With puck possession so important in today’s game, puck moving defensemen are vital to jumpstarting the offense. The term “puck moving defensemen” is thrown out very loosely, but not many people seem to know its definition or what skills constitute being considered a puck moving defenseman.
The definition is actually right in the name: a defensemen that can effectively move the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. A puck moving defenseman is sound in the defensive zone and helps convert breakouts to offensive zone possession before joining the offensive rush. This defensemen must have high hockey IQ, great vision of the ice, and strong decision making skills where they can adapt to the opposition’s forecheck.
Because these defensemen play an large role for their team, they are highly sought upon on the free agent market. While it is much more expensive to sign a puck moving defensemen rather than drafting and developing one, the team’s increased offensive output is worth the price tag over a stay at home defenseman. I’ll take a look at the top puck moving defensemen that are available this summer on the free agent market and could have an impact to the team at the start of the season.
Since breakouts aren’t easily measured statistically, it is very hard to identify who these top puck moving defensemen are without physically watching and tracking every breakout. Different advanced statistic metrics can be used as a proxy and give us a pretty good idea of who the top puck moving defensemen are.
Important metrics to consider include a positive Corsi Relative % (CF%Rel), a low Corsi Against per 60 minutes of ice time (CA/60), and a lower percentage of faceoffs taken in the offensive zone (ZSO%). In addition, analyzing hextally graphs will show the impact these defensemen on shot differentials.
These metrics will show a bigger picture of what the defensemen are bringing to potential suitors. A positive CF%Rel proves the team is better possession wise when the player is on the ice and a lower CA/60 shows the player is sound in the defensive end and is limiting shot attempts by the opposition. Being on the ice for more faceoffs in the defensive end shows they are trusted in the defensive zone and combining that with previous metrics results in successfully moving the puck up the ice to get shot attempts
One problem is that through these statistics you can’t tell which defensemen on the pair is actually breaking out the puck to jumpstart the offense. Teams likely identify players with this skill set and flow the puck through them more often, but for my analysis I’ll consider each defensemen equal in the rate they’re involved in the breakout as they both play an important role in the breakout process.
I pinpointed seven available defensemen, five unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and two restricted free agents (RFAs), that statistically qualify as puck moving defensemen and can have a positive impact to a new team. The top puck moving UFAs include Mike Green, Lubomir Visnovsky, Marek Zidlicky, Andrej Sekera, and Zybnek Michalek and the top puck moving RFAs include Brendan Smith and Dougie Hamilton.
All seven of these defensemen posted a positive CF%Rel this season. Hamilton blew away the rest of the field with a 4.72% CF%Rel. A majority of this group was between 2.5% and 3.5% where Green and Visnovsky had a smaller impact to the team’s shot differential rates as their on ice CF% was closer to the team’s CF% while they were off the ice.
This group of puck moving defensemen performed well above average compared to the rest of the league (statistics including defensemen with 500+ even strength TOI this season). Of the qualifying 204 defensemen, the average Corsi For per 60 minutes of ice time (CF/60) was 54.14 while the average CA/60 was 54.53 resulting in a slightly negative Corsi/60 rating. All seven of these available puck moving defensemen allowed much fewer shot attempts against, ranging from Smith at just 42.85 CA/60 to Sekera’s 51.97 CA/60.
While all defensemen are positively impacting the shot differential over 60 minutes of ice time, the players start to really vary on their CF/60. Hamilton is atop this category producing over 63 shot attempts per 60 minutes of ice time. The subgroup of Smith, Visnovsky, Hamilton, and Sekera all had a net shot differential of over nine per 60 minutes of ice time. This was accomplished in different ways as Smith had a lower CF/60 but boasted the lowest CA/60 in the league (of the same group of 204 defensemen) while the other successful defensemen allowed slightly more shot attempts but were able to contribute offense at a much higher rate.
The ZSO% metric compares the number of offensive zone faceoffs to defensive zone faceoffs, ignoring all neutral zone faceoffs. Hamilton, Sekera, and Michalek all have a ZSO% below 50% meaning they’re on the ice for more defensive end faceoffs while Smith, Visnovsky, Green, and Zidlicky are all on the ice for more offensive zone faceoffs. With most of these defensemen being on the ice for well over 1,000 even strength faceoffs per season, this translates to swings of over 100 more faceoffs in the defensive zone for Michalek (43.38%) and in the offensive zone for Smith (59.48%), Green (59.24), and Visnovsky (55.59%). The other three defensemen (Hamilton, Sekera, and Zidlicky) didn’t see as much of an impact on faceoff differentials.
I’ll further break down each defenseman individually to show a more detailed picture of what they’ll bring to teams that are potentially interested in their services.
Mike Green – Washington Capitals (UFA, 29 years old)
Green signed a three year, $18M ($6M AAV) contract with Detroit on 7/1/15.
