Breaking Down the Canadian Olympic Hockey Team's Stellar Defense in Sochi

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Breaking Down the Canadian Olympic Hockey Team's Stellar Defense in Sochi
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Canada has allowed just three goals in five games so far. Can we expect a third shutout in the gold-medal game against Sweden? That depends on to what extent its defensive success was by the team's very design, how much was the offensive weakness of its opponents and how much was just a hot streak.

Analytics are useful to help answer this question. First to determine just how good this team has been defensively, and then to take a closer look at how the team was built and how it is coached. By and large, all of Canada's players are already well-accustomed to lining up against the world's best players, are among the best possession-oriented skaters in the world today and are coached by the best defensive minds in the NHL today.

Finally, I used analytics to take a closer look at the offensive capabilities of Canada's two main opponents thus far, Finland and the USA, and compared that to the tournament's other teams, most notably Sweden.

In the end, all of this work has come to reinforce just how legitimate the Canadian defence truly is, and how much of a challenge it will be for the Swedes to generate any offence Sunday.

 

How Good Has Canada Been Defensively?

The Canadian team has allowed just 105 shots, or exactly 21 shots a game, according to the data at Extra Skater, the lowest in the tournament. By comparison the New Jersey Devils, the NHL's leader in fewest shots allowed per game, have permitted 25.4 per contest.

Canada has also allowed only 39 scoring chances total, or a measly 7.8 per game, according to data presented by Jamie McLellan of TSN, whereas an average NHL game features about 20 per team.

Finally, only three of those 39 scoring chances have gone in, or one in every 13. That's quite a bit less than its own ratio of around one in every eight, which is far more typical in the NHL. Obviously some fine goaltending from Carey Price has probably saved a couple of goals.

At a high level, Canada's defensive success has been real, measurable and consistent. This isn't a team that has given up a lot of chances and gotten lucky; it is a team that has prevented opponents from getting shots and/or scoring chances in the first place. Was this just a hot streak over a few games, or was it by design?

 

Canada's Team Was Built for Possession

The Canadian team did not select defensive-minded players like Rob Zamuner in 1998 and Kris Draper in 2006, but possession-oriented players instead. The defence then followed naturally.

Since it is so difficult to measure a hockey player's defensive abilities, given the great many variables that can affect shots and/or goals allowed, it is helpful to look at how the players are used.

In late January, well before the tournament began, Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal used a player usage chart to demonstrate how the Canadian team was built for sound two-way, possession-based play:

22 out of 22 Canadian skaters face moderately-to-very tough competition on an ongoing basis. All but one guy — a great player with huge responsibilities in difficult circumstances — are accustomed to outshooting the opposition while they’re on the ice. Seems like a pretty decent recipe for success to me.

I've translated all the numbers and charts into a simple checklist-styled table that looks at each component in McCurdy's study, and one additional factor of my own, which is the extent to which they're used to kill penalties, according to Behind the Net

Whether or not each of Canada's players is among his NHL team's leaders in starting shifts in the defensive zone, facing the team's top opponents, driving possession and killing penalties is summarized in the table below.

Canada's Forward's NHL Usage
Player Def Zone Tough Comp Possession Kills Pen
Bergeron Yes Yes Yes Yes
Marleau Yes Yes - Yes
Getzlaf Yes Yes - Yes
Toews - Yes Yes Yes
Crosby - Yes Yes -
Perry Yes - Yes -
Nash - Yes Yes No
Carter - Yes - Yes
Sharp - Yes Yes No
Benn No Yes Yes -
Kunitz - Yes Yes No
Duchene - - Yes No

Behind the Net

It's no surprise that Canada has played such mistake-free hockey. All but two of its main 12 forwards take on their team's toughest opponents, and all but three are among their team's leaders in possession.

Interestingly, there are no Zamuners or Drapers here. The closest this team has come to including defence-only forwards are Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Marleau and Ryan Getzlaf, the only three who are among their team's leaders in both defensive zone shift starts and penalty killing. And they have 155 combined NHL points so far this season!

This table clearly demonstrates how the Canadian team is composed of possession-oriented players who were already comfortable facing the world's best players in defensive situations long before they touched down in Sochi.

There's no need to repeat this exercise for Canada's famous blue line. You hardly need analytics to conclude that it is as strong as a blue line can be defensively, while it also includes three of the top six scoring defencemen in the NHL (or four when it includes P.K. Subban).

 

Canada Has the NHL's Best Defensive Coaches

To understand the emphasis placed on defensive play, take a look at Canada's coaches.

Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings are well-known for possession-based play. His three assistants have well-established reputations for defensive-focused play, Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien and Lindy Ruff.

Right now, Julien and Hitchcock's teams are both top three in fewest goals against. All three teams coached by Babcock, Julien and Hitchcock were in the top six in both fewest goals against and best possession numbers over the two preceding seasons.

The following table shows where these coaches teams have finished in fewest goals against, with asterisks denoting seasons split with another coach.

