Did The U.S. Pick Their Best, Best Men’s Olympic Hockey Team?

By IJay Palansky and Phil Curry


The Olympics are just around the corner and there’s no shortage of prognosticating and second guessing.  Pundits have argued ad nauseam.  What’s the magic formula?  Experience?  Speed?  Heart?  Size?  Defense?  Team chemistry?  Ability to play on the larger international ice?

I’m not going to talk about any of those things.  I’m going to talk about something near and dear to my heart from my days as a professional poker player:  game theory.

Before you go scrambling to turn the page, terrified that if you read any further you might lapse into a boredom coma from which you may never emerge, hear me out.

Game theory sounds fancy, but it doesn’t need to be.  If you’ve ever played monopoly or checkers you’ve done it yourself.  Basically the idea is just to figure out the approach most likely to win given the rules of the game.

This matters because the rules of the Olympic tournament are different from the rules of an NHL season in one, critical respect.  When it counts, the Olympics are single elimination.  That one change should make a big difference in how an Olympic team is built.

And that’s especially true for Team USA.  Here’s why.

The Americans just aren’t as good as their main rivals.  We’ll analyze this in more depth next week, but for now suffice it to say that the oddsmakers have Canada as the favorite at 2-to-1, followed by Russia at 9-to-4, Sweden at 4.5-to-1, and then the U.S. at 6.5-to-1.

But how does that change which players to pick?  Don’t you still want the best ones?  Yes.  But in this context the best player might not be the guy you think it is.

If you’re a 6.5-to-1 underdog and your objective is to win Gold, then picking consistent players who will be the best over an 82-game season isn’t the “best” you need, because that best probably isn’t going to be good enough.  What you need is at least a few players who might be wildly inconsistent and annoyingly unpredictable, but who have the ability to deliver that one huge game that will make the difference.  Sure, those erratic players might lay an egg, but if you’re probably going to lose anyway then it doesn’t matter if you lose by two goals or four, does it?  If, on the other hand, the player explodes for one of those magnificent four-point nights, or a goalie stands on his head à la Dominik Hasek in 1998, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to pull off the huge upset.

Put another way, if you’re a 6.5-to-1 underdog you want to maximize the probability of an unlikely result.  You want to increase what economists and poker players call variance.  Picking reliable, consistently good players isn’t the way to make that happen.  Yet, according to a thorough recounting of the selection process by Scott Burnside, that’s precisely what the brain trust selecting the U.S. team did.

The Department of Hockey Analytics set out to see if there were any players left off the U.S. team who might have been a better best.

The single player likely to have the biggest impact on any game is the goaltender.  So we took the three ‘tenders picked for the U.S. team (Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, and Jimmy Howard) and compared them to two other top candidates (Ben Bishop and Corey Schneider).

We came up with five stats that measure the propensity of each goalie to have that huge, difference-making game:  (1) shutout percentage; (2 &3) games allowing one goal or fewer -- overall and at even strength; and (4&5) percentage of games with a save percentage of .940 and .950 or better.  The results, based on all games played since January 1, 2013, are displayed in the chart.

Player Shutout % <=1 Goal% <=1 Goal

(even strength) %


Save %

>.950 Save %
Jonathan Quick 6.1% 31% 49% 31% 23%
Ryan Miller 0% 17% 38% 34% 26%
Jimmy Howard 9.7% 30% 48% 34% 30%
Ben Bishop 9.8% 37% 58% 45% 38%
Corey Schneider 14.0% 43% 54% 48% 41%

In every category, both Schneider and Bishop have been significantly better than the three goalies actually picked.

Quick, Miller, and Howard are good.  But for one game (or the three it takes to win Gold), as the significant underdog, the Americans should want Bishop or Schneider between the pipes.

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