Thursday, January 9, 2014

2014 Winter Olympics

It doesn't get any better than Olympic hockey (well, Olympic hockey played at a reasonable hour would be better - Sochi is many time zones away). The best in the world will be facing off against each other, as all-star teams battle it out for gold. Who has the edge? How do the teams stack-up?

This is a question I've tried to answer with a very (very) simple system. What I've done is award each player on every roster a value. This is derived solely by the amounts of points they have scored so far this year. For goaltenders, I've multiplied the number of games played by their save percentage. It is as bare bones as it gets, but as you'll see below it does give a fairly intuitive ranking for the teams themselves and the players on each roster.

The more complicated question was how to deal with all of those players not plying their trade in the NHL. What I've done is determine the relative quality of each league to the NHL by figuring out how a player in, say, the KHL is doing this year compared to how they did in the NHL last year (by comparing points-per-game). And when there aren't enough players to have a workable data set, I've taken it to the next step - how one league compares to another league compared to how that league compares to the NHL!

The following is how I've valued other leagues:

0.406 - Kontinental Hockey League
0.298 - American Hockey League
0.286 - Swedish Hockey League
0.274 - Swiss Nationaliga-A
0.237 - Finnish SM-Liiga
0.227 - Czech Extraliga
0.171 - Deutsche Eishockey Liga
0.156 - Erste Bank Eishockey Liga

The second-tier leagues in each of the above countries were given a rating worth half of their parent league, while other lower leagues were given a rating of 0.075.

What the above means is that, for example, a point-per-game KHL player would produce 0.406 points-per-game in the NHL. This allows me to give each player outside of the NHL a value that is relative to how he would perform if he were in the NHL. Anyone who follows international hockey would likely look at the above rankings and agree that it sounds about right. So, I think we're on the proper track.

Let's go country by country, in descending order. You'll notice some players have two sets of points to their name. This is because they have played in two leagues this year. The league and team has been listed at the end of each table. Note that this is not meant to be a projection, but rather a means of valuing each roster. NHL points are as of this morning, while points in other leagues may be behind by a few days. I will update this ranking again once the NHL takes its Olympic break.

(You may need to click on each of the tables below to magnify them.)

Not surprisingly, the defending gold medalists top the ranking with a total value of 873.8 points. The Canadian roster has the most highly valued group of forwards and defensemen, and the second-best goaltending trio.

It seems likely that Carey Price and Roberto Luongo will challenge for the starting job, though Price's stats are a little stronger. The defense has a lot of size and offensive capability. Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, and Shea Weber will be dangerous from the blueline. And up front, Canada is simply all-powerful. Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Patrick Sharp, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Marleau all have more than 40 points in the NHL so far this year.

But who was left off the roster that could have made it better, at least by this measure? Joe Thornton, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, and Martin St-Louis all have more than 40 points in the NHL as well. Brent Seabrook and Jason Garrison have scored enough points to put them in the top six among defensemen, and Marc-André Fleury would have been the most highly rated goaltender available for Canada. But in most of these cases, it would be choosing one effective tool to replace another.

So Canada enters the tournament as the favourite. Price and Luongo should be able to provide them solid-enough goaltending to win them games if the offense is producing like it can. No team has anywhere near the depth of Canada.

The Americans are the closest to being able to make a claim to such depth. They come second in the rankings with 664.1 points.

Goaltending is, oddly, a bit of a question mark. Ryan Miller is having a great year, but he has struggled in past seasons. Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick are struggling this year, but have been great in past seasons. Odds are, though, that one of them will be up to the challenge.

The defense is great by the tournament's standards, but one wonders if any of the players on the American blueline would make it on the Canadian roster. That isn't the case with some of their forwards, though, notably Patrick Kane. But he is the only one with more than 40 points so far this year.

Kyle Okposo was left off the roster, and he has 43 points this year. Bobby Ryan has 37, and would have been highly rated as well. On defense, Dustin Byfuglien is the top-scoring American defensemen but was not invited to the tournament, while Keith Yandle has 28 points so far this year. And both Ben Bishop and Craig Anderson would be rated above Howard and Quick by my measure.

But the Americans have a very solid team and, on paper, should meet the Canadians in the gold medal game.

Sweden comes in third with 567.3 points, and it is hard not to like their roster. Only Jimmie Ericsson, who plays in Sweden, is not on an NHL team.

Goaltending is their weakest link, however, ranked fifth overall. Henrik Lundqvist is not having the best of years, and neither Jonas Gustavsson nor Jhonas Enroth are of the calibre to win gold.

The defense is much better, led offensively by Erik Karlsson and Niklas Kronwall. The top six forwards are deadly, with Nicklas Bäckström topping the list, followed by the Sedin twins, Alexander Steen, Henrik Zetterberg, and Gabriel Landeskog.

There were a few notable omissions from the roster, however. Marcus Johansson has 28 points this year, and Victor Hedman has 23. Other potential candidates left off the list were Patric Hornqvist, Carl Soderberg, Jonas Brodin, and Tobias Enstrom. Robin Lehner has the stats to get him on the team as one of the goaltenders, and even Eddie Lack or Anders Lindback might have been better choices than Enroth.

But if Lundqvist picks up his game on the big stage, Sweden will be a dangerous opponent.

