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World U18 Championships Preview

Team USA begins play at the World U18 Championships, this year held in Grand Forks, North Dakota, on Thursday with a preliminary round game against Russia. The U18s feature players born in 1998 or later and as the final major event before the NHL Draft, is one of the most closely scouted tournaments in the world. The United States has been dominant in this tournament in recent years, and once against comes in as the favorite.

I'll have live coverage from Grand Forks this Saturday and Sunday, as well as next Saturday and Sunday for the semifinals and medal games.

NHL Network is picking up all of Team USA's games this year, though a few won't be shown live. Here's the television schedule:

DATE OPPONENT ROUND TIME (LOCAL/ET) STATUS
Thurs., April 14 Russia Preliminary 7:30 p.m./8:30 p.m. Delay (approx. 11 p.m. ET)
Sat., April 16 Sweden Preliminary 3:30 p.m./4:30 p.m. Live
Sun., April 17 Latvia Preliminary 3 p.m./4 p.m. Live
Tue., April 19 Switzerland Preliniary 7:30 p.m./8:30 p.m. Delay (approx. 11 p.m. ET)
Thurs., April 21 TBD* Quarterfinal 7:30 p.m./8:30 p.m. Delay (approx. 11 p.m. ET)
Sat., April 23 TBD* Semifinal 3 p.m./4 p.m. Live
Sun. April 24 TBD* Bronze Medal 3 p.m./4 p.m. Live
TBD* Gold Medal 7 p.m./8 p.m. Live

If you don't want to wait for the tape delay, or don't get NHL Network, or want to watch non-US games FastHockey.com will be streaming all the games online($).

Us

Team USA's projected line chart; college commitment and final Central Scouting rank in parenthesis

Kieffer Bellows(BU, 10th) - Clayton Keller(BU, 9th) - Joey Anderson (UMD, 60th)

Casey Mittelstadt(Minn, '17 Draft) - Kailer Yamamoto (WHL, '17 Draft) - Logan Brown(OHL, 7th)

Will Lockwood(Mich, 108th) - Trent Frederic(Wisc, 47th) - James Sanchez(Mich, 146th)

Graham McPhee(BC, 110th) - Nick Pastujov(Mich, 112th) -Zach Walker(BC, 166th)/Keegan Howdeshell(Ferris St, NR)

Ryan Lindgren(Minn, 49th) - Adam Fox(Harvard, 50th)

Griffin Luce(Mich, 70th) - Luke Martin(Mich, '17)

JD Greenway(Uncommitted, 121st) - Chad Krys(BU, 53rd)

Matt Hellickson(Notre Dame, NR)

Jake Oettinger(BU, '17) - Joseph Woll(BC, 5th)

The key for the US this tournament is likely how well their first line performs. They've been the main scoring threat for the United States team all year. Keller is an incredible playmaker that works extremely well with Bellows, a pure finisher with a big shot. Joey Anderson is an underrated but extremely solid third player on that line.

If the US gets secondary scoring, it will come from the second line, which the US added just for this tournament. 6-5 forward Logan Brown will be a first round draft pick this summer. Yamamoto is a hard worker and Mittelstadt is a potential first round pick in next year's Draft with good scoring potential if he can start to develop some chemistry with that line.

On the third line, Lockwood is a high-energy spark plug. Frederic is a really talented centerman that may provide some offensive punch too.

The US lacks a true star on the blue line, but do have three or four 2nd/3rd round-type players that will be solid. The most dependable blue liner will be Lindgren, who is a strong skater and brings a bit of physical presence. Fox is the best puck-mover from the blue line. He has the ability to make some jaw-dropping passes.

Luce and Martin have a good combination of size and skating ability and for the most part, play a pretty quiet game. Both are good enough to be mid-round draft picks, but not really exciting enough to push into the upper rounds of the Draft.

Krys has incredible skating ability, but has struggled a bit in the second half of the season. He'll be a nice asset on the power play. Greenway is a big physical presence. Hellickson isn't flashy, but is very reliable, he'll see regular ice time even though he's likely the seventh D.

In goal, both goalies are capable of playing, though Oettinger likely gets first opportunity in the business end of the tournament. Both goalies are big, athletic, pro-style goalies.

Them

The US is aided by perhaps a weaker than usual field.

The biggest challenger is likely Canada. The Canadians, as usual, are without a number of top players who are still participating in the CHL playoffs, so they're not sending their best team, but are still sending a very talented team. The blue line should be the strength of the Canadian team with potential first round picks Jakob Chychrun, Dante Fabbro, and Logan Stanley. They lost another first rounder in Jake Bean after Bean broke his foot during the pre-tournament camp. At forward, the Canadians are really young. First rounders Michael McLeod and Tyson Jost should be the big threats.

The other big threat might be Sweden. They got a huge boost when Mississauga was eliminated from the OHL playoffs, freeing up top-10 draft pick Alex Nylander for the tournament. He should carry the Swedish offense. The Swedes have good depth, but most of their high-end talent is eligible for the 2017 Draft.

After that, the field drops off pretty quickly.

The Russians were expected to contend until their entire team failed a drug test after taking the drug Meldonium. Outside of a few guys playing in North America--namely Mikhail Sergachev--the Russians will be an extremely young team. On the plus side, it will give the world a first glimpse at 2000-birthdate Andrei Svechnikov, who is already drawing hype as the top player in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Finland had three '98 birthdates help carry their team to U20 World Junior gold this winter, but unfortunately, will be without all three players. Forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, likely the second and third overall picks in the Draft, will miss the tournament after playing an epic playoff series against each in Finland's top pro league, and defenseman Olli Juolevi, maybe the best D in the Draft, is still in the OHL playoffs.

With those three gone, Finland looks like a team that really lacks high-end talent. They've added some elite '99s in Kristian Vesalainen, Sami Moilanen, and Eeli Tolvanen, but this is a tough tournament for underagers. This is definitely one of their weaker teams.

Slovakia could be a sleeper in this tournament. They had some strong pre-tournament results beating the depleted Russians and Switzerland. They're probably not going to beat the US or Canada, but this year looks like a great opportunity for them to make some noise.

The Czechs lost their top goalie for this tournament  to injury and should have a lot of trouble scoring goals, never a good combination.

Switzerland always seems to be improving at these international events, but this year's team doesn't look like one of their stronger entries. They likely don't have the high-end talent to seriously compete.

Latvia and Denmark are almost certain to be fighting it out for relegation this year.