Ramblings: Tentpole Defensemen (Mar 16)

by steve laidlaw on March 15, 2018

 

Earlier this season I examined which players had recorded primary points on the highest percentage of their team’s goals. It was a meaningful exercise highlighting the players who could generally be relied upon to score regardless of the fate of their team because for the most part, these were the guys driving the bus. You may have noted that the list was comprised entirely of forwards.

What can I tell you? Defensemen simply do not drive offense as directly as forwards can. Rare is the defenseman who scores 10 goals, let alone the 20 or 30 that an average top-line forward might. When defensemen notch assists, half of them are of the secondary variety. They start the breakouts, rather than finishing them. This puts defensemen into an awfully precarious position. They cannot be relied upon to drive offense for a team the same way that forwards can. Even in the age of the offensive defenseman it’s forwards who are driving the bus.

Still, there are some defensemen who do a better job of driving things than others. Here are the defensemen who have recorded points on the highest percentage of team goals (before last night’s action):

 

GP

Goals

Assists

Points

Team G

Point%

John Klingberg

71

7

51

58

201

0.289

Erik Karlsson

64

8

46

54

191

0.283

John Carlson

69

12

43

55

206

0.267

Brent Burns

70

10

44

54

203

0.266

Seth Jones

70

14

34

48

187

0.257

Shayne Gostisbehere

66

10

41

51

203

0.251

Drew Doughty

70

9

39

48

201

0.239

Alex Pietrangelo

65

12

31

43

188

0.229

Keith Yandle

67

6

40

46

202

0.228

P.K. Subban

69

15

35

50

220

0.227

Ryan Suter

70

6

41

47

214

0.220

Tyson Barrie

55

10

37

47

219

0.215

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

69

10

25

35

165

0.212

Torey Krug

64

13

35

48

229

0.210

Roman Josi

62

10

36

46

220

0.209

Dougie Hamilton

71

15

25

40

196

0.204

Victor Hedman

65

11

40

51

251

0.203

Rasmus Ristolainen

60

6

27

33

164

0.201

 

Only 18 defensemen in the league have points on 20% of their team’s goals, up from 16 last year. Here’s last year’s list:

 

GP

Goals

Assists

Points

Team G

Points %

Brent Burns

82

29

47

76

219

0.347

Erik Karlsson

77

17

54

71

206

0.345

Victor Hedman

79

16

56

72

230

0.313

Kevin Shattenkirk

80

13

43

56

240

0.233

Tyson Barrie

74

7

31

38

165

0.230

Rasmus Ristolainen

79

6

39

45

199

0.226

Dougie Hamilton

81

13

37

50

222

0.225

Drew Doughty

82

12

32

44

199

0.221

Duncan Keith

80

6

47

53

240

0.221

John Klingberg

80

13

36

49

222

0.221

Torey Krug

81

8

43

51

232

0.220

Dustin Byfuglien

80

13

39

52

246

0.211

Alex Pietrangelo

80

14

34

48

233

0.206

Roman Josi

72

12

37

49

238

0.206

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

79

12

27

39

191

0.204

Keith Yandle

82

5

36

41

205

0.200

 

You’ll notice a lot of overlap. Indeed, 12 of last year’s 20-percenters are hitting that mark again this season. Only Keith (season from hell), Byfuglien (injuries + shooting slump), and Shattenkirk (injuries) have dropped out. This year’s newbies include: Subban (injured last season), Carlson (injured), Gostisbehere (sophomore slump from hell), Suter and Jones.

Notes on this:

What a red herring last year’s first half was in Columbus. Zach Werenski is awesome, but the incomprehensible run that he and Columbus’ top power play unit went on over the first few months did enough to put us off Jones’ scent. Even as Jones quietly was the Blue Jackets’ best defenseman in the second half it still seemed like Werenski was the 1A. Jones has blown those notions to bits. He is so far past Werenski that he’s but a speck on the rearview mirror.

There is room for both Jones and Werenski to be fantasy relevant, but you’ll note something else from the table above, there is only one team with multiple defensemen in on 20% of their team’s goals and that’s Nashville.

