Hot Starts at the 2014 Olympic Hockey Tournament That Will Continue

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IFebruary 15, 2014

Hot Starts at the 2014 Olympic Hockey Tournament That Will Continue

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    Jonas Hiller has yet to allow a single puck past Switzerland's goal line, while Sweden's star defenseman Erik Karlsson is leading the tournament with three goals and five points. Which other players are off to hot starts in Sochi, and can we expect them to continue?

    There are two elements at play in this analysis, which players are having a hot start, and which have the right combination of talent and playing conditions for their success to continue.

    To evaluate the first part, we've examined what players have produced both offensively and defensively, while considering their opponents and their playing conditions.

    The analytics are unfortunately limited to basic statistics like goals, assists, shots and plus/minus, and the sample sizes are obviously quite small (through Saturday's games), but it's nevertheless enough to determine who is having the most success.

    The second part is a little trickier, and it involves digging into players' past success while looking at factors such as their age, their linemates, their playing conditions, the overall team, not to mention their ice time. 

    In the end we've identified 10 players who have the right combination of both a hot start and the factors that indicate a high likelihood of continued success.

    Who are the 10 key players to watch as the elimination games begin? Let's begin with some honorable mentions.

     

    All current Olympic statistics are from Extra Skater, and advanced NHL statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

Honorable Mentions

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Michael Grabner, Austria

    The speedy Michael Grabner leads the Austrians with three goals and is second to Thomas Vanek with eight shots and an average of 17:05 of ice time per game. He has, however, been on the ice for six goals against.

     

    Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen, Finland

    Rookie NHL defensemen Olli Maatta (19 years old) and Sami Vatanen (22) helped dominate Norway and Austria, recording a team-leading four points apiece. Playing alongside dependable veterans Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo, their scoring could potentially continue even against the medal-contending opponents to come.

     

    Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau, Canada

    An impressive hat trick against Austria for Jeff Carter and a team-leading four points while playing sound two-way hockey for Patrick Marleau earned them high consideration for this list. Both are established NHL stars in their respective roles and could figure prominently in the more difficult games that follow.

10. Mikael Granlund, Finland

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    What He's Done

    Someone had to score for Finland, and it turned out to be Mikael Granlund.

    With only two 10-goal and/or 30-point NHL players in their lineup (Olli and Jussi Jokinen, no relation), it was up to someone like Granlund to fill that scoring gap.

    Granlund has two goals and an assist on 10 shots through the first two games. He has been on the ice for five of Finland's goals, but he has yet to be scored against.

     

    Keys to Success

    The larger international ice surface is perfect for such a skilled playmaker.

    Granlund also achieved instant chemistry with fellow youngster Aleksander Barkov. Together they were selected for Finland's impressive scoring line alongside all-time Olympic scoring leader Teemu Selanne.

    Granlund has enjoyed an average of 18:04 of ice time per game, second on the team to Olli Jokinen.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Granlund is a natural playmaker whose offensive breakout is inevitable.

    Most famous for a lacrosse-style goal he scored in the 2011 IIHF Championships, Granlund has been a point-a-game player in both Finland's SM-liiga and briefly in the AHL. 

    Granlund, who turns 22 in just over a week, was drafted ninth overall in 2010, after being named the Finnish league's Rookie of the Year. In the NHL Granlund has 28 points in 46 games so far this year for the Minnesota Wild. 

9. Jonathan Quick, U.S.A

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    What He's Done

    After stealing the starting job away from Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick has posted a .944 save percentage through the preliminary tournament's first two games.

    This success did not come against lightweight opponents either. Quick stopped all but one of Slovakia's 23 shots, and 29 of 31 against Russia, arguably the best offensive team in the Olympics.

    While he may or may not have gotten a break on a disallowed goal against Russia, Quick's shootout expertise was put to good use in that second game, robbing Ilya Kovalchuk to secure the extra point.

     

    Keys to Success

    The Americans have an incredible team defensively.

    Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, two of the NHL's best shutdown defensemen, are handling the bulk of the blue-line minutes, while former Selke winner Ryan Kesler is the ice-time leader among forwards.

