New look for Latvia
New look for Latvia
Veteran coach remodels the roster
Latvia’s progress towards the 2016 World Championship has been bumpier than usual. A long delay in choosing a head coach and a row between senior players and the national federation has dogged the team’s preparations.
Now veteran Leonids Beresnevs is back behind the bench for his third spell at the helm of the Baltic nation’s roster and he’s putting together a young team that aims to make a transition from one generation to the next. Can Latvia achieve this while preserving its proud record of unbroken top division hockey since 1997?
Latvia’s top goaltending prospect, Kristers Gudlevskis, has seen his progress stall within the Tampa Bay organization and the star of the Sochi Olympics isn’t involved here. That means Edgars Masalskis is once again in line to stand between the piping for his country. He has a wealth of experience in World Championships after first making the roster back in 2001, but his season with Lada Togliatti in the KHL wasn’t his best and his sole international appearance of the year ended with four goals against and a save percentage of just 81%. He is joined by Elvis Merzlikins of HC Lugano, a 22-year-old getting his first Worlds call, and Janis Kalnins, who was the unused third-choice goalie last year and played in Hungary.
Ralfs Freibergs gets a shot at redemption after completing the two-year ban handed to him following a failed drug test in Sochi. Moscow will be his first international action since then and the 24-year-old arrives on the back of a productive ECHL campaign with Toledo Walleye. But Oskars Bartulis is out following his role in the conflict that flared during the season when several players criticized the efforts of the country’s hockey federation. Experienced Dinamo Riga trio Guntis Galvins, Oskars Cibulskis and Kristaps Sotnieks add some heft to a blue line that also introduces some novices. Kristians Rubins, 18, makes his senior international debut here. Unusually for a Latvian player, he’s spent most of his career thus far in Sweden with Vasteras. Edgars Siksna, 23, is another World Championship rookie, getting the call after helping Saryarka Karaganda to the semi-final of the Russian VHL.
Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia’s most prominent active NHLer, is the man on whom most hopes rest – and arguably the Buffalo Sabres man is more important than ever given the absence of the injured Martins Karsums and the unavailable Lauris Darzins and Janis Sprukts. Darzins stepped down for family reasons, while Sprukts was another of the players involved in criticisms of the Latvian Hockey Federation. Team captain Kaspars Daugavins was also critical of the set-up around the national camp but has since apologised and is back on the roster. He performed strongly in Prague last year and is coming off the back of a good season at Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod after he left Dynamo Moscow a few weeks into the KHL campaign.
Elsewhere there’s a strong Dinamo Riga contingent among the forwards: Maris Bicevskis, Andris Dzerins, Miks Indrasis, Gints Meija, Vitalijs Pavlovs, Mikelis Redlihs and Gunars Skvorcovs all ply their trade in the capital, as do rookies Maris Bicevskis and Edgars Kulda. Rodrigo Abols could be an intriguing prospect: the 20-year-old is back for his second World Championship after a season in the WHL with Portland Winterhawks where he scored 20+29=49 in 62 games.
Leonids Beresnevs was the coach who took Latvia into the top division back in the 1990s. He then returned for the 2005 Worlds and 2006 Olympics and got the nod once again after the resignation of Alexander Beliavski. He’s already enjoyed World Championship success this season, leading Latvia’s U20 squad to promotion, and his prior experience of the country’s junior programs has clearly shaped his youthful roster here. After securing Latvia’s place among the elite in 1996, he’ll be determined to ensure that this year’s 20th consecutive tournament at the highest level ends with the country’s status secured for another year.
A revitalized squad should bring plenty of energy and enthusiasm to Moscow and that could be crucial in the battles with Kazakhstan, Denmark and Norway. Like each of those nations, Latvia will look first and foremost to preserve its top-flight status, then hope for a chance to compete for a place in the quarter finals. However, with Sweden, Czech Republic and Russia coming up in the first three games, there’s a real danger that the team could be 0-3 and under pressure before it gets into its key encounters. That’s where Beresnevs’ experience in handling young players will be crucial to keep the team confident and competitive throughout the competition.
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