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Fantasy and the World Cup of Hockey

WCH Canada v USA

Something caught my attention for fantasy purposes (and hey AATJ has a fantasy league you can still join here!) when I was reading ESPN.com’s oral history of the 1996 United States World Cup of Hockey team: Mathieu Schneider, ‘96 U.S. defenseman, said that when he got back to training camp after the U.S. won, he “was three steps ahead of everyone else.”

That may be hyperbole or biases remembering how well that U.S. team played together, but it got me thinking about how to take advantage of players on World Cup of Hockey rosters in 2016 based on how players on the teams that played the longest, the U.S. and Canada, in the 1996 World Cup performed during the seasons after as compared to their career averages. It was also held in the month or so before the season started, so it will be comparable to some degree to the current iteration going on in Toronto. Hopefully.

Wayne Gretzky is where you start and end with players and scoring, so he’s a good first test case. For Los Angeles and St. Louis in 1995-96, he put up 102 points in 80 games. He never topped 97 in any of his three seasons that followed with the Rangers and the year before, 1994-95, he only put up 48 points in 48 games, less than his 1.275 point per game average in 96. Mario Lemieux is where you logically go next, and Super Mario put up a ridiculous for the ‘90s 161 points with 69 goals. The year after he registered only 122 points. In 1993-94, his last year played before ‘96, he put up 37 points in 22 games, for a 1.68 per game average. He topped that in ‘96 with 2.3 with him only playing in 70 games.

Mark Messier put up 99 points in ‘96, a number he would never come within 15 points of again and hadn’t reached previously since 1992. Keith Tkachuk would have a career year, scoring 98 points and 50 goals for Winnipeg. Dough Weight would have by far his best season, eclipsing the 100 point mark with 25 goals and 79 assists. He’d never top 90 again.

But just when you look at the stats of the two teams who played the longest in that tournament, you realize that there’s pretty much just as much counteracting evidence.

Brett Hull would have nearly identical stats in 1996 and 1997, with 43-40-83 and 42-40-82 lines. One of those years had Wayne Gretzky on the team and it wasn’t ‘97. John LeClair had a breakout year in ‘96, with 97 points, his first year over 50, but he put up a higher point per game average in ‘95 with 49 points in 37 games. I’m chalking that one up to playing with Eric Lindros.

Mike Richter, the star of the tournament, had a pretty pedestrian ‘96 campaign, with a .912 save percentage, a number he’d top the following year. Curtis Joseph, Canada’s goalie, went completely in the tank in ‘96 with a .886 save percentage, one he wouldn’t go lower than until 2008-09 in Toronto when he was 41.

It’s harder to analyze players like Chris Chelios and Schneider’s defensive contributions without possession stats being available in 1996, so that really could’ve been the difference. They may have just had bad puck luck.

Even when you look at players like Eric Lindros having a higher point per game average than he did in his 1995 MVP season, it’s a miniscule difference and can easily be attributed to other factors that we can’t know about in 2016.

There’s no obvious way to look at just how much a World Cup can help. And when you read ESPN.com’s story, you can tell how seriously the players were taking it then. Talk about Eric Lindros having the Team Canada torch passed to him, the U.S. trying to show that its pros could keep up and a miracle in 1980 wasn’t all they had as a hockey nation. But then you look at 2016’s iteration, and you realize that the players just don’t care that much what with phantom injuries and players like Jiri Hudler just not answering the calls.

So if any preseason tourney was going to have an impact on the teams playing the longest, you’d think it’d be the one where the teams actually cared and had something on either side to play for. Canada, to keep its dominance from the Canada Cup alive and to show it was still the best, and the U.S. to show it could keep up.

But now, in 2016, the Olympics seem to be the only tourney the players care enough about to answer their phones for and the goal here seems to just be to not injure themselves. The U.S. has won an international tournament. Canada has won the last two Olympic hockey tournaments. Maybe the Russians care, but they don’t really have enough defense for it to matter and there just aren’t as many of them in the league anymore.

So what was the point of this article? Probably just to not put any stock in the World Cup of hockey in terms of fantasy NHL purposes. You can lead the tournament like Curtis Joseph in GAA and still end up having the worst season you’d have in 13 years. Maybe Canada should’ve brought Brodeur.