Which Olympic Team Do The Analytics Favor?
Hockey statistician and all around cool guy Rob Vollman dropped some science on me, and with his permission we've turned it into a guest post here at The Cannon.
Now that the Olympic rosters are set, which team do the analytics favor? Statistically, Canada is seen as the big Gold medal favourite, with Sweden and USA evenly matched for the Silver. Russia is only a slight step behind, with the Czech Republic, Finland, and Slovakia trailing behind, in that order.
This is all based on the Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) of each team's players. GVT is a high-level estimate of a player's entire contributions, both offensive, defensive and goaltending. Its limitations will be explored momentarily, which will allow for the possibility that the rankings could prove to be all wrong upon deeper analysis, but for now let's accept it as a reasonable starting point.
The team totals below were created by adding up the average GVT over the past three seasons for each of their players. In the case of Canada, Sweden and USA some of the totals had to be decreased, since many of their players will be seeing far less ice time than they did in the NHL.
Per-Game GVT For Each Olympic Nation
Team Off Def Goalie Total
Canada 2.25 0.86 0.27 3.38
Sweden 1.70 0.68 0.39 2.77
USA 1.52 0.84 0.30 2.66
Russia 1.45 0.56 0.21 2.22
Czech 0.93 0.64 0.00 1.57
Finland 0.68 0.52 0.35 1.55
Slovakia 0.67 0.52 0.19 1.38
According to these high-level estimates, Canada is the best team both offensively and defensively, although only by a slim margin over the American team by that latter measure. Sweden's slight edge in scoring and goaltending keeps them even with (or slightly ahead of) Team USA.
Each of the remaining teams have their respective strengths. Russia is strong offensively, Finland has good goaltending, and the Czech Republic actually appears to be competitive in its own end.
These numbers are presented on a per-game basis, relative to what would be achieved by a team of replacement-level NHLers. Such a team would probably be perhaps a 50-point NHL team (at best), and likely finish eighth among the Olympic teams, ahead of Slovenia, Austria, Norway, Latvia and Switzerland.
An NHL playoff team has a GVT of about 1.50 per game, meaning that even the Czech Republic and Finland would be above-average NHL teams, with Slovakia perhaps on the bubble.
Though the games could be decided by a shootout, that component was not included in this analysis. GVT data is also not available for any player that didn't play in the NHL over the past three seasons, and such skaters are perhaps unfairly considered replacement-level. Note that this doesn't apply to players like Ilya Kovalchuk, for whom NHL data does exist, and was used.
Is GVT really a suitable measure of each team's overall abilities? Not necessarily. Without going into too much detail into its limitations, suffice it to say that it's a goal-based statistic in an analytic world built primarily on shot-based data. As explained in more detail in chapter 13 of Hockey Abstract, it can be particular challenging to capture defensive contributions with such data, and can be greatly influenced by not only the conditions in which a player is used, but also their shooting luck.
It is nevertheless a reasonable starting point to rank the top Olympic teams, which we will now take a quick look at on a team-by-team level.
Offense: 2.25 (1st)
Defense: 0.86 (1st)
Goaltending: 0.27 (4th)
Overall: 3.38 (1st)
Team Canada's two greatest strengths are its formidable blue line, and the scoring potential of their top line. The thought of having to face the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and perhaps John Tavares when trying to protect a late one-goal lead is enough to give opponents nightmares.
The country's pool of defensemen is so great that the inclusion of last year's Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban was actually a point of debate. If Team Canada has a weakness, however, it is that their legacy of great goaltending has long passed, and will likely be no better than anyone else's.
Offense: 1.70 (2nd)
Defense: 0.68 (3rd)
Goaltending: 0.39 (1st)
Overall: 2.77 (2nd)
Though he's been struggling this season in the NHL, Henrik Lundqvist is the key to Team Sweden's Gold medal hopes. Beating Canada, and even the USA, is going to require some game-stealing saves.
The team in front of King Henrik is solid from top to bottom, both offensively and defensively. The team is deep and without any obvious flaw.
Offense: 1.52 (3rd)
Defense: 0.84 (2nd)
Goaltending: 0.30 (5th)
Overall: 2.66 (3rd)
Every Olympic team can score, and so winning a medal could come down to elite shutdown talent, which the Americans have in spades. Not only does the USA have potentially the strongest defensive team in the tournament, but with Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel they also have the potential to get a goal whenever they need one.
Offense: 1.45 (4th)
Defense: 0.56 (5th)
Goaltending: 0.21 (6th)
Overall: 2.22 (4th)
Russia's top scoring line is potentially as good as Canada's, featuring Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk. And don't forget Pavel Datsyuk! When the Russian team desperately needs a goal, they're in a good position to get it.
On the flip side, the Russian team lacks the depth, especially defensively, to remain among the top medal contenders. While their goaltending is certainly solid, including last year's Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, it is unlikely to be in the series-stealing Tretiakian tradition.
Team Czech Republic
Offense: 0.93 (5th)
Defense: 0.64 (4th)
Goaltending: 0.00 (7th)
Overall: 1.57 (5th)
While without a game-changing superstar like Jaromir Jagr once was, and certainly without the services of a generational talent like Dominik Hasek in nets, the Czech Republic nevertheless remains a well-rounded and competitive team.
Offense: 0.68 (6th)
Defense: 0.52 (6th-Tie)
Goaltending: 0.35 (2nd)
Overall: 1.55 (6th)
Finland can rely on exceptional goaltending, but not necessarily much else. Of course, if that was enough to win the Gold medal, it wouldn't be the first time.
Offense: 0.67 (7th)
Defense: 0.52 (6th-tie)
Goaltending: 0.19 (6th)
Overall: 1.38 (7th)
While Slovakia certainly deserves to be listed among the top teams, it isn't a very strong medal threat. The top lines are perfectly solid, with players like Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, with Jaroslav Halak capably serving in nets, but the secondary lines could get dominated.
Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract and co-author of the four annual Hockey ProspectusGuides. His work is featured on ESPN Insider, Hockey Prospectus and Bleacher Report.