The draw for group stages of the Champions Hockey League took place in Slovakia during the recent World Championships. The 32 teams were divided into eight groups with four teams in each. The top two will go through to the knockout stages which start in November.
This group should see Finland's Tappara Tampere qualify. They are the only team in this group who have played in the competition but Swiss Biel Bienne are my favourites to go to the playoffs over Austrian and Norwegian competition.
Even with Finnish champions HPK Hämeenlinna, in the group I am going to go for Swiss EV Zug and Czech HC Pilsen as the two teams who are most likely to qualify from this group. Pilsen were excellent last year and that the Swiss have been in the tournament before may be an advantage against Finnish and Danish first-timers.
Swedish champions from the regular season Luleå Hockey should qualify from one of the most open groups. But they will face a tough fight from Czech team Bílí Tygři Liberec and Germany's Augsburger Panthers. Can Great Britain's surprise survival in the World Championship be an inspiration for Belfast Giants to sneak into the playoffs? Back Paul Swindlehurst and veteran forward, Colin Shields, drafted in 2000 by Philadelphia Flyers certainly will hope so.
Another group which will be an open fight will see Czech Oceláři Třinec, Swiss Lausanne HC and Finnish newcomers Lahti Pelicans fight for the top two places. Lausanne's Swedish assistant captain, Jonas Junland (pictured) as played in the first two seasons of the CHL with Linköping HC will be hoping to go further than the group stages in his fourth year in Switzerland.
Kärpät's biggest challenge to winning the competition may be getting out of the group stages where they will have to face NLA champions, SC Bern and Swedish powerhouse, Skellefteå AIK. Despite enormous talent the Swedes have rarely performed well in the CHL and tend to be a team that flourish is the own playoffs in early spring. That should play to the Finnish and Swiss teams' advantage.
This is another group that is very difficult to predict where Germany's Adler Mannheim return to the competition. They will face Austria's Vienna Capitals and Sweden's silver medal winners Djurgården IF. The Stockholm team of 2017/8 and 2018/9 was good enough to win the CHL, but have never rose to the challenge and have lost some of their best players already in the post-season.
One player who will not be playing in the in the CHL this season unless Adler Mannheim go through to the knockout round is Thomas Larkin. That's because in dying minutes of his last match in the competition on 7 November 2017 he tackled Brynäs IF's Stanley Cup winning forward, Daniel Paille, in an off-the-puck incident. The blindside hit ended Paille's career and on 10 June 2019 the court will decide what, if any, punishment the London born, Italian national will receive in a civil action taken out by the Canadian. He, along with many others felt that the CHL gave out a punishment which was too lenient. On the ice Larkin received two match penalties and then the CHL discipline committee gave him a three match ban for the hit and one for the ensuing fight.
This group ought see Swedish Färjestad BK and last year's finalists Red Bull Munich go through against Swiss and Slovakian opposition.
Frölunda Indians as the champions have again be drawn against British opposition, both of whom were in the lowest seeded teams in the competition. This time it will be Cardiff Devils who will face the Swedish champions. But they will not be intimidated in this their third CHL in a row. They will also feel they have a chance against their Austrian and Czech opponents in this group. Can they produce the upset of the tournament and qualify behind the Swedish and CHL champions? The safer choice would be Mountfield HK from the Czech Republic. But British internationals Ben Bowns and Evan Mosey will want to provide a shock again. Netminder Bowns has shown that he has the credentials - he saved 230 shots during the World Championships, the most of all players in the tournament.