The Top NHL Stars to Watch in the 2014 Hockey World Championships

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2014

The Top NHL Stars to Watch in the 2014 Hockey World Championships

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    The 2014 IIHF World Championships kicked off on Friday in Minsk, Belarus and will run through May 25. Overshadowed in North America by the Stanley Cup playoffs and even by the World Junior Championship, they're the most important annual event on the international hockey calendar, where the best players from the European leagues line up with a collection of junior, college, minor league and NHL players whose seasons have already come to a close.

    In 2013, Sweden became the first host country to take home the gold medal since the Soviet Union accomplished the feat back in 1986. 

    In terms of countries represented, the World Championships are a larger competition than the Olympics. All Olympic nations except Austria are featured in this year's competition, as well as France, Denmark, Italy, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

    Between the Sochi Games and the ongoing playoffs, many of the NHL's biggest stars won't be participating this year, but there are still plenty of interesting storylines to watch.

    Here are nine NHLers to watch in Minsk over the next two weeks.

Sweden: Gustav Nyquist

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    Sweden's IIHF World Ranking: 1

    Preliminary-Round Group: A

    2013 World Championships Result: gold medal

    Nyqvist's International History: Gustav Nyquist's only prior appearance in international competition was in the 2014 Winter Olympics, where he was named to the team as an injury replacement for his Detroit Red Wings teammate Johan Franzen. Nyquist was scoreless in six games in the tournament but was part of Sweden's silver medal-winning team.

    Nyquist got hot for Detroit after the Olympic break, finishing the season with 28 goals. He's one of just three NHL forwards on this year's Swedish roster, so he'll need to chip in on the scoresheet for Sweden to have any chance of defending its gold medal.

Finland: Pekka Rinne

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    Finland's IIHF World Ranking: 2

    Preliminary-Round Group: B

    2013 World Championships Result: fourth place

    Rinne's International History: Pekka Rinne has played for Finland twice before at the World Championships. Both times, in 2009 and 2010, the team failed to medal.

    This year, Rinne is working his way back from a hip infection that kept him sidelined from his NHL job with the Nashville Predators for more than four months. When he returned in March, he helped lead the Predators on a late-season push for the playoffs that ultimately fell three points short.

    The only other current NHL player on the Finnish roster this year is Olli Jokinen of the Winnipeg Jets.

Canada: Nathan MacKinnon

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    Canada's IIHF World Ranking: 3

    Preliminary-Round Group: A

    2013 World Championships Result: fifth place

    MacKinnon's International History: Just 18 years old, Nathan MacKinnon already has significant international hockey experience. He first suited up for Team Canada as part of the World U-17 hockey challenge in 2011 and won a gold medal as part of the Under-18 team at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, where he was also the leading scorer.

    As a 17-year-old, MacKinnon played for Canada's World Junior team. By 18, he was playing full-time with the Colorado Avalanche.

    After MacKinnon's impressive 10-point performance in his first NHL playoffs, look for him to spark a young Team Canada that doesn't feature a single holdover from the gold-medal winning group from Sochi.

Russia: Alex Ovechkin

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    Russia's IIHF World Ranking: 4

    Preliminary-Round Group: B

    2013 World Championships Result: sixth place

    Ovechkin's International History: When Russia calls, Alexander Ovechkin answers the bell. He hasn't always had success, but Ovechkin has been doing his bit for his country since he won a silver medal at the Under-18 Championships back in 2002.

    He picked up a gold and silver at World Juniors and has five World Championships medals to his name. The two golds come from Canada in 2008 and Helsinki in 2012. The gap in Ovechkin's trophy case is the Olympics, where Russia has failed to bring home a medal in any of his three appearances.

