Tournament of Small Sample Size: The World Juniors

I recently picked up the new THN Draft Preview. There are things – a lot of things, for the matter – that The Hockey News does that I’m not fond of, but their draft preview is always worth the money and this year’s edition was no exception.

I did notice something unsettling though coming from some of the scouts that THN interviewed for the draft: an unhealthy focus on the World Juniors (both the U-20 and U-18 editions). NHL fans tend to put a lot of weight on the performance of players at the World Juniors, and that’s understandable because for many of these prospects the only time we get to see them is at the tournament. Scouts though, with the opportunity to watch these players over the course of a season (or more often several seasons) really shouldn’t be so limited. Take for instance, what the magazine had to say about Slovakian prospect Richard Panik:

This time last season, Richard Panik was touted as a top-10 pick for this year’s draft. Nobody’s stock has fallen off more precipitously. Much of the reason for that was a disappointing WJC [World Junior Championship], despite the fact that the Slovaks were the surprise team, getting to the semi-final. Panik finished with five points in seven games, but scouts were expecting more….

“I know the world juniors is not a tournament for younger kids,” a scout said, “but if you’re such a hot shot, surely to god you can get off the fourth line at some point.”

That’s one example; other prospects like Ryan O’Reilly, Robin Lehner, Brayden McNabb, and Dmitri Orlov are cited as having had a major shift in their draft ranking based on either good or poor play at the tournament.

It makes for interesting reading to go back in time and see what happened at the tournament; here are a few fun facts that I found, looking back:

  • David Chyzowski led all Canadian players at the 1990 tournament with 9 goals and 13 points. He would go on to play just 126 games in the NHL.
  • At the 1990 tournament Czechoslovakia had three players in the top five scorers; Robert Reichel led the team, scoring twice as many goals (10 to 5) as the second-best scorer, Jaromir Jagr.
  • Patrik Englund of Sweden also finished in the top-five in scoring in 1990, notching nine goals at the tournament. A Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, Englund would only top that goal mark twice in full seasons – both times in the SEL.
  • Pauli Jaks of Switzerland was named the 1991 tournament’s best goaltender, and selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the Entry Draft that summer. He played two periods of NHL hockey.
  • After a great tournament in 1992, Janne Gronvall of Finland was named to the tournament all-star team and would be draft by Toronto in the summer; in parts of three seasons in North America he couldn’t rise above the AHL level.
  • Peter Ferraro was the best forward on the 1992 American WJC team and would go 24th overall in that summer’s entry draft; he scored 9 goals in the NHL and has spent the past two seasons with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers.
  • The best defenseman on the 1993 Canadian team was a big blueliner out of the OHL, Brent Tully. He went on to have a fine career in Germany’s top league.
  • Canada won the Gold Medal in 1994, led by the high-scoring trio of Martin Gendron, Yanick Dube and Rick Girard. The trio combined for a total of 6 points in the NHL.
  • Evgeni Ryabchikov was the named the 1994 tournament’s best goaltender and was selected by the Boston Bruins with the 21st overall pick that summer; of the 70 games he played in North America, none were in the NHL and 54 of them were spent in the ECHL.
  • Ukrainian goaltender Igor Karpenko was named the 1995 tournament’s best goaltender; he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings that summer, who apparently hadn’t learned from drafting Pauli Jaks a few years earlier. The bulk of his North American Career took place in the UHL.
  • Canada was led in scoring in 1995 by Calgary Flames draft pick Marty Murray, who hit his stride right before the lockout with three consecutive seasons in the NHL.
  • Alexander Serikow led the 1995 Russian entry in scoring; he’s had a fine career in Germany.
  • The 1996 tournament’s leading scorer was Jarome Iginla; tied at the top with him was Germany’s Florian Keller. This past year was something of a milestone for Keller; it marked the first time he topped 30 points in his 11-year DEL career.
  • American Jeff Farkas led the 1998 tournament in scoring with ten points; exactly five times as many as he would ever score in the NHL.
  • Forward Maxim Balmochnykh was the best forward on the 1998 Russian team, scoring more than a point per game and finishing on the tournament all-star team; he played 176 games in North America, all but six of them in the AHL.
  • Calgary Flames 6th overall pick Daniel Tkaczuk led Canada in scoring with ten points; one fewer than he would record over his NHL career.
  • The Czech Republic won WJC gold in 2000, led by the scoring of Milan Kraft and spectacular goaltending from Zdenek Smid. Kraft was a disappointment in the NHL, while Smid (whose performance caught the eye of the Atlanta Thrashers) has had a middling career as a backup in Czechoslovakia.
  • Pint-sized Brandon Reid led Canada in scoring in 2000, eventually being drafted by Vancouver that summer; he looked good in 13 NHL games (a very exciting player) but now plays in Europe.
  • The Russians won silver in 2000; their three leading scorers were Evgeni Mouratov, Alexander Riazantsev and Oleg Smirnov; none have played in an NHL game to date.
  • Edmonton Oilers fans remember the 2001 WJC for Jani Rita, who led the tournament in goals and was subsequently rated as the 13th-best NHL prospect by The Hockey News. He’s now back in Finland after being unable to secure an NHL job.
  • The only player to put up more points than Rita in 2001 was Pavel Brendl, the 4th overall pick who managed 22 points in just 78 NHL games.
  • The 2001 WJC gold medal game featured a pair of dominant netminders; Ari Ahonen of Finland and Tomas Duba of the Czech Republic; neither ever played in the NHL.
  • The 2001 tournament features a list of busts as its top scorers; aside from Rita and Brendl, Jon DiSalvatore, Vaclav Nedorost, Andy Hilbert, Jeff Taffe, Zdenek Blatny, Ville Hamalainen, and Jamie Lundmark finished in the top-ten. The only player in that top ten who would go on to make an impact at the NHL level was Rotislav Klesla.

