MINSK, Belarus - The 2014 IIHF world hockey championship begins Friday in Minsk, Belarus. Here are some players to watch in the tournament:
Nathan MacKinnon, Forward, Canada
Eight years after Sidney Crosby played at the world championship as an 18-year-old, MacKinnon is doing the same. The Colorado Avalanche rookie and Calder Trophy front-runner played on the wing in Canada's exhibition game against Switzerland in Zurich. The natural centre could remain there for at least the start of the tournament given the team's strength down the middle.
Tim Thomas, Goaltender, United States
This could be the international swan song for the 40-year-old goaltender, who is representing the U.S. for the eighth time in his career. Part of his job could be mentoring young Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck, but his main role will be to stop pucks behind a very young group. Expectations are high after John Gibson led the U.S. to a gold medal last year in this event.
Alex Ovechkin, Forward, Russia
Ovechkin returns to the Russian team three months after a national failure at the Sochi Olympics, when he didn't score after his first goal early in the first game. Ovechkin is the biggest star in hockey taking part at the world championship and is doing so for the 10th time in his career. After the disappointment in Sochi, there's even more pressure for him to produce.
Tomas Hertl, Forward, Czech Republic
Hertl mania gripped the NHL early in his rookie season, and this world championship is another chance for the young Sharks winger to shine. Even after missing a huge chunk of the season with a knee injury, Hertl was up to his old tricks early in San Jose's first-round series, and the bigger ice could be a nice showcase for his skills.
Seth Jones, Defenceman, United States
Along with Jacob Trouba and maybe even Jake Gardiner, Jones is being groomed for future U.S. competitions, whether it's the return of the World Cup of Hockey or the 2018 Winter Olympics. Like most defencemen his growth will take time, but he led the Americans to the 2013 world junior title and could play a big role in this tournament.
Gustav Nyquist, Forward, Sweden
Nyquist was the NHL's hottest scorer for a stretch after the Olympic break, then had zero points in the Detroit Red Wings' five-game first-round loss to the Boston Bruins. He also had zero points in six games in Sochi, but this time there's more of an expectation for Nyquist to put up numbers as one of just two Swedish returnees.
Leo Komarov, Forward, Finland
A year after leaving the Maple Leafs to sign with Dynamo Moscow in the KHL, Komarov could be eyeing a return to the NHL for 2014-15. This tournament is not a bad place for the 27-year-old to remind general managers what he can do. Komarov should have a bigger role for Finland here than in Sochi, when he played 12 minutes a game.
Morgan Rielly, Defenceman, Canada
Rielly is the kind of player Team Canada GM Rob Blake loves because he can move the puck quickly and also use his skating to get out of trouble. If coach Dave Tippett lets him loose on the big ice, the 20-year-old defenceman's risk-reward game will be fun to watch. Given the lack of left-handed Canadian defenceman, there's no reason Rielly can't be in consideration for the 2018 Olympics.
Mikhail Grabovski, Forward, Belarus
This isn't Ovechkin in Sochi, but the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent centre is the biggest star for the host country, so eyes will be on him leading the Belarusians. Grabovski missed part of the Capitals' season with injury, and though that probably won't affect his July 1 pay day, a good showing at worlds wouldn't hurt either.
Kristers Gudlevskis, Goaltender, Latvia
The Olympic goalie who almost killed Canada is back. Gudlevskis made 55 saves in the Sochi quarter-finals and almost made history by upsetting a Canada team that is now considered one of the best ever constructed. Latvia is in the opposite group at worlds, but that just means a quarter-final matchup with the Canadians is possible yet again.
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