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Behind The Numbers

Protecting leads key for Team Russia

Goals should come, but defense remains big question mark heading into World Cup

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Just like in previous international tournaments, Team Russia has the most dangerous top-line firepower.

But, as has been the case, it does not have one of the stronger defenses, nor very many two-way forwards.

That means Team Russia will be a threat to score multiple goals in quick succession, but it also will be just as vulnerable to a late collapse in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, which will be held at Air Canada Centre in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1.

The five key metrics for Team Russia primarily highlight just how much scoring punch this team has, as well as the individual players who most likely will be the deciding factors.

The Great 8

Every team that faces Russia will have to devise a strategy to deal specifically with Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), the most dominant goal-scorer in the world today.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm 5: Ovechkin fires a one-timer for PPG

To place Ovechkin's achievements into context, compare his offensive numbers during the past four seasons to those of the player behind him in second place in three categories. Ovechkin's186 goals are 39.8 percent more than the 133 scored by Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning). Ovechkin scored 84 power-play goals, 61.5 percent more than Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), who ranks second with 52. And Ovechkin had 1,399 shots on goal, 34.8 percent more than Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), who ranks second with 1,038. 

Setting them up

Ovechkin isn't the only Team Russia player with elite goal-scoring skills. He is one of four who scored at least 30 goals last season; Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues) had 40, and Artemi Panarin (Chicago Blackhawks) and Nikita Kucherov (Lightning) each scored 30. Also, Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) scored 27 goals in 57 games, which works out to 39 goals in an 82-game season.

That's why a playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov (Capitals) could play a key role in this tournament. Last season, Kuznetsov's 57 assists were fourth in the NHL, behind Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators) with 66, Joe Thornton (Sharks) with 63 and Patrick Kane (Blackhawks) with 60.

Video: WSH@STL: Chimera notches 20th goal of season

When it comes to setting up the shots directly, Kuznetsov could be the very best. At even strength, his 1.45 first assists per 60 minutes led the League last season (source: Hockey Analysis).

Offensive deployment

In the NHL, Russian players typically are deployed in the offensive zone. Nikolay Kulemin (New York Islanders) is a rare exception.

Last season, Kulemin lined up for 276 faceoffs in the offensive zone and 302 in the defensive zone. His resulting offensive zone start percentage of 47.8 percent makes him the only forward on Team Russia below 50 percent. During the past six seasons, Kulemin is the only Russian forward with an offensive zone start percentage below 50 percent (minimum 100 games), including players not on the Team Russia roster.

In contrast, Team Russia coach Oleg Znarok has many options for shifts that begin in the offensive zone. Panarin's 75.4 zone start percentage ranked fourth among NHL forwards last season, and Malkin, Tarasenko, and Artem Anisimov (Blackhawks) also were among the 11 forwards above 65.0 percent.

Tilting the ice

When Pavel Datsyuk is on the ice, expect Team Russia to dominate in shots.

Video: DET@PHI: Datsyuk's wrister cuts the lead to one

In the six seasons for which this data is available on, the Detroit Red Wings were responsible for 57.8 percent of all shot attempts when Datsyuk was on the ice, seventh-best in the League (minimum 100 games).

The Red Wings always have strong shot-based metrics, but Datsyuk's possession-driving play had a boosting effect on those numbers. In relative terms, Datsyuk increased the Red Wings' share of shot attempts from 51.9 percent to 57.8 percent, and that difference of plus-5.9 percent ranked eighth in the NHL.

Datsyuk also will be invaluable in the faceoff circle; his 53.7 winning percentage last season made him the only Russian forward in the NHL to win a majority of his draws (minimum of two).

And Datsyuk's 40 NHL shootout goals rank third behind Frans Nielsen (Red Wings), who has 42, and Arizona Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata (41).

Starstruck goalies

Team Russia's goaltenders may not be among the tournament's best when using traditional statistics like save percentage and goals-against average, but there is an unconventional perspective that highlights their value.

Although selected subjectively, the fact that Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche) was named First Star 40 times in the past three seasons, most among NHL goalies, demonstrates his importance.

Video: ANA@COL: Varlamov makes a pad save on Silfverberg

Varlamov was First, Second or Third Star in 40.8 percent of his games, third in the League behind Carey Price (Canadiens) at 48.2 percent and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers) at 41.3 percent.

Team Russia goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) was fifth with game stars in 37.5 percent of his games, behind Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins) at 39.0 percent (source: Sporting Charts).

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