Sunday, May 25, 2014

2014 World Hockey Championship post-mortem

The 2014 World Hockey Championship in Minsk, Belarus was a great tournament held in front of large, noisy crowds. There were more than a few upsets, a lot of close games, and every team - from 16th to 1st - was competitive. Unfortunately for Canada, though, the tournament was far from a success as Canada's medal drought continues.

Below you'll find my post-tournament analysis. A few notes on the format. The record for each nation refers to regulation wins, overtime wins, overtime losses, and regulation losses. I've included a list of the most-used forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders, based on average ice-time. I've also included a list of the top scorers (in brackets, it is: GP-G-A-PTS) and goaltenders (W-L, GAA, SPCT). At the bottom I've included what my ranking system suggested were the most valuable players, to compare to the list of players that were most used and who scored the most. And for the entire analysis, when referring to how a team was ranked I am referring to my own rankings (which you can find here).

The team that out-performed expectations the most was France, finishing six spots ahead of where they were ranked. Finland was also an over-achiever, moving from sixth to second and winning a silver medal in the process. The biggest under-achievers were Canada, the United States, and Kazakhstan. But the Big Six hockey nations held the top six spots, as usual.

The best team in Minsk won the gold medal, as it should be. The Russians were absolutely dominant, winning all 10 games they played in regulation, allowing only 10 goals in the process and scoring 42. They led the tournament in almost every category, and trailed for only 2% of the entire tournament (according to Rod Black on TSN). It was an outstanding performance, making up somewhat for the team's dismal showing in Sochi.

The Russians were strong everywhere, but particularly in net. Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky was excellent, posting a .950 save percentage and 1.13 goals against average, along with two shutouts. The Russians barely needed him to be so good - they won their games by an average of three goals - but he was there when they needed him. Andrei Vasilevski, a young Russian prospect, came in for two games and was just as solid.

After the injury to Dmitri Orlov in the third game of the tournament, Anton Belov of the Edmonton Oilers was the only remaining NHLer on the blueline. He was their best, with five points and a +10 rating, but he got tremendous support from Yevgeni Medvedev, Yegor Yakovlev, and Alexander Kutuzov. The Russians adopted a strict defensive system under new head coach Oleg Znarok, and it worked very well.

But as I said, they didn't need the defense because their offense was lights out. Four players averaged more than a point-per-game: former Phoenix Coyotes forward Viktor Tikhonov, who led the tournament with 16 points in 10 games, KHL top scorer Danis Zaripov (13 points), Sergei Plotnikov, and team captain Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who had four goals and seven assists in nine games. Nikolai Kulemin, Sergei Shirokov, and Vadim Shipachyov also contributed.

It was a textbook performance by the Russians, who were by far the strongest team in Minsk in front of a very friendly (almost) local crowd. It doesn't make up entirely for failing to medal in Sochi, but it is not a bad consolation prize.

A silver medal with a line-up containing only three NHLers, one of them a rookie, is a huge achievement for the Finns, who were ranked only sixth going in to the tournament. The Finns got stellar goaltending from Pekka Rinne when they needed it, and scoring from their European league players, and forged their way to the gold medal game, falling short 5-2 against the dominant Russians.

After losing to Latvia in their opener, an upset in and of itself, and then to Russia, it looked like the Finns had made a mistake in sending such a young and inexperienced line-up to Minsk. But then they beat Germany, Belarus, and Switzerland, and were back in the tournament. A loss to the United States almost knocked them out of the playoffs, but they beat Kazakhstan to give just enough points to edge out Switzerland for the fourth spot in the group. Then the Finns downed Canada and the Czechs in two tough elimination games.

Rinne was the star for the Finns, and was accordingly named the tournament MVP. He had a 1.88 goals against average and .928 save percentage, but was overpowered by the Russian powerplay in the gold medal game. The defense was not flashy but it was good, led by Juuso Hietanen and Atte Ohtamaa, along with Jere Karalahti and Tuukka Mantyla.

