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How playing in the world juniors can be a stepping stone to NHL success

Matt Larkin
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Jordan Eberle. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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How playing in the world juniors can be a stepping stone to NHL success

Matt Larkin
By:

Can a path through the World Junior Championship make or break a prospect? No. But it can set a tone for that player's future.

Speak the name Jordan Eberle to any Canadian hockey fan living outside Edmonton. What comes to mind? Is it a flurry of red, white and gold? Eberle will forever be remembered for his brilliance at the World Junior Championship. He tied the 2009 semifinal against Russia with 5.4 seconds left, helping Canada crusade to a fifth straight title. He scored twice in the final 2:49 of the third period in the 2010 gold medal game to force overtime with the U.S. When TSN polled 25 experts in 2012, Eberle was voted the nation’s greatest world junior player of all-time.

All his international success as a youth, however, rewrote history a bit. Eberle wasn’t regarded the same way before those tournaments. The Oilers selected him 22nd overall in 2008, but he wasn’t considered a slam-dunk NHLer. His THN Draft Preview bio said his lack of stature at 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds held him back from being a high-rated prospect. That’s how he remembers the assessment, too. He’s convinced playing in the WJC changed his fate.

“A hundred percent,” he said. “People always ripped me off a little bit because I was a smaller player. A big thing for me at a young age was that I wasn’t fast enough. And you go play against the best kids at your age as an 18-year-old, there are kids that are 19, and to play well and have success you gain confidence that you’re a better player.”

Eberle calls the tournament “the biggest stepping stone for me getting to the NHL.” Is that the case for everyone who plays in the world juniors? Does it universally augment players’ chances of NHL success, or is Eberle the exception?

He’s closer to the norm among his countrymen, at least. In a 20-tournament stretch from 1991 to 2010, 219 of 304 Canadian world junior skaters went on to play at least 150 NHL games. That’s 72 percent. Twenty of 34 goalies, or 58.8 percent, played 50 or more NHL games. Among Americans, 122 of 284 skaters, 43 percent, played 150 and just nine of 33 goalies, 27.3 percent, played 50. Still, put the North American groups together and we get 58 percent of skaters and 43.3 percent of goaltenders hitting our established benchmarks.

In a stretch of 20 NHL drafts over that same span of years, only twice did more than half the players picked play even one NHL game, and those groups barely made the cut, with the high being 51.9 percent from 2009. The one-or-more-game club for North American WJC players over that span is 81.2 percent. So there’s clearly a strong correlation between participating in the tourney and fruitful NHL careers.

That isn’t shocking, of course. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If you’re good enough to make a WJC roster, you’re typically a well-regarded player already, often a high draft pick, and that’s why you end up with NHL success. It’s the player, not the tournament. Even Eberle, though small, was a first-rounder.

Talk to the executives, coaches and players who’ve participated in the event over the years, though, and they tell a different tale. They repeatedly use the word confidence when discussing the experience, how playing against such elite competition convinces players they are good enough to succeed in the NHL.

“You always believe in yourself as a player, but doing it, you go to a whole other level,” said Brent Sutter, who coached Canada in four world junior tournaments, winning gold three times. “What it does is raise your expectations for yourself.”

[World Juniors: Schedule | Rosters | News ]

Or it can reveal flaws. Canada’s Josh Holden and Daniel Tkaczuk were NHL first-rounders in 1996 and 1997 and counted on to be star forwards at the 1998 WJC. They were part of Canada’s worst finish ever, an eighth-place flop, and they ended up playing a combined 79 NHL games.

“There are certain stages in a player’s career where they get to find out what that next level is and be a part of it,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director. “To me that’s what the world juniors is. Guys can come out of it with huge confidence and the belief, ‘You know what? I can play with anybody.’ And hopefully the guys that didn’t play as well as they wanted come out of it with a self-assessment that helps them as a player.”

It seems to depend on the player regarding what he takes out of the tournament and how he uses it. “Any time you put the Canadian Leaf on, it’s gold or nothing,” Eberle said. “That’s the pressure we as a country have and the expectation we have for our hockey ability. But that’s what you want as a hockey player. You don’t want to play in meaningless games and go through life like that.

“So my advice would be, for kids going to the world juniors, to enjoy the experience, first off, as you only get a chance to play in it once a lifetime. And second off, the confidence you’re going to gain by playing with the best players and competing against the best players is only going to help you.”

The stronger-willed types like Eberle view it as a universal positive and relish the pressure, but maybe they’re just mentally strong people who were always going to succeed, world juniors or no world juniors.

Not that a strong WJC performance and ensuing ego boost guarantees NHL success, either. The elevated post-tournament expectations bring a new kind of pressure.

Goaltender Justin Pogge was virtually unbeatable on Canada’s 2006 gold squad and appeared to be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ future franchise goalie, He inspired enough confidence for GM John Ferguson Jr. to surrender a kid named Tuukka Rask in the 2006 Andrew Raycroft trade. Jack Campbell, the dazzling American stopper who won gold in 2010, appeared to be a future star as well. Today Pogge, 29, has seven NHL games to his name and plays for Farjestad in the Swedish League. Campbell was drafted five years ago and has played just one NHL game. Though, at 23, he’s not completely out of rope with the Dallas Stars. Is it possible the tournament can have the reverse effect on some players and damage them because of the increased hype?

“No, because if he wasn’t on that team, where do you think he would have been?” said Sutter of Pogge, who played for him on the 2006 Canadian squad. “It’s nothing but positive when you can play on that team. Being able to have success just takes it that much further. But there’s not one negative thing about playing on a world junior team.”

That seems to be the consensus among anyone close to the tournament. We can speculate on who was adversely affected by too much or too little success at the WJC, and some numbers suggest the competition has claimed a few victims. But those lucky enough to don their national colors see it as nothing but a gift.

“That was probably the best experience I’ve had in my entire life,” said Arizona Coyotes left winger Max Domi. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the January 4 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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How playing in the world juniors can be a stepping stone to NHL success