Throughout its history, the World Junior Championship has been a tremendous barometer for the state of hockey around the world. An analytical look at more than 30 years of data shows which leagues are improving as time goes on.
The World Junior Championship is an old entity, four decades old to be precise, and in some ways has been a more consistent barometer of the state of hockey across the world. While boycotts and amateur status debates drastically affected Olympics rosters over the years, the under-20s have routinely held the top competition for the best young players from major hockey-playing countries. For this reason, we have grounds for some interesting comparisons among these countries, in particular the leagues that have shared their talent for the world juniors. Their players’ performance within those leagues and their subsequent WJC performance can tell us a lot in a larger sample. By looking historically, we can also add context to the story, including how political shifts like the division of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia affected these programs.
Reaching back to 1980, I took all the WJC performances of the top lines and defense pairings and put them side-by-side with the same players’ regular season performances in their junior or major league. To develop consistent categories, I stripped away players in the smaller, constantly changing Jr. A or regional junior leagues and focused on the Canadian Hockey League (WHL, OHL, QMJHL), the NCAA and the major leagues in European countries. With the remaining nearly 1,800 player performances, I was able to compare the points per game of these players in their leagues to their points per game in the WJC. It’s expressed in the charts like so: a player scoring one point per game in the WJC would likely score X points per game in the selected regular league. The lower the league’s number, the harder it is to translate success from the WJC to that league. The result is an interesting look at the change over time of the common “proving grounds” for WJC players:
As you can see, I ended up separating the leagues into groupings. The older, established European leagues compare well because the data is complete throughout. Notice the effect of the political changes in eastern Europe: the Czech Extraliga took a hit by losing Slovakian players to the emerging Slovak Extraliga, as did the Russian Premier League when a number of Eastern European players left for domestic leagues or the Eastern European League (since absorbed by the Belarusian Extraliga). You can also see the well-known peak periods of Soviet hockey in the mid-1980s and Swedish hockey in the mid to late-1990s. What about the other European leagues?
No surprise to see Germany languishing behind the other leagues, and Slovakia is becoming increasingly well respected on the world stage. Switzerland’s rise is real enough, considering the growing number of successful Swiss NHLers like
Nino Niederreiter, and
Roman Josi. Using the top European leagues again as a frame of reference, the final group is the USA and Canadian feeder leagues, NCAA and CHL.
Nowhere near as challenging as the European leagues, North American amateur leagues are kept artificially low by annually overhauled lineups and age restrictions. On the other hand, the NCAA seems to be substantially improving its level of play, and for a number of years the WHL hasn’t been far behind the college game. Unfortunately, the NHL and AHL don’t provide nearly enough players to be confident in the numbers, but even so we can still get a general idea of where they stand in comparison to the European and amateur leagues from above.
Though the data is a bit spotty, we do get the impression that the NHL continues to improve, which makes sense considering it has not expanded in size for 15 years. The fast growth of junior systems in Europe and the improvement of training techniques and technology worldwide only seem to be pushing the NHL towards better and better hockey. While leagues across the world are evolving, breaking apart and coming together, the world juniors have been a comforting constant, an opportunity for the best young talent to face off. Along the way, this cooperation has also given us an interesting opportunity to compare the leagues that share their talent and learn the stories they have to tell.
The data used for this article was taken from ELITEPROSPECTS.COM and HOCKEYDB.COM.
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.