USA Olympic Hockey's Riskiest Players in Sochi

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IJanuary 19, 2014

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 4:  Kevin Shattenkirk #8 of Team USA skates with the puck during the game against Team Czech Republic at the relegation round of the IIHF World Junior Championships at Scotiabank Place on January 04, 2009 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  Team USA defeated Team Czech Republic 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

What were the riskiest roster selections made by the American Olympic hockey team? While it's hard to go wrong with a team with so many of the world's best, there are a few players who could put the team at risk if deployed incorrectly. Inclusions like Kevin Shattenkirk were bold, given the potential consequences if they wind up on the ice with Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin at a critical point of a game. 

How can analytics help identify these bigger risks? By taking information directly from NHL game files and summarizing them into a chart about how each player is being used.

These resulting player usage charts include the zones in which a player is primarily deployed and against what average level of competition. Since most of the key Olympic games will be against top NHL players, it can be risky to select anyone who doesn't have a lot of experience and comfort handling those types of responsibilities.

We'll take a look at the players who are at greatest risk of being out of their depth in Sochi, starting with their defensemen and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Who is the Greatest Risk on the Blue Line?

Kevin Shattenkirk is a highly skilled defenseman, but not one who is accustomed to taking on the same caliber of opponents that he is likely to face in Sochi.

We know this by studying a Player Usage Chart of all of the team's defensemen, including several who were considered but ultimately not selected. The top portion of the chart features defensemen who generally face top-line opponents, with those who are assigned shifts primarily in the defensive zone appearing more on the left.

The size of the bubbles indicate ice-time, and the degree of shading reflects how well their team does with them (relative to their other players), in terms of attempted shots. Blue is good; red is bad.

Hockey Abstract

In the Olympics, these defensemen are taking on the best in the world. Among the selected players, Shattenkirk is the only one who currently does not to do that in the NHL. He usually faces below-average competition—and mostly in the offensive zone.

Of course, the logic of including Shattenkirk is clear. He's young and fast, and he has the puck-moving ability that many of the team's defensive-minded blueliners lack. He'll be of tremendous value whenever the Americans need a goal in a critical situation.

So Shattenkirk could be used similarly in the Olympics, facing the depth lines in offensive situations, except when the Americans are playing a team without below-average NHL players. And in the rare case where they're facing Sweden or Canada, for example, there's always the option of leaving Shattenkirk in the press box.

But what if the team is hit by a few injuries, and Shattenkirk is required in a critical medal game against one of those top competitors? Even if used only against the depth lines, he would still find himself against elite opponents. It could be safer to have invested that roster spot in another defensive-minded player.

PAUL CONNORS/Associated Press

Even a quick glance at the player usage chart makes it clear that Keith Yandle would not have helped. He is a slightly better and veteran version of what Shattenkirk already brings. To argue for taking Yandle over Shattenkirk is to argue for the type of largely cosmetic change that should be left to those who are deciding the team's overall character and chemistry.

So what would have been the safer choice? Dustin Byfuglien. He brings the same level of offense but is already accustomed to taking on the top opponents.

None of this is new, incidentally. Going back a season or two yields largely the same type of chart, except with Cam Fowler more in Shattenkirk's role the further you go back.

One final point that jumps out is how the actual selection of shutdown defensemen might have been improved by taking Erik Johnson and/or Andy Greene instead of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin.

They all bring similar skills and experience to the table, but Johnson and Greene don't put their teams at as much of a shot-based advantage as Pittsburgh's pair. But, again, you could argue that such an argument is also a cosmetic one that is safely left to the team's management. Let's move on to the forwards.

Who is the Greatest Risk Up Front?

The picture is quite different among the forwards, where the Americans have made a clear commitment to selecting players that not only had a great deal of experience facing top opponents in defensive situations, but who also excel at it.

Not a single player faces average or below-average NHL competition, and only David Backes is currently in the red. This is potentially the Olympic team that has the most two-way forward depth up front.

Hockey Abstract

Who is the biggest risk up front? Probably Patrick Kane. Given that he's one of the world's best offensive players, it would be absolutely insane to leave him out of the lineup, the risk is merely to make sure that he is used properly. 

That isn't to say that Kane is a defensive liability. Not at all. Just like Sweden's Sedin twins, Kane is merely so powerful an offensive weapon, that a team with Chicago's many weapons isn't going to waste Kane in shutdown situations. Indeed, we saw Kane play perfectly well when forced to compete in those types of roles throughout last year's playoff run.

That being said, about the greatest potential for a defensive breakdown is perhaps if a late-game, lead-protecting situation results in Kane lining up in the defensive zone against Crosby or Ovechkin. But with the game's best shutdown forwards like Backes, Ryan Kesler, Paul Stastny and Zach Parise in the lineup (to name just a few), what are the odds of that happening? 

Is There a Risk in Nets?

Obviously the Americans took a risk by leaving behind Ben Bishop, who is quietly having a Vezina-caliber season. Instead of going with the hot hand, they're taking the safer route of only including goalies who already have Olympic, Stanley Cup and/or Vezina success of their own.

A single-elimination tournament is going to require consistent play, and even with the team's strong defense, winning a medal could ultimately require one or two game-stealing performances. Do Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard have this?

To answer that, I looked back to 2011-12 to count how many of each goalie's starting performances qualified as quality starts. The number of high-shot games (at least 40 shots) was also counted, along with their save percentage in such games.

Team USA Goaltending
Jonathan Quick1278163.8%1.976
Ryan Miller1317658.0%21.947
Jimmy Howard1268063.5%8.953
Hockey Abstract

The Americans took no risks in nets. Quick and Howard stop an above-average number of shots in over 63 percent of their games, which is quite good. Miller, potentially as a result of playing behind a far weaker defense, is only four quality starts behind.

Miller makes up for it in having far more experience in game-stealing situations. He has played 21 games over the past three seasons where he's had to face at least 40 shots, and he has posted a .947 save percentage in such games. While Quick and Howard haven't had to face nearly as many such situations, they've proven just as dependable when they have.

How Much Risk Have the Americans Taken?

In the end, the Americans took very few risks in selecting their lineup for the Sochi Olympic games. They chose the safe goalies over the hot goalies, and they assembled a collection of forwards quite comfortable in not only facing top opponents, but shutting them down.

Their only real gamble, and a very understandable one at that, was to include speedy young puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. By selecting him over Dustin Byfuglien, the Americans are taking the risk that he won't wind up in a situation where he'll be lining up against elite players or at the very least that his inexperience won't prevent him from executing that type of assignment effectively.

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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