Saturday, 26 December 2020

Do We Need To Change?

If there's one thing that the World Junior Championship always guarantees, it's that we'll see a blowout or two when the powerhouses face-off against the also-rans. It happens every year where the weakest teams in the tournament find themselves bruised, battered, beaten, and otherwise destroyed by the best in the world, and it happened again tonight with both Canada and the US posting double-digit wins over their lesser opponents. Austria still has to face Sweden, who put an eight-spot up on the Czechs, and the Russians, so we're likely to see a few more ugly wins at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship before everything is said and done.

As you're likely aware, the IIHF uses goal differential as a tie-breaking rule to determine placement in the standings, meaning that all goals carry the same weight no matter how many are scored. If Canada had beaten Germany 66-2 tonight, they would have earned a +64 for the game, making their standing far harder for all other teams to match. Unfortunately, it would also force teams to try and run up the score on Germany to keep pace with the Canadians in this tournament.

The sentiment on social media tonight was that there needs to be a change to this rule or the tournament's format to prevent these blowouts from being all too common, and I don't disagree. We've seen the IIHF Women's World Championship go to a six-and-four format where the top-six teams in the world play a round-robin amongst themselves to determine seeding in the tournament while the bottom-two teams play quarterfinal games against the top-two teams from the remaining four teams. While I'm not against this idea initially, I still want to see all teams compete against one another.

Another suggestion was capping the goal differential model at a certain level. Once a team reaches a goal difference of a certain value, that goal differential stands as the maximum differential for the game's results. This happens in some minor hockey tournaments that I've seen where the goal differential is capped at +7 goals or +10 goals in order to keep the divisions more competitive. While I like this idea as well, I'm not sure it serves the purpose one intends at a major international competition.

When it comes to blowouts, we often see the teams that face relegation as the proverbial lambs to the slaughter when it comes to these wide goal discrepencies in games. While Germany has been plucky in their two games against Canada and Finland, they still have a chance to make the medal round if they can win over the Swiss and Slovaks in their next two games. Austria, who faces a much steeper hill to climb, will have to beat the Czech Republic and hope the Czechs lose every other game in the tournament. However, there's a reason why Germany surrendering sixteen goals tonight matters.

In hypothesizing this, the goal differential that both Canada and the US scored tonight would be rendered moot in my rule change. The reason for this is that teams who need a tie-breaker to elevate them to a higher position in the standings shouldn't get credit for beating up on the weakest teams in the tournament. If we assume that Canada, Finland, and Slovakia all tie for first-place with one regulation loss having defeated each other in group play, we'd use the IIHF tie-breaking formula which is laid out as follows:
  • Step 1: Taking into consideration the games between each of the tied teams, a sub-group is created applying the points awarded in the direct games amongst the tied teams from which the teams are then ranked accordingly.
In our scenario, all of Canada, Finland, and Slovakia won a three-point victory against one another, so this step moves us to the next one.
  • Step 2: Should three or more teams still remain tied in points then the better goal difference in the direct games amongst the tied teams will be decisive.
This could potentially eliminate one of the teams, but it could leave all three in play as the the direct games amongst the tied teams are considered. If Canada beats Slovakia 2-1, but loses to Finland 2-1, the goal differential is zero. Assuming that all three teams are still tied, we move to Step 3.
  • Step 3: Should three or more teams still remain tied in points and goal difference then the highest number of goals scored by these teams in their direct games will be decisive
Against, if the results for the three games were 2-1 scores, this step changes nothing. We move to the next tie-breaking step
  • Step 4: Should three or more teams still remain tied in points, goal difference and goals scored then the results between each of the three teams and the closest best-ranked team outside the sub-group will be applied. In this case the tied team with the best result (1. points, 2. goal difference, 3. more goals scored) against the closest best ranked-team will take precedence.
And herein lies the problem since we're assuming the Germans will finish ahead of Switzerland in the standings for this example. If Germany does, Canada already has an advantage over the Finns in that they defeated Germany 5-3 for a goal differential of +2 in their game. That means the Slovaks have to score fourteen more goals than Germany in their game to keep pace with Canada. That likely isn't going to happen.

Should Canada be given the boost to first-place in the group just because they hammered one of the worst teams in the group who played with just fourteen players and were clearly gassed after their impressive performance one night earlier against Finland? What's the difference between +10 and +14 goals when determining a tie-breaker that has already made it through three steps of tie-breaking steps when it comes to three teams? How often do we even reach the fourth step in a three-team tie-breaker scenario?

While I appreciate that people are calling for a mercy rule in international hockey, the fact that the IIHF already has accounted for a three-team tie-breaker scenario that seems virtually unlikely in that it would get to the fourth step means that we should likely encourage a cap on goals when it comes to tie-breaking scenarios. Since there are no ties in games, a two-team tie-breaker would never see the light of day in this situation, and that makes the likelihood of seeing Step Four in this process virtually nil.

Could it happen? Yes. Will we see it happen? It seems very unlikely. I'd be a fool to suggest that it will never happen because, as shown above, it could very well happen in a given year, but pounding teams into submission like the Canadians and Americans did in today's games just seems unnecessary when it comes to the tie-breaking format.

As TSN's Gord Miller stated tonight on social media, "blowouts happen". At the end of the day, the key statistic that matters in any tournament is wins. While I get that tournament organizers may not like the idea of teams running up scores, blowouts happen. Usually, the teams that score the most goals win the most games, so let's stop begging for a mercy rule when looking at the strength of the teams in this tournament. And breaking up the pools means that the teams who deserve a better standing than those who finished third in the "top teams" pool will never get that standing.

At the end of the day, Gord Miller is right: blowouts happen. No one likes them, no one cheers for them, and it's a guarantee no one wants to be on the receiving end of one, but unless that three-team scenario starts happening more often than not, it's a moot point on limiting the number of goals scored because when it does happen, goal differential matters. If you accept that Step Four exists in the tie-breaker rules, then you accept that all goals, no matter how meaningless they may seem in a 16-2 game, matter as well. You can't have one without the other.

As much as I wasn't excited for the 16-2 and 11-0 results tonight, the tournament's rules are designed to account for these blowouts. Germany and Austria will bounce back from these scores, and I'm hopeful that Russia, who already downed the Americans, Sweden, and Canada won't rely on running up the scores on other teams unless they have to do so. That's just the way this tournament is, and I often find that karma has a way of working itself out before the tournament ends when one team consitently puts up big scores on its opponents.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: