Defensemen Are Evolving

Gus Katsaros
Rotoworld

The Toronto Maple Leafs moved Tyson Barrie to the top power play unit in their game Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s a good problem to have when a coach – even one with less than 10 NHL games under his belt – can choose one of Barrie or Morgan Rielly to be the lone defensive presence on the power play. Rielly, led all NHL defensemen in IPP at 5v5, with over 200 minutes played, entering Tuesday night’s action.

It’s no surprise to see Roman Josi among the leaders at 5v4, in IPP (while leading all NHL defensemen in scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5v5 with a point on only 41% of on-ice goals). with Victor Hedman in tow, but third overall is the New York Rangers rookie, Adam Fox, with six power play points to match the six at 5v5 (3-3-6) with three primary assists.

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Individual point percentage measures the productivity of the player while on the ice, by comparing their point production to on-ice goals scored. Fox has six points on the power play in 61 minutes, and 20th in 5v4 scoring. Skilled, skating, puck moving defensemen are making more inwards into heavier offensive contributions. In Winnipeg, an ex-Ranger, Neal Pionk has a point on every goal scored at 5v4 while he’s been on the ice (1-5-6).

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This isn’t new, but it is the trend with blueliners as they transform more and more into the rovers they are, and not shackled in the constraints associated with the conventional definition of a defenseman. Darnell Nurse, known for an overall game is third overall in rush attempts per 60 minutes, with even the Leafs former press box mainstay Justin Holl showing up in the top 10. Depth defensemen in a progressive regime are thriving in offensive roles.

Long gone are the days of the big bruising behemoths that clear the front of the net, or get physical in corners and board play. Today’s rearguard is a skilled, complimentary piece to a potent offense.

Good teams utilize their blueline corp. as a complimentary piece of their offense, jumping into the rush with zeal and getting involved in the transition when the opportunity arises.

As the increased overall skillset permeates throughout the roster, at 5v4 there are less defensemen participating, with teams moving to the individual defensemen on the power play. We probably aren’t that far away from seeing a five-man forward unit, perhaps on a more consistent basis.

If teams can justify the risk in placing five forwards on the ice to maximize scoring potential, scoring overall for defensemen should drop in accordance. There should be an offsetting increase in even strength scoring. This is something that can be measured as the evolution of the defenseman continues and will likely lead to different articulate key performance indicators as the game and numbers evolve. Defensemen evolution is affecting the rest of the game too.

Take this for example. The dump in is back in vogue in 2019-20 as Mike Kelly points out the trend over the last three seasons.

Most teams are dumping pucks in more than they did last season. So, I looked into the offensive & defensive effects of a more selective approach to zone entries. Some interesting findings w quotes from Barry Trotz & others on the value of puck management. https://t.co/XsH4A9HTZp

— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) November 28, 2019

 

I attribute this to teams using the dump in more due to the lessened necessity of physicality in comparison to the games of the past. Speed and skill, getting into the deep end and recovering pucks not worrying about getting physically beaten every shift.

Instead of excessive force, players ‘cut the hands’ – that is, disrupt the puck carriers hands to wobble and take the puck away without resorting to full on body checking and its effect on both the recipient and the player making contact. Physicality is punishing to both.

You’ll see this happen with smaller players skating right into a bigger players hands to separate them from the puck. Effective in open ice, and along the boards. Size, or lack thereof, is not nearly as vital a consideration as in the past and the focus becomes on skill.

Dougie Hamilton is generating 1.72 high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes in an exceptional season, already halfway to the 26 points at 5v5, from his first season in Carolina. His 13 HD chances entering play on Tuesday led all NHL defensemen. A 10% shooting percentage, and points on 56.5% of the on-ice goals scored at 5v5, sustainability is a concern, yet he contains the exact type of thoroughbred rover skillset to thrive in this league.

Kevin Shattenkirk is experiencing a renaissance in Tampa Bay, with 12 points at 5v5, and 19 overall (he added another helper Tuesday night). He can challenge his even strengths career highs (23 points). In a secondary role, he’s outpacing his previous three seasons away from the St. Louis Blues.

Another mobile blueliner with the roving skills, less defensively inclined, but exceptionally skilled with skating talent to compliment the skillset at a high tempo. He trails old teammate Tony DeAngelo in points per 60, entering Tuesday night, ahead of some very prominent names, while the most surprising thing about this table shown here is that Cale Makar is having an exemplary beginning to his promising NHL career.

Kevin Shattenkirk Points per 60
Kevin Shattenkirk Points per 60

 

As the position evolves, the term ‘total hockey’ will become much more prevalent. That concept involves all players making inwards to play any position on the ice, essentially moving away from traditional forwards and defensemen while playing more strategic overall game, structurally incorporating any player in the position to fill regardless of denominated position. If a defenseman is the first on the puck in the offensive zone, he becomes the F1, while a forward takes up his spot on the blueline.

This will have a real world and fantasy impact. Less 5v4 time for defensemen, while translating to an increased threshold of production from depth.

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