If there is one advantage to a major disruption to hockey’s cadence and typical position on the sports calendar, it’s that exceptional circumstances often supply the world junior championship with an otherwise impossible level of talent. We saw it in 2005 when Canada was able to showcase a golden generation on the U20 stage when the NHL shut its doors for the entire season, and then again eight years later across all the power nations when more labour issues forced hockey’s top league to cut its schedule in half.
In 2021, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic and not the squabbling over revenue share between the NHL and NHLPA (or at least not primarily) — which has potentially widened the talent pool for the holiday hockey tradition. And while back-to-back No. 1 picks Jack Hughes and Alexis Lafreniere are not expected to be loaned to the United States and Canada, respectively, there will be more than a handful of players in competition in Edmonton who would in a normal season be competing for jobs in the best league in the world.
That’s why the 2021 world junior championship, if it can thwart away the threat of the virus, has so much potential.
And why there’s reason to believe that the winner could join this list of the greatest teams in the history of the tournament.
12 - Sweden: 1993
Sweden deserves to be included among the best teams ever assembled despite failing to win it all on home ice in ‘93. Led by the highest-scoring duo in world juniors history, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, Sweden scored 53 goals in seven games — or the second-most all time — while allowing only 15. If Canada’s Manny Legace didn’t put on one of the greatest goaltending performances in history, Sweden’s 1993 team might be in the conversation for the best ever.
11 - Finland: 2016
Finland was far from a perfect team to begin the 2016 tournament on home ice in Helsinki, but turned into a juggernaut by the end of it. Led by the three top scorers in the tournament and one of the best lines ever assembled with Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, Finland won five straight games to close its tournament bid, including knockout round victories over Canada, Sweden and Russia — a run capped by Kasperi Kapanen’s golden goal.
10 - Sweden: 2012
It wasn’t as easy as it reads on paper for Sweden in 2012, which needed three overtime winners to maintain a perfect record at the tournament. But the Swedes continued to find a way to win again and again versus teams that eclipsed them in terms of individual talent. That meant no individual honours when it came time for the IIHF to present its hardware, instead just the second title in history and the first in more than two decades after Mika Zibanejad’s overtime winner versus Russia.
9 - Canada: 2006
As an encore to the greatest world junior team ever assembled in 2005, Canada’s ‘06 squad was nothing even remotely close with the NHL once again up and running. But even if the team’s leading scorer was Blake Comeau with seven points, and the team’s MVP netminder went on to appear in just seven games at the NHL level, the step back was minimal.
Canada was brilliant from a defence standpoint, allowing six goals in six games — all victories. Goalie Justin Pogge was the star of the tournament, finishing with a .952 save percentage after earning shutouts in both medal round contests.
8 - United States: 2017
The United States became a force at the world juniors in the 2010s — and the 2017 team was the country’s most dominant. The Americans ran the table, winning all seven of their games by a combined score of 29-15. The last two games — including the gold medal-winning triumph over Canada on soil north of the border — both came down to shootouts, and Troy Terry’s four goals across the two skills competitions proved to be the difference. The team did not produce the tournament’s MVP, but Charlie McAvoy was brilliant for the U.S. roster, which also featured Clayton Keller, Colin White and Adam Fox.
7 - Czech Republic: 2001
The most talented teams ever to come out of the Czech Republic or, previously, Czechoslovakia, came about a decade before with Robert Reichel and Jaromir Jagr starring up front, but the Czech Republic followed up its first title in 2000 with its best tournament showing in 2001. The Czechs were undefeated in seven games, allowing just eight goals, and swept the awards with Pavel Brendl, Rostislav Klesla and Tomas Duba each recognized by the IIHF.
6 - Soviet Union: 1983
It wasn’t the historic roster of 1989, or even that of the dominant rosters in the late 1970s, but the 1983 Soviet Union were perhaps the most untouchable of the nine teams that won gold in the country’s short-lived history at the tournament. With 50 goals for to just 15 against, the hosts ran the table that winter, winning all seven round robin games.
5 - Canada: 2009
As a marketable product, it’s possible that the world juniors reached its highest point with Canada’s 2009 team. Not only did it perform under the weight of expectation on home ice in Ottawa, extending the nation’s title-winning streak to a record five, but the team also featured two of the greatest performers in history, Jordan Eberle and John Tavares, while also competing in two of the most exhilarating games the tournament has seen.
Canada tore through the preliminary round on paper, scoring 35 goals and allowing only six against. However they showed some vulnerability in the round robin phase, needing to erase a shock early deficit in an emotional New Year’s Eve comeback over the United States to secure the top seed and bye straight to the semifinal. Russia would eventually advance to clash with Canada with a shot at gold on the line, where the two storied hockey rivals authored arguably the greatest game in tournament history. It was Eberle’s miraculous goal with five seconds remaining for the host nation that tied the game and set the table for Eberle himself to win it in the shootout.
The Canadians wrapped things up with a comfortable win over Sweden for gold and a 45-12 goal margin for the tournament, while also submitting the top three scorers and three tournament All-Stars.
4 - Soviet Union: 1989
The Soviet Union had arguably the greatest player in world junior history, Pavel Bure, on a line with two future Hall of Famers in Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov in 1989. The three combined for 19 goals in seven round robin games as the Soviet Union blasted the competition by a combined score of 51-14. Perhaps guilty of looking ahead to what would amount to the gold medal match versus Canada, the Soviet Union did have a loss to the Czechs that winter, which obviously hurts its case. They did bounce back nicely with a resounding 7-2 victory over Canada to close out the tournament and clinch the championship.
3 - United States: 2004
The United States’ first-ever world junior championship was its most dominant. Led by the tournament’s most valuable player and top netminder, Zach Parise and Al Montoya, USA won its four preliminary round games by a combined score of 21-4. The Americans then knocked off Finland in the semis and a Canadian team that featured many of the stars from the 2005 roster — including Crosby — to finally get over the hump.
2 - Canada: 2015
Ten years after Sidney Crosby’s successful return to the world junior stage, the next draft-eligible generational talent from Canada had the same sort of redemption on his mind. Returning as a 17-year-old, Connor McDavid was the marquee attraction for an incredibly talented Canadian team tasked with ending another lengthy title drought on home ice and in the country’s two most storied hockey cities, Toronto and Montreal.
McDavid and teammates Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan and Max Domi finished top four in scoring, and Zach Fucale was the tournament’s top netminder, while Anthony Duclair, Brayden Point, Josh Morrissey, Shea Theodore and Darnell Nurse also played major roles for Canada, which won all seven of its games and finished with a plus-30 goal differential.
1 - Canada: 2005
If Canada’s 2005 team wasn’t the greatest by record, certainly it was by its collection of names. A squad that featured NHL-eligible players such as Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook and Andrew Ladd — made available, in part, due to the NHL’s 2004-05 work stoppage — was bolstered by Crosby, the prospective and much-hyped No. 1 overall draft selection from later that year, forming the most talent-rich Canadian team in history in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Canada outscored the competition 32-5 across its four preliminary round games to earn the top seed and a bye into the semifinals. After a comfortable win over the Czechs, the Canadians suffocated Alexander Ovechkin’s Russia in a memorable final to complete one of the most systematically dominant tournaments in history, while capturing the nation’s first championship in eight years.
The seeds for future best-on-best success were planted in Grand Forks, with a handful of players and partnerships representing Canada five years later at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, along with several more for another gold medal four years after that in Sochi.
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