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Can an age group’s finishes at past U-18 tournaments predict World Juniors results?

I tried to figure it all out.

USA v Finland: Gold Medal Game - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

Following the 2019 World Junior Championships last January, I had been reflecting over the tournament predictions I’d made in the tournament preview. Trying to predict the results of any hockey game is almost impossible, let alone an entire tournament. So when the tournament was all said and done, I was actually pretty happy with going 2-for-8 in my predictions.

I correctly predicted a silver medal United States win, and a 5th-place Swedish finish. However, I was completely off everywhere else, and I wondered if there was any way to make my predictions for the following year any more accurate.

Throughout the entirety of the 2019 World Juniors, the commentators kept talking about how, at the U-18 level, it had been the United States and Finland consistently playing for gold for the last several years. After going back to check the results of those tournaments (because despite my relatively good memory, I wasn’t able to recall the exact finishes of every team), well, it turns out they weren’t exaggerating.

At the IIHF U-18s, from 2012 to 2018, the United States won four gold medals and three silver medals. Finland was their gold medal opponent in each of the last four years. As far as those results translating to the World Junior level, well, it finally worked in 2019 — Finland won gold, and the United States won silver.

Then, the wheels started turning. Could a draft class’ past finishes at U-18 tournaments potentially predict a country’s finish at the World Juniors? I went all the way back to the 2012 NHL Draft class to find out.

Four Countries With Three Wins

Because draft-eligible players have the opportunity to play in two international tournaments, I used six countries’ finishes at both the IIHF-sanctioned U-18 tournament and the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup (formerly the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament). I originally also had the U-17s, but that got too complicated due to the fact that Canada sends three teams to that tournament.

The six countries I decided to go with were: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. I decided to include the Czechs because they actually won gold at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in 2016.

Before I get into my findings, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

First, Canada sends an all-star team to the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament because it’s held in August, before any seasons start. On the other hand, because that tournament isn’t sanctioned by the IIHF, the United States does not send their National Team to play in that tournament. Their teams are instead comprised of Americans playing in the CHL and USHL, and their best players of that age group usually don’t play at that tournament.

Second, Canada’s IIHF U-18 teams are often missing key players instrumental to their Hlinka-Gretzky wins, because the CHL playoffs take place at the same time as the U-18s. Since 2012, Canada has won gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament seven times in the last eight years. In that same span, they only have one gold medal at the U-18s (2013) in comparison.

After compiling a giant table of country finishes at the Hlinka-Gretzky, the U-18s, and the World Juniors by age group, here’s what I found.

Sweden: The 2012 Class

Sweden finished second in all three tournaments: the 2011 Ivan Hlinka, the 2012 U-18s, and the 2014 World Juniors. Their goalies at the World Juniors, Oskar Dansk and Marcus Hogberg, were also members of the Hlinka and U-18 teams.

Including Dansk and Hogberg, 10 players played on all three teams. Some notable names you might recognize from the NHL today include Andre Burakovsky, Filip Forsberg, Elias Lindholm, and Jacob De La Rose.

Six players played on two of the three teams, including Alexander Wennberg and Christian Djoos. 13 players on Sweden’s final World Junior roster had represented Sweden previously at either the Hlinka or U-18 tournaments.

Canada: The 2013 Class

Canada was the only country to have a draft class finish first place at all three tournaments. I like to call the results of this class the ‘Connor McDavid Effect’. McDavid played with this age group as a double-underager at the U-18s and the World Juniors because he was just that good. He also played at the Hlinka tournament with the 2014 class and helped lead them to gold as well.

Despite the fact that there were only five players who played on all three teams (Josh Morrissey, Madison Bowey, Sam Reinhart, Shea Theodore, and Nick Ritchie), there were eleven additional players who played on two of those three teams: both of Canada’s World Junior goalies in Zach Fucale and Eric Comrie, the aforementioned McDavid, Dillon Heatherington, Frederik Gauthier, Darnell Nurse, Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Curtis Lazar, and Nic Petan.

