Hockey fans around the world are excited about the 2010 Olympics because it gives us an opportunity to see the greatest players in the world compete in a single tournament. Since the teams are based on national borders, fans can get even more emotional about their favorites than usual, making it harder to see clearly which areas one team has the advantage over another in. With a little bit of analysis we can supplement our opinions with numbers and get a clearer picture of which of these super-teams is most likely to win the Gold.
First, we take the published training camp rosters of each of the seven major contenders most likely to become medalists. For each player on those rosters, we adjust their GVT to an 82 game schedule, and then add up the total GVT for the leading 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goaltenders to arrive at a team GVT. Here is how the Big 7 rank, broken down by offensive GVT, defensive GVT and goaltending GVT.
Nation OFF DEF GOAL TOTAL
Canada 221.1 90.5 27.7 339.2
Russia 190.8 77.9 16.3 285.0
USA 140.5 78.0 44.7 263.2
Czech 128.7 79.7 27.3 235.7
Sweden 86.3 65.8 22.3 174.4
Finland 78.4 65.2 30.4 174.0
Slovakia 92.8 53.9 9.9 156.5
Average NHL team 120.0 (Reminder)
This comparison serves to establish a rough ranking of the top teams, and how far apart they are. Canada is a clear favorite, followed by Russia with their explosive offense, but weak goaltending. Tim Thomas’ strong 2008-09 season makes the United States look better than it is, but they're still at least as good as the Czechs even without him. Beyond that, Sweden and Finland are neck-and-neck, Sweden the more potent offensively, and Finland better in goal. Slovakia is better than your average NHL team and their offense has enough bite to compete with the others.
As illuminating as this analysis is, it suffers from some unavoidable shortfalls. For instance, it’s based on 2008-09 data, during which some of the players involved had some off seasons, suffered serious injuries, or needed another year to develop. Then again, some of these players had unusually good seasons, and may get injured before the Olympics start, so it may simply average out. It stands to reason that the teams with the most depth are the least likely to drop appreciably, at least relative to those relying on a small handful of older veterans, whereas teams based more on the younger players are the most likely to improve.
Another issue is that not all of the players involved competed in the same league. For those that played in the KHL, SEL, FNL, AHL, Juniors, Czech or Slovak leagues, I either used their old NHL stats from one of the two preceding seasons, or their League Equivalencies to translate their statistics to an NHL equivalent, and then looked for NHL players with similar statistics to estimate their GVT. Given that most of the non-NHL players on these teams are depth players, the effect of any underestimation or overestimation is likely minimal, but for the record, here is a table demonstrating which teams are most likely to have been significantly underestimated or overestimated.
NP: Number of Players invited to training camp without recent NHL stats
T20: Number of those players likely to be among the top 20 that play
GVT: Total GVT of the players in that top 20
Nation NP T20 GVT
Russia 9 4 37.6
Finland 14 5 34.2
Czech 7 2 23.5
Slovakia 12 4 22.0
Sweden 5 1 6.1
Canada 0 0 0.0
USA 0 0 0.0
The most serious issue with this analysis is that it over-values teams like Canada. Why? Ice-time. Since the players on Team Canada are predominantly first-line NHL players, their GVT is based on receiving a lot of premium ice-time. If they’re all on the same team, only a select few of them will be able to enjoy significant ice-time and, therefore, be able to contribute at such a high level.
>10: Number of players/goalies with GVT over 10
>20: Number of players/goalies with GVT over 20
Nation >10 >20
Canada 27 6
Russia 13 4
USA 12 3
Czech 11 1
Finland 10 2 (both goalies!)
Sweden 7 2
Slovakia 6 2
If we define an elite first-line player as anyone with a GVT of 20 or higher over an 82 game season, then most of these teams can put together two full lines of elite players. For Team Canada, the remaining two lines will also be populated by elite players, but they will not be able to contribute at the same level as the initial analysis supposes, due to limited ice-time. For Team Slovakia, the remaining two lines are populated by players whose GVT is already based on reduced ice-time opportunities, so their estimated contributions are more likely correct. Let’s repeat our analysis, but this time looking only at the top two lines of 6 forwards, 4 defensemen and 1 goalie.
Nation OFF DEF GOAL TOTAL
Canada 140.2 59.1 20.4 219.7
Russia 145.7 51.8 6.9 204.4
USA 95.5 49.8 36.0 181.4
Czech 84.4 50.0 27.3 161.7
Sweden 75.0 48.1 14.9 137.9
Slovakia 82.1 36.1 13.1 131.2
Finland 57.8 42.7 22.2 122.7
The net result is that the teams are much closer together. Team Canada still has the edge, but is no longer the best offensive team. The advantage one team has over the next starts to disappear.
In reality, the gap between the teams is even tighter than this, because each player’s GVT is based upon playing against opponents at an NHL level, whereas their opponents in this tournament will be far, far superior. As a result, we should see a significant drop in the contributions of all the players on each of these teams.
Be mindful of how small the differences are between teams before boasting to your friends. If the difference between two teams is 20 GVT, that translates to roughly only 0.25 goals per game. If these teams were playing a 7-game series, that slim advantage would do very little to improve your probability of winning. In the Olympics, they play a single game, making an advantage that small almost insignificant.
It’s difficult for all of us to analyze the 2010 Olympics objectively since national rivalries are involved. Statistical hockey analysis can help ground us, and can tell us what different teams will have to do to win the Gold in Vancouver. What this study has revealed to us is that Canada is the team to beat, that they’ll probably have to face Russia in the Gold Medal game, and that the United States and the Czechs will be left to fight it out for the Bronze medal.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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