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General Thoughts on Defensive Usage

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Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, All-Star season.  The second the roster comes out, Twitter predictably descends into utter chaos while shouting about snubs.  This year, if you haven't heard, our very own Erik "The Condor" Johnson made the cut, and PK Subban and Erik Karlsson did not.  Based on reputation alone, this has a good deal of people bent out of shape, but I began to wonder - what does it really mean to be an "All Star" at the defensive position?  Is there a type of defenseman that deserves to be there more than anyone else?

As yesterday was a pretty typical lazy Sunday, I decided to take a look at the league's top defenseman and see if there were any tendencies that came to light.  By playing around on war-on-ice, I decided to look at all the defenseman with 650+ even strength minutes played and/or the top 2 players by raw 5-on-5 TOI from each team.  I also tossed in Chara because even though his minutes are down because of the injury, he is Chara and you are not.  I ended up with 78 blueliners, vague clusters, and this photoshoped graph:

1-11-15 Overall
Don't worry if you can't see it.  I'll break it down as we go.  Let's start at the top.


Category Zdeno Chara

He's been injured this year and hasn't played as many games as he normally does, so he's a case of "small sample size". Usually, he's around a Category 2 defenseman, but there has been some talk about him being a snub, so I decided to show his numbers this year just as a reference point.


Category 1:  Minutes of Doom

1-11-15 Cat 1

Members:

  • Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Zbynek Michalek (ARI)
  • Mark Giordano/TJ Brodie (CGY)
  • Erik Johnson/Jan Hejda (COL)
  • Shea Weber/Roman Josi (NSH)
  • Dan Girardi/Marc Staal (NYR)
  • Marc-Edward Vlasic/Justin Braun (SJS)
  • Andy Greene (NJD)
  • Alex Pietrangelo (STL)
  • Dion Phaneuf (TOR)

All-Stars: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Johnson, Mark Giordano, Shea Weber

Usage: Not only do these players usually match up against the best other teams have to offer, they also do so mostly in the defensive zone.  Typically one player in these pairings is more well-known (OEL, Giordano, EJ, Weber, Vlasic, etc), but both have to deal with the demands of these minutes. Interestingly, players like Josi, Weber, and Girardi are getting destroyed possession-wise this year, while Erik Johnson, Mark Giordano, T.J.Brodie, and Zbynek Michalek are doing really well.  It's also worth noting that the majority of the teams these players represent are middling to poor in overall possession and are usually from the West.  This is one of the two categories with the largest number of All-Stars.  Basically, I pity the poor souls who fall into this group, but they wouldn't be here if they weren't talented enough to handle it.  Some of them are even among the top defensive scorers in the NHL.

Top Points: Mark Giordano, 36pts

Top Goals: Erik Johnson, 12G

Average Stat Line: 5G / 13A / 18pts, 23:44 TOI/GP


Category 2: Defensive but Not Deranged

11-1-15 Cat 2

Members:

  • Justin Faulk / Andrej Sekera (CAR)
  • Niklas Hjalmarsson / Johnny Oduya (CHI)
  • Trevor Daley / Alex Goligoski (DAL)
  • Niklas Kronwall / Jonathan Ericsson (DET)
  • Andrei Markov / PK Subban (MTL)
  • Alexander Edler / Christopher Tanev (VAN)
  • Brooks Orpik / John Carlson (WSH)
  • Dougie Hamilton (BOS)
All-Stars: Justin Faulk

Usage: The players on this list still take on the majority of the tough matchups for their team, but they receive much friendlier zone starts than their Category 1 brethren.  For the most part, the teams they represent are middling to strong possession teams.   It's also interesting to note that overall, these players' quality of competition, while still high, isn't quite as nasty.  The standout of this group is PK Subban, the All-Star snub, especially when it comes to possession.  His assignments are far from the worst in the group, but he is expected to play a fair amount of defense and seems to do pretty well with it.

