Wild West: Tortoises and Hares on the Blue Line

by Kevin Wickersham on October 30, 2017

Here’s our latest installment of tortoises and hares, featuring those having the hottest and coldest starts among Western Conference defensemen as October turns into November.

 

Tortoises

 

Oscar Klefbom – Edmonton (0 goals, 2 assists in 10 games)

The Oilers top defenseman is having rough early going. A key member as quarterback of their formerly feared power play, four goals in 33 chances (tied for 26th in the NHL) has Edmonton at a woeful 12.1% success rate. That’s tied for second worst in the league – a far cry from the West’s most efficient (22.9%) and prolific (56 goals) team on the man advantage last year. Regular observers say Klefbom just looks different on the ice, less mobile and perhaps injured although his minutes are still high at 24:37 per game. He’s still fired 34 shots with one yet to go in, but his minus-6 and -2.2 CF% rel for a traditionally plus player aren’t the best indicators. I’d expect things to turn around unless there’s an injury waiting to be further aggravated. Perhaps the defense just misses Andrej Sekera that much. Tied with Montreal for the league’s second-worst record at 3-6-1 and seven points, perhaps Klefbom’s struggles are just part of a larger, team-wide problem. With 27 blocks in 10 games he is exceeding career averages there, but if you drafted him it’s likely you’re expecting a good number of power play points and something near his 38 total points last year. Time will tell.

 

Connor Murphy – Chicago (0 goals, 0 assists in 9 games)

Now, Murphy’s game is not one founded on scoring, so the above totals are perhaps not the ones we should scrutinize most closely, however with a reduction in responsibility after coming over from Arizona this summer, Team USA’s World Championships captain has seen a nearly four-minute drop in ice time thus far corresponding to four fewer shifts per game. That’s been a factor in his hits-per-game stats dropping from 2.6 to 1.9 per game, and a near halving of his blocks-per-game to 0.8. A decent peripherals contributor in deep leagues, Murphy is currently too under-utilized on the Blackhawks’ deep blue line to count for much in pools. Seeing several healthy scratches thus far, including in Saturday’s tilt against Colorado, this is not going according to plan. Expected to be a top-four defenseman, amid rumored problems with his confidence he’s seventh in TOI among Chicago rearguards, averaging just a second more than Jordan Oesterle’s 15:16 in three contests and featuring a -1.9 CF% rel on the West’s second-highest scoring squad.

 

Niklas Hjalmarsson – Arizona (0 goals, 1 assist in 11 games)

The man for whom Murphy, along with Laurent Dauphin, was traded is also having a seriously un-fun opening month with the last non-victorious NHL squad. At 0-10-1, the Coyotes are the league’s leakiest allowing 48 goals against with a crisis in the crease that injured Antti Raanta was supposed to help solve. With Adin Hill, Louis Domingue, and perhaps newly-acquired Scott Wedgewood left in net until Rantaa’s return, one would hope the defense could help stop the bleeding. But no. Known for his defensive skill in Chicago, Glendale has been different as the eleven-year vet Hjalmarsson, also not a scorer, currently sports the worst plus/minus of his career at minus-8 and an unthinkable -11.0 CF% rel. His block numbers are still good, averaging 2.4 per game similar to his 2.5 numbers last year, but for a largely peripheral contributor, without at least a few points on the scoreboard and likely beastly plus/minus I’m not sure how to justify a current roster spot for him. Thus far, other than necessary salary relief for Chicago, early returns on the Murphy-Hjalmarsson indicate a lose-lose.

 

Julius Honka – Dallas (0 goals, 0 assists in 6 games)

Honka is a hare currently in tortoise’s clothing. At just 21 he oozes promise on the Stars’ blue line, but he’s spending a lot of time watching and presumably learning. With much AHL experience and 16 NHL games under his belt last, one hoped he might be ready to make a difference right away. But not yet. He’s yet to register a point in six games and earned a minus-4 in slightly under 15 minutes of ice time per game with healthy scratches in nearly half of Dallas’ contests. He has gained power play experience each time he’s dressed, averaging 2:15 on the man advantage, but it will take a bit more his 26 goals and 90 assists in 191 AHL games to transfer to NHL ice. His career 7.9 CF% rel indicates he may continue being a point-generator at the highest level before long. And 152 AHL penalty minutes likely forecast an upcoming valuable multi-category asset.

