Analyzing the defending style of Maple Leafs' TJ Brodie

T.J. Brodie joins Tim and Sid and talks about signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, what he brings to the team and much more.

I recognize that I’ll primarily be speaking to Leafs fans here who want to know more about what to expect from their new off-season acquisition, so I’ll preface the below with this: bear with me. I’m going to start off with the things you aren’t going to like to hear, mostly because it better sets up the context for the rest.

All the stats used below are from totals accumulated over the past five seasons to hopefully get a better look at the type of player TJ Brodie has most recently been, but also to give us a big enough sample to fairly say “yes, this is definitely the type of player TJ Brodie is.”

That’s my goal here today: to show Leafs fans not exactly what they’re going to get in terms of performance per se, but almost certainly what they’re going to get in terms of style.

Here’s your obligatory caveat that subjective counting stats from around the NHL are always at least a little dubious, but should be good enough to accomplish our goal here today.

HITZZZZZ

Kyle Dubas and the Leafs have been public about their desire to get more physical and mean and gritty and all that, but they certainly did not set out to accomplish that with the acquisition of Brodie. He falls more under the umbrella of “good player,” and those are generally beneficial to have. But physical, mean, gritty -- he’s zero per cent of those things when compared to the standard of NHL defencemen. There’s more than one way to clear a puck, though.

Over the past five seasons of NHL hockey, Brodie has totalled 110 hits over 368 games, which puts him 254th among defencemen over that time. That’s a total of 0.78 hits-per-60 minutes of ice time.

If you look at defencemen who’ve played at least 100 games over those five season, you get 258 names. Of those 258, Brodie’s 0.78 hits-per-60 is … 258th. Dead last. So, saying “TJ Brodie doesn’t hit much” is like saying “Alexei Emelin isn’t a great goal scorer” or whatever – even though it’s technically happened before, it almost never does.

(If you want to be more dramatic here you can take off the filter for games played, where he ends up 475th of 492 defencemen, ahead of 15 guys who played three or less games without a hit, plus Quinn Hughes and David Warsofsky.)

The thing is, great defencemen in the NHL aren’t necessarily bruisers. The Leafs’ current best defenceman is Morgan Rielly, who’s averaged 1.82 hits-per-60 over those five years. So, Rielly’s throwing one more hit per-60 than Brodie, big whoop. (For context, a guy like Jake Muzzin is 62nd in hits-per-60 over those years, tallying just below an even six.)

The hits-per-60 totals of the top-three Norris Trophy vote-getters last season: Roman Josi (1.87), John Carlson (1.79), Victor Hedman (2.68).

So physicality, you ain’t getting it from the Leafs’ new number 78.

PIMs

Remember when PIMs were cool? I ask in earnest, as I’m not claiming they weren’t cool, they most definitely were. And even still, you can use them to suss out the style of a player’s game. But the question I’m asking there leads us to the point that PIMs aren’t so much “cool” in today’s NHL as they are an “obvious detriment” where fighting and excess physicality cost your team as much as aid it.

On that note, Brodie has totalled 120 PIMs over the past five seasons, which was 196th among defencemen over that time. About 60 D-men (among those who played significant games) took less than Brodie’s average of 19 seconds of PIMs per game.

I’m sure whatever your bias is about physical play will look at that through exactly the lens you’ve already got all set up. If you’re a fan of the rough stuff, you’ll think he’s soft, and if you’re a fan of efficient play, you’ll love that he stays out of the box. I don’t aim to change your opinion there one way or the other.

So OK, he’s not physical, what does he do?

TAKEAWAYS

Only a very few defencemen in the NHL are better at stick-checking the puck away from opponents than Brodie. Over this time frame, from that same pile of hundreds of D-men, the list of players with more takeaways than Brodie sits at three: Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, and Erik Karlsson.

If you like breaking it down to a per-60 number, he’s still inside the top-10 at eighth, just behind a few new names such as Nate Schmidt, Brett Pesce and Shea Theodore. The guy simply gets the puck back using good positional play, a really good stick and anticipation. He’s effective at turning the play the other way without pulling fans out of theirs seats.

I can’t tell you how many guys run out of place for the back-pat that comes with a good hit, or even just “a hit,” strike the “good.”

This should be a theme that you take away from understanding Brodie’s style here: nothing he does is for show. There’s no faux-emotion, there’s no flair, there’s just a hockey player hockeying until the final buzzer. That lack of “pulse” (as the detractors will call it) will drive some people crazy. Those same people are very likely to appreciate when he does something understated that moves the play the other way.

To wit, check out Brodie’s stickwork in these clips.

BLOCKS

I’ll preface this blocks chunk by pointing out that you don’t want your D-man’s block total to be too high, or there’s a good probability you don’t have a “good shot blocker,” you have something closer to a “bad player.” Anyone who is in their own zone so much that they lead the league in blocked shots over five years is at least a concern.

Some of the names in the top-10 for total blocks over this time are Kris Russell, Andy Greene, and Brent Seabrook. Those are admittedly cherry-picked (Mark Giordano is in there too, as is Ryan McDonagh), but I’m just reminding you that blocks aren’t always great. Brodie is 74th over that time in raw numbers, blocking an average of 3.49 per-60 minutes of ice time. That’s probably the number we’re most interested in here: 3.49.

Among D who’ve played 50 games for the Leafs over the past five years, let’s sort them by blocks per game. Here’s the top 10:

Here’s the bottom five:

Little bit of a style separation there.

I think of Rielly as a very good and willing shot blocker, and so should you. If he was in his own zone half as much as the names on the top-10 list, his per-60 block total would be far higher. Brodie’s block number is very similar to Rielly’s for that same reason – he does it, is willing to do it, but doesn’t have to do it all that much because he’s less frequently hemmed in his own zone.

The first clip below is the more kind of Brodie block you’ll see, where he’s just getting in the right lane. But he’s not afraid to sell out for the block when things get dire either, and that’s important in its own right.

And finally, that other thing…

BOXCAR STATS

Over the past five seasons Brodie is just outside the top-50 D-men in points per game, putting up just under 0.5 (raw totals: 368 games played, 29 goals, 137 assists, 166 points). None of that comes from flash and awe. Most of it is just making smart decisions with the puck and, sticking with our theme here, finding good plays without fireworks.

It’s not so much that Brodie never makes the big mistake, because he does. Hey, he’s a defenceman in the NHL who plays over 20 minutes a night and almost always against top competition. But by and large he thinks the game in a way Toronto should like.

The Leafs are loaded with players sometimes all-too eager to jump up in the play and take risks, and so they’ve been dying for someone to just keep things simple and minimize risk; someone to move the puck up to the forwards and just defend; someone to not need the puck or to even have anything happen for a game to be deemed “effective.”

Brodie’s style isn’t what some fans were craving, nor does it remedy an issue the Leafs themselves acknowledged they had. But having good players is good, and Brodie is good. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.

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