2009 IIHF World Championship Division III, Dunedin, New Zealand

So the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division III kicks off next week in Dunedin, New Zealand. With a couple of teams having posted their preliminary rosters, and I’ve heard news from pretty much all the rest I may as well look at Ireland’s opposition. I do fly out myself on Saturday so I figure we should get this tournament going:

Man, the Ice Blacks were favoured before, but now the win’s all but locked up for them on home ice. The home ice advantage should allow New Zealand to ice their best possible team. They don’t have a preliminary roster up on IIHF.com yet, but I can guess at who they’ll be looking at. While the Ice Blacks might not have the top individual players in the tournament at any position, it’s safe to say that they will have the best team depth. Their national talent pool’s skill depth is head-and-shoulders above the other participating countries, with a strong and well-established national league system.

In goal, I think we can expect a powerhouse duo of Zak Nothling and Gareth Livingstone. Both of these guys have shown some serious skill in the past few years (the former in Divison II and the latter in Dundalk in 2007), and this is a goaltending tandem to be worried about. On defence, there are a few names to expect, with probably one or two spots that could go to a number of players. The ones I would expect to see on the ice: Hayden Argyle is a small-of-stature but hard-hitting stay-at-home defenseman who gave opposing teams lots of headaches, both figurative and literal, in Dundalk. Andrew Hay is a good powerplay pointman with a very solid first-pass ability to get out of the defensive zone. Corey Down is a veteran of the defence corps, another solid puck-mover whose size can make him a very real threat in his defensive zone. Ryan Paskell, a skilled young defenseman with both puck skills and speed that can make him a dangerous offensive threat when he decides to join the rush. Probably you’ll see Stacy Rout in the mix, with one spot open for debate.

On forward, we all remember their strength: line depth. The Ice Blacks from Dundalk had three strong lines that could all threaten to score on any given shift. They gave Ireland fits, and slapped down just about everyone else. Braden Lee, Laurie Horo and Josh Hay are small speedy forwards who can all put the puck in the net if given a chance. Simon Glass is a really good two-way player whose size makes him difficult to battle in the corners. Brett Speirs is one of their more veteran players from the last couple years, with solid all-around skills. He can be damned dangerous if you’re not watching him.

Conclusion: the Ice Blacks should, in theory, walk away with this one. However, in a short tournament anybody could catch them on a bad day and spoil the party.

Runners-up in the past two years with back-to-back bronze medals, Luxembourg will be looking to capitalise on some seemingly weakened opposition. However, they’re not in top form either. A couple name players are missing from their line-up, and Luxembourg being such a small country, their available talent pool is quite small, making their team depth difficult to gauge from year to year.

Goaltending won’t be a huge issue, with Lepage and Welter both on the preliminary list. Assuming both can make it out, Luxembourg will be expected to keep scores close all tournament long, win or lose. Defence has a few unknowns. Ronny Scheier and Francois Schons are known quantities, solid defensemen both but not star quality even at this level. Linster is a youngster who played as a 17-year-old in front of a home crowd last year, doing so fairly well. Cristophe Hernandez is a fair stay-at-home d-man with lots of international experience, and he’s got a head for the game. Frederic Good is an unknown quantity to me, and lastly Springer (now 50 years old) rounds out the defensive corps. Looks fair at the top, but losing depth rapidly through the third defensive pair.

Offense is missing a couple names. Ben Houdremont who was ever-dangerous in Dundalk, will be missing this year. However, Luxembourg will have veteran Robert Beran on hand, as well as Yves Dessouroux, Benny Welter and Eric Wambach. Past that we start to see a bit of decline. Steven Minden and Bill Skamarakas (both U20 players) will be on the roster, as well as a number of others that I either haven’t seen, or simply haven’t noticed. As before, Luxembourg will be relying on two lines for their scoring.

Overall look for Luxembourg, I think their goaltending is strong enough to keep them competitive. Their top talent has shown the ability to score goals, and they’ve generally adopted a defensive style that has been rather effective in keeping games damned close (right Team Ireland 2007?). At the moment, I’ve got them pencilled in for an upset silver.

Oh here we go! A new organisational setup in their federation had many people expecting a top-level team for the first time in a few years, but that just doesn’t seem to have happened. Word from Turkey has their head coach fired, and replaced by a man with an Olympic gold medal to his name, but little in the way of coaching experience. Also, rumours have a number of top players cut from the team (allegedly by the new “fair” federation) in favour of (rumour has it) a number of U18 players.

