How defencemen can control play by protecting the blueline

Defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk and head coach Ken Hitchcock discuss the moment when the Blues fully bought in, committed to their system, and realized the right way to play.

Earlier this post-season I took a stab at shining a light on some of the complexities rooted in an NHL defenceman’s contributions at five-on-five. The focus was specifically on how being able to successfully break out of the defensive zone while retaining possession can go a long way towards kickstarting the attack as you transition from one end of the ice to the other.

While most of that theory could be considered intuitive, there’s undoubtedly a slight pushback in hockey circles whenever a question is raised about how vital puck skills are to the overall contributions of a player with ‘defence’ in their job title. These puck skills for blueliners are either “very important” or “absolutely essential” in today’s game.

But the reality is there are multiple different ways a defenceman can have a positive influence on the game that are tangibly reflected in the results. Zone exits are just one piece of that overall puzzle.

Another piece is the ability to protect the blueline from attackers. Considering that we know entering the zone with possession yields twice as much offence as entering the zone by dumping the puck in, it’s beneficial for the defenceman to make that zone entry as tough as possible for the opposition.

Here’s a handy little chart that captures how individual defencemen have fared at defending zone entries through the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs. (Click here for an interactive version of the chart, in which you can sort by player and team):

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It’s tough not to marvel at how staggeringly dominant Victor Hedman has been in these playoffs. Aside from the obvious point totals he’s been posting and the heavy minutes he’s been eating up, he’s had to do essentially everything for the Lightning blueline with Anton Stralman out of action. The 15 per cent of entry attempts he’s been breaking up has paced the entire league, and of defencemen who played past the first round only Nick Leddy has successfully completed a higher percentage of his zone exit attempts than Hedman’s 58.6 per cent. You wouldn’t be wrong to say that everything he’s touched has turned to gold.

One of the other major takeaways here is that effective defenders come in various shapes and sizes. Whereas players with the physical stature of Ryan Ellis or Jared Spurgeon may have been considered at a disadvantage in past eras, the combination of their fine stickwork and ability to glide effortlessly around the ice makes it a nightmare for opposing attackers to get past them.

Maybe no one exemplifies this approach to aggressively defend the attack more than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whose team continues to outperform the opposition whenever he’s on the ice. While Vlasic rarely ever does anything flashy to make the highlights, just watch how he expertly snuffs out any ideas Ryan Johansen may’ve had about this rush:

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Then there’s the more conventional big, stiff-checking types who force a higher percentage of dump-ins and appear on the graphic above with favourably low carry-in totals. The contextual caveat here is that with a player like Radko Gudas, I wonder if there’s a tipping point after which you receive diminishing returns. He goes so above and beyond in throwing bodychecks, that he actually tends to put himself out of position in the process.

Similarly, I’m skeptical that essentially every member of the Kings defence corps suppressing carry-ins is a testament to anything they were doing themselves. Rather, it appeared that Pete DeBoer and his staff went into their Round 1 series with the gameplan of exploiting Los Angeles’ distinct lack of foot speed on the back-end by breezing past guys such as Rob Scuderi and Luke Schenn and retrieving the puck deep in the zone at a higher rate than you’d typically expect. It’s somewhat ironic the Kings were picked apart by the same strategy they’ve ridden to great results for years.

One of the most impressive standouts through the first two legs of the post-season has been Colton Parayko, who has continued to build upon his sparkling rookie campaign. He’s already started to draw comparisons to Shea Weber, another towering physical specimen who wields a cannon of a shot from the point.

Another commonality is the way both guys excel at protecting their blueline against attempted entries. The word on Parayko appears to have spread around the league, because it’s been amusing to see how spooked opposing forwards get as they look up and see his 6-foot-5 frame and freakishly long reach.

The ceiling is endlessly high for Parayko at this point, because along with all of those aforementioned traits he also already possesses a certain level of puck skill, creativity, and desire to make plays that I don’t think we’ve ever really seen from Weber (at least not in some time).

And now it’s time to have a frank discussion about Kris Russell. There’s no getting around the fact that he was particularly wretched this post-season and that the Blues repeatedly picked on him as the weak link on the Stars blueline in their second round series.

When Stars GM Jim Nill uncharacteristically paid a pretty penny for Russell at the trade deadline, the reasoning was that he felt Russell could be utilized much more effectively on a better team. His ability to transition the puck out of his own zone was specifically cited as one of the driving forces for the move. I can’t specifically speak to the intel Nill was receiving, but from the outside it sure seems like he was sold a bill of goods.

Russell’s 40.9 per cent exit rate with possession was 70th of 92 qualified defencemen (min. five games) this post-season. The 13.3% of the time he failed to get the puck out of his zone on a clearing attempt was the 10th-highest rate amongst his 91 peers.

He was arguably even more futile at defending entries, as the ugly habits he’d become known for during his time with the Flames continued.

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It’s important to retain perspective on all of these figures. At this point they’re much more descriptive than predictive, in the sense they’re telling us how a certain player did in the games he’s already played, but not necessarily helping us forecast how he’ll do in the future.

There’s also the fact that most players only have ~10 games worth of data to their name, which leaves plenty of room for inexplicable swings in either direction. At this point a good game, or even a good couple of sequences, can lead you on a wild goose chase.

I think the value here is in understanding that these seemingly solitary skills (zone exits or defending zone entries) all come together as inputs to form a larger output. The possibility that they could be massaged and manipulated from an Xs and Os perspective to help influence those overall results could potentially be a beneficial tool.

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