Monday, 12 August 2013

What Happens Over Two Years?

If you've been keeping tabs on hockey in Canada, you probably heard that Canada has won the Ivan Hlinka Tournament for the sixth-straight time. This group of under-18 boys played some inspired hockey in beating the USA by a 4-0 score in the final, but there were a few bumps along the way that they dealt with and learned from on their way to a gold medal. Today, though, I need to ask a serious question that has crept up in my mind over the last couple of days after learning of Canada's win. It's not going to be answered easily because there are many variables that factor into the "why" answer, but the question needs to be asked regardless because the results are hard not to notice.

Why is it that Canada has won six gold medals at the under-18 tournament, yet hasn't brought home an under-20 gold medal since 2009? Why is it that we dominate up to the age of 18 based on recent gold medal counts, but then the world seems to catch up to our developing players over the next two years?

I'd like to say that the expectation of a gold medal year in and year out for the U-20 men is a little ludicrous, but the vast majority of Canadians seem to expect nothing less. There is immense pressure on these lads to bring home a medal annually despite the talent assembled by the rest of the world. While I appreciate a gold medal, sometimes the better team on the night of the game wins the medal. That's why we play the games! But for some reason, recent history is showing us that the rest of the world is catching us quickly when it comes to the U-20 tournament when Canada had rolled over the competition when all players were younger than 18 years of age.

If there is one reason that would stand out more than any, the answer would be personnel. There is turnover for any junior-aged team as players mature faster than others at different rates, and their games also evolve at different paces. However, when picking the best whether is be age 17 or age 19, there should be a few players who play for both teams.

If we look at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka U-18 Canadian team in comparison to the 2011 Canadian World Junior Championship team, there are certainly a few names that appear on both rosters. Defenceman Erik Gudbranson, and forwards Jaden Schwartz, Sean Couturier, and Quinton Howden are the only holdovers from the Ivan Hlinka gold medal-winning team that played for Canada in 2011 at the World Junior Championships. While both Jeff Skinner and Tyler Seguin were playing in the NHL, there were sixteen other players who didn't make the cut for Canada in 2011 when they had in 2009. Continuity and chemistry is something cannot be manufactured in a short tournament, so having players who know one another while playing together would be a sensible approach to developing a strong junior-aged team for international competitions.

The strategy of developing chemistry has worked for Canada on other levels. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are seemingly paired together everywhere they play, and the results for both the Blackhawks and Team Canada have been positive thus far. Because these two have great chemistry together, it would make sense to keep these two men playing together in high-pressure situations because they already have an understanding of what the other can and will do.

The players who play at the Ivan Hlinka tournament for the various countries come from all over the place in their respected countries, but that's the setup for every single country so the disadvantage is nil when it comes to this chemistry factor. There isn't a massive development program for kids aged 17-and-under anywhere that I have seen, so everyone is starting at the same point in terms of building chemistry. That's when individual talent will take over because, as the saying goes, the cream rises to the top.

However, when we look at the development of players in Canada at the CHL level, there is that disjointed process of distributing players across the country via the various amateur drafts held by the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. While players certainly develop at a high level, there may be some who fall off the map when it comes to being drafted by a junior team that is void of serious talent. This may be the reason for the USA's massive improvement over recent years because they have a team that plays junior hockey together in the USHL all season long thanks to the work being done by USA Hockey with the National Development Team Program.

While the American squad has only one gold, eight silver, and two bronze medals in the 22-year history of the tournament - including a mere two silvers since 2009 - there is something to be said for the elite American players who have played together on both the U-17 and U-18 teams for the NDTP as they have shown significant growth when it comes to the American entries at the U-20 World Junior Championships. Since 2009, they have captured two gold medals and a bronze medal while Canada has just two silvers and a bronze medal in that same period.

So it must be asked: is a Canadian National Development Program the answer? Well, it depends on who you ask.

