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Team North America won't be held back by age

by Staff / Edmonton Oilers

One of the interesting experiments in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is the introduction of a team composed entirely of North American players who are 23 and younger.

Given that studies indicate 24 is the age when player performance most commonly peaks, combined with the presence of a generational scoring talent like Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Team North America could prove to be the most dangerous team at the World Cup.

Generational scoring talent

McDavid is the type of scorer who comes along once in a generation.

Last season as a rookie, McDavid averaged 1.07 points per game, which ranked third in the NHL behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (1.29) and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars (1.09). On a per-minute basis, McDavid's scoring rate of 2.69 even-strength points per 60 minutes ranked second in the NHL to Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers (2.70), according to Hockey Analysis.

McDavid's high scoring totals were more difficult to achieve compared to Benn, Kane and Jagr, who played on high-scoring teams. The Stars' 265 goals led the NHL; the Blackhawks (234) were sixth and the Panthers (232) eighth. The Oilers scored 199 goals, 26th in the League.

With 48 points in his 45 games, McDavid was in on 41.4 percent of the 116 goals that Edmonton scored in those games.

Passion for playmaking

All eyes will be on McDavid, but Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lightning could quietly emerge as Team North America's key playmaker.

Drouin has 34 assists in the first 91 games of his NHL career. When calculated as a rate, Drouin's 1.66 even-strength assists per 60 minutes are third in the NHL among players with more than 500 minutes of ice time, behind Lightning teammate Ondrej Palat (1.74) and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks (1.69).

In terms of directly setting up shots, Drouin's 1.06 first assists per 60 minutes ranks third, behind Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets (1.14) and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals (1.13).

An ounce of prevention

Shutting down top opponents in all zones and manpower situations, Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers will be as important to preventing goals in the World Cup as players like McDavid and Drouin will be to scoring them.

Since there is no statistic that measures the number of goals that are prevented, it is difficult to statistically establish a player's defensive abilities, but there are some numbers that provide valuable clues of Couturier's importance.

For example, Couturier has been assigned 911:22 minutes of shorthanded time over his five NHL seasons, which ranks second among forwards to Jay McClement of the Carolina Hurricanes (1,028:31) over that time span.

At even strength, Couturier has started 1,588 shifts in the defensive zone, compared to 1,089 in the offensive zone. The resulting zone start percentage of 40.7 percent ranks 368th among the 391 active forwards to play at least 100 games over the past five seasons.

Early peaks

In baseball, peak-age models have been established for almost two decades. When applied to hockey, those same models indicate that a player's performance most commonly peaks at age 24, meaning that the Team North America roster is comprised exclusively of players already at their peak, or quickly developing towards it.

Conventional wisdom has always been that players peak closer to age 27, but that impression could be because older players have had more opportunity to prove themselves and to earn a greater share of the ice time. On a per-minute basis, the performance of most players is already on the decline by the late 20s.

Faceoff futility

One skill that doesn't decline with age, and actually improves throughout a player's career, is the ability to win faceoffs.

That's why one of the key challenges Team North America will have to overcome is in the faceoff circle. The seven centers on the North America roster have an average NHL career faceoff winning percentage of 44.6. Their best option is Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, who has won 49.3 percent of his career faceoffs, followed by Couturier (47.6).

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