December 25th may be Christmas, but for fans of junior hockey, the 26th is the date circled on the calendar.
From December 26 to January 5, the top under-20 players in the world will face off in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Last year's tournament saw Team USA capture the gold medal after defeating Sweden in the final. On home ice, the Swedes are poised to take the top prize as the tournament favorites.
Rosters are not yet final, but with the tournament beginning on Thursday, let's take a look at the teams with ties to the Bruins.
*Please note that rosters are not yet final so draft pick and returning player totals are based on rosters as of 12/22*
NHL Draft Picks: 26 (two eligible in 2014 & 2015 drafts)
Returning Players: 3
Bruins Prospects: Matt Grzelcyk
While two Bruins were named to USA's preliminary roster, only one will travel to Sweden as Ryan Fitzgerald was an early cut from the team. Fitzgerald was considered a bubble player for the entirety of his participation so it's not much of a shock. Unfortunately, because of his birth year, he is not eligible for the 2015 tournament.
The reigning champions will defend their title with a dramatically different roster. While forwards are not exactly a point of strength for the US, they could see contributions from all four lines thanks to good depth.
Expect big things from returning player Riley Barber, who put up nine points in six games in last season's tournament. Barber's been one of the elite players in college hockey this year and should carry that momentum to the WJC.
Jack Eichel, the probable consolation prize in the 2015 draft, has also impressed in training camp. Though he's younger than his peers, he could play a big role for USA's scoring.
The straw that stirs the drink for the US, though, is goalie Jon Gillies. Goaltending has been a strong area for the United States in recent years with Jack Campbell and John Gibson and Gillies should uphold that high standard of netminders.
Hot goalies can be difference makers in short tournaments so there are big expectations for Gillies to be an equalizer for USA. He's been a horse for Providence College in his year and a half of college hockey, so I have the utmost confidence that he can carry the load.
For Matt Grzelcyk, this tournament is the culmination of a two year journey. As the last player cut, he put on a good face cheering for him teammates from the outside when they won gold. Now, he returns as an alternate captain.
Last year, defense was an area of strength for the United States. With no returning d-men, the US will turn to Grzelcyk, who has international experience at lower levels.
While the offensive numbers haven't been there thus far for Grzelcyk this season, he's creating offense. His BU Terriers have one of the worst shooting percentages in college hockey so hopefully his USA teammates can convert at a higher rate. Grzelcyk should see some power play time as that is an area of strength for him due to his vision, passing and skating abilities.
As an undersized defenseman, Grzelcyk has some troubles in his own end. He's going to need to cut down on mental errors, especially if he plays top-four type minutes.
NHL Draft Picks: 4 (seven eligible in 2014 & 2015 drafts)
Returning Players: 6
Bruins Prospects: Peter Cehlarik
This has never been a successful tournament for Slovakia. Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Slovaks have medaled only once (a bronze in 1999) and they've finished eighth in three of the past four years.
Admittedly, I don't know a lot about this roster as a great deal of the roster plays overseas and only a small portion have NHL ties. NHL ties aren't the deciding factor for a player's quality, particularly at this juncture where players are still maturing physically, so take that last bit for what you will.
One thing Slovakia's team does have going for is it has a considerable number of players from its U-20 and U-18 teams. Familiarity of teammates isn't a bad thing to possess in a short tournament.
Slovakia does have a pair of highly regarded underaged defensemen in Erik Cernak and Patrik Maier. Both are eligible for the 2015 draft and both project to be top 60 picks.
While physicality is typically an area of concern for younger players, Cernak bucks the trend. At 6'2'' 200 lbs. (and growing) he's already a specimen and should be able to contend with older players.
The key returning player for the Slovaks is Marko Dano. The Blue Jackets prospects put up nine points in last year tournament, which is pretty exceptional when you consider the team only scored 10 goals total.
Though Peter Cehlarik has failed to make a significant impact from a scoring perspective at Lulea to this point, he figures to be one of the team's most relied upon players as well. Bruins fans should pay especially close attention to Cehlarik as this will likely be the only opportunity to see him in action until he comes over to America.
