The reason the World Junior Championship is so fun is that in the past five years, five different countries have won the gold medal. That parity is a blessing to the tournament, but it also makes it difficult to handicap a showdown in which two teams with championship aspirations often meet in the quarterfinal, as Russia and the United States have done in the past two years.
But if we're talking favorites for the 2016 installment, which kicks off in Helsinki on Boxing Day, I will take Sweden. And here's my logic:
In a tournament filled with precocious teenagers, the Swedes will have a surprisingly veteran lineup. Top guns William Nylander (Toronto), Axel Holmstrom (Detroit), Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles) and Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia) were all on the team last year and will return with a year's worth of strength, growth and experience.
On the back end, offensive defenseman Gustav Forsling (Chicago) will once again take the point on the power play, where he was devastatingly effective in Toronto at the 2015 world juniors. Sweden with the man advantage is going to be a sight to see, trust me. Other returning blueliners include William Lagesson (Edmonton), Andreas Englund (Ottawa) and Sebastian Aho.
And in net, the squad can choose between the experience of Linus Soderstrom (NY Islanders) or the upstart Felix Sandstrom (Philadelphia).
But I'm not here to simply list off all of Sweden's good players – and there are more, trust me. The main thrust of my argument here is that Sweden's squad will be deep, talented and battle-tested. They almost all play against men, whether in Sweden or the AHL, and the returning players have extra motivation thanks to last year's swoon.
In Toronto, Sweden looked great until the semifinal, when the Russians knocked them out of gold-medal contention with a 4-1 thrashing. Then, the Swedes put in a less-than-stellar effort to cede the bronze medal to Cinderella Slovakia, helping goalie Denis Godla further cement his cult hero status.
So this squad has something to prove. There is venom to draw from, blood to be wiped off their lips. The fact the Tre Kronor can win gold on Finnish ice after their arch-rivals took the trophy on Swedish ice two years ago can only motivate them even more.
As a bonus, here are my "All-WJC" pre-tournament teams. I have not included David Pastrnak of the Czech Republic, since the Boston Bruins haven't made a final decision on sending him yet, but if he goes, he would definitely be on the first team. And yes, Finland's Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi will also be ones to watch, but I couldn't find a spot for them in what promises to be a very competitive tournament field.
Forwards: William Nylander (SWE), Auston Matthews (USA), Jake Virtanen (CAN)
Defense: Gustav Forsling (SWE), Zach Werenski (USA)
Goalie: Ilya Samsonov (RUS)
Forwards: Mikko Rantanen (FIN), Dylan Strome (CAN), Mitch Marner (CAN)
Defense: Ivan Provorov (RUS), Jakub Zboril (CZE)
Goalie: Vitek Vanecek (CZE)