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Changing the way we think about defense

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We think about defense all wrong and are too quick to criticize the talented risk-takers, and too slow to criticize the guys that spend too much time in their own end of the ice.

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It was an interesting week for analyzing the play and value of various defensemen around the NHL.

We were asked if Erik Karlsson, one of the most talented, exciting and productive players in the league at his position is "too soft to be truly elite."  Keep in mind that Karlsson won the Norris Trophy two years ago, has been a near point-per-game player since the start of the 2011-12 season, and has 22 more points than any other defensemen in the league since then despite the fact he missed all but 17 games last season.

But why doesn't he hit more people? Why is he a hugger and not a thumper?

Karlsson_hug_medium

We were told that it's time for the Washington Capitals to trade Mike Green so that maybe they can get "a character-driven person to pound the hell out of everyone in his way, a defenseman who actually plays defense." Because that's what being a good defenseman is. Pounding the hell out of everyone.

We found out that Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman was left off of the Swedish Olympic team and somehow isn't even one of their top alternates in the event of an injury because the decision-makers for that team were reportedly concerned about his proficiency at both ends of the ice. In other words, Victor Hedman is apparently just too damn good to play for team Sweden at the Olympics. Canada, Russia, Finland and the United States would like to send their thanks for that unexpected and completely unnecessary gift.

There are a couple of common themes that keep coming up here. Toughness and too much offense (and not enough defense) being chief among them. These concerns always seem to be a problem for defensemen in the hockey world. If a defenseman is highly skilled and produces an obscene amount of points for the position (See: Karlsson, Erik) he almost always carries around the label of being nothing more than a fourth forward on the ice that doesn't pay enough attention to defense.

And heaven help them if they are the one on the ice to make a mistake that results in a goal against. You do not want to be that guy.

Why is it that players like Karlsson, Green, P.K. Subban and Kris Letang are kept on such a short leash, while stay-at-home defensive-defensemen (who are often times just as one-dimensional as their more skilled counterparts are) are given a mile to work with before they face the same intense criticism? If one of the aforementioned players is on the ice for a goal against because he tried to jump into the play at the other end of the ice and couldn't get back in time (and it does happen), it's replayed 100 times, fans and media are screaming about how that player needs to focus more on defense, and it's probably time to sit them on the bench so they can learn their lesson and understand their role.

But if a guy that stays in front of his crease and blocks a lot a shots just flat out gets beat because he's not good enough to make a play or too slow to get the puck out of his zone, it seems to be more forgivable because, hey, at least he's playing defense and that's what a defenseman is supposed to do.

Why do we approach defense this way? It is almost as if we would rather lose because we are not good enough than because we took a chance, played aggressively, and failed.

When Dallas Eakins was talking about "the perfect game" in hockey (during a press conference when a reporter actually responded with the words, "hit somebody, anybody") and how it is having no hits on the stat sheet, he was half right. The real perfect game in hockey is no hits and no blocked shots. Not because those things are bad and you should avoid doing them when you're in a position to do them, but because the only way you can pile them up is if you don't have the puck. Not having the puck is bad.

In other words, the best defense is actually playing offense.

So why are we so quick to criticize the risk-takers and so willing to forgive and forget when it comes to the shot blockers? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't more people be willing to take Dave Tippett's old approach to evaluating defensemen and change the way we think about the position?

Here is Tippett talking about defensemen from a 2012 Arizona Republic article.

His approach changed in the mid-1990s, when he served as head coach and general manager in the IHL, when he had to justify his payroll decisions. He was searching for a new way to evaluate the game, to understand "exactly what was happening on the ice."

"I'll give you an example," he said. "We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can't move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn't defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he's making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he's only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

This kind of goes back to what I wrote about on Wednesday when it comes to the Penguins and their globetrotter ways.

The highly skilled guy that plays a lot and has the puck on his stick a lot is going to make the occasional mistake, and at times it will burn you. This is an unavoidable fact. But that aggressiveness is also going to work in your favor, probably more often than not. You might give up an extra goal or two (though, in the case of the Penguins they actually get scored on at a higher rate right now when guys like Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik are on the ice than they do with Kris Letang on the ice), but you also might score an extra four or five.

Isn't that worth it?

Look at another way: There are 30 "defensive-defensemen" in the NHL this season, players that have appeared in at least 40 games, averaged more than 18 minutes of ice-time per game, and recorded fewer than 12 points. It's a group that is made up of players like Brooks Orpik, Brad Stuart, Ladislav Smid, Josh Gorges, Karl Alzner, Marc Staal, Willie Mitchell, and the recently-traded Kevin Klein. Players that are viewed as solid veterans that you can trust. Shutdown guys.

As a group, those players have been on the ice 2.33 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

By comparison, the top-30 point producing defensemen in the NHL this season have been on the ice for an average of 2.41 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

The top-10 offensive guys, a list that includes Karlsson, Subban, Dustin Byfuglien, and Keith Yandle are on for an average of 2.6 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

The offensive guys do get scored on a little more often, but the gap isn't that big. And it's certainly not big enough to cancel out the substantial increase in offense that they create. There's a risk, but there's also an enormous reward. And that is worth something.

I don't know how a team made up of nothing but Erik Karlsson's or P.K. Subban's on defense would do. We will never find out because A) the salary cap would never allow such a team to be constructed, and B) there are not enough skilled guys at the position for a team to assemble that much talent without a bottomless pit of money.

I also understand there are situations where the defensive guy is probably preferred (the penalty kill, or perhaps a defensive zone faceoff in the final seconds while trying to protect a one-goal lead, for example).

You need a mix. But there should be a much larger emphasis put on acquiring -- and keeping -- the guy like Erik Karlsson or Mike Green.

There should also be an understanding that just because they gave the puck away or don't hit enough people that it doesn't mean they're too soft, not elite, or should be traded for a guy to bang the hell out of people.

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