Giving a massive stick salute to omgrodnick for coming up with the words to form this article. This is a topic I've wanted to write about for a while but haven't known how to formulate it into something that makes sense. Thankfully, omgrodnick handed me a shake and bake and now I'm baking with his recipe. Let's kick off with his original comment:
We have the best D reputation in the league. I think Staal still has some good hockey left. Girardi has been a train wreck since the SCF and he's only getting worse. You can even leave shot suppression stats out of the picture. Girardi mishandles and turns over almost every puck. He loses guys in front constantly and his best attribute, shot blocking, is limited because the team doesn't play Torts' foosball defense anymore. It's really painful to watch a proud guy like Girardi just be overmatched. I'm fond of Girardi as one of the core guys and he seems like a genuinely likable and funny dude. But his name on the top pair etched in stone is not doing the team any favors.
Klein is a good player, but not for $3mil considering the other contracts we have. And you'd be alarmed at some of the other Dmen making less money than Staal and Girardi: Seabrook, Bogosian, Byfuglien, Wideman, Bouwmeester, Petry, and don't forget McDonagh.
It's one thing to have to overpay everyone when you win like Chicago, but we don't even have a Cup to show for it.
The basis for this comment is drenched in the bigger advanced metrics vs. eye test war that's being waged across the hockey landscape. Sadly this war bleeds into the way teams are covered which adds more warheads to an already exploding fire.
The Rangers seem to be a team who really exemplify the ideology of a good defensive reputation without having the statistics to follow up on it. This seems to be a really big issue in the NHL in general, though, especially for teams who don't cultivate or analyze advanced statistics.
Dan Girardi is a prime example of this. Girardi is a player who has the reputation of a first pairing defenseman. He soaks up enormous minutes, blocks a ton of shots, is big enough to bang bodies when needed and gives the perception of being able to shut down big-name players.
Go ahead and look at the players the Rangers have had to run through the past two years in the playoffs. Washington and Pittsburgh twice, Montreal once and the Rangers lost to Tampa Bay and Los Angeles. The superstars there might make you dizzy; Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, Max Pacioretty and Marian Gaborik.
On the surface Girardi has logged an enormous amount of work in an effort to shutting those guys down and helping limit the opposing team's best players while the Rangers' offense themselves have struggled. Because he's been on the ice against them so much -- and the Rangers have won a fair amount of those contests -- the perception is Girardi is a shut down defenseman.
But is that true? Let's dive a little deeper into the numbers to see what they reveal. The below is a table that tabs out how Girardi has fared from 2011-2015 (stats are cumulative for the regular season games within those years only) against opposing team's best players. I focused on the Penguins, Capitals, Islanders, Flyers and Canadiens since those are the playoff opponents the past two years or a big division rival.
The key for the table below is as follows:
Girardi's GF% vs. Opponent: What percentage of goals the opposing team scores vs. the number of goals the Rangers score when Girardi is on the ice against that specific opponent. So, for example, Girardi has a 30% GF% against Crosby, which means when the two are on the ice together, for every 100 goals scored Crosby/the Penguins score 70 of them. The higher the number here the better.
Girardi's CF% vs. Opponent: This represent's Girardi's individual corsi when playing against the opponent. The higher the percentage the better. If Girardi's corsi is 50% it means when he is on the ice half of the shot attempts are taken by the Rangers while the other half are taken by the opponent's team.
Girardi's TOI vs. Opponent: The amount of time Girardi has matched up with the opponent.
Quick Look: Having a 50% or better corsi and a worse than 50% GF is probably unlucky while having a better than 50% GF and a worse than 50% corsi is more lucky (Henrik Lundqvist helps immensely here). All green is great defense while all red is bad defense.
I avoided anyone that Girardi didn't play against for more than 60 minutes -- with the exception of the triplets line since they had such a field day in the Eastern Conference Final. I included the TOI against the opponent to show the sample sizes to be relatively large. I did include some Western Conference foes since I used another defenseman below as a comparison who spend a good chunk of time in the West.
