Evaluating defensemen has always been a tough proposition for teams. It’s a tough proposition for anyone, really. There is so much that goes into the position. Skating, positioning, reads, hockey IQ, passing, shooting, physicality. The list goes on and on. But unlike forwards, who also need these skills, success isn’t necessarily tied to on-ice production.
Plus/minus, hits, and blocked shots are the traditional ways of viewing defensive success. After all, if you’re not allowing goals, blocking shots, and delivering hits, then you are doing the things that a defenseman should be doing. It’s a fairly simple theory, but it also represents an antiquated view of the game. Much like how pitcher wins is viewed in baseball. These are stats that are kept, but not very useful ones.
The major change to the way defense is viewed goes beyond defensive zone play. Hockey is evolving into a transition game, quickly and seamlessly moving from defense to offense and catching the opposition off-guard. This leads to the newer theory that the best defense is a good offense, and the less you’re in your own zone, the better.
The new theory easily explains why hits and blocked shots are not necessarily useful stats anymore. If you are hitting people or blocking shots, your team doesn’t have the puck. And if your team does have the puck and you’re hitting people and blocking shots, then there are bigger issues in your game.
The issues with plus/minus are a little more detailed, because plus/minus isn’t indicative of 5v5 play. Empty netters and short handed goals against count as minuses. Here’s how “defensive hole” Keith Yandle and “defensive defenseman” Dan Girardi stack up at 5v5:
- Dan Girardi – 49 GF, 38 GA = +11
- Keith Yandle – 51 GF, 40 GA = +11
But Girardi was a +18. Yandle a -4. Girardi doesn’t play on the powerplay or when the Rangers need a goal late. Yandle does, thus he gets more minuses. While this illustrates the flaw of plus/minus, it doesn’t help to show that the newer theory regarding transition hockey is where the game is shifting.
The most important pass in the transition game is the first pass. It’s like a quarterback in football: You need to move the play in order to get scoring chances. If that first pass isn’t crisp, then it leads to turnovers, failed subsequent passes, and more time in te defensive zone. The more time in the defensive zone, the fewer the scoring chances.
When watching the Rangers throughout the season, it’s tough to get the impression that they transitioned well. More often than not, their defensemen would flip the puck to the neutral zone, out of harms way. This resulted in one of two plays:
- The opposition regaining possession in the neutral zone and starting up the offense again. This is a turnover.
- A failed breakout attempt, resulting in a dump-in or a failed zone entry. This isn’t a turnover, but it’s not exactly a great play either.
Now let’s look at a team like Washington that dresses a blue line that includes John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt. All pretty solid puck movers.
Then there’s St. Louis, who dresses Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko. San Jose has Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brenden Dillon.
When you look at the Rangers, do they have a blue line that really compares to these puck movers? Keith Yandle, sure. Ryan McDonagh too. But after that, the pickings are slim. Kevin Klein is probably their next best, but he’s not exactly known for his puck moving. It wasn’t until Brady Skjei came that the Rangers even had three guys that could move the puck up the ice efficiently.
And therein lies the philosophical change alluded to after the Rangers were eliminated in embarrassing fashion. To get better, to truly compete, the Rangers need to embrace the need to improve on that first pass. The philosophy change starts at the top with Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. Giving Alain Vigneault the players needed to improve this hole is the first step.