NHL Rankings of Canada's Coaches in Goals Against
Season Babcock Hitchcock Julien Ruff
1995-96 - 19th* - -
1996-97 - 3rd - -
1997-98 - 2nd - 3rd
1998-99 - 1st - 2nd
1999-00 - 3rd - 8th
2000-01 - 2nd - 1st
2001-02 - 18th* - 10th
2002-03 6th 1st 23rd* 13th
2003-04 19th 6th 10th 23rd
2005-06 2nd 17th 12th* 10th
2006-07 4th 17th* 6th 13th
2007-08 1st 9th 12th 22nd
2008-09 19th 9th 1st 14th
2009-10 8th 26th* 2nd 4th
2010-11 23rd - 3rd 15th
2011-12 6th 1st* 5th 18th
2012-13 5th 6th 3rd 24th*
2013-14 16th 3rd 1st 18th

Hockey Reference

Out of these 55 seasons, the average ranking isn't 15th, as one would expect from an average sample of coaches, but ninth. Or when only full seasons are considered, eighth.

Each of these coaches' teams has had tremendous success defensively in the NHL.

  • Babcock's teams have finished in the top eight in fewest goals against in seven of his 10 full seasons.
  • Julien's teams have been top five for six straight seasons, and top three for all but one of them. 
  • Hitchcock's teams were top three for his first six full seasons and have been top six over the past three. He was even top 10 his only two full seasons in Columbus.
  • And then there's Ruff. When he started in 1997, for the first four years he and Hitchcock were both top two twice, and second and third once. Their worst was eight and third.

Possession-based statistics are only readily available back to 2007-08, but they closely match the defensive rankings above. Right now, all four coaches are behind the benches of teams in the top 12 in possession with an average ranking of eighth, according to the data at Behind the Net.

Either great defensive teams are selecting them as the coaches who can bring out their talents to fullest extent, or they're making average teams better defensively. Both argument work in favor of Team Canada.

Specifically selecting these coaches is a strong indication that this team was built for possession and defence. The players were likely selected so that they would be most effective in the hands of the NHL's finest defensive minds.

 

Were Canada's Opponents Weak Offensively?

When a team has been this effective at keeping the puck out of the net, there's always the possibility that its opponents were either weak or cold defensively, but that doesn't appear to be the case here.

  • Norway scored one of its three goals against Canada,
  • Austria scored no goals against Canada and 3.67 otherwise
  • Latvia scored one goal against Canada and averaged 2.00 otherwise, including two against the Czechs and three against the Swedes.
  • Finland managed only a single goal against Canada but otherwise averaged 4.60 goals per game, including 3.33 against Russia, Sweden and the USA.
  • The Americans were shut out by Canada but otherwise averaged 3.80 goals per game, including 2.33 against Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.

With the exception of the Norwegians, Canada's opponents were clearly capable of generating offence against the other Olympic nations, just not against Canada.

To establish each team's approximate offensive abilities, the following table shows the total goals, assists and points per game of each team's top 12 forwards in the NHL and/or its respective leagues this season. Scoring totals from leagues like the KHL were translated into their NHL equivalents. Each Olympic nation's shots per game and goals per game are included on the right side of the table.

Olympic Team NHL/European League Scoring
Team G/GP A/GP PTS/GP SF/G GF/G
Canada 0.42 0.52 0.94 41.0 2.80
USA 0.38 0.40 0.78 29.7 3.33
Russia 0.32 0.37 0.69 34.4 2.40
Sweden 0.24 0.41 0.65 29.8 3.40
Czech 0.20 0.38 0.58 29.2 2.60
Finland 0.18 0.33 0.51 30.5 4.00

NHL, HockeyDB, Extra Skater

While this isn't a terribly sophisticated approach, it does lead to the reasonably high-level conclusion that Finland and the USA were offensively representative of the top Olympic nations.

Only Russia and Canada managed significantly more shots per gamethey were actually first and third in goals per gameand while Finland's league scoring averages were a little low, the Americans are second only to Canada.

Most alarmingly for Sweden, it appears that they are statistically comparable to both Finland and the USA, who combined for one goal in two games against Canada.

 

What Is the Main Reason for Canada's Tremendous Defensive Success?

Submit Vote vote to see results

What Can the Swedes Expect?

Canada is a strong defensive team. It has given up only 21 shots, 7.8 scoring chances and 0.6 goals per game, including when the Canadians played two teams that were offensively comparable to the Swedes.

This has been absolutely no illusion. From top to bottom this team was built from NHL players who face the world's best players every single night and dominate the possession game.

They are also solid two-way players who present more of an offensive threat than any other Olympic nation, and they are coached by the NHL's best defensive and possession-oriented minds. To make matters even worse for Sweden, they're also riding some hot goaltending.

Anything can happen in a single game. A lucky bounce, a blown call and/or a mental lapse, and Sweden can break a game open even against a team like this. But all in all, scoring will likely prove as difficult to generate for the Swedes as it was for the Finns and the Americans before them.

 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

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.

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