His size bodes well for being able to play physically and create space for teammates. Not to mention the fact that he's among the most skilled players on Slovakia.
NHL Draft Picks: 19 (three eligible in 2014 draft)
Returning Players: 11
Bruins Prospects: Linus Arnesson
Historically one of the powerhouses of junior hockey, Sweden comes into the 2014 tournament as favorites given the high number of returns from last year's squad and having home ice. The Swedes have medaled in five of the past six tournaments, but gold is the goal for this year's team.
Sweden is littered with quality up and down the lineup, led by 2013 first round pick and current Carolina Hurricane Elias Lindholm. In last year's tournament, Lindholm had four points in six games and figures to add to that total having spent time strengthening his game against the world's top players.
Beyond Lindholm, Sweden boasts a further nine top-60 draft picks, including defense, forwards and goalie Oscar Dansk, who's currently tied for third in the OHL in save percentage.
On Sunday, it was announced that Filip Forsberg would be joining the squad. Having a player of his talent added to the team is a huge coup.
In last year's tournament, the Nashville Predators product had five points in six games. He could end up as Sweden's top offensive weapon.
That total should be boosted in the spring with forward Anton Karlsson. Karlsson has an impressive international resume at the lower levels and has captained both the Swedish U-17 and U-18 teams.
Sweden could also see key contributions from Andreas Johnson, Toronto's 7th round pick in the 2013 draft. In 31 games in the SHL this year he has 14 goals and 22 points. He also smoked the U.S. with two goals and an assist in last week's exhibition game.
Linus Arnesson will see big minutes for Sweden and could be on the top pairing. Though offense is not exactly his forte, he brings a good, solid defensive presence that will be necessary if Sweden is to shut down the opposition. Arnesson is by no means a weak link offensively, he can definitely chip in and start the rush with a smart pass, but he's primarily there to prevent others from scoring.
Like with Cehlarik, Bruins fans would do well to pay attention to Arnesson as opportunities to see foreign prospects aren't exactly abundant in the United States.
Now since you can't exactly preview an international hockey tournament without mentioning Canada, I guess I'll include them here as well.
NHL Draft Picks: Come on. All of them except for the ones who'll be number one picks in the upcoming drafts
Returning Players: Four
Bruins Prospects: None
Hey, I don't know if you've heard, but Canada's good at hockey. So good, in fact, that you could take every preview written about them from any year and just replace the names.
Any preview of Canada should start and end with "this is one of the most talented teams in the tournament and hockey is our birthright so anything less than gold and they're dead to us." Reading between the lines, that's how it always goes, anyway.
On a more serious note, I'm looking forward to seeing 2014's first overall pick, whether it be Ekblad or Reinhart (hey would you look at that, both are Canadian). I'm even more excited to finally see Connor McDavid after hearing about him for years.
And now for some informative stuff.
For those unfamiliar with the tournament, it consists of 10 teams divided into two groups of five.
Each team plays the other four teams in its group once and the top three advance. Standings are based on points (three for a regulation win, two for an overtime win and one for an overtime loss).
The group winners advance to the semi finals while the second place teams play the third place teams from the opposite group in the quarter final. The remaining four teams are grouped in the relegation round where they play each other once with the last place team dropping down to the second tier to be replaced by that tier's winner (Norway last year).
For the six teams that advanced, it's knockout style through to the final. Last year, three teams from Group B made the semi finals which was won by the group's third place finisher, so don't play the seeds.
NHL Network will broadcast all of Group A's games. Additionally, all USA games will be streamed online, which is pretty cool if you have work.
Unfortunately, because only Group A is being shown, you'll have to wait to see Group B's teams live until the knockout round.
You can view the schedule here.
For further reading of Team USA, I suggest checking out coverage from SB Nation College Hockey, United States of Hockey and NHL.com. If you want to feel like a real American, this is your destination.