It has only been a handful of games, but a lot has happened. That is the beauty/nightmare of a short tournament like the Olympics. If your play is sputtering, it gets magnified. If you look great, you become a national hero. Let us take the temperature of the North American countries before the semifinals tomorrow.
Stock Up: Drew Doughty
Defenseman Drew Doughty is having a hell of an Olympics, and has been Canada’s best player not just because he is tied for the team lead in goals, but because of his efficiency on all 200 feet of ice. But honestly, this is what Doughty does all the time. He is an incredibly good player who can skate the puck out of the defensive zone and make the precise first pass if he sees a player with speed heading toward the offensive zone. Or, if he finds the coverage too constricting when making his reads, he can carry the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone and establish territorial advantage. And he has being doing this steadily throughout the tournament.
Doughty is considered a stud, but the company he keeps in the hockey world is exclusive. He was the lynchpin on a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and reached the Western Conference finals the next year. Erik Karlsson is flashier, P.K. Subban is more polarizing, Ryan Suter is a fundamentals automaton who logs marathon minutes, and Duncan Keith is the likely Norris Trophy winner this season. (And, by the way, that is not necessarily the incorrect choice — Keith has been unreal this season.) But Doughty plays for the more offensively ineffective Kings, and a lot of their possession driving stems from Doughty being a transition monster.
In Sochi, it has been a lot of fun watching Doughty, Keith, and Shea Weber compete together on the same squad. The insane competitiveness anticipated among the forwards has instead appeared with the defensemen, and all three have shown they are as advertised – the best of the best. The Alex Pietrangelo-Jay Bouwmeester pairing has been stellar as well, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been very solid. The Canadian back end has been the biggest strength for Canada thus far. And Doughty has everything to do with that.
What has been most remarkable about him is that he seems to do everything he intends, seemingly just by willing it. If he wants to skate the puck from the goal line on the left side in the defensive zone to the right side of the offensive zone goal line, he does it with ease, navigating defensive pressure and eluding any obstructors. He’s like a Queen piece on a chess board, able to move vertically, horizontally, and diagonally effortlessly.
Doughty has been making the correct reads on his first pass. He has flouted his pivot-move when opponents pursue, and he is finding the net because his skating ability is exceptional. Even in a best-against-best competition with high stakes, Doughty’s skating stands out. He pretty much has always found more room to maneuver than the forwards because his puck skills and decision-making have been better. Moreover, Doughty has been the best defenseman at getting his shot through and creating offense. Even better than Weber. Doughty can pull the puck in toward his skates and, by dragging it inside, he changes the passing/shooting angle before flinging his wrists outwards for a seeing-eye shot or deft seam pass. When accounting for all situations, he has been on the ice for six goals and conceded only one, while unleashing the third most shots on net among all Canadian skaters.
Doughty is a defensive tormentor, and sometimes it is good to restate that. His defensive skills have been excellent – his recovery speed is so, so great — and his all-around game has been at the center of why Canada is in the semi-finals.
Stock Down: Canadian Firepower
The numbers are kind of astonishing. Canada has a lower shooting percentage (7.7 percent) than Latvia (7.8 percent). The United States, Finland, and Sweden are all at least four percentage points higher than the Canadians, and the United States is shooting the puck in the net more than twice as frequently. Yet, in four games, the Canadians also have 168 shots, four less than the tournament-leading Russians who played one extra game. The only reason Canada does not have an embarrassingly low PDO is that their save percentage has been awesome, the highest in the tournament among remaining teams.
Math would suggest that a market correction is in store for Canada. After all, if you do something repeatedly, eventually you will be close to the expected value. But to play devil’s advocate, the market correction never happened for Russia; in their five games they shot miserably enough that they are out of the tournament. Thus, the danger of small sample sizes. An anomalous situation like unlucky shooting can dictate your fate, and you will not be around to see the gravitation toward the expected mean.
Ultimately, you can make whatever excuses you want for the Canadians’ ineffective scoring punch so far – the big ice, chemistry issues, Sidney Crosby struggling, the lack of Steven Stamkos – but ultimately, if the puck starts to find its way through for Jeff Carter, Patrick Marelau, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, Jamie Benn, Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Ryan Getzlaf, then Canada could bounce back in a big way. Unfortunately, their next game is against Jonathan Quick, who has looked awesome in the tournament, so maybe it does not happen.