    The American team was built with a focus on elite two-way play, which is exactly what Quick is used to in Los Angeles.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Do you believe in clutch, big-game play? Quick's career numbers are fairly average in the regular season, but they are sparkling in the playoffs.

    Quick won the Conn Smythe in the Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup run, a season in which he posted a .929 save percentage and recorded 10 shutouts on his way to finishing runner-up for the Vezina.

    Though he hasn't had the strongest regular-season play since his subsequent offseason back surgery, he did post a .940 save percentage, a 1.62 goals-against average and six shutouts in 38 postseason games over the past two years. Numbers like that would virtually assure Team USA a gold-medal game.

8. Marek Zidlicky, Czech Republic

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    What He's Done

    In a three-game preliminary tournament without a lot of bright spots for the Czech Republic, veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky's star has shined.

    Even though the team scored only five goals in three games, Zidlicky still managed to tally two goals and an assist.

     

    Keys to Success

    Zidlicky's success thus far has been a combination of opportunity, experience and great breakout passing.

    The Czech Republic made some truly bizarre roster selections, most notably by leaving behind an entire top-six scoring line and in selecting only a couple of defensemen with recent top-four NHL success.

    That latter decision has resulted in Zidlicky enjoying 26:28 of average ice time per game, almost five minutes more than any of his teammates.

    The experienced veteran, who turned 37 earlier this month, has taken advantage of these opportunities with his trademark breakout passes, which are made easier both by the larger international ice surface and having so many gifted forwards to connect with, including New Jersey teammates Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Zidlicky is absolutely no stranger to Olympic-scoring success.

    These are his third Olympic Games, having scored five points in each of the previous tournaments. He finished one back of Nicklas Lidstrom for the overall defenseman-scoring lead in the Czech Republic's bronze-medal 2006 success and led the team in scoring in 2010.

    Zidlicky has rekindled his NHL career with 29 points in 58 games this year, which is good for third on the Devils and has already achieved his highest total in four seasons.

    Whatever offence the Czech Republic can manage the rest of the way, figure Zidlicky to be in on most of it.

7. Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    What He's Done:

    An injury-depleted Swedish team was counting on Henrik Lundqvist to help carry them through the preliminary games, and he delivered.  

    King Henrik has been solid, posting a .936 save percentage through three games. He may have seemed mortal against Latvia, who managed three goals on 23 shots, but he shut out the Swiss on 26 shots and stopped all but two of 29 shots against the Czech Republic.  

     

    Keys to Success:

    Lundqvist is strong in virtually every aspect of the goaltending game.

    He is well-known for his speed and strong positional play, which he uses in combination with his vast experience to play a very aggressive and effective butterfly game.

    Sweden is also very strong defensively, their recent injuries having mostly affected their scoring.

     

    Why It Will Continue:

    Lundqvist is arguably the league's best goalie. He had a bumpy start to his NHL season but has posted a .937 save percentage so far in 2014, almost identical to his Olympic numbers.

    In 2012, Lundqvist won the Vezina and was a Hart finalist. Over the past five years, he is second to Tim Thomas in total Vezina votes and blows him and everybody else away in terms of catch-all statistics like point shares and goals vs. threshold (GVT).

    While he "only" ranks sixth among active NHL goalies in both quality-start percentage and in even-strength save percentage over the past five years, Lundqvist has faced far more shots than those ahead of him.

    He also has the NHL's largest advantage over his backups, with a .929 even-strength save percentage to their .909. What's true of the New York Rangers is also true of the Swedes, who have mediocre backups Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth playing behind him.

    This type of Olympic success is also nothing new for Lundqvist, who backstopped Sweden to a gold medal in 2006 and posted a .927 save percentage in 2010. He is the safest goaltending bet in Sochi.

6. Phil Kessel, U.S.A.

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    What He's Done

    Phil Kessel has been in on four of the nine American goals, scoring one and assisting on three others. He leads the team with four points, and his 11 shots are four more than any other American.

     

    Keys to Success

    The Americans are blessed with elite offence down the right side. Opponents might be keying in on Patrick Kane, who plays alongside Kesler and Dustin Brown, making a lot more space for Kessel.

