Hockey Analytics: Blueliners Scoring Impact

Gus Katsaros
·8 min read


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Originally, my expectations for this post were to present some unexpected NHL blueliners that have been putting up impressive totals at even strength so far in this crazy 2020-21 season. The 2020-21 season is difficult to assess teams due to the limited competition in the division, and that probably extends to most individual players.

Every division has some variant of the bottom feeder team where ace teams can run up scores and increase the individual statistics. Add in games missed with COVID protocol and undermanned rosters, it’s probably best not to focus too much on individual totals in a small sample so far this season.

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Then again … good players will always show their best and that should set up expectations that they dominate inferior skilled teams. The defensemen and analytics we will look at show some unusual names atop defensemen scoring – as defensemen continue to evolve and get more involved offensively.

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Data for this post is sourced by Evolving Hockey. Only 5v5 stats are being used, focusing on even strength, with a cutoff of games up until Monday Mar 1, 2021.

To understand defensemen’s impact, I first wanted to evaluate point ranges, and to do that NHL defensemen with a minimum of 100 minutes played were placed into a distribution curve. The chart below shows defensemen distribution by Points per 60 rates (using rates to normalize the playing field instead of individual counting box score stats).

The range is separated by 0.5 points per 60, and as rates increase, we can see a fairly uniform progression of points. Points per 60 separates the bands and they within they indicate the average individual counting stats (goals, primary and secondary assists) for the players in the range. As point rates increase, we see a fairly uniform production of assists, at similar rates across the different bands.

The group at the end is actually just two defenseman, Jake Bean and Mikhail Sergachev, enough to skew the distribution curve and show some scoring metrics that are inconsistent with the rest of the data set. Sometimes players results are fueled by exemplary circumstances and can generate an incredible amount of individual statistics – analytics is the study of why that is happening and trying to apply some context to player and team performance.

NHL Defensemen 5v5 Points Per 60 Distribution
NHL Defensemen 5v5 Points Per 60 Distribution

The ranges in the previous image contain the following top 10 defensemen in 5v5 P/60, led by … Jake Bean and Sergachev. The rest of this list fits into the 1.5-2 P/60 range, and contain a variety of different names, some expected (Carlson, Ekman-Larsson), and some surprises (Ty Smith, Jordie Benn – and Bean).

Player

Team

TOI

G/60

A1/60

A2/60

Points/60

Jake Bean

CAR

142.32

0.00

1.26

0.84

2.11

Mikhail Sergachev

T.B

316.82

0.19

0.95

0.95

2.08

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

ARI

163.70

0.00

1.10

0.73

1.83

John Carlson

WSH

372.18

0.32

0.48

0.97

1.77

Shea Theodore

VGK

273.28

0.44

0.22

1.10

1.76

Jeff Petry

MTL

321.15

0.56

0.56

0.56

1.68

Nicolas Hague

VGK

218.63

0.55

0.00

1.10

1.65

Brett Pesce

CAR

381.15

0.31

0.79

0.47

1.57

Ty Smith

N.J

273.32

0.22

0.66

0.66

1.54

Jordie Benn

VAN

235.93

0.25

1.02

0.25

1.53

Defensemen that are putting up points in the NHL aren’t scoring as many goals, yet because that’s the next innovation as the position evolves. They’re instrumental in creating more goals with primary assists, while secondary assists help to buoy the totals

Creativity and the requirement to jump into the play with skilled components are a necessity now from the blueline; hitting four at the offensive blueline and adopting characteristics of rovers participating in the offensive side of the game, cycling high in the offensive zone and moving off the point to adjust for the play and take up forward spots as forwards also evolve to better support defensemen leaving their traditional point spots. All the while, they must still stay responsible and recover positionally to cover defensively.

Good defensemen will be able to balance the ability of offensive activity and scoring chance creation while maintaining traditional role in the structure to get back to a regular position.

