Latvia: Young squad hopes to avoid relegation

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GROUP A: LATVIA

Last year's finish: Won Division 1A to earn promotion to the top division.
Last year's round-robin record: 5-0-0-0 (in Division 1A).

Gaining traction in the top division of the world junior championship is a slippery slope. There's no need to remind Latvia of that, given that the first point of reference for most with the Baltic nation is its game against Canada in 2010, which was a 16-0 formality.

With only the last-place team dropping down for 2013, Latvia is hopeful it can edge out Denmark and stay at the big kids' table for next winter, when the tourney will be closer to home in Ufa, Russia.

Coach Eriks Miluns will try to win with a lineup largely made up of 17- and 18-year-olds. First and foremost among them is highly touted NHL draft prospect Zemgus Girgensons, who is expected to be an impact player even though he's only 17.

"I'm pretty nervous because it's going to be tough for us playing all the big teams," Girgensons, who captains the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints, said recently. "I'm going to have a lot put on my back."

A harsh reality for smaller hockey countries is that many of the players who help them win Division 1A one season might be too old to return next season. Latvia has only five returning players, although that includes Girgensons and Edmonton Oilers seventh-rounder Kristian Pelss, who finished second and fourth respectively in team scoring at that tournament. The other returnees up front, Davis Straupe and Maris Dilevka, were role players last year.

Arturs Salija, who plays for HC Most in the Czech Republic, is the lone man back on the blueline. Six-foot-four, 216-pound Nikita Kolesnikovs of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada has had a good first half-season in North American in the Quebec league and should shoulder a heavy load. Edgars Siksna, who plays for SK Liepajas Metalurgs in Latvia's domestic league, also looks like he'll be expected to be Mr. Reliable on the back end.

Latvia is backed by a 19-year-old goalie in Kristers Gudlevskis, one of 11 players on their preliminary roster who plays for HK Riga. Goaltending is one area where Latvia might have an edge on relegation-round rival Denmark.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Forward Zemgus Girgensons (Dubuque Fighting Saints, USHL) He'll be the guy wearing a cage bashing opponents into the boards and inducing a Pavlovian response from salivating NHL scouts. The 17-year-old centre is a superb two-way forward; he should be the first Latvian to become a NHL first-round choice.

Forward Kristian Pelss (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL) The 19-year-old is probably the second scoring option after Girgensons. He is a small, skilled guy at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, though, only fifth in scoring on his WHL team with 13 goals and 25 points in 34 games.

Defenceman Nikita Kolesnikovs (Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, QMJHL) Big defenceman who's been a huge part in the Armada leading their (weak) division at midseason. He's played an all-around role in the QMJHL, putting up 21 points and a plus-20 rating in 30 games between the Armada and Shawinigan Cataractes.

Forward Teodors Blugers (Shattuck St. Mary's, U.S. high school) The 17-year-old, who's committed to Minnesota State University, is drawing a lot of interest for the NHL draft.

MUST WIN GAME: Latvia's tournament will likely come down to a relegation-round game against Denmark or maybe Slovakia. Perhaps the round-robin scores will be more respectable this time, but it's too optimistic to believe the Latvians could upset Sweden, Switzerland or Russia.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports.
Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.