ZURICH Ė Sweden has been the most successful nation at the IIHFís U20 and U18 World Championships of the past two years. IIHF.com takes a look at the prospects of 44 countries based on the success of their national junior programs.
The development of junior players is the only sustainable way to ensure future success. 44 countries have participated in the U20 and U18 World Championship programs in the past two years at various levels under different preconditions and with different success.
But todayís success is not the only conclusion one can draw from the various youth tournaments. The performance of the junior program indicates how successful each nation will be in the future, at the senior level in World Championships and Olympics.
Of course, there may always be other success factors for a menís national team like the quality of goaltending, coaching, injuries or, in some cases, naturalized expat players, but there is no doubt that long-term player development is the only viable way to future success Ė one that national hockey bodies and clubs can influence.
But how can success be measured? For the menís national teams thereís the IIHF World Ranking, which evaluates the performance at World Championships and Olympics in the last four years, while putting more weight on the more recent events.
IIHF.com has now done something similar for the juniors, the unofficial Junior World Ranking, with the objective of showing the performance of young players at the international stage.
For the calculation we took the final placements of all teams in all categories in the U20 and U18 World Championships of the last two years and valued them with a point system similar to the one used for the official Menís and Womenís World Rankings.
That provided us with four tournaments as a statistical base, with players born in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 (plus some underagers). To keep it simple and balanced, all placements were rated without any weighting system. (Scroll down for the ranking.)
It was decided that the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship would be used as the tie-breaker for the case two or more teams had the equal number of points.
And the winner is... Sweden! The Scandinavians won the 2012 World Juniors in Canada, they were fourth the year before in Buffalo and they have claimed the U18 silver medals twice in a row. This means the Swedish juniors are three places better than their Menís World Ranking position.
This may implicate that Swedish hockey fans wonít have to worry about the future of their national team.
This outcome is also well in accordance with the fact that Sweden has become the superior number-one producer of fresh NHL talent in Europe.
One gold medal in four tournaments (U20/U18) is by no means a dominating performance, but this also indicates how well-balanced the top of the world is in producing talent. Sweden is followed by Russia, the United States and Canada in this junior ranking.
The Russians won silver this year in Calgary and gold the year before at the World Juniors while their success in the U18 category was limited to a bronze medal in 2011.
The United States follow with an equal amount of points as Russia. The Americansí ranking would certainly have been better if not for the disappointing and uncharacteristic seventh-place finish at the World Juniors in Canada last winter.
But the other youth events were much more encouraging for USA Hockey. The U.S. National Team Development Program with its centralized U18 and U17 teams paid dividends and earned the country U18 gold medals in each of the last two years and a U20 bronze on home ice in Buffalo one year ago. Despite the gaffe in Alberta, American fans can be confident for the future, especially in an Olympics with NHL playersí participation.
The Canadian junior program is a bit undervalued in our ranking due to the fact that the three major Canadian junior leagues have longer seasons than others and, consequently, their U18 teams are comprised of players who did not make the playoffs. Still, Canada earned a U18 bronze this year and a fourth-place finish the season before.
However, the performance of the U20 national team in the last two years with the best players from the Canadian Hockey League on board Ė getting the bronze medals on home ice in Calgary last winter, and silver the year before in Buffalo Ė was not what the fans were hoping for. The result is a fourth place in this junior ranking.
These four nations were close together in points and they were are also the only ones to win gold in the last 11 years with their U20 or U18 national teams.
After a big point gap, Finland follows in fifth place and after another long jump, Switzerland comes in sixth. This might be somewhat disappointing for the former, and encouraging for the latter nation.
The Finns havenít won a medal for the past two years with the U18 teams and for the last six years in the U20 category. But, at the same time, Finland has been more successful with the menís national team; The world title in 2011 and the silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics. But will the Finns be able to keep up without the same kind of success in the junior categories?
Switzerland has performed better with its juniors than with its menís national team for a long period including bronze and silver medals in 1998 (U20) and 2001 (U18) respectively. The positive development in the junior era brought Switzerland from a second-tier country in the Ď90s to the seventh-ranked hockey nation in the world between 2008 and 2011, before dropping down to ninth this year.
The country is a good example how an improving junior program can slowly, but gradually raise the level of hockey and the sixth place in the junior ranking is a positive sign despite not really being able to reach the success of the Swiss junior teams a decade ago.
The Czech Republic, Germany and Slovakia follow in 7th, 8th and 9th position, which can be seen as a compliment in the case of Germany (two places better than the menís placement) and as a disappointment for the other two countries whose hockey fans have been spoiled with more success in the past.
