December 27, 2009
SASKATOON, Saskatchewan -- At one end, you have the NHL's embrace of full-on parity, so much so that the point system encourages teams to play for the tie. At the other end, you have Canada blowing out Latvia 16-0 and Sweden blowing out the Czech Republic 10-1 to open the World Junior Hockey Championship in Saskatchewan yesterday.
While teams like Latvia can post much closer results at the World Hockey Championships with rosters full of KHL and NHL level talent, they simply don't have the personnel when limited to an U20 roster.
The reason for these massive blowouts in the U20 tournament is quite simple: Goal differential is the first tiebreaker in playoff seeding, helping teams who have won by a greater margin of victory get a more favorable path to the gold-medal game. If Canada and the USA both go 3-0 and then tie on New Year's Eve, the goal differential will determine who gets a bye into the semifinal and who has to play in the quarterfinal. It's a system that makes every minute of every game as important as the next; placing value on every goal a team can score.
Admittedly, the results aren't that pretty. In Sweden's 10-1 win, they were ruthless, and the Czechs clearly gave up in the third period.
After two periods the score was 6-1 Sweden, but the shot differential was a respectable 26-19 for Sweden. Come the third period, the Swedes blitzed the Czechs, outshooting them 20-2 and, more importantly, outscoring them 4-0. Canada's domination of Latvia was from puck drop to the final buzzer, with the first goal coming 0:36 into the game and the last being scored with 0:28 left.
The NHL wants 30 teams to think they can make the playoffs throughout an 82 game schedule, and they also give leg-ups to the worst teams by awarding them a high draft selection. The IIHF wants clear results; they want the most talented teams rewarded, but they also have a mandate of growing the game.
There have been suggestions that a mercy rule be implemented. This seems ridiculous, as paying customers who shell out good money to see a game wouldn't even get to see a full 60 minutes of action.
Another suggestion I've heard is to simply reduce the amount of teams at the tournament, presumably from 10 to eight. Such a result would limit the amount of blowouts but would not ensure that the best teams would be present.
The top of the hockey world can be looked at as a "G8" type grouping, with the same seven or eight teams generally moving around one or two spots (Belarus is currently ranked eighth, one spot ahead of Slovakia, but this is an all-time high for Belarus). The medals exclusively come from the G8 group at all major hockey tournaments.
When one reduces the group to eight, they will likely take a potential medalist and put them in the B group, thanks to the IIHF's relegation system, which promotes the top two nations from a lower level tournament and places them in the top pool the next year, while demoting the two lowest finishers from the top tournament.
So, in a bizarre way, the IIHF has it right. They reward the top nations, keep all the potential medal winning nations at the top tournament and they give programs like Latvia and Austria a chance to get international exposure -- something a few of the players will need when they eventually join their much stronger men's teams.
It might be cruel, but it is the only way to ensure the most accurate depiction of talent level. Hopefully, in time, more nations will improve their programs so the scores are more acceptable.
For now, we just have to accept the awful truth.
Notebook: Sunday's Regina action included Sweden vs. Austria, followed by Finland making their debut against the Czech Republic (6 p.m. EST). In Saskatoon, Switzerland debuted against the USA (4 p.m. EST), and Slovakia plays Latvia in the night game (8 p.m. EST). Full coverage of the action can be found on Y! Sports Canada's official World Junior Hockey page.
Hockey writer Bruce Peter will be providing coverage of the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship tournament for Yahoo! Canada and Puck Daddy, including daily recaps of game action and exclusive sights and stories from the event.
Photo by Matthew Manor/HHOF-IIHF Images.