Team Canada has named its first 16 players for the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and there weren’t many surprises. Hockey Canada is a relatively conservative organization, so there isn’t much initial turnover from the team that won the gold medal in Sochi.
The biggest names left off the roster were Corey Perry, Claude Giroux, and P.K. Subban, but going further than that, let’s try to fill out the rest of the roster, assuming Canada will go with seven defencemen and 13 forwards. We’ll start with defencemen.
Team Canada and coach Mike Babcock both lean towards blueliners who aren’t a danger with the puck on their stick in terms of defence, and as a result, the four defencemen they’ve chosen so far (Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic) are players they either know very well, or who are known to be conservative.
The knock on some players is that they take too many risks with the puck, so the first statistics we’ll look at are turnover rates, relative to each defenceman’s NHL team. The reason why we’ll be looking at relative numbers is that what a player can do with the puck is highly dependent on their teammates. If one team is consistently well positioned for a breakout, every defenceman on the team will have a low turnover rate compared to league average. It’s important to note that on this graph, lower values are better.
You immediately see Doughty and Keith are remarkably efficient with the puck, while Vlasic and Weber also very good. Meanwhile, supposed risky defenceman P.K. Subban is third-best in terms of making plays that don’t result in turnovers, just ahead of Alex Pietrangelo, who is widely considered the safer player.
On the left side, Mark Giordano pulls ahead of the group as an efficient puck mover, while high-end offensive players like Kris Letang and Brent Burns fall behind a bit as they take a higher rate of risks.
Brent Seabrook, who many consider a favourite to crack the roster, is the second-most risky defenceman of the group, and provides little offence in comparison to the rest. But turnover rates are only one part of the equation, what a player is doing with the puck is a needed context.
Since Team Canada went conservative on the blueline so far, the average ability to transition the puck up the ice with possession is not very high. In fact, the four defencemen named to Team Canada, on a team average level, would rank 18th in the NHL in possession-driving plays (outlet passes, stretch passes, controlled carry outs, neutral zone north, east, and west passes, red line carries, and controlled entries) per 20 minutes at even strength.
As a result, the final three defencemen need to be players who can get the puck, move it efficiently, and create opportunity. We can compare our prospective defencemen to the bars set by those already named and see who stacks up best.
A positive for Team Canada is that the two players who are left-handed, a consistent weak spot the past several years, are above team average in puck retrieval and puck moving. Considering that the left side is the weaker side, don’t be surprised if both Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are named to the team. In Sochi, Canada ran with four left-handed defencemen.
Brodie in particular is excellent at driving possession, which could lead to him getting more minutes than most would expect and Canada could use that dynamic play from the left side.
The right side is a little more complicated, but there is a clear leader when you factor everything, and it’s P.K. Subban.
Subban is significantly ahead of every other defenceman on and off the team in generating scoring chances. In fact, he leads all Canadian-born defencemen in production the past four years with 199 points. Subban ranks second to Pietrangelo in possession-driving plays, though the Canadiens’ dump-out-breakout scheme is likely a large factor there. He also leads every Canadian defender in retrieving loose pucks and winning battles.
Another guy with a strong case for a roster spot is Tyson Barrie. He flies under the radar on a brutal defensive team in Colorado, but he is likely among the league’s elite defenders. Unfortunately for Barrie, the competition on the right side is so strong and he ranks behind Subban, Pietrangelo and Letang overall.
Considering the players already named and the style the use, the defencemen Team Canada should fill out the roster with to complement them is Giordano, Brodie, and Subban.
The forward group has fewer weaknesses. The questions up front may be more about fit than performance, but we have to look at performance anyway. We’ll do the same thing we did with the defence, but we’ll look at individual scoring chances instead of loose puck recoveries.
Things are significantly more muddled at forward because the players Canada already chose are so excellent that a lot of great players end up looking below average.
The first thing that jumps out on this chart is that Taylor Hall should be a lock. Not only is he above average everywhere, but we know from previous tournaments that Sidney Crosby likes to play with a wrecking ball on one wing, which is a big reason why his Penguins linemate Chris Kunitz was taken to Sochi. Hall plays that wrecking ball style, but he also brings the second-best ability to drive possession with the puck of any forward in the league, and a scoring touch that Crosby has rarely ever played with. A Hall–Crosby–Bergeron line might be the best one Canada could assemble.
After Hall, the choices get tougher, but you can see why Team Canada may have been hesitant with Corey Perry; his transition play has fallen off in a big way, whereas Getzlaf’s has not. Perry is still an elite scorer, getting close to the net and jamming in pucks, but it’s possible that Team Canada expects John Tavares to play that role on the wing.
Two players who may usurp Perry on the upcoming team are Tyler Toffoli and Brendan Gallagher. Neither of them has scored at the same rate as Perry, but both are elite in other areas. For Gallagher, it is creating scoring chances for teammates, and for Toffoli, it is in transitioning the puck through the ice. And surprisingly, both players are producing more even strength scoring chances than Perry. However, you can’t discount Perry’s hands around the net.
Two other interesting candidates are Mark Stone and Brad Marchand. They are vastly different players who excel in creating chances for their teammates. Marchand is a pest whose lack of discipline could keep him off the team, but he’s also scoring goals at a career high rate, although his best quality is creating scoring chances for his linemates. Stone, on the other hand, is an elite playmaker and possession driver who leads the NHL in takeaways by a mile.
Canada has four forward spots left. Considering who’s already on the roster, the best complementing players according to the data appear to be Hall, Toffoli and Stone. For the final spot, although the data suggests Gallagher would be the best fit, Perry is just too dominant around the goal to ignore. The team is already loaded with playmakers, so there's a need for finishers.
Both of those players would do well, but Canada often goes with experience.