That’s just a sampling of the players to excel at the World Juniors but then go on to experience so-so careers. Of course, players go the other way too, but that isn’t the point; the point is that there is simply too great an element of chance in such a short tournament to give it much weight in an overall evaluation of a prospect. Every player gets hot over short stretches, and often over a short tournament they look either much better or much worse than they actually are over the entire span. As an example, Tomas Tatar was dominant for Slovakia at this past year’s World Juniors, scoring 7 goals and 11 points in only 7 games. THN asked an unnamed scout about Tatar’s performance:

“Was it situational success or is that what he does all the time? I think he had a lot of situational success.”

Another anonymous scout disagreed, saying that Tatar performed at the same level back in Slovakia; but the point here isn’t so much what conclusion each scout comes to but how they came to that conclusion. The first scout (correctly) placed minimal emphasis on the WJC, while the second scout noted Tatar’s play in his home league – neither of them drawing their conclusion from a single tournament showing, however impressive.

  • Good to see youre back Jon. Too bad day 1 had Bob Stauffer calling you out like he owns the place.

    "Occasionally browsing this site, mainly because of my respect for Brownlee, I wonder what the hell do you do?
    Nothing wrong with relying on stats (some of your stuff is compelling), but do you have actual access to know what happens in a given situation?"

    Gee thanks Robert, now that I know compelling arguments and thoughts about sports related matters are the intellectual property of people holding press passes I can go on with my life. Thanks for feeling the need to qualify the statement "occasionally browsing the site" with "mainly because of my respect for Brownlee" as if you felt like you needed a good reason to be in this corner of the internet; like this is Millwoods or something.

  • @ Archaeologuy:
    And just where is Stauffers access when it comes to the Oilers off season moves? One can only speculate…….but I sure hope if Rod Phillips retires they look past Stauffer to take over.

  • Archaeologuy wrote:

    Too bad day 1 had Bob Stauffer calling you out like he owns the place.

    It's not a problem; this is a game, and I'm a hobbyist. Besides, the more we get guys like Bob Stauffer chiming in here, the better off this site will be.

    In any case, bloggers are bound to have their arguments countered with an ad hominem approach; if it bothered me I would have left this site a long time ago.

  • @ Ogden Brother:

    It's all about access, as the legitimate media types remind us. And who has more insider access than Steve Tambellini's round shower stool? No one, that's who.

  • Jonathan Willis wrote:

    It’s not a problem; this is a game, and I’m a hobbyist. Besides, the more we get guys like Bob Stauffer chiming in here, the better off this site will be.

