Thursday was the day the IIHF set aside for having the top seeds in each pool play against the recently promoted teams in their pools. Or, as it is coming to be known in the Canadian media, the "everything that's wrong with the World Juniors" Day.
The game action lived up to expectations: Canada dispatched of Denmark 10-2, while Russia dispy-doodled around Latvia to the tune of 14-0, on the strength of a nine-point outburst from Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who now leads the tournament in scoring after having zero points in his first two games. And then the groaning about the disparity in talent settled in.
Now, let me be clear, I understand the frustration. We all wish that every hockey game we see is competitive, settled as the result of a few talented plays where the outcome isn't pre-determined. It isn't easy to watch, and trying to figure out how many goals a team will win/lose by with an over/under of ten isn't exactly stimulating hockey talk. But here's an idea for you: what if we gave them the same opportunity to succeed that the top teams get?
It's never talked about, but the six day schedule of the preliminary round is partly to blame for the absolute thrashings we've seen annually at this tournament. Latvia and Denmark may never be able to make it all that interesting against Canada and Russia but they shouldn't be making their strategic decisions based on the idea that they throw those games away and hope for the best against their closest competition the next night. The fourth and fifth ranked teams in each pool have the unfortunate distinction of playing four games in five days. The top three seeds all start their action on the first day of the tournament and end their preliminary schedule on New Year's Eve, playing four games in six days, and only one set of back-to-backs each.
Expanding the preliminary schedule one day would make it fair. The problem exists on which side of the calendar to do this: start the tournament on Christmas Day or end the preliminary round on New Year's Day? Either way has pluses and minuses, but the scheduling would be pretty simple: run three games a day for six of the days, and two games on the seventh day. Each pool alternates between playing two and one game a day, each team has just one back-to-back scenario and no team gets stuck playing 4 games in 5 nights.
Every other suggestion, from making this an 8 team tournament to giving the minnows the ability to use a few twenty year old players just isn't good... I know Slovakia would have a legitimate beef if Latvia's Juris Upitis tied their game at 2 on the 27th with the goaltender pulled instead of winning 3-1 in a matchup of just teenagers. Eight teams won't fly: it's less revenue and the tournament is proving to be a cash cow despite the existence of these games, as people are still willing to pay for these games be it part of ticket packages or not. The success of the WJC and the World Championships helps the IIHF run all the lesser tournaments that are important for the development of the sport, including the women's tournaments.
We have to accept that the difference between 1 and 2 and 9 and 10 is going to be significant, but we also have to give these teams the best possible chance of competing. Extending the schedule one day and not putting them at another disadvantage is the easiest way to do so, and I think would be relatively effective.
The tournament is not all about the Canada's and Russia's of the world. They still get plenty of high level competition in this tournament that their fans enjoy and help their nations advance their programs. For Latvia and Denmark (and increasingly the Czechs and Slovaks), it's about competing, and giving them an equal shot at taking down an opponent is the right thing to do from a competitive standpoint.