Cage Match: Which Team is Better – North America or Russia?

by Rick Roos on September 7, 2016
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  • Cage Match: Which Team is Better – North America or Russia?

Digging deep and breaking down Teams North America and Russia – which one will win?


Welcome to the first of two special Cage Matches to celebrate the 2016 World Cup of Hockey! Although every year hockey’s best are pitted against each other in the World Championships and World Juniors, the World Cup – being held for the first time in 12 years – is unique in occurring on the cusp of the NHL season. Thus, it receives increased attention from hockey-starved fans, including poolies.

These cage matches focus on the four teams with arguably the highest profiles and which also are among the most heavily favored: Canada, USA, North America, and Russia. The cage matches will be by group, starting with North America vs. Russia (part of Group B and playing each other on September 19) and then Canada vs. USA (part of Group A and playing each other on September 20th).

The goal will be not only to predict the actual winners of these two games, but also provide useful fantasy insight along the way. Note that for ease of reading, I’ll often refer to Team North America as “TNA” and Team Russia as ”TR”.


Translating World Cup Games into Cage Matches

Canada vs. USA should be straightforward, given the abundance of comparable data. But this week is a different story. The issue with TNA is its players are all no older than 23, so there’s not a long body of career stats to draw from. Meanwhile, TR includes several KHL players, making comparisons even more challenging. But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge, so it’s on!


International Experience/Accomplishments –ADVANTAGE TEAM NORTH AMERICA

Here’s what the numbers tell us, when added together for all 23 players on each team:


Games of International Experience

Medals Won

North America


51 (Gold = 34; Silver = 4, Bronze = 13)



98 (Gold = 29; Silver = 35; Bronze = 34)


But how can we rightfully compare the international credentials of both teams given their differences in ages, which boil down to TNA’s 23 players being a combined 502 years old (average age of 21.82), versus 621 (average age of 27.00) for TR’s squad? And let’s keep in mind – although the gap in average ages might not seem like much, considering that the earliest international tournament is the World U-17 Hockey Challenge, which means TNA’s players have a cumulative 111 years of international eligibility (4.82 years x 23 players) compared to 230 for TR (10.00 years x 23). In other words, TR’s players, on average, have more than double the years of international eligibility as TNA’s.

I think the fairest way to go about a comparison is to age-adjust the relevant data. For example, to calculate age-adjusted experience for each team we divide its games of international experience by its years of international eligibility, arriving upon 5.17 for TNA and 4.23 for TR. Therefore, although TR has cumulatively played 400 more international games, TNA has 22% more age-adjusted international experience per player.

In terms of age-adjusted medals, TR holds a small edge, as 230 years divided by 98 medals equals 2.34 medals per year, versus 111/52 (i.e., 2.13) for TNA. That having seen said, TNA has more golds than TR even without accounting for age, which more than compensates for the small gap in age-adjusted medals per year.

FANTASY TAKEAWAYS – With regard to experience, most of TNA is already well entrenched in an NHL line-up, with the exception of Auston Matthews, who stands a better chance of hitting the ground running in 2016-17 by playing in games like these with truly top talent. For TR, fantasy beneficiaries might be Alexey Marchenko, Nikita Nesterov, and Nikita Zaitsev, who could see their standings with their respective NHL teams benefitted by strong showings. Andrei Vasilevskiy could also impress, although first he’ll have to find playing time over veterans Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov.


Ability to Withstand Pressure and Expectations –ADVANTAGE TEAM NORTH AMERICA

As we saw above, TR is far more internationally battle tested; but with that, plus the well-known and well-accomplished veterans on its squad, arguably comes increased expectations. Moreover, by featuring players from both Canada (11 total) and the US (12), TNA benefits from not having to please a single country/fanbase, which of course is a concern with Russia.

Essentially, TNA enters the tournament in a best of both worlds situation, as its youth will allow it to have a “happy-go-lucky” approach that won’t lend itself to nerves, but the team also can draw from its significant age-adjusted experience to not wilt under the spotlight – one that will be less bright due to not representing just a single nation.

FANTASY TAKEAWAYS – Given the proximity of the tournament to the start of the 2016-17 regular season, if either team strongly disappoints, or certain players don’t perform well under the pressure they face, that could correspondingly affect the fantasy expectations for (and, therefore, fantasy cost of) those players among poolies. Be sure to consider that in terms of buying low or selling high, or when drafting for one-year leagues. But if a player lays an egg in the tourney, don’t automatically assume that’ll set him on a path to perform poorly in the regular season. Likewise, don’t automatically convince yourself a player who shines will continue to do so in the regular season. After all, it’s just as possible that failing on this stage could light a fire under a player, or that success could lead to complacency. In the end, it depends on the mental make-up of the particular players and other factors that aren’t always immediately apparent.



