Sochi Olympics 2014: Team USA Roster Analysis (Forwards)

Image courtesy of blog.nj.com.

As I’m sure most have by now seen, Team USA have revealed the roster that they will be flying to Russia with in February to take on the best hockey players in the world – and there were some surprising revelations.

The Roster

Image courtesy of SBnation.com.

Team USA made the announcement following the conclusion of the NHL’s Winter Classic, and eyebrows were no doubt raised across the country upon the reveal of the roster.  First things first, here’s the list if you haven’t already seen it:

Forwards (14):

  • Backes, David
  • Brown, Dustin
  • Callahan, Ryan
  • Kane, Patrick
  • Kesler, Ryan
  • Kessel, Phil
  • Oshie, TJ
  • Pacioretty, Max
  • Parise, Zach
  • Pavelski, Joe
  • Stastny, Paul
  • Stepan, Derek
  • van Riemsdyk, James
  • Wheeler, Blake

Defence (8):

  • Carlson, John
  • Faulk, Justin
  • Fowler, Cam
  • Martin, Paul
  • McDonagh, Ryan
  • Orpik, Brooks
  • Shattenkirk, Kevin
  • Suter, Ryan

Goal (3):

  • Howard, Jimmy
  • Miller, Ryan
  • Quick, Jonathan

Notable omissions?

Image courtesy of latimesblogs.latimes.com

Well, up front Bobby Ryan is a somewhat startling one, along with Kyle Okposo and to a lesser extent Brandon Saad.  There certainly appear to be some odd decision making there.

On the blueline, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson were certainly in the mix (inexplicably for the former, in my opinion), as were Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien, although it is hard to argue with most of the above choices.

In net, I was personally surprised to see Ryan Miller make the cut.  Despite Buffalo’s struggles this year, he has been good, and was obviously the hero in Vancouver four years ago, but Corey Schneider and Craig Anderson have arguably been more effective in the years leading up to Sochi.

Team USA Forwards Analysis – Scoring Stats

In order to analyse the forward selections, the first port of call is quite obviously their scoring numbers.  Hockey is won by the team that scores more goals, so what better way to evaluate the players whose job it is to do just that?

The following table displays each forward named to Team USA, followed by their position, age, their statistics for each of the four seasons leading up to the Olympics, their totals, and the averages.  Click the image to enlarge it.


Team USA Forwards

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com; table created by Chris Hext.
  • The team is taking only three to four “pure” centers (depending on your opinion of whether Kesler is a pure center or not), although Pavelski and van Riemsdyk both have the ability to play the position.  This means that while they may not have the depth at the position that Canada does, they do have some versatility on the wings, never a bad thing.
  • With an average age of 27, no-one over the age of 29 and no-one younger than 23, the team is opting for “youthful experience”: all have significant NHL experience, and 9 of them were on the 2010 team which came so painfully close to victory:
    • Backes
    • Brown
    • Callahan
    • Kane
    • Kesler
    • Kessel
    • Parise
    • Pavelski
    • Stastny
  • It has to be said: there is not an abundance of elite-level scoring on this team – only two players, Kane and Kessel, have averaged anywhere near 1 point per game since the last Olympics.  Team Canada has not released their roster yet, but it is safe to say that they will be bringing a healthy dose of the NHL’s elite scoring skaters with them.  This isn’t solely a question of selection issues, but rather an indication that a majority of the NHL’s top scoring talent is from Team USA’s cousins to the north.
  • Five of the top 30 scorers in the NHL are eligible to play on Team USA, and only 3 of those 5 were selected (Ryan and Okposo being the odd ones out).  When 15 of the top 30 NHL scorers are Canadian, you would think GM David Poile and his cohorts would be sure to take as much firepower as possible, but evidently that is not the case.
  • As pointed out in Scott Burnside’s excellent article over at ESPN, Team USA’s management didn’t select the 25 best players, but rather the 25 players who would give them “the best chance to win Gold”.  This is all well and good in principle, but this tactic often leads to favouritism, overthinking, and a thought process which indicates a belief that the selection staff are “smarter than everyone else”.  Not a good way to build a team, in my opinion at least.

Perhaps they are building the team on the idea that two-way hockey is the way to go, filling their lineup with players who have an impact in each discipline – even strength, powerplay, and penalty kill.   Is this the case?

