Tuesday, 29 December 2020

The Fallacy Of Blowouts

After a couple of big scores tofay by the US over the Czechs and the Russians over the Austrians, it seems the lid has been blown off the blowout debate once again. I find myself shaking my head tonight over this debate because there are always statistical outliers in any set of numbers. During this year's IIHF World Junior Championship, we're seeing a pile of games early in the tournament where teams are scoring an obscene amount of goals, and the end result has seen media and fans demand some sort of change from the IIHF to prevent this from happening again. This needs to stop here and now.

If we go back to the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, there have been 52 games whose final score has seen the winning team win by six-or-more goals. There have been 317 games played, including tonight's results, meaning that these blowouts happen at a rate of about 16.4%. To put that in context, we should see approximately four blowouts per tournament when everything is said and done.

I can already hear you exclaiming how we've seen seven blowouts in fifteen games played this year in Edmonton. I can't deny the numerical truth to this, but there have been years where things balance out. We'll run through these games now to show you who is doing what on the international stage when it comes to these big scores.

2011

  • Finland defeated Slovakia 6-0.
  • Sweden defeated Norway 7-1.
  • Canada defeated Norway 10-1.
  • Russian defeated Norway 8-2.
As you can see, 2011 went 4/30 in terms of blowout games. If you're reading those numbers correctly, Norway looked like the worst team at the tournament, but they actually defeated Germany in the relegation round to finish in ninth-place as both Norway and Germany were relegated. Germany's worst losses, I should note, came against Finland in a 5-1 game and against the US in a 4-0 game. Sometimes, the placement of teams in pools makes a difference, and Latvia and Denmark would replace Norway and Germany in 2012.

2012

  • Russia defeated Latvia 14-0.
  • Sweden defeated Slovakia 9-1.
  • Canada defeated Finland 8-1.
  • USA defeated Denmark 11-3.
  • Czech Republic defeated Denmark 7-0.
  • Canada defeated Denmark 10-2.
  • Finland defeated Denmark 10-1.
  • USA defeated Latvia 12-2.
2012 was one of the years where there were an excessive amount of blowouts as 8/30 games featured a lopsided score. Finland, who was blown out by Canada in their game, surrendered just two goals through the remainder of the round-robin to finish second in Group B while Slovakia, who took it on the chin from Sweden, finished third in Group A. Yes, Denmark was in a tough pool, but consider that the US was in the relegation round after finishing fourth in Pool B. Again, the placement of teams in pools makes a difference. Denmark, who lost two overtime games in the relegation round, would be sent down following this tournament, replaced by Germany.

2013

  • USA defeated Germany 8-0.
  • Russia defeated Germany 7-0.
  • Canada defeated Germany 9-3.
  • USA defeated Slovakia 9-3.
  • Finland defeated Germany 8-0.
  • Finland defeated Slovakia 11-4.
  • USA defeated Czech Republic 7-0.
2013 saw 7/30 games end in a blowout score, and you might be wondering how this is good in any way. Inexperienced Germany found themselves in Pool B with Canada, the US, and Russia which is never good. The fifth team in that pool was Slovakia and they too struggled, but lost in overtime to Russia and defeated Germany in overtime. Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the quarterfinal game between the Americans and Czechs as Team USA put the boots to the Czechs in a 7-0 drubbing before eventually winning the gold medal. The relegation round saw Finland down Germany by that 8-0 margin before putting up the 11-4 decision on Slovakia, but it would be Latvia - not blown out once in this tournament - who lost to Finland, Slovakia, and Germany in the relegation round, prompting their demotion. Norway would be promoted in Latvia's place for 2014.

2014

  • Slovakia defeated Germany 9-2.
  • USA defeated Germany 8-0.
  • Russia defeated Norway 11-0.
  • Sweden defeated Norway 10-0.
  • Sweden defeated Slovakia 6-0.
There were 31 games played in this tournament after a format change where eight teams advanced to the medal round, and the bottom teams in each pool played in the relegation round. As you can see, 5/31 games were blowouts including Sweden's 6-0 victory over Slovakia in their quarterfinal game. Germany and Norway would meet in the relegation round, and Germany would win the three-game series 2-1 as Norway was demoted once again. Denmark would make a return to the top tournament in 2015, and they'd be far better prepared this time around.

