How likely is it for players at the World Juniors to make the NHL?

We are at about the midway point of the group stage of the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships, with every team having played at least two of their group stage matches. At this point, some major storylines are emerging around players on each team, with certain players standing out positively, others seeming less good than once thought. These storylines are typically focused around how a player’s performance will translate to the NHL.

Although it is a very short tournament and a player’s performance at the tournament does not correlate with their future NHL performance, it is a tournament of the best and brightest young talents from each country, and we wanted to break down how likely a player was to make the NHL, and become a fixture in the league, from each country’s roster.

Using data from QuantHockey, we have taken a ten year sample, from the 2007 to the 2017 tournaments, and looked at how many players from each of the big five teams (Canada, USA, , Finland, Sweden, and Russia) have played in the NHL. We took this time sample as it takes many players some time before they are ready to play in the NHL. After this year, there were significantly fewer NHL players who had played more than 100 games.

We further broke that down into four categories: Players who have not played in the NHL, those that have played between one and 99 NHL games, those who have played between 100 and 499 games, and those who have played greater than 500 games. Naturally as we get closer to 2020, the number of players who have played more than 500 NHL games drops, but this breakdown tries to identify some of the patterns between how team’s are composed, and their player’s ability to succeed at the NHL level.

We looked at each team by year and organized it into each category. Each dataset is a standalone set. If a player played in subsequent years, they are captured as part of each year that they played. This allows us to examine results from each individual team by year, but does make it more complicated to extrapolate insights for the entire set, without looking at individual data points. We have looked at individual data points to make insights below. Let’s get started.

Team canada

A perennial powerhouse at the World Juniors, Team Canada has won the tournament 20 times, and regularly features in the finals. The country boasts an impressive hockey program, and regularly produces impact NHL players.

Every year, the battle to wear the Maple Leaf gets tougher, with the team choosing from a group of first and second round picks, and players who are expected to go in that range the following year. The expectations on Canadian players, both at the tournament and beyond, are sky high, with fans and teams alike expecting their prospects to make an impact at the NHL as soon as possible.

It is no surprise that most players who play for Team Canada make the NHL. Of the 222 roster spots, only 18 have been taken by players who have not played a single NHL game. This number includes duplicates, but it also includes players like Taylor Raddysh of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who seems likely to play in the NHL soon after putting up 35 points in 62 games in the AHL last season.

Most of the Team Canada players who have not played in the NHL up to this point are goalies, with Connor Ingram, Mason McDonald, and Zach Fucale among the most notable. With goalie development usually taking longer than skater development, and with many more pitfalls along the way, this should not be surprising.

Of all teams at the World Juniors over the years, Canada has been far and away the most successful. Most Canadian players find their way to the NHL, with over a quarter becoming fixtures in the NHL. Very impressive.

Team USA

Although the United States has an incredible hockey program and institutions like the US National Development Program Team that churns out high end talent, they have not been as successful with their World Junior’s teams. They have exactly twice as many roster spots that have not made the NHL as Canada has with 36 over the least 10 years.

On top of that, only 30 of their total roster spots have gone on to play over 500 or more NHL games, just 10 more than Sweden but 24 less than Canada. The US averaged about 6 established NHLers from their World Junior’s roster each year, but this number dipped down to three in 2011-12 and 2012-13. This may be because a number of American prospects go through the NCAA, and spend more time getting their degree while working to make the NHL. With CHL players aging out at 20, their next step forward is to the AHL, while many college players play until they are 21 or 22.

The American side only does better than the Canadians in players who make the NHL but who have played less than 100 games. This group is made up of younger players who are just establishing themselves in the league, as well as players who have bounced around in the AHL or ECHL with just a handful of total career NHL games. Most of Team USA’s players in this category came in 2010-11 and 2013-14, which means that they are likely players who have made a career in the AHL or ECHL. Not a mark of success to point towards.

Team Finland

Finland has been a sneakily dominant side at the World Juniors, winning three of the last ten tournaments. That being said, they are not the most consistent of teams, with some years being incredibly dominant, while other years struggling to make it out of the group stage.

