Finland and Sweden will play host for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships starting on Friday. In a format change from last year the 16 teams that will compete for the title have been split in to two groups of 8, Group A will be played in Helsinki and Group B in Stockholm, the top 4 from each group progress to the quarter finals, simple.
Group A (Belarus, Canada, Finland, France, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Switzerland, USA)
Two names naturally jump out here whether deservedly so or not, Canada and the USA can both call upon rosters made up entirely of NHL talent and they will be expecting to qualify comfortably for the knockout rounds. They won’t have it all their own way at the top of the group however, as holders Finland are more than capable of beating them, especially with fervent home support on their side.
Canada are pre-tournament favourites at 2.85 and rightly so when they’ve been able to call upon three players who won gold at the 2010 Olympics in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Duncan Keith as well as some emerging stars from the NHL like John Tavares and Jordan Eberle. As always is the case when rosters are assembled like this, developing chemistry will be the key to success and Brent Sutter is the coach tasked with getting the players clicking.
Finland always produces excellent goaltenders and although they won't have Miikka Kiprusoff or Tuukka Rask with them this time around they do have Kari Lehtonen who is coming off a great season. Up top they have very good players such as Mikku Koivu and Jussi Jokinen in a roster made mostly up of players from the Russian KHL, probably the world's second strongest league. You can get odds of 5.50 on gold for the Finns, the USA are far out at 20.00.
The final spot in the quarters will likely be contested by Slovakia and Switzerland; I give the edge to the Slovaks despite their lower ranking as they have Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa at their disposable as well as plenty of guys who have NHL games under their belt. They are the biggest outsiders who could potentially have an unlikely title tilt at 30.00.
Belarus have the potential to challenge those two for fourth spot but may just come up short. Many of their players ply their trade for Dynamo Minsk and they have added to that some guys from the KHL as well as their one NHL representative Mikhail Grigorenko.
Whoever finishes bottom of the group is relegated from the elite tier for next year and it will be a major shock if that is not either France or Kazakhstan. Newly promoted Kazakhstan are playing in this division for the first time since 2005 and the French aren't new to the relegation dogfight so this will be an interesting to see how this plays out.
Group B (Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Russia, Sweden)
Russia, co-hosts Sweden and the Czech Republic will contest the Group B top spots, with the former two more likely table toppers. Winning the round robin may be too much of a stretch for the Czechs at 5.00 as they are perhaps not the force of a couple of years ago, but they are certainly contenders to make the semi-finals if they perform well in their quarter final.
Russia start the tournament as the top-ranked team by the IIHF thanks to their consistency of the past years, they start just behind Canada in the odds at 3.50. They have the names of Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk headlining their roster list, but in reality their squad depth can rival that of the Canadians. Russia love to play attacking hockey and are always fun to watch, keep an eye on them for sure.
You can always count on a good showing from Sweden at these annual championships, they have added their excellent NHL based contingent to an already very strong core and will be looking to better last year's performance as losing finalists. With odds of 4.25 to win the tournament, they are also 1.60 to finish with any colour medal.
Fourth place here is well and truly up for grabs, the only team I would rule out of the running is the other promoted side Italy who's only aim will be to try and avoid the drop. Germany and Norway are the highest ranked out of those in the hunt at 8th and 9th respectively; they both made the quarters last year and will give any of the top teams a decent game, but don’t have the potential to improve on 2011.
Latvia are an interesting prospect for that spot as they have the advantage of the majority of their squad playing for the same club side as well so the team bond is already strong. Expect their games against Norway and Germany to be even ones and run them close for that fourth spot