Jori Lehtera led the way up front with three goals and 12 points, while Petri Kontiola contributed three goals and six assists. Olli Palola led the team in goals with four, while national team veterans like Jarkko Immonen and Olli Jokinen contributed as well. It was a team effort, and all credit goes to the Finns for their silver medal.

The Russians proved to be too much for the Finns, as they did for everyone else in Minsk, but beating Canada and the Czech Republic to earn their silver medal is no small thing.

It is never a surprise when Sweden wins a medal at the World Hockey Championship, and the Swedes did so in Minsk with a 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game. But, on paper, the Swedes hadn't sent a stellar line-up to Belarus, with only a few NHLers and none of them the game-breaker type. But nevertheless, the Swedes only lost two games during the entire tournament.

One was against Canada in the preliminary round, while the other was against Russia in the semi-finals. Otherwise, the Swedes won seven games in regulation and one in overtime in a strong performance.

Much of that was due to the performance of Anders Nilsson, a young goaltender who played part of the year with the New York Islanders. He was terrific, with a .938 save percentage and 1.54 goals against average, providing the Swedes with security that was used to good advantage.

The defense was also strong, led by Mattias Ekholm (seven points in 10 games) and Magnus Nygren, who had five points. Johan Fransson, Tim Erixon, and Erik Gustafsson were also effective.

Scoring came primarily from three players: Joakim Lindstrom (five goals, six assists), Oscar Moller (three goals, six assists), and Mikael Backlund (five goals, three assists), but Ekholm, Linus Klasen, Jimmie Ericsson, and Nicklas Danielsson each had two goals. It gave the Swedes a balanced line-up that was difficult to handle.

A loss against Russia in this tournament is not much of a mark against the Swedes, as the Russians were dominant from top to bottom. Had they managed to squeeze in against the Russians, they would have been the favourite for the gold. A strong performance from a hockey nation with a lot of domestic depth: 15 players on the roster played part or all of last season in the Swedish league.

Each of the Big Six nations have an expectation of a medal when they go to the World Hockey Championship, and the Czech Republic is no different. Their line-up was good enough to play for a medal - and they did - but they didn't have what it takes to get into the top three. And this was because they did not score a goal in the last two games of the tournament.

Though the Czechs did well enough to make it into the playoffs and defeat the United States in the quarter-final, the team did not have an easy go of it. With the exception of the Czechs' 2-0 win over the Italians, every game was decided by a single goal in the preliminary round, including a loss to Denmark and two wins over normally weaker teams like France and Norway. It wasn't a line-up that was dominating.

The back end performed well enough, with Ondrej Nemec managing seven points in 10 games. Alexander Salak played the bulk of the games for the Czechs, and boasted a low goals against average of 2.29, but an unimpressive save percentage of .897.

The Czechs' offense was quite good going into the semi-finals, led by the ageless Jaromir Jagr's four goals and four assists. Tomas Hertl and Vladimir Sobotka contributed six points apiece, while Roman Cervenka put up five. But in the games against Finland in the semi-finals and Sweden for the bronze medal, the Czech forwards were completely shutout. And that is why the Czechs finished fourth.

Overall, though, it was a decent tournament for the Czechs considering that they did not have many NHLers in the line-up and one of them, Roman Polak, was injured after only one game. They needed more from players like Jan Kovar, who had 68 points in the KHL this year but just one assist in the tournament, but both Pekka Rinne and Anders Nilsson got the better of the Czechs in their last two games of the tournament.

Canada cannot catch a break in this tournament. Despite fielding a decent line-up every year - the only country to send a full squad of NHLers - the Canadians can't seem to get past the quarter-finals. Canada performs well in the round-robin every year, but always falls short when the field is reduced to eight. Canada has not gotten past the quarter-final round in five years.

The team sent to Minsk was particularly young, but it nevertheless performed well. After the shocking loss to France in a shoot-out to open the tournament, Canada ran the table, beating Slovakia, the Czechs, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, and Norway. But then Canada fell 3-2 to Finland in the quarter-finals - tournament over.

