The holidays are a wonderful time of year, when families get together and celebrate the past year, as well as prepare for the coming new one. While there are families all across Canada who prepare for the holidays by decorating a Christmas tree, lighting a Menorah, or any number of other holiday preparations, my friends and I prepare for New Years by getting a case of beer, a box of wings, and watching the World Junior Hockey Championship. As an avid fan of the World Juniors I enjoy looking into my crystal ball and observing the players my National Hockey League (NHL) team has drafted or loaned to their respective national programs and determining if my team will indeed benefit from the addition of that particular player. However, from a team perspective one has to wonder, is there a significant benefit in loaning a player, who is currently in the NHL or AHL, to their national program to participate in this under-20 tournament. While I believe there is an intangible benefit in having players compete in high pressure situations, like the World Juniors, to prepare them for the scrutiny of the NHL as well as the pressures of competing in the playoffs, which should be every team’s goal, these intangibles are difficult to prove. So the question then becomes, is there an observable benefit, or spike in performance, that follows a players participation in the tournament?
The short answer is that there is no significant increase in production among players who were playing in the NHL prior to being loaned to their respective national teams, in contrast to their production after returning from the tournament. After looking at some recent examples such as Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators), Mirco Muller (San Jose Sharks), and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers at the time, but currently a member of the Arizona Coyotes), who all played in the 2015 World Juniors, upon being returned to their NHL club their production was either at a similar or lower level, or they were sent back to the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), as was the case with Anthony Duclair. Curtis Lazar was playing a minimal role, second to last in average ice time with the Ottawa Senators, and was producing at a meager 0.26 point/game pace prior to being loaned to the Canadian squad, which he would captain to a Gold medal. After returning to Ottawa, Lazar registered 8 points in his last 32 games, which amounts to a 0.25 point/game pace, nearly identical to his pre-tournament production. Mirco Muller was producing at a 0.13 point/game pace prior to the tournament, and after he returned to the NHL following the tournament, he failed to record a point in 10 games and was subsequently sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) where he scored at a 0.3 point/game pace. Duclair’s situation is a bit more difficult to judge as he was returned to the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL after scoring at a 0.39 point/game pace with the Rangers through 18 games. For the Quebec Ramparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), he would go on to score at a 0.94 point/game pace through 36 games. Duclair’s demotion was likely not an comment on his play at the NHL level, but rather it seems the Rangers desired to double-down on the benefit of him playing significant minutes in meaningful games, as the Quebec Ramparts hosted the Memorial Cup last season, and as such, his team was guaranteed a birth in the tournament.
As is the case so often is with hockey, and with life, there is an exception to the rule, and that is the case of David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins). Pastrnak failed to produce for the Bruins last season, but was nearly a point per game player in the AHL prior to being loaned to the Czech Republic for the World Juniors. Pastrnak enjoyed a great tournament, scoring seven points in five games, and returned to the AHL where he scored at a 1.3 point/game pace and earned a promotion to the Bruins for the last half of the season. He would go on to score 27 points over 41 games (0.66 point/game) signaling a significant increase in his production at the NHL level after his involvement in the tournament. This season Pastrnak has once again been loaned to the Czech Republic team in an effort to increase his offensive production, as he has a mere four points through ten games with the Bruins during the 2015-2016 season.
While there isn’t a consistent or measurable increase in a players production after participation in the World Junior Hockey Championship, there are, in my opinion, significant benefits to providing a player with the opportunity to represent their country in the tournament. Many of the players loaned from their NHL club are playing less than 15 minutes per game and thus are not occupying a significant role on their team, but rather serving more as a complementary player being slowly introduced to the rigours of playing in the NHL on a regular basis. Players like Duclair, Lazar and others, often found themselves as healthy-scratches during the season that they were loaned to their respective national team, and were watching games from the press-box instead of developing their talent on the ice. These players were likely kept on their club’s NHL roster due to their dominance at the CHL level, but they were not ready for full-time NHL duty, and thus the opportunity to have them play a series of games against players their own age was an excellent opportunity for them to gain some much needed playing time and experience. The predominant reason these players were kept by their respective NHL teams is likely due to the transfer agreement between the CHL (OHL, WHL, & QMJHL) and the NHL with regards to players who are twenty years of age or younger. This agreement stipulates that an NHL club cannot assign a player who is under 20 years of age and plays for a CHL team to their minor-league (AHL / ECHL) affiliates. The rule exists to protect the CHL from having considerable amounts of talented players removed from their teams. On the flip slide, it puts NHL clubs in a difficult position, where a player is too good to continue to develop in the CHL, but not yet prepared to play in the NHL on a regular basis. So, in certain instances a player from the CHL who is 19 and clearly ready for the next level of competition, but perhaps not physically mature enough, will likely be kept by their NHL team because it is seen as if there is nothing to gain from keeping the player in the CHL, so the player is kept in the NHL despite perhaps not being ready for the promotion. Thus, the World Juniors offers, what I believe to be, an invaluable opportunity for these players to develop their on-ice skills in a high pressure one-game elimination situation, where they will be allowed to play significant minutes in meaningful games.
While there may not be a significant boost in a player’s productivity after they participate in the World Junior Hockey Championship, there are recognizable benefits for both a NHL team and their player, especially in cases where the player’s CHL rights are owned. The World Juniors allows teams to keep young players on their roster, who have nothing to gain by remaining in the CHL, and have them practice, work-out, and play with the team, as well as play significant minutes in meaningful games, a situation that an NHL club may not feel comfortable giving to such a young player. These opportunities benefit the player, as they are allowed to develop and demonstrate their skill and abilities while competing in high-pressure situations representing their country. Personally, I think the benefit of participation in the World Juniors is significant, and beneficial to a player’s overall development. Having the ability to compete and positively contribute while the chips are down is an integral part of being an athlete and it can only be learnt through experiences like an international tournament, such as the World Juniors.