Goaltending has been good, but not outstanding the past few years. Baris Ucele and Levent Ozbaydogan have shared the duties in the past couple years, with decent but not superb numbers. With a proper team in front of them, they could help the team pull another promotion à la 2006. Defence is a question-mark, since we just don’t know how full, or bare, the cupboard will be. All the rumours flying around sound pretty bad. Defence for the last couple years has been a bit weak, allowing a lot of shots to get to the goalies, and if I’m to guess, I’ll say it probably won’t change this year.

Offense is tough too. Cengiz Ciplak, the Turkish superforward, will probably miss once again. After that, from the noises coming from Turkey, it’s anyone’s guess who’s in and who’s out. Ozmen was great last year for the Turks, tallying 8 goals in 5 games, but beyond their first line there seemed to be little offensive power. Turkey might be in trouble this year if things are as bad as they sound. If rumours are wrong and Turkey comes with a strong team, promotion is a definite possibility. If rumours are correct and the federation has for whatever reason gutted the national team, they’ll probably be out of a medal. Depending on how far things go, I’d say that there might even be a (rather remote) possibility of an upset to a constantly-improving Mongolian side, and Turkey might be the best candidate for it.

Greece returned to international competition last season, in a very similar position to where Ireland was two years ago. They have now played one and a half seasons of league competition in their brand-new rink, and how much this might have helped their national team will be seen.

Goaltending: not a bad part of the Greek game at all. Ploutsis had better numbers for Greece last year, but Fiotakis had their only win, a 10-4 affair versus Mongolia. Both of them are on this year’s roster. Defence was not quite as strong, as they allowed 146 SOG in 5 games. The only threat from last year’s team on defence appeared to be Papadopoulos, who seemed solid defensively, and great at feeding the puck to get out of his zone, and in the offensive zone. This year’s defence corps looks pretty much identical to last year’s, meaning that it will probably lack depth.

Forwards: Between the Kalyvas brothers and Ioannis Koufis, that was more than half of Greek points last year. They will all return this year, and the only additions to note are the two Adamidis’, Georgios (father) and Kyriakos (son). I would estimate a one-line team this year again. In short, Greece might upset a weak Turkish side, but I wouldn’t bet on them to contend for a medal yet. The team depth seemed to be lacking last year, and with a nearly identical roster this year, I would be surprised at anything above fourth.

Tough call. Let me start with a few facts. Mongolia will have had a true warm-up, the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, where they finished 5th behind the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The difference between those 4 and Mongolia are large however. The four nations above them all have indoor rinks, which they can use all year long, whereas Mongolian players play on outdoor, natural ice rinks, which generally are only available 3 months out of the year. Also, these other nations have a number of expat players from hockey nations (Canada, USA, all over Europe and Belarus in the case of the UAE) to help teach the game. Mongolians effectively teach themselves. That being said, the preparatory tournament will without a doubt have helped the Mongolian team, though to what degree remains to be seen.

Goaltending has typically been the weakest part of Mongolia’s game. Munkhbold, as their #1 goaltender, is inexperienced at best. In 2007, he had only been goaltending in hockey for a little over a year. His pads were actually bandy pads. To that end, I think he handled himself well (under the circumstances), but it simply isn’t enough to keep a team competitive. The biggest problem was rebound control. Munkhbold made a lot of first-saves, but couldn’t hold or deflect the rebounds away, leading to second, third and fourth chances. If he is able to learn rebound control, Mongolia might just become competitive (or at least, more so). Defence is fair at the top, but lacks depth. Allowing 45 to 50 shots per game is not good enough. Tamir and Boldbayar are a good first-pair, but beyond that the skill level drops off tremendously, and unfortunately I haven’t seen signs of enough improvement to change that this year. It’s getting better, but not quickly enough to matter here.

Offense is the strongest part of the Mongolian game. There are some rather good players there, and they’ve learned how to score at this level as evidenced by their improvement from 07 to 08. Bayarsaikhan made history against Luxembourg in 2007 when he scored Mongolia’s first ever World Championship goal, and was solid last year again with 2+2. Neguun is a solid up-and-comer, tallying 2+2 last year as well. Altangerel is the most skilled player for Mongolia, with great speed and solid hands. If you’re not careful, he will burn you. Past that the depth again drops off. Mishigsuren is really the only other regular threat of note, having scored in both 07 and 08, but past the first line and a half, Mongolia is again thin in the scoring department.

Bottom line, Mongolia has shown some improvement in the past year and a bit, but it just won’t be enough. If they have a very good game, and catch an opponent on a bad day, they might have an outside shot at an upset victory. But best bet has them finishing last once again.

All in all, Ireland is definitely not out of the running, but there are a lot of unknowns about this Irish team, and we will learn just how deep the talent pool has gotten. The last time Ireland played Division III, there wasn’t a league yet set up. Now with two full seasons under their belts, we shall see how Irish hockey has developed. My prediction coming in is that Ireland will battle for bronze.

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