finish eighth. They’d thus avoid relegation and return to the U20 World Championship next year in Sweden. It’ll be tough to pull off, but just one surprise Round Robin victory could be all it takes for the Latvians to reach their goal.