At the senior level, the Czechs and Slovaks can still shine thanks to outstanding performances of veteran players such as Jaromir Jagr and Miroslav Satan. Both of these Czech and Slovak key players Ė and many other world class performers in their age group Ė made their way up through the domestic system and played at least two years of pro league hockey at home, including one or two World Championships, before going over to North America.
The new generation, however, doesnít follow into the footsteps of their idols and very few new Czech or Slovak prospects have succeeded in making it to the NHL in the last five, six years. Many talented players (more than 500 Czechs/Slovaks between 1997 and 2010) leave their native country at an early age to play junior hockey in North America. Most of them donít reach the NHL and return without fulfilling their potential.
The number of top junior players going overseas prematurely has created a downward spiral resulting in a lower level of play in the domestic junior leagues, fewer incentives for clubs to invest in player development and even more players leaving.
If this spiral isnít stopped Ė along with an upgrade of the entire youth development program Ė the consequences will be felt when the team-carrying veteran players retire.
The Czech junior ranking is four places below the senior national teamís position while the Slovak juniors are three places behind their seniors.
After a new gap, another trio follows with Latvia, Denmark and Norway (10th-12th), countries who regularly earn promotion to the Top Division in junior events, but also get relegated with a similar frequency.
In the case of Latvia and Denmark, the junior placements largely reflects the performance at World Championships and Olympics.
In the case of Norway there is a nice discrepancy. The Norwegians have recently done better with the menís national team than with its juniors Ė most notably with the quarter-final participations in the 2011 and 2012 World Championships.
This was mainly achieved thanks to consistent participation of devoted national players such as Patrick Thoresen, Per-Ňge SkrÝder or Jonas HolÝs, combined with the stability of a decade with the same national team coach, Roy Johansen.
In the junior categories, the Norwegians havenít reached the same consistency and they are ranked four places below the menís national team.
Slovenia follows on a positive note in 13th place. This ranking might surprise as Slovenia hasnít managed to keep itself among the top-16 teams in the menís World Championship, but their junior teams have been performing well, right behind the teams that earned promotion to the top level.
Having the juniors ranked five places better than the men is a promising sign for the future of hockey in the small Balkan country. The landscape of Slovenian hockey has changed in the last few years with the top-two clubs playing in the Austrian league, while hockey in other cities than Ljubljana and Jesenice has tended to go towards amateur hockey.
Several young players improved by playing at a higher level in the Austrian league or going abroad in their late teenage years to countries like Sweden or Germany. But the player pool in Slovenia is still very limited, while Acroni Jesenice is in serious financial trouble. Those issues leave some worrying question marks for the future.
Sloveniaís neighbour Croatia is the only nation which has an even more positive junior ranking in comparison with the official menís.
After two mediocre decades for Croat hockey, with limited possibilities for the sport within the national borders after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the countryís hockey got a boost with Medvescak Zagreb joining the Austrian league and becoming a success story not only on the ice, but even more with large crowds celebrating the comeback of professional hockey.
Croatia is still ranked far behind its neighbours Austria or Slovenia Ė 24th with the juniors, 30th with the menís national team Ė but the direction is the right one.
Next in the junior ranking are Belarus (14), Italy (15), France (16) and Kazakhstan (17). All these countries have their menís and junior rankings similar.
Austria follows in 18th place, three places below compared to the menís World Ranking. Of the nations at the brink between the top tier and Division I in the senior category, only Hungary has a more negative difference (junior: 23, men: 19) than the Austrians.
On the positive note: ambitious junior programs in Hungary have improved the U18 placements significantly. This has been visible in the last few years of the U18 World Championship.
Different conclusions can be drawn for the top Asian nations. All of them performed better in the junior program than with their menís national team with Japan ranked 19th (men: 22nd), Korea 26th (men: 28th) and China 34th (men: 38th).
The numbers show improvement and in the case of Japan even the prospect of making it back to the Top Division one day. But they also show the difficulties in keeping prospects in hockey with opportunities (and salaries) in Asian professional hockey being much more limited compared to Europe or North America. Many players stop playing at the top level and opt for other professional paths or quit after fulfilling military service.
Summarizing; most nations are virtually on the same level with their juniors as with their men, and on average the positions differed by 2.2 places in either direction.
In any case, the junior ranking and the comparison with the menís ranking below, might be a good indicator in which direction nations might move in the future.
Note again that this Junior Ranking is unofficial and calculated only for research purposes and based on the principles of the IIHF World Rankings. The official IIHF World Rankings are only calculated for men's senior and women's senior competitions.