Imagine Steven Stamkos suiting up for Team Canada at the world juniors this winter. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Anaheim defenseman Luca Sbisa’s demotion to the Western League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes for the second season in a row got me thinking about junior-eligible players in the NHL; just how many there are and what the World Junior Championship would be like if they could all play.
Canada will be gunning for its sixth-straight gold medal this holiday season. By my – admittedly quick – count, there are currently 20 pros in the NHL or American League eligible for the WJC. Fans can only wish they were all going to be in Saskatoon and Regina, Sask., to suit up for their countries.
Each season there are a number of junior-eligible players in the pros and few are released for the junior tournament, a la Los Angeles’ Oscar Moller last year. But this year there are a bunch of NHL juniors. And this year there was also the chance to have them play in the world juniors, by holding the tournament at the same time as the Vancouver Olympics.
Logistical nightmares would abound, I know.
Hockey Canada would fight tooth and nail against having two marquee events in the country at the same time. Canadian media giant TSN, who broadcast the games and the Games, would do much the same, with its Holidays ratings-bonanza dwarfed by the Olympic tournament. As well, scheduling games would be difficult, as, for the sake of fans, countries in both tournaments couldn’t play at the same time, or even on the same day – although imagine the euphoria of Double-Header Day with the juniors playing in the afternoon and the seniors in prime time (or the Canadian morning and afternoon for European purposes). That would be a hit in Canada, and I suspect in other countries, too.
And let’s not forget, the world junior tourney only registers with any kind of serious numbers in Canada. You can’t exclude the rest of the world when making such decisions, but how much would it really care if its junior and senior teams were playing at the same time? Past junior attendances and ratings around the world suggest not much.
This is pie-in-the-sky stuff, to be sure, but here’s why it would make for great hockey.
Canada boasts junior NHLers Evander Kane, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, John Tavares, Michael Del Zotto, Alex Pietrangelo, Steven Stamkos and James Wright. Russia has Nikita Filatov and Dmitry Kulikov in the NHL and Andrei Loktionov, Vyacheslav Voinov, Anton Klementyev and Evgeny Grachev plying their trade in the AHL.
Sweden’s defense corps could use the likes of Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, while the U.S. would love to see Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian and AHL Hershey’s John Carlson. Slovakia should expect Tomas Tatar to be released by Detroit’s AHL team in Grand Rapids.
AHL players are more likely to be released to their national junior teams – and let’s hope they are, for their sake and that of the tournament. But will this be a year when we’ll see NHL players released in greater numbers? Don’t bet on it.
Of the 13 listed above, Pietrangelo has a chance; he’s played just two games for St. Louis to date and looks like a candidate to again be returned to Niagara of the Ontario League. And Columbus’ Nikita Filatov is seeing less than seven minutes of ice time per game under Ken Hitchcock – it would do his confidence wonders to tear up the juniors.
But outside of those two, it’s hard to see any of the other NHLers making the trip to the Prairies. And that’s a shame. I understand the realities of today’s NHL – younger players generally come cheaper and they’re more ready than ever as teenagers – and you can’t expect any organization to water-down its product more than teams already are.
But remember the lockout year? That was one of the greatest world juniors in recent memory and it was all because the best players were available to play.
That could have been the case again this season. Too bad it won’t be.
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