2015

  • Canada defeated Slovakia 8-0.
  • USA defeated Germany 6-0.
  • Russia defeated Switzerland 7-0.
  • Canada defeated Denmark 8-0.
As expected, four blowouts in 30 games played at the 2015 tournament. It should also be noted that no team hit double-digits on a scoreboard. Denmark's first appearance in the medal round may have ended with a blowout at the hands of the Canadians, but they took Russia to a shootout and lost, lost to the Czech Republic in overtime, and beat the Swiss in the shootout. Denmark, who had a number of players playing in the CHL, used that experience to vault them past Switzerland in their group, forcing the Swiss to play in the relegation round against Germany. The Germans would go home empty-handed in 2015, failing to earn a single point in their games as they were relegated. Belarus would join the top tournament in 2016.

2016

  • USA defeated Switzerland 10-1.
  • Finland defeated Belarus 6-0.
  • Sweden defeated Slovakia 6-0.
  • USA defeated Czech Republic 7-0.
Again, the expected total of 4-in-30 blowout games is seen in the 2016 tournament. It was looking like this tournament would result in fewer blowouts than any before it, but the two blowouts - Sweden over Slovakia and USA over the Czechs - happened in the quarterfinal to bring the numbers back into line. Switzerland, playing in its second-straight relegation series, downed Belarus in two games to remain in the top tournament. Belarus was relegated and replaced by Latvia in 2017.

2017

  • Canada defeated Latvia 10-2.
  • Russia defeated Latvia 9-1.
There were just two games at the 2017 tournament where the winner was six-or-more goals better. Latvia, for their part, ended up in the relegation series, but their opponents, surprisingly, were Finland who lost 2-1 to the Czechs, 3-2 to Denmark, and 3-1 to Sweden to end up one point back of the only team they beat in Switzerland. Finland would send Latvia home without a point in this tournament as they avoided relegation with a two-game sweep in the relegation series. Latvia would be demoted, and Belarus would return to the top tournament in 2018.

2018

  • USA defeated Denmark 9-0.
  • Canada defeated Denmark 8-0.
  • Canada defeated Switzerland 8-2.
  • USA defeated Czech Republic 9-3.
4/30 games were blowouts with just two teams registering those lopsided victories in Canada and the US. Surprisingly, Canada's thumping of Switzerland came in the quarterfinal while the US hammered the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. Not surprisingly, Denmark and Belarus met in the relegation series, and Denmark needed just two games to relegate Belarus once more. Kazakhstan would make its first appearance at the top tournament since 2009 in replacing Belarus.

2019

  • Canada defeated Denmark 14-0.
  • Slovakia defeated Kazakhstan 11-2.
  • USA defeated Kazakhstan 8-2.
There were just three blowouts in 30 games at the 2019 tournament. Canada, who finished second in Group A, drew the Finns in the quarterfinal where the Finns shocked the host nation with a 2-1 overtime win to send Canada home for the first time since 2016 without a semifinal appearance! Not surprisingly, however, Denmark and Kazakhstan played in the relegation series, and Kazakhstan needed just two games to relegate the Danes! Germany would be promoted for the 2020 tournament.

2020

  • Russia defeated Canada 6-0.
  • Finland defeated Kazakhstan 7-1.
  • Finland defeated Slovakia 8-1.
  • Germany defeated Kazakhstan 6-0.
Again, an expected four blowouts in 31 games played. The Canadian loss to the Russians was the largest loss Canada suffered over the eleven tournaments since 2011. Germany and Kazakhstan met in the relegation round, and Germany needed three games to down Kazakhstan with both wins coming in shutouts. Kazakhstan would be replaced by Austria in the 2021 tournament.

2021

  • Canada defeated Germany 16-2.
  • USA defeated Austria 11-0.
  • Canada defeated Switzerland 10-0.
  • Finland defeated Slovakia 6-0.
  • Sweden defeated Czech Republic 7-1.
  • USA defeated Czech Republic 7-0.
  • Russia defeated Austria 7-1.
As you can see, this year's tournament is way off the mark as 7/15 games are already classified as blowouts. With key players missing from teams and Germany playing part of this tournament with just 14 skaters, this tournament is clearly the anomoly in the results. As the round rbon winds down, we'll likely see scores start to correct themselves, but we shouldn't use this tournament as the example of needing change. If anything, it should be tossed from the results altogether with so many weird things causing disparity among teams.

Again, we should be looking at larger trends when it comes to improving or changing the tournament, and the most glaring one that jumps out at me are the number of times that the mid-tier teams - Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Switzerland - appear on the wrong side of these blowout scores without having been relegated. One has to wonder if the gap between the Big Five - Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, and Finland - is growing compared to these three teams based on results in games and finishes in tournaments overall.

