Tuesday, February 11, 2014

2014 Winter Olympics

The men's Winter Olympic hockey tournament is about to begin. In January, I took a look at each of the teams' rosters, using a simple system to compare each roster quantitatively. The system is based solely on points scored in the past season, with the main use of it being to compare players across different leagues. It is a terribly simple system, but it produces rather intuitive results. I wrote about the system here.

This is not a forecast of final results, but rather just a ranking of how the teams should place on paper. We start, of course, with Canada.

By any subjective or objective measure, Canada has the strongest roster in Sochi and enters the tournament the favourite to repeat as gold medal winners.

The system values Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes as the most important goaltender, but he is likely to actually be the third goaltender, with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks contesting the starter's role. All three goaltenders give Canada the chance to win. With a .925 save percentage, Price has the best stats of the three.

The defense is incredibly deep, as any of the top six would play on the top pairing of any other team in the tournament. There is a lot of offensive talent among the eight, but also defensive responsibility. Any of the top six can lead a powerplay. There is a good mix of youth in Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens, and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and veterans in Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, and Jay Bouwmeester of the St. Louis Blues.

The forward group is just as deep - how else can you describe a line-up that could potentially have Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks on the third line and Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche on the fourth. There are quite a few players who are familiar with each other as well: Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, and Patrick Sharp and Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. Put those pairings together, and you have three lines that will already have some chemistry. And then you can add players like John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, and Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks. Not bad, and that is with Steven Stamkos out of the line-up.

There is no reason Canada should fail to play for a gold medal. The goaltending is solid, the defense can score and keep the defensive zone clear, and the forwards can score even more. Perhaps the team will be disadvantaged on the big ice, but they are playing primarily against teams made up of NHLers already, and more than a few of these names have played in multiple World Hockey Championships.

The Americans remain in second spot, with the second deepest roster in the tournament.

The US goaltending looks a lot better than it did earlier in the year, when both Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings were struggling. Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres is still on his game and will probably get the chance to start, but if he falters either Quick or Howard can easily step in. Along with Canada and the Finns, the Americans have the least to worry about in net.

The defense is not nearly as flashy as the Canadian line-up. There is a lot of youth here: Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues, Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks, Ryan McDonagh of the New York Islanders, and Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. That energy may be useful on the big ice, though. Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild and Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins can provide the steady leadership. It is a solid back-end, but won't score as much as Canada.

The Americans have a great line-up of forwards. Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been on a tear, and is now the most valued player on the roster. He and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks can lead the offense, supported by names like Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks, Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets, and James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Veterans like David Backes of the St. Louis Blues, Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks, and Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild could have good tournaments, the latter two especially looking to improve on a mixed season.

The United States should be able to play in the final, but again the question of the larger international ice will come into play. But the offensive group can score, the defense is reliable, and the goaltending should be good enough to keep them in any game.

The Swedes come in third in the ranking, and have a good enough team to play for a medal.

Their goaltending is a bit of a question. Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers has had a better season since being named to the Swedish roster, but if he does not deliver the Swedes will struggle with Jonas Gustavsson of the Detroit Red Wings or Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres as the relief.

The defense, though, is more reliable. Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators is the leading defensive scorer in the NHL. Combine him with Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings, and you have a dangerous powerplay. The next two pairings are not nearly as lethal, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Alexander Edler of the Vancouver Canucks are no slouches.

The Swedes have one of the best group of top-six forwards in Sochi. Nicklas Bäckstrom and Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals, Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues, and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks are all leading players in the NHL. They are missing Henrik Sedin, but the Swedes have enough depth to cover that: Daniel Alfredsson and Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings and Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins. It is a strong line-up that should compete.

The host Russians have moved into fourth from fifth spot since the rosters were first announced, meaning they should be in the running to play for a medal. But they don't have the same depth as the top three teams.

Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche and Sergei Bobrobsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets are both good enough to lead Russia to a medal, so the team is not lacking in one of their traditional weak spots.

