Sochi Olympics 2014: Team USA Roster Analysis

Image courtesy of blog.nj.com.

The eve of the World’s greatest international hockey competition is upon us.  As teams jet into Sochi, make their final preparations, and strategise for the tough road ahead, Ice Nation UK is going to break down each and every roster in attendance.

Keep checking in over the next couple of days as we bring you the very best in analysis, and you might learn a thing or two about how the best hockey nations on the planet stack up against each other “on paper”.

To kick things off: 2010 Olympic Finalists, Team USA.

THE ROSTER

Image courtesy of SBnation.com.

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.

FORWARDS

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.

Seasons coloured GREEN are those spent entirely or partially in a league other than the NHL.  Scoring totals include those obtained while playing in other domestic leagues around the globe, both professional and junior (if applicable).  Click the image to enlarge it.

USA FWD - STATS

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.

USA FWD - ADV

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.

DEFENSE

Team USA Defense Analysis – Scoring Stats

In order to analyse the defense 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 defender 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.

Seasons coloured GREEN are those spent entirely or partially in a league other than the NHL.  Scoring totals include those obtained while playing in other domestic leagues around the globe, both professional and junior (if applicable).  Click the image to enlarge it.

USA DEF - STATS

  • A very strong group of players here for Team USA, sporting a great mix of veteran steadiness, elite level talent and blossoming young defenders.
  • With the exception of Orpik, all of the above skaters can move the puck well, Suter, Shattenkirk and Faulk proving the most adept.
  • Suter is the class of the corps, providing Norris Trophy-level play at times over the last few seasons and has become the shining light for Team USA’s blueline, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle.
  • McDonagh and Fowler will be very exciting to watch in their first big senior international tournament.  Both are well on their way to becoming top-level NHL defenders, with McDonagh already nearly there, and Fowler recovering nicely from a poor 2012/13 season.

Team USA Defense Analysis – Deployment and Usage

The next table displays the usage of each defender 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 can be unfairly punished due to the depth on their teams or the way in which their coach manages their ice time — but it does give some indication as to how Team USA might be expected to use them.  Click the image to enlarge.

USA DEF - TOI

 

  • This really highlights just how highly thought-of this group is.  Four of them are top-3 on their NHL team in all three disciplines, and the other four are top three in two disciplines.  Every single one of them is their team’s top contributor in at least one discipline.
  • Developing into a true top-pairing defenseman is one of the most difficult things to do in hockey, so for Team USA to have five on their team is pretty incredible (Carlson, Orpik and Shattenkirk just miss the cut in my opinion).
  • This group should be dominant in all disciplines, their time on ice in the NHL showing great versatility and trust, particularly with the likes of Suter, Fowler and McDonagh.

Team USA Defense Analysis – Underlying Numbers

Let’s use Robert Vollman’s Player Usage Charts to 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 defense.

USA DEF - PUC

 

  • The picture gets a bit murky here all of a sudden.  None of these guys look particularly hot in terms of shot attempt differential when compared to their team-mates, except for Faulk and Shattenkirk.
  • Shattenkirk receives extraordinarily sheltered minutes, playing below average competition and extreme offensive zonestarts while Faulk is looking good in relatively difficult minutes, which is highly encouraging.
  • Orpik and Martin are both playing the tough minutes for Pittsburgh, likely while Letang and Maatta take on the soft parade.  That they come out looking bad in shot differential isn’t surprising particularly, but it would be nice to see the bubble looking just a little less claret-coloured.

The following table displays each blueliner, 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.

USA DEF - ADV

 

  • With the exception of Shattenkirk – who plays on one of the best defensive teams in the league – none of these players appear to be any screaming hell at puck possession, though most of them break even at least which is never a bad sign.
  • The results are more encouraging here than above; the numbers used here remove blocked shots from the equation while also using “pure” or “raw” numbers as opposed to displaying their rating relative to their team-mates.

GOAL

To evaluate goalies, the number most indicative of actual ability is likely even-strength save percentage.  By removing their numbers on the powerplay or while shorthanded, we remove the wildly fluctuating numbers, year-to-year, of special teams play and can focus instead on the discipline at which the vast majority of each game is played.

USA GOAL - SV%

 

 

  • As noted above, I felt Miller was a surprise inclusion with the squad, but his numbers here prove me wrong; he’s been consistently very good since Vancouver, and is in fact having his best season in quite some time.
  • Jimmy Howard is having an awful year for Detroit, by his own standards at least following a couple of very productive seasons.  Whether this is a temporary dip in form or the start of a decline remains to be seen, but many were surprised to see him make the cut for Sochi.
  • Quick is having a nice season, comparable to Miller’s, but this is more of a bounceback following a poor 2012/13 season.  Still riding a wave of popularity following his Conn Smythe-winning performance in 2011, Quick will likely see a couple of starts, but it’ll take a lot for him to overcome Miller as the starter.

CONCLUSION

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.net.

Team USA as always have a solid corps of forwards, though lack the elite talent up front, outside of arguably Kane and Kessel, that some other teams do.

Where they do excel is defense and in net, and they’ll have to draw up their battle plans accordingly to take advantage of that strength as they won’t be able to compete with the likes of Canada in a track-meet.

I don’t see this team going all the way, but they certainly have the talent to medal, and we could well see a rematch of the 2010 Final.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

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

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