    I agree with your premise that more name guys chiming in brings more "credibility", for lack of a better word. I mean shower items alone wont take this place over the top. Still, if the shoe was on the other foot I wouldnt have been so cordial. Maybe Katz texted him and told him to be an @ss, I dont know, but there are a few members of the media, Mainstream or Otherwise, whose input I respect and I assure you that even as a "hobbyist" yours ranks above Stauffer's in my books. Snobbery just gets my back up.

  • Archaeologuy wrote:

    I mean shower items alone wont take this place over the top.

    I think you're dead wrong there. MikeP pointed out that shower items have all sorts of "access".

  • Jonathan Willis wrote:

    MikeP pointed out that shower items have all sorts of “access”.

    Could you imagine how awkward the interview with Quinn would be in Tambo's shower? Now we know why it's been kept so hush hush.

  • Jonathan Willis wrote:

    Archaeologuy wrote:

    I mean shower items alone wont take this place over the top.
    I think you’re dead wrong there. MikeP pointed out that shower items have all sorts of “access”.

    Enjoy the accolades while they last, JW. Soon enough, the shower stools will be telling you that your stathead arguments are bogus because you couldn't possibly know what brand of exfoliating cream Kevin Prendergast uses. Until you can provide reliable, water-resistant, shower-based seating accommodations, keep your amateurish opinions to yourself.

  • I think the overwhelming bias towards WJC performance is based on an organizational belief that the player performance in this "pressure cooker" environment will be infinitely revealing going forward. Given your casual observations above (a large sampling) the evidence to support the irrelevance of WJC success is in fact just as compelling.
    Currently we have 2 undrafted players critically involved in the play in the video and without question that brief moment in time bears weight in their relative values, the oilers are not in the Tavares conversation but certainly are in the Ellis one. I think it may be a decent exercise to watch how ellis compares to the russian kid who iced the puck that led to the existence of that chance or the kid who tried to turtle on the puck that came to Eberle. Given the overwhelming evidence that controversy and adversity builds way more deep rooted character than fleeting successes, the poster children for the 09 canadian juniors may in fact be passed by the victims of luck as defined by the hockey gods.
    Clearly no organization would draft based on relative failures but a certain appreciation for how a kid responds post adversity is way more revealing than how high he can jump into the glass when a bit of puck luck comes his way.
    Good piece Jon…. would you consider drafting the high scorers in a junior tournament to be a low risk, easy to sell scouting technique… aka lazy?

  • roughneck wrote:

    Good piece Jon…. would you consider drafting the high scorers in a junior tournament to be a low risk, easy to sell scouting technique… aka lazy?

    Well, as the last two scouts I quoted show, not everyone views the WJC as the be-all and end-all. I think it gets overemphasized because everyone sees it; it's a common point of reference. I say Eberle and the first thing anyone thinks of is the WJC, not his WHL season – which was good but not great.

    The problem is that there is value in the "pressure cooker" mentality; I just think that watching a player down the stretch drive or on a lengthy playoff run is a better indicator, since you're getting more than half a dozen games to form an opinion.

  • Jon – Do I assume that you are taking a shot over the bow of Jordan Eberle based on your choice of Youtube video?

    That may be a bit of a premature cheap-shot since the kid hasn't yet progressed very far past junior. There are however some real good examples of popcorn fart hockey prospects in the Oiler system such as….almost everybody on the AHL roster. Couldn't you have picked a better example than Eberle?

  • @ yo:

    I actually like Eberle as a prospect, but I do think Oilers fans overrate him; he was tremendous at the WJC but his regular season really could have been better – Cornet gained on him a lot, as one example.

    Other than that, both Ellis and Tavares are involved in the play; both will be selected in the first round at this coming draft.

    I could have tossed up a picture of Ryan O'Marra, but that was too obvious.

  • Jonathan Willis wrote:

    @ yo:
    I actually like Eberle as a prospect, but I do think Oilers fans overrate him;

    Have fans overrated Eberle or are we desperately hoping that one of these Oiler picks leads the flock out of the hockey wilderness? I agree over rating talent has been an Oilers/fans Achilles heel for some years now. When we see the team this last year or two I question the talent from top to bottom. I read a quote a year or so ago attributed to the Senators GM and he said openly the Oilers over value their players. Granted no one trying to trade someone is going to intentionally depreciate someone's value but I don't think anyone in the league has put too many Oiler players on the 'get' list of late who could play on anything above the 3rd line.