The defense is not as impressive, however. Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens, Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings can all score in the NHL, but the group gets pretty thin after that. Alexei Emelin of the Canadiens is a good hitter, and Nikita Nikitin of the Blue Jackets is an effective player. Ilya Nikulin and Yevgeni Medvedev of Ak Bars Kazan, if they play, may have the advantage of experience on the home ice.

It is difficult to know what to make of the forwards. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins are obviously world-class players, and they both step up their game when they play for their country. But Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings is hurting and Ilya Kovalchuk of SKA St. Petersburg is not producing in the KHL to the extent that he did in the NHL (Alexander Radulov of CSKA Moscow, on a point-per-game basis, is a more productive player). Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blaues, Alexander Semin of the Carolina Hurricans, and Valeri Nischushkin of the Dallas Stars are all skilled players, but would any of them be on the American or Canadian rosters? The Russians could find themselves outmatched when the bottom two lines are on the ice.

The Russians lack the depth of the top three teams and their defense may not be good enough. But the home ice advantage will play in their favour.

The Czechs fall to fifth in the rankings, though if they can score enough they might be able to medal.

Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets will have to carry the bulk of the load in nets, and he hasn't had the best of seasons in the NHL. Jakub Kovar of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Alexander Salak of SKA St. Petersburg are both quality KHL goaltenders, but may not be up to the task of playing the top three teams if Pavelec falters.

The defense is also problematic. Marek Zidlicky of the New Jersey Devils is the most important offensive threat, but after him the group is thin. Radko Gudas of the Tampa Bay Lighting, Michael Rozsival of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Zbynek Michalek of the Phoenix Coyotes will have no trouble handling the lesser teams, but will struggle when the competition heats up. Tomas Kaberle of Rytiri Kladno may not be up to snuff as he plies his trade in the Czech league, though Ladislav Smid of the Calgary Flames is reliable defensively.

The offense is very solid for the Czechs, however. David Krejci of the Boston Bruins, the ageless Jaromir Jagr of the New Jersey Devils, and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers are all top NHL players. Veterans like Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens, Patrik Elias of the Devils, and Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators can provide leadership, while younger players like Ondrej Palat of the Lightning and Vladimir Sobotka of the St. Louis Blues provide the energy.

If Pavelec plays well and the defense focuses on defense, the Czechs can be a threat. But without solid goaltending, the team will not go very far.

The Finns come in sixth in the rankings. If their goaltenders stand on their head, they could move up.

Finland has the best group of goaltenders in the NHL, and they brought them to Sochi. Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, though valued third here, will likely start. If he doesn't play well, either Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars or Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks can step in without losing a beat.

They will have to play well because the Finns' defense is unimpressive. Olli Määttä of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the biggest offensive threat, but that is a lot to put on the young Finn's shoulders. Veterans Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers and Sami Salo of the Tampa Bay Lightning are past their prime, but Sami Vatanan of the Anaheim Ducks is a future star. At least two Finnish defenders will be coming from the European leagues. Juuso Hietanen of Torpedo Nizhni Novogorod has been productive in the KHL, and Sami Lepistö of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg has NHL experience.

Finland would have had a decent set of forwards if Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula hadn't dropped out due to injury - they would have been their two most valued players. Instead, scoring will have to come from Jussi Jokinen of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Olli Jokinen of the Winnipeg Jets, and Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, hardly a top trio to strike fear in the hearts of other teams. The Finns do have decent depth, however: Teemu Selänne of the Anaheim Ducks on the second trio, Tuomo Ruutu of the Carolina Hurricanes on the third, and Petri Kontiola of Traktor Chelyabinsk on the fourth. Sakari Salminen of Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod will be interesting to watch, as he had a terrific season in the KHL.

If Finland gets the goaltending, they can get a medal. But if they don't, they do not have the offensive power to get them far enough.

The Slovaks can never be under-estimated (they played for a medal in Vancouver), but will be less dangerous this year.

Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues, who has been having a so-so season, will need to play great for the Slovaks to get very far. Peter Budaj of the Montreal Canadiens is a solid back-up, but probably not up to a medal winning performance.

