International Ice Hockey Federation

Hartley seeks Latvian joy

Hartley seeks Latvian joy

A new coach and new faces for the Baltic nation

Published 04.05.2017 11:14 GMT+2 | Author Andy Potts
Hartley seeks Latvian joy
Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins is part of the new generation of Latvian players. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Tough to beat, but short of firepower, Latvia was the nearly team of 2016. A coaching change could bring a killer instinct to Cologne this time.

Latvia hasn’t made the quarter-finals since 2009, despite coming close in Minsk three years ago. With a new head coach at the helm, can the Baltic nation gain some hockey cheer on the international stage after a difficult season for Dinamo Riga in the KHL?

Bob Hartley, a Stanley Cup winner with the Avalanche in 2001, is the second former NHL coach to stand behind Latvia’s bench and he’s been running the rule over his country’s crop of KHL talent in a bid to improve on last year’s solitary victory in World Championship play.


Edgars Masalskis, a long-serving figure between the piping, has called time on his international career, leaving Elvis Merzlikins as the likely first choice in Cologne. Merzlikins impressed on his World Championship debut in Moscow 12 months ago, where he played in five of Latvia’s games and produced a respectable 91.2 save percentage. He’s maintained that kind of form with Lugano in the Swiss Championship. Janis Kalnins has been an unused goalie at the last two Worlds, but after making his KHL debut with Dinamo Riga this season, the 25-year-old could see some action at last. 22-year-old Ivars Punnenovs, another Swiss-based prospect, makes up the goaltending trio.


The bulk of Latvia’s defensive duties will likely fall to the team’s experienced blue liners. The KHL-based quartet of Oscars Cibulksis, Guntis Galvins, Arturs Kulda and Kristaps Sotnieks are all back in the harness for this tournament, bringing the combined experience of 26 World Championship campaigns between them. But there’s room for new faces as well, with two NCAA prospects – Janis Jaks and Kristofers Bindulis – heading to Germany. Jaks, now 21, got his first taste of this tournament in 2014 in Minsk before heading to the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness. Now at American International College, he’s available this time, along with Bindulis, a World Championship rookie from Lake Superior University. Dinamo Riga Junior Uvis Janis Balinskis, 20, is looking to continue an impressive season that saw him make his KHL debut and feature 11 times for the national team. While there is some solidity here, there isn’t much evidence of firepower from a blue line that tends to stay at home.


Once again, it’s a mixture of new faces and familiar names. The team’s traditional scoring leaders – Kaspars Daugavins, Andris Dzerins, the sole NHL representative, Zemgus Girgensons – are back again, while battle-hardened centre Janis Sprukts returns after missing last year’s championship. Mikelis Redlihs, top scorer in Moscow despite playing just four games, is the biggest loss from last year’s roster; the 32-year-old had a disappointing season for Dinamo, tallying just 16 points in 50 games.

Among the newcomers, Rihards Bukarts, whose older brother Roberts is also on the team, has earned a big reputation in the WHL after three productive seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings and the Portland Winterhawks. The 21-year-old arrives in Cologne after a season divided between AHL hockey in Springfield and 33 points from 37 ECHL outings with Manchester Monarchs. Frenks Razgals, 20, is another World Championship rookie, rewarded for a good season in Russia’s MHL with HK Riga. He earned an All-Star call-up and a handful of KHL outings with Dinamo, as well as featuring in 11 senior international games. And tomorrow the team will be joined by another rookie, Teodors Blugers, who after four years at college played his first pro season with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.


Bob Hartley brings a wealth of North American know-how to his first ever international gig. He was the long-term replacement for Leonids Beresnevs, who resigned on the eve of Latvia’s Olympic qualifying tournament in September. Haralds Vasiljevs took the helm for that one, but could not stop Germany booking its ticket to Korea.

Hartley, 56, enjoyed his greatest success in Colorado in 2001, but has since won the Swiss Championship in 2012 with ZSC Lions Zurich – a roster that included Latvia’s Ronalds Kenins. He will be assisted in Cologne by Arturs Abols, who is currently in charge at Lada Togliatti in the KHL.

Projected results

Last year, despite managing a solitary 2-1 victory over relegated Kazakhstan, Latvia proved a tough opponent. Three games went to OT, and only a 0-4 loss to Russia saw the team outclassed. With a strong start, Latvia could shoot for a QF place. With a weak start, Hartley will be under pressure to keep the team in the Elite Pool. Opening games against Denmark, Slovakia and Italy will define this year’s tournament for the Baltic country.


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