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NHL Defensive Usage, Part 1: Individuals

What's the best way to compare defensemen? Is it time on ice, points, or name recognition? In this series, I'll explore a different method that looks at how blueliners are deployed, then take it a step further to analyze what mix of players tends to produce the best results across the league.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

As you may have noticed, I ran an article earlier this week looking at defensive usage.  If you didn't notice, well, now might be a good time to catch up since I'll likely be referencing it ad nauseam from here on out.  Anyway, after poking at those numbers for a while to see if they squirmed (no such luck), I started to wonder if there was any sort of correlation between scoring, Corsi, or overall success based on the way teams used all their defenseman, not just the top guys.  In order to get to that point, I decided to break my analysis down into two parts - the one today that will assign categories to the players, and the one probably on Monday or Tuesday that will get to all the meaty, analysis-y things.

That's not to say that today's is just some dull data drop.  No, not at all.  This is an apples to apples comparison of players that are being given a near-equal chance to succeed.  It displays exactly who is making the most of their situation and who... isn't.  This way, when I say a player is a Category 4 in my next post, you'll know A) what the hell a "Category 4" is and B) whether or not said player is a good 4 or a bad 4.  It also illustrates why Brad Stuart might want to be on the lookout for falling houses from Kansas for the rest of this season.

Anyway, to create these categories, I started out with all the defensemen who had played over 200 even strength minutes according to War on Ice. From there, I took the top 7 (which ended up sometimes just being the top 6) from each team in 5-on-5 TOI.  Then, using the clusters I decided upon in the original post, I separated the blueliners by zone starts and quality of competition. Eventually, I ended up with categories that looked like this:

1-13-15 Categories

Here's the final breakdown.  Rookies are denoted with a **.

Category 1:  Giordano Division

1-14-15 Cat 1

Members (18):

  • 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 / Damon Severson** (NJD)
  • Dion Phaneuf / Cody Franson (TOR)
  • Josh Gorges (BUF)
  • Alex Pietrangelo (STL)


Honestly, there's not much different here from last time, except for Franson crashing the party and Josh Gorges making my chart look weird, and... wait a minute, who is Damon Severson?  WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE'S A 20-YEAR-OLD ROOKIE?!  You have to be joking.  New Jersey, what are you doing?  AND WHY IS IT WORKING?  He's on the IR now for a broken ankle, but my gosh, the Devils legitimately have a rookie on their top defensive pairing and this is the first I'm hearing about it.  Protected by Andy Greene or not, this is not the area I would have expected a pup.  Wow.

This type of usage is the exact opposite of sheltering a young player.  These blueliners all get big minutes and big responsibility shutting down the best the league has to offer.  Somehow, a number of them still are generating positive possession numbers (including the rookie!) and are near the top of the league in defensive scoring.  This is an incredibly talented group, doing their best to shelter the rest of their defensive corps.  It's outstanding company to keep.

TOI/GP: 23:26

Category 2:  Chara Division

1-14-15 Cat 2

Members (23):

  • Zdeno Chara / Dougie Hamilton (BOS)
  • 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)
  • Zach Bogosian / Tobias Enstrom (WPG)
  • Brooks Orpik / John Carlson (WSH)
  • Oscar Klefbom** (EDM)
  • Travis Hamonic (NYI)
  • Ryan McDonagh (NYR)
  • Olli Maata (PIT)
  • Jay Bouwmeester (STL)


For the most part, just like with Category 1, the names remain the same.  The guys who play here play a lot, so it's not surprising that the injured Winnipeg top pairing, Chara, McDonagh, Bowmeester, and Hamonic just barely missed the minute cutoff from the first post and, um, excuse me?  Maatta and Klefbom, are you even old enough to be here?  Oscar, you look especially lost, but... oh, your coach made you play here?  Which one?... Ah, the one that got fired.  What about recently... It's gotten better and you hope to move out of this category? Well, that's good.  Maatta, what about you?  Your shoulder's broken?  After the mumps and the tumor you had earlier this year, I'm sure you'll be fine, but since you're a defensive anchor of your team at age 20, that has to be a blow to them.  Best of luck to both of you, and would you be interested in playing for the Colorado Avalanche next year?  Uh, no reason, just asking.

Anyway, like I was saying before the sophomores interrupted me, this is still a very difficult area of usage.  It's not quite as hellish as Category 1 since offensive zone starts happen on occasion, but it's still a very defensively demanding role.  These players are the backbones of their teams.