Fourth on the list is the Czech Republic, with 426.4 points. They have a great group of forwards, led by David Krejci, Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek, and Martin Hanzal. Tomas Plekanec and Patrik Elias are savvy veterans as well.

But their goaltending (ranked seventh) and defense (ranked eighth) is a bit of a problem. Only Ondrej Pavelec is an NHLer, though both Jakub Kovar and Alexander Salak have put up strong numbers in the KHL. The defense is lacking an offensive threat after Marek Zidlicky, and Tomas Kaberle may not be up to snuff after playing in the Czech league this year.

These holes could have been plugged. Marek Mazanec of the Nashville Predators might have been a better back-up choice to Pavelec, while Jan Hejda, Jakub Kindl, and Roman Polak could have bolstered the defense. The top six forwards could have also been improved with the addition of Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata, two surprising omissions. Is Jiri Novotny really a better choice than either of those two?

The Czechs will be able to score, but keeping it out of the net may be a problem against the Americans, Swedes, and Canadians.

We now get to the host country, whose roster is not nearly as impressive as it looked in 2010. Russia is ranked fifth with 421.5 points, just behind the Czechs.

Their goaltending is decent with Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky likely to split duties. Their defense is good as well, led by Andrei Markov, Fedor Tyutin, and Slava Voynov. It isn't terribly solid, however, and their forward group drops off in quality after the top six. Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin are among the best in the world, but aside from them and Pavel Datsyuk, would any of the Russian forwards be good enough to make Team Canada? How about any of the defensemen?

More than a few NHLers did not make the roster, though they probably should have: Alexander Semin, Nail Yakupov, Sergei Gonchar, Dmitry Kulikov, and Anton Volchenkov. The Russians left off a few good KHLers as well, such as league leaders Sergei Mozyakin and Danis Zaripov.

Unless the Russians get a terrific boost from being the home team, I think they could struggle to win a medal.

The Finns place sixth with 418.9 points, helped primarily by their top-ranked goaltending trio.

In Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, and Kari Lehtonen, the Finns have the best goaltending in the tournament. Any one of these could win them a gold medal. Their defense, however, is quite weak. Kimmo Timonen and Oli Maatta lead them offensively, but this is not a particularly tough group. Only four NHLers will patrol the blueline.

Their forwards are also of mixed quality. Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula, Jussi Jokinen, and Olli Jokinen are having good years, but no other forward has more than 22 points in the NHL.

The additions of Saku Koivu (who asked to be left off) and Sean Bergenheim would have given them more depth up front, and Rasmus Ristolainen might have been a good addition on the blueline.

The Finns lack depth but their goaltending can steal them games.

The plucky Slovaks come seventh with 267.6 points. Their biggest problem, even more so than the Finns, is depth. They have good top lines, but drop off significantly after that.

Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj will give them NHL-quality goaltending, and Andrej Sekera, Zdeno Chara, Andrej Meszaros, and Lubomir Visnovsky will be solid on the back-end. Their offense is thin, but led by Marian Hossa and his brother Marcel. Youngsters like Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, and Richard Panik will hopefully give them some energy.

The Slovaks did not leave any NHLers off their roster, and that was probably a very good idea. Never under-estimate the Slovaks - they could pull off a surprise, as they did in 2010 with their fourth place finish.

The Swiss come in at eighth, with 231.3 points. Their roster has a few NHLers and one AHLer, with the rest coming from the decent Swiss league.

In Jonas Hiller and Reto Berra, the Swiss have two reliable goaltenders. Their defense is also quite good, led by Mark Streit, Roman Josi, Raphael Diaz, and Yannick Weber. They may have trouble scoring, however, with just Nino Niederreiter and Damien Brunner coming from the NHL this year. Roman Wick does have NHL experience, though, and is tearing up the Swiss league.

The Swiss always compete and cannot be discounted. Making the medal round, however, may be difficult.

Now we get to the bottom tier, with Austria being the best of them with 135.6 points. This is almost entirely due to the presence of Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner, and Michael Raffl on the roster. These three NHLers account for almost half of the team's points.

It will give the Austrians one good line, but they will struggle mightily when they are off the ice. Bernhard Starkbaum is a decent goaltender, but the Austrians will be lucky to salvage a point against any of the higher ranked teams.

The Norwegians come in at tenth, with 95.4 points. Only Mats Zuccarello comes from the NHL (and he is having a good year), but the team does boast some other players with NHL experience: Jonas Holos, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, and Patrick Thoresen. Look to them to lead. Lars Haugen, playing in the KHL, should be solid for them in nets.

The little team that could comes in at eleventh, solely due to Anze Kopitar. The Slovenians will be relying heavily on him to score their goals, and he will be helped by Jan Mursak. He is playing well in the KHL and has NHL experience. The rest of the team will be out-matched by the NHL-heavy line-ups they will face, but is not as bad as might think.

The Latvians place last with 84.5 points, as the country has lost most of its NHLers. Only Zemgus Girgensons is playing in the big league, though Sandis Ozolins, Oskars Bartulis, Martins Karsums, and Kaspars Daugavins have NHL experience as well. Five of their defensemen play for Dinamo Riga in the KHL, so will benefit from familiarity. Kristers Gudlevskis will have to bank on his AHL experience to keep the Latvians in the game against the big teams.