In the end, the Canadians could not get past Pekka Rinne in the Finnish net. Canadian goaltenders played well, with James Reimer putting up a .911 save percentage and Ben Scrivens managing a 1.74 goals against average and .938 save percentage. But he did not play as well as he could have against Finland, and Canada lost.

Scoring was mostly by committee, with only Joel Ward (six goals, three assists) and Cody Hodgson (six goals, two assists) putting up point-per-game performances. Kyle Turris played a lot, and had six points, while Matt Read and Jonathan Huberdeau each had five points. The young rookie Nathan MacKinnon had four points, but Nazem Kadri has just three assists in eight games.

The defense was solid, with every member of the squad except Braydon Coburn earning a point. Ryan Ellis led the group with five points and a +9 rating.

But Canada needs to find a way to get into the semi-finals. It is easy to send a squad that can dominate the lesser teams and compete with the traditional powers, but the quality of European league players should not be under-estimated. If Canada sends a line-up of second and third liners, the Swedes, Russians, Czechs, and Finns will be able to beat them. Their line-ups might be dominated by European league players, but these players are generally good enough to play on the third or fourth line of NHL teams. They don't because of many reasons, above all the ease of incorporating North American players rather than trying to get Europeans to cross the pond and adapt.

Canada needs to have at least some of their top-flight players at the Worlds in order to compete for a medal. Turris, MacKinnon, Kadri, Garrison, Ellis, and Scrivens are great players. But they are not Jagr, Ovechkin, Malkin, Rinne, or Bobrovsky, who all answered the call for their countries.

The United States never sends a high-quality line-up to the World Hockey Championship, and that has often cost them. Only a few years ago, when the format was different, the USA had to win the mini-tournament to avoid relegation. But lately the US program has been able to send a team that, while not having any big names, can win. In Minsk, the Americans did quite well, though fell short of being able to play for a medal.

The biggest problem for the Americans was goaltending. Tim Thomas played virtually every minute of the tournament for the Americans, and he did not give them a strong performance. He had a .869 save percentage and 3.49 goals-against average, numbers that are quite low even for a short tournament.

Luckily, the Americans were able to put the puck in the opposite net. Only Russia and Canada scored more goals in the round-robin. The team was led in scoring by Seth Jones, who had an amazing tournament with two goals and nine assists in 11 games. A big surprise was the performance of Johnny Gaudreau, a Calgary Flames prospect, who had 10 points in eight games. As expected, Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Craig Smith of the Nashville Predators delivered, with six goals for Johnson and eight points for Smith in eight games. Brock Nelson, who had five goals, was also highly productive. The performance of Tommy Wingels was disappointing, however. He had 38 points for San Jose this year, but none for Team USA.

But the Americans' record does not reflect the sort of tournament they had. Aside from the blow-out win over Belarus, the Americans only narrowly squeaked by their other opponents, even lesser lights like Kazakhstan and Germany. The Americans got the goals, but they also did not keep the puck out of their own net. In the playoffs, the US fell short 4-3 to the Czechs. There were a number of good goaltenders who could have been available and who did not also play in the Olympics (Craig Anderson, Cory Schneider, Al Montoya, Alex Stalock). The US program needs to do a better job recruiting for the Worlds.

By any measure, it was an outstanding tournament for the Belarusians. Hosting the tournament for the first time, in Minsk, the Belarusians set a new attendance record and their team gave them something to cheer about - four wins and a seventh place finish, their best performance since they finished sixth in 2006. It was also a marked improvement over three straight 14th place finishes.

The tournament did not start off well with a 6-1 loss to the United States, but the Belarusians got back on their feet with wins over Kazakhstan and Switzerland. They also defeated Germany and Latvia, and kept the games close against Russia and Finland. They came up short in the playoffs against Sweden, but kept it very competitive with a 3-2 scoreline. Plenty for the locals to cheer about for a team that has struggled in the last few years.