Any defensive group that has Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins in it is going to be good, and the Slovaks are no different. He'll be ably supported by Andrej Sekera of the Carolina Hurricans and Andrej Meszaros of the Philadelphia Flyers, but the team is hurt by the absence of Lubomir Visnovsky due to injury. Ivan Baranka of Avangard Omsk is effective enough in the KHL, while NHL veteran Milan Jurcina of TPS Turku could be useful.

No Marion Gaborik robs the Slovaks of a one-two punch up front. Instead Marion Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks will have to provide most of the scoring. He'll need youngsters like Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco of the Detroit Red Wings to break out, while veterans like Marcel Hossa of Dinamo Riga, Tomas Kopecky of the Florida Panthers, and Michael Handzus of the Blackhawks will need to play at their very best. A line from the KHL's Slovan Bratislava made up of Michel Miklik, Milan Barovic, and Branko Radivojevic could have some chemistry.

The NHL veterans will need to lead the way for Slovakia to medal. That means great goaltending from Halak, solid offense and defense from Chara, and goals from Hossa. It is a lot to ask.

The Swiss are always a tough out, and Sochi will be no different.

Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks will give the team reliable goaltending, while Reto Berra of the Calgary Flames and Tobias Stephen of Genève-Servette HC can step in if Hiller falters. But the Swiss will need Hiller to win some games for them.

The Swiss defense can rely on two pairings of NHL veterans: Mark Streit of the Philadelphia Flyers, Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, and Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber of the Vancouver Canucks. Mathias Seger and Severin Blindenbacher of ZSC Lions Zurich are both good Swiss league defenders. The Swiss will be skilled in their own zone.

Goals may be harder to come by at the other end. NHLers Nino Niederreiter of the Minnesota Wild, Damien Brunner of the New Jersey Devils, and Simon Moser of the Predators will need to be good. But the Swiss league is starting to produce good Swiss forwards as well, and Roman Wick and Luca Cunti of Zurich have both been very productive. Martin Plüss of SC Bern and Andres Ambühl of HC Davos are reliable veterans as well.

If the Swiss can win games by 2-1 scores, they can pull off some upsets.

The bottom four teams are unlikely to be very competitive, but Austria may be the best of them - at least for a few minutes at a time.

Bernhard Starkbaum of Brynäs Gävle has been playing very well in the good Swedish league, so he should be the starter for the team. He should be capable of winning some games for the Austrians, particularly against offensively challenged opponents.

The defense is not terrific, with only Stefan Ulmer of HC Lugano playing outside of the middling Austrian league. But Thomas Pöck of KAC Klagenfurt has NHL experience, and Gerhard Unterluggauer has been productive for VSV Villach.

The Austrians may not put their top forwards together on the same line, but they should at least have a decent powerplay. Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders are both good scorers, with Vanek in particular having a decent year. Micahel Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers has also proven himself capable. After that, though, there is not much. Oliver Setzinger has been good for Lausanne HC in the Swiss league. Raphael Herburger has been playing for EHC Biel, which should do him well.

Strong play by Vanek and Grabner and solid goaltending from Starkbaum could make the Austrians competitive. But after the NHL players are off the ice, the team will struggle mightily.

It is a similar situation for Norway, which has a few good players but little depth.

Lars Haugen should carry the load in net, and he has had a decent season in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk. Lars Volden of Espoo Blues is also capable.

Jonas Holøs of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is the best defender on the team, and he has NHL experience. As does Ole-Kristian Tollefsen of Färjestad Karlstad. The rest of the line-up has been playing in the Norwegian league, which will not prepare them for stiff competition.

Mats Zuccarello has been having an amazing season with the New York Rangers, and will be the main source of offense for the Norwegians. Patrick Thoresen of SKA St. Petersburg, who has NHL experience, is also a skilled veteran. Mathias Olimb of Frölunda Gothenburg and Per-Åge Skrøder of MODO Örnsköldsvik are good players in the Swedish league. The rest of the line-up will struggle to keep up.