Green mostly plays above his ice time especially in the categories of suppressing shots and individual scoring rates. I’m not going to focus much attention on Green as I already wrote a detailed blog about the impact Green can bring while trying to determine the overall worth for the former Norris Trophy nominee.
Quickly looking at Green’s shot differentials compared to the league averages by the three main locations (slot, high slot area, and point/outside perimeter) per 60 minutes of ice time, he provides a positive impact in both the offensive and defensive zones. In the offensive zone, he provides more shots from further out and in the defensive zone, allows less shots in all three zones. Green adds 1.7 shots and suppresses 4.63 shots to create a net .21 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Lubomir Visnovsky – New York Islanders (UFA, 38 years old)
Visnovsky had the even strength ice time to qualify him as a second pairing defensemen this season and played at a level higher than his playing time in all major categories shown on his HERO Chart. As shown earlier on the Corsi For and Against Per 60 Minutes graph and further proven here, his numbers generating and suppressing shots were off the charts compared to the league averages. Visnovsky produced 12 assists and 15 total points this season and his 1.05 P/60 is the third highest among this group of available puck moving defensemen.
Looking at Visnovsky’s shot rate differentials, he provides a positive impact both in the offensive and defensive zones. In the offensive zone, his presence helps create almost four more shots in the high slot per 60 minutes of ice time. Offensive zone point shots are over three shots less than the league average so it is obvious that the Islanders get their defensemen more involved with the offense, creating chances from closer in. In the defensive zone, Visnovsky allows fewer shots than the league average in all three areas, the biggest impact being the high slot area. A lot of rebounds pop out to this area and Visnovsky does a good job at not allowing second and third chance opportunities. Overall, Visnovsky adds .76 shots and suppresses 5.82 shots to create a net goal impact of .35 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Marek Zidlicky – Detroit Red Wings (UFA, 38 years old)
Zidlicky signed a oneyear, $1.5M contract with the NY Islanders on 9/18/15.
Zidlicky is barely considered a top pairing defensemen based on his ice time and his numbers generating and suppressing shots hover right around this mark as well. His play suffers in his individual scoring and SOG rates where he plays at the rate of a borderline second pairing defenseman. This season, Zidlicky had one even strength goal and 12 assists to total 13 points. These numbers are low compared to the other available puck moving defensemen, but had a much larger impact production wise on the power play (six goals and 19 points).
Of all the available puck moving defensemen, Zidlicky provides the smallest impact on shot rate differentials compared to the league averages. In the offensive zone, Zidlicky positively impacts the slot and high slot areas and in the defensive zone, provides a positive impact in all three areas with the slot being the biggest impact. Overall, Zidlicky adds .33 shots and suppresses 1.10 shots to create a net goal impact of .13 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Zidlicky’s age is a concern as he’s 38 years old (turning 39 next February), but he’s still playing well and producing at a pace of almost .50 points per game. He can still be effective playing a depth role with sheltered even strength minutes and contributing in a larger role on the power play.
Andrej Sekera – Los Angeles Kings (UFA, 28 years old)
Sekera signed a six year, $33M ($5.5 AAV) contract with Edmonton on 7/1/15.
Sekera was acquired before the trade deadline by the Los Angeles Kings in their push to qualify for the playoffs. Sekera and the Kings fell short and while Sekera didn’t produce many even strength points (3 points in 16 games), he was heavily involved in the offense, providing a 60.1% CF% and CF%Rel of 7.6%. Looking at his HERO chart, Sekera has the ice time to qualify him as a top pairing defensemen and plays at that level in the generating shots and P/60 categories. He doesn’t do a great job at suppressing shots where this metric is at the level of a second or third pairing defensemen.
Sekera has a very positive impact on shot rate differentials in all three areas in the offensive zone. The high slot and point/perimeter area both have a rate of over two more shots than the league average. In the defensive end, Sekera has a positive impact on shots from further out but is very weak in the slot, allowing two more shots in the crease compared to the league average (the slot has the highest scoring percentage of over 9.2%). Overall, Sekera adds 6.23 shots and suppresses –.91 shots to create a net goal impact of .07 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Sekera’s overall net goal impact is the lowest among this group of available puck moving defensemen because of his poor play around his crease. As Sekera has played in almost 500 NHL games, he’s considered a veteran and has to be much better in front of his own net. His play in the most dangerous part of the ice might scare away some teams at free agency but, whatever team ends up signing him will have to spend a lot of time coaching him in his defensive coverage, particularly locating the floating forwards and his rebound control.
Zybnek Michalek – St. Louis Blues (UFA, 31 years old)
Michalek signed a two year, $6.4M ($3.2M AAV) contract with Arizona on 7/1/15.
