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What We Learned: Why the U.S., Canada failed at World Juniors

Ryan Lambert
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The 2014 World Junior Championship wrapped up yesterday with dark horse long shot underdog Finland winning the whole thing in overtime against heavily favored host and archrivals Sweden, which was a hell of a thing.

The thing about that result, though, was that it came just hours after the truly surprising result out of the tournament: Neither the U.S. or Canada won a medal for the first time since 1998.

In fact, it was the second time in six tournaments the U.S. won nothing, and the second in a row for Canada, supposedly the world's greatest hockey power, which now hasn't won gold in five tournaments after doing it every year from 2005-09.

And so now those of us in North America who pay attention to this kind of thing are left to sort through the ashes and try to figure out where it all went wrong. What did these two countries, and bronze-winning Russia, do differently than the hard-luck losers who should have run this tournament on paper like a sword through an enemy's hot guts?

You can say it comes down to player development or letting these horrible foreigners come to this side of the Atlantic to ply their trade and steal all our really good ideas that have worked so well before, but that doesn't look like it's the case any more.

The issue for these more successful “emerging” hockey nations is that they don't have the player pools to be choosy as the U.S. and Canada do. They don't have the luxury of overthinking these rosters because they have the bodies and talent to do so.

Canada had nearly 447,000 U20 players nationwide registered as of this summer, compared to nearly 307,000 for the Americans. Sweden? Just about 48,000. Finland? Slightly more than 37,000. Bronze-winning Russia is the biggest of these relative minnows at more than 63,000. They take the 20-something best players they have because that's how they can compete.

Meanwhile, Canada can look at a long list of first-round picks, and say, “This guy doesn't fit our specific needs as we see them at this moment.”

That's why they left home creative offensive defensemen (like Darnell Nurse), as they posed some theoretical threat because they're “risk takers,” and got just four goals and 14 points from their blue line in seven games. That's why they take guys who can theoretically win faceoffs and leave guys who can score goals alone. Like the brain trust that put together the U.S. Olympic roster, they think they have enough goals, but playing in front of hemorrhagic Canadian goaltenders year after year after year should have long ago taught the lesson that there's no such thing.

The same reasons show why the Americans looked so good in picking apart the garbage teams in their group — Bob McKenzie described their play as “perfect” until midway through their game with Canada — and then went haywire, started bleeding goals, and couldn't do anything to staunch the problem. They picked role players, and often found that those were their best options for generating offense; few would dispute that the third line of Andrew Copp, Hudson Fasching and Stefan Matteau were the best American players in the tournament, but the rest of the team's forwards combined for just 13 goals in five games, most of them against Germany and Slovakia, and the team's second-leading scorer was defenseman Matt Grzelcyk.

A book of the ideas that North American teams bring into these tournaments, at this point, feels like it should be sitting in front of a one-eyed skeleton on a long-lost pirate ship. Made manifest, you could blow sweep the dust and cobwebs from them and marvel at the thought process the same way we now view phrenology and other types of “science” now viewed largely as being little better than witch-doctoring.

Grit and toughness and being hard to play against and chemistry and that kind of thing all worked well when the Soviets still posed a major threat; in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Olympic announcement, while many people were rightly grousing about the lack of inclusion for ultra-talented Americans like Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle, others were battening down the hatches, manning the ramparts and circling the wagons to defend The Process.

The good news is that Hockey Canada is about to take all the heat off Brian Burke and David Poile and the debacle publicizing the selection process became by keeping a lid on things and still punting the process.

Most pundits seem to have Chris Kunitz on the team despite the fact that, as Thomas Drance pointed out the other day, he's the Jesse Pinkman to Sidney Crosby's Walter White. That means leaving home a player like Taylor Hall — who wasn't even on Hockey Night in Canada's assuredly well-informed list of “bubble” guys over the weekend — despite the fact that his points per game from 2011-12 to present is first among NHL left wings from any country. They've obviously very good, but Evgeni Malkin they are not. Likewise, things are starting to look pretty iffy for PK Subban — the reigning Norris Trophy winner, mind you — to stay home, while someone like Johnny Boychuk of all people is apparently also being considered on his same level.

The argument put forth in to refute disbelievers who wanted to scream in the streets about these kinds of decisions, particularly following recent tournament results, was 34 years old, harkening back to Herb Brooks's old philosophy. You don't want a roster of “the best players,” you want a roster of “the right players.”

The lesson we should take from this the Turin Olympics, and recent World Junior results, is that as “the world catches up” to the sleepy giants of North America, the best players, in fact, ARE the right players. If you score enough goals, you can't screw it up. Everyone else figured that out already.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Pretty reasonable extension for Andrew Cogliano, at four years and $12 million. He's on pace for a little less than 50 points for the second time in two seasons, after putting up just 26 under Randy Carlyle. I wonder if Bruce Boudreau is a good coach and Carlyle not so much.

