When young players are put under immense pressure to follow a specific set of achievements before reaching the top of the game, it should be noted that a hockey career doesn’t come with a step-by-step tutorial. You don’t necessarily have to play in the World Junior Championships. You don’t even have to be drafted by an NHL team, even though the narrative of modern day hockey suggests otherwise.
It’s easy to forget the prospects who don’t make the roster for their respective junior national team, but we’ve seen evidence before that some of the best might still be out there in the shadows. Neither Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis or Pavel Datsyuk participated in the World Juniors back in the day. However, all three of them proceeded to become Stanley Cup winners and will likely be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame now that they have retired or left the NHL.
Here follows a list of ten contemporary cases of big NHL names who never made the cut to play in the WJC. For obvious reasons, I have left out some players who settled in the NHL at a particularly young age (i.e. Jeff Skinner) and wasn’t available to take part in the tournament. Also, I have left out players who were injured (i.e. Hampus Lindholm) at the time of their opportunity to play.
Mark Giordano, Canada
Admittedly, it’s not that surprising that Giordano, team captain of the Calgary Flames since 2013, didn’t make the roster for the Team Canada at the World Juniors in 2003. Despite the fact that the defenseman had developed fairly well for the Owen Sound Attacks in the OHL, he even remained undrafted.
In many ways, Giordano’s career stands out from the norm. The resurrection that he’s experienced since making his debut for the Flames as a 22-year-old, no one could foresee. Still, up to this day, Giordano has frequently been called one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL.
Zdeno Chara, Slovakia
One thing that exceeds the height of this giant defenseman is the size of his career. The Boston Bruins captain has been an NHL All-Star for years, which is even more remarkable seeing that he didn’t get off to a very good start.
Not only was Chara overlooked when Slovakia picked out their lineup for the World Juniors, but he also struggled to maintain a spot on his Slovakian junior team Ducla Trencin back then. It got to the point where Chara was sent down to the second team before moving overseas to the WHL the next season and the rest is history.
Joe Pavelski, USA
Another current NHL team captain, another missing talent from the World Juniors. Pavelski is a class A type late-bloomer, and was, as well as Giordano, well over his 20s before setting foot in the NHL. But once he did, he never lost grip. The small-sized winger continues to improve, it seems, and has netted over 35 goals in each of the past three seasons.
Ironically, even though Pavelski never made a national splash during his teenage years, he is currently the owner of the NAHL Janesville Jets of Wisconsin. Perhaps he will become a team owner in the NHL in the future. “Who knows,” Pavelski said in 2011. “Hopefully, that’s a long ways away. We’ll see.”
Braden Holtby, Canada
The winner of the Vezina Trophy last season, as the best goaltender in the NHL, was never considered good enough to play in the WJC for Canada. During his last season as a Junior in the WHL, however, Holtby was a dominant figure between the pipes, finishing with 40 wins in the regular season and a .911 save percentage. Ultimately, he was selected to the WHL East First All-Star Team in 2008-09.
But when it was time for the World Juniors earlier that season, coach Pat Quinn preferred the likes of goalies Chet Pickard and Dustin Tokarski over Holtby. With respect to the two NHL goalies, Quinn would probably have revised his decision today.
Tyler Seguin, Canada
As a 17-year-old, before the WJC in 2010, Seguin was rumored to be the number one draft pick in the summer. He was edged out by Taylor Hall, and part of his exclusion from Team Canada could be explained by the rejection. The current superstar with the Dallas Stars scored 106 points in 63 games for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL but didn’t make the cut for the WJC team. Hall, on the other hand, did.
“I don’t think I played my potential here”, Seguin said after the final selection camp prior to the WJC. “I’m definitely disappointed — it’s a big opportunity going to waste. But just the same, I’m 17, and there will be more chances to come.”
Well, regarding the World Juniors, there weren’t. Seguin made himself a Boston Bruin regular immediately following the summer. Even without the World Juniors experience.
Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Canada
This San Jose Sharks defenseman has never called for attention, and though it’s always been justified, it took him a while to get noticed. During his rookie year in the NHL, Vlasic was praised for playing with such intelligence that it made him seem like an ‘old man’. He quickly drew the acknowledgment of opponents such as Alexander Radulov, in Nashville at the time, who played with Vlasic for the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL the year before.
But Radulov never got to face Vlasic in the WJC in 2006. Vlasic was left off the Canadian team, but in all fairness, he didn’t really flourish until after the summer that he was drafted. It’s possible that the coaching staff had their eyes elsewhere at the time. But now, everyone sees him.
Torey Krug, USA
With reference to his small size of 5’9”, people have generally had no problem dismissing Krug throughout his career. Krug has ultimately proven his critics wrong. “Every time somebody even mentions [my size] I put it in the back of my mind and it serves as motivation to me,” Krug said after signing his first contract with the Boston Bruins in 2012.
He also made his first appearance for the United States national team, at any level, when he participated in the World Championships in 2015. And that was after he had jumped directly from college hockey, playing for Michigan State University in the NCAA, to the NHL.
Matt Duchene, Canada
Reportedly one of the last cuts from the Canadian roster for the World Juniors in 2010, Matt Duchene found himself as an 18-year-old top prospect on the outside looking in. In his absence, Canada lost the gold medal to the United States in the tournament, while Duchene continued to light up the OHL. He finished what would become his last season with the Brampton Battalion with a total of 79 points in 57 games during the regular season, and 26 points in the playoffs.
The following season, after being drafted with the third overall pick, he entered the NHL and stayed there. As a regular with the Colorado Avalanche, he never had another opportunity to represent Canada in the WJC.
Gustav Nyquist, Sweden
What makes Nyquist easy to like is that he was never expected to become an elite level hockey player, he just happened to end up that way. When he started playing at the University of Maine in the NCAA as a 19-year-old, he did it as much for the educational experience as for his athletic career. He wasn’t drafted the first time he was eligible, but the year after.
“It was far from determined that I would be able to live on hockey, and I had no thoughts about that at that time,” Nyquist told the Swedish media, looking back.
Nyquist was cut from the U18 Swedish national team as well as from the U20 national team. The skilled goal scorer, however, made his NHL debut for the Detroit Red Wings in 2011.
Duncan Keith, Canada
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith did, in fact, participate in Canada’s National Junior Team Development Camp before the World Juniors in 2003, but as a call-up reserve due to injury. That’s how “highly” the Canadian Junior level staff thought of Keith at that time, and naturally, he didn’t make the final roster for the tournament.
Look at him now. He is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, and possibly the best defenseman that the Blackhawks have ever had on their blue line. The 33-year-old native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is a Hall of Famer in the making.
These players are all proof that a bright career doesn’t have to come in conventional ways.
Freelance sports journalist settled in Malmo, Sweden. Author on the official site of the Swedish Hockey League. Cover Swedish prospects on their road to the NHL, and Swedish players making it in the NHL.