    Kane is having a great tournament himself. He has three assists, has yet to be scored against and is currently earning 17:53 of ice time per game, second only to Kesler.

    As for Kessel, he's playing 15:41 per game, frequently alongside Joe Pavelski and Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Since 2008 only four NHL players have more goals than Kessel, and only Alexander Ovechkin has more shots.

    Right now Kessel is second in the NHL with 31 goals, third with 227 shots and fourth with 65 points. He has already secured his fifth 30-goal season in six years, recently missing only the abridged 2012-13 season. Only Ovechkin can currently match (and in fact exceed) that, though there are up to four players who could match it by season's end.

    The Americans built a very strong two-way team, with the scoring load disproportionally—yet safely—placed on the shoulders of their mighty right-wingers Kane and Kessel.

5. Anze Kopitar, Slovenia

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    What He's Done

    Is Slovenia for real? They might be, thanks to a single superstar. Anze Kopitar and the Slovenians scored three goals in six minutes to stun Slovakia 3-1.

    Slovenia has scored four goals, and Kopitar has been on the ice for three of them and on the scoresheet for two (one goal and one assist).

    He's also averaged 23:34 per game, which leads even the team's defensemen by two-and-a-half minutes. Best yet, Kopitar has only been scored against once, making him the only Slovenian at plus-2.

    Perhaps the greatest testament to Kopitar's success is his linemate Ziga Jeglic, who has just four points in 32 games in the top Finnish league this year, but he has three points in two games playing alongside Kopitar.

     

    Keys to Success

    His incredible linemates! But seriously, Kopitar is just that good.

    He is the perfect player on which an up-and-coming national team should be built. He's a big, consistent, do-it-all player who is right in the middle of his prime.

    The perennial Selke oversight can shut down the league's best players while simultaneously posing a legitimate scoring threat against even the world's best teams. If Slovenia has proven that it belongs in this tournament, it's largely because of Kopitar.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Kopitar is currently leading the Kings in scoring for the seventh consecutive season, since finishing third with 61 points as a 19-year-old rookie. Since his 2006-07 debut, Kopitar is 13th in NHL scoring.

    His tremendous talent is applied to every facet of his game. He's fantastic with the man advantage, is winning over 53 percent of his faceoffs for the third-straight season and his possession numbers are regularly among the league leaders, despite taking on the top opponents.

    Potentially one of the league's most consistent and underrated two-way forwards, Kopitar instantly makes a legitimate Olympic competitor out of practically any national team.

4. Evgeni Malkin, Russia

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What He's Done:

    Evgeni Malkin is the only Russian with three points, scoring a goal and adding two helpers through the team's first two games.

    His nine shots are second on the team only to Alexander Ovechkin, and his 18:10 per game is only 29 seconds back of Ovechkin's team lead. And, like Ovechkin, Malkin has also yet to be scored against.

     

    Keys to Success:

    Sharing big international ice with Ovechkin are the perfect circumstances to unleash Malkin's incredible talent.

    Though also capable of scoring goals, Malkin is quite possibly one of the world's top-three playmakers. The large ice, combined with having the world's best goal scorer on his wing, should maximize his assist totals.

    The Russians also have Malkin and Ovechkin firmly focused on scoring. Neither player is frequently called upon to play defence and/or line up against top opponents either here or in the NHL.

    Everybody knows that the team's success this year depends on how quickly and effectively these two superstars can generate offence.

     

    Why It Will Continue:

    Malkin is an offensive talent almost without equal. He has topped 100 points three times in eight seasons, leading the league twice, and winning the Hart trophy in 2012. Only four players have outscored him since his 2006-07 debut, and only teammate Sidney Crosby has more points per game.

    The 27-year-old also has a lot of big-game experience, having scored a combined 48 points in Pittsburgh's back-to-back Stanley Cup appearances, winning the Conn Smythe in 2009.  

    Olympic-scoring success is also nothing new to Malkin, who scored six points in both 2006 and 2010, the latter time leading the Russian team in scoring. It's a safe bet to expect a similar scoring level once again in 2014.

