U20s World Championship Div 1B preview

Photo Credit: Andrei Mihhailov (approval for use via IceHockeyMedia). IHUK and MKL logos used with permission.

Next week GB U20s travel to Megeve in the French Alps for their World Championship group. After bouncing straight back up, winning the gold medal and promotion from Div 2A last year (after relegation on a technicality in 2014), they are back in Div 1B and this will be a much tougher competition.

Two years ago, they came 5th in the division, but with a creditable 6 points gained from a win against Japan (6th), an overtime win against France (3rd) and perhaps most impressive, an overtime loss from gold medallists Italy. Of course, with the nature of the junior teams, all teams in the division have had a lot of turnover since then, so prior results don’t necessarily mean anything and the fact is that this will be a tough test for the team, but avoiding relegation and cementing their place in the division will be crucial. Tom Watkins says “We know we can do it. But the group of players out on the ice, they change year on year – you don’t have the luxury of signing a guy from outside, you have to pick from what is in front of you – but that’s the same for every team. You never know how those individuals are going to stack up against other countries. I don’t think that this group, as U18’s achieved what they should have, hopefully that will change now though. We have some really good guys, some new players, we’ve got some players who are playing a decent level of hockey and doing fine. I think we have to be really positive about what we have.”

He went on to add: “Hopefully our goal tending is going to be solid and give us an opportunity to win and ultimately stay in the group. I’m not trying to put pressure on my boys, but it is such a huge position to get right.”

GB start their campaign against top seeds Slovenia who were relegated from Div 1A last year but not by a big margin. GB U20s have played Slovenia 4 times in the last 15 years and have never beaten them with our best result coming in 2000 when we managed a 3-3 draw. The most recent game was 3 years ago in 2012 when they beat GB 8-0 on their way to the Div1B gold medal. Slovenia have submitted a 33 man long-list for this championships and only 8 players (7 forwards and a NM) played for the U20 team in the previous year, although a further 7 were in the team that took silver at the U18 Div1B last year. Returning players include their top goal scorer from last year Zan Jezovsek who had 4+0 and top points-scorer Nik Simsic with 2+3.  Of the 33 players named to the Slovenian long list in total, all but one are 1996 or 1997 so there is a good chance that their final team will have no underage players. “I think it will be tough – I’m sure Slovenia will be well prepared and be a side with the skill that can handle it at that level – so it may be a baptism of fire.” Tom Watkins said, then added “But you know what, how great if we could start the tournament with a win over the number one seeds!”

Up next will be Poland – the third seeds in the tournament after their bronze medal last year.  At U20 level, Poland and GB have only met once, 3 years ago when Poland took the game 6-2. Perhaps more telling are recents results between the teams at U18 level. These teams met last year with Poland winning the game 4-1 and overall their team took silver to GB’s bronze at the tournament. No long-list has been submitted by Poland yet, so it is difficult to gauge who might be returning or not to the squad. But last year’s top scorers for the Polish team in this tournament are now overage.

After a rest day, GB will face 2nd seeds Ukraine – a team they have faced 3 times at U20 level with a record of loss (2014), OT Loss (2013) and win (2011). Ukraine’s long list of 36 players includes all 11 players (8 forwards and 3 D-men) from last year’s U20 team who are still eligible for this year. This includes top scorer Yevgen Tymchenko who scored 3 from their 10 goals.

After the second rest day, GB face 4th seeds and tournament hosts France. Two years ago, GB beat France on penalty shots. Last year France just missed out on a medal, equalling the points total of Poland and just one behind silver medalists Ukraine.  What also may be telling is that their U18 team play 2 levels above the GB U18s though and won the bronze medal in Div 1A last year – so there is a good chance that this year they may be a much stronger team than they were 2 years ago. France have provided a long list of 34 which includes all 8 players eligible to return from last year’s team (5 forwards, 3 D-men and a NM) and this includes their top scorer Guillame Leclerc who had an impressive 4+2 last year – making him involved in more than half of the 11 goals his team scored.

On the final day, GB face 5th seeds Japan. Japan came bottom of the group 2 years ago and only avoided relegation due to GB’s disqualification. However, last year saw an improved performance and they survived on merit, placing 5th after a regulation win against relegated Hungary took them over the line on the final day. They did also record a win after penalty shots with France on the first day, so anything other than a regulation loss would have been enough. There is no long list available from Japan yet, but perhaps the best news for GB is that Yushinoh Hirano, who was their star forward last year, with 6+2 – making him involved in more than half of their 15 goals, is now too old. Note: Japan have now withdrawn from the tournament – see the 09-Dec-2015 update towards the end of the article.

One thing we can be relatively sure of is that this is going to be a tough tournament for the GB team. All the senior teams for the countries have a higher world ranking than the GB mens team and played in a higher division than them last year (Japan, Poland and Ukraine in Div 1A; France and Slovenia in the top tier). Of course that doesn’t always correlate to a better U20s team, but it is generally a good indicator of the how advanced their overall program is.  We have played and been competitive at this level before and I think we can do so again. Goals should be realistic ones though – this is not a tournament that we will expect to medal in. Although nobody is suggesting that the team do not give everything to try and win every game, the likelihood is that this is going to be somewhat of a fight for survival this year and perhaps really targeting the game against Japan on the final may be what is needed this year.

