Beware of the World Junior Bump


That’s Gold Jerry,Gold! 

This morning Jonathan Willis posted an excellent piece on why we should not read too much into the results of performance of any given player or team at the World Junior Championships. You should bookmark it for future reference because it will be true every year, and during the NHL playoffs. I’d like to quickly discuss the neurological explanation behind why we can’t help but read too much into a player’s performance at these types of tournaments.

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Every year there are players who have seen their stocks rise or fall based on their performances in the World Juniors. Take Jerry D’Amigo. Prior to his breakout performance at the 2010 World Juniors Jerry was just another prospect. Drafted in the 6th round of the 2009 Draft it was an accomplishment for him to be named to Team USA. After his strong performance and “clutch” play, he shot up the Leafs depth chart, and management and fans alike suddenly expected things from him.

After the tournament Burke said of D’Amigo, “He is a versatile, useful player.” He called him “conscientious, intelligent, coachable, sound defensively and positionally.” Based on management’s newfound confidence in him D’Amigo jumped ship from his NCAA team to play with the Toronto Marlies. He started slow and was eventually sent to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL who held his rights. He played well there, scoring 28 points, 12 goals and 16 assists, in 21 games. He is currently playing with the Marlies, hardly where everyone hoped he would be after his “clutch” play at the World Juniors.

Cam Carron mentioned on Twitter that Brayden Schenn shot 25% last year and was traded for Mike Richards. Justin Pogge’s performance led John Ferguson Jr. to believe that Tuuka Rask was expendable.

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Conversely, players who perform poorly, especially in their draft year, plummet down the rankings due to their perceived inability to perform on the big stage. I’d wager a few scouts moved Ryan Murray down their list after Canada’s Semi-Final loss to the Russians.

Why do scouts, GMs, and fans keep making this mistake? It is because short, high-profile tournaments are extremely salient events from a neurological perspective. Saliency is simply the degree to which an event, person, or item stands out from its neighbours.  Our brains have to make judgments and decisions based on a large set of data.

In order to focus our cognitive energies on the most pertinent data our brain focuses on what stands out the most. With all the hype and coverage the World Juniors receive, our brains place greater emphasis on the performances of players in these games. It’s much easier to recall Jordan Eberle scoring against the Russians than to ever remember what team he played for in the CHL.

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Statistically speaking there is nothing significant about these games. But from a neurological perspective they can become the only thing we can remember about a given player. Would you evaluate an NHL player based on his play in the All-Star game? Of course not, but when we base our evaluations of prospects on their performance at the World Juniors we are essentially doing the same thing.

So beware of the World Junior Bump.

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