Anton Strålman’s unnoticed breakout season

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

An analysis of Anton Strålman's 2012-13 season and his start in 2013-14. His impact turned out to be bigger than one might expect.

If you ask most people what they think of Anton Strålman they'd probably answer "Who?", but if we move on to people who actually know who he is I'm guessing the answer would be "decent bottom pairing guy" or "wasn't he that small, soft guy who was let go by Columbus?". But if you asked me I'd say he was at least the second best defenceman on the 2012-13 New York Rangers.

Now that may seem like an odd statement. He was 5th among defencemen in TOI/G, didn't score many points, wasn't playing a lot of special teams, it doesn't add up! But if you look closer, you'll notice that there were basically two different Ranger teams out there in 2012-13; the NYR with Strålman, and the NYR without him.

As shown in my previous article which mainly focused on Girardi, Strålman was 2nd among the Rangers defencemen in GD20 vs Exp (right behind Staal who only played half the season) and by 1st by a large margin in CD20 vs Exp. The linked article provides a more in depth explanation of these metrics, but they can be seen as 5v5 goal- and Corsi differential per 20 minutes adjusted for quality of teammates and competition. But those numbers could be seen as slightly vague and abstract, let's make it more concrete. For example, how did the Rangers forwards perform with/without Strålman on the ice?

The Rangers had seven forwards in 2012-13 that were playing consistent minutes 5v5, so let's see how they did:

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I'm just going go right ahead and claim that there was a quite significant difference with/without Strålman. But could this just be an effect of playing with an offensive D-man, let's compare to the effect observed with designated Rangers offensive D-man Michael Del Zotto who was paired with Strålman for 25% of his 5v5 TOI.

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This looks a lot like noise. There is no clear underlying effect to observed, and my best guess would be that Del Zotto doesn't affect the scoring significantly in any direction. So while Del Zotto does score more points than Strålman, Strålman seems to be a lot better at boosting the goal scoring of his teammates. Considering that he spent 25% of his time with Strålman, one would expect a bigger boost than this even if Del Zotto himself had a negligible effect!

So how did the Rangers perform as a team with/without Strålman?

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The Rangers were clearly dominating both possession-wise and on the scoreboard with Strålman on the ice. Without him they were still a winning team, but they barely hung with the opposition possession-wise.

Now I know this may offend some, but I'm actually going to compare Strålman's season to some of the top PMD's in the league and see how they compare.

Player

P/60

GD60 vs Exp

CD60 vs Exp

Brodin

0.43

0.75

10.05

Boyle

0.45

0.68

12.89

Byfuglien

1.09

0.08

2.84

Doughty

0.45

-0.52

3.86

Ehrhoff

0.74

0.48

18.99

Ekman-Larsson

1.02

0.95

5.05

Karlsson

1.54

0.39

14.86

Letang

2.01

0.51

16.80

Muzzin

0.83

1.63

20.38

Pietrangelo

1.02

0.73

2.67

Strålman

0.74

0.66

18.11

Subban

0.94

0.92

13.61

Suter

0.90

1.00

-7.55

Visnovsky

0.56

2.19

17.57

Yandle

1.48

0.71

4.87

I think this can show just how impressive Strålman's season actually was. He was third in the league among defencemen in CD60 vs Exp, and 35th in GD60 vs Exp. Only Jake Muzzin can be said had a flat out better season in a similar role, spot duty with the #1 and depth minutes otherwise. Some top pairing guys have comparably less impressive stats and most will think this is because they were playing tougher minutes, but I'm not so sure. Christian Ehrhoff played likely the most difficult minutes of any defenceman in the league, and his Exp stats makes sure he compares very well to his peers. I think the issue is the "shutdown defenceman". As illustrated in the Girardi article, this type of defenceman can have a very detrimental effect on his partner's numbers. Doughty played a lot of minutes with Regehr that sunk his stats significantly, Pietrangelo with Jackman, Letang with Orpik, Subban with Gorges. Most teams seem to do this and I think it is the wrong way to go, more teams should take a page out of Chicago's and San Jose's book and assemble a defence where all of the defencemen that get significant minutes can move the puck well.

Now I didn't realize just how good Strålman was this past season until I sifted through the stats during the summer, so I kept an eye on him during the pre-season and the Rangers' start to the season to see whether this was a fluke or if he seems to be able to keep this type of performance up. And apart from my ocular observations such as good breakout passing, decision making, and an impressive calmness with the puck, I also made some interesting statistical observations.