In terms of their players making it to the NHL, they have taken great strides, moving from double digits in 2007-08 to having nine players play over 100 games from their 2010-11 roster. While these numbers do dip down in the middle and rise in more recent years, that likely is because many Finnish players have not made their NHL debuts yet. Some prospects coming over from Europe take longer to adapt to the NHL game.

The one notable standout from Finland is only one player from their World Junior rosters over the ten year span that we examined has played in over 500 NHL games. That is Mikael Granlund. He featured for Team Finland three times, in 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2011-12. He missed the 2010-11 tournament as he was sidelined with a concussion.

While Granlund is the only one for now, there are numerous Finnish players including Juuso Valimaki in Calgary, Kaapo Kakko in New York, or Rasmus Ristolainen in Buffalo who could hit the 500 game plateau.

Team Sweden

Like FInland, Sweden has taken great strides with their development program, improving the number of players from their World Junior rosters who have made the NHL. Sweden is a dominant team at the tournament, having picked up a medal in six of the last ten years.

Sweden is an interesting case to look at. They have the third highest number of players who have not played in the NHL, with most electing to stay in Europe. But they also have the third highest number of roster spots who have played over 500 NHL games, with 20. This surpasses the 9 that Russia has. It seems odd to see Swedish players from the World Juniors having an oversized impact in the NHL when you consider the amount of lore there is around the Russian team.

Interestingly, the only player who has played in more than 500 NHL games, who played at the 2013-14 tournament is Swedish forward Elias Lindholm of the Calgary Flames. Lindholm is also the youngest Swedish player to ever score an NHL goal, putting one past Braden Holtby in just his fourth NHL game.

Team Russia

Russia seems to be a case where players have started to find playing in North America more interesting. In the first year that we looked at, only five players played in the NHL, with just one, Artem Anisimov, playing more than 500 games over their career. Since then, the number of Russians who have made the trip across the ocean has increased, with 11 of their 22 skaters of the 2011-12 roster playing at least one NHL game. A big step forward.

While the last few years show a slight dropoff, this is likely because many Russian prospects play their junior hockey in the VHL or MHL in Russia before coming over to play in the AHL down the road. This will likely change in the coming years. For more on these leagues, and other major leagues around the world, check out our primer here.

Still, over half of Russia’s World Junior’s rosters in this ten year span have not played a game in the NHL. We decided to dig a little deeper. We looked into how their rosters did playing in the KHL, and the numbers were intriguing.

Only ten of Russia’s World Junior roster had never played a game in the KHL, an incredibly small proportion. Until coach Igor Larionov took over from Valeri Bragin, Russia typically took a team of 19 year olds, who almost exclusively played in Russia. As a result, many of these players had already had some experience playing in the Russian men’s league. Even this year, 18 of their 25 man roster has already played at least one game in the KHL.

However, what was surprising was how few players have played more than 500 KHL games. Only 10 of Russia’s roster spots were claimed by players who have achieved this threshold. It is likely because a number of Team Russia’s players have played parts of their careers in both the KHL and NHL, and while they may not have hit 500 games in either league, they have a combined 500 games between the two. This would include players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has played 210 games in the KHL and 479 games in the NHL.

Conclusions

While there is no correlation between performance at the World Juniors and future success at the NHL level, it is clear that some countries have had better success having their players play in the NHL down the road. For players on Team Canada or Team USA, there is an incredibly high chance that they will play in the NHL, while there is a far lower chance for players on Team Finland or Team Russia.

For players on Team Russia, it is almost a guarantee that they will play in the KHL at some point. However this may change in the future. The Russians have just taken their first ever players from the NCAA on their World Junior roster, selecting Vladislav Firstov (Minnesota Wild) and Yan Kuznetsov (Calgary Flames) from the University of Connecticut Huskies. With both hoping to make their respective NHL club’s rosters sooner than later, expect neither to end up in the KHL anytime soon. If the trend of taking Russians playing in North American continues, this number may decline.

Finally, both Sweden and Finland have made massive gains in getting their players over to North America and into the NHL. It will be interesting to watch to see if this continues over the next few years.


Photo credits: Andrea Leigh Cardin/Matt Zambonin/HHOC-IIHF Images

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