    Ovechkin is joined on Team Russia by seven other NHLers, including his Washington Capitals teammates Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Czech Republic: Jaromir Jagr

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    Czech Republic's IIHF World Ranking: 5

    Preliminary-Round Group: A

    2013 World Championships Result: seventh place

    Jagr's International History: Since Teemu Selanne's Anaheim Ducks are still alive in the NHL playoffs, Jaromir Jagr gets the title of "elder statesman" all to himself at this year's World Championships. Never too tired to compete, the 42-year-old led the New Jersey Devils in scoring during the NHL season, played for the Czech Republic at the Olympics and now returns to his national team once again.

    As part of team Czechoslovakia, Jagr's international history stretches back 25 years, to a bronze medal at the European Junior Championship in 1989. The following year, he won bronze at both the World Juniors and the World Championships, then added three more World Championships medals over the years, including golds from 2005 and 2010.

    Jagr also has two Olympic medals, including a gold from Nagano in 1998, to go along with his two Stanley Cup rings.

    This year's Czech World Championships team includes five other NHL players, including impressive San Jose Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl.

United States: Seth Jones

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    United States' IIHF World Ranking: 6

    Preliminary-Round Group: B

    2013 World Championships Result: bronze medal

    Jones' International History: The 2014 World Championships will mark Seth Jones' first senior international competition, but his junior pedigree is impressive. He won a silver at the Under-17 Championships in 2011, then picked up golds in two successive years at the Under-18 Championships and had a terrific series during Team USA's gold medal-winning performance at the World Junior Championships in Ufa in 2013.

    Like Nathan MacKinnon, Jones made the jump straight to the NHL out of the 2013 draft. Though he faded a bit down the stretch, he had a solid rookie season overall with the Nashville Predators.

    Team USA also doesn't feature a single player who went to Sochi; it has been built from young talent and journeymen plying their trade in the KHL, backed up by grizzled veteran Tim Thomas in net.

Switzerland: Damien Brunner

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    Switzerland's IIHF World Ranking: 7

    Preliminary-Round Group: B

    2013 World Championships Result: silver medal

    Brunner's International History: Damien Brunner missed out on Switzerland's outstanding silver-medal performance at the 2013 World Championships because he was busy with the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL playoffs. His most impressive international performance came at the 2012 tournament, when he scored seven points in seven games, though Switzerland finished in 11th place.

    Brunner was also part of Team Switzerland at the 2010 World Championships and the 2014 Olympics. The surging Swiss disappointed with a ninth-place finish in Sochi but will have a solid contingent of their regulars back on the roster in Minsk.

Latvia: Kristers Gudlevskis

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    Latvia's IIHF World Ranking: 10

    Preliminary-Round Group: B

    2013 World Championships Result: 11th place

    Gudlevskis' International History: Kristers Gudlevskis had a nation on the edge of its collective seat when his 55-save performance in the quarterfinal at Sochi led to a nail-biting 2-1 win for Team Canada over a team that was supposed to be easy to beat.

    Since the Sochi games wrapped up, 21-year-old Gudlevskis has gone on to make his NHL debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning, filling in for injured Ben Bishop in one regular-season and two playoff games.

    Gudlevskis was also called into action for Latvia at the 2013 World Championships when starter Edgars Masalskis was injured, where he posted a solid 2-2 record.

    Coach Ted Nolan has been coaxing impressive performances out of the surprising Latvian team in recent international appearances. Opponents may not take the Latvians so lightly this time around.

France: Antoine Roussel

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    France's IIHF World Ranking: 12

    Preliminary-Round Group: A

    2013 World Championships Result: 13th place

    Roussel's International History: Antoine Roussel made a name for himself in the NHL in 2013-14 as one of the game's most irritating agitators. Born in France but raised in Quebec from age 16, the undrafted 24-year-old defined his role in his second NHL season, scoring 14 goals and putting up 208 penalty minutes.

    Roussel's a dual citizen who has been playing for France internationally since 2011. This year marks his third World Championships.

    Thanks in particular to an impressive performance by former NHLer Cristobal Huet, Team France made headlines on the opening day of the 2014 tournament with an upset 3-2 shootout win over a surprised Team Canada.