Example 1: The pre-season game versus the Canucks.

Despite the embarrassing 5-0 loss, the Rangers actually dominated the 5v5 play in this game. I went through the play-by-play summary to calculate the on-ice stats for Strålman and Girardi, and the difference was staggering. This was a pre-season game where AV rolled out his top defencemen and rolled the pairings 5v5 giving them equal TOI and matchups.

This is how they compared 5v5:

Player

GD

SD

FD

CD

Girardi

-3

+1

-1

-1

Strålman

0

+13

+18

+20

In Girardi's ~14 minutes, the Rangers were locked in an even battle with the Canucks and were outscored 3-0. In Strålman's ~14 minutes the Rangers annihilated the Canucks but unfortunately couldn't finish, though that is hardly the responsibility of a defenceman.

Example 2: The season premiere versus the Coyotes.

Ryan McDonagh sat out almost the entire first period after taking a shot to the face, forcing AV to jumble the pairings and roll 5 defencemen. For the remaining two periods, the pairings were the intended McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Del Zotto, Moore-Strålman.

Player

TOI

GD

SD

FD

CD

McDonagh

11.5

-1

-4

-5

-6

Girardi

15.6

-1

-2

-3

-3

Staal

20.0

0

-4

-2

-1

Del Zotto

20.4

-1

-6

-3

+1

Moore

13.2

-2

-2

-2

-3

Strålman

11.9

0

+5

+6

+5

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Not as drastic as the comparison to Girardi from the pre-season, but still an excellent example of the on/off effect Strålman has.

In a game where the Rangers were clearly outplayed 5v5, Strålman comes out significantly on top. In a game where he plays parts of the first period and a few seconds here and there without his designated partner, he blows said partner out of the water. The difference between Moore and Strålman is baffling, how bad must Moore have been in those precious minutes away from Strålman?

Example 3: That godawful Sharks game

The game was a joke, but if we look at the stat-sheet it once again looks like Strålman (and his partner Moore) was playing an entirely different game from the rest of the team. Vigneault seemed to pick up on this and the pairing actually led the team in 5v5 TOI.

Player

TOI

GD

SD

FD

CD

McDonagh

17.2

-2

-8

-11

-16

Girardi

16.1

-2

-9

-12

-19

Staal

15.7

-3

-16

-21

-21

Del Zotto

17.6

-3

-15

-19

-13

Moore

19.0

0

-1

4

0

Strålman

19.6

0

-3

1

-1

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Example 4: The dominating win against the Capitals

In the Caps game the big standout was Marc Staal, he had a 93.8% FF% despite starting more shifts in his own end than he started in the offensive zone. Strålman only had a 85.7% with a 50/50 split in zone starts. But that is really irrelevant. The big takeaway is that while the McDonagh-Girardi pairing had a great game shutting down the Caps' top line, the Staal-Strålman pairing dominated possession as extensively as most teams do, when they are on the PP. The Caps-Rangers game was an even contest when Staal-Strålman was off the ice, and the Rangers had what basically amounted to a constant PP when they were on.

Player

TOI

GD

SD

FD

CD

McDonagh

17.8

+1

+4

+2

+3

Girardi

16.7

+1

+4

0

-2

Staal

20.5

0

+10

+14

+9

Strålman

18.6

0

+8

+15

+12

Moore

9.5

0

0

-1

-2

Falk

8.8

0

0

-2

-4

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Sure, there were a few breakdowns, but these happen when you take some risks to maintain the pressure. Look at the penalty Richards had to take when Laich counterattacked on the Rangers PP in the 3rd period, those are the type of opportunities you sometimes give up when you are controlling play in the offensive zone. But these chances against are worth it considering the scoring opportunities you create, in a large sample you will score a lot more goals than the other team.

Strålman is currently 2nd in the league (1st among defencemen by far) in FD20 vs Exp, and 1st in the league among defencemen in FF% Rel 5v5 and 5v5 Close. It is no coincidence that Vigneault gave him and Staal the most 5v5 TOI versus the Capitals.

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Top-5 defencemen in FD20 vs Exp

The way I see it Strålman proved himself as one of the better PMDs in the league in 2012-13, but has exceeded my lofty expectations so far this season. Sather/Gorton, extend him before the rest of the league figures out how good he is. It may be the difference between a 4 year $12M deal and a 6 year $30M deal.

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