Every year, people look into the half-dozen or so games that each team plays in the World Juniors and walk away with important lessons. Draft rankings are realigned, coaches are heralded or maligned, and the character and abilities of scores of teenagers are judged for good or ill.
If the impact wasn’t so serious, it would almost be funny.
The reality is that this is a very narrow window. While various talking heads will prattle on about how the pressure of this tournament separates winners from losers, the fact of the matter is that six or seven games is simply not a good way to judge a hockey player or a hockey team – particularly when a bunch of those games feature juggernauts taking on the little people.
For Nail Yakupov, Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko and Ryan Murray (among others) this was a chance to forge a reputation. Murray, in particular, will be negatively affected by it – his performance in Canada’s semi-final loss has already generated commentary along the lines of how Matt Dumba or Cody Ceci should be leap-frogging him in the draft rankings.
For the Canadian team, we in the media have had no shortage of narratives to offer on why they lost. The prevailing one seems to be that suggested by Russian coach Valeri Bragin – that the Canadians never faced a real challenge in the round robin tournament and weren’t prepared when they ran into their first real test. Whether or not that is the story eventually adopted as the consensus wisdom, one can know with certainty that a story will be told to explain what happened.
The reality, for all of it, is this: in a one-game, winner take all format, any closely matched team can win. The Americans found that when they played the Swedes and the Finns. The Canadians found it when they lost to the Russians, and when they came oh so close to surrendering a three-goal lead to the U.S. For that matter, the Russians know it too, having blown a three goal lead over Sweden in the round robin.
It’s a similar story for the various individuals participating in the tournament. Gathered from their regular teams, tossed together with new linemates, new roles and responsibilities, and a new coach, it shouldn’t be surprising to see good players struggle. It also shouldn’t be a surprise to see odd players really stand out in a positive way – as John Druce and Fernando Pisani and countless others have shown at the NHL level, just about anybody can get hot for a stretch of important games.
Any look at the tournament’s history encourages perspective on the results, either at the individual or the team level. One year the best forward is Alexander Ovechkin; another year it’s Pavel Brendl. Alexander Rjantsov or Igor Knyazev is as likely to win the best defenseman award as Drew Doughty or Dion Phaneuf. In net, the best performances have come from perennial all-stars and future nobodies in seemingly equal quantities. At the team level, the United States can end up in relegation, but then it really wasn’t that long ago that Canada was in a similar spot – in 1998, when they finished 8th in the tournament, one spot back of Kazakhstan.
This isn’t written to take anything away from those teams and players that enjoy success. Russia deserves an incredible amount of credit for their performance in this tournament; so too does Sweden (and those trotting out the ‘Canada never faced a real challenge’ line might remember that Sweden beat the Canadians in pre-tournament play). Evgeni Kuzentsov and the rest of the tournament’s star players should enjoy their moment in the spotlight: they’ve certainly earned it.
It’s just important to strike a balance: between crediting the young men who put in exceptional work at the tournament on the one hand, and remembering that this is an incredibly short series between what are essentially teenage all-star teams on the other. Canada has never had any trouble with the first part. They certainly have with the second.
Czech Republic 5, Slovakia 2
Juraj Simboch finished a lackluster tournament with a lackluster game, allowing four goals on 33 shots before being pulled in favour of backup Richard Sabol, who would go on to stop 12 of the 13 shots he faced. At the other end of the ice, Petr Mrazek finished a strong tournament in customary fashion, allowing just two goals on 31 shots against.
2012 Draft-eligible Radek Faksa scored the game’s first goal and earned the best player nod for the Czechs, who finish the tournament in fifth place. The Slovaks finish in sixth, one spot ahead of the United States.
USA 2, Switzerland 1
All the scoring was done in the first period, as the United States capped off a disappointing World Juniors with a perfect record in the relegation round. Swiss goalie Tim Wolf kept things interesting, stopping 40 of 42 shots (a pattern that has been a theme for the Americans all tournament) but the Americans only allowed a single goal against and so it didn’t much matter.
The U.S. team finishes the tournament in seventh place; the Swiss in eighth. An as expected finish for Switzerland, and a decidedly disappointing one for the United States.
Latvia 2, Denmark 1 (OT)
Ultimately, for both Latvia and Denmark there was only one game that really mattered: their final game of the tournament, the one they played against each other. Neither team had a chance at even getting with sniffing distance of a podium finish; both clubs were soundly thrashed whenever they went against legitimate opponents.
One team, however, would survive for another year in the top division of the World Juniors – a goal both teams had, as it gives their countries a chance to play against the best and a chance to promote their hockey programs inside their home countries. This year, Latvia survives, while Denmark is replaced by Germany in the top tier. Oilers’ prospect and team captain Kristians Pelss won the player of the game award by virtue of tying things up in the second period for the Latvians; he also led both teams with six shots. More than half of the Danes’ shots came from the trio of Nicklas Jensen, Patrick Bjorkstrand and Oliver Bjorkstrand (they combined for 14 of Denmark’s 23 shots), but they were only able to beat Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis once.