Among TR, one set of four players (Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Namestikov, Andrej Vasilevskiy, Nikita Nesterov), two sets of three players (Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeny Davydov, Vadim Shipachyov; Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Dmitri Orlov), and two sets of two players (Artem Anisimov ,Artemi Panarin; Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov) are currently on the same “real life” squad, while for TNA it’s two sets of three players (Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck; Seth Jones, Brandon Saad, Ryan Murray) and four duos ( Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck; Sean Couturier, Shayne Ghostisbehere; Auston Matthews, Morgan Reilly; Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins).

Thus, 14 players on each squad will have one or more “real life” teammates on the roster. But Matthews has yet to play with Reilly, so I think both should be omitted, as should Datsyuk, who hasn’t suited up for his KHL squad so far. That leaves 12 for TNA and 13 for Russia – still a virtual deadlock. And interestingly, youth doesn’t work entirely against TNA when looking at the duration of these players being real life teammates, as although no TNA players have been on the same NHL squad for more than three seasons, there aren’t many long term teammates on TR either, with only Emelin and Markov (five seasons) and Ovechkin and Orlov (four seasons) having NHL teammate tenures longer than three seasons.

Of course, many key players on the Russian squad have skated together internationally for upwards of a decade. In contrast, not only are those on TNA too young for that to be the case, but inasmuch as TNA is comprised of players from Canada and the USA, many of them will be skating alongside players who’ve previously been their opposition in these types of tournaments. That might not provide the team unity and dynamic we can expect with the Russian squad, who gets the edge in this area.

FANTASY TAKEAWAYS – Make note of real life teammates, especially those likely to also play alongside each other in the regular season (e.g., Panarin and Anisimov, Murray and Jones), as they could carry a nice fantasy boost into the season. Also, the tournament gives Ovechkin and Kuzentsov an opportunity to share a line, providing Kuznetsov a better chance to displace Niklas Backstrom as Ovi’s everyday NHL centerman. If indeed they play together and do well, give Kunetsov a higher value going into the season and be a bit warier of Backstrom.



TR originally had Slava Voynov on its roster, but due to Voynov’s suspension from the NHL, which is one of the entities running the World Cup, he was required to be replaced. At least some TR players could view this as a motivating “slap in the face” to their home country, especially the three who currently play for the same KHL club as Voynov. In short, TR might feel that next to winning the gold medal, the best thing it could do to support their countryman is to beat the NHL’s team of marquee young stars.

Meanwhile, although TNA would like nothing more than to win to show how talented they are plus make a statement as to why they should be considered for roster spots on squads for Canada and the US in future international events, they arguably lack a comparably unifying team spirit/motivation, especially by virtue of being assembled almost equally from two separate countries and comprised of former international adversaries.

Another “who wants it more” factor that can’t be overlooked is contract status, as there are players on each squad poised to sign new deals by this time next year, and even some who, when I submitted this column, are still unsigned for 2016-17. And of course, shining on one of the biggest international stages could help line their wallets. By my count, both teams have seven players who are presently RFAs or whose current deals end after 2016-17: for TR (Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, Dmitri Orlov – current RFAs; Andrei Markov, Dmitri Kulikov – upcoming UFAs; Nikita Zaitsev, Artemi Panarin – upcoming RFAs); for TNA (Johnny Gaudreau, Jacob Trouba – current RFAs; Jonathan Drouin, Shayne Ghostisbehere, Colton Parayko, Connor Hellebuyck, Matt Murray – upcoming RFAs). With one more currently unsigned player and two UFAs to be (versus none for TNA), more TR players have added motivation in this area.

FANTASY TAKEAWAYS –Beyond not losing sight of players whose deals end after 2016-17, if you’re in a dynasty keeper and own Evgeny Dadonov or Ivan Telegin (who’ve been in the KHL but still have NHL rights owned by teams), this could give you a chance to buy or sell depending on their performance and how optimistic you are of them playing in the NHL at a future date.


Format and Coaching – ADVANTAGE TEAM RUSSIA

Unlike some international tournaments, the World Cup will be played on NHL rinks, which are generally smaller than those in the KHL. Advantage TNA? Not so fast. Despite Team Russia including KHL players, only one (Vadim Shipachyov) has no junior or pro experience on North American ice dimensions.

TNA’s head coach is Todd McLellan, who’s fresh off coaching Canada to gold at the 2015 World Championships; but his main NHL coaching achievement came while an assistant with Detroit. His assistants have solid NHL resumes, but aren’t heavy on international experience, let alone success, although Dave Tippett did twice play for Canada in the Olympics (winning one silver medal). In contrast, TR’s head coach Oleg Znarok has been behind Russia’s bench at three World Championships, medaling in each (Gold in 2014, Silver in 2015, Bronze in 2016). He has only one assistant, with whom he’s worked closely over the years. I see this as an edge for Russia, as they’ve had demonstrated success with this coaching tandem; plus, by having one coach and one assistant (as opposed to four assistants) TR might avoid a “too many cooks” problem that could plague TNA.


Who Wins?

I realize North America is a “sexy” pick among many pundits; but based on the factors above, I’m narrowly selecting Russia as the winner of this cage match and thus the game itself. In other words, if these teams played each other 10 different times, I think Russia would most likely win six matches. See you back here next week for Canada vs. USA!