Team Canada won the cup. Team Canada went undefeated. They were the favourites going in, and they came out the winner. Not only did they win, but they went about it in dominant fashion. They rarely trailed and they controlled nearly every facet of the game.
It wouldn’t be surprising for many to hear that the team also dominated in the shots column… but they were not the most effective team in every aspect, which raises some interesting questions.
We have come to a point in research where our ability to
improve the metrics we use to measure individual players or teams is nearly as good as it can get with the data we have available to us.
The groundbreaking discovery was in shot differentials such as Corsi and Fenwick. Marginal improvements upon those methods followed, adjusting for factors like score-effects, usage, and shot quality. Marginal improvement is good, but it’s not world-changing.
The current focus of public research is on why and how specific phenomena occur. Commonly referred to as microstatistics, these focus on events such as neutral zone transitions, zone entries, zone exits, and passing sequences. As I’ve noted previously, microstatistics help us investigate why teams or players produce the results they do in metrics such as shot differentials.
The company I currently work for, Hockey Data, was tracking microstatistics for the World Cup of Hockey, which allowed myself and some others to take a peek under the hood.
What’s interesting about Team Canada at the World Cup is that they were average in terms of both zone exits and entries. Despite this performance, the team dominated in shot differential. This is surprising because those two microstatistics are commonly thought to be meaningfully correlated with positive shot differential.
Team Canada was not the most efficient team in breaking out the puck.
Canada actually had the second lowest percentage of their defensive zone breakouts lead to a successful exit with control of the puck. They were average in terms of the percentage of their breakouts being dumped or chipped out, and only the Czech Republic had more breakouts end up with a defensive zone possession loss or an icing.
Once again, Canada was not the most efficient team in the tournament.
The team was about average in terms of entering the opposition’s defensive zone with control of the puck. They had a high percentage of entries without control of the puck, but not as much as Sweden. The one area that Canada did excel in was avoiding failed entries, which includes being stood up or going offside.
Why were they so dominant?
Well, the answer is simple and likely already obvious to everyone reading. Canada just performed well enough to do just that much better in everything else. (Canada was dominant in the other facets of the game.)
For example, Canada were able to decrease their opposition’s efficiency in transitioning into the neutral zone.
Canada’s forecheck allowed them to disrupt the other team’s ability to breakout as efficiently as they did against other teams:
Against Canada, their opponents ability to successfully break out of the defensive zone dropped by nearly five percentage points, while increasing in the percentage of breakouts that ended with a dump/chip out, possession loss, or icing.
Not only did they disturb the opposition’s ability to break out of their own zone, Team Canada made it difficult for teams to break into Canada’s defensive zone:
When we look at microstatistics, we are trying to determine what is it that drives shot quality and shot quantity.
Team Canada dominated. They outscored, they outshot, they outplayed. They did not, however, dominate in shots because of their ability to efficiently break out of their own zone or gain their opponents zone.
Canada was able to outperform their opposition due to success in other areas of the game. They were able to disrupt the oppositions flow of play, severely impairing their opponents ability to break out or gain Canada’s defensive zone.
While not shown or discussed here in detail, there are many other ways a team can improve their shot differential. The Canadians likely also generated more shots per entry than their opposition. They probably were superior defensively and able to prevent more shots per entry than their opposition. They may have been able to recover non-controlled entries and exits, as well as possession losses, more often than their opposition.
Really, it could be said that Canada was just that much better in the other facets of the game to make up for their average performance in these areas.
Microstatistics should be looked at in terms of opportunity costs. Canada did not dominate because of their zone exit or zone entry proficiency in transitioning with control of the puck; however, if you kept all things equal, and improved Canada in this area to the same level as their other measures of performance, it would have been even more of a one-sided tournament.
All numbers courtesy of HockeyData.com