Recap of the IIHF Men’s Division IA and IB championships

Kazakhstan and Belarus climb to the Top Division

You know the best, now let’s meet the rest! Here’s a review of the Men’s IIHF Division I Tournaments to take a look at. In case you missed it (already covered on LBC), Finland won the whole thing at the Elite level by beating Canada in the Gold Medal game. Russia beat Czech Republic in the Bronze Medal game. Miraculously, Italy and Great Britain managed to stay in the Top Division! Both of these countries have a long history of ice hockey. There are pockets in the United Kingdom where ice hockey is incredibly popular and their fans came out in droves. They even managed to keep the game against the USA pretty close. Now, on to the IA and IB tournaments.

Division IA

This group is starting to get more interesting as a varied cast of teams are being promoted/relegated on a yearly basis. South Korea played in the Top Division for the first time ever the previous year, but just couldn’t muster another return. Had they not been upset by Lithuania, they would have also been promoted. That being said, both promoted teams (Kazakhstan and Belarus) have played numerous times in the Top Division.

Unfortunately for Slovenia, they had to play the three top teams in their first three games. They closed the tournament with two fairly easy wins. For those wondering, yes, Anze Kopitar played for them and did all he could by posting seven points (4th in scoring), it just wasn’t enough.

Hungary was inconsistent and Lithuania was just lucky to be here. Each team, excluding South Korea, had a player that has either been drafted or signed by an NHL team, or formerly played in the league. Hungary was ranked ahead of Lithuania due to winning their head-to-head encounter.

So, the Lithuanians were relegated one step down to Division IB while Austria and France will be back in Division IA after being relegated from the Top Division. Those two countries will be the favorites in the 2020 IA tournament to win promotion and rejoin the world’s best in 2021.

Kopitar was one of four players to finish with seven points, the others were Slovenia’s Jan Drogz, South Korea’s Kim Sang-wook and Belarus’ Geoff Platt. Drozg’s five goals gave him leading scorer honors. South Korea’s Shin Sang-hoon led the tournament with six goals.

Slovenia’s Luka Gracnar was the tournament’s top goaltender statistically, finishing with a sterling 1.01 GAA and .965 save percentage. He only allowed three goals in 178.47 TOI and posted two shutouts.

The tournament’s directorate named South Korea’s Matt Dalton as the best goaltender, Kazakhstan’s Darren Dietz as the best defenseman and Belarus’ Platt as the best forward.

Division IB

This was perhaps my favorite of all the IIHF tournaments. As you can see, Romania topped the group and won promotion to Division IA where they will do battle with France, Austria, South Korea, Slovenia, and Hungary in 2020. I watched several of their games and I was quite impressed by what I saw. They got incredible goaltending from Zoltan Toke and Patrik Polc (#1 and #2 in the goaltender rankings) and just played well as a team. While they were’t very flashy, they were clinical and got the job done.

Poland and Japan were the two favorites coming into this tournament. Netherlands and Ukraine were expected to be in the running, depending on what kind of teams they iced. Ukraine decided to bring a fairly young team and the Netherlands ran into a big problem – their top club team that plays in Germany was still finishing up its season. Therefore, they were missing their best players (several of whom have played NCAA hockey and in the AHL). The Tilburg Trappers play in the third best league in Germany, where they absolutely dominate. However, despite dominating the league, they were upset in the most recent Championship series (they were 3 for 3 before losing). Anyway, all of these late-arriving players joined the Dutch team for a one-goal win against Japan, but they couldn’t solve Romania!

Poland has to be kicking themselves as they were the better team in every game. Even though the Japanese and the Polish teams are on relatively equal terms, Poland tends to beat Japan with regularity. Psychological perhaps? Don’t be fooled by Poland playing in this division, they are fairly close to the Division IA elevator teams and lower Top Division teams. Many of their players choose to stay in Poland where they are comfortable. They might not be in the AHL or other top European leagues, but they make fairly decent salaries and get plenty of playing time.  Japan isn’t far behind either. They have some very fast and skilled skaters, their issue is that they are small and not very physical.

Finally, there were some pretty good crowds at this tournament which was held in Tallinn, Estonia, especially when the host country was playing. Estonia had a pretty good tournament overall as well. Their hockey is slowly improving. In fact, don’t be surprised to see more Estonians come over and play in the CHL or other North American junior leagues. All of these teams have actually had a player that either played in the NHL or AHL or got drafted. In Romania’s case, Árpád Mihály is actually an ethnic Hungarian. The hockey hub of Romania is a town full of ethnic Hungarians. This is why many so many of the players on its roster are Hungarian. Big-time hockey fans will know about Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa from Poland and Dmitri Khristich from Ukraine. Japan’s Yutaka Fukufuji played a few games in the NHL for the Los Angeles Kings while Toivo Suursoo (Estonia) and Mike Dalhuisen (Netherlands) never made it beyond the AHL. Romania finished ahead of Poland and Japan above Estonia due to head-to-head victories.

Poland’s Damian Kapica was the tournament leading scorer with 10 points in five games. Kapica, teammate Filip Komorski and Ukraine’s Vitali Lyalka each scored a tourney-best six goals.

The tournament’s directorate named Romania’s Polc as the best goaltender, his teammate Pavlo Borysenko as the best defenseman and Poland’s Patryk Wronka as the best forward.