Top Points: John Carlson, 31pts  (Subban is 2nd with 27pts)

Top Goals: Trevor Daley, 9G

Average Stats Line: 4G / 13A / 17pts, 22:54 TOI/GP


Category 3:  These Minutes Make My Butt Look GOOOOD

1-11-15 Cat 3

Members:
  • Brent Seabrook / Duncan Keith (CHI)
  • Jake Muzzin / Drew Doughty (LAK)
  • Anton Stralman / Matt Carle (TBL)
  • Ryan Suter (MIN)
  • Nick Leddy (NYI)
  • Mark Streit (PHI)
  • Kris Letang (PIT)
All-Stars: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter

Usage: Look at all that blue!  That, my friends, means that these players are possession (and offensive) machines.  All of them are probably talented enough to play in Category 1 or 2, but their team has found a way to give them lots of time in the offensive zone, which makes them look good. It's also where you'll find many of the big minute munchers in the league.  They still have to play some defense - they're not out there against other team's bottom lines very often - but they're very talented players that have been put in a position to succeed.  It's absolutely no surprise that they're tied with Category 1 with four All-Stars.

Top Points: Mark Streit, 28pts

Top Goals: Kris Letang, 8G

Average Stats Line: 5G / 17A / 22pts, 24:06 TOI/GP


Category 4:  You Want Me to Start Where?

1-11-15 Cat 4 revised
Members:
  • Tyler Myers / Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF)
  • Jack Johnson / David Savard (CBJ)
  • Andrew Ference / Jeff Petry (EDM)
  • Dennis Seidenberg (BOS)
  • Brenden Dillon (DAL)
  • Willie Mitchell (FLA)
  • Marco Scandella (MIN)
  • Alexei Emelin (MTL)
  • Cody Ceci (OTT)
  • Nick Schultz (PHI)
All-Stars: None

Usage: It's not really a surprise that none of these defensemen were selected for the All-Star game.  They're decent, but for the most part, they're not exactly spectacular and play for more meh teams.  The one name that stands out to me from this group is Jack Johnson.  For the better part of his career, he's been deployed in this area of usage.  That means he's not playing the best players every night, but he starts in the D zone and pretty much stays in the D zone.  That goes for the majority of his comrades.  Only Jeff Petry and Brenden Dillon see more offense than defense in this group.  Even though this type of usage isn't quite as hellish as Category 1, I'd say it's more thankless. There's not a lot of name recognition here.  Oh, and Tyler Myers would like to be rescued now.

Top Points: Jack Johnson, 20pts

Top Goals: Marco Scandella, 9G

Average Stats Line: 3G / 7A / 10pts, 21:36 TOI/GP


Category 5:  Standard Usage

1-11-15 Cat 5
Members:
  • Cam Fowler / Hampus Lindholm / Sami Vatanen (ANA)
  • Kris Russell / Dennis Wideman (CGY)
  • Matt Niskanen / Karl Alzner (WSH)
  • Ron Hainsey (CAR)
  • Thomas Hickey (NYI)
  • Erik Karlsson (OTT)
  • Nicklas Grossmann (PHI)
  • Christian Ehrhoff (PIT)
  • Brent Burns (SJS)
  • Jake Gardiner (TOR)
  • Kevin Bieksa (VAN)
  • Dustin Byfuglien (WPG)

All-Stars: Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien

Usage: Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room, and no, I'm not talking about Byfuglien.  Let's talk about Karlsson.  He averages 20 minutes of even strength play a night, but unlike Suter and Doughty, he pretty much takes on everyone everywhere.  He's used somewhat in the defensive zone, but he takes on top lines, bottom lines, and everything in between.  I would also argue he's the only #1 defenseman in this particular group.  Most of these other players are 2nd pairing and covered by another player or two in Categories 1-2.  Anaheim is an interesting exception to this since practically their entire defense could be grouped into this category.  Their corps is not spectacular, but it's deep so no one gets stuck with the ugly minutes.  It seems to work for them.