According to a Toronto Sun article written by Chris Stevenson in 2012, there are those who view a national program as a benefit while others see it as a detriment to a player's development.
"I've heard it before. The criticism we get is the offensive creativity is stifled by a system," said Scott Monaghan, the National Team Development Program's director of operations. "Nobody lives strictly by a system. Our coaches go out of their way to let them have some creativity. It's probably stifled a little bit if anything by the challenge of playing against older players. It's harder to get the puck back. You can't stickhandle through everybody's legs three times.

"One of things we talk to a kid about coming here is the games are only a piece of it. The real challenge for you is you're going to practise with the best kids in your age group every day. You're going to have to beat the best defenceman or stop the best forwards. For us, that was a huge piece of the puzzle and why we wanted to have this."
Clearly, USA Hockey sees their program as a benefit to a player's development from Mr. Monaghan's comments. Pitting the best kids in American hockey against one another on a daily basis allows them to grow and develop at a much faster rate, according to Mr. Monaghan, and this would theoretically make up the gap between Canadian and American kids when it comes to that two-year stretch.

There is another party, however, who feels that the US NDTP is actually hurting American kids when it comes to their development.
One down side is, because of the quality of the players, some scouts think the players don't benefit from being a star on a team, playing a lot of minutes in all situations. They are just another cog in the system.
I'm not sure who these scouts are, but I'm pretty sure they haven't been watching much hockey in recent years. While the number of Canadian kids drafted remains high in every draft year, we can certainly see a trend where more American-born players are taken higher and higher in NHL Entry Drafts.

Perhaps this was no more evident than in recent years. The US NDTP has produced ten first-round picks since 2009 - with half coming in 2010 - including Kyle Palmieri, Jack Campbell, Derek Forbort, Jarred Tinordi, JT Miller, Connor Murphy, Tyler Biggs, Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei, and Stefan Matteau. While the claim that these players are not stars on their own team may be true, the fact that they come in with more well-rounded skills may make the more valuable in the long run. In 2010, 15 players from the U-18 US NDTP were selected, proving that GMs see value in these players. As for star power, both Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel played on the NDTP, and they are certainly seen as stars in the NHL at least by fans in the cities they represent.

Clearly, the centralized developmental program implemented by the USA in 1996 is bearing fruit, but it appeared to be an uphill battle back when this model started. "We looked at the international way of doing things, the Canadian way of doing things, and really none of them fit exactly because our development model was spread out among a number of different entities," former head coach Jeff Jackson told "One problem was some kids were playing too many games and not practicing enough, and others weren't playing enough game and practicing too much. It was finding the middle ground and putting them in an environment to develop them physically, develop them emotionally and make sure we didn't lose anything academically."

2010 may have been the banner year for the US NDTP outside of their impressive list of players drafted. US Hockey saw gold medals from the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the World Junior Championship, and the World Under-18 Championship, and a number of alumni from the NDTP won a silver medal in Vancouver at the Olympics. As shown here and above, there are clear benefits to having a centralized program that brings the best players together from across the country to compete as a team for extended periods of time.

The problem I see in switching this model to Canada is that the junior teams that make up the CHL would probably have an aneurysm in losing the best players for a four-month period to participate in a national development program. There's just no way you can pull a Nathan MacKinnon and a Jonathan Drouin from the Halifax Mooseheads for four months. The Mooseheads, as well as the rest of the QMJHL, would cry "bloody murder" in terms of their lost box office traffic because the two most dynamic players in the league aren't playing. The Canadian Hockey League is as much a business as it is a development league, and there would be serious issues between Hockey Canada and the CHL if the players were used for more than the three weeks for which they're already needed over Christmas.

So how does Canada seemingly reclaim that dominance seen at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Tournament? I'm not sure there's an easy answer. What works for US Hockey most likely wouldn't work for Hockey Canada. And, to be honest, while there have been major strides made by Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the USA to close the gap that existed between Canada and those countries, the improved hockey seen by all countries shouldn't really worry Canadians. We'll still be on the podium at most tournaments, but there will be blips on the radar when it comes to others. The only thing that should worry Canadians about the game of hockey is whether we're plateauing or not.

If we have plateaued, it might be time to head back to the drawing board and find a better way.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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