Evaluating the playoff defensemen performance – We know nothing, Jon Snow

nick holden

The performance of the Rangers’ defensive pairs has been a pain point for many this playoff season. Most Ranger fans agree that the Nick Holden/Marc Staal pair has been awful (I’ve written many words about them). That the Brendan Smith/Brady Skjei pair has been solid (and them). That Dan Girardi, while not exactly amazing, has had a better playoffs than anticipated. And Ryan McDonagh is awesome.

But is that really true?

The playoffs are a whole difference animal, where PDO has a huge impact on how we perceive performance. In the playoffs, which are essentially four mini seasons of seven games, you’re better off being lucky than good. Poor results overshadow great process. And great results overshadow poor process. There simply isn’t enough time for the numbers to correct themselves. It skews how we view success, and it’s completely expected.

This is the tweet that started it all for me. Based on the raw shot numbers, Staal/Holden have actually been the best pairing in terms of limiting attempts. It’s worth noting that the above from Sean maps only CF/CA, not quality chances. When first looking at that, not only was I surprised, but it made me dig a little deeper into the quality, to see if my eyes may potentially be deceiving me.

But they were not. Based on the data from (through Game 3 against Ottawa), Staal and Holden are actually the best pairing on the Rangers –through nine games– of limiting scoring chances against too. Smith and Skjei are next best. Followed by McDonagh and Girardi. Girardi is still, by far, the worst on the team through those nine games.

So what exactly is this?

There are a few things at play here, and I do need to stress that evaluating based on the numbers alone is a fool’s errand. But in the playoffs, PDO will have a much larger impact on how we perceive player success. In such small samples, some unlucky breaks really stand out in our minds.

In that regard, Nick Holden has been by far the unluckiest Ranger on the ice. His PDO of 94.97 is the worst on the team by a wide margin. The Rangers as a team are shooting just 2.97% when he’s on the ice –which is crazy low– and he’s only getting 92.31 SV% from Henrik Lundqvist during his shifts. On the flip side, Skjei/Smith lead the team in PDO through nine games.

What does all this mean?

Our eyes have a tendency to skew perceptions of players based on monumental mistakes. Holden has had a pair of them already, and because these games mean so much, we don’t really forget them quickly. I’m going to call this the Mike Kostka effect. Because of the gravity of the mistakes and how they directly led to two playoff losses, they stick out in our minds.

That’s not to say Skjei/Smith are bad or that Holden is good. It’s to say that we may be skewing our perceptions based off these plays. It’s normal. In the playoffs we need consistency, since every little mistake can influence a series.

Perhaps what I’m saying is this: Holden/Staal are due for some good bounces. Sheltering them with offensive zone starts, the way Alain Vigneault did in Game 3, is a good way to get them going again. This isn’t to say they are going to be an All Star defensive pairing, but it is to say they haven’t been as bad as we all think.

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  • “This isn’t to say [Staal and Holden] are going to be an All Star defensive pairing, but it is to say they haven’t been as bad as we all think.”

    So, the exact same statistical analysis that is used on a quotidian basis to say that Girardi is pure, unadulterated sh!t says Staal/Holden are amazing?

    Maybe we are giving too much weight to possession statistics in how we evaluate defensemen?

      • Been watching the game for 50 years – Don’t need advanced stats to tell me who is playing well and who is not. They should just be used as another tool to evaluate, not end all be all

        • I wouldn’t say that possession stats are just another tool, but I think they’re more appropriate for evaluating forwards.

        • “There are a few things at play here, and I do need to stress that evaluating based on the numbers alone is a fool’s errand.”

          That’s a direct quote from the post.

      • And I’m not disagreeing with you.

        The thing that bothers me is that lots of people feel Holden/Staal have been an unmitigated disaster, but when the possession statistics show them to be dominating, we are looking for ways to play that data down.

        But if someone feels Girardi has been pretty good, the usual response is to flash his possession data as if it’s irrefutable evidence that he’s terrible.

          • ESPECIALLY, when one doesn’t believe they’ve played bad at all via the “eye test,” and when the numbers back up the eye test it makes me wanna pull my hair out from what I read on here.

          • I think the fundamental issue is, while it’s easy to quantify what G sucks at, the opposite is true for what he does well. As such, he comes off looking, statistically, much worse than he actually is.

          • What specifically do you see him doing well that aren’t reflected in metrics?

            I agree by the way, I’ve made similar arguments about him being undervalued by advanced metrics. Curious on your take.