Boston Bruins: Torey Krug was directly responsible for the first four goals in Saturday's win over Winnipeg, and only one of those belonged to a player on the Jets. He's the first rookie defenseman since Dion Phaneuf to score 10 goals in 42 games or less, which is good I guess.

Buffalo Sabres: This looks like the textbook definition of targeting the head, hey?

Calgary Flames: After being shut out by the Lightning on Friday, the Flames have one goal in their last 240 minutes of hockey, which sounds just about right. Bob Hartley is nonetheless angry.

Carolina Hurricanes: Everyone not named Staal is available. I get it, man.

Chicago Blackhawks: One of these days, Blackhawks prospect Stephen Johns is going to send someone back in time with a clean check like this one. Good god.

Colorado Avalanche: At the halfway mark of the regular season, the Avs are off to the fourth-best start in their history since moving to Colorado, which is amazing.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus was up by two after 20 minutes, but the Blues being the Blues, they gave up the next six goals in the game.

Dallas Stars: Do you think maybe you want to put a body on Tomas Tatar and not your own defenseman next time?

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings went from the Winter Classic to Dallas, and are now on to California. Nice reward for suffering through that calamity of a game.

Edmonton Oilers: Let me just look at my calendar here. Ah yes, it's Tradesamgagner-uary already.

Florida Panthers: Ed Jovanovski was back in the lineup Saturday night for the first time since March 16, and even then, that was his first game since Jan. 29, so no Ed Jovanovski hasn't played a lot lately. He's only signed for one more season at $4.125 million against the cap! Wow!

Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick is back yay America yaaaaaaayyyyyyyyy.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild's five goals on 11 shots against the Caps was the first time a team achieved that feat since the NHL began tracking shot data 40 years ago. Yeah but what about their corsi?

Montreal Canadiens: You often hear about “The Ghosts” in Montreal, but the Habs have apparently decided to ramp up the spookiness of Centre Bell by adding some bats. Next up: A creeeeeeeaking penalty box door and some spider webs.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: The Preds are 2-0-2 in their last four games. Say, Shea Weber, what's the key to making the playoffs the rest of the way? “We've got to eliminate those five-game losing streaks.” Sound advice, eh?

New Jersey Devils: The Devils are 5-9-7 with Cory Schneider in net despite the fact that he's allowed 18 fewer goals in five fewer games than Martin Brodeur, with whom they're 12-9-3. Hockey is weird.

New York Islanders: Gotta start thinking about trying to re-sign your best defenseman, right?

New York Rangers: Trade for Dan Carcillo, score eight goals. That's why you get guys like him.

Ottawa Senators: Boy Clarke MacArthur is having a really good season in Ottawa. Why did Toronto let him walk again? Oh right. Hahaha.

Philadelphia Flyers: Outdoor games haven't lost their luster and are cool, say the Flyers, who just coincidentally are playing in one next year.

Phoenix Coyotes: Starting to look like the Coyotes just aren't very good. Oh well.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are finally back for the Penguins and it looks like this team can finally start making a push for the last playoff sp... what's that?

San Jose Sharks: Any time you give up three goals in 66 seconds you tend to lose, in my opinion.

St. Louis Blues: Pretty damn decent goal for Max Lapierre.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Why doesn't anyone think the Lightning are good yet? (It's because they play in the East.)

Toronto Maple Leafs: Joffrey Lupul apologized to Leafs fans who bought tickets to a game in which they gave up an eight-spot at home. Those watching at home? You idiots could've just changed the channel.

Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo comes back, but the Canucks still lose. They should trade that guy.

Washington Capitals: Hey cheer up, Braden Holtby. Another goalie you might have heard gave up five on about 11 shots just last year. It was Rick DiPietro in his AHL debut. And okay sure he stopped one more, but what are you gonna do, y'know? What do you mean you're not cheered up at all and now you're crying?

Winnipeg Jets: Ondrej Pavelec's career summed up in one goal:

Play of the Weekend

Dear Sidney Crosby's backand,

Do you like me? [ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Maybe

Gold Star Award

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Ryan Suter is a good American boy. Love that hat trick, dawg.

Minus of the Weekend

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Two years in a row without a World Junior medal for Canada. Time for another national crisis of identity for The True Fourth Strong And Free.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “DelZottoHitTheNetJK” has a vendetta.

To EDM:
Derek Stepan + MDZ + NYR 2014 2nd

To NYR:
Yakupov + EDM 2014 1st

Signoff

Listen, you're my children and I love you. But you're all terrible at what you do here and I feel like I should tell you, I'd fire all of you if I could.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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