WJHC: What a difference a year makes
Canada and Finland show the margin between winning and losing is as thin as ice
Two years ago, while Canada was celebrating World Junior gold in Toronto, Finland was reeling from a seventh place finish.
The next year, Finland would be celebrating gold while Canada finished sixth.
This year, Canada sits 2-0 while Finland is 0-2.
The World Juniors are fickle, and when you are relying on players under-20, things will happen. Much like the Olympics that are every four years, relying on your best Under-20 talent not in the NHL isn’t a great barometer of where your hockey program is: It’s merely a snapshot in time.
Two years ago, Finland scored just eight goals in five games led by a 16-year-old Jesse Puljujärvi, 17-year-old Sebastian Aho, 18-year-old Mikko Rantanen, and 19-year-old Artturi Lehkonen. Patrik Laine, who was also 16, wasn’t even on the roster.
Sometimes you get a year when your best talent is either a year too old or too young. Last year, everything went perfect for the Finns. Rantanen was 19, Laine, Puljujärvi, and Aho were so dominant that Finland’s goaltending troubles didn’t matter. They could just literally outscore you.
This year, the Finns still have talent but Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen are 17-year-olds in a 19-year-old’s tournament. Next year, they could possibly be in the NHL and miss the tournament altogether.
Not many people remember now, but Canada faced Finland in last year’s quarterfinal. And, while Finland was dominant in the round robin, Canada had the lead twice in the game and Finland only won the game on the back of a late power play.
That was the difference between moving on, and going home.
This year, a lot of the talk is about who isn’t at this tournament. Laine, Puljujärvi, and Aho are all eligible. Canada is missing Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, and Travis Konecny - among others. Auston Matthews, Noah Hanifin, and Zach Werenski are all top-five draft picks missing for the United States.
If Finland loses out and makes it to the relegation round, it’s not an indication of where their hockey program is. With the NHL trending younger and younger, there will need to be nuance added to the results of the Under 20s.
The results are an indicator of where you are, but there are also other indicators, like the Under-18s, and the other international tournaments. Placing too much stock - or not enough - in the results depending on the success of your country is not wise. It’s still a major part of the puzzle.
The Olympics being every four years don’t take into account the three years before or after. The World Championships deal with players in the NHL playoffs or choosing not to play.
The World Juniors are extremely volatile, and has pretty great parity. After years of Canadian and Russian domination, every country can put together a winning team. If anything, the increase of teenagers in the NHL helps the parity and increases volatility.
Sweden didn’t win a gold medal between 1982 and 2012. Finland has alternated seventh and first place finishes. Russia has one gold medal in the last 13 tournaments.
You need to take all international tournaments into account. No one tournament is going to be the barometer of the health of your hockey program. The World Juniors volatility from year to year is great for excitement but not so much for measuring absolute success.
A team like Slovakia can sneak up and win a surprising medal riding the backs of a superstar forward (Martin Réway) and great goaltending (Denis Godla). It’s what makes the tournament great.
Last year, Finland were the darlings of the hockey world. An 0-2 start without their best Under-20 players doesn’t change that. Neither will a gold medal for whoever wins it.
We often look for narratives and absolutes based on the results of a week-long tournament. We should just sit back and enjoy the hockey because you never know when the good results will turn around.
Denmark has gone from cute underdog to an established top division hockey country and many people haven’t noticed. In 2015, they used a top line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Mads Eller and Oliver Bjorkstrand to surprise everyone.
Two years later with a completely different team, they are still around and still upsetting teams. And not only on the junior level, either. They will actually be hosting the senior World Championships after establishing themselves firmly in the top division.
People see games like they had against Finland and think that it’s funny and cute. But these Danes have bite and this could just be the beginning.