Nashville is one of the few holdouts in the league’s trend towards 4F1D power play looks, and that may simply be because their defense are good enough to get away with it. In Columbus, they don’t have that luxury. Not that Werenski and Jones aren’t good enough, but their system is flawed. They can barely piece together a decent power play with four forwards on the ice, let alone just three. Plus, they don’t have good enough third or fourth defensemen to operate on the second unit.

Jones has command of that top deployment in Columbus. There’s enough room for this to swing back the other way, but we only have a half season of dominance from Werenski. Jones has been at this for a year and a half now. Jones is on pace for 57 points this season. Can you imagine if the Blue Jackets had more clicking up front than just Artemi Panarin?

The Jones example highlights how important deployment is. The list above is basically a whose who of top PP defensemen. Only three of the 18 above average less than 3:00 of PP time per game: Josi (2:59), Jones (2:40 thanks to continued dalliance with Werenski as the PP1 option and Columbus’ inability to draw a penalty), and Hamilton (whose second half breakout coincided with a promotion to PP1).

Defensemen averaging over 3:00 minutes of PP time per game but not appearing above: Shea Weber (injured), Shattenkirk (injured), Kris Letang (0.182 points percentage), Nick Leddy (0.183), Byfuglien (0.167), and Justin Faulk (0.157).

Another important piece of the puzzle is offensive zone starts percentage. Of the 18 above, only Subban and Yandle start less than 45% of their shifts in the offensive zone. Teams generate more offense when the puck starts in the other end (duh), so the defensemen deployed in these opportunities get greater exposure to scoring opportunities. This highlights what brilliant seasons Subban and Yandle are having.

While were on Yandle, both he and Barrie had down seasons in 2016-17 but have bounced back with a vengeance. I don’t know if offensive improvements are coming for Arizona or Buffalo, but if they do Ekman-Larsson and Ristolainen are ready to be 50-point defensemen.

*

I made reference to this as the age of the offensive defenseman, basically, this encompasses the entirety of the time post-2005 lockout. Checkout the three-year volume for defensemen hitting various benchmarks:

 

10G

40P

50P

60P

PP/G

2001/2004

70

53

18

3

4.26

2005/2008

88

77

40

16

4.99

2008/2011

74

80

29

6

3.80

2011/2015

79

72

25

7

3.21

2015/2018

78

69

28

7

3.06

 

Indeed, defensemen are more frequently hitting lofty heights than their pre-lockout compatriots, but there seems to be a cap on this. Post-lockout we are averaging 26 defensemen per year hitting 10 goals, and 25 defensemen per year hitting 40 points. That’s basically one per team per season and it doesn’t appear to be changing. It may even be growing more concentrated if power play opportunities remain this low.

Outside of the post-lockout power play spike in 2005-06 power plays have been trending downward from the dead puck era. They spiked briefly this season before refs reverted to their reticent ways. While power plays are growing more efficient thanks to the 4F1D setup, the reduction in opportunities only reinforces the predominance of teams only boasting one defenseman of genuine fantasy relevance since there are fewer juicy minutes to go around.

*

Two assists for Jacob Trouba in his return to the lineup after a couple of months out. He skated only 14:42 with no PP time. The Jets are going to ease him back. It’s also worth noting that he wasn’t seeing much PP time earlier in the season when all three of Byfuglien, Trouba and Tyler Myers were healthy. It’s good that he’s back but he probably won’t be too much of a fantasy option.

*

Andre Burakovsky ended a seven-game scoreless drought last night. He was a popular breakout pick, but he has struggled to find his groove and has battled injuries. I wonder how much room there is for him to produce as a playmaking winger on a team with two dominant playmaking centermen. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are better served with players more willing to shoot the puck.

*

Both Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk were ruled out for the weekend and will be re-evaluated next weekend. There goes two hot options.

Torey Krug did play despite also getting hurt the other night. He managed eight SOG in over 26 minutes of action.

*

Cam Atkinson notched a hat-trick. He has finally found his touch with six goals and 12 points in the last 10 games.

*

It’s time dump your Rangers. They are the only team in the league to play four games between now and March 25, the end of the standard fantasy playoffs. All of their games come on dense Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday slates so you may not even use them if you do keep them.

*

Calle Jarnkrok has been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He may miss the playoffs as well. It’s a good thing the Preds went out and added nearly an entire extra forward line at the trade deadline. On pace for a 40-point season, Jarnkrok wasn’t overly fantasy relevant, but his absence might be enough to get multi-category option, Scott Hartnell back into the regular rotation for Nashville.