15 players on Canada’s final World Junior team had represented Canada previously — well over half of the roster. There’s something to be said about the effect familiarity and chemistry has on a team’s success at a short tournament, and if you remember how the 2015 Canadian team played at the World Juniors, the chemistry was evident from the get-go, and it was a special team.

Sweden: The 2016 Class

This was a stacked draft class, too. The 2016 Swedes finished second place at all three tournaments and featured many players who are currently getting going in the AHL or NHL.

Only one of Sweden’s goalies, Filip Gustafsson, played in all three tournaments. However, he did previously play with his World Junior backup, Olle Eriksson-Ek, at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka tournament.

Including Gustafsson, 10 Swedes played on all three teams. Some notable players include Elias Pettersson, Lias Andersson, Alex Nylander, and Erik Brannstrom. Eight players played on two of three teams, including Timothy Liljegren, Isac Lundestrom, and Tim Soderlund.

Star Swedish defender Rasmus Dahlin made the final 2018 World Junior team as a draft-eligible player. This team was talented enough to actually win World Junior gold in 2018 — they were just felled by a bunch of Canadian vegetables whose depth led them to victory.

Russia: The 2017 Class

The 2017 Russian class, which won bronze at all three tournaments, seems to be the outlier of these four teams. For one, only four players played on all three teams: Mark Rubinchik, Dmitri Samorukov, Ivan Muranov, and Nikita Shashkov. Samorukov is the only player who was drafted into the NHL (by Edmonton).

However, 14 players played on two of three teams, and there are more notable names on this list, including Andrei Svechnikov, Klim Kostin, Alexei Lipanov, and Kirill Slepets. There were 11 players who were on both Russia’s Hlinka and U-18 rosters, but, but only four of them made the final World Junior team.

What is interesting here is that neither members of Russia’s World Junior tandem, Pyotr Kochetkov or Daniil Tarasov, were Russia’s goalies at the Hlinka or U-18s. Of the final World Junior roster, only seven players had represented Russia previously.

Other Interesting Results

2012: Nearly Identical Hlinka & World Junior Finishes

If that headline is confusing, well, let me clarify it. The finishes at both the Hlinka and the World Juniors for the 2012 classes were almost identical.

Tournament results from the 2012 Draft Class (1994 born players)

Canada won gold at the Hlinka, but finished fourth at the World Juniors. Finland finished fourth at the Hlinka, but won gold at the World Juniors.

All four of the remaining countries had identical finishes at both tournaments. Sweden won both silvers, while Russia captured both bronze medals. The United States, who won gold at the U-18s, finished fifth at the other two tournaments, and the Czech Republic finished 6th.

Medaling At All Three Tournaments

We already addressed the medal sweeps by the 2012 and 2016 Swedes, the 2013 Canadians, and the 2017 Russians. However, they weren’t the only classes to win medals in all three tournaments.

The Americans’ 2014 draft class was the first class between 2012 and 2017 to win a different medal at all three tournaments. They wrapped up silver at the 2013 Hlinka, captured gold at the 2014 U-18s, and settled for bronze at the 2016 World Juniors. The following year, the 2015 Canadian draft class followed suit, just in a different order: gold at the Hlinka, bronze at the U-18s, and silver at the World Juniors.

Tournament results from the 2014 and 2015 NHL Draft classes (1996 & 1997 born players)

The 2015 American draft class won bronze at the 2014 Hlinka before capturing back-to-back golds at the 2015 U-18s and 2017 World Juniors. They did it again in 2017, this time grabbing silvers at the Hlinka and World Juniors, but winning gold at the U-18s.

Surprising Patterns

As far as classes who turned around their finishes throughout the three tournaments, the 2017 Finns top the list. They finished sixth at the 2016 Hlinka, but won silver at the U-18s and gold at the World Juniors two years later — and are currently our reigning World Junior champions. The 2016 Americans had a similar performance, also finishing sixth at the 2015 Hlinka, but turning it around to win silver at the U-18s and bronze at the World Juniors.

Going back to the 2017 classes, there were a ton of repeat finishes from every country. That was the year Russia swept the bronze medals. At both the Hlinka and U-18s, Sweden finished fourth and Canada finished fifth. The Czechs finished seventh at the U-18s and World Juniors, and the Americans finished second at both the Hlinka and World Juniors.