Most of their top players stepped up, with Mikhail Grabovski leading the team with four goals and four assists in six games. Former NHLer Sergei Kostitsyn also had four goals and four assists, but in eight games. National team veteran Alexei Kalyuzhny had one goal and six assists in seven games, while ex-pat Canadian Geoff Platt had five points. Former NHLer Andrei Kostitsyn was a disappointment, held pointless in seven games despite getting his fair share of ice time.

The Belarusians did not get a lot of offense from the blueline, but Vladimir Denisov, Roman Graborenko, and Dmitri Korobov (who played a few games in the NHL this year) all had very good plus/minus ratings. Ex-pat Canadian Kevin Lalande, who plays with Dynamo Minsk in the KHL, was lights out with a .938 save percentage and sparkling 1.25 goals-against average. Vitali Koval was also effective when he got the call.

So good for the Belarusians to go beyond expectations in front of a home crowd. They had the most pressure in this tournament, and they delivered.

The French were the over-achievers of the tournament. Ranked 14th going in and on the bubble to avoid relegation, France finished eighth overall and made it into the playoffs after pulling off a few upsets.

The most shocking upset was the 3-2 victory over Canada to open the tournament, but the French were also able to pull off wins against Slovakia, Norway, and Denmark, as well as pushing the Czechs to overtime. It was an incredible performance.

The French were led by one terrific line of Antoine Roussel (29 points with Dallas this year), Stephane da Costa (four points with the Ottawa Senators, 58 with Binghamton of the AHL), and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (35 points in the good Swedish league). Roussel lit up the tournament with six goals and five assists in eight games, while da Costa had six goals and three assists. Bellemare, who scored the shoot-out winner against Canada, had three goals and five assists.

The problem for the French was that there was not much else after these three (except for Julien Desrosiers, who had six points), and their higher-skilled opponents could focus their defensive efforts on the Roussel-da Costa-Bellemare line. Cristobal Huet was there when he needed to be, though his stats (.902 save percentage, 2.60 goals against average) were less than shining. National team veteran Baptiste Amar was good, but the French were lacking a top flight defenseman.

Nevertheless, this was a terrific performance for the French, who will not be taken so lightly in future years. If they can get their top players to the tournament, France has the ability to pull off upsets.

The Slovaks are always aiming to be in the final eight, as the nation used to have a lock on the 'seventh' spot among the big countries in international hockey. As we get further away from the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Slovaks have been struggling. But they finished ninth, about as good as they were expected to finish. It could have been a better tournament, though.

The Slovaks mostly won the games they should have (against Italy, Denmark, and Norway) and lost the ones they were expected to (against the Czechs, Canadians, and Swedes). But the 5-3 loss to France doomed the Slovaks to finishing outside of the playoffs.

The Slovaks went with Jan Laco throughout the tournament, and he did moderately well. But the Slovaks probably needed a better than .890 save percentage from Laco. They also needed a much better performance from Tampa Bay's Richard Panik. He had 13 points with the Lightning this year, but had zero for Slovakia - despite getting decent ice time. Marek Hrivik, who had 27 points in the AHL, was also held pointless in Minsk.

The offense was instead led by Michel Miklik, who had a stellar tournament with four goals and seven assists in seven games. Tomas Tatar and Ladislav Nagy both had four goals, while former NHLer Miroslav Satan led the team in ice time with over 20 minutes per game.

The Slovaks had a mixed line-up, and were always going to struggle against the bigger countries. They performed well against most of the weaker teams, but the loss to France was the story of the tournament for Slovakia.

The Swiss should have been able to make it to the playoffs, but instead they finished 10th after winning a silver medal last year. The Swiss started the tournament with three straight losses, against Russia, the United States, and Belarus, which put them off on the wrong foot. They were able to defeat the Kazakhs, Latvians, and the Germans, but their losses to Finland and Belarus kept them out of the playoffs.