*

Matthew Tkachuk is expected to be out again tonight, with no timeline set for his return. This will keep Micheal Ferland in the mix as the net-front man on the top PP unit.

Kris Versteeg is looking to make his return after hip surgery, but if his recovery is anything like Ryan Kesler’s, he won’t be particularly useful.

*

Great article here on the importance of fit on sports teams from a former NBA executive:

The only major roster difference between the 33-49 outfit from 2012-13 and the 54 win team of 2013-14 was Robin Lopez. Looking back, there may have been no more flawless fit for our team, both on and off the court. Kismet indeed.

If you were to ask what the cause of that sudden surge was, the reason why a team that was picked before the year to finish below .500 ended up spending significant time at the top of the conference, you wouldn’t be wrong in saying simply: “Robin Lopez.” But you also wouldn’t be right.

This is a fun concept to try and apply in hockey. How long did the Penguins try to find the right fit for Sidney Crosby? The best options they’ve ever found are mostly anonymous grinding forwards. Put Crosby with Phil Kessel on the regular and they both suffer. Put Crosby with two grinders, and he turns them into stars. Hell, Chris Kunitz put up 52 points in 48 games in the lockout shortened 2013 season!

How about the Golden Knights taking a pile of seventh forwards and fifth defensemen and turning them into division champs? Sure, Jonathan Marchessault looks like a star now, but do you think William Karlsson goes from fourth line center with 18 career goals to a likely 40-goal man without chemistry playing some kind of role?

How about the preponderance for aggressive offensive defensemen to play alongside steady, sometimes plodding, stay-at-home types? This has to be a fit thing. Sure, Werenski and Jones are proof that you can succeed with two aggressive options paired together, but generally an elite offensive guy can elevate a defensive option. And a defensive option can elevate an offensive guy. Marc Methot got Team Canada consideration because of his partnership with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa.

Talent will always be the most important trait. It’s the scarcest resource to build around, but it’s not the only consideration. These sorts of team-building anecdotes are always intriguing to me.

*

Thanks for reading, you can follow me on Twitter @SteveLaidlaw.

 

  • Nathan

    Maybe I’m the only one around here, but I hate the “chemistry” argument, especially with Crosby in particular. That was just a team realizing finally that the best player in the world is more valuable if he’s making players like Rust/Guentzel/Simon into 50-60 point players instead of 20-30 point guys than he is when he makes Phil Kessel an 80 point player instead of a 70-75 point player. That’s not a chemistry thing, that’s just putting your players in their best position to help the team.

    To boot- The thinking that a rover defensemen has to pair with a stay at home guy is old world thinking and holds the sport back- literally actively makes it more boring to watch- and I’m so tired of hearing that argument. How much longer do we have to watch the Gostisbeheres, Burns, Karlssons etc. of the world held back by the mis-perceived value of defensive defenders like Andy MacDonald, Paul Martin, Marc Methot? As if opponents would be lighting up those first guys if they weren’t paired with the stay at home guys. If you watched the flyers-blue jackets game last night you saw first hand how pairings like Jones/Werenski and Provorov/Gostisbehere are the future of the game. This thinking that everyone fits into one peg and they can only work with the opposite kind of guy for balance is just stupid, backwards thinking. Double down on talent and put your depth where it can best thrive. The teams that spend their time looking for “chemistry” as much as talent on the open market- Oilers, Canucks, etc are at the bottom of the league for a reason.

    • MarkRM16

      The reason that offensive defenceman are often paired with purely defensive D is as insurance. Very few elite or above-average offensive D are also elite defensively. Offensive D rack up the points because they take so many chances along the blueline that lead to dangerous turnovers. Provorov is paired with Ghost because Provorov is one of the few D with above average offensive and defensive skill. This lets the Flyers combine their best offensive D with their best 2-way D, an excellent option to have. Pairings like this are very rare precisely because only a handful of elite 2-way D ever end up playing on the same team.

    • steve laidlaw

      Like I said, talent is the most important and scarcest resource. On the open market, it is rarely (if ever) available. Where teams go wrong is in paying for what they assume will fit or paying for fit as though it is talent. The point is to find the undervalued pieces that fit to make something that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. If you pay for fit, you are no longer achieving something greater than the sum of it’s parts.