Based on Michalek’s HERO Chart, he’s considered more of a defensive defenseman as his suppressing shot rates are off the charts. Besides that, his generating shots and individual scoring rates are well below that of his ice time. As Michalek starts a majority of his faceoffs in the defensive end, he is very effective at limiting shot attempts which is very important for a defensive defenseman. Teams looking to sign him this off season will like to see more of an offensive impact to his game.
Looking at Michalek’s shot differential rates, he is the only defensemen in this group that doesn’t help to provide more shots than the league average. Michalek’s impact comes in the defensive end where he gives up over one less shot than the league average in all three zones. Overall, Michalek adds –1.22 shots and suppresses 4.76 shots to create a net goal impact of .21 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
While Michalek isn’t providing a lot of offense, he is very sound in the defensive zone and would fit perfectly in the role of a depth defenseman. Michalek is the least qualified puck moving defensemen in this group, but since he has posted strong possession statistics and has a positive impact on shot differentials, he has the potential to become a strong puck moving defensemen if he works on the offensive part of his game. Look for the team that signs him to work on getting Michalek to join the offensive rush opening up more options for the team.
Dougie Hamilton – Boston Bruins, (RFA, 21 years old)
Hamilton was traded on 6/26 to Calgary for a 2015 1st round draft pick (15th overall) and two 2015 2nd round draft picks (numbers 45 and 52 in the draft). Hamilton then signed a six year, $34.5M ($5.75M AAV) contract with Calgary on 6/30.
Hamilton plays at a significantly higher level than his ice time. He’s barely getting top four minutes in his young NHL career (his ice time really increased this season due to injuries on the Bruins blue line), but almost every category is well above that of a top pairing defenseman. Hamilton scored three goals and added 19 assists to total 22 even strength points this season. He also played a large role on the power play scoring five goals and 14 points. Though Hamilton is very young, he has already developed into a strong, well-rounded defensemen. With his contract up, expect him to get a large pay increase.
Hamilton by far has the highest impact on shot differentials out of any available puck moving defenseman. In the offensive zone, he has a much higher shot rate in the high slot and point/perimeter areas compared to the league average. He even has a positive correlation in the slot where shots are likely generated from rebounds from shots from further out. In the defensive zone, Hamilton allows one less shot compared to the league average per 60 minutes from the high slot and point/perimeter areas and half a shot from the slot. While this is a team effort, he is cleaning up loose pucks in front of the net and not allowing as many second chance opportunities. Overall, Hamilton adds 6.62 shots and suppresses 2.59 shots to create a net goal impact of .37 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Hamilton is the most talented player in this group and has the most upside as he’s only 21 years old and every team in the league should want to add him to their lineup. The only issue is that Hamilton is a RFA, meaning Boston has the right to match any potential offer sheet a team signs him to. Boston likely will match any offer sheet Hamilton signs even though it might require an additional move or two to stay compliant with the salary cap. It’ll be interesting to see if a team baits Hamilton into a front-loaded contract with a high cap hit to force the Bruins’ hand. You can guarantee Hamilton knows the Bruins’ cap woes and has had talks with management about what they’re doing to give him a contract he deserves so he may not sign an offer sheet to help out his team’s cap situation.
Even though Boston would receive draft picks as compensation for losing Hamilton, it wouldn’t be worth it at this point in time as the Bruins aren’t far from being a Stanley Cup contender once again.
Brendan Smith – Detroit Red Wings, (RFA, 26 years old)
Smith signed a two year, $5.5M contract extension on 6/30 to stay in Detroit.
Smith is a solid second pair defenseman that constantly plays above his playing time metric. While he’s not generating the most shots, his suppressing shot metrics are off the charts as prior shown on the Corsi For and Against Per 60 Minutes graph. Smith only scored three goals and added six assists for even strength nine points this season. He was drafted by Detroit in the first round mainly for his offensive abilities, but has rounded out his game in the minors. He plays a depth role on a number of shut down pairings for the Red Wings.
Smith provides a positive impact on shot rate differentials from further out in the offensive zone. His negative connotation in the slot likely indicates shot attempts didn’t lead to rebounds in the crease area. A majority of his shots were likely directed up high and held on by the opposing goalie forcing a faceoff which is supposed by a very high OZO%. In the defensive zone, Smith does a very good job at limiting point shots. Overall, Smith adds 1.17 shots and suppresses 4.13 shots to create a net goal impact of .10 goals higher than the league average per 60 minutes of ice time.
Like Hamilton, Smith is also a RFA. While the price to acquire Smith won’t be as high, it is very likely Detroit will match any offer sheet. Smith is a very special player and at 26 years old, is very young and still developing into a franchise defenseman.
While all of these defensemen are very talented and are effective puck moving defensemen, some have more upside than others. Handedness, age, injury history, veteran status, playoff experience, and leadership ability will all factor into how many teams are interested in each defenseman and how much money is going to be offered. It’ll take time for the defensemen to fit in and develop chemistry with their new team, but their natural offensive and defensive abilities will make an immediate impact.
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