 

Hares

 

Alex Pietrangelo – St. Louis (4 goals, 8 assists in 12 games)

I’m not sure he’ll maintain his point-per-game pace, but Pietrangelo has emerged an early Norris candidate leading West rearguards in points and second in the conference only to Brent Burns in shots with 41 among blueliners while averaging a solid two blocks per game. His current 9.8 shooting percentage is far above his career 5.6 average, but then again he bested that with a 7.7% last year.  He won’t provide many hits or penalty minutes but should his scoring remain on this offensively-clicking squad he’s one of the better players to roster depending on your league’s settings. Pietrangelo has responded well to Kevin Shattenkirk’s pre-deadline departure, with five goals and 13 assists in the 20 contests following the February deal. Taken together with this year’s numbers, he’s producing points that far exceed his career average which stands at 0.57 after his newfound scoring explosion. This campaign includes power play minutes approaching four minutes a game as he’s been on the ice during 70.5% of the Blues’ man-advantage minutes. These again are numbers likely to regress, but he’s maintained a highly impressive pace for quite some time.  

 

John Klingberg – Dallas (3 goals, 8 assists in 11 games)

Looking back, Klingberg was a tortoise last year in the early going. That goes to show how much things can change given small sample sizes as he still ended up with 13 goals and 36 assists after a rough Dallas year. Not quite the 58 points he registered the previous campaign but by no means bad.  Seeing nearly two minutes more than his career average thus far (currently 24:38) he could push that total to 60 with a few breaks. As Dallas seeks its stride their star Swedish defenseman has his, also maintaining a point-per-game pace while registering a 9.7% shot rate, that would rank third among his four seasons in the league. With six power play points thus far, he’s on track to surpass last year’s 16 and perhaps the previous campaign’s 22. That’s not impossible given what the Stars’ offense is expected to look like once it finally clicks. While he will provide a few blocks (117 last year), Klingberg isn’t a multi-category demon but he been one of the league’s top offensive defensemen this young campaign.

 

Jake Muzzin – Los Angeles (2 goals, 7 assists in 11 games)

Another 2016 early-year tortoise, Muzzin has ridden the Kings’ 9-1-1 beginning to his own start. Unlike Klingberg, Muzzin’s slow start last year presaged a less-than-productive campaign by his standards with just nine goals, 19 assists and an ugly minus-22 for a slow it down and keep the score low squad. His previous two 41 and 40-point years had poolies expecting quite a bit more. The seven-year vet has seen a bit of a slowdown since dishing three assists against Columbus nine days ago to culminate a six game point streak, but still remains one of this year’s top defenseman scorers in the West. Should he again approach hit totals in the 160-170 range and blocks in the 120s his scoring potential makes Muzzin a valuable all-around asset in multi-category leagues.

 

Tyson Barrie – Colorado (2 goals, 7 assists in 11 games)

Colorado has crept back to early-season respectability. They aren’t as successful as Vegas thus far (and were blown out by them Friday afternoon) but the Avalanche’s 6-5-0 record and blue line that’s improved from the horror show of recent campaign are surprising. Leading a defensive corps including Dallas import Patrick Nemeth and vet shot blocker Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie appears to have his sights set on the 50-point mark and, with seven points in his last eight contests is well on his way. Barrie’s peak production hinges upon whether Colorado can keep their success. A key player on their improved, middle of the pack power play and averaging 4:18 per game on the man advantage, he’ll have as many opportunities as the team can muster. You might risk some ugly plus/minus stats should things turn south, and Barrie does have a minus-four thus far with much going reasonably well. Given he won’t offer much in the way of hits, blocks and PIM, buy into him if you need points from your defense and hope for the best with the rest. 

 

 

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