We’re going to do something a little bit different this week in the Spotlight section of Truth by Numbers and focus on two players instead of one. Not even on linemates or even teammates, either.
Today we’re going to look at two players who might define their position over the next decade.
The race for the Calder Trophy has been between Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar for most of the season. As they not only play big minutes, but also lead all rookies in scoring on top of it all, that fact has never been more clear.
It isn’t just offensive production that makes those two defencemen special, though they do stand out in that area, but they’re both dominating possession-drivers who have become lynchpins in their teams’ success this season.
Both Makar and Hughes drive play for their teams at an incredible rate, with Makar pushing the needle specifically from the inner slot area while Hughes has the biggest impact on pass control. If there’s a weakness to Makar’s game, it’s where Hughes is strongest.
Breaking things down to the individual, the two are similar in a few ways. Makar creates scoring chances for teammates in the 94th percentile among defencemen at even strength, while Hughes is in the 95th percentile. Makar transitions the puck more successfully and more often than 96 per cent of the rest of the NHL’s defencemen, while Hughes is better than 92 per cent.
The two players manage to have similar impacts despite accomplishing it with very different styles of play. Makar is a hyper-aggressive pincher, shooting from the slot 23.5 per cent of the time compared to Hughes at 13.7 per cent. Only Zach Werenski and Cam Fowler have taken a higher percentage of their shots from the slot at even strength than Makar this season among defencemen.
Hughes plays more of a control game, electing to make more incisive passes than directly shooting and taking more positional risks, but neither player is afraid of beating opponents one-on-one. Hughes and Makar complete the second- and fourth-most offensive zone dekes per minute among defencemen this season respectively, with only Roman Josi standing head and shoulders above them. Both players complete over 60 per cent of their attempted dekes, which is a little obscene for a defenceman when the league median is about 48 per cent.
Makar’s game is built around speed, which allows him to not just create offence, but also win more puck battles (he wins the 26th-most of all defencemen in the NHL), and stick with opponents to deny controlled entries.
Hughes is a bit more cerebral, not that he’s slow, but he relies more on strong positioning and good decision making. He’s not as strong at denying controlled entries, but he’s one of the league’s best players at shaking forechecks and immediately clearing the defensive zone.
It’s incredible how versatile and dominant these two rookie defencemen are, and we’re likely going to watch them battle for more trophies in the coming years.
Steve Dangle is back this week and he has a question about the embattled Montreal Canadiens. Steve asks…
“Is there any way the Canadiens can weather the loss of Shea Weber? Who needs to step up in his absence?”
The short answer is, seven points behind the Maple Leafs with Toronto holding a game in hand, and 10 points out of a wild card spot… No. Even with Weber in the lineup and playing as well as he did in November and December, the Canadiens would be facing a ridiculous uphill battle with almost no chance of making the playoffs.
With that said, though, let’s look at the players who are now eating Weber’s minutes with the Man Mountain on the injured reserve.
Specifically what we’re looking at here are percentiles, or where these players rank against the rest of the league among defencemen in a variety of areas. Weber is always a very difficult player to evaluate because the way he plays isn’t generally captured very well by most statistics.
Almost every statistic we have in hockey is a measurement of an event, whether it’s a shot, or a pass, or a stick check, or a zone entry. When you’re looking at events with or for the puck, the impression you get is that Weber just… doesn’t do much. If you look at his puck touches at even strength, he’s below the 19th percentile among defencemen. He just doesn’t make many plays.
However, he’s been absurdly great in the offensive zone this season, in the top-12 per cent of all defencemen. The Canadiens will definitely miss his impact there, specifically the nuclear weapon that is his shot, but both Jeff Petry and Victor Mete hold up well in creating offence for their teammates.
Weber doesn’t do much transitioning of the puck, and despite his reputation as a hard-hitting defensive player, he’s below league average in defensive touches and zone entry denial rate. He’s also not great at turning offensive forechecks off dump-ins into controlled exits, and like the rest of the Canadiens’ defensive core, his defensive zone turnover rate leaves a lot to be desired.
What the statistics don’t capture, and what the Canadiens will miss, is Weber’s positional dominance. Weber plays an extremely conservative game outside the offensive zone, and that can hurt him at times, but he relies on his intelligence and positioning to get things done, limiting the highest quality plays against by rarely ever biting on fake outs and always maintaining strong defensive position. Weber plays against the toughest opposition of any Canadiens defender, and also boasts the highest expected goals for percentage.
Most of that strong expected goals differential this year is through his suddenly spectacular even strength offence, but being able to maintain even team average defence with the toughest opposition is a hole in the lineup that can’t be filled.
As an aside, though, how great is Jeff Petry?
• If you had to guess which defenceman won the most loose pucks this season, would Shea Theodore even pop into your head? He should. The young Vegas Golden Knight is one of the most underrated players in the league, using his speed and savvy to get in on puck battles and win them before they even start.
• Speaking of Vegas, fellow speedster Nate Schmidt is third in loose puck recoveries. It’s tough to gain possessions against Vegas.
• Who leads all forwards in loose puck recoveries? Another Golden Knight in Mark Stone. Stone doesn’t have the speed of Schmidt or Theodore, he’s just smarter than everyone else. Very few players anticipate the play better than him.
• I mentioned Josi’s offensive zone dekes earlier, so let’s put that in context. Josi completes 2.68 offensive zone dekes every 20 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5. Quinn Hughes is second on the list at 1.37. That’s barely over half of what Josi does. Josi is a mutant.
• Josi also leads all defencemen in scoring chances created at evens with 6.15 every 20 minutes, more than the average forward and way ahead of Adam Fox in second at 4.44.
• On top of the offence, Josi forms one of the most dominant defensive pairings in the league this year with Ryan Ellis. Together they control over 60 per cent of the high danger chances. He’s my pick for the Norris.