Tournament finishes by the 2017 NHL Draft class (1999 born players)

Bad Patterns...

What about the years where the same country’s draft class has drastically different finishes? Well, for most countries, it’s not too common, but it’s still happened. Perhaps the most infamous instance was the 2015 Finns. They finished second at the U-18s, but ninth at the World Juniors, and barely escaped being relegated. It was shocking to witness, because they were the defending champions heading into the 2017 World Juniors.

The 2013 Finns were somewhat the same way, though not as drastic. They won bronze at the U-18s, but finished seventh at the 2015 World Juniors as the defending tournament champions from 2014. The only other example of a similar fall was the 2014 Canadian class. They finished third at the U-18s, but sixth at the 2016 World Juniors.

The Czechs have had a tumultuous couple of draft classes too. The 2015 Czechs won silver at the 2014 Hlinka, but slipped to sixth place at the U-18s and World Juniors. Similarly, the 2017 Czechs won gold at the 2016 Hlinka, and it just went downhill from there. That class wrapped up their junior tournaments with seventh place finishes at the U-18s and World Juniors.

Other than that though, there really aren’t any other huge disparities in a country’s draft class performance at these three tournaments. Sweden did have a couple of slips in 2014 (seventh at the Hlinka, but fourth at the U-18s and World Juniors) and 2015 (fourth at the Hlinka and World Juniors, eighth at the U-18s), but those draft classes didn’t medal in any of those tournaments.

Final Thoughts

The Hlinka and U-18 tournaments have already finished for the 2018 and 2019 draft classes. Because the World Juniors are seen as a 19-year old’s tournament, there’s a one year gap between the U-18s and what is considered a draft class’ ‘World Junior’ tournament.

We’ll have the answers for the 2018 classes soon enough — as soon as January 5th, 2020. We’ll have to wait one more year for the 2019 class. However, there are already a couple of interesting patterns to note.

For 2018, Sweden has won bronze at both the 2017 Hlinka and 2018 U-18s. Almost every time that Sweden has finished in the same position at the Hlinka and U-18, they’ve gone on to finish in the same spot at the World Juniors. The one exception was 2017, where they finished fourth at the Hlinka and U-18s, but fifth at the World Juniors. Still, history has a way of repeating itself. Should we pencil them in for bronze right now?

Finland is the reigning World Junior champion heading into 2020. The last time Finland won gold, they were nearly relegated the following year. However, the 2018 Finnish class finished sixth at the Hlinka, but won gold at the U-18s. Who did they beat? The United States. We could see a second straight gold medal showdown between the two countries at the 2020 World Juniors.

In 2019, look at the Finnish class’ past results. They’ve had a rough going at both the Hlinka and the U-18, finishing seventh at both tournaments. If you look at their top prospects from that draft class (Kaapo Kakko, Ville Heinola, Anttoni Honka, and technically Anton Lundell, who is a late 2001 birthday), there’s a good chance that two or three of them won’t be available to Finland in two years’ time.

Tournament finishes by the 2018 and 2019 NHL Draft classes (2000 and 2001 born players)

What does this all mean for 2020 World Juniors predictions? Well, there really aren’t any clear patterns for the 2018 classes, aside from Sweden. Then again, how Canada places at the Hlinka is usually a good indication of how they’ll finish at the World Juniors. I’d place my bets on the United States and Finland (even without Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko).

As for my full tournament predictions, there are other things to take into account. Roster composition is the biggest factor — how is each team built to play, and what weaknesses do they have? Has a lot of the roster played together before, and had success? Is a country playing in the Group of Death this year? What key players are they missing, whether injured or in the NHL?

Doing research for this article was really interesting. I definitely have some added context to take into account when I make my own tournament predictions. As for exactly what my predictions will be, my tournament preview will come out on Christmas Eve, and you’ll all find out then.

Happy World Juniors season!

Tournaments and roster information from Elite Prospects, Wikipedia, and Hockey Canada.