      Using the Oilers’ example, they saw a need for a power forward piece and spent varying resources to acquire it. Maroon ended up being a fit, and was acquired cheaply. Lucic ended up not being a fit and was acquired expensively. They paid for fit as though it was talent.

      And I’m with you on the elite defense pairings in PHI/CBJ. But how many teams have that much talent to use together? The fit argument is to try and make something greater than the sum of it’s parts. Is that what PHI/CBJ are getting out of their uber-pairings? In Philly, it seems that yes this is the case. And they are still using MacDonald to some degree of utility, just not in that role. Fit isn’t to force players into archetypes, but rather being to find the players that actually fit together producing positive results. If the results aren’t there then it isn’t a fit, right?

      The examples being discussed are all top of the lineup discussions, but fit can be found throughout the lineup. What about fit in terms of power-play configurations. There are players with specific skillsets who better fit into certain spots on a power play. What about third defense pairings where skill is going to be lacking? Shouldn’t teams be looking for fit there?

      • Nathan

        That’s all fair points- I guess my main argument is that when coach’s in the NHL in particular put guys together and point to “chemistry,” it’s often a sign that that coach is bad and I think we’re in an era of some awful coaching in the NHL. Instead of trying to push the limits I think the “chemistry” argument is used a lot to talk up defensive play and “safe” play rather than trying something new.
        I guess what I mean is- look what a success Ghost/Prov now- why wouldn’t that pairing have worked a year ago? Instead we were getting 25 minutes of Andy MacDonald with Provorov because of their “chemistry” together. Those unquantifiable pieces are undoubtedly what wins cups every year- I just find “chemistry” as an argument for coaching decisions to be a backwards decision.

        And I really like your point about the Oilers- once you start spending for chemistry, you’ve defeated the point. If only someone would let Chiarelli know!

        Cheers and thanks for the response Steve. I really enjoy reading your ramblings.

  • Masta_Byte

    I very much agree in the importance of chemistry! Hard to prove correlation, but impossible to miss if you just observe.

  • starz31

    Really enjoyed the NBA-fit article, which can be applied to all sports. I think far too often fans tend to underrate or forget about fit and clubhouse/lockerroom chemistry. Players are humans and face all of the same day to day emotional challenges the rest of us do, and combine that with playing style/personality fit, and there are many variables.
    Especially with the increase in use of statistics and numbers. Plucking all the best players by the numbers doesn’t always create the best teams. Probably a big reason why the Patriots have been so successful for so long. You need elite talent (Belichick/Brady) but then you have the flexibility to build around that talent and continue plugging holes. Easier said than done in the salary-cap/free agency era. The sum of all parts is always worth more.

  • Chunky’s Choice

    “Points on the highest percentage of team goals”… a while back I tried to give this stat a name (Chunk Rate) but it never really caught on. Gonna dig up that thread in the forum now and see if people like it more today. Awesome Ramblings as usual…

    • steve laidlaw

      Love it!

  • anonymouse

    Alexander Wennberg appears to be heating up – drop Steen for him?

    • Nathan

      Steen has 3 points in his last 10 games and has pretty much been useless since the Blues traded Stastny and even when the team was popping in 7 goals the other night he couldn’t get in on the fun. There’s gotta be more than just Wennberg on the wire to drop him for. He does nothing peripheral wise, so yeah. Drop away for Wennberg or whoever- outside that 2-3 week hot streak he went on, he’s been waiver fodder all year unless you’re in a giant league.

      • anonymouse

        The thing is, Steen was actually tearing it up for about 2 months with Schenn and Schwartz, during what was arguably the Blues’ worst stretch of the season. Then he was mysteriously taken off that line. He was never all that productive with Stastny to begin with so his trade didn’t really have an effect on Steen’s fantasy value. If he gets put back with those 2 he’ll be a star again. If not he’ll be a mediocre, 0.5point/game player.

        And Wennberg fills up the stat sheet even less than Steen – when he’s not getting apples he’s doing nothing. Literally.

        Anyway, hopefully Bergy’s back next week so I’ll be able to cut Steen and put berg back in my lineup (he’s on my IR+.) If not might just use Steen’s spot in the lineup to spot start. Thanks for the help!