The Norwegians play hard, but do not have the talent to compete with the top rosters.

The Slovenes stay out of last spot because of one name only: Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.

It will be interesting to see how Luka Gracnar, coming off a good season with Red Bull Salzburg, will do on the big stage. He is a young goaltender, but a bright spot for Slovenia's future. Veteran Robert Kristan of HK Nitra can step in and do well enough if Gracnar fumbles.

No defensemen is playing in a top European league, so the Slovenians will struggle in their own zone. Sabahudin Kovacevic of Sary-Arka Karaganda, Blaz Gregorc of HC Pardubice, and Ziga Pavlin of IF Troja-Ljunby may be the best of a bad group.

Kopitar has been playing great for the Kings, but he will be a target for opposing teams. Nevertheless, he is a top player in the NHL and if the focus is on him, it will open up some space for Jan Mursak of CSKA Moscow, who has some NHL experience. Apart from these two, Rok Ticar of Kölner Haie and Jan Urbas of Red Bull München are capable.

But the Slovenes will be the whipping boy of Sochi, as after Kopitar and Mursak step off the ice the team is just not able to keep up.

The Latvians will also struggle, but their line-up is more balanced.

Kristers Gudlevskis of the Syracuse Crunch of the NHL will give them some goaltending used to North American shooters, so that will give the Latvians a chance.

Veteran Sandis Ozolinsh of Dinamo Riga leads the defensive group. He is still able to produce offensively and provides leadership. Fellow Riga players Kristaps Sotnieks, Krisjanis Redlihs, Georgijs Pujacs, and Arvids Rekis have familiarity. Veterans of North American hockey Arturs Kulda of Salavat Yulayev Ufa and Oskars Bartulis of Donbass Donetsk will be able to hold their own.

Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres is the best offensive talent the Latvians have on offer, and he will be supported by players with NHL experience like Martins Karsums of Dynamo Moscow, Kaspars Daugavins of Gèneve-Servette HC, and Janis Sprukts of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Miks Indrasis of Riga has had a very good year in the NHL.

The Latvians have more depth than Austria, Norway, and Slovenia, but have no stand-out players. That means they will be able to compete without too much of a drop-off in talent between lines, but will find it difficult to impose themselves on the game.

A question of depth

In addition to these full roster analyses, I thought it would be interesting to break it down line-by-line, and see if any of the rosters have hidden strength that way. Kopitar and Vanek, for example, can only play so many minutes. Note that the line combinations below are not actual line combinations, but just groupings by the rankings above.

Here we see why the Finns, ranked sixth overall, could be dangerous. They have the second-highest rated first and second goaltenders, and the best third goaltender. The Americans punch well below their weight here, while the Latvians, for example, have a better starter than their team overall.

On the back-end, the Swedes have the top pairing in Karlsson and Kronwall, while the Slovaks have the fourth-best pairing in Sekera and Chara. Russia's is the fifth best in Markov and Tyutin, while the Swiss pairing of Streit and Josi beats out the Czechs and Finns. Here again, the Latvians come out of the bottom group. The second and third pairings fellow more in line with the overall rankings, though the Czechs are particularly weak.

The forward groupings fellow the overall rankings relatively closely, though the trio of Ovechkin, Malin, and Tarasenko displaces the Swedes (Bäckström, Zetterberg, and Landeskog) for third. The Swiss have the second worst top grouping in Niederreiter, Brunner, and Wick, putting them behind the Austrians and Norwegians.

The Canadians, Americans, and Swedes take up the top three spots for the rest of the lines, with the Czechs displacing the Russians for fourth - demonstrating their offensive depth. The Finns then displace the Russians on the fourth line and the extra skaters, showing the lack of depth Russia has after their top three pairings.

When we rank the teams by depth (giving the top ranked team for each line combination 12 points, the second team 11, and so on) the order changes a little. Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Russia still place one through four, but the Finns (thanks to their goaltending) move into fifth, with the Czechs falling to sixth. The Latvians move into 10th, moving the Norwegians down to 11th and the Slovenes to 12th.

Let the games begin!