The expectations for a depth defenseman are relatively low. If they’re the sixth defenseman, it’s to be a positive, or at least neutral, contributor to the blue line in their minimized role. As the seventh, the expectations are for the defender to learn the team’s system and be ready when called upon.
When the New York Rangers signed Fredrik Claesson it was to add defensive depth to a blue line that’s had its fair share of struggles over the last few seasons. At just one year and $700,000 in cap space, adding a 25 year old left-handed defender that could play both sides was a low-risk investment for versatility and depth. And it fit the team’s needs especially when considering his specialty: his shutdown play.
Fredrik Claesson, not qualified by Ottawa, is a good defensive third-pair defender who doesn't draw or take penalties. Should find a job somewhere, with any justice. pic.twitter.com/2Q0A0G0cmZ— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 26, 2018
That defensive play could have been complimentary to some of their puck-movers including Kevin Shattenkirk, Tony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk. In Ottawa, he was solid alongside one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Erik Karlsson.
The only problem was how crowded their defense was becoming, and that only became worse before the offseason ended with the acquisition of Adam McQuaid. With that trade, Claesson’s role on the depth chart shifted lower, which subsequently lowers expectations as well.
While we don’t have the coaches’ exact view of Claesson, or even the front office’s yet (though this offseason could indicate otherwise considering his RFA status), what we do know is that he was a healthy scratch more than enough games to show that he wasn’t viewed as one of their mainstay defenders. Whether or not that should have been the case is another story.
The Swedish defender was quietly effective throughout the season. His usage doesn’t quite reflect that; he was limited to just 37 games between missing time due to injury and games spent as a healthy scratch. In those games played, he averaged 17:14 minutes of all situation ice time which trailed Brady Skjei, Pionk, Marc Staal, DeAngelo, Shattenkirk, and McQuaid. At 5-on-5, he played just 14:20 on average, which ranked sixth as he was ahead of McQuaid’s 14:48 this time.
In those 14 minutes of average 5-on-5 ice time, the Rangers took just under 48 percent of the shot share. To compare to the rest of the defense, only two mainstays ranked ahead of him: Brendan Smith (48.08 percent) and Shattenkirk (49.59 percent). However, his deployment is worth noting. Claesson’s ice time increased when games were either out of reach for the Rangers or when they had a significant lead, which can also be known as “blowout deployment” — although that deployment wasn’t as drastic compared to his time in Ottawa. Still, it showed that the coaches opted not to lean on him in closer situations, whether they were trying to gain the lead, maintain it, or build on it.
Even though he wasn’t often used in closer situations, his play when he did skate should have inspired the coaches to use him more. As a whole, the Rangers could have used the help in the defensive zone as they were third to last in shot rate against (60.07 attempts per 60) and sixth to last in expected goals against (2.49 per 60).
While Claesson isn’t the most physical defender, his strength is his play in his own end — from how he stops opponents from entering the zone, to how he limits shots against and attempts to close off shooting lanes in the defensive end. He was one of the brighter spots in how he suppressed shots and chances against.
The Rangers allowed 54.22 shot attempts against per 60; the only Ranger to be on the ice for less was Kevin Hayes before the trade deadline and Libor Hajek in a five game sample (and that lack of time can skew results). If we break down those shot attempts even further to just look at unblocked shots, Claesson is second-best to Hajek with 39 per 60. In terms of expected goals, which measures the likelihood of a goal being scored based on a number of factors including shot quality, he was once again third to Hayes and Hajek with an expected goals against of 2.12 per 60.
In the above charts by Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz, the blue indicates areas where teams didn’t get as many shots off, while the red shows a higher volume of shots against. The charts show how fewer quality chances were allowed, particularly in front of the net with Claesson on the ice. While the goaltenders still had to fend off some chances from in close, they weren’t nearly as frequent as they were when he was off the ice.
As for special teams, he was only deployed on the penalty kill. In 58 minutes, which averaged out to 1:34 per game, Claesson was effective while short-handed both in terms of shot quality and quantity against.
Claesson’s weakness is his offense, and it stems further than not being much of a scorer; he had just two goals and four assists for six points in 37 games this year. He’s unremarkable with the puck on his stick, and with him on the ice the Rangers weren’t generating as many shots or quality chances for. Because he doesn’t have as much of an offensive spark, it makes sense to keep him paired with puck-moving partners unless he’s used in a shutdown role. With a number of defenders that, at least in theory, drive play in New York this season, there was room for a defensive-minded back like Claesson.
Claesson spent the majority of his season alongside Shattenkirk in 336 5-on-5 minutes; with them on the ice, the Rangers were better in terms of shot and expected goal share. He spent limited time with DeAngelo and Pionk as well, though both were encouraging samples that could have been further explored on the third pair. Claesson also spent time alongside another left-handed defender that could play both sides in Smith, and the pair was particularly solid in terms of shot quantity together.
When in the lineup, Claesson helped bring the stability to the Rangers’ blue line as they moved away from a more chaotic defensive system. The problem was how limited his ice time was, as it was with the Senators. With that in mind, it makes sense why the Rangers were able to acquire him at such a low cost in the first place. But just because his contract was that of a seventh defenseman didn’t mean he should have been used like one considering this team’s struggles.
At the very least, Claesson deserved more of an opportunity to prove that he didn’t belong in this lineup. But in the time that he was given to play, he was a steady presence in the defensive zone which was exactly that this team needs.
Final grade: B+
Banter Consensus: B
Data via NaturalStatTrick
2019 Report Cards: Ryan Strome / Filip Chytil / Brendan Lemieux / Tony DeAngelo / Chris Kreider / Pavel Buchnevich / Neal Pionk / Cristoval Nieves / Kevin Shattenkirk / Marc Staal / Jimmy Vesey / Brady Skjei / Connor Brickley / Vladislav Namestnikov/ Vinni Lettieri/ Brendan Smith