Barret Jackman retired this week with a career high in points of just 27.
That was a decade ago.
He won a Calder Trophy in 2002-03, but after that he didn’t get votes for a single award. The job of a stay-at-home defender is often a thankless one, after all. One supposes he was thanked with some $33 million in salary earned over his NHL career, but no major awards after the Calder and a World Championship appearance (he won gold in 2007) were all he really had.
And hey, that’s not nothing. There were times that Jackman was a decent player, earlier in his career. As he pushed into his mid-30s that wasn’t always the case, which is true of most guys who are still in the league at that age. But the thing Jackman probably represents most is the long, slow decline of the stay-at-home defender as a mainstay in the NHL.
Over nearly 900 games he scored just 29 goals, and ended with a career average of 0.21 points per game. Scoring wasn’t really what he was asked to do, but on the rare occasions he did score, it would typically be enough to get Pierre McGuire to say, “That’s the kind of skill he showed when he was nearly a point-a-game player for Regina in the WHL.”
Since the New NHL started in 2005-06, there have been 66 defensemen who played at least 200 games and scored between 0.2 and 0.25 points per game. If you have a look at the list you’ll see that most of the guys pretty much fit into the category of what you’d consider “stay-at-home” D. And while it’s a narrow window of scoring, it filters out some guys like Ron Hainsey, who remain somewhat useful as more two-way defenders but whose usage and production has dropped off in recent years.
Nearly half of the players on the list were still in the league at the end of last season, but one cannot imagine too many of them will continue to find long-term gainful employment. Zbynek Michalek, whose calling card was blocking shots for a million years in the mid-2000s, has one year left on his current contract. But he’s almost 34 and not very useful any more, so one imagines this is his swan song season.
Brooks Orpik is on the list, and so is Marc Staal. So is Jonathan Ericsson. Dan Girardi. Matt Hunwick. Chris Butler. Luca Sbisa. Ian Cole. Matt Bartkowski. Kevin Klein. These are guys we pretty much all recognize as not being particularly good. Guys who, were it not for contracts they locked in already, probably wouldn’t have a lot of success in getting new ones. What are their prospects for long-term employment, really? And more to the point, what are the prospects for players like them going forward? The league is getting younger, and more specifically it’s getting faster.
There are some guys on this list who clearly have some skill they bring to the table. Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Karl Alzner, Justin Braun and David Schlemko are all guys who can play effectively to various extents, depending upon how they’re used. They’re used as shutdown guys at various points in the lineup, but you’d never mistake one of them for a first-pairing defenseman. The only one in the neighborhood is Hjalmarsson, but he’s a unicorn.
It is very hard to stick around in this league if you don’t put the puck in the net or assist on goals. It’s the most valuable observable skill we have to evaluate definitive talent. Very few guys score half a point a game and aren’t at least decent hockey players. The reason stay-at-home defensemen have been in the league for so long, though, is that what they do is also observable. You notice when a guy blocks a shot because his teammates make a big ruckus about it. You notice hits. The problem for them these days, as the game changes to become more forward-thinking, is that we’re starting to understand that the things they do don’t necessarily correlate to winning.
That is to say you can draw a straight line between “scoring goals” and “winning games.” You mathematically cannot do the same for “hitting opponents” and “blocking shots.” The guys who tend to do that kind of thing do so by necessity; most are not fleet of foot and made their living in the game by doing what they could to impede action rather than create it.
For some, it earned them tens of millions. For many more, they washed out some time ago.
It’s always been interesting to figure out what differentiates a “good” stay-at-home D from a “bad” one, because we’ve known for some time that shot metrics correlate closely with player value. Most stay-at-home D get outshot, because they do little to generate offense of their own. So why did Orpik stick around for 700-plus games while Kent Huskins, for instance, only got 318?
The other issue with these guys, of course, is that their style of play isn’t exactly easy on their bodies. The wear and tear they take on over the course of multiple seasons leads to more injuries as they age, and those players also become “older” faster. The vast majority don’t last into their mid- or late-30s. Those who do often become the subject of buyers’ remorse for the teams that employ them.
As the game becomes faster, having guys who can both impede and create is vital, and that’s why there are so few defensive defensemen left in the game under the age of, say, 28 or so. Jackman won’t be the last stay-at-home defender in the league but he’s so prototypical that we can take this as a death knell of sorts. There won’t be too many more Barret Jackmans coming through the door. And when they do, one imagines they’ll get flushed out of the league pretty quick.
As more guys who make things happen line up across from them, it’s harder to for own-zone D whose job is solely to stop them to actually do that job. Where the NHL is going, the value of their toolset will necessarily diminish, if it hasn’t bottomed out already. If you’re going to be one-dimensional, that dimension had better be offense. Teams just aren’t looking for the next Brooks Orpik. They want the next Torey Krug.
It’s the Dusty Rhodes “hard times” promo in action: You work the job for 15 years, they give you a watch, kick you in the butt, and say, “Hey, a guy who can skate took your job, daddy.”
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.