3. Shea Weber, Canada

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    What He's Done

    The Canadian team has given up only a single goal, and none at even strength, largely thanks to their incomparable blue line. In fairness, those two games were against Norway and Austria.

    Their leader is Shea Weber, who has already recorded two goals and an assist, while playing 19:54 per game, second on the team to partner Duncan Keith.

     

    Keys to Success

    Canada has an incredible blue line. Several of them could have easily been chosen for this list instead of Weber, including Drew Doughty, who has the same scoring totals as Weber.

    There's a compound effect when players of his caliber take to the ice together. Weber is used to working alone, at least since Ryan Suter left Nashville. It's exciting to witness what the big veteran can do alongside a Norris Trophy winner like Keith.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Possibly the world's best defenseman, Weber is in his prime, can shut down top opponents and has an absolute cannon of a shot.

    Nashville's franchise defenseman has 38 points in 54 games this year. Only five NHL defenders are ahead of him, three of whom are also on Team Canada. He is well on his way to a sixth career 40-point season, a total exceeded by only four active defensemen.

    As for Olympic experience, Weber scored six points in the 2010 Olympics, second only to Brian Rafalski among that tournament's defensemen.

2. Jonas Hiller, Switzerland

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    What He's Done:

    Flawless victory! Jonas Hiller hasn't allowed a single goal so far, setting aside all 21 Latvian shots and all 26 taken by the strongly favored Czech Republic.

    Thanks to Hiller, Switzerland is a dark-horse medal possibility.

     

    Keys to Success:

    Switzerland has perfected the ultraconservative defensive game, which denies both teams high-quality scoring opportunities.

    Their blue line includes four current NHL defensemen and is arguably at the same level as one or two of the "big seven." Backup goalie Reto Berra, for example, was able to stop 30 of 31 shots against the mighty Swedes.

    The goal is to keep scoring to a minimum, meaning that Switzerland consequently requires only a single lucky break to pull off an upset. With Hiller in nets, it should keep working.

     

    Why It Will Continue:

    To some, Hiller's numbers over the past three seasons have looked fairly average. Sometimes statistics can be deceiving; and the truth is revealed with a deeper look.

    Hiller is actually 10th in the NHL in quality-start percentage over the past five years, at 59.7 percent. His save percentage at even strength of .927 is also 10th over that time span. His backups have posted a .912 save percentage over that period, and that 15-point difference between them is exceeded by only four NHL goalies.

    The 32-year-old pending free agent was also great in the 2010 Olympics, posting a .918 save percentage and taking Canada to a shootout.

    Hiller is potentially one of the NHL's top 10 goalies, and playing behind Switzerland's tight defensive system, he is capable of continuing to throw up shutouts.

1. Erik Karlsson, Sweden

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What He's Done

    The best player in the tournament so far is Sweden's Erik Karlsson. He has three goals and two assists, and a team-leading 14 shots and 20:57 average ice time per game.

    Karlsson's been on the ice for six of Sweden's goals and has yet to be scored against. There has been nothing to criticize in his game so far.

     

    Keys to Success

    While most of the credit for Karlsson's amazing success so far goes to his almost unbelievable skating talents, another key has been his partner.

    Oliver Ekman-Larsson, one of the NHL's most underrated two-way defensemen, could easily have some Norris consideration in his own future.

    Playing with Ekman-Larsson, not to mention Sweden's highly skilled forwards, and on international ice, is a recipe for MVP-caliber success from a player of Karlsson's skating and passing abilities.

     

    Why It Will Continue

    Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen with 55 points this year. His 147 points in 157 games over the past three seasons works out to 0.94 points per game, or 0.21 higher than the next highest-scoring defenseman, Dustin Byfuglien.

    The 23-year-old has averaged over 27 minutes per game over the last two seasons, and they aren't soft minutes either. He takes on top opponents and kills penalties too. Though he's not a defensive specialist, he often doesn't get the credit he deserves for his responsible play in his own end.

    Not only is Karlsson potentially on his way to a second Norris Trophy in three years, but also possibly an Olympic gold medal.

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.