Stock Up: Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk
Intelligent Hockey was driving the Cam Fowler bandwagon to begin Sochi, and so far Fowler has looked very deserving of the plaudits. Anaheim Ducks defenseman Fowler has not allowed any goals at even strength, while watching five tallies go in for the United States. If you calibrate that for all situations, his numbers look even better! He has still allowed no goals, and the States have notched an additional goal on the power play to make it six goals for and zero against when he has been on the ice.
To be fair, Kevin Shattenkirk has not watched any goals go in either while manning the blue line, and the St. Louis Blues’ defender has been on the ice for four goals in all-situations. Moreover, Shattenkirk has two assists and three more shots than Fowler, and has looked composed and steady in his role.
Leading into the Olympics, there were questions about the United States’ young defensemen, and whether their inexperience would make them vulnerable to opposing countries’ top forwards. So far, Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh have taken on the toughest assignments while leading the United States in ice time, and have flourished. But just below them are Fowler and Shattenkirk, who have performed proficiently in their roles and have helped galvanize the United States’ speedy transitions.
While there have been issues with other teams’ playmaking ability and lack of scoring touch, this has not been true for the United States. From the get go, the U.S. has passed well, hit hard, and shot accurately. A lot of that has to do with their defending the middle well and moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly, with their defensemen providing tape-to-tape feeds to the forwards when they are gaining speed. Phil Kessel has looked terrific. Patrick Kane has looked dynamic. Joe Pavelski has been opportunistic. James Van Riemsdyk has been impressive. All of this stems from their defensemen being able to fend off opponent pressure and find time and space with skating.
The top five defensemen — Suter, McDonagh, Paul Martin, Shattenkirk, and Fowler — have all been up to the task. The trust has been there among the defensive pairings, and good communication has led to the United States spending a lot of time pinning opponents in their own zone. The U.S. leads the tournament with a plus-11 goal differential.
Stock Up: Jonathan Toews
Center Jonathan Toews has only one assist and no goals in the tournament so far, which are the same boxcar stats as Rick Nash, Perry, and Crosby. But Toews has played better than the macro stats indicate. He has been winning faceoffs, distributing the puck, and his line of Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau probably has been Canada’s most impactful in the tournament at even strength. Additionally, Toews has just been doing a lot of Toews-like things: culling the puck from opponents’ sticks, maintaining puck possession even when facing heavy contact down low, getting the puck toward the net, taking the body and playing with an edge.
It has been a tough go for Canada thus far – yes they are undefeated, but three of their four games have been against non-contenders. Yet, despite the adversity, Toews has continued to play well in his ice time and against tough assignments. A lot of Canada’s forwards have had uneven performances, impactful in one game and invisible in the next, but Toews has been steady. He should be praised for that.
Stock Down: Canada’s Physicality
For Intelligent Hockey, shooting percentages aside, the biggest difference between Canada and the United States so far has been that the United States is playing more physically than Canada.
United States’ forwards David Backes and Ryan Callahan especially have set the tempo by delivering brutal body-checking justice, which for Canada has not been as evident. A lot is made of teams’ identities and players finding chemistry and knowing their roles, but the United States has shown a continuous desire to make the opposing puckcarrier pay for carrying the puck, while Canada seems just a little bit too easy to play against right now. When you are the favorite, it is easy to fall into the role of the hunted because you have a big target on your back, but Canada needs to be more predatory in their play – more pugilistic.
The United States has a nice blend of skill and grit, but so does Canada. The Canadians are not solely skill players who cannot be physical – you would never mistake anyone on Canada for a Marian Gaborik type (other than maybe Rick Nash).
If they were, they would not have had nearly the amount of playoff success that they have had. Patrice Bergeron plays for the heavy forechecking Boston Bruins; Jeff Carter plays for the Bruins of the Western Conference; Corey Perry is as nasty/edgy as they come – these are skaters who can play the menacing physical game.
What Canada needs to do is meld some power into their play off the puck. Use their body to bludgeon the opponent. They are going into the dirty areas more, but they need to be more physically imposing. None of these guys are wimps. Patrick Sharp can hit hard, Jamie Benn can lay the body, Crosby can deliver a stiff hit. The Americans are going to come at Canada with some haymakers, and without John Tavares, maybe Canada head coach Mike Babcock shortens the lineup and goes strictly with the guys who are playing effectively in all three zones.
Canada prides itself for physicality mixed with skill, but so far it has been the United States who has fused those two together best. Tavares is gone, and Canada has already faced some serious challenges. Now, Canada needs to get as many shots on net as possible while fighting for positioning in the middle like they did against Latvia – and be as mean and combative as possible when they do not have the puck. If they try to go strictly with their puck skills against the United States, they will get soundly defeated.