          • I think the best way to evaluate what he does well is to look at the penalty kill, As I’m sure you know, it suffered a bit while he was out injured earlier this year.

            He’s good at small things like disrupting possessions with his stick via poke checks etc, (generally) good positioning, and other small things that people take for granted these days.

            And, the reason I think why he can do so well on the PK is that when he does the aforementioned (disrupt a play / ice the puck & pass to no one), there are other defenders nearby that can cover his deficiencies to a point where they are relatively negligible, all while maximizing what he excels in.

            I think the real issue at play is how people view what a defenseman should be these days.

            Some scream (belligerently, at times) that a player who is, arguably, more like a forward than a traditional, old-school type defenseman (Karlson, Yandle, & our own Clendenning, for example) is more effective, overall, than your Dan Girardi or Kris Russell (from EDM) types.

            Personally, I prefer skaters than can skate (forgive me if that sounds excessively cliche); I’ve always believed, especially with the shoo-in HoF goalie we have, that the best defense is a great offense…. but that’s just my opinion.

    • This is true – even I will admit they are not the end all statistics some make them out to be. I think one thing people forget about when talking about corsi is that there is only one puck flying around at a time; as such, adding together a bunch of players that can possess the puck well doesn’t always translate into success. LA was a great example of this…. it doesn’t matter if you can control the play if you do absolutely nothing with your extra zone time & shots.

      The thing I’ve noticed about Dan Girardi is he is great at breaking up plays & doing things which statistics don’t often capture well. On the flip side, God help us if he needs to make a pass greater than 20 feet or while under pressure; he’ll often make an excellent defensive play, but then follow that up with an ‘inefficient touch’ which results in a turnover or continued defensive zone pressure.

      However, if we’re speaking of possession numbers and using that information to defend AV’s deployment of the 18/22 pairing (which, per your information, may be less disastrous than I’ve given them credit for), I feel like we’re giving AV a total pass on the debacle that occurred with Clendenning this year. I believe I’ve said it before, but, if you observe the numbers he shared with McD at the season’s start, you’ll find that he was, at the absolute minimum, a better option than some of what we have.

    • What, when it’s convenient the statics mean something, but when it proves how poorly G plays, well we use the eye test??????????? OK I get it….

      • You’re making the exact complaint I’m making, just in reverse.

        The stats that say Girardi sucks are the same stats that say Holden and Staal are incredible, so now there are going to be a lot of caveats about why those stats aren’t really the whole story. Girardi will never be given that sort of nuanced evaluation though, unfortunately.

      • that’s a great point about them failing in the wrong Spot. One thing I have noticed about Girardi is he seems to be spending less time behind the net chasing the puck and more time in front of the net. Still having some trouble clearing the D zone, but he’s letting Mc D handle the behind the net stuff. Also Holden and Hank seem to have some communication issue. Holden seems to screen Hank more so than the other D men, and that has been a lingering issue. These stats are pretty hard to believe though. But small sample sizes can bring about strange results.

  • The most telling stat is that Staal is a minus 1 and Holden is a minus 4. Meanwhile, leading the team in plus/minus is Skjei at plus 6 and Smith at plus 8.

    ’nuff said!

  • Seems to me to be microscopic analysis. I don’t think you will find anyone in the NHL that doesn’t have a flawed game in any one game, if you scope it play by play. These guys are human, not robots! Are all you guys perfect every time you perform whatever job you do? On the other side, the competition is also professional NHL players and perform their job just as well. I have a tough job, peoples lives are at stake. Sometimes, I make a bad decision, but haven’t killed anyone yet. So allow these guys to be human, like you and I, and not hold them to ridiculous standards. This is a good team with good coaches that have every right to believe they can win the CUP. Enough of the sour grapes, that’s what the off season is for…for you guys… for me, it is a trip to the canyon of heroes!

  • it’s important to remember that PDO is not luck. For example, all 2 on 1’s are not the same. Watching Holden this year (or Yandle last), you see someone doing his goaltender no favors.

    • Team PDO is probably a bit closer to luck when averaged out. But individual player PDO is probably telling you something a bit more about player performance.

      A defensemen who enjoys a goalie SV% of .94 while he’s on the ice is probably doing a good job of limiting high danger shots, and keeping things to the perimeter. Another defenseman who experiences the same goalie having a SV% of .88 while he’s on the ice is probably prone to making more defensive mistakes, getting burned and allowing breakaway and odd man rushes, or not taking away the pass when defending odd man rushes.

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