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.