There are various ways to judge how much an NHL coach trusts the players on his team. Zone starts, while they don’t impact possession as much as was once thought, are one way to judge how much a coach trusts a specific player. If a player is often deployed for defensive zone faceoffs, it’s not a big leap to believe that the player’s coach trusts that player and his defensive abilities.
Another way to determine how much faith a coach puts in a specific player is to look at how much ice time a player is given when his team is leading. In doing so, it becomes clear that many NHL coaches are putting their trust in the wrong places when it comes to deployments of their roster while trying to protects a lead.
The purpose of this post is to examine defenseman that are trusted too much to protect leads. The sample is from 2012-15, all defenseman who has been on the ice for at least 600 5v5 minutes while their team is leading. In the chart below, the x-axis is the player TOI% or, the percentage of time that player was on the ice of the total amount of time his team had a lead. The y-axis is that player’s relative shot attempt (Corsi) percentage.
The labels are very simplistic, but are meant to give a general feel of where a player lands. The further up the y-axis a player is, the better his team does in terms of shot attempts when he’s on the ice. The further right on the x-axis, the more a player is deployed when his team is protecting the lead.
Let’s jump right into it and identify some NHL defenseman who are trusted far too much by their teams while leading.
Since 2012, Dan Girardi has been on the ice 36.14 percent of the time when the Rangers have been protecting a lead. He has been by far the worst of the bunch in the puck possession department, with a relative shot attempt percentage of -4.64 percent.
The next closest teammate is Marc Staal at -1.95 percent.
While Girardi has faced the toughest competition of the Rangers defenders in our sample, he also has skated with the highest quality of teammates. But the differences among the players in these two categories isn’t nearly enough to explain away Girardi’s lackluster puck possession numbers when his team is protecting a lead.
Girardi isn’t good at limiting the quality of the chances an opponent sees either. According to War on Ice‘s definition of scoring chances, when he’s on the ice, the Rangers’ opponents see 26.54 scoring chances per 60 minutes, the worst rate of any of the team’s defenders since 2012. The Rangers also give up more goals when Girardi is on the ice protecting a lead than any of their other defenders. The team’s goal differential is 7.82 percent worse when Girardi is on the ice as opposed when he’s on the bench.
Moving forward, the Rangers would be better served to decrease Girardi’s time on ice, if not overall than certainly while protecting a lead.
No Tampa Bay defender has seen a higher TOI% (36.42) than Matt Carle since 2012 when the team has been protecting a lead. There’s also been no defender on the team who has hurt the team’s puck possession more during that time, as Carle’s -6.20 shot attempt percentage ranks last among all Tampa defenders and 154th out of the 155 defenders in the sample.
The Lightning had many defenseman on their roster last season that are more capable than Carle. Deploying him so often to protect a lead raises one big question: Why?
As the chart below from War on Ice shows, the team fared better with him off the ice in terms of scoring chances and goals against. His penalty differential was also one of the worst among Tampa’s defensive corps.
Over the past three seasons, Carle has been trusted to protect a lead more than any other defenseman on his team. If the Lightening want to improve their ability to hold a lead in 2015-16, their deployment motto should be clear: Anyone but Carle.
There’s been a lot written about Weber’s results versus his reputation, as well as factors that could have caused his sudden decline in possession in recent seasons. Weber’s relative possession numbers (-2.90 percent) when protecting a lead in our sample isn’t terrible, but the Predators have deployed him more (40.31 TOI%) than all but two of the defenders in the chart above. One would think that, with this amount of ice time, the results would be exemplary. But, they aren’t. The results are underwhelming.
One thing the Predators could do to make Weber a more effective defender of a lead is deploy him less with Paul Gaustad. Another idea is to separate him from Roman Josi, as Weber’s shot attempt percentage jumped by about 4 percent when he wasn’t skating with Josi last season.
Regardless, the Predators would be smart to deploy Weber less frequently and under more optimal circumstances when protecting a lead, as the only Predators’ defender to bleed shots worse is Josi.
Team would be well-served to protect a lead by deploying players who have solid puck possession numbers After all, the less an opponent has the puck, the less of a chance they can cut into a lead. The three defenders above are examples of players in the lower right quadrant of the graph that need to be deployed less when their team is protecting a lead. Next will be a look at players who are underused in such situations.