Top Points: Brent Burns, 33pts  (Karlsson is 2nd with 29pts)

Top Goals: Brent Burns, 11G

Average Stats Line: 5G / 12A / 17pts, 21:47 TOI/GP


Category 6:  Offensive Defensemen

1-11-15 Cat 4
Members:
  • Keith Yandle / Michael Stone (ARI)
  • Aaron Ekblad / Brian Campbell (FLA)
  • Tyson Barrie (COL)
  • Justin Schultz (EDM)
  • Marek Zidlicky (NJD)
  • Kevin Shattenkirk (STL)

All-Stars: Kevin Shattenkirk, Aaron Ekblad (Rookie)

Usage: These are your pure offensive defensemen.  While they might be alright defensively, they're given easier minutes to maximize their offensive impact.  It's also the home of Ekblad, the rookie Florida is sheltering to ease the  transition to the NHL.  It's not surprising that of the 6 teams represented here, four of them are also found in Category 1, and the other two are from Category 4.  In order to get these players good zone starts, someone else on their team has to take the defensive draws.

Top Goals: Kevin Shattenkirk, 7G

Top Points: Kevin Shattenkirk, 37pts

Average Stats Line: 4G / 17A / 21pts, 21:59 TOI/GP

Conclusion:

So, what does any of this mean?  It means that defensemen come in all different shapes, sizes, and usages across the league.  It also means that there are players out there who don't get the press but are having outstanding seasons in their own right.

Erik Johnson is certainly one of those players.  He's probably the second best 2-way defenseman in the league this year after Mark Giordano and absolutely deserves a trip to the All-Star game.  He's leading the league in goals by a blueliner while playing the hardest competition every night largely in his defensive zone.  Unfortunately, due to his draft status, he still has the "bust" label attached to him, which means that he is being singled out as the "guy that doesn't belong".  If he doesn't belong, Ekman-Larsson doesn't either;  their usage and scoring numbers are almost identical, but the perception of them is not.  It just goes to show that appearance in the media can be deceiving.  

If there is an All-Star that probably doesn't belong, it's Faulk.  Even within his own usage cluster, PK Subban has better underlying stats and is scoring more, plus he has a personality custom-made for All-Star festivities.  However, I understand the reasoning behind having a rep from every team participate.  It gives every fanbase incentive to watch, and it also provides an opportunity to some smaller/non-traditional market players to outshine their typically limited press.  Faulk was also an American Olympian last year (as messed up as that selection process was), and isn't exactly getting fluff minutes this season.  He's perhaps not the best overall choice, but we could do much worse.  Category 2 minutes with positive possession are nothing to scoff at.

The other player I think shouldn't necessarily be there is Brent Seabrook.  He was a write-in winner, yes, but of the two, Keith is the driver of the pairing.  Seabrook is a good player, but I still think Subban or maybe even Karlsson are more deserving.  They play tougher defensive minutes and score more points.  But, hey, the Hawks fans really stepped up this year to get their players in.  The All-Star game is a weird popularity contest, so there are going to be some big misses in the merit department.  Better luck next year, PK and Erik.  Don't forget to make a ridiculous video or become a Latvian citizen.

But overall, All-Star aside, I think the most fascinating part of these numbers can be found in the way they show how teams protect and expose certain players.  There are teams like the Avs who have a very clear top defensive pair that pave the way for Tyson Barrie's easier minutes, but there are also teams like Anaheim who cluster all of their D's usage together.  The graphs also provide a way of recognizing and comparing similar defenseman - creating an apples to apples method if you will - while illustrating just how drastically usage can change how players look on the ice.  In many ways, it's disingenuous to attempt to compare, say, Erik Johnson to Drew Doughty since their situations are so different.  Perhaps it's time to reexamine the expectations placed upon them as well.