The Swiss usually have a strong back end, and this was again the case in Minsk. Roman Josi led the team in scoring with seven points in seven games, while Yannick Weber had three goals and one assist. Reto Berra was not stellar, with a .902 save percentage, but the Swiss lost a lot of close games. The offense was just not potent enough - a perennial problem for the Swiss.

Damien Brunner, the only full-time NHL forward in the Swiss line-up, led the way with three goals and three assists. But the injury to Sven Bartschi in the first game of the tournament hamstrung the Swiss. Denis Hollenstein, Andres Ambuhl, and Simon Moser contributed, but the Swiss needed a better performance from Benjamin Pluss, who had 38 points in the Swiss league this year but none in the tournament.

With one-goal losses against the Belarussians, the Latvians, the Finns, and the Americans, the tournament could have easily been a very different one for the Swiss. They needed clutch scoring or stronger goaltending. Without either, the Swiss end up in the middle of the pack.

It was a great tournament for the Latvians, coming off a surprise performance in the Sochi Winter Olympics. The Latvians defeated the United States and Finland in two upsets, in addition to their win against the Kazakhs. They also suffered close one-goal losses to the Germans and the Swiss. If they would have won either of those games, Latvia would have made it into the playoffs.

The Latvians performed well because their best players did their jobs. Mikelis Redlihs led the team in scoring with six points, while Kaspars Daugavins had five points. Miks Indrasis put up four points, while Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres had two goals. A better showing from him could have gone a long way.

At the back, Arturs Kulda (formerly of the Atlanta Thrashers) led the team with four goals from the blueline, while also leading the team in minutes per game. Kristers Gudlevskis, who made a name for himself against Canada in Sochi and earned himself a call-up from Syracuse of the AHL to the Tampa Bay Lightning, had a .891 save percentage and played in the big games. Edgars Masalskis had two of the wins and a lower goals-against average.

An 11th place finish is respectable for the Latvians, and their victories against the Finns and Americans were milestones. A few more lucky bounces and it could have been an exceptional tournament for Latvia.

Norway out-performed expectations because they kept the puck out of the net, won the games they were supposed to, and kept it close in others. Wins against Italy and Denmark to start the tournament ensured they'd avoid relegation, while pushing the French to a shoot-out kept them out of the bottom four, where they were expected to finish.

The Norwegians had a good defense, with fewer goals allowed in the round-robin than all but six teams. Both Lars Haugen and Steffen Soberg played well when called upon, Haugen getting the Norwegians their two wins and Soberg keeping games close, with a stellar .948 save percentage. Jonas Holos, formerly of the Colorado Avalanche, was a horse, playing an average of 32 minutes per game.

The offensive talents up front largely delivered, with Mathis Olimb leading the team with eight points and Morten Ask scoring three goals and two assists. Ken Andre Olimb and Per-Age Skroder were also important contributors, while Anders Bastiansen got a lot of ice time for his two goals.

The Norwegians can usually be counted upon to finish around 12th, and this particular line-up appeared weaker than in recent years. But the Norwegians acquitted themselves well.

It was a topsy-turvy tournament for the Danes, who were defeated by the Norwegians and French, two teams they should have been able to topple. On the other hand, they won against the Czechs, a team that finished fourth. Consistency against the lower-ranked teams was lacking for the Danes, and so they finished only 13th.

Goaltending was the big problem for the Danes. Only Kazakhstan allowed more goals in the round-robin. This is where the timing of the tournament hurt Denmark, as Fredrik Andersen was busy playing with the Anaheim Ducks. Simon Nielsen, who played the bulk of the time for the Danes, struggled with just a .856 save percentage. Patrick Galbraith, with a .888 save percentage, was better - but his goals against average was an entire goal-per-game worse.

That is unfortunate, since the Danes did have some scorers in the line-up. Kim Staal and Jesper Jensen, two European leaguers, led the way with five points for Staal and three goals for Jensen. NHLers Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen also contributed, with four points apiece. Nicklas Jensen of the Vancouver Canucks also had two points. But from the blueline, Philip Larsen of the Edmonton Oilers, who played 25 minutes per game, was limited to just one assist.

