Thursday, Aug. 13, was National Left-Handers Day, an event to celebrate the roughly 10 percent of all human beings who are left-handed specifically.
That fact, plus Travis Yost's column on NHL defensemen making more than $6 million against the cap, got me thinking about the overall value of right-shot defensemen in this league. They are, to be sure, a relative rarity. Of that group, only Erik Karlsson and Mike Green have right shots.
Last season, 307 defensemen got at least one game in the NHL, and of that group, they are a slight minority, making up a little less than 1 in every 3 defensemen of the league (30.6 percent), meaning teams have an average of about two apiece. Still larger than the global average for lefties, but not as many as most teams would probably like in an ideal situation.
Moreover, that includes a ton of guys who aren't NHL regulars. So if you filter it to all defensemen who played at least 35 games — let's call that the baseline for being an NHL regular — you get 205 defensemen league-wide, of which 65 are right shots. That's a little less than 1 in 3 as well, but slightly closer to the number (31.7 percent).
Obviously, having them on your roster is preferable to not-having them. They give you a natural additional shooting threat on the opposite side of the ice, particularly on the power play, meaning that if they can unload the puck with relative aplomb, they're probably going to be in pretty good shape to help you score goals. It stands to reason that these players are therefore pretty valuable if they've proven they can play at this level.
(In much the same way baseball parents train their kids to be switch-hitting catchers, sticking your kid on the left side of the blue line with a right-shot stick might help him or her get work in this sport.)
And as we've learned over the years, that kind of rarity means that these players are highly sought-after. How long did Detroit hunt and hunt and hunt for a right-shot defenseman as it carried a roster of nothing but left shots? How many of these players did it find itself connected with in trade and free agent rumors before they finally, at long last, landed Mike Green this summer? So the question becomes is having a right-shot D worth doing in and of itself, or should this be taken on a case-by-case basis, with teams paying only what they're worth?
What's interesting about this is that these defensemen were, on the whole, a little worse than what you might expect as a group: They come across at a little less than equal in terms of possession, scoring chance generation, and goal-scoring (49.6, 49.4, and 48.9 percent, respectively). To that end, though, they also play in their own zone a little more (49.2 percent offensive zone starts on average), and face competition that gets about 17.3 percent of their teams' 5-on-5 time on ice, both of which constitute circumstances that are a little tougher than the league average.
This compares a little unfavorably with left-shot defensemen, who are far more common (140 played at least 35 games last season, or 68.3 percent of the total). They averaged possession of 50.1 percent, scoring chance shares of 50.2 percent, and goals-for numbers of 50.9 percent. But they also got marginally easier zone starts (50.6 percent in the attacking zone) against similarly difficult competition (17.3 percent, but three hundredths of a point higher), so maybe that makes sense as well.
Turns out, then, that the easiest competition is generally faced by guys who play fewer than 35 games, which also checks out from a logical perspective.
So what you can say about these right-shot blueliners is that, collectively, they're given slightly more to do than the average regular NHL defenseman, and do slightly worse as a result.
What's interesting, though, is how many defensemen hockey people would more or less universally consider to be very good or even elite-level players at their position are right shots. This list has guys like Aaron Ekblad, Brent Burns, Brent Seabrook, Dougie Hamilton, Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson, Johnny Boychuk, Kevin Shattenkirk, P.K. Subban, Travis Hamonic, and more that are very, very good contributors. There are, likewise, bad right-shot defenders (Deryk Engelland seems the leading example, but there's also Kevin Bieksa, Nate Guenin, Eric Gryba, Roman Polak, and so on), but they make up a far smaller portion of the list overall, from a subjective point of view.
And while possession and player deployment numbers are not the be-all, end-all in terms of overall quality, their ability to stay above the average among their peers is usually going to be pretty telling when it comes to quality. With this in mind, I looked at how many of these defensemen were above the average for right-shot D in terms of time on ice, possession, scoring chances, goals, time on ice of competition, and zone starts (with a lower percentage considered better for this last stat).
When you break it down by how many of these players are above average in each category, you get an interesting set of numbers.
Now, I'm obviously not 100 percent willing to take these as hard and fast percentages at face value. For instance, the righty defensemen ticking all six boxes here are John Klingberg, Justin Braun, and Zbynek Michalek. Likewise, the lefty D who got to that level are Marco Scandella, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Roman Josi, Shea Weber, Jay Bouwmeester, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, and Karl Alzner.
Of that, group, most people would probably only call Weber truly elite, but you'd have to concede they're all pretty damn good at what they do. I would argue, if anything, that this might serve to highlight some under-appreciated players in this league. For instance, Braun and Vlasic are both very good under-the-radar defenders in San Jose, and Klingberg and Goligoski could make up a formidable pairing in Dallas sooner than later.
Expanding that out to the defensemen who are above average in five of the six categories, though, and you start to see plenty of superstars. To name a few righties: Doughty, Letang, Stralman, Hamilton, Boychuk, Seabrook, Calrson, etc. And for the lefties? Suter, Chara, Ekman-Larsson, and so on.
There are also plenty of good players in the “four-category” group, most of whom are hindered by usage Karlsson, for example, got outscored at 5-on-5 last year, and almost never starts in his own zone, and the same is true of Subban on the left side. On the right side, guys like Mark Giordano and Ryan McDonagh were hindered by teams that simply weren't very good in possession in the first place, and even the titanic efforts they turned in weren't enough to swing the action to the attacking side of the ice.
What all this data suggests, though, is that right-shot defensemen do tend to be a little better than left-shots, which makes a bit of sense. Even among their own groups, the truly elite ones are a little rarer too.
This only constitutes one season of data and 205 players, of course, but it does serve to highlight why teams fall all over themselves to acquire right-shot defensemen whenever they can.
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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