Modern rosters – and even more so as more skilled players are entering the NHL – will adopt a more ‘total hockey’ mentality where players become more interchangeable on the ice. Forwards and defensemen will begin to blur the lines on position, similar to how forwards now adopt the F1, F2, F3 formation in play instead of the traditional LW, C, RW. Wingers must drop down to support defensemen as the F1 in the absence of the natural center, while finding a release point in which to switch it up when the pivot arrives – if a switch is even required.

To illustrate that further, we can look at the names that producing the best box score stats among NHL blueliners. The typical cast of characters grace the top of defensemen points if you considered Brett Pesce, Jakob Chychrun and Jake Muzzin to be among top scorers. How about Darnell Nurse with five goals at 5v5, to lead the group at the top. Jeff Petry has blossomed offensively this season.

Player

TOI

G

A1

A2

Points

John Carlson

372.18

2

3

6

11

Mikhail Sergachev

316.82

1

5

5

11

Brett Pesce

381.15

2

5

3

10

Thomas Chabot

424.18

2

5

3

10

Jakob Chychrun

372.77

4

2

3

9

Darnell Nurse

482.65

5

1

3

9

Quinn Hughes

407.48

2

3

4

9

Jake Muzzin

367

1

2

6

9

Jeff Petry

321.15

3

3

3

9

Brenden Dillon

349.47

1

3

4

8

We can extend the influence on scoring by applying IPP – individual point percentage, or the percentage of points earned on goals scored while the player was on the ice.

Jake Bean leads defensemen with points on 83% of on-ice goals. Markus Nutivaara (7 games), Evan Bouchard and Anthony Bitetto (9 games) are tied for second most with 66.7% and we are dealing with a sample size in the high teens in games, averaging 217 minutes at 5v5 thus far. Again Chychrun appears among the listed, with New Jersey’s Ty Smith as a surprise name on the list, with seven points on 11 on-ice goals. Cody Ceci may be last on this chart, but he’s got five point on eight on-ice goals scored.

NHL Defensemen 5v5 IPP
NHL Defensemen 5v5 IPP

We can visualize the influence defensemen have in contributing to scoring chance generation by measuring individual expected goals per 60 and charting the results in a distribution of defensemen illustrating how skewed offensive production can be for blueliners towards the lower range. More blueliners are still not producing as much expected goals as the stars in the position.

NHL Defensemen 5v5 Expected Goals Per 60
NHL Defensemen 5v5 Expected Goals Per 60

The bins are separated by 0.05 ixG (individual expected goals) and peak high and early before showing how very few defensemen contribute to offensive scoring chance generation. This is typical, even historically, but there’s enough of an influence, skill and devotion to development to push the bands in the 19 and 29 bins and move them up to the right of the horizontal axis and among the better producers of the league. That’s the goal as the position normalizes with more skilled players.

Separating the distribution by individual points sees three (3) as the most common point total among blueliners, a rare peak in between fairly consistent amount of defensemen between one and six points. The drastic drop at seven and larger mimics the expected goals distribution. The 10-11 range is made up of John Carlson, Brett Pesce, Mikhail Sergachev and Thomas Chabot.

NHL Defensemen 5v5 Points Distribution
NHL Defensemen 5v5 Points Distribution

We can go further with box score stats, measuring the makeup of the box score stats as point totals increase. The chart shows defensemen points and the average of goals, primary and secondary assists influencing point totals. As the point totals increase, it’s increasingly evident that primary assists – except for the nine point band, maintain the foundation of points for blueliners. As in the previous chart, the 10-11 range is made up of John Carlson, Brett Pesce, Mikhail Sergachev and Thomas Chabot.

NHL Defensemen Points Makeup at 5v5
NHL Defensemen Points Makeup at 5v5

Two things take away from this. If you’re competing in a hockey pool, the defensemen in the middle range will become more densely populated, as skilled players enter the league. Placing a premium on high scoring forwards instead of high end defensemen can make up the points by focusing on the group of blueliners in the mid-range.

The second – blueliners aren’t really ‘defense-oriented’ any longer. Traditional ‘defense’ measure by shots and goals against is not proper. Defense is about transitioning from not having the puck, to getting the puck back. Once retrieved, it’s all about the offense.

Consider defensemen rovers now, instead of ‘defensemen.’