Team USA Forwards Analysis – Deployment and Usage

The next table displays the usage of each forward on their respective NHL teams, including their relative ranking on their team in terms of Time On Ice.  Those who are top 3 on their respective teams in any of the disciplines can likely be considered to be highly trusted and valued players by their coach.  This is not a perfect measure by any means — players like Pavelski are probably unfairly punished due to the depth on their teams — but it does give some indication as to how Team USA might be expected to use them.  Click the image to enlarge.

Team USA Forwards TOI

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com; table created by Chris Hext.
  • I find this table particularly enlightening.  Almost all these forwards are among the most used on their respective NHL clubs at even strength and on the powerplay, though Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan stand out as players considerably lower in the pecking order than many of their peers.  Again, this is partly a depth issue, at least for Brown – he is on a stacked Kings team – and of course not all your players are likely to be superstars, but it’s not difficult to identify the “weak links” here.
  • David Backes, TJ Oshie and Ryan Kesler are clearly the class of the group in terms of being all-round contributors, providing top-level play in all disciplines, and Joe Pavelski isn’t far off at all either.
  • The rest of the group display a startling lack of two-way ability, or at the very least trust in their defensive ability by their coaches.  Of course, I haven’t run this exercise yet for other Olympic rosters, and perhaps other teams will turn out in a similar manner, but it has to be said it’s tricky to identify quite what Team USA are going for here.  They haven’t selected the top offensive talent, nor have they gone for the most versatile players either.  It’s kind of a weird middle ground of talent.
  • This doesn’t mean these players don’t have defensive ability; many of them may play on clubs that don’t require them to be significant PK contributors, thanks to depth, but other than 4 players none of these guys are even 3rd string options.

Team USA Forwards Analysis – Underlying Numbers

Finally, let’s dig a bit deeper and explore these players’ underlying numbers.  Thanks to Robert Vollman’s Player Usage Charts, we can track how players are doing in terms of their possession game, as well as the kind of competition they are taking on.  The following chart displays this information for the Team USA forwards.

Team USA Forwards Usage Chart

  • The bluer the bubble, the better the player’s Corsi number; the x-axis displays the offensive zone start percentage, and the y-axis is the quality of competition.
  • This chart should be encouraging.  With the exception of JVR and Kessel, all these players look excellent, particularly when you note that they are all taking on above average competition.
  • A good number of these players are also putting up good numbers despite starting less than 50% of their shifts in the offensive zone, making their numbers all the more impressive.  Adversely, Kane is getting a huge boost in this area, a major factor in his elite scoring numbers.  The coaching staff will for Team USA will have to utilise him in a similar manner if they hope to get the same kind of production.

The following table displays each forward, their individual Fenwick For Percentages (shot attempts) and PDO numbers (on-ice shooting and save percentages added together, an expression of “luck”), the FF% and PDO numbers for their respective NHL clubs, and their clubs’ NHL Conference rank at the time of writing.

Team USA Forwards Advanced

Statistics courtesy of ExtraSkater.com; table created by Chris Hext.
  •  Things actually look very good here.  With the exception of Kessel and Van Riemsdyk, all players selected have good possession numbers, and in fact are among the top US possession players in the league.  A good start, if you believe in a puck possession game.  Brown looks particularly good in this regard, being one of the top possession forwards on one of the top possession teams.
  • Of course, he might be helped by being on such a collectively good Kings team, but it stands to reason that by playing with other good possession players on Team USA, he will likely be just as effective.
  • This works both ways.  JVR and Kessel look awful by this metric, but when you see that Toronto as a team is also awful as a whole at puck possession, you can exonerate these two from a certain amount of blame.  Again, they are not blameless, but place them in a situation where puck possession is key and it’s likely that they’d match up well with their peers.
  • Overall, these are not players experiencing massive amounts luck, with the odd exception, so their current performance is likely close-ish to their true ability.
  • Team USA have selected from a good spread of teams, not being totally afraid of selecting from lower-ranked teams, although they have avoided basement-level clubs like the plague.  This may be a contributing factor behind the snubs of Ryan and Okposo.

Those Left Behind

Just to see what Team USA might be leaving off their roster, let’s take a quick look at each of the above tables with regard to the “forgotten bunch” – Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo, Brandon Saad, and also Jason Pominville (who probably never had a shot, but he’s a good player having a solid season).