TOI/GP:  22:41

Category 3:  Letang Division

1-14-15 Cat 3

Members (21):

  • Brent Seabrook / Duncan Keith (CHI)
  • Jake Muzzin / Drew Doughty (LAK)
  • Ryan Suter / Jonas Brodin / Jared Spurgeon (MIN)
  • Ryan Ellis / Mattias Ekholm (NSH)
  • Nick Leddy / Johnny Boychuck / Calvin de Hann (NYI)
  • Anton Stralman / Matt Carle / Victor Hedman (TBL)
  • Ben Lovejoy (ANA)
  • Jyrki Jokipakka** (DAL)
  • Kyle Quincey (DET)
  • Dan Boyle (NYR)
  • Mark Streit (PHI)
  • Kris Letang (PIT)


This is the first category with a good mix of both high- and mid-minute defensemen.  It's also a semi-sheltered role.  Even though these are often first and second pairing guys who often match up against other teams' top lines, more often than not, they get to start on the other end of the ice from the tough defensive minutes.  As a result, most of them have positive possession numbers.   While it's not necessarily a great place for rookies because of the competition (glares at Dallas), it is a good situation for established players that probably shouldn't spend a ton of time in their own zone, are playing a bunch of minutes, or are responsible for helping out with scoring.  This type of usage makes talented players look even better since they share in the credit of goals for without have to deal with many goals against.  Unfortunately, it also means that someone else on their team has to take a greater number of D-zone starts to cover for them.

TOI/GP: 22:09

Category 4:  Jack Johnson Division

1-14-15 Cat 4

Members (27):

  • Tyler Myers / Rasmus Ristolainen / Nikita Zadorov** / Andre Benoit (BUF)
  • Jack Johnson / David Savard / Dalton Prout (CBJ)
  • Jeff Petry / Andrew Ference / Mark Fayne (EDM)
  • Alexei Emelin / Sergei Gonchar / Tom Gilbert (MTL)
  • Cody Ceci / Jared Cowen / Mark Borowiecki (OTT)
  • Jay Harrison / Brent Bellemore (CAR)
  • Branydon Coburn / Nick Schultz (PHI)
  • Brent Burns / Brenden Dillon (SJS)
  • Roman Polak / Korbinian Holzer (TOR)
  • Brad Stuart (COL)
  • Willie Mitchell (FLA)
  • Marco Scandella (MIN)


Ah, the most thankless job in the sport of hockey.  These guys probably have it worse than the backup goalie.  They're expected to play a large number of defensive minutes, but they don't get the press and attention the Category 1 blueliners do.  Most of them have poor possession numbers because they rarely get to see the light of day offense, and many don't have the pure talent to deal with the situation.  I mean, just look at that big nasty red dot near the right of the chart - what team would want that on their rost... oh hi, Brad Stuart.  Fancy seeing you here.

Let's just say that there is probably some sort of correlation between having multiple players in this zone and having bad Corsi and/or not being a successful team.  I'll get into more of that in the second half of this series.

TOI/GP: 20:05

Category 5:  Karlsson Division

1-14-15 Cat 5

Members (41):

  • Francois Beauchemin / Sami Vatanen / Hampus Lindholm / Cam Fowler / Clayton Stoner (ANA)
  • Christian Ehrhoff / Paul Martin / Rob Scuderi / Robert Bortuzzo (PIT)
  • John Klingberg** / Jordie Benn / Jason Demers (DAL)
  • Dmitry Kulikov / Erik Gudbranson / Dylan Olsen (FLA)
  • Lubomir Visnovsky / Thomas Hickey / Brian Strait (NYI)
  • Michael del Zotto / Andrew MacDonald / Nicklas Grossmann (PHI)
  • Dustin Byfuglien / Jacob Trouba / Mark Stuart (WPG)
  • Adam McQuaid / Kevan Miller (BOS)
  • James Wisniewski / Fedor Tyutin (CBJ)
  • Erik Karlsson / Chris Phillips (OTT)
  • Kevin Bieksa / Dan Hamhuis (VAN)
  • Matt Niskanen / Karl Alzner (WSH)
  • Ron Hainsey (CAR)
  • Kris Russell (CGY)
  • Nick Holden (COL)
  • Danny Dekeyser (DET)
  • Alec Martinez (LAK)
  • Micro Mueller** (SJS)
  • Chris Butler (STL)
All of these players are pretty middle of the pack.  They play some defense and some offense against good, but often not great, players, and they're typically second or third pairing guys.  The biggest exceptions are Karlsson (who just plays pretty much everyone) and Anaheim (who just plays pretty much everyone here).  It's really a mixed bag of players who don't particularly have a specialty at even strength.

TOI/GP: 20:12

Category 6:  Yandle Division

1-14-15 Cat 6

Members (19):

  • Jason Garrison / Radko Gudas / Andrej Sustr (TBL)
  • Keith Yandle / Michael Stone (ARI)
  • John-Michael Liles / Tim Gleason (CAR)
  • Aaron Ekblad** / Brian Campbell (FLA)
  • Matt Greene / Brayden McNabb (LAK)
  • Kevin Shattenkirk / Carl Gunnarsson (STL)
  • Matt Bartkowski (BOS)
  • Tim Erixon (CBJ)
  • Jamie Oleksiak (DAL)
  • Nikita Nikitin (EDM)
  • Marek Zidlicky (NJD)
  • Patrick Wiercioch (OTT)


These are the offensive defensemen.  That's not to say that they can't play defense, it's just saying perhaps they shouldn't.   Most are a half step from being a forward, so they're expected to help out pretty heavily in the scoring department.  That's why it's not surprising that Kevin Shattenkirk (who is currently leading the league in points) hails from this usage.  It's also a big factor in Aaron Ekblad's high rookie scoring numbers, and was where EJ lived when he scored 39 points with the Blues.  It's a sheltered role that sees regular shifts against moderate competition, so it's a pretty sweet gig if you can get it.  At the very least, it's better than the crappy minutes the other schmucks on their team have to endure in order to get them these zone starts.