Head coach Tom Watkins has himself attended a total of 10 World Championships at all levels, now, 5 as a player and 5 as an assistant coach. I asked him how well that prepared him for being in the hot seat of the head coach role. “I think when you get there a lot of things that you are supposed to do for the directorate – so it’s good to know that those things happen. But also, sometimes as an assistant you are not really aware of everything that is happening, with all the planning stages that you need to do as head coach and it is a lot more responsibility obviously.”

Talking about his assistant coaches (Slava Koulikos joins the team this year and Paul Heavey returns) and how they will work together, he added “Ultimately, it is my responsibility to make the decision though – but I’ll of course want their opinions on where we can make changes to the team when we need to. We are a group of staff that need to work together. I’m sure a lot of the other teams will have a goal keeping coach and a video coach for example, but because we are a smaller team, we probably work together a bit closer than other teams.”

I asked Watkins about the additional players he still has to add in (Sam Duggan, Alex Forbes, Josh Grieveson and Cameron McGiffin): “Depth at these tournaments is massive. There is a lot of hockey played in a short space of time. We’ll be picking up and changing things as we go along depending on the situations. The guys still to come in are some pretty important players for this team, so I’m sure it will make a difference to where we are as a team. In terms of what we have planned for the lines, we were switching around with what we had tonight – trying different line combinations and I thought we did OK. But there will be adjustments through the week of the tournament as well.”

Finally, I asked Watkins how the hockey now compares to when he played in a U20 world championship 20 years ago. “I think the use of video and the knowledge of what other teams are doing is more readily available, so in terms of what to expect, I think the players now are probably more prepared for what they are playing against. Has it massively changed though: no it’s the same game – the desire is the same, the heart is the same, the will to win is the same. Maybe some things like the sticks are different, the puck probably travels a little bit quicker but it’s down to the equipment more than anything – technology has started to improve the game a lot.” In answer to my rather cheeky follow-up question about whether the team he played on would have beaten the team he is coaching today: “I am going to say: I think the team back then would have beaten them – no, I can’t say that can I?! No, to be honest, I can’t even remember that much about the tournament – I don’t know…”.

482 Days would like to wish the team good luck in their upcoming tournament. From watching the game on Wednesday I think there is a huge amount of talent on the team and a few players who could well be pushing for a spot on the senior team in a few years time. I am sure they are going to do us proud next week.

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Update: Wednesday 09-Dec-2015

News is out today that Japan have withdrawn from this year’s competition. What does this mean for GB. Well firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it means that GB cannot now be relegated as Japan are automatically awarded 5 losses and have already been relegated to Div 2a. In some ways, this is a turn-around to the situation 2 years ago when Japan themselves were saved from relegation from the group when GB were disqualified for icing an ineligible player.

For the GB team, it also means that their tournament is now over on Day 5 as they were scheduled to play Japan on the final day (Day 7). It also means that in some ways the tournament is going to be a lot tougher as Japan was potentially going to be their most winnable game.

Regardless of this, GB are going to want to show that they deserve to be in the group by rights and would have stayed in on their own merit. We’ll never know if we would have beaten Japan, but it takes something away from the team if they come 5th now as they will still be ‘bottom’ of the group whereas before it will have been seen as meeting their objectives.  This may put pressure on them to perform even better than original expectations before today. Then again, the fact that they know that they can’t be relegated could allow them to use this year as a learning experience about the level of hockey they will be facing and come back even stronger next year. Perhaps even taking that pressure of avoiding relegation away will allow them to play to the best of their ability and have an even better tournament than they might have done otherwise. Only next week will tell what, if any, difference this news will make to their performances.

Overall, I think it is a shame – it means that they won’t be part of the final day of games for the tournament as well as the loss of what could have been an interesting game for them. It gives the team one game less of experience to learn from as well as taking away the ‘we must survive’ mentality that can really bind a team together.

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Huge thanks to IHUK and MK Lightning for helping us to facilitate these articles and all of our coverage around the game, @gbhockeyfuture who gave me some fantastic background detail on the team and the upcoming tournament, to Tom Watkins for taking the time after the game to sit down and chat with me as well everyone who gave me their thoughts over the last week or so. This would be a much less interesting series without your help guys!

This is the last in our #5DaysofGB  series of coverage by 482 Days around the team this week:

  • On Monday we had a quick preview of Wednesday’s game and a first brief words from Tom Watkins (article link: here)
  • On Tuesday, we had a player by player review of this year’s GB U20s team, including thoughts from the team-mates and coaches that work with them every week in their regular league teams (article link: here)
  • On Wednesday, we saw live twitter coverage of the game between the GB U20 team and the EPL’s MK Lightning (you can take a look at our tweets on @482days).
  • Yesterday, we had a review of the game, including some thought by Tom Watkins on the team’s performance (article link: here)

You can also find a great set of photos from Paul Foster of game action from Wednesday here.

December 4th, 2015 by