If the Danes had gotten the saves they needed, they could have performed very well. Victories against Slovakia and Norway, games lost by just a goal, would have give the Danes a chance to compete for a playoff spot.

It is hard to say the Germans under-performed. They won the games they should have against Latvia and Kazakhstan, and were competitive in most of the games they lost to the more high-powered teams, like Finland, Russia, and the United States. They needed victories against Belarus and Switzerland to have hopes of making it to the playoffs, but came up short.

Inexplicably in my view, however, it was Rob Zepp who got the call in nets for Germany in those games, rather than Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer had a good season with the Washington Capitals, posting a .925 save percentage in 17 games. He was also good in this tournament, with a .922 save percentage. But he only played two games, with Zepp instead getting the bulk of the time in goal but managing a woeful save percentage of .856. Grubauer had a goals-against average of just over two goals. If he had been the goalie throughout the tournament, that might have been enough to win the Germans a few other games.

But the Germans were not scoring very much. Thomas Oppenheimer and Kai Hospelt led the team with six and five points, respectively, while prospect Leon Draisaitl had four points. But after these three, no German player had more than two points. Felix Schutz, who had 38 points in the KHL this year, was limited to just one assist. Thomas Rieder, who had 48 points with the Portland Pirates of the AHL this year, scored just one goal in seven games. Had the Germans' best scorers played up to their capabilities, and if Grubauer had been given the starts, the Germans might have had a much better tournament.

Italy was relegated, as expected. But they managed to finish 15th rather than last, an achievement in itself for this line-up. And their victory - their only victory - against France, a team that over-achieved on almost every night, was a highlight.

But the Italians couldn't buy a goal, scoring only six in seven games. Their top scorer, defenseman Giulio Scandella, had just one goal and three points, while no one other than Markus Gander scored more than a goal. There were high hopes for Brian Ihnacak, who had 81 points in the Italian league this last season, but he did not manage a single point. Diego Kostner, who had a decent season in the much more competitive Swiss league, had just one goal.

Goaltending wasn't a problem, though the defense was over-powered by the Swedes and Canadians. But otherwise, Daniel Bellissimo kept the Italians in some games, and he put up a .903 save percentage. If the Italians had been able to score, against the Norwegians and Danes, for example, they might have avoided relegation. But they'll be back in Division I next year.

That Kazakhstan was relegated is not much of a shock, the team is usually on the bubble. They were also in the more difficult group, being ranked only more highly than Latvia. They kept the games against the lower ranked teams close, but the 5-4 loss against Latvia - the team they should have been able to beat - sealed their fate.

The Kazakhs weren't hamstrung on offense, scoring more goals than Italy and Germany, and as many as Norway. But they were the worst defensive team in the tournament, allowing 32 goals in seven games, for an average of 4.6 per game. No team will be able to win with such a porous defense.

Goaltending was the problem, as neither Vitali Yeremeyev nor Alexei Ivanov were able to get the job done. Both had mediocre seasons in the KHL, but Yeremeyev is a national team veteran and was once highly rated enough to play a few games with the New York Rangers some years ago. Ivanov played more of the minutes, and put up just a .875 save percentage and 5.07 goals-against average, compared to Yeremeyev's .890 save percentage and 3.65 goals-against average. Perhaps had Yeremeyev played a little more, the Kazakhs could have put up a better result.

They could have gotten better performances from Roman Starchenko (two goals) and Talgat Zhailauov (one goal, one assist), but Kevin Dallman and Nikolai Antropov stepped up in their place. Nevertheless, a last place finish has to be disappointing for a team that could have done better.

Replacing Kazakhstan and Italy in 2015 will be Austria and Slovenia, who earned promotion earlier this year. These are two good replacement nations who have the potential to stick for more than one year, considering the surprising performance of the Slovenes in Sochi and the number of NHLers available to Austria. Next year's World Hockey Championship will be held in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic.