World Cup Ice Hockey – Which Players Stand Out?

After a 12-year break, The World Cup in Ice Hockey began this year on Saturday 17th September. Alongside the Olympic Games, The World Cup is one of just two tournaments for the sport in which the best players at international level play against each other. As such, it is a hugely anticipated event for the nations of avid ice hockey fans. One notable difference between these two world competitions is the support from the NHL to players in the World Cup. The start date of the NHL was actually postponed to enable players to settle in and train with their country teams without interference.

It comes as no surprise that Canada (the home of Ice Hockey) is the favourite going into the tournament after making a distinct mark in their opening game against Czech Republic, a clash they won 6-0. However, in a short tournament like this there is always room for upsets, especially when we consider that the players are predominantly in the same league and hence fairly evenly matched. But, has anyone got what it takes to rattle Canada?

With this in mind, TSZ has decided to explore the performance level of all players in the World Cup to see if some look likely to outperform their opposition and help their country win the most prestigious international tournament in Ice Hockey. Before we get started, it is important to point out that we are looking at data for the last three NHL seasons (2013/2014, 2014/15 & 2015/16). We acknowledge that the World Cup also includes players from other leagues, however as the vast majority of players are in the NHL we have decided to progress with only NHL players. Furthermore, as we are looking at average measures across the analysis, this will ensure that the disparity between numbers of players per country in the study does not affect results.

To get into the analysis, we will start by looking at the average number of goals and assists scored per country. This is visualised through a double bar graph where the blue bar represents average number of goals per game, and the red bar within represents the average number of assists per game. The numbers within the bars show the exact average for each country and measurement. The following graph dives into player statistics where we investigate the average number of goals and assists for the top 10 players in NHL, split between defenders and forwards. This will be visualised in four bar graphs, two for defenders and two for forwards. The second part of the analysis investigates the goaltenders for each country and their average saving percentage (proportion of saved shots) and their goal against average (GAA). This is visualised in a double bar graph where the blue bar represents the average saving percentage and the red bar the GAA. The numbers within represents the exact average for each country and measurement. Finally, in the analysis we will look at the GAA and the saving percentage specifically for the top 10 goaltenders. This is split over two bar graphs to enable comparison between the best goaltenders in the competition.

Looking at the graph below we can see why Canada is the favourite in the dataset, showing the highest goals per game average at 0.29 (for all players except goaltenders). They are also the most successful country in terms of average assists per game at 0.47. USA sits right behind Canada with an average goal per game of 0.26 and an assist per game average of 0.40. Interestingly, when we compare Russia and Sweden we can see that the Swedes have a higher average number of assists per game at 0.39 compared to Russia with 0.36. However, the Russians perform significantly better than the Swedes with 0.25 goals per game average compared to 0.19. Notably, the Swedes have nearly as many assists as USA, who had the second highest average goals scored per game in the data set. This suggest that the American players are better at taking care of their chances even though the Swedes are evenly matched when it comes to assisting them.

The next graph illustrates the average goals (top graph) and assists (bottom graph) per game for the top 10 defenders. The top graph shows that Brent Burns, the Canadian professional, scores highest in the field with an average of 0.28 goals per game. The American defender Shayne Gostisbehere sits just behind, with an average of at 0.26 goals per game. Dustin Byfuglien (American), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Swedish) and Shea Weber (Canadian) closely contend in third place with 0.25 goals per game average followed by the Swede, Erik Karlsson at 0.23. With this in mind, we can see that the dominance of defenders in terms of goals scored comes from USA, Canada and Sweden. In the second graph, Erik Karlsson’s performance stands out – his average number of assists per game is 0.67. This works out as 0.17 average assists per game above the next best performing players, Victor Hedman (Swedish) and Brent Burns (Canadian). In fourth place we find the Swiss, Roman Josi, with 0.49 assists per game average. Josi is the only Team Europe player in our top 10, so certainly one to look out for in their games in the tournament.

The next graphs follows the same structure as those for defenders but considers the performance of forwards. The top graph shows that the Russian forward Alex Ovechkin significantly outperforms the rest of the field with a goals average at 0.65. This is 0.13 ahead of Steven Stamkos (Canadian) in second place with an average at 0.53. Patrick Kane (American), Tyler Seguin (Canadian) and Corey Perry (Canadian) follow, all with average goals per game sitting at 0.48. Vladimir Tarasenko (Russian) who has the eighth best average goals per game score (0.44) shows that for forwards, there is a clear dominance in the goal scoring department from Canada, USA and Russia. This reiterates the conclusion drawn from our first double bar graph. The lower graph shows that yet again two Canadian players, Joe Thornton and Sidney Crosby, top the average assists per game league with 0.73. Swedish player Nicklas Backström is the third best in the field at 0.72 followed by yet another Canadian star playing for Team North America, Connor McDavid, with an average sitting at 0.71. Overall, it is clear that for the top 10 forwards in terms of average assists per game there is a dominance of Canadian players, with Swedes and American’s following in second place.

We leave the outfields players and move on to probably the most important players in ice hockey – the goaltenders. The graph below shows goaltender performance per country. Against all odds, Team North America (with U23 American and Canadian players) has the best goaltender with 92.7% saving percentage and subsequently the best GAA at 2.07. A look into the raw data shows that Team North America only have two goaltenders in the data which makes it hard to draw any strong conclusions. However, when moving down the graph we can see that there is a clear dominance from North America, with USA in second place in terms of goals against average at 2.17. USA is followed by Canada with an average of 2.28. Looking at the saving percentage we can see that this order is flipped, with Canada scoring 92.4% and USA 92.1%. The Swedes score lowest in the field with a saving percentage of 90.7% and a goal against average of 2.71. This is remarkable as their first goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is regarded as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. Delving into the raw data again, we identified that his back up, Jacob Markström, showed weak average stats, which is likely to inflate this measure slightly. To investigate this further, we will move on and look at the top 10 goaltenders for the two given measures.

The GAA graph below confirms, as we saw in the previous graph, that there is a dominance from Team North America, with John Gibson and Matt Murray topping the list with a 2.0 average. In fact, North America have seven goaltenders in the top 10 in terms of goals against average. Carey Price (Canadian) and Cory Schneider (USA) closely follow with an average of 2.1. Moving to the save percentage graph (lower), we can see that seven goaltenders appear in both top 10 graphs. For saving percentage, Carey Price leads the field at 93.1% followed by John Gibson with 92.9%. Henrik Lundqvist, who we mentioned above, is the ninth best goaltender in the field with a save percentage of 92.1%. This essentially means that there is a significant range in statistical performance between the Swedish goaltenders. However, anyone who saw Sweden’s win against Russia on Sunday night (in which Lundqvist was out of action) would know that his substitute Jacob Markström performed fantastically, keeping Russia down to one goal, despite having relatively poor stats in this study.

We have looked at the performance in NHL over the last three seasons for all players participating in the World Cup. In conclusion, we have seen that Canada and USA look like the most dominant sides, scoring highest on average across defenders, forwards and goaltenders. When we looked at defenders apart from these two, Sweden performed well, especially in terms of assists per game with two of the Swedes (Erik Karlsson / Victor Hedman) topping this league. Russia was the best side in terms of performance of forwards, with Ovechkin leading the average goals per game significantly in front of the rest of the field. Team North America, who it would be fair to say are comprised of second rate/younger emerging players from USA and Canada, also have a few players in the top 10. This suggests that the scope of players from these two countries is well beyond some other countries. The result from Sunday night, when Finland lost 4-1 against Team North America reiterates this theory. On the other hand, Team Europe came out with a surprising result when they beat the USA in the opening game of the tournament. Therefore, even when there are clear favourites such as Canada, there still seems to be room for upsets.