Team USA Forwards Extras

  • Ryan and Pominville look very good compared to the Team USA roster as selected.  Ryan did struggle last year, but his play overall has been remarkably consistent, particularly in the goal scoring department.  If selected, he would have ranked 3rd in total goals scored since 2010 behind Kessel and Kane, and is also 3rd behind those same two players this year alone.  It is undoubtedly a huge surprise that he didn’t make this squad, with members of the selection committee apparently “nervous” about his play, despite his track record and his previous appearance in the Olympics with the team.
  • Pominville is having a very good year, particularly when putting the puck in the net.  He, like Ryan, has put up very good numbers since 2010, and prior to that aswell, but for some reason has rarely been in the conversation for any international tournament.  Consider that he is putting up decent numbers on a defensive team, and he may look even better on a highly skilled international roster.
  • Saad is obviously at a very early point in his career, but is certainly “trending upwards”, putting up good numbers in each of his first two full NHL seasons, and becoming an important part of the powerhouse Blackhawks.  There is an argument that he is being carried by exceptional linemates, but at the end of the day he’s proved he can play with skill. Given his age, and looking at the average age of the Team USA roster, it’s not surprising he wasn’t selected, along with his lack of experience.  If he continues to develop however, watch out for him in 2018.
  • Okposo was a popular name mentioned when I asked others who the biggest snubs were.  His production over the course of the last four seasons have not matched the average of the final roster selection, apart from this year.  He is undoubtedly having an exceptional season, currently ranked 13th overall in points in the NHL, but his lack of a track record when it comes to elite level scoring likely held him back here.

Team USA Forwards TOI Extras

  • Ryan and Okposo are clearly top line offensive options for their respective teams, and Pominville falls in just behind.
  • It is starting to become slightly clearer as to why these players didn’t make the cut: duplication of skills.  All are clear offensive contributors, with little PK experience with the exception of Saad (who is part of a large rotation of players on the Hawks), and all are wingers.  All these guys are pure wingers with frequently duplicated skillsets on a roster already bereft of center depth and PK experience.
  • Pominville once again looks impressive: he is notching a lot of goals considering he is his team’s 4th best option at even strength.  He is getting a lot of PP time, but 12 of his 17 goals have come at even strength play, indicating he isn’t solely relying on that man-advantage opportunity.

Team USA Forwards Usage Chart Extras

  • Okposo, Saad and Pominville all are receiving a major push in order to achieve their offensive numbers, a black mark on their resumes, although they are doing their jobs well in the situations in which they are placed, so they shouldn’t be judged too harshly.
  • Ryan stands out here, playing incredibly tough competition and not receiving much of a zone-start boost and yet still coming out ahead in shot attempt differential.  That’s the kind of player any team would, or should, want.

Team USA Forwards Advanced Extras

  • Ryan and Okposo don’t look great here, but they are playing on bottom-of-the-ladder teams, so they can’t be completely to blame for those numbers – and the numbers aren’t even bad.  Ryan is enjoying some luck on his season, but his history suggests he is a very good player anyway so it shouldn’t be of particular concern.  Okposo on the other hand actually is suffering from bad luck, most likely thanks to the awful goaltending the Islanders receive on a regular basis.
  • Saad is the class of the group, leading all US-born players in Fenwick For Percentage.  Again, he is likely helped by playing on such a good team, but at the same time he is most definitely not a weak-link in the chain.  Remarkable numbers for such a young player.
  • Pominville also looks excellent by these metrics, putting up good numbers without the benefit of a boost in luck, and driving play at a rate far better than his team is as a whole.

Conclusion

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.net.

To me, it really looks like Team USA dropped the ball by not including Ryan in the squad.  He will likely be first call-up option should an injury occur, but he is most definitely a far better option than Wheeler, Callahan and possibly Brown.  Some may cite “intangibles” and physical play, but Ryan is an experienced hockey player both in the NHL and internationally, with no apparent black-marks against his name in terms of character.  He also is “in the range” with Wheeler and Callahan in terms of physical play, whilst possessing vastly superior offensive skills.

The only way to really know how this group will do is to see them play.  They could prove me completely wrong and outperform expectations, but given their competition I find it unbelievable that they would refuse to take some of their most potent offensive weapons.

Has David Poile and his highly successful management team made a mistake?  Or are they indeed the smartest men in the room?  We will see.

Stay tuned for the next installment, an analysis of the defense and goaltending.

Follow Chris on Twitter, and whilst you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk.

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