Those three teams account for 19 of the 52 blowouts seen over the last eleven tournaments - more than one-third at 36.5%! - and none have been against one another. The Slovaks have blowout wins against Germany and Kazakhstan, the Czechs have one against Denmark, and the Swiss have never recorded one in the last eleven years. While no one is suggesting we'll see the Czechs or Slovaks return to their prominence as they once had as Czechoslovakia, I would have expected better results over eleven years from these three nations. Instead, they seem to be stuck as "the other teams" who play annually.

The other concern I have is that teams who qualify for promotion from the Division-1 tournament often are guilty of the same blowout mindset that the top tournament has. I'll run this down quickly, but here are some of the crazy blowouts from that tournament's eleven-year period:
  • 2010 - 1 blowout (Germany defeated Japan 10-0; Germany was promoted).
  • 2011 - 1 blowout (Latvia defeated Ukraine 9-0; Latvia was promoted).
  • 2012 - 3 blowouts (Germany defeated Austria 11-2, Belarus defeated Great Britain 10-2, and Germany defeated Great Britain 11-1; Germany was promoted).
  • 2013 - 1 blowout (Belarus defeated France 9-3; Belarus was not promoted).
  • 2014 - 1 blowout (Latvia defeated Slovenia 10-0; Latvia was not promoted).
  • 2015 - no blowouts (Belarus was promoted).
  • 2016 - 2 blowouts (Norway defeated Italy 10-1 and Kazakhstan defeated Italy 7-0; Latvia was promoted).
  • 2017 - no blowouts (Belarus was promoted).
  • 2018 - no blowouts (Kazakhstan was promoted).
  • 2019 - no blowouts (Germany was promoted).
  • 2020 - 1 blowout (Latvia defeated Slovenia 9-1; Austria was promoted).
The reason I have concerns about these blowouts, while less frequent, are that the teams being blown out at the next level are often the teams blowing out weaker teams at the Division-1 level. It's the same trend we see at the World Junior Championship where the Big Five are often the teams blowing out the weak teams, only at the Division-1 level we see those teams being Germany, Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. For every media person or fan who has complained about competitive imbalance, it happens at the level below the top tournament as well!

If you're asking how does the IIHF fix this, the answer is they don't. It's not up to the IIHF to provide the funding and training required to close the gap between the skill levels of each of the teams. These gaps are the reasons for the blowouts we're seeing, and they exist at three levels at the World Junior Championships in that we have the Big Five, the Next Three, and Potential Relegation Teams. These three tiers of skill level are entirely why we see blowouts at the top tournament and the Division-1 tournament, and it's up to those countries who aspire to be better to put in the time, effort, and resources needed to become better.

Just as we see in women's hockey where there are three or four good teams in a tournament of ten teams, it's not up to Canada or the US or Finland to stop being the apex teams in the tournament. You can't ask them to take a game off and go easy on a team for "competitive balance". That isn't why they're playing, and it would be an insult to the teams who are playing against them to have Canada or the US go easy on them. The scores often don't reflect the effort given by the losing teams in a blowout, but there's no way they'd want a team like Canada to ease up so the score remains more respectful.

Rather than being concerned with the final scores posted, we should be asking what these countries need to be more competitive, and this goes for both men's and women's hockey at all levels on the international stage. While I get that not every country eats, sleeps, and breathes hockey like Canada, there should be a concerted effort from the IIHF to find out why the Czechs, Slovaks, and Swiss seem to be running in neutral while the Big Five are pulling further away from them.

On the flip side, the IIHF should be asking how they can keep the momentum of Germany, Austria, Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan rolling so that they can become and remain competitive with the Czechs, Slovaks, and Swiss in order to close the gap between those two tiers of teams. Germany seems poised to be that next team to cross the threshold, but one has to wonder if them doing so will bump one of those mid-tier teams backwards. If that happens, we're not making much progress in improving the game globally.

Changing the format for how these tournaments are played doesn't solve the inequalities in the skill levels shown by the emerging teams. Fostering that skill and helping it grow will aid those nations in catching up to the Big Five, and games against those five teams give those nations a good measuring stick on how much they've grown and how much growing they still have to do.

We need to stop worrying about the scores. As TSN's Gord Miller states time and again, "Blowouts happen." He's entirely right as we see blowouts happen at every level of hockey as proven above, but we need to more focused on the process each country is using to remain competitive. As long as the processes are in place for those countries to continue to close the gaps on the teams above them in skill level, we'll see this tournament get better and better each year to where there's a point where any of the ten teams could possibly win the whole thing or be relegated from the tournament.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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