TOI/GP: 18:40

Category 7: Adam Larsson Divison

1-14-15 Cat 7

Members (16):

  • Ladislav Smid / Deryk Engelland / Raphael Diaz (CGY)
  • Jake Gardiner / Morgan Rielly / Stephane Robidas (TOR)
  • Adam Larsson / Seth Helgeson** (NJD)
  • Barret Jackman / Ian Cole (STL)
  • Mike Weber (BUF)
  • Robyn Regehr (LAK)
  • Nate Prosser (MIN)
  • Mike Weaver (MTL)
  • Eric Gryba (OTT)
  • Luca Sbisa (VAN)


I was about to name this the "Randy Carlyle is an Idiot Division", but I decided to give a shoutout to AJ's boi Adam Larsson here instead.  You're welcome, AJ.  But, getting back to the WTF Toronto topic, this is such an odd usage that I'm not sure at all why you'd have two bright, young, potential offensive defensemen like Gardiner and Reilly slumming it down here.  Yes, they're sheltered from the big bad top lines, but they're extremely limited when it comes to offensive opportunities off faceoffs.  They're doing well Corsi-wise by Toronto standards, but it just seems like a waste to keep them hemmed up like this in the defensive zone.

Other than that, there's not much happening here.  St. Louis's 3rd pairing merits a mention, but for the most part, this category houses a whole bunch of meh.  I'm so perplexed that this division even exists that I'm just going to call it stupid and move on.

TOI/GP: 15:52

Category 8:  Tyson Barrie Division

1-14-15 Cat 8

Members (17):

  • Tyson Barrie / Nate Guenin / Zach Redmond (COL)
  • Matt Irwin / Scott Hannan (SJS)
  • Josh Manson** (ANA)
  • David Schlemko (ARI)
  • Andrej Meszaros (BUF)
  • Dennis Wideman (CGY)
  • Christian Folin** (MIN)
  • Nathan Beaulieu (MTL)
  • Jon Merrill (NJD)
  • Anton Volchenkov (NSH)
  • Kevin Klein (NYR)
  • Luke Schenn (PHI)
  • Simon Despres (PIT)
  • Adam Pardy (WPG)


And this is where things get interesting.  This is Colorado's division.  This is where our 2nd pairing plays.  Tyson Barrie, despite averaging over 20 minutes a night, is a sheltered player.  And unlike most teams, we're not just sheltering one guy.  We're sheltering three.

Another interesting find down here in Category 8 is Pittsburgh's Simon Despres.  He and Redmond have almost identical usages, but of the two, Redmond actually has a slightly better relative Corsi to go with more minutes.  There is a three year age difference, but for all the love Despres gets, I expected him to be in a higher category.  At least we know he'd fit right in on the Avs.

Apart from some angst directed at Adam Pardy for messing up my chart - he deserved to get his helmet stolen for that - and a casual wave to Luck Schenn, there's not much else to talk about.  The players here are mostly depth guys who make a living playing mostly depth forwards.  Some of them do it well, and some of them are Scott Hannan.

TOI/GP: 17:29

Category 9:  Hunwick Division

1-14-15 Cat 9

Members (21):

  • Michal Rozsival / Trevor van Riemsdyk** / David Rundblad (CHI)
  • Mike Green / Nate Schmidt / Jack Hillen (WSH)
  • Brendan Smith / Jakub Kindl (DET)
  • Matt Hunwick / John Moore (NYR)
  • Yannick Weber / Ryan Stanton (VAN)
  • Connor Murphy (ARI)
  • Torey Krug (BOS)
  • Kevin Connauton (CBJ)
  • Justin Schultz (EDM)
  • Matt Dumba** (MIN)
  • Eric Gelinas (NJD)
  • Seth Jones (NSH)
  • Mark Barberio (TBL)
  • Paul Potsma (WPG)

Honestly, this is where I expected to see the majority of rookies.  These are the super sheltered minutes with lots of offense and pretty fluffy competition, which makes sense if you're trying to ease a young defenseman into the league.   However, there is at least one rookie in every single category, so it just goes to show that not all of them need to be protected.

With that said, I doubt Jones, Dumba, and van Riemsdyk (TVR instead of JVR?) are arguing too much with their predicament.  After all, this is the Hunwick zone*.  Defensively, these are the easiest minutes available in the NHL, and if a player isn't succeeding here, it's probably a sign they shouldn't be in the NHL.

*Does not apply to Joe Sacco coached teams, obviously.

TOI/GP:  15:56

Team Numbers

I'll be doing more team-wide analysis in the next post, but for all of you keeping track at home, here's the basic list of defensemen for each club sorted by 5-on-5 TOI/GP.

1-14-15 Team List 1

That's all for today!  Tune in next week for another exciting installment of All My Defensemen!