Photo by: Canada Hky via Wikimedia Commons, creative commons license
Jonathan Willis often refers to the Under-20 World Junior Championships as "the tournament of small sample sizes", and with good reason. Except for the NFL draft combine, no other event as brief as the WJC impact a player's reputation and career. A high-end prospect can legitimize his draft stock with a solid performance in the WJC, while a low-end prospect can instantly develop a reputation as a "big game player", or a player that "makes big plays at big times". If, however, the player fails to produce over a five game period in the tournament, he's instantly labeled as "a choker", or "unable to handle pressure".
In that vein, we are told Jordan Eberle's late-game heroics weren't a result of being in the right place at the right time - or more accurately, flubbing a shot in just such a way that it went in the right place - they were a repeated demonstration of his ability to come up big and carry his team when the pressure is on. Though he only played eleven playoff games in his four years in Regina and never developed a reputation for late-game "big plays" in his 254 regular season WHL games, or make any especially "big" plays, his 14 games over two years in the WJC cemented his reputation as a heroic performer under pressure.
Marc-Andre Fleury was the best goaltender under the age of 20 heading into the 2004 WJC. He backstopped Canada to a silver medal in 2003 and was voted as the best goaltender in the tournament and named Tournament MVP. In 2004, Canada marched to the title game in front of a spectacular Fleury, who gave up five goals in five games. In the title game, a game which would ruin Fleury's reputation for the next five years, Canada lost to the United States. The game-winning goal, a fluke in which Fleury tried to clear a puck through Patrick O`Sullivan, led to Fleury being labeled as a choker, unable to handle the spotlight, unable to make the big play at the big time. When Pittsburgh lost to Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, it was Fleury's ability that was questioned. References to 2004 were made, as if a fluke from four years earlier still weighed on Fleury's mind. Even though Fleury's save percentage during that playoff run was the lowest of his career, Fleury's reputation preceded him. A year later the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in spite of Fleury, who was mired in a slump at the time, and talk about his play in 2004 vanished.
There is no mystery as to why the WJC means so much to the media and fans who watch it. The lack of a national or world stage for these kids means the hockey community gets only a brief chance, five or six games, to watch them play, so the performances in those games resonate - they become the narrative to a young player's career. Fans speak knowingly about these kids and apply the information learned from the small sample size more broadly, especially as the draft approaches.
Curtis Hamilton and Olivier Roy have an opportunity to make their names known worldwide as they step onto the ice in Buffalo. Roy is slated to begin the tournament as Canada's starting goaltender, though any run of poor play in the warm-up games may lead to Mark Visentin taking over. If Roy plays well and leads Canada to a gold medal, he will be hailed as a hero, a big game player with the ability to get the job done when Jake Allen and Martin Jones couldn't. If he plays poorly and leads Canada to a gold medal, he will be hailed as a hero, a big game player with the ability to get the job done when Jake Allen and Martin Jones couldn't. Allen and Jones, by the way, now suffer from the same reputation Fleury did after losing to the Americans. But if Canada doesn't win a gold medal and Roy is the netminder behind the effort, Roy's reputation will suffer. Roy is known as a stalwart in the QMJHL, a kid capable of playing unending minutes in goal, relied on to cover for flawed teams. He's built this reputation over the course of three plus seasons in the Q, playing with Cape Breton and Acadie-Bathurst, hauling Cape Breton into and through the playoffs when a lesser goalie wouldn't have been able to do so. A reputation built over the course of his juniors career can be torn down in just two weeks.
Curtis Hamilton has built a similar reputation doing yeoman's work for the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. He plays in all zones, kills penalties, takes the tough matchups and the hard minutes and enjoys it more than any other aspect of the game. He demonstrated his all-around game at Canada's World Junior summer evaluation camp, killing penalties and finishing checks, standing out among a group of kids hellbent on showing offensive acumen. His efforts did not go unnoticed, because even though he was coming off of an injury-plagued season in which he broke his collarbone twice and separated a shoulder, he was touted by the Canadian media as the foundation of Team Canada's penalty kill and checking line. Aside from the mammoth Zack Kassian, Hamilton is the biggest forward on the team and will be expected to play a physical game while checking the opponents' best. When TSN called Hamilton a bubble player and asked him about his chances to make the team, Hamilton responded "Hopefully I get a chance to play tonight and go out there and work my tail off.", pointing out exactly what he's done and needs to do to earn playing time on that team. But maintaining his reputation will be difficult. He's got only five or six games to perform in a very narrow view - to shut down the top line, to kill penalties and to play a physical game in his own end, on the boards and in the corners. If he is successful at those things, his reputation remains. However, should the penalty kill falter a bit, or should his line have an off game, he will stand out as not having done his job and once again the tournament of small sample sizes will eat away at his reputation.
Martin Marincin's draft stock went through the roof after an outstanding WJC in 2010. Anton Lander's reputation as a leader was cemented after being named Captain of a flailing Swedish team in 2010. Ryan Kesler was the kid that would never back down from the Canadians. All of them avoided a slump or a bad game during the tournament and received praise usually reserved for multiple seasons of exemplary play. Now Canada's eyes turn towards two Oilers and the nation will sit on the edge of their seats as James Duthie, Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire get to build new reputations for twenty two kids.