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Behind The Numbers

Anze Kopitar could lead Team Europe to upsets

Kings center key to eight-nation team's chances at World Cup

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

It will be an interesting experiment for Team Europe, made up of players representing eight countries, to compete against national teams.

Team Europe has the right collection of talent to overcome that perceived disadvantage. It has an ideal team leader, two defensemen with experience shutting down elite players, a top shootout scorer, the world's best goalie from up close, and some very underrated secondary talent.

All eyes on Anze

Opponents playing Team Europe will focus on trying to neutralize center Anze Kopitar (Slovenia). It's something his NHL opponents failed to do in the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Kopitar led the League in scoring and helped the Los Angeles Kings win the Cup.

Kopitar has led Los Angeles in scoring for nine straight seasons, including with 74 points in 81 games last season. Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record for most consecutive seasons as team scoring leader; he led the Edmonton Oilers for nine straight seasons followed by four in a row with the Kings.

For Kopitar, 2015-16 was the sixth time in nine seasons as Kings scoring leader that he had at least 70 points. He trails on Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, who've each had seven such seasons.

But Kopitar is more than just an offensive weapon. He won the 2016 Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward after being one of three finalists in each of the two previous seasons. His plus-117 rating during the past six seasons combined is tied for fifth in the NHL with Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (Slovakia), who also will play for Team Europe.

Video: LAK@WPG: Kopitar's PPG nets his 25th goal of season

Quality competition

The individual talent involved in this tournament is incredible, and each team will need a way to shut down the opponents' elite players.

Which players on Team Europe have the most experience taking on top opponents? There are a number of ways to estimate the average quality of competition a player faces, and they all point to Chara and Roman Josi (Switzerland) of the Nashville Predators.

Using the information contained in NHL game files, it is possible to measure the amount of time each player has spent facing every other player, down to the second. From that, the average performance of each player's opponents can be calculated, using any number of metrics.

For example, a method that uses the average shot attempts differential (SAT) of a player's opponents ranks Josi 13th and Chara 15th among NHL defensemen last season, according to, and a method based on the average ice time of a player's opponents has Josi 10th and Chara 14th, according to: Corsica Hockey. Expect Josi and Chara to log big minutes in this tournament.

Safe at home

Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger will have a difficult decision about who to start in goal, but there is one statistic that can provide a persuasive insight: home plate save percentage.

NHL game files include the exact location of every shot, making it possible to measure a goalie's save percentage exclusively on shots taken from inside the so-called home plate area, which extends from the goal posts to the faceoff dots, up to the top of the faceoff circles and across.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Greiss flashes the leather on Johnson

This is the perspective that helped predict a breakout season from Thomas Greiss (Germany) of the New York Islanders last season. Among the 71 goalies who have faced at least 1,000 shots during the past three seasons, Greiss leads the NHL with a home plate save percentage of.873. Team Europe goalies Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia) of the Islanders is 15th at .850, and Frederik Andersen (Denmark) of the Toronto Maple Leafs ranks 26th at .838.

Shootout success

Team Europe figures to have an advantage on most of its opponents in the shootout because of Frans Nielsen (Denmark) of the Detroit Red Wings.

Since the shootout was introduced for the 2005-06 season, Nielsen leads the NHL with 42 goals in 82 shootout attempts (51.2 percent). Only Team USA forward T.J. Oshie (Washington Capitals) has a better percentage among players with 65 or more attempts (53.8 percent).

Nielsen also is a complete player who can score, take on top opponents, drive possession and draw penalties.

Tilting the ice

With all the big names on the Team Europe roster, one of the key difference-makers in the tournament could be the less-heralded Nino Niederreiter (Switzerland) of the Minnesota Wild.

Last season, the Wild were responsible for 54.4 percent of all shot attempts whenever Niederreiter was on the ice, and 45.5 percent when he wasn't. That plus-8.9 percent differential was the highest in the League. This impact could be even further magnified if Niederreiter plays on a line with Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings, who ranked 18th in the League at plus-6.3 percent.

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