I pulled numbers for the Los Angeles Kings (who the Rangers played in the Stanley Cup Final) and the Chicago Blackhawks (who the Rangers would have played last year in the Stanley Cup Final) separately since they were the last two Stanley Cup winners. Let's see how Girardi fared against their top players.
It should be noted it's impossible to go through every player. Girardi, for example, seems to have most of the Flyers' numbers; although Wayne Simmonds loves to play against him. The full list with the statistics for each individual opponent can be found here.
This reputation thing works the other way, too. Here's where a reputation makes a good player look bad.
Here's Keith Yandle's totals against similar players. Note: If I was able to use the same players as Girardi I did, but a lot of the Eastern Conference opponents had no time against him/less than 10 minutes which I did not use. I tried to pick some of the best players in the West to offset using the best players in the East as mentioned above.
This is not meant to be compared apples to apples, but it is meant to change the way you view the two defenseman. Yandle seems to handle himself quite well against the opponent's top players -- probably because he has the puck more than a typical defensive defenseman -- no?
On that note ...
The lazy argument against Yandle being an effective defender is that he turns the puck over too much. Here's the rub, though, if you have the puck a lot you're liable to turn it over more than someone who doesn't have the puck at all.
For an example: Say Defender A is a puck-mover who touches the puck 100 times and has 10 turnovers while Defender B touches the puck 10 times and has three turnovers. To your eye Defender B might look like the better defender because he doesn't turn the puck over as much as Defender A. The statistics, however, would show you that's because he doesn't have the puck as much -- which means he is ineffective at actually defending.
Want to know who has led the NHL in turnovers last year? P.K. Subban, John Tavares, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Are they bad players?
Here's the top five from 2013-2014: Karlsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Taylor Hall, Joe Thornton and Jeff Petry. Jumping over the lockout year the leaders in turnovers from 2011-2012 were Ilya Kovalchuck, Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, John Carlson and Petry again.
The point isn't to say turnovers are a good thing, but the common denominator here is that players who have the puck a lot (which is good) turn the puck over more than players who don't have the puck at all.
Oh but I can already hear your argument. "Yandle gets more offensive zone starts so he should have better numbers!" You are correct to a degree, so let's add someone to the mix. I picked Johnny Boychuk because he's in the East (meaning he goes up against similar players to Girardi), goes up against opposing team's top players, plays a lot of minutes and is making similar money to Girardi. Here's how Boychuk fares against similar players to Girardi.
A lot more green on this chart, no? Boychuk has actually played tougher minutes than Girardi the past three years, and has much better advances statistics. These numbers are also from 2011-2015, for full disclosure. There's not really much to argue here; Boychuk has a reputation of being a good defender and the stats back him up pretty convincingly (although his sample size against Metro opponents is smaller because of his time in Boston).
In today's world big, hulking defenseman who can hit, clean the crease and block shots seem to be at a premium; even though those attributes should be the cheapest for a defenseman. Remember, in a perfect game you don't hit anyone and you don't block any shots because you'd have the puck the entire time.
While offensive attributes are valued (as they should be), sometimes the defensive alleviation holding the puck allows is overlooked when looked at from a defensive lens. If Yandle can hold the puck in the offensive zone for an entire shift it makes sure his team doesn't have to defend for the duration of the possession.
Your eyes -- and an old school reputation -- might prioritize Defender B, but the NHL is evolving and Defender A is far more valuable (and a better defender because he doesn't have to defend as much).
Girardi is a good guy and a great teammate, but the perception that he is an elite, shutdown defender is not accurate. He has that reputation, but the reality is a different story.
Yandle is also a good guy and a great teammate (although he's horrible at celebrating big playoff goals) but the perception that he is not a good defender is not accurate.
I will not say anything positive about an Islander so I will leave this as is.